Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


Position of UK research

256. The UK occupies an enviable position in marine science. A former NERC Chief Executive, Professor Sir John Lawton, told us that "Overall, UK marine science is in excellent shape. Over the last decade we have done, and continue to do, world-class science in, for example: the development of Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)—Autosub; monitoring the Themo-haline Circulation through the RAPID programme, of fundamental importance in understanding the impacts of climate change on the UK; carrying out pioneering work on sea surface—atmospheric coupling through the SOLAS Programme."[541] He cited the number of international collaborations involving NERC-funded UK marine scientists as a measure of this success.[542] Other witnesses identified the UK as supporting world-class research in palaeoceanography,[543] "at the forefront of the biological sciences"[544] or "across virtually all disciplines".[545] The MBA told us that "the UK is widely acknowledged as being second only to the United States in marine sciences."[546] This is supported by bibliometrics analysis cited by NERC.[547] There are 18 research groups in UK university departments graded 5 and 5* and four of the marine research institutes have recently been judged to be world class by peer review.[548]


257. The CCMST, the forerunner of the IACMST, commented in 1990 on the difficulties in training and retaining sufficient marine scientists and technologists, and the present-day IACMST argued that "many of the same comments still hold today".[549] Although the Plymouth Marine Laboratory claimed that the UK skills base for marine science is "extremely buoyant"[550], the difficulties of recruiting and retaining scientists to work in the marine sciences in the UK emerge clearly from the evidence. In the academic sector, Professor Henderson of Oxford University told us that "from a research and both a strategic and non-directed research point of view, there is a looming skills shortage in some areas".[551] Professor Shimmield from SAMS wrote that recruiting numerate PhD and post-doctoral staff was an ongoing problem. He added:

    We also recognize the need to maintain expertise in marine taxonomy, but find that obtaining the research funding to sustain this skill is very hard indeed. In the past 2 years, we have lost substantial knowledge in deep sea biology and taxonomy, and despite an international search, have found it hard to recruit even at professorial level.'[552]

Recent work by NERC has highlighted possible skills shortages in taxonomy, physical oceanography, mathematical modeling and deep sea biology.[553] Other witnesses identified shortages of mathematicians, oceanographic and ecological modellers, molecular biologists and environmental geophysicists.[554]

258. The numerical disciplines were cited as a particular difficulty. The importance of complex computer modelling for climate change and other forecasting data requires a strong skills base in mathematics and physics. This makes it a matter of concern that POL, for example, told us that they "struggled to recruit well-qualified physicists and mathematicians trained in the UK".[555] Professor Willmott of POL believed that "for many undergraduates studying mathematics, physics, they perhaps do not always realise that there are some really very attractive, exciting careers in marine science. I think there is a lack of information to those sorts of people that there is a very large demand for highly numerate graduates in our field."[556]

259. Cefas offered a different explanation for its particular problem in the recruitment of highly numerate scientists with modelling and statistical skills, and also of experienced very senior scientists, attributing these difficulties to the availability of funding from Defra for salaries and for continuity of research.[557] Professor Sir Howard Dalton accepted that this was a problem.[558] NOCS too blamed availability of funding for recruitment and retention difficulties, arguing that German and US research institutes, the UK's main competitors, "are much better funded than in the UK generally and are becoming increasingly aggressive in their targeting of individuals within UK institutions and NOCS in particular".[559]

260. There is also a challenge in recruiting engineers into marine technology. The NERC directors told us that "The demography of the marine engineering community which risks losing key capabilities in the next few years, particularly in relation to experience of design and operation of moorings" was a serious concern.[560] IMarEST noted that, from an industrial perspective, "At a higher education level training provision is currently lagging behind employer need".[561] POL runs an apprentice scheme to train technicians, but it stressed the links between the shortages of mathematicians and others noted above and the problem of engineering skills: "leadership for marine technology development requires physicists, material scientists and engineers trained up to postgraduate level and at POL we struggle to appoint such people, mainly due to non-competitive salaries."[562] We note, however, that for the oceanographic industry, the requirement is less for marine science graduates and more for electronic engineers and software programmers and designers.[563]

261. The picture is not uniformly gloomy. Professor Liss of the Challenger Society told us that "I think marine science is probably not as badly off as some other areas of science in the UK in terms of recruitment".[564] Several witnesses also identified biologists as a skills set which was well supplied. Cefas, for example, declared itself "able to recruit high calibre biologists at the postgraduate and postdoctoral level".[565] IMarEST attributed this to "Cousteau-effect".[566] Specifically on biology, however, one area of concern was fieldwork skills. The Biosciences Federation believed that "Biology-oriented students passing through the increasingly prescribed route of GCSE-A-level-BSc are not exposed to the practical skills that are essential for planning or conducting marine work in general and its organismal (ecology and systematics) aspects in particular."[567] NOCS too highlighted the lack of recognition from funding bodies such as HEFCE of the cost of fieldwork for undergraduate courses.[568]

262. Issues involving salaries and sustained research funding are not specific to marine science, although we recognise that an important characteristic of marine science is its global nature and several witnesses stressed the impact of this upon their own workforce. Cefas told us

    The mix of nationalities working for Cefas has altered markedly over the last 10 years and the workforce is more mobile with higher turnover rates. This brings many advantages in terms of international networking and joining up the science base, but has the disadvantage for the UK that many marine scientists regard their workplace as global rather than local and they are more ready to move for increases in salary.[569]

The MBA told us that "many research laboratories have a high proportion of non-UK scientists [as a result of lack of skills in the UK], although this reflects the open door policy of the UK scientific community to European and international scientific integration."[570]

263. Work has been undertaken or is planned to identify skills shortages by the Environmental Research Funders Forum, EPSRC and the IACMST. The ERFF is planning a review of the training needs that will be required to support environmental science in the UK to meet academia, policy and commercial end-user needs.[571] This will be scoped in November and so will not be available for some time. EPSRC have tried to identify skills shortages and match them with university courses. Dr Thompson identified five current courses in marine technology areas, established in response to needs identified by employers.[572] Mr Guymer of the IACMST told us that his Committee had "identified not only that some skills which were needed in the past have declined but also that there are emerging needs, particularly surrounding the area of operational oceanography"[573] The IACMST has been "discussing with bodies such as the Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology how to identify … future needs and what strategies should be implemented to meet them", in areas such as operational oceanography where training provision is lagging behind employer needs.[574]

264. The IACMST suggested more effort should be focused on this issue. Its Chairman, Professor Sir Howard Dalton, admitted that trying "to stimulate industry to try to interact much more with the higher education institutions so that there could be a more active engagement for the universities to have an identification of the sorts of needs that it would have and the skills it would require in the future … is still an issue and it is still something that IACMST talked a little bit about, but it is not very high up on the agenda, I am afraid".[575] Mr Guymer, the IACMST secretary, argued that "We need to have a better understanding of industry's and government departments' present needs and what they anticipate they are going to be in the next ten to 20 years, and then establish a strategy to meet those".[576] In contrast, Professor Sir David King told us that "the prime responsibility [for monitoring and addressing skills shortages in marine science] must rest with employers who are able to make representations through the Sector Skills Councils".[577] We disagree with Sir David on this occasion. We believe that one of the key tasks of the new marine body should be to review the training needs required to support marine science and technology in the UK and to propose a strategy for tackling identified shortages. NOCS suggested that there should be more Research Council funding for Masters courses in areas of strategic skills shortages, adding that "In general in marine science we feel that the number of Masters studentships offered by research councils to support students in marine science is inadequate."[578] The review of training needs should cover both industrial and academic requirements across the field, including higher degrees as well as undergraduate and other skills.

Education and outreach

265. Witnesses pointed to the strong attractions of careers in marine science for young scientists. Professor Liss of the Challenger Society commented that "going on research vessels and conducting measurements of the oceans, observing the oceans, going to Antarctica—these are all very big magnets for young people, as you might expect".[579] Professor Willmott of POL added that "Things like the International Polar Year I think provide a good platform for advertising and marine science, for example, through POL's involvement in an IPY project we have the opportunity to send a student and a science teacher to go on board the Canadian icebreaker next winter".[580]

266. However, this natural attraction is not well supported in the UK education system. At the school level, marine science and the study of the oceans are not covered in the national curriculum. IMarEST told us that "Marine science is typically integrated into the geography syllabus, or even, citizenship, as opposed to being incorporated into the traditional sciences".[581] This is disappointing when marine science has clear attractions to young people and could be drawn into many topics to increase interest in science, such as climate change or the variety of biodiversity in the deep ocean. It also means that there is no incentive at school level for young people to seek careers in oceanography or related disciplines and, at a wider level, it has a negative impact on the general state of public understanding of the relationship of humans to the oceans.

267. Several marine-related organisations are taking steps to increase their outreach work to schools. A section on the IACMST website points to internet resources for teachers and education provided by its members; BAS was praised for its education work during evidence; and we had the opportunity to discuss NOCS' classroom@sea project while visiting the James Cook in Lisbon. Professor Sir Howard Dalton also praised the work of the fisheries laboratories and the Plymouth institutions.[582] We commend these individual efforts but it remains the case that teachers and pupils have to seek out such opportunities and are not directed to them through the curriculum or official guidance. IMarEST called on the Government to "seek to support careers initiatives in Marine Science, Engineering and Technology" and to conduct "a review into the correct place for marine science education", together with paying "more attention …. to increase teacher confidence in teaching 'unusual subjects'".[583]

268. In the US we were struck by the work that has been undertaken by the National Science Federation to link marine science to all aspects of the school curriculum. We recommend that the Department for Children, Families and Schools investigate the US programme and other ways of integrating marine science into schools and adopt a strategic programme to encourage the study of marine science-related subjects in UK schools. This should involve inclusion of marine science in the mainstream school science curriculum and presenting it in an integrated manner, not just focussing on the biological aspects. Young people need to appreciate the importance of marine systems at various scales and the relevance to their daily lives and future prospects. We were also impressed by the US Sea Grant programme run by NOAA which gives funding to 30 public universities in the US to conduct programmes into marine science. We recommend that DIUS and Defra jointly examine the US Sea Grant programme with a view to whether the new marine body could usefully expend funds of its own to encourage marine research in the HEI sector.


269. There are several learned societies with interests in this area, including The Challenger Society for Marine Science, the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT), the Marine Biological Association of the UK, SAMS and IMarEST. There are also some international learned societies, such as the Oceanographic Society, the Amercian Geophysical Union and the European Geophysical Union, which are highly influential in pursuing and facilitating developments in international marine science. We believe that there is scope for the UK societies to extend their own influence by adopting a similarly outward vision in order to take advantage of international scientific expertise.

270. Dr Rayner of IMarEST argued that in any attempts to improve co-ordination by the IACMST or a new agency, "you can use the links to the professional societies as well that have a strong role to play in this process. They can help to foster those linkages".[584] We believe that the learned societies have a role to play in outreach work and encouraging greater knowledge of ocean-related issues among the general public and in promoting careers in marine science. We recommend that the new marine body, proposed in this Report, develop links with the learned societies for this purpose.

Increasing public awareness

271. NOCS stressed the fascinating and inspirational aspect of the oceans and the "insatiable public appetite and interest in the sea".[585] They argued that "The oceans thus provide a natural common medium for the engagement of wider society with science".[586] Dr Rodger of BAS suggested that "the deep sea with all its peculiar animals is one way to inspire, so instead of necessarily looking at dinosaurs I would really like to see this generation of youngsters focus on the fantastic biodiversity that you get within the ocean and particularly the deep ocean."[587] Moreover, the current focus on environmental issues and sustainability led IMarEST to suggest that the importance of increasing public awareness of wider marine issues was such that "Government must promote the message that the health of the oceans rests with the entire community. To ensure this government must be committed to broadening its acceptance of the duty of care for marine heritage and to promoting marine science education for all".[588] This is in accordance with the spirit of the European Maritime Green Paper The new marine body should be charged with raising public awareness of marine issues, including better use of facilities such as science centres and public aquaria. A focus on extreme environments (space and oceans) would entice young people into science. There should also be a duty placed on the new body to raise awareness of marine sustainability issues so that the general public is accurately informed about the importance of the oceans in their lives.

541   Ev 97 Back

542   Ibid Back

543   Ev 114 Back

544   Ev 126 Back

545   Ev 118 Back

546   Ev 161 Back

547   Ev 183 Back

548   Ibid Back

549   Ev 131 Back

550   Ev 117 Back

551   Q 122 Back

552   Ev 166 Back

553   Ev 184 Back

554   Ev 134,162 Back

555   Ev 102  Back

556   Q 246 Back

557   Ev 101 Back

558   Q 556 Back

559   Ev 172 Back

560   Ev 203 Back

561   Ev 233 Back

562   Ev 104 Back

563   Q 331 Back

564   Q 245 Back

565   Ev 101 Back

566   Ev 233 Back

567   Ev 145 Back

568   Ev 172 Back

569   Ev 101 Back

570   Ev 162 Back

571   Ev 184 Back

572   Q 332 Back

573   Q 79 Back

574   Ev 131 Back

575   Q 79 Back

576   Q 79 Back

577   Ev 261 Back

578   Ev 172 Back

579   Q 246 Back

580   Ibid Back

581   Ev 233 Back

582   Ev 561 Back

583   Ev 233 Back

584   Q 283 Back

585   Ev 168 Back

586   Ibid Back

587   Q 473 Back

588   Ev 230 Back

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Prepared 18 October 2007