Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 15

Submission from the Joint Nature of Conservation Committee

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  The JNCC's main conclusions are:

    —  Government needs to develop and implement an overall strategy for publicly-funded marine science, both in relation to UK waters and also overseas;

    —  funding for UK marine science needs to be increased, but also needs to be rebalanced to address major shortfalls, notably in relation to biological resources and the effects of human impacts;

    —  international collaboration in marine science should be promoted and be provided with enhanced support through international funding mechanisms;

    —  new technologies, including remote sensing technologies, have the potential greatly to facilitate marine research, and their development should be supported;

    —  a combination of both traditional and new skills will be required to supply future needs for marine science;

    —  the ability to access scientific results needs to be considerably improved, and techniques for assessing confidence in their use for policy and operational purposes developed and implemented;

    —  all publicly-funded marine data should be held electronically to agreed standards and placed in the public domain;

    —  marine protected areas provide a wide range of ecosystem services and are a resource for education, training and research. Their value is increased when they are strictly protected;

    —  the paucity of biological datasets is hampering our ability to assess and interpret changes resulting from climate change.

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) provides advice and information to ministers and other persons on matters for or affecting nature conservation in the UK as a whole and also in relation to nature conservation outside the UK. JNCC is a Committee of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage and discharges its functions on behalf of those organisations. JNCC's ability to carry out its statutory functions is dependent on the availability of marine data and scientific information.

ORGANISATION AND FUNDING OF UK MARINE SCIENCE IN THE POLAR AND NON-POLAR REGIONS

  2.  Marine science in the UK is funded by a range of bodies, notably including the research councils, Government Departments, public agencies, private sector companies and non-governmental charitable institutions. It is carried out by research council centres, Government and non-governmental laboratories, Government agencies, universities, industry and commercial companies under contract.

  3.  Government policy includes using investment in research as one means of securing the United Kingdom's future competitiveness and growth as a world economy and also as a means of helping to alleviate world poverty. However, there are other societal needs for research. These include the need to monitor the status of biodiversity and geodiversity in the UK and elsewhere, and of identifying the causes of trends, and the means of addressing them. More generally, research is needed to provide the information necessary for human activities to be carried out in a manner which will produce benefits while avoiding harm.

  4.  The doctrine of scientific excellence (usually determined by academic peer-review) continues to be a powerful determinant in relation to where marine science and research funding is directed (including in relation to NERC's important Oceans 2025 programme), and, in practice, marine science and research follows the funding. Often, too little consideration is given to formulating the society-relevant questions that research should be designed to answer. Government intends that the formulation of its policy should be evidence-based, yet too often this objective is undermined by lack of data.

  5.  So far as JNCC is aware, no overall objectives for publicly-funded marine science have been promoted by Government, nor is there any over-arching strategy for publicly-funded marine science. This is likely to be due, in large measure, to the manner in which research funding has developed and evolved in the UK over time, but the lack of central direction and co-ordination of publicly-funded science has the potential to lead to duplication of effort, lack of collaboration where this is desirable, gaps in research endeavour, and research funds being allocated with insufficient regard to national priorities.

  6.  In the absence of a central strategy, major research funders have developed their own strategies. While such initiatives are commendable and can be considered as complementary, they also have the potential to be divergent and insufficiently connected.

  7.  Current publicly-funded UK marine research is largely focussed on oceanographic studies, mainly through NERC funding. In comparison, and also when compared to the UK terrestrial environment, data on the biological resources of the seabed, and some components of the water column, for the UK continental shelf and adjacent ocean areas, are very sparse. Systematic surveillance of marine biodiversity in UK continental shelf waters is currently poorly developed (the Continuous Plankton Recorder programme undertaken by SAPHOS, and the commercial fish stock monitoring by CEFAS and FRS being notable exceptions), with the result that it is currently very difficult to assess the status of, and trends in, marine UK biodiversity or to give a quantitative assessment of the impact of human activities on this. Defra have recently instigated the development of a UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy to improve coordination and direction of scientific endeavour in this area.

  8.  While funding for environmental science and research in the marine environment is low compared with the terrestrial environment, existing expenditure partly relates to past, rather than current or future, priorities and needs to be rebalanced. While overall funding provision for marine science needs to be increased, it also needs to be used more efficiently, including through the redirection of resources, and greatly enhanced collaboration, eg in the use of vessels.

  9.  In summary:

    —  Government needs to develop and implement an overall strategy for publicly-funded marine science;

    —  research funding for UK marine science needs to be increased but also rebalanced to address major shortfalls, eg in relation to biological resources and the effects of human impacts. Enhanced collaboration between those commissioning research needs to take place.

THE ROLE OF THE UK INTERNATIONALLY, AND INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATION IN MARINE SCIENCE

  10.  The geographic location of the UK and its overseas territories has had a considerable influence on the direction of its marine science work. Inevitably, marine science effort has been focused on the UK continental shelf area and on the adjacent waters of the north-east Atlantic. Outside this "home" area, the UK also undertakes considerable research in the south Atlantic and in the waters adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula; this reflects its responsibilities and historic involvement in the Overseas Territories in the south Atlantic and in the British Antarctic Territory. In contrast, UK research is less developed in other areas, for example in the Arctic Ocean and the tropical seas, notwithstanding that these areas are under considerable environmental pressure, including as a result of climate change.

  11.  The UK is party to a range of international Multilateral Environmental Agreements which require research to be undertaken and for appropriate levels of research collaboration and information exchange between parties. However, so far as we are aware, there is no overall UK guidance or strategy in relation to the disbursement of UK publicly-funded marine science resources internationally, either in relation to the UK continental shelf, the various Overseas Territories, or elsewhere, nor any particular mechanism for allocating research expenditure or effort in accordance with policy priorities, with the range of international treaty obligations, or in relation to environmental pressures.

  12.  Marine research is expensive, and financial, technical and expertise requirements encourage collaborative working, and the EU's financial instruments encourage such collaboration. Current habitat mapping projects are financially supported through such instruments and require international collaboration. For example, the HABMAP project in the southern Irish Sea (www.habmap.org) and the Marine European Seabed Habitat mapping project which involves the continental shelf areas of the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, and adjacent waters of France (www.searchmesh.net) were both grant-aided under the EU's INTERREG programme.

  13.  Many marine issues are international in nature. Scientific collaboration is essential in relation to marine monitoring, and the implementation of marine policy and international treaty obligations. For example, initiatives to develop spatial planning in the UK marine environment will require cross-border working with other states when the responsibility for individual seas (eg the North Sea and the Irish Sea) are shared between the states. We would like to see marine science highlighted as a special case for international funding opportunities (eg through EU and other funding mechanisms).

  14.  In summary:

    —  Government needs to develop a strategy for supporting marine science outside the UK, including identifying priorities for funding in terms of geographical location, international commitments, and environmental pressures. Indicative resource levels should be identified to guide the apportionment of science resources as between the UK and overseas;

    —  international collaboration in marine science should be promoted, and be provided with enhanced support through international (including EU) funding mechanisms.

SUPPORT FOR MARINE SCIENCE, INCLUDING PROVISION AND DEVELOPMENT OF TECHNOLOGY AND ENGINEERING

  15.  Because of the scale of the marine environment and difficulties of researcher access, technological innovation and development is proving of the utmost importance. Technological developments such as GPS, remote sensing technologies, electronic tagging and satellite tracking have greatly facilitated the marine life sciences. For example, multi-beam sonar has proved invaluable for seabed habitat mapping. Mapping, surveillance and monitoring, both of the state of the marine environment, and of human activities, and the effect of those, on the marine environment, will be key areas for future innovation. Consequently, we welcome and support the continued investment in the development of new and improved marine technologies.

  16.  New technologies also have the potential for benefiting biodiversity through, for example, improvements in fishing gear designed to cause less harm to the environment or to wildlife (eg the use of "pingers" to reduce incidental take of dolphins and porpoises by fishing gear).

  17.  In summary:

    —  because of the scale of the marine environment, and because of access difficulties for researchers, new technologies, including remote sensing technologies, have the potential greatly to facilitate marine research, and their development should be supported.

THE STATE OF THE UK RESEARCH AND SKILLS BASE UNDERPINNING MARINE SCIENCE AND PROVISION AND SKILLS TO MAINTAIN AND IMPROVE THE UK'S POSITION IN MARINE SCIENCE

  18.  Key marine skills for the future will encompass a range of traditional and current skills, together with new skills required to develop and use new technologies, including remote sensing technologies, and to handle, analyse and interpret the data provided by those technologies. In addition, environmental factors (eg ecosystem services), will, increasingly, need to be considered in economic and societal terms, requiring greatly enhanced inter-disciplinary working.

  19.  We remain concerned about the current loss of taxonomic expertise in the UK in relation to marine taxa. Universities need to continue to train people with marine taxonomic skills, and taxonomic institutions (eg museums) need to be supported to enable them to carry out a taxonomy function effectively. Traditional taxonomic techniques will need to be supported by new and different skills, eg DNA sequencing.

  20.  Knowledge of how natural ecosystems function, how different organisms contribute to that functioning, and how organisms relate to physical and chemical factors and the changes in those, are major areas for the future development of marine science. Critical components of this functioning will be micro-organisms. Many of these organisms have not been described and the total diversity of marine micro-organisms is likely to be very considerable. New techniques and approaches will need to be developed to help advance this area of marine science.

  21.  Marine skills and expertise have a strong tendency to become localised in research institutes, within marine industries, and within marine departments in universities, and are not as accessible to marine regulators and managers, and their advisers, as is desirable. The ability of scientists to keep up to date on the results of marine research is quite variable. Generally, the wider the field of expertise, the more difficult this becomes. For those wishing to use science for policy formulation, or for operational purposes, accessing research conclusions presents a major challenge.

  22.  To assist the process of knowledge transfer, a number of actions are desirable, for example: (a) the establishment of standard UK systems for enabling access to research information in both the scientific and "grey" literature (the principles and strategy set out in the Research Councils UK position statement on access to research outputs are commended see www.rcuk.ac.uk/access/statement.pdf), (b) where research is critical to policy formulation or operational action it needs to be accompanied by a well-resourced communications plan that develops understanding of the user audience (eg www.relu.ac.uk/about/CommunicationPlan.pdf), (c) the development of an appropriate infrastructure for conducting systematic reviews on topics important for policy formulation or operational action, and (d) all marine data collected with public funds should be held electronically to agreed formats and standards and placed in the public domain within specified timescales.

  23.  Research results are rarely 100% comprehensive or certain in relation to supporting policy decisions or operational action. For this reason, techniques need to be developed which will enable an assessment of confidence to be provided, so as to help determine the level of risk involved in determining policy or action based on the available science.

  24.  In summary:

    —  a combination of both traditional and new skills, (eg in relation to the handling of remote sensing equipment and data, and of new taxonomic techniques) for marine science in the future will be required;

    —  the ability of non-specialists to access scientific results needs to be considerably improved through providing electronic access to results, more effective communication of results, and infrastructure provision for reviews on important topics;

    —  all publicly-funded marine research data should be held electronically to agreed standards and placed in the public domain;

    —  techniques for assessing the degree of confidence of using scientific conclusions to address policy and operational questions are needed.

USE OF MARINE SITES OF SPECIAL SCIENTIFIC INTEREST

  25.  Under current legislation, marine SSSIs normally extend seawards only as far as low water mark. Marine SSSIs are selected primarily for the contribution they make to the conservation of UK biodiversity and geodiversity. The legislation provides these sites with substantial protection from human impacts.

  26.  In addition to SSSIs, similar levels of protection are provided by statutory marine nature reserves (MNRs) (only three established to date) and European Marine Sites (established under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives). European Marine Sites can only be established for a limited number of marine habitat types and species, and the Government's intention is to provide powers under a future Marine Bill to afford protection to a much wider range of habitats and biological communities, and also to important geological features. These areas (and those referred to above) will: (a) provide refuges for vulnerable wildlife, (b) serve as reservoirs of biodiversity capable of "seeding" into adjacent marine areas, (c) provide genetic and ecological support to marine biological populations more widely, (d) contribute functionally to the ecosystems of which they are part and also to the sustainable use of the marine environment, (e) 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 (f), provide a resource for education, training and research. In general, the value of these sites for scientific purposes can be expected to increase with the degree of protection afforded to them, and, to achieve this range of benefits, a proportion of these sites will need to be afforded strict protection (eg from all extractive or development uses). Areas subject to such strict protection are sometimes referred to as "highly protected areas".

  27.  A considerable amount of research is currently undertaken on protected sites. For example, both Lundy and Skomer MNRs have been the subject of long-term monitoring studies and also studies into the response of biological communities to the cessation of fishing activities and, in the case of Skomer, to the effects of a major oil spill.

  28.  In summary:

    —  Marine Protected Areas provide a wide range of services, including to biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, the sustainable use of natural resources, and as a resource for education, training and research. Their value to both conservation and science is increased when they are strictly protected.

HOW MARINE SCIENCE IS BEING USED TO ADVANCE KNOWLEDGE OF IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON THE OCEAN

  29.  The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) has been set up specifically to assess the potential impact of climate change on the marine ecosystem by drawing on the expertise of leading UK scientists. In November 2006, MCCIP launched its first Annual Report Card (ARC) and summarised current understanding of how our oceans are changing. This highlighted that long-term and widespread datasets are central to our ability to model changes with a high degree of confidence, as exemplified by the ocean temperature, sea level, continuous plankton recorder, seabird and intertidal species data.

  30.  The marine temperature and plankton records over the last 20 years have shown an increase in sea temperature of about 2°C in the North Sea, Irish Sea and English Channel. The mid-1980s witnessed a change in the composition of the plankton as warm water species expanded their range in the seas around southern and central Britain, while cold water plankton withdrew northwards into the sub-Arctic, north of Shetland. There are concerns that, as a result of changes in plankton composition, the productivity of sandeel populations may decline, and lead to a consequent decline in seabird populations. The low breeding success of kittiwake breeding colonies in some areas of northern Britain in 2004 and 2005 may be a result of such changes.

  31.  In summary:

    —  the paucity of biological datasets and a limited understanding of ecological processes is hampering our ability to predict and interpret ecosystem scale changes as a result of climate change.

January 2007







 
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