Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 11

Submission from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory


    (i)  There is a rich diversity of funding for marine science and a complex array of providers of strategic marine science. By and large the current structure works well, and the recent co-ordination of NERC strategic marine science is a very welcome development. However, there is a need for a review of the relationship of the fisheries laboratories and the rest of the sector.

    (ii)  PML, together with its partners in the Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership (PMSP) represents one of the largest groupings of marine science and technologists in Europe. Research is carried out ranging from blue-skies molecular biology through to applied renewable energy technologies. Plymouth science also contributes strongly to UK policy.

    (iii)  The UK has a very strong reputation internationally in marine science and leads in many sectors. The UK also has a strong leadership role in the EU.

    (iv)  The skill base in the UK in most areas of marine science is extremely buoyant, although some sectors are relatively under-represented, eg mathematics. However, PML itself has not had difficulty in recruiting in the more numeracy related areas. However, a four-year PhD programme is now almost mandatory, given the poor preparation now provided by most first degrees.

    (v)  Whilst the current SSSI designations are of relatively minor importance for UK waters, the marine protected areas proposed in emerging legislation are crucial for the sound management of the UK.

    (vi)  Marine science is playing an increasingly important role in understanding the workings and future of the Earth system. Marine questions are of key importance in most of the critical problems facing humankind in the early 21st century. These include: climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, maintenance of biodiversity and sustainability; food production and human health and well-being. A strong UK blue-skies and strategic marine science research base is essential for the economy of the UK and its leadership in world affairs.

  1.  The Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) welcomes the opportunity to comment.

  2.  PML is an independent marine environmental research institute. It is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee. PML was formally a wholly owned centre of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). PML became independent in 2002 and is now a Collaborative Research Centre of NERC and an OSI recognised public sector research establishment.

  3.  PML welcomes the Committee's decision to hold an enquiry into marine science. The oceans are increasingly being recognised as a key component of the Earth System and are intimately linked to many of the greatest pressures facing humankind in the early 21st century, namely: climate change; sea level rise; ocean acidification; biodiversity, and food supply.

  4.  PML's comments below represent a primarily "PML-centric" view since wider issues have been considered in the NERC consolidated response.


  5.  PML receives funds from a variety of sources, for example, NERC, Government Departments (eg DEFRA, DTI). More commercial funding is also available, although this is primarily focused on specific problem solving for the sponsor. PML has also received some funds from research charities, eg the Leverhulme Trust.

  6.  A particular limitation currently is the apparently arbitrary way in which organisations are eligible for funding. For example, PML is unable to bid for responsive mode funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, despite having a well developed capability in some of the areas of interest to that Research Council. Similarly, PML has found it extraordinarily difficult to obtain funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, although there are signs that this route is opening up somewhat.

  7.  A particular concern of PML is the lack of funding at full economic cost (FEC). Clearly this is not unique to PML and there are welcome signs that some funders are moving toward full cost recovery mechanisms. PML remains concerned, however, that it might be many years before all funders agree to support research at full economic cost and perhaps not at all in the case of some charities.

  8.  A particular frustration is that some funding schemes or multidisciplinary projects working at the interface of, for example, two Research Councils, frequently face "double jeopardy" in the decision making. For example, in recent years, PML has identified research which has secured funding from the MoD which has not been successful in obtaining funding from NERC. In these cases, the same grant mechanisms have been used to assess these strategic projects as blue-skies projects. By their very nature, the strategic projects have a problem solving, near market element which would not "score" highly using the normal blue-skies mechanisms. There is a need for a review of such schemes. Similarly, research at interfaces needs to be able to satisfy two (or more) Research Councils, at which point, it is relatively easy for a particular Council to decide not to support a piece of work if it has received funds from elsewhere. A review of how to deal with interdisciplinary science is long overdue.

  9.  A particular local issue facing PML (and other NERC funded strategic institutes) currently is the proposed adoption of a new funding and allocation model being developed by the NERC. In essence, this should provide a more transparent mechanism for funding. It is also intended to open up funding to more competition. Whilst this is to be welcomed in principle, the potential consequences could be damaging if taken to its logical limits. PML supports these developments and is helping in their development; nevertheless, they do represent some considerable uncertainty.

  10.  Within the context of the wider organisation of science, there is a need to address the role of the fisheries institutes relative to the other strategic research institutes. There is a perception, in part justifiable, that organisations such as CEFAS are gradually shifting their focus and becoming more aggressive competitors. PML's anecdotal experience is that CEFAS was more collaborative in past years. Overall, there is certainly a need for a wide review of the fisheries laboratories and Research Council institutes in supporting UK-wide marine science.

  11.  PML is a founding member (and currently chairs) the Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership (PMSP), which comprises: the Plymouth Marine Laboratory; Marine Biological Association; University of Plymouth; Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science; National Marine Aquarium. Together this Partnership represents one of the largest collections of professional marine scientists and technologists in Europe. The PMSP represents a considerable resource for the UK and has expertise ranging from molecular biology, blue biotechnology through marine diversity and sustainability to coastal protection and marine renewables. The PMSP is currently engaged in an ambitious project to co-locate many of its activities on one site as part of a major regeneration project in Plymouth with support from (amongst others) the South West Regional Development Agency.


  12.  The UK generally has an excellent track record in international collaboration and in many sectors, the UK is either the leader or second only to the USA in marine research.

  13.  In this context, PML also has a very strong reputation. PML hosts the International Project Office for GLOBEC, a major IGBP project concerned with marine bioresources, and was the host site for the early development of the IMBER International Project Office (now re-located to France). PML also hosts the national programme office for the Atlantic Meridional Transect programme (AMT) which has provided a platform for numerous international researchers. Together with its other PMSP partners (see para 11) in Plymouth, PML has recently supported the Secretariat of the international programme partnership for the Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO), a subscription organisation comprising all the major research organisations worldwide which exists to promote collection and sharing of marine data and to develop capacity in developing nations.

  14.  PML hosts a number of international researchers at any one time, including EU Marie Curie Fellows. Approximately 25% of PML's staff and students are of non-British nationality.

  15.  PML is a major contributor to EU framework activities. For example, PML is either a member or leads on three marine related networks of excellence. The EU is PML's third most important supplier of funding, contributing approximately 20% of funding (variable year-on-year).


  16.  PML does not have a specific technology and engineering division. Rather, PML develops technology in partnership with external companies in response to the need of specific research projects. In this way, PML has been responsible for introducing marine sampling technologies, which are in use throughout the world. For example, a current project for which DTI funding is being sought involves a local communications company and will entail the development of self-contained instrumentation to measure the concentrations of CO2 in seawater and the atmosphere and deployed on ocean-going ships of opportunity.

  17.  PML represents a considerable national resource in the form of research infrastructure available, for example, to the UK Higher Education Institute community. Such support includes: use of inshore research vessels; seawater experimental mesocosms; world-leading capability in ecosystem modelling and satellite remote sensing. These facilities are available for both professional researchers and research students (the latter currently numbering about 30) at no or little cost.


  18.  The UK has a world-class capability in Marine Science across virtually all disciplines.

  19.  PML has particular strengths in marine biology and chemistry, remote sensing—particularly ocean colour—and marine optics and ecosystem modelling.

  20.  At any one time, PML is host to approximately 30 research students registered at a variety of universities around the UK, all of which are rated at either RAE or alpha 4 or 5. A particularly notable achievement has been the success of the AMT project (see para 13), which has supported the PhDs of 69 students, with more to come.

  21.  Collectively the PMSP represents a major resource in providing training and the development of the skills base. For example, the University of Plymouth alone has of the order of 1,500 students registered on various marine courses. One of the areas in which it is difficult to recruit is that involving the more numerate sciences. Overall this appears to be true; however, PML has been fortunate in having been able to recruit strong, highly numerate candidates for recent computer modelling and remote sensing positions. We are not sure why this has been the case and the numbers have been relatively small—five in the past three years; however, our experience is positive.

  22.  Similarly we have not had any difficulty in recruiting good analytical chemists, although all our recent recruits have had previous industrial experience.

  23.  In our experience, undergraduates entering PhD programmes are less well prepared in some basic skills than their peers of say 10 years ago. We rarely recruit PhD students directly from an undergraduate degree; most have some form of further training or experience, with many having obtained an MSc or MRes. A four-year training from bachelor to doctorate is now virtually essential given the relatively poor preparation provided by a typical first degree, even from the top-class universities.


  24.  It is not clear what is meant by this. The current SSSI scheme is restricted essentially to terrestrial systems, although there are some important coastal and salt-marsh SSSIs. The scheme does not apply to fully marine sites.

  25.  PML has experience of the coastal areas which are important habitats and rich in biodiversity. These coastal/salt-marsh areas are important for coastal protection and are very vulnerable to human development and disturbance and global change. The latter includes: increases in sea level; storminess; floods and ocean acidification. For example, research at PML has demonstrated that the biological consequences of warmer or colder than average winters have profound effects on the population of animals in the salt-marshes and mud-flats, which in turn changes the ability of these areas to withstand the consequences or floods, for example. These types of areas will almost certainly behave in ways that probably cannot be predicted.

  26.  The important related aspect to the topic of SSSIs is the question of fully marine protected areas (MPAs)—perhaps the forthcoming equivalent of SSSIs. The proposed Marine Bill has MPAs as a central tenet to the management of the marine domain and PML is a strong and enthusiastic supporter of this idea. Some form of very serious protection of an appropriate mosaic of protected areas is the minimum requirement of these vital, yet hugely sensitive, areas. It is also crucial to understand that these areas provide a huge and previously unquantified economic benefit to the UK amounting to many £billions in goods and services.[8]


  27.  This is a huge subject and has been only partially covered by the NERC consolidated statement.

  28.  The key points here relate to some fundamental features of the ocean:

    —  They are a massive "flywheel" with regard to temperature—they are slow to warm-up but also slow to cool down. Thus the oceans moderate temperatures.

    —  The composition and biology and chemistry of the oceans control and are controlled by the atmosphere. For example, climate is intimately regulated by biological processes occurring in the ocean.

    —  Ocean circulation is relatively ephemeral and can change quite rapidly.

    —  75% of the surface of the planet is influenced by the ocean-atmosphere interface. This is only a few millionths of a metre in thickness, yet we know very little about the biology, chemistry and physics of the layer. For example, we are now discovering a whole new microbial flora in this area which can probably influence the role of exchange of gases between the atmosphere and ocean. The virtually ignored process of ocean acidification—ie the process whereby the oceans are becoming more acidic because of the absorption of human produced CO2, is now recognised as a problem of huge global significance. Predictors suggest that, by the end of the 21st century, whole marine ecosystems may have disappeared. This is not alarmist; the chemistry is very well constrained, the biology less so, but nevertheless fairly robust. For example, coral reefs may well not be able to grow significantly under the lower pHs predicted.

  29.  Coastal regions are all under threat from a variety of challenges, including climate change and human development (something like 50% of the world population lives within 50 km of the coast).

  30.  UK Marine Science is active in all these (and other) key areas identified above. PML is particularly involved in studies on ocean acidification, the climate regulation provided by the oceans, biodiversity and sustainability issues and, increasingly, the state of the marine environment and its influence on human health.

  31.  Whilst the importance of the oceans in the areas above is becoming more prominent, the realisation of the precarious state of this planet with respect to the oceans is very poorly known. For example, enormous numbers of people worldwide are dependent upon the oceans as their only source of protein. This is under serious threat from, for example, sea-level rise; acidification, harmful algal blooms and habitat destruction. Endless other examples could be given. Yet, despite the widening understanding, appropriate resources are not flowing into the area. This is in marked contrast to, for example, space travel and particle physics. I have the highest regard for these latter areas; however, humankind faces genuine threat in the next few decades. We need to address these issues as a matter of priority. Our science is capable of significantly more in the way of delivering predictions and solutions for the future, but it needs appropriate support.

January 2007

8   Beaumont N, Townsend M, Mangi S, Austen M C (2006) Marine Biodiversity. An economic valuation. Building the evidence base for the Marine Bill. Defra, London, July 2006. Back

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