Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 3

Submission from Professor Sir John Lawton, Chairman, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

  1.  These are my personal views. The Members of the RCEP have not considered the matter. I have not provided a summary (as requested) because the submission is very brief.

  2.  The Committee will, I assume, have received evidence from the Natural Environment Research Council on the role of NERC and its associated Wholly-Owned and Collaborative Centres. (The Wholly Owned centres are: British Antarctic Survey [BAS]; British Geological Survey [BGS as a partner in the International Ocean Drilling Programme—IODP]; National Oceanographic Centre, Southampton [NOCS]; Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory. The Collaborative Centres include the British Oceanographic Data Centre; Plymouth Marine Laboratory [PML]; Scottish Association for Marine Science; Sea Mammal Research Unit; and several laboratories within the Earth Observation Centres and the NERC Centres for Atmospheric Science). Some of NERC's Services and Facilities Laboratories also support UK marine science.

  3.  NERC currently has four ocean-going research vessels, two run through BAS, and two through NOCS. The BAS ships are available for non-BAS work, particularly in the northern hemisphere summer.

  4.  This is a complex landscape, but just because it is complex does not mean that it is not fit for purpose. The landscape has evolved over many years, in response to changing demands, budgets and scientific opportunities. For example, during my time as CE of NERC we considered the economies of scale that might be achieved by running all four ships through one operation. We abandoned the idea because at that time there were no obvious economies of scale. Operational planning for use of the BAS ships has to be intimately tied to the overall planning of BAS operations, two, even three years ahead. Logistics demand his has to be done within BAS; if it is not, the evidence suggested that there was scope for considerable confusion and duplication of effort.

  5.  Generalising, each Wholly-Owned or Collaborative Centre has a distinct scientific role, with very little duplication of effort or expertise. Where there is apparent duplication, it is usually for very good scientific reasons. But of course there is always room for improvement. The creation of NOCS during my time as CE was partly to provide this very large, "flagship" laboratory with a leadership role across the UK marine laboratories, not as a "takeover bid" but on a "first-among-equals" basis. It is for others to judge whether this role has been fulfilled.

  6.  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.

  NERC will, I am sure have given you many other examples.

  7.  One measure of this success is the number of international collaborations involving NERC-funded UK marine scientists. Major examples include the RAPID programme (co-funded with the US National Science Foundation and other European partners) and IODP. World-class scientists from other countries do not actively seek collaboration with second division players. UK marine scientists play in the premier league.

  8.  Against this positive background, during my time at NERC (and no doubt continuing) there was severe competition for funds to support marine science in the UK. Marine science is generally expensive (as are most other areas of NERC science), and with other major calls on NERC's budget, we had to make some difficult choices. For example I had at least two requests to fund the provision of new inshore research vessels by good UK laboratories. No doubt the science they would have carried out would have been excellent, but NERC did not have the funds to support these bids. (This is not a problem unique to marine science in the UK. Tough decisions about priorities apply across the remit of NERC).

  9.  As I left NERC the rapidly increasing price of oil was causing problems for BAS and for the running of our other two ships. The deployment of all four vessels was already extremely efficiently scheduled, with little or no capacity to make "efficiency savings". NERC overall had therefore to find ways of supporting these vessels by cutting other operations. I am not privy to the current situation, but continuing high oil price will be a constraint of UK marine science operations, unless additional funds are forthcoming.

  10.  NERC was due to review its marine laboratories after I left in April 2005. Key questions are whether the current configuration and number of marine-related laboratories is still fit for purpose, and whether reconfiguration would be cost-effective? I have not seen the outcome of the review, and do not know the answers to these questions. Unless things have changed dramatically, my best guess is that reconfiguration (mergers, closures etc) are unnecessary at this time, and doubtfully good value for money.

  11.  An alternative question is whether it would be desirable to expand the UK's marine science capability, for example by building on the existing cluster of marine laboratories in Plymouth (the university, the Marine Biological Association, PML and the Sir Alastair Hardy Foundation). At one level this is an attractive notion. As always, the question is where will the money come from, and what else in NERC's potential portfolio won't get done if they fund this expansion?

January 2007

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