Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 201 - 219)

WEDNESDAY 16 MAY 2007

PROFESSOR ANDREW J WILLMOTT, PROFESSOR ED HILL AND PROFESSOR PETER LISS

  Q201  Chairman: I do apologise to our second panel that we have run over. We welcome Professor Ed Hill, the Director of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; Professor Peter Liss, President of the Challenger Society for Marine Science and from the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia; and Professor Andrew Willmott, the Director of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool. You are very, very welcome indeed. If we can be fairly brief and fairly rapid in terms of responding to us. What we are trying to get at is what is your assessment of UK marine science, both in the universities and in the NERC research centres? What are the strengths and weaknesses? Where are we?

  Professor Liss: It is a big question and of course the answer is that it is very good in some parts and not so good in other parts, and we could spend the next hour detailing those categories, and I do not think you want that. That strength lies in various places; it lies in the universities, it lies in the NERC research institutes, it relies in other research institutes and agency laboratories, and I think that is one of the questions you have been tackling as to, okay, it is all over the place, is it well-integrated, do people talk to each other, do they use the resources effectively?

  Q202  Chairman: And the answer is?

  Professor Liss: Again, in part yes, but we could do better. I guess what you want to do is to investigate how we could do better.

  Q203  Chairman: Give me an example of where it is really good and where it is not very good?

  Professor Liss: I will give you an example that is very good. From personal experience I have very good links with my own research group to NERC laboratories, particularly in Plymouth—we have joint graduate students, we do joint work, we go on cruises together—and that is an example of where it works extremely well between a NERC laboratory and a university laboratory. Where it does not work so well is, for instance, on marine data. I am presently chairing the MDIP group, which has been referred to by one of the previous people. What MDIP is attempting to do is to set a framework for the use of marine data collected in UK coastal waters and marine areas. It is a very difficult job to do because the data is collected by lots of different organisations, and the attempt is to try to get this into a common framework, common standards, recognised data centres which obey those standards and make the data, as far as is possible, available to the whole marine community in the UK and further afield. That difficult job is run by MDIP, which is a professional organisation, which I chair, but is run on an amateur funding basis because we have only 0.8 of an individual who is paid to lead that work. All the other people have day jobs, which they have to do because they are paid to do them and they put time in whenever they can to contribute to the process. I do not think that is a satisfactory way of doing business because data is extremely important, particularly when we come to the MMO and marine protected areas and licensing and all those policy issues—you have to have the data to start otherwise you make wrong decisions even if you have a perfect system.

  Q204  Chairman: So it is a curate's egg really.

  Professor Liss: Yes.

  Q205  Chairman: Professor Willmott, would you agree with that assessment to start with, and where do you see the strengths and weaknesses?

  Professor Willmott: I agree with Peter's assessment. The thing I would like to point is that in making the UK science base fit to address issues like climate change, what NERC is trying to do in its new strategy is to remove the barriers which might exist for collaboration between research centres and also between research centres and the university sector. We believe that the most effective way for dealing with issues like climate change is to ensure that we can bring the interdisciplinary teams together so that we do not have any fiscal problems with the fact that one centre has to work in a different five-year cycle to another. So NERC has been developing a new strategy and a new funding model called FAB with the purpose of producing a more integrated community that is fit to tackle climate change issues.

  Q206  Chairman: You did not even involve the universities in the design of that programme, they were not even consultees in terms of Oceans 2025, for instance.

  Professor Willmott: With respect there—

  Q207  Chairman: That means you do not agree!

  Professor Willmott: There was a misunderstanding pedalled by others. Firstly, Oceans 2025 is about a programme which is renewing the funding for a group of laboratories, it is not a UK-wide national marine strategy. If it was that then we would have very wide consultation. It was a science review proposal, so before the proposal there was an overview document that was consulted on widely. The actual development of the research proposals, of course that is a confidential stage because those proposals are going to go out to peer review, and it is understood that the peer reviewers are receiving those in confidence. Now we have gone through that process we are again widely engaging with a variety of stakeholders, both in the university and indeed in the departments like Defra.

  Q208  Chairman: All right. I have got you excited anyhow! Professor Hill, do not repeat what we have had, but basically a curate's egg in terms of marine science. Can I pull you in on this issue of coordination between our institution, our universities; is that good enough?

  Professor Hill: It is never going to be good enough but it is getting better and we are, I think, on a journey towards better coordination. Despite some of the things that you have heard actually the relationship between the NERC centres and the university community are much better in this particular sector than in some other areas of environmental science, as it has to be said. This is not least because marine science is heavily dependent on massive infrastructure in order to get to the parts of the world that we need to get—ships, but access to data centres and very complex observing systems and technologies. And this can only really be done by a combination of facilities where you have a congregation of that kind of capability combined with a rather dynamic flexible environment that is typically finding universities generating new ideas, but which would be not possible to sustain them long-term without that kind of infrastructure. Where we are really heading is to try to ensure that that clarity of mission between the centres is right, so that we get the best added value as opposed to unnecessary protection.

  Chairman: Okay, you have redressed the balance. Bob Spink.

  Q209  Dr Spink: Could I ask each of you what the priorities are for marine research, very briefly?

  Professor Hill: I can start on that. There is an interesting degree of convergence on this. If you look at the NERC emerging strategy for environmental science, if you look at the EU Framework Programmes, if you look at the strategy produced by the European Science Foundations Marine Board, if you look at the Oceans 2025 Strategic Programme you will see the same things cropping up time and time again.

  Q210  Dr Spink: Which are?

  Professor Hill: Climate, biodiversity, natural resources including bio resources and energy, the issue of environment and health and technologies.

  Q211  Dr Spink: Coastal erosion would not feature in that?

  Professor Hill: Yes, the other area is about hazards and adverse human impact.

  Q212  Dr Spink: Would the biodiversity include fishing, over fishing, fishing policy? Would it include the impact on spawning grounds or the extraction of minerals, dredging for channels, which is happening in the Thames Estuary?

  Professor Hill: That is certainly a key area for research. It is not one where the NERC centres and a lot of the university community have necessarily been particularly active, but there is strength in fishery research in Cefas and in the Scottish equivalent agency. The key issue that has been recognised, though, is that there needs to be a much stronger linkage between fishery science and fundamental environmental science and to get the right relationship there, and that has been the recommendation of a number of bodies. So that is somewhere we are heading.

  Q213  Dr Spink: Professor Hill you have answered that very comprehensively, I suspect for all of you, so I will not go through it again unless there is anything that either of you would like to add?

  Professor Willmott: If I might add that there is a recently announced bio resources programme which will link laboratories like Cefas, SEERAD and the NERC centres and the university sector, so I think that is a very exciting and promising development in the area of bio resources.

  Professor Liss: I think what Ed Hill said is absolutely right, that in this day and age we are not just doing marine sciences, we are doing climate sciences, biodiversity and earth system science, and if you look at the new NERC strategy, which is for consultation at the present time—just finished, I think—those are the sort of things. I am chairing the panel on earth system science and obviously marine sciences come within that and virtually all the other panels have marine sciences. The corollary of that is that there is no centre in NERC Swindon which is called marine sciences—or at least it is hard to define; it is going much more to what are the projects we need to be doing rather than the disciplines we need to support.

  Q214  Dr Spink: Professor Liss, since you have the floor, you heard us ask questions that were quite probing on IACMST; what is your view of IACMST? Do you think it is working?

  Professor Liss: I am one of the three independent members of it, so in a sense, although I am a member, I take a somewhat more distant view. I think that it works probably as well as it can in its present configuration. It has the departmental representatives on it; it has three independent members and it has a secretariat which is again very small. It has done some useful tasks; it has two data groups, it has a remote sensing group which try to look at UK coordination in these matters—and I have already described the MDIP process—and those are all under IACMST and I think it would be a big loss if they did not exist. We did a review on effect of sound on marine mammals. But we can only do a certain amount. If, for instance, there is a suggestion that the UK should develop a marine strategy which, to my view, we do not have, if we wanted to have such a document—and the US is developing such a document, and you are going to the United States and you may want to look into how the document is and what does it cover, et cetera—I think IACMST is the sort of body that could do that if it had the resources. It currently does not have the resources to do a job as large as that.

  Q215  Dr Spink: That is extremely constructive and helpful and we will bear in mind next week your advice. Should the IACMST's role be changed to enable it to discharge its functions and to better coordinate the marine science opportunities more effectively?

  Professor Liss: I am not sure you have to change the terms of reference but you do need to get more buy-in from the stakeholders, i.e. government departments and agencies, and if it was doing more work and it had ability to do more work that buy-in would come, I think.

  Q216  Chairman: It was set up in 1990 to do exactly the things you are now describing. Quite frankly, if I had had a reference from somebody, which you have just described, I would not appoint them.

  Professor Liss: Fair comment.

  Q217  Chairman: I think we are very serious about this issue of where is the policy coming from and where is the coordination policy, and we take the very strong comments you made about this coordination. We found that with our space science programme, that you cannot just simply look at the space without looking at the oceans and the atmosphere and the whole things put together. So we are really keen on this idea of where do we go with this organisation in order to make a really effective, dynamic, thrusting, policy-driven world class organisation?

  Professor Liss: You need to do two things. You need to get greater buy-in from the stakeholders, and I am not sure how you do that.

  Q218  Dr Spink: Can you name the stakeholders you think are not buying-in sufficiently?

  Professor Liss: I think what we need to do is to look at the attendance. Some stakeholders are there all the time working for it and other stakeholders are not. I do not want to name names; I do not have the attendance record. Trevor Guymer, who is the Secretary, can give you this chapter and verse; I do not want to say things that might be proved slightly wrong from the data, but there are clearly people who are working very hard for it and some who are not working particularly hard.

  Q219  Dr Iddon: What is the second point?

  Professor Liss: The second point is it would need to be resourced properly; at the moment it is resourced at a very low level and again the Secretariat at NOC can give you the actual numbers of how much resource goes in, but it is very small.


 
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