Submission from the University of Plymouth
The University of Plymouth Marine Institute
is a multidisciplinary institution incorporating some 160 researchers
covering a wised range of interests. Our work is focused on catchments
to coastal seas where the primary impacts of economic development
are felt. We are one of a very few institutions in the country
that undertake studies of coupled social and ecological systems
in the marine environment as well as providing science for resolving
many practical problems in our shelf seas and estuaries. We have
over 1,500 students enrolled in marine-related course and as such
are one of the largest providers of marine education in Europe.
We are acutely aware of the high quality of
current research on the oceans and are pleased to contribute to
it in close association with our partner institutions in Plymouth
and beyond. We recognise that this is quite poorly funded in comparison
with other developed countries (eg Germany, the USA) and that
this has required a focus on excellence in order to maintain international
standing. However, we are concerned that inadequate attention
is being given to the need for more joined-up thinking in research
that will meet national and international needs for managing human
activities and rationally protecting and exploiting marine systems.
This is partly a consequence of the disciplinary nature of our
research councils and fragmentation of governance of the UK and
Europe's marine environment.
Both globally and locally, marine resources
are largely exploited close to their biological limits and often
beyond them. There are increasing pressures on seabeds as a source
of raw materials or from destructive fishing practices and there
is strong early evidence of ocean acidification, the "globalisation"
of species and occurrence of harmful algal blooms. Most of these
issues are not new to science and our understanding of them has
improved dramatically in the past decade. More worrying though
is that this scientific knowledge has not been translated into
effective action to correct these problems.
There has been a growing realisation that this
failure of governance is associated with deficient information
on how human and ecological systems are coupled. Again this reflects
the disciplinary nature of our knowledge base with social and
natural science compartmentalised and using distinct technical
language and approach. In order to bridge the gap, numerous bodies
nationally and internationally have adopted a new management paradigmthe
"ecosystem approach"that proposes the management
of human activities within the context and spatial and temporal
limits of a coupled social and ecological system.
Despite this major step forward in thinking,
our institutions, including research bodies, have been slow to
provide the knowledge base to underpin it and apply it to today's
problems. Funding for interdisciplinary science, whether "big
picture" or small scale, is relatively poor, perhaps because
such science is considered second grade, not well received (or
classified) in the academic Research Assessment Exercise and falls
between research council stools (there are some smaller interdisciplinary
In this sense, we compare very unfavourably
with countries such as the USA or Sweden, where interdisciplinary
science is often prized. Unsurprisingly, much of the emerging
knowledge base on how to develop and implement joined-up approaches
is coming from these countries and, generally speaking, the best
publications (eg in Nature and Science) are driven
by these scientists. We are helped in the UK by having positions
in international panels that provide access to peers from leading
institutions but it is unfortunate that our own capacity in this
field is comparatively weak.
A similar situation emerged for renewable energy
technologies. A lack of investment in R & D in the UK has
led us to be trailers rather than leaders. Hopefully this situation
will change with the development of the Wave Hub in Cornwall.
This development has already triggered new research capacity that
our own institute is beginning to benefit from.
In the UK, international collaboration is essential
for the development of our work. Without this we would have little
or no interdisciplinary capacity.
As providers of graduates to fill the UK's skill
base we are keenly aware of the need to be innovative. We value
the link between research and training that is at the core of
our university system. We are currently engaged in co-developing
a new marine research centre in Plymouth where four institutions
(The University of Plymouth Marine Institute, The Marine Biological
Association, the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science
and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory) will co-locate in order to
improve the impact of their research and provide a better bridge
between training and research at all levels. We are often frustrated
that there is such limited funding to enable skills progression
to take place. We are desperately short of funding for PhD students
and it is at this level that we are seeing slippage in excellence
in comparison with other countries.
The point concerning marine sites of special
scientific interest is very important to us. As part of the ecosystem
approach (and of the UK's commitments to the WSSD/Johannesburg
process), we should be developing a network of marine protected
areas in order to protect global biodiversity and encourage sustainable
use of the sea. This has not occurred despite clear scientific
evidence of the benefits (undisputed benefits to biodiversity).
It is very difficult to understand long term processes around
the coasts of the UK because of the intermittent nature of the
research effort; valuable time series have been lost because of
shifting high profile research interests. Furthermore, research
on these sites has rarely integrated human and natural sciences.
We need a consistent monitoring system, advised by scientists
and stakeholders working together and communicating their findings
to the public. This is also one facet of practical implementation
of the ecosystem approach where university-based research could
have a key role in the future.
The University of Plymouth Marine Institute
would be happy to discuss the issues summarised here in greater
detail and we are pleased that this inquiry is taking place.