Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 17

Submission by the Society for Underwater Technology


  The oceans and seas play a very important role in the weather, climate and wealth of the UK. These all depend on research, measurement and the distribution of data to be effective in modelling physical and biological ocean systems for operational and longer term predictions. This is now particularly important in view of climate change and the mitigation of its causes and affects. Despite identification of the fragmented nature of its provision in 1985, and again in 1990, the organisation of marine research, technology and affairs is still lacking an over-riding strategy and is spread amongst many agencies.


  The Society for Underwater Technology (SUT) is a UK learned society with Branches world wide. It is dedicated to the exchange of learning and knowledge in and between all sectors where technology is used in the underwater environment. As such it is not sector specific or representative of any trade. Its members are drawn from academia, industry and government with interests as diverse as archaeology, fish farming, renewable energy and oil and gas exploration and production. The views expressed here are not necessarily representative of all our members but have been culled from consultations amongst the relevant technical committees of the Society.


  In 1985 a House of Lords Select Committee investigation revealed that UK marine science and technology (MST) was fragmented and under-funded. This led directly to the creation of the Co-ordinating Committee for Marine Science and Technology (CCMST), tasked to develop a strategic framework for UK MST. This important document was produced in 1990. However, in 1991 the Committee was replaced by one which had less executive authority, the Inter Agency Committee for MST (IACMST). This was charged with the general co-ordination of government and agency activities in the MST area. Within its terms of reference, it has done a very good job, but a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) report (No 128) noted in 1999 that "the current arrangements appear to be a long way from those envisaged in 1990". It raised concerns about the level of funding, the balance between fundamental and applied research, the commercialisation of publicly funded science and the ability to provide appropriately specialised graduates. It also raised further concerns about the mechanisms for Government support and the role of its Departments in this area.


  4.1  The oceans play a vital, controlling, role in the weather and climate system of the earth. They are a major source of food and, more recently, oil and gas and other minerals. It is known that a large additional gas resource lies under the deep ocean in the form of hydrates, but how to exploit this without causing a major environmental catastrophe is not at well understood. The impact of global warming, and the part the oceans play in the mitigation of increasing CO2 is also not yet well-enough understood. We know more about the surface of the closer planets than we do about the deep ocean, as well illustrated by recent television programmes which routinely find large creatures there previously unknown to science.

  4.2  On a more parochial note, 95% of the UK's trade goes by sea, the maritime sector is worth about £35 billion (larger than aerospace and agriculture put together) and the UK seas are rich in both hydrocarbon and renewable energy resources.

  4.3  Understanding the oceans and their environment is a key to the future of mankind, both from the perspective of climate change and that of the sustainable exploitation of its living and non-living resources. [For example, with the continuing increase in world population, it is anticipated that the requisite increase in protein for food will come from the oceans.]

  4.4  The polar seas are unique, but are also an integral part of the interlocking world oceans and form part of the driving force for the world's ocean circulation system. At the other end of the scale, coastal and estuarine processes are very important to the life and health of the nation.


  The UK has, historically, been a leading practitioner of marine research, but this has been spread over many agencies and departments. For example, on the Research Council side the leading two are EPSRC and NERC, but there is also the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council for marine-based biotechnology. Many Government Departments have an interest: DTI (hydrocarbons and renewable energy), Defra (fishing, fish farming and the environment), MoD and DoT (shipping) to name but a few. Despite IACMST's best efforts there still appears to be a lack of co-ordination in marine matters between the Departments. For instance, it is notable that the Marine Bill, the precursor of which has recently undergone public consultation, is driven by Defra but excludes the oil and gas and renewable energy areas (DTI) and defence (MoD). It appears to concentrate solely on environmental matters, but suggests that Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) would be worthwhile. However, to be effective, MSP would need to engage with all users of the UK's seas and, if some of the main ones are not included, it is difficult to see how this would work. In ant case, underlying MSP is the requirement for marine scientific data so that informed decisions can be taken. Collecting and analysing this will be no trivial task.


  6.1  As the preceding paragraphs have shown, the understanding of the oceans and seas on both a global and local scale is of great importance to the UK as a nation, both in the long term and the short. However, the measurement and research effort required is fragmented. There are major international programmes in which the UK could or should play a part. Of particular interest is Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) that will be the marine component of the proposed Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS), the call for which is supported by the G8. However, the requisite network of ocean observatories in and adjacent to UK waters, and in areas of interest to the UK, is not yet in place. This will reduce the value of the other data being collected, with the UK lagging behind other nations in its commitments to both the GOOS and the GEOSS.

  6.2  Marine measurements, physical and biological, are required on many time and space scales to provide information on which to base Environmental Assessments, both with regards to local impacts and to strategic scale activities. They are of vital use in the prediction of the impacts of climate change, such as the increase of flood risks, changing global weather patterns and ocean acidification, and in modelling how we might mitigate these.

  6.3  It should also be remembered that users of these data and measurements do not always come from the government laboratories and agencies. There are many companies providing services to a wide range of user communities and who have need of this input data. There is a need to ensure that our scarce resources are well spent and well co-ordinated in the gathering of this data, which can then be made available to the full range of user communities.


  7.1  The sustainable exploitation of the oceans requires the development of suitable technology. Conventional subsea oil and gas exploration and extraction technologies are well advanced, but these (and the experience in developing tem) are needed in other areas that are now of increasing importance such as offshore renewable energy and offshore fish farming. Renewable energy from the sea has huge potential for the UK, both for its own consumption to displace carbon technologies, as the UK has one of the best wave and tidal climates in the world, and for export. Offshore fish farming could potentially solve the world's forthcoming shortage of protein, as inshore fish farming has major drawbacks, and wild fisheries and terrestrial sources have reached the limit of their viability.

  7.2  Such developments need the UK's marine technology research base to be working in a co-ordinated way. This would not only be good for the UK, for example in terms of combating global warming and its effects, but also in exploiting a large export market. However, the research involved has to cross sector boundaries to be effective.

January 2007

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