Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 32

Memorandum from Natural England


  1.1  Natural England is a new organisation that has been established under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. It is a non-departmental public body. It has been formed by bringing together English Nature and parts of the Rural Development Service and the Countryside Agency.

  1.2  Natural England has been charged with the responsibility to ensure that England's unique natural environment including its flora and fauna, land and seascapes, geology and soils are protected and improved.

  1.3  Natural England's purpose as outlined in the Act is "to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced, and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development".


  2.1  Natural England's response contains 12 key points on investigating the oceans:

    —    The importance Natural England attaches to having a flourishing, well organised, managed and quality UK marine science community.

    —    Much has been achieved in recent years to support the UK role in investigating the oceans and that this is welcome.

    —    The need for greater visibility on what is happening in UK marine science.

    —    The need to maintain funding for UK marine science and now increase this in order to provide the enhanced evidence base being required by Government to underpin the better regulation agenda.

    —    The need for further thought on thematic aspects of the organisation of UK marine science.

    —    The need for further consideration of the peer review process for funding UK marine science.

    —    The need to foster greater regular collaborative marine science efforts beyond the boundaries of Europe.

    —    The need to sustain the near-shore ship and boat capabilities to underpin UK marine science.

    —    The need to foster provision and skills in knowledge transfer and taxanomic experience to underpin UK marine science excellence.

    —    The need to take greater opportunities to use Marine Protected Areas to build Government, industry, research and environmental community partnerships to understand "shifting baselines" and to properly "benchmark" sustainable development.

    —    Celebrating the recent successes of how marine science has fed into our understanding of the impacts of climate change on the oceans.

    —    The need to ensure that national capabilities that inform industry investment in technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, are adequately resourced. This is so financial and marine environmental risks can be understood and adequately managed.


  3.1  Natural England attaches considerable importance to investigating the oceans and having a flourishing, well organised, managed, and quality marine science community in the UK to achieve this.

  3.2  A strong and well-developed relationship is required between this community, and its activities to investigate the oceans, and agencies such as Natural England. This is because as an evidence-based organisation we are a principle customer for many aspects of marine science, evidence and knowledge. This evidence base is essential so we can provide advice to Government and others, and so we can foster and champion improved understanding, protection and management of marine wildlife, habitats and resources. The better regulation agenda for Government is driving a requirement for more evidence to underpin our advice, and thus our requirement for such information is now increasing significantly,

  3.3  Our information needs for investigating the oceans fall into four main areas:

    —    to know what is out there—the distribution of marine landscapes, habitats and species;

    —    to know the rules of ocean behaviour—understanding functions and processes and establishing boundaries on future conditions;

    —    to be aware of what is actually happening—both to inform policy but also improve predictive capabilities; and

    —    to find creative and adaptive solutions—using knowledge to promote human well-being, improved stewardship and ensuring the wildlife and other elements of the resource are sustained both now and for the benefit of future generations.

  3.4  These needs match closely with similar values set out by the NERC-funded marine science institutions in Oceans 2025.

  3.5  Natural England therefore welcomes the opportunity to provide comments on how we are investigating the oceans. Our response is set out by the categories established in the terms of reference for this enquiry.


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

  4.1.1  Significant advances have been made in recent years on the organisation and funding of UK marine sciences. This includes developing cooperative approaches such as the Plymouth Marine Partnership, and also the development of stronger strategic alliances through initiatives such as Oceans 2025. There are five areas that we would identify as meriting further attention.

    —    Greater visibility is needed on what is happening in UK marine science—Oceans 2025 has been a significant step forward but important areas of UK marine science capabilities fall outside this programme. Visibility is a first step to improving engagement and maximizing the value of the work being undertaken through the end-user community. It is still challenging for stakeholders to understand how the various elements integrate together, who is doing what, and therefore how to take advantage of the relevance and value of particular aspects of their work.

    —    Maintaining and increasing funding for UK marine science to keep pace with the information requirements underpinning Government's better regulation agenda. We are concerned that economic pressures are in reality reducing funding through universities and the outputs that they can provide (eg closure of Port Erin Marine Laboratory). We are also concerned that, in real terms, funding for areas of marine science of importance to Natural England remains inadequate despite NERCs recent recognition of the importance of such issues. This is especially in areas studying long-term ecological issues and change. There are a variety of reasons for this, some of which relate to "down-sizing" pre-Oceans 2025, or because they are seen as marginal to NERC, or not "complex" or "exciting" enough. They are nevertheless some of the areas of highest policy and management relevance that need a sustained and adequate funding base, and that as a result Natural England and others struggle to help support through opportunistic contributions from small-scale resources. Set against this is the need a significant increase in funding for investigating our seas and oceans. This is to keep pace with the increasing demands being placed on Natural England and other agencies to produce more evidence to underpin our advice as part of Government's better regulation agenda.

    —    Further alignment of UK marine science. Oceans 2025 as been a significant step towards implementing a major UK strategic programme, whilst recognising the individual selling points of the institutes concerned. We are concerned that key research interests still appear isolated from these core efforts, eg research by Cefas v research by NERC institutions. The reasons behind this may be complex, but better overall integration should be encouraged to optimise value for money, accessibility and accountability.

    —    Further thought is needed on the organisation of UK marine science into thematic areas that best match and meet end-user needs—this is a challenging areas but one where we believe that more could be done to better interface UK marine science research with the end-user community. Multidisciplinary partnerships are evolving through European Union funding in particular and this is welcome, but major gaps still exist. A key example is understanding `connectivity' in marine ecosystems. This involves disparate marine science interests (ranging from ecology of species, oceanographic processes, through to micro-satellite genetic analysis techniques) and yet understanding such issues is a clear pre-requisite for better managing and protecting our marine resources. Other gaps are in "bench-marking" sustainable development in our seas (see 4.5.2 below) or delivering an improved science-based understanding of how our oceans have changed in recent decades (the concept of "shifting baselines"). Often it is the end-user customer that is piecing together such issues, rather than it being driven through a strong integrated science/end-user partnership approach.

    —    Peer review assessment procedures for funding UK marine science through NERC need further consideration—we are concerned that the current processes have apparent inconsistencies in operation, can require significant resources in a resource-scarce area to operate (from the applicants view-point), may favour mainstream disciplines, and still make it challenging to implement interdisciplinary studies that reach out into socio-economic areas and that are urgently needed to support achieving sustainable development. The perception that we are given is that in part this seems to be driven by a mismatch in peer review background (dominated by oceanography and earth science interests) set against the biological marine science focus of projects and programmes under consideration. An added perception is the fact that the corporate memory of previous grants panels provided an added value that is weaker or missing in modern peer review processes. The consequence may be to make it difficult to fund ongoing innovation or novel research in some areas of marine science.

4.2  The role of the UK internationally, and international collaboration in marine science

  4.2.1  Considerable advances have been made in collaboration in recent decades, often spurred on by funding opportunities. We believe that such successes should be built upon, and that mechanisms should be explored to foster greater regular collaboration of UK marine sciences beyond European borders. Our marine science has an excellent international reputation and there has been significant and welcome expansion in regular collaboration within Europe. We feel that there are further gains to be made by encouraging similar regular levels of collaboration with the USA and other countries further a field. This has the potential to enhance the quality and depth of research, value for money, and the breadth of end-point application.

4.3  Support for marine science, including provision and development of technology and engineering

  4.3.1  We welcome the ongoing replacement programme for the major UK capabilities in this area (James Cook and the in principle replacement of the Discovery) but we would also wish to highlight the contribution that smaller near-shore ships and boats make to our understanding of our seas and oceans. It would be unfortunate if such capabilities were to be diluted at a time when increasing human pressure on the near-shore zone makes our understanding such marine ecosystems all the more important.

  4.3.2  It is our experience with the UK marine science community that maintaining such capabilities is a major challenge, and that any reduction has an immediate implication for near-shore information and datasets. Recognising this linkage is critical as we are becoming increasingly interested and dependent on such information in relation to understanding and tracking whole-scale changes to our marine ecosystems from climate and regime shifts.

4.4  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

  4.4.1  We believe there are two key areas that need greater attention in order to maintain and improve the UK's position in marine science.

    —    Provision and skills in knowledge transfer. Further actions are needed to deliver the level of knowledge transfer that we would wish. This is so we can make best use of the research and the evidence that is obtained. We welcome the greater visibility being given to this issue in recent years but we remain concerned that beyond recognised areas of dedicated effort the level of knowledge transfer is not high enough. Both easing access and shortening the lag-time between research findings and update by the end-user community can only but enhance the UK's position internationally in marine science. The use of Reference User Groups and the production of the MCCIP Marine Climate Change Annual Report Card (see 4.6 below) are excellent examples of how such knowledge transfer can be achieved for the benefit of all concerned. Clearly there are limits to where such approaches may be best applied, so further innovation enabling knowledge transfer is also needed.

    —    Provision and skills in taxanomic issues. The UK is reliant on an extremely small number of individuals with the experience to identify marine species, and the world-wide pool of experience is similarly restricted. Such skills are part of the mainstay of being able to understand our oceans and are often poorly supported. We remain concerned that the need to maintain UK capabilities in such core aspects are not lost in the desire to fund what may appear to be novel, new and more "exciting" aspects of investigating the oceans.

  4.4.2  Alongside these issues we would also identify the importance we attach to fostering the skills needed to draw together research on the structure, functionality and processes of marine ecosystems, and to link them through to the benefits (goods and services) that we obtain from our oceans. Whilst research is being undertaken in these areas, as a community we still struggle to join such issues together in a compelling manner, despite its importance in driving management to secure the wellbeing of our oceans.

4.5  The use of marine sites of special scientific interest

  4.5.1  We interpret this point more widely than SSSIs, to encompass all designation in our seas and oceans as expressed by the term Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPAs, particularly those that restrict or operate in the absence of human impacts, such as the Lundy no-take zone, provide ideal opportunities for scientific research. It is our view that major collaborative opportunities and partnerships based around Marine Protected Areas are not being exploited to the determent of our understanding of how to deliver sustainable development in the UK marine environment.

  4.5.2  In reality the only way in which Government can currently estimate whether it is delivering sustainable development is, in part, by reference to past changes in our seas. These often remain more as personal view points rather than as a well documented evidence-based approach. Alongside this, studies of the impacts of our activities are often undertaken in areas already subject to other human impacts so gaining a clear idea of what may be natural changes from human induced ones is challenging. It is surprising that no control sites have been established (other than the 3.3 km2 Lundy no-take zone) where ecosystems are allowed to function in an unconstrained and un-impacted manner.

  4.5.3  No take zones, and to a degree the restrictions in place around alternative energy sites (such as wind farms and the wave hub in south west England) provide idea opportunities to create partnerships between government, industry, the research community and environmental interests to discover how our marine ecosystems can function in the absence of major impacts. This holds the potential to show us the full range of benefits our seas and oceans may hold socially, environmentally and economically, and at the same time gain a better baseline for understanding sustainable development.

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

  4.6.1  Within the last year considerable progress has been made in using marine science to advance our knowledge of the impacts of climate change on our oceans. One route has been through an emphasis on outreach in some key programmes, such as the RAPID work on ocean circulation and the Reference User Group (RUG) approach adopted by Plymouth Marine Laboratory of the Defta/DTI funded work on ocean acidification. The RUG approach enables a sustained dialogue to be undertaken throughout the life of the research between scientists and end users. Such approaches have helped raise the profile of results and discussions to new heights.

  4.6.2  A significant step forward has also been the development of the Government-led Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership. Natural England has been delighted to work closely with Government, the research community and end-users to create and implement the Annual report Card on marine climate change impacts. This has successfully created a new dynamic in regular reporting whereby all UK marine science in this area has been drawn together in a policy-friendly format to fast track UK knowledge on this topic through to those that need to know it. This has demonstrated in one process how to circumvent the lag time between science and policy, and how a framework can champion UK marine science excellence, where the sum is far more than the individual parts. We would commend this approach to the Committee as a mechanism that could be applied in other marine science areas and in other fields.

  4.6.3  Set against these successes we do have some concerns about the level of funding being assigned to surface ocean acidification (SOA) research in particular. Whilst it is good that there is now widespread awareness of SOA as "the other CO2 issue", adequate funding is not following at such a quick pace. The European Commission is recognising this issue but funds are small for the range of issues that needs to be considered. The UK national capability at Plymouth for understanding such issues and adding certainty to the emerging multi-billion pound industry around carbon capture and storage (CCS) struggles to sustain itself and secure long-term funding.

  4.6.4  This is just one example but there does seem to be a miss-match between the central government imperative of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and the funding available to ensure that environmental issues surrounding approaches such as CCS are adequately research and understood. This would seem an urgent area to address if industry is to have certainty through UK marine science research to invest with confidence in these new technologies.

January 2007

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