Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex A


1.  Executive summary

  1.1  The oceans play a pivotal role in the functioning of the Earth system, for example the possible rapid collapse of the Atlantic Ocean's thermohaline circulation would lead to severe and rapid climate change in north west Europe. Seagoing science is an essential element of Earth-system science. To maintain the UK's strong international leadership in producing high quality research in this area, NERC must retain the capability to field internationally competitive scientific programmes at sea using state-of-the-art research ships. NERC has two dedicated research ships for multidisciplinary ocean science cruises—the Discovery and the Charles Darwin (to be replaced by the James Cook in 2006)—and continued investment in these facilities is required to ensure that the UK remains in the first division of seagoing science nations.

  1.2  The Discovery will be at the end of its scientifically useful life by 2011, by which time the ship will have been in service for 49-years. The replacement of Discovery with a ship that is capable of supporting large multidisciplinary science cruises is required to avoid driving detrimental large-scale changes to UK marine science research, to deliver NERC's strategy of Earth-system science, and to ensure that the UK's ocean sciences overall ranking as second to the USA in research excellence is maintained. It will ensure that the UK continues to provide strong international leadership and partnership within International programmes, and that the UK can continue to be involved in large-scale international collaborations. Failure to invest in the timely replacement of Discovery would risk the delivery of NERC strategic priorities and the UK's strong international reputation with it collaborative science and barter partners—as the ship may have to be withdrawn from service at short notice in the event of a major systems failure.

  1.3  The UK is heavily involved with the bartering of marine facilities with its partners in the United States, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Norway—with ca.200 barter days a year exchanged by NERC. These arrangements ensure that research ships are used far more efficiently and cost-effectively, and they allow the UK scientific communities access to a wider range of marine facilities (including 32-research ships) and geographical areas than would have otherwise been possible. Continued access for the UK research community to barter facilities is contingent on the UK having state-of-the-art facilities to barter with, and so the replacement of Discovery will ensure that the UK's barter arrangements remain strong and that the UK science community can continue to conduct research on a worldwide basis.

  1.4  The total cost of the replacement of Discovery with the required specification will be £55 million, and NERC has earmarked 30 per cent of the required funding (ie £16.5 million) for this project. The indicative funding profile for the build of a ship to be delivered in 2011 is outlined below:

FY 06/07



  2.1  NERC has two dedicated ocean-going research ships, the Discovery and the Charles Darwin—both of which are approaching the end of their scientifically useful lives. The Darwin will be replaced by the James Cook in 2006, and the Discovery will reach the end of her useful life by 2011. The timely replacement of Discovery with a new state-of-the art ship will ensure that the UK can continue to mount the large multidisciplinary science programmes that are required to improve our understanding of the inter-relationships between biological, chemical, physical and geological processes, in the marine and atmospheric realms, many of which are on a scale that will continue to require strong international collaboration. Such programmes are required to meet key outcomes in the sustainable Earth system theme that are highlighted in the Government's 10-year Science & Innovation Investment Framework. These include: a considerable reduction in the uncertainties in predicting climate change and sea level rise, both globally and regionally; a significant reduction in the current uncertainties about the possible rapid collapse of the Atlantic Ocean's thermohaline circulation; and understanding of the implications of global environmental change for the sustainability of marine ecosystem goods and services.

  2.2  The science knowledge provided by research ships is critical to delivering against a number of NERC's strategy and delivery plan science priorities. NERC's two dedicated research ships have been essential research facilities for improving our understanding and prediction of the Earth's environment and they will continue to underpin the UK's approach to Earth system science. This is driven by NERC's science strategy, "Science for a Sustainable Future" (SSF), in which seagoing research makes a major contribution to two of NERC's three strategic science priority areas (ie `climate change' and "Earth's life-support systems") and to fourteen of SSF's thirty-two strategy questions. In addition, seagoing science will make a major contribution to realising the 3 to 10-year objectives of the NERC Delivery Plan, such as through: the directed investments in Integrated Ocean Drilling (for site survey investigations), the UK Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study, and Rapid Climate Change; planned future investments in Deep Oceans and Sustainable Management of Marine Bioresources; and the renewal of seagoing programmes at four of NERC's Research and Collaborative Centres. This research is important for the UK as it will improve our understanding of the Earth's life-support system—and its sustainability and ability to adapt to climate change—and our prediction of the various drivers of climate change, and consequent impacts, so that the UK can minimise and mitigate effects that will cause serious harm to the environment, the economy and society.

  2.3  Further measures of the importance of the science knowledge are the quality, multidisciplinarity and international collaboration that are delivered. The UK has world-class strengths in the ocean sciences—with the UK's ocean science ranking as second to the USA in research excellence—and the maintenance of the health of this science base is heavily dependent on the UK having world-class marine facilities and maintaining its access to some of the best international facilities via barter partnerships (see section 7. for more information). Access to ship-time (on NERC and barter ships) is only provided for science programmes that have been graded as being of international quality at peer review and these programmes are increasingly multidisciplinary in nature with strong collaborations with a number of partners from UK and international institutions. NERC typically programmes ca.550 science days at sea a year, which is effectively all of the available ship-time. Approximately two-thirds of this science is funded by NERC with directed strategic funding (that contributes to NERC's science priorities), with the remainder coming from NERC's responsive "blue-skies" funding and other sources, including the MOD, DEFRA, the European Union and the USA's National Science Foundation. NERC believes that the timely replacement of Discovery is required to avoid driving detrimental large-scale changes to UK marine science research, to meet its strategy of delivering Earth-system science, and to ensure that international barter partnerships remain strong.


  3.1  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 that the ocean sciences make a major contribution, the UK is second only to the USA, and closing the gap[71]. If the UK is to maintain this leadership edge and to retain its world-class centres of research excellence, which is Government's ambition outlined in the 10-year framework, then it will require on-going investment in state-of-the art marine facilities and continued access to the best international ships available through NERC's barter arrangements (see section 7. for more information). Such access is contingent on the UK continuing to have state-of-the-art ships to barter with.

  3.2  The strength of the UK in the ocean sciences has ensured that it provides international leadership, influence and partnership within International programmes—notably those of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP)—and has allowed NERC to fund and manage three International Project Offices (IPOs): WCRP's Climate Variability (CLIVAR) project; IGBP's Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC), and Surface-Ocean Lower-Atmosphere Study (SOLAS). Through hosting these IPOs the UK is able to help set the scientific agenda of these international projects to maximise their value for the UK.

  3.3  On-going international partnership in multidisciplinary research programmes is critical if the UK is to conduct world-class research in collaboration with world-class scientists. Over the last 5-years, 50 per cent of NERC's research cruises have involved collaboration with international scientists and students—who have come from 49 institutions and 17 countries—and this level of collaboration will only be maintained if the UK's research ships remain state-of-the-art. One recent example of international collaboration has allowed for the deployment of a £10 million US-UK instrumental array stretching across the Atlantic Ocean to continuously study the dynamics, strength and structure of the large-scale circulation that moderate European climate. Maintenance and data-recovery require access to large research ships throughout the year. Recent work on this circulation indicates that the circulation may have reduced by 30 per cent over the past decade[72]—a change that could have significant climatic implications; the array will enable the true variability to be established, and the risk of associated rapid climate change in Europe to be quantified. Such large-scale international collaboration is realistically only possible if the UK continues to have access to two state-of-the-art research ships.

  3.4   The UK science community is currently able to conduct research on a worldwide basis. Through close co-operation with NERC's barter partners, ocean-going research ships are positioned strategically around the world. In recent years this has allowed the international community to gain access to ship-time in, for example, the Indian Ocean on NERC ships and the Pacific Ocean on US and French ships. The non-replacement of Discovery would stop NERC supporting science on a worldwide basis—as NERC ship-time would mainly be restricted to the North Atlantic—and that would severely restrict the UK's contribution to international science programmes and to the "virtual" fleet of international barter ships.

4.  Timeliness: urgency or potential lost opportunity if delayed from proposed start date

  4.1  Research ships are typically designed for a life of 25 to 30 years after which they are at the end of their scientifically useful lives. The Discovery has been in service for 43 years, which makes it the oldest ship in the world's oceanographic research fleet. A major refit to Discovery in 1992, which cost half the replacement cost of a new ship, was commissioned to ensure that the ship continued to have state-of-the art facilities for another 15 years (ie until 2007). NERC has continued to invest in the enhancement of Discovery's facilities to extend its life by a further 4-years, including the fitting in 2003 of a ca.£2 million scientific winch system. By 2011, the Discovery will have reached the end of its scientifically useful life; and it is expected that the programming of the ship will become increasingly difficult in the years leading up to 2011 as the ship becomes less capable of supporting the requirements of future multidisciplinary science programmes.

  4.2  Failure to invest now in the replacement of Discovery will severely reduce the UK's ability to deliver world-class multidisciplinary ocean sciences, and it will reduce the scientific impact of UK science and its contribution to major international programmes. This would lead to some world-class scientists and engineers in UK universities and research institutes relocating to other countries.

  4.3  To prolong the ship's life beyond 2011, by which time it will be 50-years old, is unrealistic on science grounds and the ship's major systems will increasingly be at risk of failure. This is because some of the Discovery's systems, such as its propulsion motors, are original and the "new" electronic systems that were fitted during its major refit in 1992 are now obsolete and cannot be easily repaired. A major failure would render the ship unfit for service and there is doubt about the cost-effectiveness of major refit works given the ship's age and its scientific capability. A major failure would seriously disrupt the cruise programme and delivery of NERC strategic objectives. Given that the UK cruise programme includes a significant number of international collaborative and barter cruises, which cannot easily be changed in the event of a ship being withdrawn from service (because international cruise planning typically takes some 12-18 months), there is a significant risk to the UK's international reputation in using the Discovery so near to the end of its operational life. A modest failure on the Charles Darwin, which comes out of service in 2006, highlighted this risk as the disruption that was caused to the UK's cruise programme jeopardised the support of the recovery and re-deployment of four sets of long-term moorings for four German and Dutch research programmes.


  5.1  The UK currently has world-class strengths in marine physics, chemistry and biology; marine geology and geophysics; marine engineering and technology; environmental computational modelling; atmospheric physics and chemistry; and earth observation—all of which need the data and samples that are collected using NERC's research ships.

  5.2  The UK currently has eighteen seagoing research groups in RAE graded 5 and 5* university departments and four world-class marine research institutes (NB. this was recently established by peer review). In addition, the data and samples collected during cruises are used 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.

  5.3  Most cruise data and samples are readily available to the UK and international scientific community via, for example, NERC's British Oceanographic Data Centre website, which can provide access to biological, chemical, physical and geophysical oceanographic data with some 10,000 different variables. In addition, cruise data are available to Government Departments, agencies, and users via the UK Marine Environmental Data Network partnership.


  6.1  Access to research ships provides the UK ocean sciences and engineering community with significant opportunities for technology transfer. The development of innovative new oceanographic instruments and sensors for use on research cruises will continue to be required if we are to improve our understanding of the Earth system. These instruments have wider applications. For example, an electromagnetic instrument originally developed for the study of volcanic activity in mid ocean ridges is now used by the oil industry for the detection of new sources of offshore hydrocarbons. This development has led to the recent floating of a University of Southampton technology spin-out company, Offshore Hydrocarbon Mapping Limited, for a value of just under £50 million. Similarly, the development of an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) as a ship-launched platform for oceanographic sensors has led to a licensing agreement to give Halliburton Subsea exclusive use of the AUV for applications in the oil, gas and subsea cable markets.

  6.2  The UK's world-class ocean sciences research also provides for knowledge transfer activities, such as, those of the recently launched National Centre for Ocean Forecasting (NCOF)—which is a collaboration between the Met Office and a number of NERC's Research and Collaborative Centres. NCOF will co-ordinate the UK's ocean forecasting activities and provide as much information on the short-range (5-10 day) conditions in the oceans as is currently available about the weather. Development such as this will ultimately benefit society and the economy by providing support to, for example, oil slick responses, search and rescue, defence, the management of water quality, ecosystems and fisheries, wind farms, oil exploration, safety of shipping and improved weather forecasts.

  6.3  The 10-year framework emphasises the need to deliver evidenced-based policies and this is central to many of the UK's seagoing science programmes. For example, the Sustainable Management of Marine Bioresources programme will, following wide consultation with UK stakeholders, meet key elements of the underpinning knowledge that Government will need to formulate policy in this area. And on-going investments in the seagoing research that are required to reduce uncertainties in climate prediction will continue to contribute to the development of international policy via the work of, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


  7.1 The UK exchanges more time on marine facilities through international barter arrangements, and with more partners, than any other country. These arrangements promote a more efficient and cost effective use of each country's marine facilities by allowing the scientific communities access to a wider range of technical facilities and geographical areas in a given year than would have otherwise been possible. In recent years these arrangements have allowed the UK to programme science on state-of-the-art facilities, such as a US geophysics ship, and to maximise the science that is programmed through, for example, the use of the most appropriate ships given the size and geographic location of science programmes. They are also increasingly being used for opportunistic barter cruises (that take advantage of the geographic location of barter ships) to recover UK moorings that have broken free and are drifting in the North Atlantic—which saves expensive capital equipment and data. Continued access for the UK research community to barter facilities is however contingent on there being on-going modernisation of the UK research fleet and an enhancement of its facilities, and so the timely replacement of the Discovery will ensure that the UK's barter partnerships remain strong.

  7.2 The UK has arrangements with France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the USA. These partnerships have strengthened significantly over the last 4-years with NERC exchanging ca.200-days a year, which represents over a third of the available ship-time within NERC's annual cruise programme. The leverage gained by the UK each year is considerable—not least because the number of science days "lost" to passage and down-time (when no UK science programmes are bidding for the available time) are significantly reduced by having effective international ship programming. In 2005, for example, NERC's ships operated at full capacity throughout the year (ie ca.550 sea days) in the Southern Indian Ocean, South Atlantic and North Atlantic, and only 15 sea days were `lost' to passage (ie ca.2.5 per cent of available ship-time).

  7.3  NERC has proactively examined co-ownership options with its barter partners to see if it is possible for the UK to have shares in two or more ships, which collectively would provide the UK with the same number of sea days as Discovery. At this time there are no opportunities to co-own any large ocean-going research ships and this is principally because no partners have any immediate requirement and/or funding in place for new ships. The strong international partnership relations within the Ocean Facilities Exchange Group (in which NERC is a member) will ensure that all new ship plans are made available to partners for comment so that, wherever possible, all new ships are compatible with the requirements of each nation. This is now leading to the establishment of a virtual fleet of research ships that can easily be used by all partners. The proposed replacement of Discovery is supported by NERC's barter partners and any new ship would be built to complement the capabilities within the barter fleet and so, for example, it would not duplicate highly specialised capabilities, such as an ice-strengthened hull or 3-D seismics, that can be delivered using barter ships.


  8.1  There are approximately 50 PhD students currently conducting research that has involved active participation in research cruises and in a typical year up to 350 scientists, engineers and students would gain research training and experience whilst using NERC's research ships.

  8.2  As seagoing science has become more multidisciplinary it has allowed for NERC's research cruises to provide for more cross-disciplinary training for scientists and engineers, which is a key area for further improvement in the Government's 10-year framework. One current example of a multidisciplinary research programme is the £2.4 million consortium on the Atlantic Meredional Transect (AMT), which has just been independently reviewed for NERC. This Review found that AMT, which had 6 cruises over 3-years, had contributed to 11 UK and 16 internationally funded research programmes and 21 UK registered and 7 international PhD and MRes studentships, and was judged by the Review team to be "an outstanding means of training" UK ocean scientists

71   3 Source: UK environmental science review report for the Environment Research Funders' Forum Back

72   Nature (in press) Back

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