Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  Q220  Mr Newmark: Do you think that you get adequate funding from government for marine science?

  Professor Liss: Maybe one of the directors might answer that; they are spending a lot of money, so perhaps they should answer!

  Professor Hill: Are we getting enough? Certainly the science budget has increased.

  Q221  Mr Newmark: Is it adequate?

  Professor Hill: If you want me to put my neck on the line I would say no. What I would like to see is a times two increase in marine science funding.

  Q222  Mr Newmark: Any higher bids?

  Professor Willmott: We will not go into the stratosphere with any higher factors. We cannot get heavily involved with things like observatories and perhaps it is appropriate that, say, cabled observatories should be coordinated and funded at a European level rather than the national level; but I do think it is important that we are aware of these large projects, like the observatories pay. I would like a European icebreaker and I would like to see that the UK has some buy-in on those sorts of projects.

  Professor Liss: Can I just comment on that because the universities are always bidding it up even higher than the institutes, for whatever reasons? I think a factor of two is about right. Why do I use that as a marker? Because I think the present success rate for responsive mode funding in NERC is less than 20%—I do not know the exact figure but it is below 20%—so only a fifth or less of the proposals, which take a lot of time to write and prepare, are actually successfully funded through the NERC. I think that is too low a number, it should be more like 40%; so that is where I get my factor of times two.

  Q223  Mr Newmark: What you are saying is that NERC is not doing enough to give support?

  Professor Liss: There is not enough resource. I am not saying they are not doing enough; I am just saying that the amount of money they have had means that the funding is only going to a fifth of the proposals which are put forward. The other element of that is that it is very difficult to mount a directed programme through the NERC because they require a lot of money for the UK to contribute for international programmes and of course climate science and ocean science are done internationally these days. It is very difficult to put those large sums of money, £10 million or £20 million required for a UK reasonable contribution to one of these international programmes—that is very difficult to do with the present NERC budget.

  Q224  Chairman: There is not much left after that?

  Professor Liss: There is not; so I think a factor of two would be extremely helpful.

  Q225  Mr Newmark: Are there barriers to obtaining funding for interdisciplinary research projects from the research councils? If so, how could these be overcome?

  Professor Liss: I think that is always going to be an issue; it has been for years, things fall between the divisions between research councils. It has probably got somewhat better in the NERC because the subject specific committees have been abolished and there is now a college which picks review bodies from within a larger body of people and that should make it easier to fund interdisciplinary studies—I think there is some evidence for that, but it is not very strong.

  Q226  Mr Newmark: So going in the right direction?

  Professor Liss: Yes.

  Q227  Chairman: If we had a single research council would it be easier?

  Professor Liss: Possibly. No doubt there would be divisions within that single research council as with the National Science Foundation. I do not know if you are going there.

  Q228  Chairman: We were there.

  Professor Liss: They have two—they have one for medical research as well. For science and engineering they have one research council, but there are divisions within it and no doubt you can ask questions about how it works across the divisions. I suspect it would not be a lot different. There might be some economies of scale but I do not know.

  Professor Hill: If I could comment on that? I think there are pros and cons for a single research council; there are probably some very significant benefits, I would have to say. The issue with marine sciences and marine affairs generally, though, is one word used about them is fragmentation, but there is another word which you can use which puts a different interpretation on it, and that is that marine science is pervasive—you find marine affairs and marine science everywhere. So it is never going to be possible just to find a neat corral of it into one single entity. So the science theme of climate have marine in it. Many issues have marine themes in them. So that is the benefit of marine science, that it is everywhere but it is also its problem, in that it loses its visibility. Within the Framework Programmes in the European Union, for example, in the early days of the Framework Programmes there was a specific marine science programme. But probably rightly the Commission went away from that into much more thematic-based science, in which case marine is in everything and its visibility is lost. One of the benefits of the Natural Environment Research Council, because it is explicitly environment, marine does have a profile in it. Whenever you create a larger entity the risk for us, I think, would be that marine would be more lost in a more general science council than it is in NERC. On the other hand, technologies are very, very important in marine science and the ability for NERC to increase its funding in technology and for us to access EPSRC funding for marine technologies is a very important issue.

  Q229  Mr Newmark: Are the UK national facilities, such as our research vessel fleet adequate?

  Professor Hill: I can comment as to the person who is responsible for a slice of that research vessel fleet, managing two of the NERC ships. There has been very important investment in research vessels; the Royal Research Ship, James Cook, has just completed her first cruise and embarked on her second cruise, and that was a £40m investment in a state of the art research vessel. There is funding now earmarked for the replacement of Discovery, a 40-year old vessel—

  Q230  Mr Newmark: But that is not due to happen until 2011.

  Professor Hill: 2011, in fact early 2012 before she comes on stream. The fact that the ship is 40 years' old tells you something about the level of capital investment that has been going on to support these ships. Meanwhile, the research vessel fleet has decreased over the last 20 years from something like five ships down to two—multi-purpose vessels, I am excluding vessels with Antarctic capability from this—and that is the bare minimum. What is also significantly missing though is the research vessel capacity for working shelf seas and coastal seas, where you do not need quite such big teams and you operate on much shorter timescales. It is very difficult to provide evidence for this but I do think that a lot of marine science is partly platform driven. If there is a ship capable of doing it you will find proposals coming in in that area, and because of the lack of capacity of ships for coastal research I think we have seen proposals for coastal science tend to dry up.

  Q231  Mr Newmark: You still have not given me a solution, so what other approaches could NERC take to actually increase fieldwork capacity?

  Professor Hill: It is difficult in its existing budgets but one option certainly would be to see if one could secure additional funding.

  Q232  Mr Newmark: It comes down to money not re-shifting existing funds?

  Professor Hill: It is two things. Part of my times two would include increasing the research vessel capacity in shelf seas. We do operate our vessels, I believe at maximum capacity, through things like international ship bartering arrangements, which is very, very effective.

  Q233  Chairman: We have heard about that.

  Professor Hill: We do less ship bartering within the UK where there are coastal vessels, but there are reasons for that in that the coastal vessels that Cefas and FRS have are pretty much fulltime on statutory responsibilities, and so there is not the spare capacity. So I think there is ultimately an issue about capacity here, and I suspect what could be achieved by bartering in some internal flexibility is rather marginal.

  Q234  Chairman: Andrew, did you want to comment on that?

  Professor Willmott: Yes. As a coastal seas research lab a great deal of our work is carried out in the Irish Sea and the UK continental shelf. We have access to a vessel called the Prince Madog, based at Menai Bridge. She is 33 metres long and she is okay as long as you do not operate off northwest Europe or the Scottish shelf or in the Celtic Sea where, quite frankly, she is not capable of operating in the inclement weather conditions there. I wondered whether there was capacity to perhaps get access to the Cefas ships, I think that would be a way forward. We are certainly missing a vessel of the size of the Challenger, which was retired in 2002—a 60 metre vessel, which can operate anywhere on the European continental shelf. We have plans with our partners in Ireland to extend our coastal observatory to become an Irish Sea observatory and that will put even greater pressure on us to find a suitable vessel to operate in that larger domain.

  Q235  Dr Turner: Do you think the Navy could make any contribution through its residual fleet towards providing platforms for observation?

  Professor Hill: The Navy actually does some provide some ship capacity. For example, the first survey of the Sumatran Plate Boundary after the 2004 Boxing Day earthquake was conducted by researchers at Southampton and British Geological Survey from HMS Scott and very successful it was too, so that has happened. HMS Endurance obviously works very closely with work in the southern ocean for the British Antarctic Survey. It is also the case that a lot of the ice thickness measurements made in the Arctic by the Scott Polar Research Institute and others has actually utilised Royal Navy submarines. So the scientists are accessing and using Navy vessels. They are also used as ships of opportunity; they deploy Argo floats, significantly the XBT programmes, so there is a lot of data flowing back into the operational agencies and into the scientific community that are sourced from naval vessels. Is there more that could be done? There probably is. One of the things that we have been doing, for example, is instrumenting ferries with underway sampling systems; we have also gone to container vessel operators who are really quite enthusiastic about operating underway systems like this and also probably the cruise liner business will get into this game as well. But the naval vessels are not particularly operating that. There are some security issues, of course, about giving away in near real time the position of Royal Naval vessels, but I have no doubt some of these could be overcome.

  Q236  Chairman: What amazes me—and I think it was the point of Brooks' question here—we can always say, "If you give us more money we can provide more ships", but it is a matter of how do we work smarter, how do we work more coordinated. I am in and out of Killybegs in Ireland on the West Coast of Ireland very, very regularly, and all winter I have seen the fishing fleet just sat there doing nothing because they cannot fish. Yet there are all those ships available, and I am sure that applies in British waters as well. So I throw that into the pot as my idea to help you out! Do you agree?

  Professor Hill: We do a lot of that also—already doing it.

  Q237  Chris Mole: I wanted to start by asking about the university collaboration and data sharing with Cefas and other government research agencies and how you think that might be improved, and I know we got on to Oceans 2025 just now, but we will come back to that. Do any of you have a view on that?

  Professor Liss: I think the situation is not bad for the universities. We tend to not be users of huge amounts of data; we are more engaged in shorter-term process studies, which may not use large amounts of data. I have not heard too many complaints about availability of data from the British Oceanographic Data Centre or Cefas Data Centre, et cetera. I think what the MDIP is to do will make it easier not just for universities, but everyone can get access to the data that presently exists and this phrase "measure once, use many times" is clearly an easy thing to say but rather hard to do but that is the objective.

  Professor Willmott: As you know, BODC has the mission of taking raw data, calibrating it and making it freely available for a wide range of users—university based and wider than that—and I think that they have been particularly successful over the last few years in increasing the use of the data because that raw data is freely available. I think that has been critical to the success and the take-up of those data sets. I guess where we must be careful is about proliferation of data centres. I am not totally familiar with what types of data are held at Cefas; I would hope that there is not duplication of data between Cefas and BODC.

  Professor Hill: I think data is an important issue. In the scientific community there is a fairly good free flow of data and the data is reasonably accessible for research and development purposes. I do think that there are some fundamental issues around data accessibility, and this is a much bigger picture internationally. Some countries operate a very different philosophy from the UK in terms of data access, which essentially all fundamental data sets generated by public funds are free. The US has this kind of model. It is not as great as it sounds because it actually does have quite serious implications for data quality. In the UK I do think that there are some serious barriers in the system about being able to fuse certain data sets, not least because some important data—and it is not actually the data as such but the added value information products that are created from those data—are commercially tradable items. Three important sources of those data are the Ordnance Survey, the Hydrographic Office and the Met Office are trading funds and so there is a trade in their added value data products. Other bodies, such as Cefas and the British Geological Survey, whilst not trading funds are operating under increasingly commercial models whereby revenue generation is important. I am not saying that this is a massive problem in terms of accessibility to data for science, but in terms of bodies such as the MMO, who will be critically reliant on key data sets in order, and not just separate data sets, synthesised, fused, overlaid, multi-layered sets, then they will need to be able to access these, and this probably means, under the various models that we have, that there will be a cost implication of that and that the MMO will need to be suitably resources in order to purchase licences for access to this data.

  Q238  Chris Mole: There are precursors for planning functions using ordnance survey, where I would imagine there are similar issues. I think we got into the Oceans 2025 important way in which the academic sector had engaged within that and it was whether any of the other two had not contributed to that and wanted to add anything.

  Professor Liss: No, I think you have given a fair thrashing to the 2025 process.

  Professor Hill: If I could briefly comment on that? I think it has been given a good airing and I think there have been full responses from NERC on the subject. I would say that the only reason we are having this discussion about Oceans 2025 in the Mother of Parliaments is that for the first time a bunch of marine centres got their act together to produce a coordinated programme of research in marine science that somebody had actually heard of, and I think that is quite important. So there are a lot of benefits of Oceans 2025. Are we looking to engage the university community? Absolutely, it is actually built into the programme. Do we want more people on the bandwagon? Absolutely and I am sure that will be happening over the years.

  Chairman: You are a great advert for NERC!

  Q239  Dr Iddon: Which countries do you slightly envy, or who is ahead of us in the marine science game?

  Professor Hill: We are always envious of the United States; they have larger amounts of resources, but they also have other things beyond resources. In Europe, though, the other places that we envy are Japan, who seem to be able to invest large amounts in marine technology. Their science is probably not as strong but certainly the investments in technology and some of the technological innovations that they are capable of doing are truly phenomenal and we certainly envy their access to technology. In Europe I am increasingly looking with envy at Germany. It is investing heavily in marine sciences at the moment. Their institutes seem to be recruiting very strongly and certainly looking to my institute, amongst others, to find talented people, and we find it very difficult to extract German professors from Germany to come to the UK, not least because they are well resourced, they find it easy to access ships and the funding regime does not appear to be as competitive. Also, it appears that their governments are coming to them almost trying to push money at them as opposed to the other way around, and the Germans are really taking it very seriously. I was at a meeting in Bremen just two weeks ago, talking about the European Maritime Green Paper and the President of the Commission turned up to speak about this, as did the German Chancellor, and made a speech talking about the importance of maritime affairs and marine science, so it is very, very high profile.

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