Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 29

Submission from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is one of the UK's eight Research Councils. It funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. Its three strategic research priority areas are: Earth's life-support systems, climate change, and sustainable economies.

  2.  NERC's research and collaborative centres are listed in Annex 1. Details can be found at Annex 1 also defines the term "the marine centres" as used in this memorandum.

  3.  NERC's comments are based on input from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS), the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) and Swindon Office staff.[44]


  4.  Marine science makes a major contribution to meeting NERC's strategic aims, and comprises a significant proportion of NERC's responsive research. Following a review of the marine research sector in 2005, NERC Council invited the marine centres[45] to develop a single coordinated strategic marine research programme. The centres' proposal, "Oceans 2025", has recently been approved, and the new programme will particularly strengthen collaboration with other bodies and support for long-term monitoring. NERC invests heavily in providing facilities (including infrastructure such as ships) for marine research, and in supporting research studentships in marine science. It participates directly and/or through its research centres in a range of national, European and international marine research and monitoring coordination initiatives and programmes, including ship sharing. NERC expects marine science to have a high profile in its new strategy, and will continue to engage stakeholders in its strategic marine research planning , not least to ensure the relevance and uptake of its research outputs. Several examples are given of the contribution being made by NERC marine science to our understanding of the interaction between climate change and the marine environment.


  5.  NERC welcomes the Committee's decision to hold an inquiry into marine science in the polar and non-polar oceans, and the Committee's implicit recognition of the importance of marine science in improving our understanding of climate change.

  6.  Marine science makes major contributions in all three of NERC's current strategic priority areas, and will retain its importance when NERC's new strategy is adopted. It is also the basis of a significant proportion of NERC's responsive research projects. Many of NERC's marine science outputs find application in regulatory activities and policy making, for example in fisheries, flood-control and environmental protection. NERC also encourages commercialisation or other industrial application of its marine research and associated technology—see for example the Blue Microbe Knowledge Transfer Network.[46]


NERC research funding

  7.  NERC and its research and collaborative centres and associated marine research organisations have played a central role over several decades in, respectively, the funding and execution of marine science.[47] NERC also funds marine (and related) research in universities additional to those which host the collaborative centres; and in its Earth Observation (EO) Centres of Excellence.[48]

  8.  Scientific research funding falls into three categories:

    —  Responsive research is funded through grant schemes for scientists who propose ideas for projects independent of a directed call from NERC. Marine investment though these schemes averaged approximately £6.8 million per annum from 2000 to 2004, amounting to 16-22% of NERC's total responsive-mode budget over this period. The investment was higher in the second half of the period because of the introduction of consortium awards (multi-institute grants over £1 million), of which a further four have been awarded in the past year (Annex 2).

    —  Directed programmes (approximately £5-10 million per programme, generally over five years see Annex 3) address NERC's strategic priorities; they are theme-based and often link universities and NERC centres; some are co-funded by other organisations. NERC has run up to 12 programmes with a marine component since 2000. These include RAPID, a £20 million investment over seven years that aims to improve our ability to quantify the probability and magnitude of future climate change.

    —  Centre programmes: NERC funds strategic research programmes at its research and collaborative centres. Some funding information is available in NERC's Annual Reports.[49]

  9.  The strategic programmes of the marine centres are discussed in detail below (see Oceans 2025). Some information about the marine science in BGS and CEH is given at Annex 4, and BAS Southern Ocean science is discussed in BAS's separate submission. Annex 5 provides details of the relevance to NERC's marine science of the EO centres (especially the Centre for Observation of Air-Sea Interactions and Fluxes), and of the programmes of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The Oceans 2025 research programme

  10.  Until recently, the marine centres developed separate research programme proposals. However, following a review of the marine research sector in 2005, NERC Council invited them to develop a single coordinated strategic marine research programme. In response, the seven centres submitted a proposal for "Oceans 2025" in 2006 (see Annex 6). This programme reflects the national need for a more coordinated and cost-effective response to the challenges of a changing marine environment, and for greater support for long-term monitoring.

  11.  In late 2006, NERC awarded approximately £120 million to Oceans 2025 over five years,[50] which represents a modest uplift in total spend in this area. The strategic nature of the programme will enhance the research capabilities and facilities available for marine science, and Oceans 2025's new Strategic Ocean Funding Initiative (SOFI) opens up funds for universities and other partners to bid for, where the skills required are not available within the Oceans 2025 consortium.

  12.  Reaching agreement on a coordinated, cooperative and cross-disciplinary research programme of the scale and complexity of Oceans 2025 is an important step. The coordinated approach from the marine centres, with cooperation and input from other government agencies and departments, should allow the UK to further strengthen its record in national and international collaboration in marine science. Oceans 2025 will be critical to developing sustainable solutions for the management of marine resources, including food and energy, not least in the face of climate change.

  13.  The Oceans 2025 programme complements and integrates with the BAS research programme, and BGS's 2005-10 research programme, which contains a key marine element (focused on the seabed and subsurface).

Other marine research coordination in the UK

  14.  Beyond Oceans 2025, NERC's directed programmes also provide significant opportunities for national research coordination. Most are managed by a Steering Committee, of scientists and research users, and involve a full-time or part-time Science Coordinator. Responsive consortium projects are smaller but involve "internal" management to achieve coordination between participating research groups.

  15.  NERC works with the other research councils (especially the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)) to ensure coordination of research funding, including in interdisciplinary areas. Examples relevant to marine science include research into renewable energy technology, which is being addressed by the UK Energy Research Centre under the cross-Council "Torwards a Sustainable Energy Economy" programme; research into socio-economic aspects of climate change by the cross-Council Tyndall Centre, eg examining the contribution of marine transport to carbon dioxide emissions and the management of coasts in response to sea-level rise; joint funding of the Flood Risk Management Research Consortium (FRMRC);[51] and interaction between BBSRC's Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research and CEH regarding the impact of agricultural run-off on the marine environment.

  16.  NERC has bilateral discussions with relevant (including devolved) government departments and agencies and is making broad stakeholder engagement a priority in developing its new strategy. NERC engagement with other national bodies with marine research interests is also facilitated through the Environment Research Funders' Forum (ERFF) and the Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST).

  17.  NERC is also involved, through NOCS, PML, POL and the Environmental Systems Science Centre (another NERC collaborative centre) in the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting (NCOF),[52] a partnership with the Met Office.

  18.  NERC and Oceans 2025 are represented on the Government's Marine Assessment Policy Committee, which is leading the development of the UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS). The Committee is supported by the Marine Assessment and Reporting Group (MARG) and three evidence groups involving NERC's marine centres.

  19.  The BODC is a member of the Marine Data and Information Partnership (MDIP), a partnership of public and private sector organisations working to provide harmonised stewardship and access to marine data and information, and so facilitate improved management of the seas around the UK.


  20.  NERC participates, directly and through its research and collaborative centres, in European and international marine research activities in a number of ways. Further details are provided in Annex 7, but some activities are mentioned below.

  21.  NERC takes the UK lead in the main United Nations body for marine science, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, and participates in many IOC activities, including the Global Ocean Observing System and the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange Committee. The UK is also involved in international coordination of marine science via bodies such as the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR)—eg SAHFOS is represented—and the international Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR)—where BAS is a member.

  22.  NERC hosts several international project offices (IPOs), eg those of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme's Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC) and Surface-Ocean Lower-Atmosphere Study (SOLAS) programmes; and the International Polar Year (IPY). Through hosting these IPOs, and the involvement of researchers in international planning and coordination, the UK is able to help determine the agenda of these international projects, greatly enhancing their national value.

  23.  NERC also leads, coordinates or is a partner in various European Union networks of excellence and projects. Among them is MarinERA, a project funded by the EU Framework Programme 6 that brings together the leading Marine RTD funding organisations in 13 European Member States to improve the coordination of national and regional RTD activities. NERC is also a partner in the international Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS), and the Partnership for Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO).

  24.  Through its directed programmes (Annex 3) NERC attracts international interest and collaboration. For example (i) US funding agencies are supporting the RAPID programme's observing system with matching funding of approximately £5 million; and (ii) the UK SOLAS programme has obtained German co-support for an international ocean-atmosphere observatory on the Cape Verde islands.

  25.  NERC also funds the UK's subscription to ESA's environmental science programmes and missions (see Annex 5). Within the current suite of existing and planned satellites, there are a number of instruments designed to provide important oceanographic data which scientists at NERC's Earth Observation Centres of Excellence (soon to become the National Centre for Earth Observation) are well placed to exploit.

  26.  NERC's marine facilities (see below) make a significant contribution to international collaboration. Over the past five years, 50% of NERC's research cruises have involved collaboration with international scientists, from 49 institutions and 17 countries. NERC is also heavily involved in ship-time bartering,[53] which has grown markedly since 2000 to a point where NERC now exchanges approximately 200 barter days per year.

International Polar Year (IPY)

  27.  Marine science in both polar regions will get a big boost during the International Polar Year, which is a global science programme focusing on the Arctic and Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009. It comprises over 200 projects, with thousands of scientists from over 60 countries examining a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics. Total expenditure will exceed $2 billion. The UK is contributing to 40% of these projects, and British marine scientists from NERC and elsewhere are participating in 33 international marine projects as part of this IPY effort. They include polar ocean monitoring, circumpolar studies of marine ecosystems, and polar gateways.


  28.  NERC invests considerable funding in developing and providing platforms and technology for marine science, as well as in the infrastructure of its centres. In particular, it provides funds for: the maintenance and replacement of three research ships, the National Marine Facilities Division (NMF)[54] at NOCS, the National Facility for Scientific Diving, High-Performance Computing (HPC), airborne research facilities, Arctic and Antarctic bases, the new Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (jointly with DTI), ESA's environmental science missions, and several marine-related research programmes with a technology-development component. NERC also owns and provides the majority of funding for the BODC, hosted at POL.

  29.  Details of some of these are provided below; information on satellite-based research capabilities is provided in Annex 5. There is also further information about the research facilities available to scientists on NERC's website.[55]


  30.  NERC has two dedicated research ships, which are operated by the NMF. In June 2000, NERC changed its policy on the access procedures to these ships, resulting in a significant increase in ship-time usage. In turn, NERC significantly increased the operational funding from 2004-05 to allow both ships to be operated at full capacity. NERC schedules on average ca 550 science days at sea per annum to meet the requirements of highly graded responsive and directed-programme research, and demand for ship-time is expected to remain at current levels.

  31. One of the ships, the RRS James Cook, will enter into scientific operation at the end of February 2007 to replace the RRS Charles Darwin. The RRS James Cook was built at a cost of £40 million, funded by NERC and the DTI/OST Large Facilities Capital Fund.[56] The procurement process followed consultation with the UK marine science community and thorough consideration of research requirements. The other dedicated research vessel, the RRS Discovery, was originally built in 1962 and underwent major conversion in 1992 to maximise its operational flexibility. The ship will be at the end of its scientifically useful life in 2011, and a joint NERC/Large Facilities Capital Fund funding bid of £60 million for a replacement was approved in 2006.

  32.  The NMF supports approximately 30 cruises per year, 20 of which are on the NERC research vessels. The Division also manages the National Marine Equipment Pool (NMEP), which consists of a wide range of equipment available to the UK marine science community, with an asset value of over £20 million. NERC provides £0.8 million per year to maintain and enhance this equipment.

  33.  NERC also supports the RRS James Clark Ross operated by BAS, and uses the RV Prince Madog operated by VT Ocean Sciences, and, as mentioned above, is involved in ship-time bartering arrangements.


  34.  NERC operates two airborne facilities that can contribute to marine research. The Airborne Research and Survey Facility (ARSF) has a Dornier aircraft, leased prior to 2006 but then purchased for approximately £1.4 million to ensure the ongoing capability of the ARSF. The aircraft can be used for remote sensing of, eg algal blooms, and will be involved in campaigns in Iceland and Greenland during IPY. The BAE 146 of the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) can support research into ocean-atmosphere interactions.

Polar bases

  35.  NERC leases part of the Ny Ålesund International Arctic Environmental Research and Monitoring Facility, Svalbard, Norway[57] to house the NERC Arctic Research Station, which is managed by BAS.[58] Please see the separate submission from BAS regarding logistical capability (research stations and ships) in the Southern Ocean.

Technology development and engineering

  36.  A key theme within Oceans 2025 is Technology Development. This has three main research units: Enabling technology for ocean telescience, Development of instruments, platforms and measurement systems, and Towards an optimal observing network. The theme involves scientists from SAMS, POL and NOCS. NOCS has the largest technology R&D team supporting UK marine science in its Underwater Systems Laboratory, which was responsible for developing Autosub, a long range, deep diving, autonomous underwater vehicle, whose design was licensed in 2001 for use in the oil, gas and undersea cable markets. The vehicle is now in the NMEP for use by the marine science community.

  37.  Through BGS, NERC develops technology for subsea drilling and sampling, and the BGS Marine Operations team is recognised as a world leader in development and management of marine drilling techniques. Its equipment is vital to many international research projects studying offshore mineralisation, marine geohazards, frontier exploration and evidence for past climate change.

  38.  NERC also supports technology development through its directed programmes, for example: Autosub Under Ice (in which NERC spent nearly £3 million on developing Autosub and its associated monitoring technology) and the SeaSense LINK programme, details of which are presented in Annex 3.

The British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC)

  39.  The BODC[59] acts as a national facility for storing and sharing marine research data, and puts the UK amongst the world leaders in marine data management. NERC recognises the importance of long-term monitoring and the maintenance of long-term data sets, not least in the context of understanding the impacts of climate change on the marine environment.

  40.  Nearly 10,000 data variables are held in the BODC database, containing biological, chemical, physical and geophysical data that are used not only by NERC's research and collaborative centres, but also by many other groups in the UK in universities and stakeholder institutions, such as the Met Office, Hadley Centre and Natural History Museum, and by groups in many international institutions.


  41.  Oceanography and earth science are two of the seven strongest areas of UK research in the environmental sciences. Bibliometrics analysis (using the ISI's Science Citation Indices) shows that in the environmental disciplines the ocean sciences make a major contribution; the UK is second only to the USA, and closing the gap.[60] For example, for sea-going science the UK has eighteen research groups in university departments graded 5 and 5* in the RAE, and four NERC-funded world-class marine research institutes (as recently judged by peer review).

  42.  NERC continues to support marine science national capability through its funding of research and collaborative centres, in particular through the Oceans 2025 programme.

  43.  NERC funds many PhD studentships in marine science, and approximately 50 of these students are currently conducting research projects involving active participation in research cruises; in a typical year up to 350 scientists, engineers and students gain research training and experience on NERC's research ships.

  44.  NERC intends to work closely with ERFF's planned review of the training needs that will be required to support environmental science in the UK (to meet academia, policy and commercial end-user needs). Without pre-judging the outcome of this review, specific sub-discipline areas which have recently been highlighted by NERC as areas of possible skills shortages requiring investigation include: taxonomy; physical oceanography; mathematical modelling; and deep-sea biology. In addition, NERC's data on studentship applications suggest that there is a tendency for below-average numbers to apply for studentships classified as mathematics/modelling; earth science; engineering; and physics, although biology, especially topics of research on birds, fish, vertebrates and invertebrates, remains well subscribed, as does polar science.


  45.  Marine SSSIs extend only to the low water mark, and are not a major feature of NERC's marine science, except in CEH's work on seabirds (see Annex 4). NERC's marine science is more connected with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), for example Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is responsible for defining offshore SACs (more than 12 nautical miles offshore), whereas the Countryside Council for Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England and Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service are responsible for nearshore areas. NERC research centres work closely with these organisations to provide underpinning information and research. SMRU[61] provides the fundamental information used to define SACs for marine mammals, and this is likely to move from coastal into offshore regions that support particularly rich communities of marine organisms.

  46.  The absence of detailed national seabed maps based on modern techniques such as multibeam, and marine-penetrating LIDAR (for use in nearshore areas where there are restrictions on access for ships) is a major hindrance to sustainable development of our UK marine resources. Surveys funded by the conservation bodies are a vital but small part of the overall UK effort in marine mapping. In addition to NERC-funded research, other important information is collected by the MCA (Maritime & Coastguard Agency), the DTI (through the Strategic Environment Assessment programme), port authorities, the oil industry, marine renewables industry, marine aggregates industry and fisheries research organisations. NERC research institutes are in an excellent position to bring this vital information together to maximise its use for sustainable development of our marine resources and underpin multi-disciplinary research in the marine environment.


  47.  Many NERC research programmes, under all three of NERC's strategic priorities (not just climate change) contribute to our knowledge of the impact of climate change on the oceans. However, NERC's overall portfolio reflects the fact that the impact of the ocean on climate change is equally important. Indeed, in considering system behaviour and future conditions (both involving feedbacks), with implications for energy policy and sustainable economic development, the two aspects are inseparable.

  48.  Several examples of NERC-funded studies relating climate change and the marine environment are provided in Annex 8. They concern: sources, sinks and transport of carbon within the Earth system; interactions between biodiversity, ecosystem function and climate change (including links between plankton survival and fisheries); adaptation of marine species to climate change, and conservation options; the prediction of future climate change; the role of the Atlantic's overturning circulation (and the possibility of a weakening of the Gulf stream); the world's ice sheets and potential sea-level rise; links between climate change and ocean-related natural hazards and disasters; implications for coastal-zone management and coastal defence; indirect impacts through marine renewable-energy developments; the exploitation of gas hydrates; and the potential for undersea carbon sequestration.

  49.  One of NERC's principal concerns is to improve our ability to predict the probability and magnitude of climate change and its effects, at the regional scale. Past climate data are being used to test and improve climate models to take account, for example, of climate feedbacks. Research is covering all marine environments, from the deep ocean to the coastal zones, and is bringing together observations made in situ and by satellite. NERC's new strategy is expected to highlight, among other things, the importance of research into ocean acidification, improved climate models, and gas hydrates as a potential energy source, and to emphasise an interdisciplinary Earth-system science approach.

January 2007

44   NOCS, PML, POL and SAMS are submitting detailed individual responses to the inquiry, as is BAS to cover its Southern-Ocean interests. The marine centres are also submitting an Oceans 2025 memorandum. Back

45   See Annex 1. Back

46 Back

47   Annex 1 lists NERC's research and collaborative centres and the marine research organisations in receipt of Grant-in-Aid. Back

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50   The funding for the first two years at this level is assured; the level for subsequent years is contingent on NERC's 2007 CSR settlement. Back

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60   Source: UK environmental science review report for the Environment Research Funders' Forum. Back

61   NERC has a statutory responsibility to monitor British seal populations (as required under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970). It discharges this through its sponsorship of SMRU. Back

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