Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)

WEDNESDAY 16 MAY 2007

DR JOE HORWOOD, DR ROBIN HENSLEY AND DR MIKE BELL

  Q140  Dr Spink: Had we had that in 1953, would it have enabled us to know sooner about the massive surge in tide and flood that hit the south-east of England, for instance?

  Dr Bell: It would not have been relevant to that particular application. Tide gauges are more valuable for that particular application. So, yes, there is an important point there that, in monitoring, you have to be very clear about the purposes of the monitoring.

  Q141  Linda Gilroy: To Dr Hensley, you have described how you are focused around providing navigational products and the basic hydrographic activity is to map the bed of the ocean. What proportion of the oceans has actually been mapped?

  Dr Hensley: That is a fine question.

  Q142  Linda Gilroy: They are not mapped in their entirety, as I understand it, by a long chalk.

  Dr Hensley: They are not. I cannot give you an answer in terms of percentage, I am afraid. There is also a question of to what standard they are mapped and whether they are charted and surveyed to International Hydrographic Office standards for navigational requirements or whether it is for environmental purposes. Going back slightly, if I may digress, when I was still but a lowly student, and it is not that long ago, I understand that in the deep sea area that I used to work in there was approximately a football pitch worth of ground, if you like, that had been thoroughly surveyed but that is at least 15 years ago. I do not have the figures for the UK. I am sure we get give you those.

  Q143  Chairman: It would be useful if we had those. I turn to you, Dr Horwood, and ask you in terms of Cefas about how your agency has changed and its work has changed to meet the changing use of the marine environment, briefly.

  Dr Horwood: May I pick up on one of the technologies for instance which again we share with the Met Office. We have developed over the last few years some offshore wave censors, which have been very helpful in predicting local flooding in the last 12 months. We now have this system of offshore real time data coming in which complements the shore-based gauges. We are looking more and more to remote data collection but the key area for us is really the increasing international interest and international obligations to monitor and keep an eye on the coastal seas. Rather than the wonderful technologies that are coming on board, it is the increasing interest in getting proper baseline information.

  Q144  Chairman: Why do you think that we have had evidence given to the committee that Cefas is becoming much more aggressive, much more remote and much less co-operative in terms of the other marine science organisations of late? Why do you think that should have been reported to us? Is it true? You do not look like a very predatory man from here!

  Dr Horwood: There are some good things about that. We have been extremely fortunate, and I think the country is quite fortunate, in having agreed a ten-year deal with Defra on our future. We have a ten-year funding programme. This is in the context of the Public Sector Research Establishment report, which said that all the government's research establishments are really at risk from the sustainability point of view. They have attempted to address that but the agreement is for ten years of flat funding. Of course, as you can imagine, at the end of that period, there will be a gap to fill. At present, they are filling 77 per cent; in ten years' time, they will be filling than 60 per cent. We will be looking to wider markets to fill the gap. This is not just to keep people in business. It is actually to keep teams and facilities alive in order to underpin the government. There is an induced financial driver to do this but also it has been enormously beneficial to us. There has been, since the Sixties and Seventies, a contraction in funding for marine research. Our area of interest has contracted and this ability to go out into the wider market has enabled us to do a much richer range of research. A lot of our scientists are much more fulfilled. If you refer to the submission from Oxford University, they have pointed out that some of our institutes might be better if they too were subjected to more competition. There are lots of good things and drivers for competition. The people who we are competing with one day of course are our partners in other complex research projects the next day.

  Q145  Chairman: I do not have a clear picture yet as to whether you will drive policy and therefore say to Government, "This is what we need to be doing", or whether you are just simply recipients of government policy and carry it out. Can you tell us briefly where you sit on that continuum between being the driver and being purely the recipient?

  Dr Bell: The Met Office's role is to provide impartial, objective, scientific advice on which policy can be based but it is not to enter into the discussion of the policy itself.

  Dr Hensley: The policy for data collection for defence is set within MoD. FLEET is the organisation that controls vessels to collect the data that we get. We do have some role at the IHO alongside the MCA but the MCA is responsible for discharging our SOLAS obligations. We are advisory in that respect.

  Dr Horwood: We have no exclusive policy role or responsibility. We are essentially a delivery agent but our Defra colleagues see us as partners so that they have an informed customer role. In addition, we sit on quite a lot of high level expert panels at the European level where we are influencing the European policy agenda. We ourselves are not responsible for agreeing any particular set of policies.

  Q146  Dr Spink: Dr Hemsley mentioned the MoD. I wondered if he could expand a little on what the MoD's role is in marine science research and technology development.

  Dr Hensley: I do not sit in a research organisation, so I cannot comment directly on the way MoD directs its research funds. We are recipients of the data from various programmes that they undertake so that we can turn them into products and services for them. It would be speculation for me if I was to throw that back.

  Q147  Dr Spink: Mike Bell, do you have a view on where the MoD sits and how they advise on scientific information?

  Dr Bell: There is a research acquisition organisation within MoD which plays that sort of role. They acquire research from us, for example. There is also the DSTL of course, which undertakes a lot of research for the Ministry of Defence.

  Q148  Dr Spink: What sort of research is it looking for?

  Dr Bell: It is a very broad range of research. I think there are seven pillars under which the research is organised. I perhaps need to check that and send you a written answer.

  Q149  Dr Spink: For instance, do they come up with specific projects or do they just come up with problems and ask you to look at how you might design research and technology to solve those problems?

  Dr Bell: In our specific case, which might be a good example, the programme of work that we do, which involves some research, is agreed with the MoD customers, with the policy customer within MoD. There is a discussion as to what their priorities are, what our capabilities are and what we could develop that would be valuable to them. The projects that they drive are worked out in quite a collaborative and constructive way.

  Dr Hensley: There is a body called the Co-operative Arrangements for Research in Ocean Science. That is attended by the directors of the NERC institutes and it is co-chaired by one of the NERC directors and an MoD representative. At that level, there is mutual discussion on requirements.

  Q150  Dr Spink: Could I turn to the relationship between Cefas and the OSI, Dr Horwood? What is your relationship with the OSI?

  Dr Horwood: I have to admit that I do not know whether IACMST is still part of OSI.

  Q151  Chairman: You do not know whether it is?

  Dr Horwood: I personally do not know; maybe I should. I do not know what the parent of IACMST is but we have a seat on the IACMST. As you have already heard, it is a form of co-ordinating body and it sends information up through the system. We do contribute to the open consultation on framework programmes. Also, via Defra, the OSI have an overall responsibility for the quality of science across government. We see that effect through our science audits and through the review of science in Defra. I would be straining to find any closer contact.

  Q152  Dr Spink: It seems to me then that there is not really that much collaboration or contact between you as someone who delivers science in a specific area, the issue of agriculture, and the OSI. That is quite surprising. I would have thought there was very close collaboration to make sure that there are no gaps and overlaps.

  Dr Horwood: One area that I missed is that of course they would probably be leading on our response to the framework programmes in Europe, and again either independently or through Defra we would be feeding in our thoughts to that. Our key association is with the parent department to commission specific work. There are lots of areas where we are very much joined up at the European and North Atlantic level.

  Q153  Dr Spink: Do the OSI get involved in any quality issues in terms of your research and quality advice delivery?

  Dr Horwood: That is only in terms of their remit to overlook the quality of science conducted by government departments as a whole.

  Q154  Dr Iddon: It sounds to me as if the bulk of the money for your three agencies comes as a result of programmes rather than as core funding, which you could direct as you wish. Is that correct?

  Dr Hensley: UKHO is a trading fund, so we do receive some funding from the MoD in order to turn around the data that they provide to us to provide defence-specific products and services. We use the bathometric data from the civilian hydrographic programme as administered by they MCA and we quality assure those data and turn those into navigational products and services. It is the sale of those navigational products and services that supports the agency.

  Q155  Dr Iddon: What about the other two agencies?

  Dr Horwood: To my understanding, yes, that is right; we are funded through programmes.

  Q156  Dr Iddon: Do you think that is right or would you prefer to have more core funding to develop research ideas, for example? What would you like to do that you cannot do at the moment? Are there any pressing problems?

  Dr Bell: I think that the existing arrangements are quite good. I do think having programmes is quite a good arrangement. There are areas where the co-ordination across government is quite difficult to bring marine science through into practical applications. I am thinking in particular, for example, of counter pollution responses to, for example, oil spills, to the co-ordination across government of the requirements for that to bring new marine research through into those operations. I think that the co-ordination there could be improved. It is those sorts of areas where I think there is a gap.

  Q157  Dr Iddon: Dr Harwood, what could your organisation be doing if you were not so restricted by programmes?

  Dr Horwood: It would depend upon the scale. There is a very significant list of things that needs to be done at sea. We really do not understand how the sea works at all. You might be interested to have a look at the ICES submission to the Maritime Marine Green paper where they have a fairly pithy set of recommendations for activities. One of the key things is to understand how the sea is going to change in response to anthropogenic stresses and annual climate change. We really need to be monitoring it more intensively to understand the natural variation from which we then see signals of change. The first is monitoring; the second is understanding how the sea as a system works. In terms of our internal programmes, likewise, I think our marine environment, and fisheries divisions in Defra, are very supportive of work in thus area. I am sure if they had more from the Treasury, they would be more than willing to invest more in this area. Within our own programmes, we really are a bit constrained to delivering fairly targeted programmes. It would be nice to have a little bit of space within each programme for a bit more innovation and sitting back and thinking.

  Dr Hensley: As a trading fund, we are very focused on our objectives. I will not quote those. We are there to provide navigation products and services. One of our objectives is organisational excellence and maximising the benefit of those uses. I do not have any comments to add to those of my colleagues.

  Q158  Dr Iddon: Are all government agencies able to bid for their funding and indeed other research council funding or are there some difficulties in that area?

  Dr Horwood: There are some difficulties. There has been a recent change in the character of research council eligibility such that my organisation, and I guess the Met Office, are no longer in a position to be given any of the research council funding at all. This is a problem. We can still receive it as subcontractors but the key thing is that as a leader in a programme, you very much can drive a particular idea forward, in competition with everybody else who is competing. We did see that as a bit of a blow. I understand there were representations from the Defra Chief Scientist back to the research council, although I cannot say what the outcome of that is.

  Dr Bell: The Met Office under the new rules is not able to apply for money from research councils but I believe that it can take part in projects as subcontractors. In the past, it has been a bit less clear whether the Met Office could take part in, say, NERC-funded projects. There have been projects where collaboration between the Met Office and NERC was obviously very desirable and we collaborated in the projects, but there was difficulty getting funding for the Met Office for that, so we tried to get funding from the Ministry of Defence and that did make it difficult to get the projects started. We were successful in the end, I should say.

  Q159  Dr Iddon: Could you each tell the committee, and you have hinted at some of this already but perhaps we could clarify it, how much involvement each of your agencies has with the private sector? Is it important that you bring in a lot of private sector money or not? We will start with the Met Office. You must service a lot of the private sector.

  Dr Bell: We do service the private sector. The marine research part of the Met Office has much more contact with the NERC laboratories, which is very strong at the moment. To come back to your question, the Met Office in the marine sector has the Aberdeen Weather Centre, which services the oil and gas industry, particularly in the North Sea. There is a programme within the Met Office to develop commercial products to serve the marine sector in various aspects, like energy, marine renewables and the leisure industry. There is a list of things. It is in fact a fairly small group.


 
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