Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum 27

Submission from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton

  1.  The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to this inquiry. NOCS has also contributed to the responses provided by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and to the joint response from the Directors of UK Marine funded laboratories collaborating in the new Oceans2025 strategic research programme.

  2.  The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (formerly Southampton Oceanography Centre), is a collaborative Centre owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the University of Southampton. NOCS is based at a purpose-built waterside campus in Southampton, and is home to some 520 research scientists, lecturing support and seagoing staff as well over 700 undergraduate and postgraduate students. A statement of the NOCS mission is provided in Annex 1.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  3.  The key points that we draw to the attention of the Committee in this submission are:

    —  The growing awareness of the key role of the oceans in the climate system and in relation to natural resources.

    —  The need for greater capacity (ships) to sustain UK sea-going marine science.

    —  The strong participation of the UK in international marine science.

    —  The challenge we face in terms of recruiting and retaining key staff from overseas competition (particularly Germany).

    —  The tendency for progressive "self organisation" of marine science (nationally, within Europe and globally) around the key focus of developing sustained ocean observing systems.

    —  The major opportunity to engage science and wider society through the medium of the oceans.

BACKGROUND

  4.  The marine environment is fundamental to earth system processes and to developing solutions to pressing societal needs. The oceans cover 70% of the earth's surface and 97% by volume of its biosphere. The upper 10 m of the oceans have as much mass per unit area as the whole of the atmosphere and the upper few hundred meters of the ocean contain as much heat. Because the oceans are the cradle of life on earth, biodiversity is greatest there (the only environment on earth in which all phyla are present). Ocean sediments are the library of past changes on earth, and so hold vital clues to the future. The ocean is the largest reservoir on earth of mobile carbon and is the earth's principal solar heat store, regulating both day-to-day weather and climate. The human population is growing fastest in coastal regions and sea level rise poses the single greatest threat resulting from global climate change in the 21st century.

  5.  The oceans are fascinating and inspiring with insatiable public appetite and interest in the sea. The oceans thus provide a natural common medium for the engagement of wider society with science.

  6.  Fundamentally, Marine Science is

    —  interdisciplinary in nature but critically dependent on key skills from core science disciplines (mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and engineering);

    —  concerned with processes operating over a vast range of space- and time-scales (local to global; milliseconds to millennia);

    —  heavily reliant on national and international collaborations;

    —  critically dependent on major infrastructure and logistics support (eg ships, satellites) required to operate in the oceans;

    —  technology dependent (most major advances in marine science have stemmed from new technologies enabling new measurements to be made);

    —  has a strong imperative (particularly in relation to climate change) to undertake sustained (decadal timescale) observations over ocean-basin and global scales; and

    —  increasingly viewed within a wider Earth System context (consisting of ocean, atmosphere, cryosphere, land surface, deep earth interior), with growing interest in the couplings between the ocean system and other earth system components.

1.  How marine science is being used to advance knowledge of the impact of climate change on the oceans

  7.  Given that the issue above is of particular interest to the Committee, we have set out in Appendix 2 a series of key research challenges that form part of the developing NOCS science strategy that we expect to publish in autumn 2007.  Our strategy will address the key science challenges of strategic importance to the UK, European and global communities over the next 20 years. This encompasses the broad canvas of ocean and earth science.

  8.  We concentrate in Appendix 2 on the challenges most directly related to the marine science remit of this inquiry. In particular it is noted that the Oceans are not merely impacted upon by climate change but in many respects the oceans regulate or control key processes involved in climate change. This is because the oceans are both a major store of heat and carbon and also play a key role in transporting these around the planet.

2.  Organisation and funding of UK marine science in the polar and non-polar regions

Organisation

  9.  The organisation of marine science in the UK has been described in the collective response of the Directors of the NERC funded marine Centres and in the submission by NERC.

  10.  A diverse set of ownership and governance arrangements exist within the Marine Research Centres. Nevertheless, there is strength in this diversity and the Centres work together cooperatively and in a coordinated way at the strategic level (eg development of the Oceans 2025 Programme www.oceans2025.org)

  11.  The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, as part of its refocused mission, has been given an explicit remit by NERC to act to facilitate coordination of marine science in an impartial and inclusive manner.

Funding (NERC)

  12.  The major funder of marine science in the UK is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which supports marine science through a variety of funding mechanisms ranging from studentships to responsive mode standard grants, consortium grants and strategic research programmes. NERC also supports major science infrastructure and facilities (eg ships, the national marine equipment pool, High Performance Computing) in support of the whole science community.

  13.  Within the context of paragraph 5 above, the ability of the UK to remain at the leading edge of marine science is crucially dependent on NERC's ability to be able to:

    —  continue its funding for innovative, curiosity driven "blue-skies" research by individuals and small teams through standard research grants—but crucially also to continue to complement this by long-term, big-team approaches to funding science (through strategic programmes, directed programmes and consortium grants). These complementary approaches are particularly important for Marine Science where wider critical mass and support through major infrastructure is key;

    —  support continued development of critical mass and facilities in the spread of key marine science disciplines within the UK, including through support for Marine Research Centres such as NOCS. No serious player in the field of oceanography world wide attempts to do so through reliance on its University sector alone and major oceanographic institutions are a feature of most of the major oceanographic nations;

    —  to contribute to nurturing the health of core disciplines (particularly mathematics and physics) essential to marine science, and to promote cross-over/conversion of students from these disciplines into marine science;

    —  Marine Science per se does not feature within the National Curriculum for schools and so awareness of the subject is low in terms of undergraduate recruitment. We note that marine science topics offer significant opportunities to "bring to life" core science disciplines at School level. In particular, at NOCS we have developed resources for ready use in the classroom in support of science classes (eg Oceans4Schools; classroom@sea);

    —  support funding for programmes of sustained scientific observation as part of national science capability and to find better ways to recognise and develop more effective synergies with the activities of operational observing agencies within the context of global scale ocean-observing networks;

    —  develop more strongly its approaches to support and facilitate participation of UK scientists in major international programmes including the European Framework Programmes;

    —  continue investment in major capital infrastructure and facilities for the support of marine science (particularly research ships); and

    —  increasingly recognise that the scale of investments in major infrastructure required over the coming decades (eg cabled sea-floor observatories) will require cooperation at the European Level such as envisaged by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).

  14.  There is increasing recognition that there needs to be a shift of focus of marine science towards the Arctic Seas where responses to climate change are expected to be most pronounced and where the impacts (ice melt, changes in marine ecosystems, and the opening of new exploitation opportunities/risks in Arctic waters) will have most immediate impact on the UK. The International Polar Year (IPY) provides an opportunity to begin this refocusing. The UK will need to develop its particular contribution in this field of research where other nations have more experience and resources.

  15.  The issue of ocean acidification has risen rapidly up the scientific and policy agenda, representing "the other half" of the anthropogenic CO2 emission problem. Whilst changes in pH can be predicted with considerable accuracy, the impacts of these changes in the marine environment (particularly on marine ecosystems) remain uncertain but potentially very severe. Consequently we encourage a greater shift of funding resources towards this issue in future. We note that the importance of ocean acidification has emerged from the field of palaeooceanography. This field of science is making profound impact on our understanding of the earth system.

  16.  Other important sources of funding for Marine Science are through the European Commission through its framework programmes, from UK Government Departments and from industry (particularly offshore hydrocarbon and related businesses). In terms of the EU Framework programmes Marine Science is not an explicit topic but is viewed as a cross cutting issue pervading many topic areas.

3.  The role of the UK internationally, and international collaboration in marine sciences

  17.  NOCS believes that continued membership of large international research programmes in earth and marine science is vital. A selection of some of the international projects in which NOCS participates is provided in Apnex 3. Some of the most highly significant participations by us are described below.

  18.  NOCS involvement and leadership within the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP and the former ODP), the world's largest earth and ocean science research programme, involving more than 20 countries (budget <£1,000M), is among the most significant from any institution in the world. NOCS has provided 4 Co-Chief Scientists and 21 others have sailed as shipboard scientists on a range of drilling cruises. Leadership is also demonstrated by significant involvement in 20 drilling proposals currently under evaluation by the IODP science advisory structure. One proposal has led to a scheduled drilling leg, and five others on which NOCS scientists are leading proponents are highly considered with a strong chance of success. NOCS scientists have co-authored 11 Nature and Science papers from this ODP/IODP work since 2004.  UK involvement in IODP is facilitated by membership of the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) together with 15 other European countries and Canada. UK scientists are engaged within IODP through the development of drilling proposals as well as through research on the cores recovered, at an intensity that far exceeds (~4x) the UK's financial contribution to the international program. This enables scientists to direct the IODP to undertake projects of the greatest relevance to UK environmental science priorities and to deliver on key government research areas including ocean climate dynamics, rapid climate change, extreme, climates, biogeochemistry and the carbon cycle, gas hydrates, and geohazards. It is essential that the UK maintains its commitment to IODP.

  19.  The increases in both temporal and spatial resolution required to resolve processes of abrupt climate change during the last few glacial-interglacial cycles can most effectively be achieved through international marine science consortia such as the International Marine Past Global Change Study (IMAGES). To enable continued leadership of the UK to continue in the critical data-driven disciplines working towards an understanding of abrupt global climate change, it is imperative that the UK continues to support the IMAGES programme and the ensuing research in a structured and substantial manner, as part of a strategic funding programme. This would complement deeper-time initiatives through IODP as well as modelling studies, and will deliver an essential broad-based understanding of the magnitudes, rates, and processes of climate change.

  20.  NOCS participates in numerous EU Framework Programmes and networks of excellence. Notable is the Hotspot Ecosystem Research on the Margins of European Seas (HERMES) Integrated Programe which is coordinated from NOCS and consists of 45 partners including nine small companies across 15 countries (one of the largest Marine Science projects in Europe) Funded by the European Commission, HERMES brings together expertise in biodiversity, geology, sedimentology, physical oceanography, microbiology and biogeochemistry so that the generic relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning can be understood. Study sites extend from the Arctic to the Black Sea and include biodiversity hotspots such as cold seeps, cold-water coral mounds and reefs, canyons and anoxic environments, and communities found on open slopes. These important systems require urgent study because of their possible biological fragility, unique genetic resources, global relevance to carbon cycling and susceptibility to global change and human impact.

  21.  The UK hosts a significant number of International Project Offices (IPO) for major international programmes. At NOCS the most significant of these is the IPO for the CLIVAR Programme (Climate Variability and Predictability) which is part of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). The hosting of International Project Offices provides the UK with visibility and influence internationally. We believe such activity should be viewed as integral to the leadership role that the UK seeks to provide internationally in science and the environment. Hosting of IPOs usually requires some degree of subsidy by the host nation/institution and NERC continues to be generally supportive of the hosting of IPOs.

  22.  NOCS is a member of a number of bodies in which Marine Centres are represented institutionally at international level. These include:

    —  The Partnership for Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO) which is made up of over 25 of the world's leading Oceanographic Institutions (of which NOCS was a founding member). POGO is playing an increasingly prominent role in making the case for in situ ocean observations to be incorporated into and viewed as essential to the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) being developed under the auspices of the Group on Earth Observation (GEO).

    —  The European Science Foundation (ESF) Marine Board. A recent report (November 2006) of this Board "Navigating the Future III" provides an excellent synthesis of perspectives on marine science and technology in Europe (www.esf.org/marineboard)

    —  NOCS together with IFREMER (France) are associate members of KDM (the German Marine Science Consortium).

    —  The University of Southampton is a founder member of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN)—a partnership of leading institutions in the UK, US, China and Europe, which are committed to working together in research and education in rapidly moving areas of global significance. Currently around 80 groups are engaged in collaborative activity, including joint research, joint distributed learning courses and staff and student exchanges across many different subject areas. Postgraduate researchers can participate in these activities and may seek funding for research visits to the University's international partners through the WUN Global Exchange Programme. NOCS is a site at which WUN distributed seminars may be viewed, enabling audiences to interact internationally.

  23.  NOCS hosts the secretariat for the UK delegation to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the current President of the IOC is a retired member of NOCS staff (Dr. David Pugh).

  24.  Staff within NOCS have worked on aspects of maritime territory delimitation for a number of years and, along with the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, provide all technical advice to Her Majesty's Government on limits to UK waters. Of particular interest to coastal states is the determination of the outer limits of the continental shelf where it extends beyond 200 nautical miles from baseline, defined according to Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). NOCS runs an annual international training programme for representatives of nations wishing to develop their maritime territory.

  25.  In terms of developing future international collaborations, we have a number of links with China (both Universities and Research Institutions). Most of these are in the form of information exchange visits, though we have several PhD students from China. We would welcome the opportunity, however, to develop more substantive project links in due course.

  26.  As part of our role to manage the NERC multipurpose oceanographic research vessels (RRS James Cook and RRS Discovery) we participate in international ship-time barter arrangements.

4.  Support for marine science including provision and development of technology and engineering

Support for Marine Science

  27.  We welcome

    —  the investment in the recently delivered multipurpose research vessel RRS James Cook which replaces RRS Charles Darwin;

    —  the announcement in autumn 2006 by Government of the earmarking of funds for replacement of the aging RRS Discovery by a new vessel in 2011.

  28.  The investment in a second ocean-going multipurpose research vessel to replace Discovery is essential to maintain the UK's position in oceanography, particularly in research relating to the ocean's role in the climate system. The UK's ownership of these vessels provides significant leverage through international ship barter arrangements giving UK scientists global reach and making for very efficient deployment of research vessels.

  29.  We are, however, concerned that a fleet of just two multi-purposes research ships (plus the Antarctic/polar vessel James Clark Ross) represents the minimum research ship capacity for the UK and that high-quality science demand is outstripping ship capacity.

  30.  There is concern that coastal and shelf sea marine science is currently compromised by lack of a research vessel since NERC's multi-purpose fleet was reduced from three to two ships when RRS Challenger was taken out of service in 2002.  The Fisheries Agencies FRS Aberdeen and Cefas do have vessels with coastal sea capacity but these are difficult to access by the wider NERC science community on account of their full commitment to statutory monitoring duties.

Development of technology

  31.  NOCS has major capability for technology development and deployment at sea. The NERC Marine Sector Review of 2005 identified the need to maintain critical mass in technology development across the UK.

  32.  As part of Oceans 2025 NOCS has secured significant additional investment in its technology programme and ensured that technology is more coordinated across the NERC Marine Centres.

  33.  Nevertheless the UK investment in marine technology remains relatively low compared to other nations, particularly Japan, USA, France and Germany.

Future Infrastructure

  34.  Future Marine Science will depend heavily on major infrastructure for sustained observational networks (eg cabled sea-floor observatories) which the UK science base will not be able to support in isolation.

    —  It is essential, therefore, that the UK rapidly engages with initiatives in Europe that afford the opportunity to work collaboratively to share the costs of such infrastructure. For this reason NOCS is keen that the UK engages in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). Of the 35 projects currently on the ESFRI roadmap we are particularly interested in EURO-ARGO (European contribution to the global profiling float programme) and EMSO (European Multidisciplinary Seafloor Observatory).

    —  It is important that science funders (eg NERC) and operational agencies (eg Met Office) work more closely together on global ocean observing systems. There is currently a gulf between operational funding for observational infrastructure and that for science. However, as science moves to sustained observation as a key tool in addressing decadal-scale change, the observing infrastructures will increasingly need to be developed with dual science and operational use in mind. Many parts of the global ocean observing system (eg Argo) continue to be supported by research funding which is unsustainable long term. The problem is common to many countries but there is an opportunity for the UK to take a lead in finding a solution to this problem which is a significant barrier to developing a sustained ocean observing system. The Intergovernmental body (Group on Earth Observation, GEO) is a promising forum for taking this issue forward. However GEO operates by voluntary means at present. Whilst the UK (via Defra) supports as a priority its immediate statutory and international obligations in coastal waters (eg requirements via OSPAR), its commitment to contributing to the international effort global observing appears more fragile.

5.  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

  35.  NOCS through the University of Southampton is the leading UK institution in the education of the next generation of physical and biological scientists in ocean and earth system science.

  36.  We have recently diversified our marine science Masters (MSc and MRes) provision. We now offer courses in Marine Resource Management, Marine Environment and Resources, Marine Science, Policy and Law, Ocean Remote Sensing, Engineering in the Coastal Environment, Marine Geology and Geophysics, as well as our well-established MSc course in Oceanography. We have concentrated new Masters courses in areas of strategic skills shortages in the UK. While numbers are increasing, we feel that research councils need to be more responsive to supporting new Masters courses with studentships in order to accelerate the supply of skilled graduates. In general in marine science we feel that the number of Masters studentships offered by research councils to support students in marine science is inadequate.

  37.  One particular issue of concern at undergraduate level in ocean and earth science is the absence of recognition by HEFCE of the extra costs of fieldwork which is essential to train scientists of the future. Organisations that accredit degrees in relevant disciplines (Geological Society of London and IMarEST) require a fieldwork component to degrees. This fieldwork is essential to ensure the continued supply of graduates for industry as well as PhD students with the correct skills. The current funding regime results in fieldwork in ocean and earth science being squeezed, and this is something that HEFCE needs to rectify.

  38.  There is a complete absence of applications from Masters students from new-accession states to the EU, and we wonder whether the UK Government should provide an enabling programme in marine science.

  39.  There are currently 161 PhD students enrolled within the Graduate School of NOCS (85 UK, other EU 35, Non-EU 21) and on average 30-35 PhD students graduate each year. We have relatively few students from outside Europe, and while there are large numbers of high-calibre international students that we would like to recruit, finding funding for these students remains a major issue.

  40.  A key current problem in the UK marine science community is the recruitment and retention of scientific staff at all levels. There is substantial competition from German and American research institutes. These institutes are much better funded than in the UK generally and are becoming increasingly aggressive in their targeting of individuals within UK institutions and NOCS in particular.

  41.  Retention and recruitment is difficult mainly because of the gulf in funding between marine science funding in Germany and the UK. While on an individual basis, salary supplementation is possible, it is not possible under the current system, to guarantee adequate access to science ship time. This issue needs to tackle this urgently if marine science and technology is to continue to be competitive.

6.  Use of marine sites of specific scientific interest

  42.  Taking this to include also marine protected areas nationally and internationally, we are concerned that deep water trawling continues to destroy sites where there is still not a full understanding of what these sites contain and their scientific and ecological importance.

  43.  Of particular concern is the destruction of deep cold water coral reefs. The EU funded HERMES project is an international, multidisciplinary research programme coordinated by NOCS which is investigating Europe's deep marine ecosystems and their environment (see paragraph 19). These important systems require urgent study because of their possible biological fragility, unique genetic resources, global relevance to carbon cycling and susceptibility to global change and human impact.

  44.  We are also concerned that this implication of designation of sites, as set out in the Marine Bill consultation might actually inhibit the undertaking of research in these sites, perhaps by prohibiting the operation of research vessels or platforms in particular areas or at specific times. Full access for well planned scientific research needs to be built in to the designation and operating conditions on a site by site basis.

CONCLUSIONS

  45.  The oceans are a key regulator of the Earth's climate system and have a crucial role to play in the provision of natural resources (energy, minerals and food).

  46.  The need for much higher levels of national and international collaboration and coordination in marine science is becoming progressively evident. Over and above the long-standing tradition of scientific collaborations, there is evidence of progressive institutional "self-organisation" or the Marine Science Community at

    —  UK national level (eg the Oceans 2025 research programme, National Centre for Ocean Forecasting).

    —  European level (ESF Marine Board, KDM).

    —  International level (POGO).

  47.  This "self organisation" trend (which is largely focussed around the challenge of sustained global ocean observing) perhaps points to a weakness in existing institutional structures for coordination. An important UK initiative in this regards has been the formation of the National Centre for Ocean Forcasting (NCOF) which is a consortium of the Met Office, and four NERC-funded institutions (NOCS, POL, PML and ESSC). This seeks to develop more rapid uptake of ocean modeling advances into operational simulation systems.

  48.  We emphasise the following areas of risk to the UK's international competitiveness in Marine Science

    —  the crucial importance of maintaining research ship capacity to sustain the UK's international competitiveness in marine science. The NERC fleet has progressively reduced from five to two multi-purpose research ships (excluding Antarctic vessels) over the past two decades. Two ocean-gong multi-purpose ships in minimum capacity and will struggle to support high quality science, especially in the face of the strategic need for ocean research in the coming decades;

    —  the challenges of recruitment and retention of key staff against stiff international competition (particularly Germany at present). The UK is viewed as a source of intellectual capital and favourable funding arrangements (including infrastructure) make other countries quite attractive. There have been successes recruiting into the UK from overseas. However, aspects of the German system in particular (eg pension arrangements), tend to lock academics into that system making them difficult to recruit into the UK;

    —  the UK will need to improve the agility of its research funding to enable it to make the necessary step changes in marine research required to address the increasingly growing recognition of massive impact of the oceans on global earth system and the opportunities for natural resource solutions to be found within the marine environment; and

    —  the need to rapidly evolve processes (and UK and international institutions if necessary) capable of sustaining long-term, multi-user programmes of in situ ocean observing which are at risk through over-reliance at present on research budgets to maintain them (even within operational agencies).

  49.  NOCS welcomes this timely inquiry into Marine Science by the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee and extends an invitation to the Committee to visit the National Oceanography Centre as part of its deliberations.

January 2007



 
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