Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 19

Submission from the University of Plymouth Marine Institute


  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 paradigm—the "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 programmes).

  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.

January 2007

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