Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 18

Submission from the Biosciences Federation

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  The UK is widely recognised as having made strong long-term contributions to the marine sciences across the globe, as befits a fundamentally maritime nation. Our maritime research base has in recent years benefited from the deployment of new (often at least partly automated technology and from the added focus and immediacy provided by high-level research questions, most notably gauging climate change. However, the Federation believes that the UK's marine sciences remain seriously under-funded and surprisingly disconnected, reflecting a lack of overall coordination and an under-appreciation of our true depth of ignorance regarding the composition and dynamics of oceanic ecosystems. This in turn partly reflects the continuing long-term decline in organismal biology, which has most drastically affected the university sector, thus eliminating the source of fresh UK-trained recruits needed in these critical research areas. Such expertise, appropriately networked, is required especially urgently to develop less crude models of ecosystem responses to climate change. The Federation especially highlights the increasing failure of the UK's funding bodies to adequately support long-term research programmes in general and those relating to environmental monitoring (including taxonomic underpinning) in particular. Although our success in marine sciences should be assessed primarily at the international level, it is equally important to ensure that the UK's own marine research network is properly integrated and self-sustaining.

BIOSCIENCES FEDERATION

  The Biosciences Federation (BSF) is a registered charity (No 1103894) that was established in 2002 as a single authority representing the UK's biological expertise, providing independent opinion to inform public policy and promoting the advancement of the biosciences. The Federation is actively working to influence national and European policy and strategy in biology-based research (including funding and the interface with other disciplines) and in university and school teaching. It is also concerned with the translation of research into benefits for society, and with the impact of legislation and regulations on the ability of scientists to operate effectively.

  The Federation brings together the strengths of 44 member organisations (including the Institute of Biology) and 42 additional affiliated societies. This represents a cumulative membership of over 70,000 individuals, together covering the full spectrum of biosciences from physiology and neuroscience, biochemistry and microbiology, to ecology, taxonomy and environmental science.

  The Federation thanks the following for their substantial technical contributions to this document:

    Dr Louise Allcock (Queen's University Belfast/ Linnean Society);

    Professor Richard Bateman (Biosciences Federation/ Systematics Association);

    Dr Anthony Fletcher (Leicestershire Museums/ British Lichen Society);

    Professor David Mann (RBG Edinburgh/ British Phycological Society);

    Professor Graham Underwood (Essex University/ British Phycological Society).

PREAMBLE: CLARIFICATION OF TERMS AND REMIT

This [is an] inquiry into marine science in the polar and non-polar regions

  1.  The Federation finds the precise phrasing of this statement intriguing. While recognising that there is understandably a strong interest in the relevance of the polar seas to climate change, there can be few more integrated systems than the world's oceans; ultimately, the dichotomy implied by this statement between polar and non-polar regions is artificial. We would not, for example, wish to see vital research into polar seas promoted at the expense of consideration of home waters; it is comparisons between different biotas and environments that are in general likely to prove most informative.

  2.  In addition, it is important to define the extent of the marine realm. We here take a broad definition, including any terrain periodically inundated by tides or frequently affected by wind-borne sea spray. Our decision reflects the high ecological impact of salt, and the fragility and vulnerability (eg to pollution and development) of many of the ecosystems that characterise the intertidal and supralittoral zones.

ORGANISATION OF UK MARINE SCIENCE

Organisation (and funding) of UK marine science in the polar and non-polar regions

  3.  We welcome recent initiatives to improve connectivity between the UK's marine research organisations, such as the focusing of climate collaborations on the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Nonetheless, in our view, the remaining centres of oceanic research in the UK remain undesirably poorly networked, often perpetuating research foci that owe more to historical constraints than to national or international priorities. We therefore suggest that an independent review of the UK's marine biology would be timely, analogous to that recently performed by the Freshwater Biology Association and NERC on behalf of the UK's freshwater ecology base (A review of freshwater ecology in the UK, December 2005). NERC's own crucial role in resourcing the bulk of the UK's marine science, in both the universities and the institutions, also merits periodic reappraisal.

  4.  In addition, we suggest that benchmarking against global leaders in the field of marine sciences (eg Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Bremerhaven) would help to highlight strengths and weaknesses to their UK equivalents, and indicate where additional resources could most usefully be deployed in the immediate future.

  We discuss funding issues below, under "Research and skills base".

CONTRIBUTION OF THE UK TO INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATIONS

The role of the UK internationally, and international collaboration in marine science

  5.  Although modest grants for brief exchange visits are relatively easy to obtain, surprisingly, there is at present no clear route for obtaining matching funds from the major UK funders (notably NERC) to develop substantive collaborate with other major global partners (eg the USA's National Science Foundation). For example, for the International Polar Year, each country independently funded its own contribution. Any planned research programmes between countries could be initiated only by successfully passing two independent proposals through at least two independent funding systems; this "double jeopardy" approach to funding offers very low probabilities of success. Similar situations currently exist within the ESF and other bodies supporting international collaboration. It is difficult to envisage how a genuinely global challenge such as climate change can realistically be addressed at a national level. The Federation therefore recommends that recent genuine advances in international cooperation at the policy level are now matched by corresponding advances in cooperative research funding.

  6.  UK marine scientists recognise the importance of international initiatives and working groups (eg IGBP initiatives such as SOLAS and IMBER); they are also aware of the damage done to our international competitiveness in cases where we choose not to participate (often due to inadequate resourcing). The UK is most likely to benefit when it is a full partner in the initiation of international programmes, but at present, establishing such programmes is extremely time consuming and necessitates extensive lobbying; this in turn requires substantial career-time investment by key individuals. Greater consensus on prioritising global issues, and determining the best methods of addressing them, is required. Also, better coordination is desirable, supported by formal recognition of the essential contribution of those key individuals that protects their ongoing research careers (for example, the Research Assessment Exercise gives minimal reward for international coordination).

TECHNOLOGICAL SUPPORT

Support for marine science, including provision and development of technology and engineering

  Note:  We assume that funding aspects of "support" have been covered by earlier questions, and that this is therefore essentially a technological question.

  7.  The Federation recognises the technical advances that have allowed automation of much of our marine data collection. Examples include remarkable data on productivity in the open ocean from remote sensing (NERC has wisely developed excellent satellite capability), a range of initiatives focused on autonomous buoys, and AUTOSUB.

  8.  Nonetheless, it remains critical for the UK to maintain a top-class research fleet. Although this has made vital contributions to global marine science, it presently suffers from a combination of technical failures and under-provision of cutting-edge technology. At the time of writing (January 2007) cruises have once again been cancelled due to mechanical problems with RSS Discovery; such cancellations can seriously undermine grant-funded projects and damage the careers of associated fixed-term researchers.

  9.  Each of our research ships requires provision of a full range of technical capabilities (eg swath bathymetry, ice-breaking capacity) so that technical issues with single ships do not cause disproportional and/or long-term disruption to research programmes. At present there is very limited flexibility if a particular ship becomes unavailable. Together, these factors threaten our competitiveness at an international level.

  10.  The Federation therefore recommends that funding of the UK fleet is revised, and that its remit is expanded to include more speculative projects and those that add to baseline data on biodiversity. If properly resourced and managed, this would allow adequate support of both short-term and longer term research projects. In addition, the nature, location and usage of other items of expensive technology sought in order to enhance the UK's oceanic sciences needs to be carefully reviewed, preferably in collaboration with our international partners.

RESEARCH AND SKILLS BASE IN THE UK'S MARINE SCIENCE

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

  11.  We will address these issues in particular detail, as they reflect broad concerns already identified by the Federation as being of especially high priority within the UK's biosciences base (indeed, we are anxious to see the Science and Technology Committee directly address these issues via an explicit enquiry). Specifically, we wish to highlight:

    (a)  the erosion of the research, education and skills base in whole-organism biology in general and taxonomy in particular, especially in the university sector; and

    (b)  the present unwillingness of virtually all funding bodies to support the long-term research projects that provide essential data-sets for enabling science such as taxonomy and environmental monitoring.

That little effort is presently being made by government to remedy these widely recognised declines appears to us extraordinary in the wake of valid concerns expressed the House of Lords Select Committee review of the UK's systematic biology base (What on Earth, 2002) and the unprecedented political impact of the Stern report on climate change (December 2006).

Research Base

  12.  Long-term data gathering has proven especially vulnerable to funding cuts (often management-driven) through the last two decades. Arguments commonly offered in an attempt to justify such decisions include: (a) sufficient knowledge has already been gathered, (b) these are "stamp collecting" exercises rather than hypothesis-testing science, (c) only hypothesis-testing will bring external funding into the organisation, and (d) the expertise needed to maintain such programmes is no longer available. Yet, for example, gathering time-series data (especially those of phytoplankton, so critical for nutrient cycling), offer the strongest available biotic signals documenting climate change. The Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) in particular has highlighted substantial changes in marine populations due to temperature changes and regime shifts, and similar patterns have been found in the freshwater data-sets from Lake Windermere. Indeed, the much-discussed closure of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology's Windermere labs remains widely viewed as an astonishing risk for NERC to elect to take with an internationally renowned long-term monitoring project—one that provides an essential yardstick for its marine equivalents. Similarly, NERC elected to close long-term data collection at the Marine Biology Association in the 1980s, though fortunately the CPR team made redundant from that programme was later resurrected as SAHFOS.

  13.  This problem is compounded by the fact that new initiatives are much more readily funded than ongoing projects. For example, it is far easier to obtain funds for establishing a database than for populating it with data, analysing those data, or archiving the outcomes.

  14.  The increasing pre-eminence of grant-winning in the RAE has all but expunged enabling research (eg taxonomy and biodiversity assessment) from the university sector, leaving it in the hands of a few research institutes and a few remaining marine/oceanographic laboratories. For example, botanical taxonomic expertise (and, to a degree, training) has become concentrated in the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew and Edinburgh, and even then relatively little of their research has a marine focus. Moreover, each receives the bulk of its funding from a different government department (DCMS, Defra, SEERAD), discouraging strategic cooperation. Connectivity between these organisations and the HE sector is particularly desirable, but the potential is weakened by the current paucity of organismal researchers in the university system. Remedying this damaging asymmetry is a high policy priority for the Federation.

  15.  It is still often argued that the majority of species in the oceans have already been described, and so can be identified with relative ease. This has been an extremely damaging myth, as it has been used as a key argument in favour of downgrading (indeed, virtually abandoning) exploratory sampling of the kind pursued by Challenger and its noteworthy successors.

  16.  Thus, many of the projects designed to understand the functioning of oceanic ecosystems—an essential pre-requisite for addressing climate change—are obliged to collect data at worryingly coarse levels of resolution. Both crude functional categories and higher taxa (eg families, genera) are artificial entities that consequently are unlikely to share similar genetic (and thus ecological) properties. Analyses that focus on the species level or below (eg on particular genotypes within species) are far more likely to generate reliable information, not only on the species themselves but also on the critical inter-specific interactions that are the crux of oceanic communities (eg the planktonic microalgae and their protistan parasites and grazers, which have a profound role in carbon cycling).

  17.  Even a knowledge of the number of species present in an oceanic ecosystem (for example, gathered via increasingly automated DNA bar-coding technology) will not allow adequate understanding of climate change without understanding the inherent properties of those species. For example, several species of northerly distribution might be replaced in UK waters by corresponding species of more southerly distribution; the overall biodiversity of the ecosystem would not have changed, but its degree of integration and likely responses to further climate change would probably be significantly altered.

  18.  It is also important that lacunae in our current knowledge of particular ecosystems are identified, so that informed decisions can be taken as to whether they should be rectified. For example, at least for relatively poorly known taxonomic groups such as lichens and microalgae, there is recognition that the coastal supratidal (lichens) and subtidal (algae) zones are less well understood than the intertidal coastal zone and the plankton of the deep oceans. They are estimated to be especially biodiverse in the UK, and to be rich in rare and/or endemic species, though data remain weak and the subtidal zone remains a particular challenge to detailed, quantitative sampling. As well as intrinsic biological interest, these zones have practical relevance with regard to coastal land use (eg tourism, fish farming).

Skills Base

  19.  Arguments that enabling research disciplines such as taxonomy and environmental monitoring are not directly hypothesis testing have led to near-complete withdrawal of responsive-mode grant funding from these areas, particularly from the UK's research councils. This greatly reduced the number (and increased the average age) of research practitioners in these areas, which has in turn eliminated qualified academics available to train students. Students then found such courses taught be active researchers unavailable, and simultaneously recognised that finding employment in organismal biology was becoming ever more challenging. Consequently, the UK now faces a dearth of such individuals coinciding with a greater need for them in high-priority research areas such as climate change. To some extent, the collapse of our "informal apprenticeship" in organismal biology can be remedied by important organismal biologists trained elsewhere, but their mean residence time in the UK is relatively low. What is clear is that reversing this negative feedback loop will require (a) far more commitment than is currently being shown and (b) a minimum period of a generation (ie 20 years).

  20.  The downstream consequences of these skills gaps can be profound. For example, the British Lichen Society reports that only five tenured comparative lichenologists remain in the UK: one in the university sector and four in the museums/botanic gardens sector. Only one of these individuals primarily studies coastal habitats. The bulk of the UK's lichenological research is now conducted by unfunded amateurs and retired professionals, with some support from a handful of independent consultants.

  21.  Biology-oriented students passing through the increasingly prescribed route of GCSE—A-level—BSc are not exposed to the practical skills that are essential for planning or conducting marine work in general and its organismal (ecology and systematics) aspects in particular. Even at undergraduate level, laboratory exercises are increasingly mass-produced or virtual, and field courses have become less frequent and less challenging. The main drivers of these changes are minimising staff and other costs and, to a lesser degree, increasingly stringent Heath and Safety constraints, rather than lack of demand from students. The consequences of these "rationalisations" are that UK-trained students are not only surprisingly ignorant about the biology and diversity of organisms but also of the techniques and technology used to study them. Even simpler skills such as use of a compound microscope can no longer be expected. Hence, postgraduate courses in these areas are now obliged to provide introductory courses in skills such as morphology and anatomy that would have been taken as read two decades ago. Employers in growth areas such as environmental impact assessment and ecological microbiology also routinely complain about the low skills base of applicants.

  22.  Consequently, researchers desiring practical training rely increasingly heavily on independent (and generally under-resourced) organisations such as the Field Studies Council and Marine Biology Association, and on learned societies such as the British Phycological Society. The importance of these courses is given even greater emphasis by periodic closures of marine laboratories and field centres (eg the closure of the Port Erin Marine laboratory by Liverpool University).

  23.  Overall, there is a clear need for a properly funded national or preferably international (at least EU-wide) strategy to develop and maintain taxonomic expertise across the range of marine organisms. At present, there is no coordinated strategic planning.

MARINE SITES OF SPECIAL SCIENTIFIC INTEREST [SSSIS]

[The] use of marine sites of special scientific interest

  Note:  We find the wording of this statement ambiguous, being unclear whether the committee is questioning the value of establishing marine SSSIs or simply asking whether they are of practical use or benefit to the UK. We also note that this is a narrower topic than the others identified by the Parliamentary STC.

  24.  It is not widely known that SSSI status can extend only to the intertidal region, and therefore is not applicable to the vast majority of the marine environment. The marine environment is instead protected primarily by Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). Although three "marine reserves" have also so far been designated (Lundy, Skomer and Strangford Lough), the level of protection afforded by marine reserve status is far below that afforded by SSSI status (eg it does not even prevent trawling activity, which is demonstrably highly destructive to the benthic fauna).

  25.  While recognising that much of the British coastline has been scheduled at a European level under RAMSAR or SAC, we note that the protection offered by EC designation is much weaker than that provided by the UK's SSSI status. Furthermore, there are insufficient funds to monitor, assess and report on the SACs already designated, nor for the agencies responsible for SACs to collaborate with specialist researchers whose input is desperately required to facilitate our knowledge and understanding of these often fragile ecosystems.

  26.  Species lists for most SSSIs, SACs and marine reserves cover only a small proportion of the major groups of organisms present (for example, lichens figure in the species lists for only one coastal NNR, Bardsey Island). Moreover, if species are not specifically mentioned when a site is scheduled they are, by definition, excluded from the management agreement, and individual site schedules are difficult to rewrite when new species are found.

  27.  Even when species lists have been compiled, our knowledge of the biological properties of most of these species remains rudimentary. In many cases their mating systems have not been documented, their larvae described, or their means of dispersal determined. Such ignorance confounds attempts to assess the conservation needs of individual species.

  28.  Extending the discussion to ecological interactions, information on connectivity and ecological functioning of the biotas of particular reserves is even poorer, to the extent that it is not yet clear whether the current conservation designations are likely to have any useful impact in the longer term. Funding for long-term monitoring and for collaboration with specialist researchers outside the agencies are essential to reverse this situation.

  29.  In summary, the value, "use" and long-term health of the UK's marine SSSIs, SACs and marine reserves are likely to depend heavily on the larger scale research that is discussed under earlier topics (and that is presumably the main theme of this inquiry).

CLIMATE CHANGE AS THE PRE-EMINENT DRIVER OF CURRENT OCEANIC STUDIES

[The inquiry] will include study of how marine science is being used to advance knowledge of climate change in the oceans

  30.  The Federation can only applaud the greatly increased profile accorded by the scientific and especially the political communities to climate change issues during the last few months. We recognise that the UK has some major internationally renowned centres in this area (eg Environmental Sciences at UEA, Tyndall Centre, Southampton Oceanography Centre), and that key funding bodies such as NERC have taken responsibility for much of the relevant research in the UK.

  31.  The Federation has listed under earlier headings several specific actions that it believes are critical to making successful the UK's attempts to understand, predict and ultimately manage climate change. Future research will need to be based on far better resolved data. We place particular emphasis on determining the organismal composition of phytoplankton communities world-wide, though with a specific responsibility for documenting their composition in British waters.

  32.  We would, however, end on a cautionary note. The growing focus on this topical, socially and economically relevant, and increasingly well-funded research area should not be allowed to further distort the UK's marine research base. Vigour and cohesion can be achieved only by maintaining various critical balances—between organismal and molecular, evolutionary and ecological, macroscopic and microscopic, nearshore and deepwater, applied and blue-skies. Imbalances and asymmetries that have developed through the last two decades have helped constrain the speed and impact of the UK's response to climate change.

January 2007





 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 18 October 2007