Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 130 - 139)



  Q130  Chairman: Good morning to our special witnesses this morning: Dr Joe Horwood from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Cefas; Dr Robin Hensley, from the International Partnering Programme, the Team Leader for the UK Hydrographic Office; and Dr Mike Bell, Head from the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting, the Met Office. Gentlemen, you are very welcome to this evidence session of our inquiry investigating the oceans. Could I ask you, Dr Hensley, to be the chair of your panel and please bring in your colleagues. How do you see the roles of organisations like Cefas, the UKHO and the Met Office in marine science and technology research? What is their principal role at the moment?

  Dr Hensley: I will speak about the Hydrographic Office and then I will defer to my colleagues. The UKHO itself does not conduct research. However, we collate data that are gathered and we turn those into products and services, either for the military or for the civilian user. We are not a research organisation but we are a user, a consumer of data. We could have a role in requesting or requiring research to be done where there are gaps within the research, but primarily we are not a research organisation. We just have a database that we manage and use to service our community.

  Dr Horwood: We have a fairly clear role. It is very much as a supporter of government and other departments, particularly Defra from which we receive over 70 per cent of our funding, from the Marine and Fisheries Divisions of Defra with its national and international responsibilities. We are engaged in support of obligations, monitoring, research and advice. We have emergency response capabilities which fit in with that. Our research does tend to be very applied to support the needs of the government policy divisions; it tends to be more short term than programmes managed by, for instance, NERC.

  Q131  Chairman: It is basically the Government that sets your work programme?

  Dr Horwood: All our work, apart from a very small amount which we ourselves do, is done through particular contractual commitments, mainly through Defra. Then about another 25 per cent of that funding is won in competition but it is work that is aligned to the core. We do significant work for the Food Standard Agency in monitoring radio activity, including in the environment, and in looking at the toxins in marine foods. We have a significant portfolio of EU research programmes, which again support the core Defra marine and fisheries programme.

  Q132  Chairman: It is virtually all public sector funded?

  Dr Horwood: It is but it need not necessarily be. About 5 to 10% of our work is overseas and for other governments.

  Q133  Chairman: What is the overall budget?

  Dr Horwood: It is presently £43 million.

  Q134  Chairman: You say that roughly 5 to 10% comes from the private sector?

  Dr Horwood: Having looked at my notes, the figure is at present 4%, with another 4% from the EU, and about 25% is won in competition with other organisations nationally and internationally.

  Dr Bell: The primary role of the Met Office with respect to marine science is to use up-to-date marine science and technology to make predictions. There are three timescales for which we make predictions. There are climate predictions, predicting how the climate is going to vary and change over the next 50 to 100 years. There are seasonal forecasts that we make; for example, the cold winter forecast that we made not for last winter but the preceding winter. We also make forecasts of the surface waves, coastal flooding, storm surges, surface temperature currents in the ocean on a short timescale, so just a few days ahead. Obviously to do all of those things, monitoring of the oceans is very important to us. We ourselves play a small role in that.

  Q135  Graham Stringer: What is the balance of resources into those three areas of forecasting, as a percentage?

  Dr Bell: As percentages, the climate prediction with seasonal forecasting together is just over 50% of those and we spend of the order of £1.8 million per annum on those activities; that is, the marine aspects of those. For short-range forecasting, we spend, as we stated in our evidence, £1.3 million; I think it is slightly more than that at £1.5 million per year on short-range forecasting, which is primarily funded by the Ministry of Defence.

  Q136  Chairman: Obviously the whole marine space is used significantly. When I was growing up, it was seen as a major source of food and that was it. It is now used in all sorts of different ways. How is your work changing? How is your workload changing? How would you say the emphasis of your budget changes to meet the changes in the marine environment and the uses of it for things like energy? I would like a comment from each of you.

  Dr Bell: Obviously the climate change agenda has increased in importance dramatically over the last ten years. That work is jointly funded by Defra and MoD. It is of course up to Defra and MoD to decide how much money to spend in that area. The seasonal forecasting area has also gone up the agenda recently because it has become more plausible; we can make seasonal forecasts with a useful level of skill. I think that has become clearer over the last five years than it was ten years ago, particularly for forecasting in north-west Europe; for seasonal forecasting in the tropical regions, it has been understood that that has been possible for some time. Operational forecasting has gone up the agenda a lot in the last ten years as well because it is only in the last ten years that it has been seen to be feasible. Surface wave forecasting has been going on for quite a long time. That is well established, and so is storm surge prediction, so the coastal predictions on the basis of which the Environment Agency issues warnings of coastal flooding. That is well established but in some of the other areas, in particular forecasting of currents in the ocean, the technology has only just got to the point in the last ten years where that is coming through as a viable and reasonable thing to do.

  Dr Hensley: From the UKHO perspective, it is not as direct as the forecasting function from the Met Office. We support the Maritime and Coastguard Agency discharging the Government's Safety of Lives at Sea regulations, and we do that through the provision of navigational products and services. In order to achieve that, the bathometric survey programme needs to be geared to respond to environmental changes in shipping areas, for example, and areas that have not been particularly well surveyed. One could argue that our role follows environmental change in that respect. It is responding really to the requirements of the needs for safe navigation. In our defence area, again we are responding to the requirements for environmental information and data. There is not as clear a driver as for the Met Office looking at forecasting of, say, storm surges. We respond in that respect. It is not as direct.

  Q137  Chairman: Have the technologies changed dramatically?

  Dr Hensley: Yes.

  Q138  Chairman: Give me an example of where five years ago something you are doing now is totally different from the way in which you were operating five years ago using technology.

  Dr Bell: There is one rather good example of that, I think, which is the ARGO system, which is a system of floats which are about the size of a man. They spend most of their time at about 1,000 metres depth within the deep ocean and once every ten days or so they come up to the surface. They go down to 2,000 metres and come up measuring temperature and salinity, then they signal that via satellite to shore. There are nearly 3,000 of these of those floats distributed globally in the water now. This programme was first considered in 1997. I remember very vividly thinking how marvellous it would be if we could really have such a system monitoring the oceans with 3,000 floats with a very good geographical distribution. That data is freely available over the worldwide web. We use it to keep our forecasts on track and close to reality. I think that is one of several examples.

  Q139  Dr Spink: Could I ask how that actually works with predictions of temperatures and salinity? What does that enable you to predict?

  Dr Bell: Knowing the temperature and salinity of the oceans is important because the temperature and salinity structure drives the currents, together with the surface winds. It is that thermal and density structure which drives the currents. If you want to do things like monitor the thermohaline circulations, this is the circulation that does a lot of the transport of heat from the Equator to the Poles and it is very important in the earth's climate.

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