Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 14

Submission from the Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST)

  Given the time available, it has not been possible to consult all our members as fully as we would wish. Therefore, not all organisations within IACMST necessarily agree with all of the views expressed below. Many members have submitted individual responses, as is the norm.


  Following a brief description of IACMST, the submission outlines the importance of the oceans. In addressing the areas requested by the Committee, particular emphasis has been placed on: the need for continuing (and strengthening) coordination across all of the UK marine science community; the urgent need for new mechanisms to fund sustained measurements that meet a wide range of user requirements; minimising barriers to the exchange of data, especially financial transfers between government agencies; developing better mechanisms to ensure consistent UK delegation inputs to intergovernmental bodies; find more flexible ways of participating in the infrastructure of large international satellite and in situ programmes; the need for better identification of future skill requirements and the strategies to deliver them; and transferring the scientific knowledge of ocean acidification to policy making.

  A key general point is that the Government needs to behave as a coherent commissioner for marine research across all its departments. We also consider that the brief of IACMST may need to be changed from one of coordination to actively driving forward an updated version of the strategy first developed in CCMST 1990, a seminal report produced by the Coordinating Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST's predecessor) which itself was formed as one of the outcomes of the last Select Committee inquiry into marine science (by the Lords) in 1985-86.


  IACMST is a Government committee reporting to OSI through its Chairman, Sir Howard Dalton, Chief Scientific Adviser to Defra; it had its first meeting in September 1991. Primary responsibilities are broad oversight of Marine Science and Technology (MST) activities within and beyond government agencies and to ensure the existence of adequate coordination mechanisms. Its membership is drawn mainly from government organisations and it depends on developing consensus views to carry out its work. Where appropriate, some of the achievements of IACMST, as well as the problems it has identified, are included in the main body. Further information is contained in the Annex*.


  1.  Even though the centre of gravity of the climate change debate has shifted towards mitigation and adaptation, especially in the light of the Stern report, the uncertainties over the extent of the warming, the changes in extreme weather, and the regional variations in climate change are however still very large. Improved scientific knowledge of these aspects of climate change is vital to enable cost-effective planning of appropriate adaptation measures. The oceans are a key component of the climate system strongly influencing the timing and distribution of climate change and variability, eg El Niño, the effect of North Atlantic temperatures on European winter weather patterns, and the moderating influence of the Atlantic conveyor and its potential vulnerability to global warming. The oceans themselves also respond to the climate. Increased take-up of atmospheric CO2 is leading to ocean acidification with consequences for the marine ecosystem, further sea level rise (which is inevitable regardless of any action to reduce emissions) threatens coastal environments with huge economic implications and observations of regime changes in the ecosystem have been related to long-term changes in sea temperatures. Although these and other issues have been identified, there is still much that needs to be learnt about the processes involved through long-term observations and modelling in order to reduce uncertainties in prediction.

  2.  Even if climate change were not a matter for concern, there are many other reasons why marine science is important for the UK. The increasing competing requirements for use of the waters around the UK and Europe and the desire to safeguard its ecosystem make sustainable development a key item on the political agenda. The intention to place a Marine Bill before Parliament and the present consultation on an EU Maritime Policy are evidence of this. The following topics, all mentioned in the 1990 CCMST Report, are highly relevant in justifying why the UK needs a vibrant marine science activity today: environmental protection including living resources (some to meet statutory and regulatory obligations), exploitation of resources including sea floor, defence, requirements for technology and spin-offs. Another very significant growth area is operational oceanography, ie routinely disseminating and interpreting measurements for forecasting and other purposes, as already done in meteorology.


  3.  There is a need for continuing and strengthening coordination across all of the UK marine science community. Marine science and technology (MST) responsibilities are distributed widely across Government departments, agencies and NDPBs. Within any one of these, MST may be distributed across a number of different parts of the organisation. Several coordination mechanisms exist but many suffer from being identified too closely with individual departments. The developments noted in paragraph 1 and paragraph 2 imply an even greater need for coordination and were recognised in Charting Progress (2005). An excellent example of a programme designed to achieve greater internal coordination in strategic marine science is NERC's Oceans 2025 programme which has just been awarded nearly £120 million over five years.

  4.  IACMST's role is independent of any department but its membership extends across all departments having MST interests (see Annex for further information on the responsibilities and activities of IACMST). It is therefore able to provide distinctive cross-departmental views. Its remit includes "to ensure that there are satisfactory arrangements for the co-ordination of national and international MST activities". It should be noted that this does not mean that IACMST must do all the coordination, but it does have an important role in ensuring that adequate coordination exists where required. In some cases IACMST has carried out the coordination itself (eg UK contributions to the Global Ocean Observing System, marine data and information activities). However, discussions are underway exploring the transfer of some of these responsibilities to a new body arising from the Government's marine stewardship commitments; the organisation of marine science in the UK is not static. IACMST also sponsors studies into topics that would benefit from cross-departmental approach, eg underwater sound and marine life.

  5.  Given the total investment in MST (~ £600 million in 1999-2000), the resources available for coordination across UK policy, industry and research communities are modest and this is one of the limitations on what can be achieved. IACMST activities are funded through a combination of a two-person secretariat funded by one member agency (NERC), a central government pot of ~£50K per annum and annual subscriptions for annually approved programmes from a few of the member agencies. Coordination for research itself has been rather well supported, eg by NERC.

  6.  Overall funding for marine science. Carrying out marine science, especially in the open ocean, can appear expensive. The capital cost of research ships with multi-disciplinary capability in hostile environments is a few tens of million pounds each; running costs including technical support add several million more per ship. However, the vessels have a lifetime as a research platform of 20 years or more and still have a market value beyond that so it is important to apportion the large one-off costs over a long period. In an era when satellite oceanography and computer models have come of age, ships are still essential to provide data for validation and the additional information needed by users. Over the last few years, several of the UK's research vessels have been replaced as they reached the end of their useful life and it is important that sufficient funding is earmarked to maintain this resource in the future.

  7.  At the time of the last Select Committee inquiry, as recorded in the CCMST report, the NERC marine centres were midway through a period of retrenchment with a 37% reduction in staff over six years. CCMST recommended that there should be consolidation about this smaller base. It would appear that Oceans 2025 marks another period of consolidation in order to sustain a more limited range of activity to meet funding constraints.

  8.  The Government is committed to the concept of evidence-based policy making which in the present context means making best use of good science. IACMST has identified this as an important issue meriting further study and highlighted it in its response to the Marine Bill consultation where, at that stage, it was difficult to see how the feed-through of marine science into policy would work. There are several issues: the paucity of scientific knowledge on which policy decisions necessarily have to be made; the transfer mechanism itself; and the resources needed to carry it out. Also, the current preference to focus research funding on the HEI sector and then provide further funding to them for Knowledge Transfer may not be the most appropriate model for the marine sector.

  9.  There is an urgent need for a new mechanism to fund sustained measurements that serve UK-wide interests in a cost-effective way. This has emerged from the requirement to systematically monitor the health of our seas, to conduct operational oceanography and to carry out research into the role of the oceans in climate. It is encouraging to see that NERC has recognised this problem and devoted one of the themes in its new Oceans 2025 programme to long-term observations. However, there is an over-reliance on short-term research programmes to provide the longer-term data. Notable progress towards an integrated approach to monitoring has been made by establishing the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS) and IACMST has identified, justified, and costed the priority observations needed for the UK contribution to the Global Ocean Observing System which have now been incorporated into the wider UKMMAS resource requirements. However, a fundamental difficulty—initially identified by IACMST when it sought to ensure that the UK was contributing appropriately to the Jason-2 satellite altimeter mission and the Argo profiling float programme (see paragraphs 13 and 14)—is that the present UK funding system is not well-suited to funding cross-departmental contributions to observing programmes. Also, the criteria for monitoring national needs are different from those used in the evaluation of research proposals where observations are needed to meet specific, short-term research objectives. IACMST has provided the methodology for conducting a cost-benefit assessment to establish the value of maintaining or stopping long-term monitoring programmes. The seriousness of this issue has been recognised by UKMMAS, the Environmental Research Funders' Forum (ERFF) and the Global Environmental Change Committee. ERFF has highlighted a major difference between the funds allocated to monitoring the terrestrial UK environment (£500 million) and those allocated to monitoring the marine environment (£36 million).

  10.  Compared with other types of data for both terrestrial and marine environments, data on the biological resources of the seabed, and some components of the water column, are very sparse for the UK continental shelf and adjacent oceanic areas. This deficiency, which is a major constraint on biological resource mapping, is a major strategic issue for UK marine science and one which is currently under consideration by UKMMAS.

  11.  Much progress has been achieved during the last 20 years in seeking to minimise barriers to the exchange of data but new challenges have emerged. IACMST established and coordinated a network of marine data managers (MEDAG) and developed inventories, catalogues and products as agreed by member agencies. It has provided a key interface in to European and international data management. Recently it has moved beyond the traditional oceanographic parameters of temperature, current, etc to consider issues associated with photographic and video records. A study was also completed for Defra on the future needs for marine data and information and this led to the formation of the cross-UK Marine Data and Information Partnership (also hosted by IACMST) in 2005. MDIP is building the framework for marine data stewardship in the UK in which data collected by any organisation can be managed in the long term. It will, along with MEDAG, be asked to also meet the more specific needs associated with the development of the UKMMAS and the monitoring metadata required by ERFF. A key issue is the accessibility and interoperability of datasets held by government-funded organisations. In order to maximise the investment of public money the philosophy should be to "collect once, use many times"; this is a principle underpinning the UKMMAS. However, although this is a simple concept, in practice the way that Government activities are structured and funded, including the establishment of Trading Funds, can easily hinder rather than advance such an approach. There are also some examples of where ownership of IPR is compromising what can be delivered in terms of inter-agency working and is a major disincentive for commercial organisations to propose innovative solutions to problems.


  12.  The main international body for marine science in the UN system is the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. The UK lead is delegated to NERC (the lead on other marine-related activities is taken by appropriate government departments, eg International Maritime Organisation (DfT) and International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Defra/SEERAD). The UK has been an active participant in the formulation and execution of many IOC activities, including the development of the Global Ocean Observing System, the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange committee and, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, in some aspects of the development of warning systems for tsunami and other ocean-related hazards—although it was disappointing that the UK did not respond more positively to UNESCO's request for technical assistance in developing the Indian Ocean Warning System. Several IOC members states are becoming increasingly uncomfortable that the IOC sits in UNESCO. This is also an issue for the UK as the priorities of DfiD (which is the UK lead for UNESCO) are not compatible with the growing operational oceanography agenda of IOC. The IACMST Secretariat has an additional function as the UK's IOC Office and this helps with coordination. Also, the present chairman of IOC, provided by the UK, is the former Secretary of IACMST and this enhances useful liaison.

  13.  This raises the issue of how the UK develops better mechanisms to ensure consistent inputs by its delegates across international bodies. Adequate briefing mechanisms exist for most of the delegations but many are ad hoc, as indeed are arrangements for liaison between the delegations. Much of this stems from the very limited resources available (cross-membership of the different briefing groups helps but is time consuming and often has to be arranged at short notice because of the late availability of documents produced by the international bodies). FCO, assisted by IACMST, are developing plans to improve overarching aspects of coordination.

  14.  Hosting by UK of international project offices. The strength of the UK in the ocean sciences has ensured that it provides international leadership, influence and partnership within International programmes—notably those of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP)—and has allowed NERC to fund and manage four International Project Offices (IPOs): WCRP's Climate Variability (CLIVAR) and World Ocean Circulation (WOCE) projects; IGBP's Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC), and the Surface-Ocean Lower-Atmosphere Study (SOLAS). The Met Office also hosts the Project Offices for the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE) and the Global High Resolution Sea Surface Temperature Pilot Project (GHRSST-PP). The coordinating function of these offices is vital for the efficient conduct of very large programmes, involving many different countries and organisations. The support provided by the UK is much appreciated by the international community and helps to raise the international profile of the hosting institutes. In addition, through hosting these IPOs the UK is able to help set the scientific agenda of these international projects to maximise their value for the UK.


  15.  Application of satellite remote sensing has matured over the last 20 years to the point where it is now regarded as an indispensable tool for most marine science, particularly when combined with in situ observations and numerical models. As stated in paragraph 9 continuity of data is a vital issue, especially with regard to satellite altimetry because of its demonstrated capability to measure changes in sea level rise and ocean currents at regional to global scales to unprecedented accuracies. Specific challenges are: how to maximise the benefit to the UK from participation in Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) and to ensure that the UK can take advantage of very cost-effective arrangements for participating in non-ESA satellite programmes that are of relevance to marine science. For the latter, the UK found it very difficult to contribute its modest share of the Jason-2 altimeter mission costs, despite intervention by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. The UK should also consider investing in constellations of small satellites. This would overcome some of the sampling problems associated with observing the oceans and may also open up new possibilities for UK industry.

  16.  Autonomous in situ systems are vital for many applications. A major success has been the Argo profiling float programme in which the upper ocean is measured every few hundred kilometres every 10 days. The target figure of 3,000 floats has almost been achieved. Marine scientists across the world have been mobilised into deploying the floats and analysing the data from them. The UK has played a significant role but IACMST remains concerned about long-term funding from the UK. It is noted that UK industry is not involved in float manufacture. However, a strong link between UK scientists and industry has led to the pioneering Autosub system which has recently demonstrated its ability to operate under ice shelves as well as in the open ocean.


  17.  In its 1990 report, CCMST highlighted the difficulties in training and retaining sufficient scientists and technologists. They recommended that HEIs should interact more strongly with potential employees to determine the demand. Many of the same comments still hold today. Apart from the general difficulty of persuading the brightest students to pursue a career in science, there are particular problems in trying to recruit into the numerate disciplines. Also, the development of operational oceanography and its projected rapid growth has raised new requirements spanning government and industry; a scoping study for an MSc in Operational Oceanography has recently been completed. This is an example of where training provision is lagging behind employer needs. IACMST is discussing with bodies such as the Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology how to identify these and similar future needs and what strategies should be implemented to meet them; we suggest more effort should be focused on this issue.


  18.  A coordinated approach to the designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is important and this should be based on good science supported by the necessary funding. MPAs can also serve as a benchmark series of sites which can be compared with other marine areas to help determine the effect of human impacts and natural changes, and provide a resource for education, training and research.


  19.  There have been significant changes since the last Select Committee report. Links between the marine science community and the Met Office have grown over the past 20 years and are now considered to be very good. The Met Office has become de facto the UK agency for Operational Oceanography and the formation of the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting, a joint activity of the Met Office and several NERC marine centres, has been a very encouraging development. In order to fully exploit this new collaborative framework the partners will need to ensure that they commit adequate resources to the venture. A similar model could be used to further strengthen links between the Hadley Centre, a world leader in climate research and prediction, and UK marine centres undertaking climate-related programmes. We note that Defra has become the lead government department for climate change and the Defra-led Office for Climate Change needs to give attention to integrating the contribution of the marine science community. As a contribution to the International Polar Year, NERC and others have also funded two large marine consortiums to look at the impact of changes in the Arctic climate on the oceans (one related to gas hydrates).

  20.  Measurements made using the Continuous Plankton Recorder over the last 75 years indicate that major biological changes have taken place in the plankton in the seas around the British Isles over the last few decades correlated with increases in sea surface temperature. A northerly movement of warm water plankton and a parallel retreat of cold water plankton to the north are clearly evident and some plankton species are observed earlier in the season. Because changes in the North Sea observed from the mid 1980s have been so marked they are referred to as a regime shift. A key point is that it is only the length of the observation period that has allowed such interpretation of the changes.

  21. Although some of the increased atmospheric CO2 due to human activities is taken up by the ocean this ameliorating effect comes at a price: ocean acidification. Research has shown that changes have already occurred and, if emissions of CO2 continue to rise as predicted, it is projected that the pH of the oceans will by 2100 have fallen to a level that has not existed in the oceans for many millions of years. This will have important consequences for the ecosystem. More research is needed to understand the processes and feedbacks in order to reduce uncertainties about the future. In particular, there is little evidence of observed pH changes in UK coastal waters, partly due to the natural variability of the region. Also, IACMST is of the view that a synthesis of published studies and consideration of policy implications by a cross-sectoral group, as done for underwater sound, would be valuable.

January 2007

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