Submission from Professor Gideon Henderson,
University of Oxford
A CALL FOR INCREASED INVOLVEMENT OF THE UNIVERSITY
SECTOR IN UK MARINE RESEARCH
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
(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
(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 centreThe National Oceanography Centre,
Southamptonhas a reputation a long-way behind that of its
US equivalentthe 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
(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.