Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 41

Supplementary evidence from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) following the evidence session on 1 May 2007

  This memorandum covers three of the points raised in the Committee's letter of 11 May 2007. A fourth point (point 2 in the letter, regarding consultation on the Oceans 2025 proposals) was covered in our communication of 15 May 2007.

  The three points are:

  1.  further details of the discussion between NERC and the Royal Navy regarding bartering or other arrangements to use their platforms (Question 37 refers)—see pages 2-3.

  2.  NERC's policies and arrangements regarding co-operative international ship bartering arrangements (Question 77 refers)—see pages 4-6.

  3.  details of NERC's case for capital funding for the new vessel to replace RRS Discovery, including details for the case made by NERC regarding the effective use of existing fleet facilities (Questions 86-87 refer)—see pages 7-13.


  1.  NERC holds discussions with the Ministry of Defence (MOD)/Royal Navy (RN) through various fora, and some of its Research and Collaborative Centres (in particular the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the National Oceanography Centre (NOCS) and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)) interact directly. The main fora are CAROS (the Co-operative Arrangement for Research on Ocean Science), the Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST), and the Marine Data and Information Partnership (MDIP). The RN appears keen to provide a service to the marine science community when possible but the RN is not as large as the US Navy and the availability of vessels for research is inevitably limited.

  2.  Examples of the contribution made by RN vessels were given by Professor Ed Hill in the oral evidence session on 16 May (Question 235 refers), and details of some collaborative work are provided below. Professor Hill mentioned the involvement of the RN in deploying ARGO floats, thus contributing to maintaining the global array of such floats, from which the data are freely available. Other data obtained by the RN, eg meteorological data, and ocean temperature data from expendable bathythermographs (XBTs) are also made available.

  3.  BAS has a close working relationship with HMS Endurance. There is no official agreement between the RN and BAS, but support to BAS science is given as one of the three tasks in the mission statement of HMS Endurance. In Antarctica a third of HMS Endurance's time is in support of BAS science, including the Antarctic Funding Initiative. This role is crucial to BAS science, particularly the helicopter capability. BAS works extremely closely with the RN to make this support effective and the commitment that the RN has to BAS is fully supported by the First Sea Lord. BAS has found the RN to be very receptive to requests for supporting other BAS science, especially access to their submarine capability. This tends to be on an ad-hoc basis.

  4.  BGS has been co-operating with the RN for over 25 years in using RN sidescan sonar and bathymetric data collected in UK waters and interpreting this RN data for incorporation in BGS offshore maps and digital map products. BGS also acts as a depository for RN sidescan records and sea-bed samples collected in UK waters.

  5.  After the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 26 December 2004, the RN approached Government to offer the services of the HMS Scott, a MoD hydrographic survey vessel with a specific purpose to acquire high-resolution multibeam bathymetry. This was the first time that the HMS Scott had had civilians onboard as it is specifically used for the acquisition of highly confidential data. HMS Scott was in the Indian Ocean at the time of the devastating tsunami and, like the HMS Chatham, was offered for use in humanitarian aid. In collaboration, BGS, NOCS and the UKHO met with the MoD and discussed a possible survey plan to acquire seabed data over the earthquake rupture zone. As a result we have a unique high-resolution bathymetric dataset that allows insight into the processes taking place during Great Earthquakes. The experience on both sides (RN and scientists) was very positive.[69],[70]

  6.  BGS gained the impression that future joint exercises would be possible if the ship was available and if the imperative was significant. One area that may be raised in future discussion with the RN is access to the data HMS Scott acquires in her service role. She works in both the Indian and Atlantic oceans and the data sets, although confidential in the first instance, might be made available downstream for scientific research. In addition the ship's complement during the Indian Ocean survey were very appreciative of having scientists aboard who could actually interpret the data they acquired; this again may provide a basis for future collaboration.

  7. SAMS interacts with the RN partly through the presence on SAMS' Council of Commodore Charles Stevenson CBE, the Naval Regional Officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until recently the Director of the RN Directorate of Naval Surveying, Oceanography and Meteorology (DNSOM). SAMS' own Director, Professor Graham Shimmield, is currently chair of CAROS.

  8.  Since 1971 the RN has made submarine platforms available to support environmental science by the academic community in the UK, notably the ice-thickness studies by Professor Peter Wadhams (University of Cambridge) in the Arctic. The RN remains ready to assist with this research when possible, ie on an "opportunity" basis. In addition to offering platforms for research, the RN is keen to help the scientific community promote itself through the media. For example, during the latest Ice Exercise (ICEX 2007), the RN welcomed a camera team to HMS Tireless for the filming of a documentary about ice-thinning.



  1.  NERC has marine facilities-exchange arrangements with organisations in the USA, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain. In addition, it is anticipated that a bilateral barter exchange arrangement between the UK and Ireland will be in place later this year.

  2.  From each barter partner's perspective, the exchange arrangements have two significant advantages. Firstly, it allows scientists access to a wider range of facilities and equipment than would otherwise be possible. This includes 44 research ships and other facilities such as remotely operated vehicles (ROV), towed arrays and shipboard surveying systems. Such facilities are required to carry out "cutting edge" research, but are frequently so expensive that it makes little sense for all countries to purchase their own facilities.

  3.  Secondly, it reduces wasted time, and therefore wasted cost, spent on long passage legs between areas of scientific interest, and allows scientists access to a wider range of geographical areas in a given year. In these ways the exchange arrangements promote more efficient and cost-effective use of each country's national resources.

  4.  To facilitate these arrangements, barter partners have now synchronised their annual cruise planning cycles and meetings are held in the spring and autumn of each year to allow for partners to consider programming and bartering possibilities.

  5.  Although the underlying principal is that no money changes hands, the arrangement does not provide "free" ship time. For every cruise on a foreign ship, the beneficiary country must mount a full cruise on one of its own ships in return, and to an equivalent value. The operating costs still fall to the ship owners, and each country has an appropriate scheme of banking to support the process. An equivalence points system has been agreed for the value of each of the ships, to ensure like-for-like value and barter points are allocated per ship day used.

NERC-NSF bilateral arrangements

  6.  NERC has had a bilateral barter arrangement with the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA since the mid-1980s. NERC has in recent years had regular exchanges with the NSF and this has allowed UK scientists to take advantage of the positioning of US ships in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico; to use the state-of-the-art US geophysics ship and its facilities; and to take part in joint cruises (see paragraph 10ii for more information).

NERC's trilateral arrangement

  7.  NERC has had a trilateral barter arrangement with organisations in Germany and France since the mid-1990s. These arrangements were then extended to include organisations from the Netherlands (in 2002) and Norway and Spain (in 2006). All trilateral arrangement organisations are now members of the Ocean Facilities Exchange Group (OFEG), which was formed in 2002 to facilitate the exchange of European ocean-going facilities.

  8.  NERC has played a lead role in developing OFEG through its Chairmanship/Secretarial roles. Recent OFEG highlights include:

    —   a step change in barter activity as trust has built up amongst the members of OFEG—with activity increasing from less than ca.50-days a year before 2003 to exchanges of up to 250-days a year;

    —  exchanges of marine equipment and technicians;

    —  the development of an OFEG deep-platforms facility (eg ROVs, deep-ocean towed platforms) and an OFEG marine geophysics facility—which will provide for better collaboration, and possibly integration, of these expensive facilities;

    —  workshop meetings that are planned for OFEG technicians to facilitate the improvement of information exchange, collaboration, and training activities.

NERC's barter activity

  9.  Over the past five-years there has been a step change in NERC's barter exchange activity and this has been made possible by the high levels of trust that NERC has built up with its barter partners. Before 2003, NERC was typically involved in 1-2 exchanges per year (typically amounting to less than 30-days exchanged per year) but from 2003 NERC has had between 12 and 15 exchanges per year with between 160 and 220 days exchanged.

  10.  NERC has in recent years proactively used barter arrangements to maximise the science that it can deliver with its marine facilities by, for example, minimising the number of science days that are lost in the cruise programme to extended passage legs between science areas. In addition, the barter arrangements have allowed NERC to realise a number of other significant benefits, which include:

i)  Opportunistic interventions

  The barter arrangements allow NERC to take advantage of the geographic position of barter partner ships to, for example, recover data from drifting moorings and then re-deploy the mooring quickly to maintain long-term time series. Such opportunistic interventions have proved invaluable to ensure that monitoring systems, such as the UK-US funded RAPID mooring array—that monitors the thermohaline circulation across the North Atlantic at 26³N—continues to collect a largely complete time-series. In 2004, for example, opportunistic interventions allowed for the timely recovery of drifting RAPID moorings on both the eastern and western boundaries of the North Atlantic using US and German barter ships, respectively. Such timely interventions would not have been possible using NERC ships.

ii)  Joint cruises

  In recent years NERC's barter partners have been willing to consider programming options that deliver a number of national science programmes on joint cruises. One recent example of this used a NERC ship to deliver a joint UK-Dutch-German cruise to recover and turn around the long-term moorings in the high latitude North Atlantic. Programming this cruise in this way ensured that all three nations did not need to send their own ships into this geographically remote region at the same time and it allowed for there to be interaction/collaboration between the members of the science and technical support teams.

iii)  Large-scale exchanges

  The increased collaboration that NERC has had with its partners has enabled it to programme the largest ever exchange by any nation—and it is anticipated that similar large exchanges will now be possible in the future. As part of this exchange, UK scientists will gain access to 130 days on the German research ship Sonne in 2008 and 2009 to do a geophysics experiment off Sumatra to improve our understanding of the earthquake that caused the tsunami in December 2004. Without the confidence that partners now have in the barter arrangements, it might not have been possible to deliver this science programme, as it is in such a geographically remote region that the use of a NERC ship would have introduced large passage legs into the NERC cruise programme at a time when there is high science demand for the available ship-time.


  Annex A formed the basis of discussions held between the Research Councils and with OSI regarding obtaining funding for a replacement for the RRS Discovery from the Large Facilities Capital Fund.

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