Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 31

Submission from the Directors of the NERC Funded Marine Laboratories


  This response, made jointly by the Directors of the UK Marine Research Centres who receive strategic funding for marine science from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), highlights the importance of understanding our oceans and the role they play in the global earth system. We note the increasing emphasis on more integrated approaches to policy making at National and EU level. We welcome the increasing trend (in which we are a driving force), for the marine science community to self organise and coordinate, nationally and internationally as we strive to address the major research and observation challenges that cannot be undertaken by a single institution or even nation on its own.

  We comment on the organisation and interaction of the marine science community in the UK, and the positive benefits that we anticipate will arise as a result of our coordinated approach through Oceans 2025.  We express the need to continue to support a full range of research from individual "blue skies" activity to strategic research and the need for sustained support for specialist infrastructure, technology and platforms, including ships. The need to collaborate internationally, and opportunities for the UK to take a leading role are highlighted. We draw attention to issues concerning availability of sustained funding for ocean observations which is currently drawn from the research base and we highlight a wider need to address the anticipated weaknesses in the state of the UK research and skills base.


  1.  This collective response is made by the Directors of the UK Marine research Centres who receive NERC strategic funding for marine science:

    —  National Oceanography Centre, Southampton NOCS, Director Professor Ed Hill,

    —  Marine Biological Association MBA, Director Professor Steve Hawkins,

    —  Plymouth Marine Laboratory PML, Director Professor Nick Owens,

    —  Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory POL, Director Professor Andrew Willmott ,

    —  Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, SAHFOS, Director Professor Peter Burkill,

    —  Scottish Association of Marine Science SAMS, Director Professor Graham Shimmield, and

    —  Sea Mammal Research Unit SMRU, Director Dr Ian Boyd.

  2.  Our submission is tailored in particular respect of the new NERC Strategic Programme Oceans 2025, which we will be undertaking collaboratively between 2007 and 2012. Oceans 2025 will address the key science challenges, embracing knowledge transfer to the wider stakeholder community, and provide the basic underpinning to ensure that the best UK science is available to protect our marine environment. Further detail on the Oceans 2025 programme may be found in Annex 1.


  3.  The marine environment is the subject of growing public interest. The oceans are integral to the regulation of our planet as the major reservoirs of carbon and heat, and so understanding our oceans is key to better prediction of future climate scenarios. We also expect that the largest impacts on people arising from climate change will be the increased exposure to flood risk from the sea.

  4.  There is a progressive international trend towards more integrated policies for maritime activities and the marine environment (eg Australia's Ocean Policy; Canada's Oceans Act 1997; USA's Oceans Act 2000). The European Commission is presently consulting on broad-ranging Maritime Policy Green Paper. The Marine Thematic Strategy Directive (intended as the environmental pillar of the proposed Maritime Policy) is presently being negotiated. In the UK, the proposed "Marine Bill" is part of the Government's response to this wider call for a more integrated approach to marine regulation which has for some time been perceived as complex and confusing. A move towards an "ecosystem-based" approach to management of human activities in the marine environment is a common thread through all proposals. This demands a robust scientific underpinning if it is to be achievable and defendable.

  5.  The fundamental context for management of the marine environment is global change, including climate change as the Stern review has highlighted. In the 21st century marine science is fundamentally concerned with decadal scale variability (and science integral to sustained observing on these scales) and its interaction with shorter and longer time scale phenomena in the larger earth system. There is consequently strong interest in the interfaces between the ocean and other parts of the earth system (eg land-ocean, atmosphere-ocean and ice-ocean interactions) and the need to be much more in tune with changes taking place so we can rapidly assess their significance and adapt and respond accordingly.

  6.  Within this context the key roles for science are three fold:

    —  gain deeper understanding of fundamental earth system processes (so we know what is going on);

    —  develop better prediction and scenario testing systems (models) and sustained and properly specified global and regionally observing systems—so we are more continually aware of changes in the earth system—and can predict what might happen next; and

    —  inform and guide public policy, regulation and management and help find the innovative solutions and opportunities to live and do business in a changing world;

  7.  The key roles for marine science in helping formulate practical policy and regulations such as those under consideration in the UK and Europe include:

    —  identifying and filling key knowledge gaps;

    —  investigating the non-linearities (possible "tipping points") in the marine system;

    —  contributing to developing a definition of "good environmental status" that is more than just a "value judgement by society" and one that can be turned into a sound basis for effective monitoring and assessment and recognises the inherent variability in natural systems;

    —  designing, optimising and reviewing the effectiveness of monitoring programmes;

    —  developing novel technologies for reliable measurements in the parts of the marine system that matter;

    —  providing the techniques to include the fourth dimension (time) into marine spatial planning systems;

    —  developing next-generation modelling and simulation tools for marine spatial planning and ecosystem based management;

    —  putting the marine system in its wider earth system context with better knowledge of the key earth system interfaces; and

    —  horizon scanning, evaluating and rapidly communicating to policy-makers new knowledge (eg ocean acidification was not fully appreciated until a couple of years ago);


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


  8.  The present configuration of the NERC funded marine research centres is the product of three previous alignments of these institutions (summarised in simplified form in diagram1 and further detailed in Annex 2). This present configuration of marine research centres has existed for only a relatively short period (since 1 April 2001) and resulted in particular from the break up of two former major distributed centres (Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, IOS; and Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences, CCMS), though some institutions have been in existence for over a century (MBA and SAMS) and are themselves learned societies. The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) has specific responsibility for delivering NERC's commitment to advise Government about the management of marine mammal populations under the terms of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970.

  9.  It is fair to say that if starting with a blank sheet we would not necessarily recommend the organisational outcome as now presented. Nevertheless, there have been important benefits achieved in reaching the current position:

    —  a set of stable ownership models has been established;

    —  greater clarity has been injected into the funding arrangements of these centres and the national facilities they host;

    —  the institutions are financially stronger and a number of the infrastructure issues have been addressed [though some remain]; and

    —  the diversity of ownership models has widened funding opportunities and drawn a wider diversity of stakeholders into support of strategic marine science.

  10.  We do not see a case for further large scale organisational changes at the present time. The current structures give a base on which to further improved collaboration and coordination. This is being tackled from the science funding perspective particularly by synchronising the NERC strategic funding of the various institutions through the new Oceans 2025 programme which will make planning and collaboration between ourselves much easier than now.

  11.  We were pleased that NERC Council in December 2006 allocated Oceans 2025 approximately £120 million over five years, representing a modest uplift overall, though this is not distributed uniformly across the areas of science or our respective institutions, and there are some areas where we will need to seek other funding providers to maintain and develop specific capabilities. NERC Council recognised the immense value of this new coordinated approach. Professor Sir Howard Dalton, Chief Scientific Advisor to Defra in his press comment noted that "Government departments and agencies must also rise to the challenge of working closely with Oceans 2025 as it evolves, to ensure that this tremendous opportunity [to use ocean research findings to protect and sustainably manage and develop our seas] is taken."

  12.  Reaching agreement on a coordinated, co-operative research programme of the scale and complexity of Oceans 2025 is a very important step. The programme will start in April 2007 and we are currently addressing the implementation issues and the challenges to develop a truly multidisciplinary ocean science community in the UK. As a part of this we intend to continue our interaction as Marine Directors through the establishment of a UK Marine Directors forum:

    —  To facilitate in an inclusive way the strategic coordination and delivery of NERC's strategic marine research programmes, in particular but not exclusively linked to Oceans 2025.

    —  To develop collective approaches within the marine science and technology community for issues of common interest.

    —  To provide where appropriate a single voice to stakeholders on key policy initiatives.

    —  To champion UK marine science and adopt coordinated and concerted approaches to its promotion at an international level through media, international representation and presence at key meetings etc.

  13.  Each of our centres undertakes collaborative research projects with a range of centres of academic excellence within the UK, Europe, and internationally through a wide range of funding mechanisms. This will be further facilitated under the Oceans 2025 initiative where we have allocated some 7.5% of the direct research funding to a new Strategic Ocean Funding Initiative (SOFI). This will open up strategic funds for universities and other partners to bid for. Further details of the links between our Centres and with other institutions, with Universities and with industry are given in Annex 3.


  14.  NERC's response to this consultation addresses the range of programmes and mechanisms it supports. These range from blue skies research grants to strategic programmes and support for knowledge transfer. It is critically important that the requirement for strategic long term funding is fully recognised because progressing the science of decadal scale changes in the ocean and earth system requires sustained multiyear observing programmes and infrastructure and the availability of national capability with sufficient critical mass. Oceans 2025 draws out very clearly the contribution to national capability made by our sustained observing programme and research infrastructure. The latter is integral to our science challenges, which fundamentally concern understanding decadal-scale variability in the earth system. We are greatly encourages that NERC increasingly recognises this need and hope that it will continue such support in future. However the issue of supporting long term observational capacity is not just a NERC or even a solely UK issue (see Paras 27,28).

  15.  NERC has generally supported strategic funding in its Centres through rather rigid five-year funding blocks. This has had the tendency to:

    (a)  inhibit joined up strategic programmes if these are on different timelines,

    (b)  expose Centres to the risk of 5 year funding levels being dependant on the state of available NERC funds at the time of bidding.

  16.  Through Oceans 2025 we have overcome much of the first difficulty through aligning much of the strategic marine programmes. NERC is moving to new arrangements for strategic funding through its proposed "Funding Allocation and Budgeting" (FAB) mechanism. This should in principle allow Centres to bid at difference stages for strategic funds and make joint bids across centres (eg BAS and NOCS) much easier in future. The ability to take a more integrated approach to science delivery will help the marine research centres contribute most fully to NERC's Earth System Science agenda. We are already engaged in contributing to the development of the future NERC strategy and playing an active part in helping NERC formulate its Comprehensive Spending review submission.

  17.  The Science Management Audits for each of the centres undertaken in 2004-05 found high quality science in all of the Centres with a high degree of differentiation between then and little or no evidence of duplication. Oceans 2025 has further confirmed this through its explicit coordination of the strategic science in these centres and its transparent approach and distinct division of funding packages into themes, enforcing us to operate in a complementary way at the strategic level. The individual Centres however will continue to compete openly for responsive mode grants and other contracts. Consequently we believe the system is appropriately tensioned with a balanced mix of collaboration and competition.

  18.  Across its funding portfolio NERC has an active programme of activities to stimulate knowledge transfer, building on research already undertaken. However there is an ongoing perception within the community that NERC's peer review system is systematically biased against grant proposals that involve industry. We believe that this is an area where NERC might take a more positive and proactive approach through guidance to applicants and members of its Peer Review College as well as fostering a greater understanding of the needs of interdisciplinary research.

  19.  One area where we feel that more could to be done to facilitate linkages is in the area of fisheries research. The NERC funded marine centres do not have an established tradition of working closely with CEFAS laboratories. To an extent this may reflect the division of responsibilities between NERC as a sponsor of academic and strategy research and DEFRA whose responsibility as the Government body with ownership of CEFAS and need to produce short term research directly to support policy, specifically fisheries related.

  20.  However the increasing integration of policy to encompass the sustainable management of the marine environment (as being driven by the UK Marine Bill and EU Green Paper on Maritime policy) requires underpinning scientific evidence on longer timescales. It also calls for greater collaboration and a need to avoid any tendency for duplication of activities between CEFAS and the NERC Centres where one or the other has a particularly strong existing capability. A better course of action in future may be for CEFAS to draw on the capacities of NERC Centres when bidding for projects rather than maintain or establish new teams in house.

  21.  We are concerned about the proposal inherent in the Defra consultation on a Marine Bill that seeks to establish a Marine Management organization (MMO). Detailed comments were given in our individual submissions to the Defra consultation. The UK Government needs to retain flexibility in delivery of the information/ science to underpin marine spatial planning (for instance the methods and technology for UK deep waters will be very different to that for shelf seas and the coastal zone). Combining the role of both regulator and science/knowledge provider in one organization could lead to conflicts of interest. The MMO must be able to contract out scientific research and data gathering to a variety of specialist organizations.

  22.  In Scotland this agenda is being addressed the Advisory Group on Marine and Coastal Strategy. SAMS and SMRU are playing a key role in the debate on a Scotland Marine Act.


  23.  Both nationally and internationally there is an increasing trend in the marine research community toward self organisation. This is manifest in the UK through the Oceans 2025 proposal as a first significant step forward. At EU Level the European Commission has long been an important funder of collaborative marine science projects under its EU Framework programmes and UK institutes play leading roles. The European Science Foundation's Marine Board, whose members represent both science funders and research institutions, is taking an increasingly proactive role in highlighting the contribution that marine sciences can make to the policy agenda. In November 2006 it published its Position paper no 8 Navigating the Future III. This provides a comprehensive overview of the key challenges and opportunities for scientific progress.

  24.  Internationally POGO, the Programme for Observation of the Global Oceans, a forum for Directors of the world's major oceanographic institutions instituted originally by the UK and USA, is facilitating a coordinated approach to ensure that the world oceanography community joins together to play its part in the establishment of global earth observing systems, including supporting effort in capacity building in less developed nations.

  25.  To further facilitate the UK's contribution NOCS has established a National Marine Coordination Office with a small team charged with assisting the Marine Directors to deliver national vision and the remit of the Marine Directors forum. Organisationally this Coordination office also encompasses the Secretariat for the Interagency Committee for Marine Science and Technology which seeks to coordinate marine science interests across Government Departments (See separate IACMST submission).

  26.  Within the UK new mechanisms to stimulate the rapid pull-through of research to operational activity are also being developed. For example the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting (NCOF) is a strategic partnership between the Met Office and the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton and the Environmental Systems Science Centre at Reading whose mission is to establish ocean forecasting as part of the national infrastructure, based on world-class research and development. This allows us to capitalise on the UK's world-leading position, working within a wider, coherent UK/EU ocean/climate modelling strategy in which NERC can now fully engage.


  27.  International collaboration in ocean and earth sciences is essential and in many areas the UK scientists play a major role, for instance in the development of the Global Ocean Observing systems and in our contributions to the international Panel on Climate change. It is intended that the Oceans 2025 programme, which underpins our scientific contribution to a number of international ocean observing commitments will also provide a vehicle for other nations to have improved visibility of the UK research activities, leading to greater collaboration and infrastructure sharing.

  28.  Under the umbrella of Ministerial commitments, nations have adopted a 10 year plan to put in place a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). The purpose of GEOSS is to achieve comprehensive, coordinated and sustained observations of the Earth system, in order to improve monitoring of the state of the Earth, increase understanding of Earth processes, and enhance prediction of the behavior of the Earth system. Ocean observation systems will play a critical role in delivering GEOSS and the UK has committed to internationally coordinated observation activities. However the present UK funding system is not well-suited to funding cross-departmental contributions to observing programmes. Also, the criteria for monitoring national needs are different from those used in the evaluation of research proposals where observations are needed to meet specific, short-term research objectives.

  29.  It is important therefore 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, with an over reliance on short term research programmes to provide long term datasets. 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 including the US and Europe, and was the subject of shared concern at the January 2007 POGO meeting. 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.


  30.  Technology and observations are fundamental to ocean science—to provide the basic measurements and to serve as the "chief source of ideas". Fundamental to our ability to make observations is technology, in the guise of new instruments and platforms. While there has been tremendous progress over the last two decades in our ability to tackle the problems of sampling the oceans' space-time continuum, the identification, understanding, and prediction of many interdisciplinary oceanographic processes remains as elusive because we do not have the tools to make necessary observations and measurements.

  31.  Developing new tools to serve science is an internationally recognized strength at several of the NERC marine Centres, and through a coordinated approach, as recommended by NERC's Marine Sector Review we deliberately increased resource for marine technology and underpinning engineering development in the Oceans 2025 proposal. This has been widely endorsed by the community. Focus will be put on the development of novel autonomous vehicles such as Autosub 6000, and intelligent landers, gliders and animal borne instruments, underpinned by advances in satellite telemetry. These platforms will allow the development and deployment of new miniaturised sensors and will make use of the latest navigation and remote handling technologies to enable operation in harsh environments.

  32.  Measurement at sea is fundamental to our science so we are pleased that in approving Oceans 2025 NERC has recognised the need for a fully funded cruise programme. This will enable NERC to ensure maximum benefit is derived from the major capital investments in new ships secured by NERC and OSI from Treasury. Moreover, the cruise programme is a major platform for bringing together interdisciplinary science teams and for providing strong cohesion within the national and international marine science community as a whole.

  33.  The new £36 million NERC research ship RSS James Cook, delivered in August 2006, represents a major and welcome commitment by the UK Government to ocean sciences. This world leading research vessel which can operate for the tropics to the edge of the ice sheets will enable the UK research community to deliver NERC's science priorities in the coming decades and fully utilise investments in oceanographic tools such as deep remotely operated vehicles. However her cruise programme is already fully loaded.

  34.  The second Research ship RSS Discovery, which has been the prime marine research ship is now some 40 years old and is becoming increasingly unreliable, leading to the cancellation of research cruises, some of which have been in the science planning for several years. This creates gaps and uncertainties in the UK science programmes and demotivates our leading researchers. It also impacts on our abilities internationally to honour commitments made through ship barter arrangements and cruises as part of international projects and programmes. The replacement project for RSS Discovery is approved by the Government but the replacement vessel will not come on stream under 2011 at the earliest, potentially leaving a major capability gap in the UK research fleet. A two ship fleet (excluding icebreakers) is the minimum to sustain operation and ensure the UK does not lose its capabilities to benefit from the investment in equipment and expert staff. The heavy demand for cruise time from funded marine science programmes already suggests that NERC may have to explore novel approaches to meet demand, such as adding capacity though charter arrangements as well as supporting initiatives to enable use of other ocean going vessels ("ships of opportunity").


  35.  There are three prime areas of concern in relation to sustaining the UK research and skills base:

    —  The demography of the marine engineering community which risks losing key capabilities in the next few years, particularly in relation to experience of design and operation of moorings. Succession planning and new recruitment in these areas already poses a serious challenge, particularly as the marine labs are competing for expertise that is also attractive to the oil and gas sector, which is able to offer more rewarding remuneration packages.

    —  Although SAHFOS is a base for taxonomic knowledge on pelagic biodiversity, there is a general shortage of taxonomy skills, as has been well debated elsewhere. This impacts the marine community where new species are constantly being discovered. This deficit is recognised as an issue outside the immediate science community, for example BP is providing some fellowship funding to support a taxonomist at NOCS.

    —  A shortage, again widely debated, of skills and interest in physics, mathematics and engineering. Physical oceanography remains a core discipline but is hampered by availability of expertise. There is growing concern on where to find the next generation of physical oceanographers.

  36.  There are also concerns about the UK's ability to attract and retain key researchers, where we face increasing competition from in particular the US and Germany. Further details are given in our individual Centre responses.


  37.  The designation of sites or marine protected areas must be based on sound science. Only a small fraction of our oceans are well characterised. Research in respect of particular areas is not a part of the Oceans2025 programme therefore additional funding needs to be found. The designation and operation of such sites and the conditions for access must not actually inhibit the ability to undertake research. These issues are further explored in our individual submissions.


  38.  The Oceans2025 programme is intended as the major strategic components of NERC funding dedicated to addressing the impact of climate change on the oceans and more widely the role that oceans play in the global climate. Issues to be addressed include major changes to be seen in Arctic, the diminution of Arctic sea ice and expected freshening of the North Atlantic, Ocean acidification, work on regime shifts, ecosystem management and adaptive management strategies. The Oceans2025 proposal document provides full detail and at EU level the ESF's "Navigating the Future III" paper provides a good summary of the key issues.

  Paper provided by the National Marine Coordination Office at NOCS, on behalf of the Directors of the NERC funded marine institutes.

January 2007

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