Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 24

Submission from Professor Gideon Henderson, University of Oxford



  This paper expresses concern that both agenda-setting and funding of UK Marine Research is overly focused on the NERC research centres and does not sufficiently involve the university sector. This focus is explicit in NERC marine sciences policy, but does not allow NERC to best meet its overall strategic goals. This focus impairs the ability of the UK to recognize strategically important research, and to conduct this research. It weakens the UK's international standing as a country involved in marine research. And it limits the training of the next generation of marine scientists, hindering future prospects of UK excellence in marine science.

  (i)  UK Marine Reseach funding is largely administered by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). A large portion of this funding is spent in seven UK marine research centres. These centres bid directly to NERC for their funding in a system from which the university sector is excluded. The most recent bid has resulted in the £120 million Oceans-2025 initiative which outlines strategic marine research for the UK over the next five years.

  (ii)  Point 1 of the executive summary of the Oceans-2025 document states: "NERC has national responsibility for supporting science concerning the Earth system. To fulfil this remit, NERC funds issue led strategic research in its Centres and associated bodies, and curiosity-driven `blue-skies' research, mostly in universities but also in its own organizations". This statement explicitly excludes UK universities from involvement in issue-led strategic marine research. If pursued effectively, this policy would prevent any NERC funding for strategic research from going to the university sector.

  (iii)  In truth, research into strategically important areas such as climate change and sustainability does occur in the university sector, but must be funded from limited "blue-skies" funding (which is intended for less strategic issues), or from a small number of focused NERC Thematic Programmes which cover only some of the strategically important areas. In the future, a small portion of strategic funding (7.5% of funding in seven of 10 themes) will also be available to the universities through Oceans-2025. While this is a step in the right direction, it represents a small fraction of UK marine funding, and is explicitly for collaboration with the centres, leaving them in control of the direction and realization of the research.

  (iv)  The university sector is excluded not only from strategic funding, but also from setting of strategic goals. The Ocean-2025 document was prepared in secrecy without public consultation nor the open-involvement of marine researchers from the university sector. Requests for draft copies of the Oceans-2025 document were turned down during the writing of this important strategic document. The resulting document has therefore not had direct input from those with marine expertise in the university sector. In addition, university scientists planning other marine research (for instance within the NERC thematic programmes) were unable to ensure that this research was complementary to that contained in Oceans-2025. This lack of involvement of university researchers limits the scope and quality of NERCs strategic marine research spending.

  (v)  Exclusion of the university sector from significant portions of UK marine research also has a major impact on the training of future marine scientists. Lack of funding to the university sector inevitably leads to a smaller number of active university researchers. Although most of the NERC marine centres have connections to a university and are therefore able to offer training and education, none of these universities is amongst the internationally high-ranked UK research universities. Many of the most intellectually gifted students are attracted to these high-ranked UK universities so, as marine research has decreased at these universities, so has the quality of newly trained marine scientists in the UK.

  (vi)  Lack of competition for strategic research funding harms the overall quality of marine research in the UK. The major research centre—The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton—has a reputation a long-way behind that of its US equivalent—the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). Researchers at WHOI continually have to prove the high quality of their work by competing with researchers from other sectors for funding. Lack of such competition in the UK means that NOCS has no such competitive edge.

  (vii)  In summary, I argue for a revision to NERC policy. Scientists at UK universities should be more actively involved in setting marine science strategy in the future, and should be able to bid on an equal footing to researchers at the NERC centres for funding to pursue this strategic research. In a small number of areas the centres are the natural home of marine work (eg long-term monitoring, maintenance of large ships and similar infrastructure). In most research areas, however, the universities have complementary expertise. Allowing them to compete for UK marine research funding to a much greater degree would improve the overall quality of UK marine research, and enhance the education and training of the next generation of UK marine scientists.

  (viii)  These are my personal views, but I believe they are shared by other marine scientists in the university sector. The activities of the Select Committee inquiry have not been widely advertised in the community and I have only very recently learned of today's deadline. As a consequence I have not had time to seek formal endorsement for these views from scientists at other universities. From past discussions, however, I expect that marine researchers in other leading UK research establishments would share many of the opinions expressed in this document.

January 2007

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