Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 16 MAY 2007
J WILLMOTT, PROFESSOR
Q240 Dr Iddon: We are a bit short
of time as Question Time begins at 11.30. I will just ask the
other two guys, do you agree with that or do you want to add anything
Professor Willmott: I agree.
Professor Liss: I agree with that;
Germany is our competitor now.
Q241 Dr Iddon: I have a second question
relating to international activity. It is amazing, is it not,
that most leading European countries signed up to the EUROCORES
processthat is the deep oceans investigationyet
NERC felt that it could not do that. Any clues as to why? Was
it a resource issue or similar reason? Are we not interested in
the deep oceans?
Professor Liss: To give a general
answer, I think there is a reluctance to designate funds to a
central pot, as it were. I know that the funds for the EUROCORES
are allocated nation by nation but there is a considerable control
on that otherwise the process does not work and it is not then
coordinated. So I think that NERC was somewhat reluctant to commit
to that, particularly without a strong push from the science community,
and maybe for that particular programme you talk about the science
community did not push hard enough for it. NERC is responsive
to communities of scientists banging on their door.
Q242 Dr Iddon: I assume, Professor
Liss, that the deep oceans are of interest to you guys?
Professor Liss: Absolutely. I
am a surface ocean man myself but we are certainly interested
in the deep ocean and I guess that community did not make a big
enough push for it or did not want it, or did not see that as
a way forward.
Q243 Dr Iddon: So one of our weaknesses.
Professor Liss: Maybe, maybe not;
maybe that was not the way they wished the money to be spent and
wanted to spend it some other way.
Professor Hill: The centre that
I run is the main UK centre for deep sea oceanography and we are
pushing very hard on a number of areas where it is very, very
important to get major investments. The one that we are pushing
very hard at the moment is under the European Science Research
InfrastructureESFRI Programmeand we are supporting
very strongly something called EMSO, which is a cabled deep sea
observatory system and we have managed to persuade NERC to sign
up to the early stages of the discussions around that.
Q244 Dr Iddon: Andrew, do you have
anything to add to what your colleagues have said?
Professor Willmott: No, I do not,
Q245 Graham Stringer: What incentives
are there for young people to take up a career in marine science
and technology? How attractive an area is it for young graduates,
Professor Liss: I think it is
attractive on a comparative basis. I think young people see marine
science as an exciting area and therefore they go into it, more
so than they do the more pure sciences, if I can call it that.
That does not mean that the situation is ideal because there are
clearly many other careers that bright young people can go into
with science degrees and which probably pay larger amounts of
money or they see the prospect of larger amounts of money, so
there is clearly a competition. I think marine science is probably
not as badly off as some other areas of science in the UK in terms
of recruitment. So the incentive is really that people get interested
in it, and that is no doubt what brought us into the subject and
brings young people into the subject.
Q246 Graham Stringer: Apart from
the intrinsic interest of the seas, is there anything else that
you can do to make it more attractive?
Professor Liss: I think a lot
of people are attracted to the idea of going on research vessels
and conducting measurements of the oceans, observing the oceans,
going to Antarcticathese are all very big magnets for young
people, as you might expect.
Professor Willmott: Things like
the International Polar Year I think provide a good platform for
advertising and marine science, for example, through Poles involvement
in an IPY project we have the opportunity to send a student and
a science teacher to go on board the Canadian icebreaker next
winter, so that sort of thing helps. I think the other thing to
comment on is that for many undergraduates studying mathematics,
physics, they perhaps do not always realise that there are some
really very attractive, exciting careers in marine science. I
think there is a lack of information to those sorts of people
that there is a very large demand for highly numerate graduates
in our field.
Q247 Graham Stringer: Is there a
skills gap within marine science and technology, in mathematics,
taxtonomy and are there any other areas? And what can you do to
Professor Willmott: I certainly
feel that we struggle to get expert young people working in ocean
modelling, finite element techniques and in certain areas of marine
technology. The question then is how do we address that? The research
councils do not have a strong remit to work in high schools, although
we do have an understanding that we should communicate science
to the public, so I guess we have to be, certainly in my centre,
more effective at working with the community in raising the profile
of what we do, and in doing so making it clear that there are
exciting career opportunities for people with skills in engineering,
physics and mathematics.
Q248 Graham Stringer: Do we have
anything to learn from international comparators about attracting
people into this area?
Professor Liss: I will answer
a slightly different question: how do we compare with other subjects,
for instance, in the UK? For instance, the meteorology community
is rather more clever at this than the marine science community,
in attracting people because there is a huge amateur field of
people interested in meteorology and make measurements in their
back gardens, et cetera, and I do not think we have quite exploited
that in the marine sciences as much as meteorologists have. So
perhaps there are some lessons there for us to learn.
Professor Hill: One of the key
gaps is the flow of maths, physics students into our area in the
more physical areas of our science. In my reading of it and talking
to colleagues overseas, that is a pretty generic problem and certainly
one that is faced in the US and in Europe as well. A lot of US
universities are populated by students from outside the US, particularly
from the Far East who are numerate in maths and physics. So that
is a problem.
Q249 Graham Stringer: Professor Liss,
what role does the Research Assessment Exercise play in influencing
UK marine science? Does it enhance or impair it?
Professor Liss: I chaired the
last Panel in Earth and Environmental Sciences and marine sciences
was clearly within that, but again the subject matter is not divided
in that way. Meteorology, oceanography, geology, all the environmental
sciences are within that paneland the same will happen
this time round. So marine sciences have to take their chance,
if you like, alongside all the other environmental sciences to
try and increase their share of the pot, basically.
Q250 Dr Turner: How do you feel about
the significance of the research in the Polar Regions as far as
climate change and oceanographic research is concerned?
Professor Hill: As I often say,
the Arctic is basically an ocean and it is a very, very important
area of research, of direct relevance to Europe and the United
Kingdomincreasingly important. The signs of climate change
are most rapid and going to be most pronounced in the Arctic regions.
Q251 Chairman: Why do we spend all
our time in the Antarctic then?
Professor Hill: Because the Antarctic
is also a very important and significant regulator of the earth's
climateboth Poles. But it is true that the relative balance
of our investment in Arctic research is much lower, so there is
an imbalance. That does not mean we can spend less in the Antarctic
because it is a very expensive place to get to and to do research,
so we have to see how we can maintain the presence. There are
very many significant opportunities and threats relating to the
Arctic. By 2070 it may be that the Arctic is ice free in the summer
months and when that happensand of course it may well be
significantly ice free much earlier than that, 2050, maybe even
2020all sorts of things will start happening in the Arctic,
driven by market forceshydrocarbon exploration, fishing
and, most importantly, trade between the Far East and Europe with
bulk carriers and container ships across the Arctic Ocean. That
will already be an area that is very, very stressed through the
rapid climate change that has already happenedvery stressed
ecosystems with a lot of human intervention going on as well.
It is really, really important that we understand what is going
on there from the environmental point of view, but a huge part
of our economy is going to be dictated by what goes on within
the Arctic region.
Professor Willmott: Ed has nicely
summarised the key reasons for the UK and Europe to invest more
effort in understanding the climate change of the Arctic. I think
within the UK we do have a considerable group of expertise, albeit
spread around the country. I think we can harness the skills that
we have for people who already work on the Arctic problems through
responsive mode grantswe can harness those in a more effective
way under a common umbrella to better address some of these really
important questions relating to global change driven by the change
in the Arctic. So I think there is a strong case for us over the
next ten years to up our game in partnership probably with other
European countries, such as Norway and countries like Canada,
bordering on the Arctic, to have a more concerted effort in understanding
the big changes that are going to occur globally through the rapid
warming of the Arctic.
Q252 Dr Turner: What in your view
is needed to give the UK the capacity that you clearly feel is
needed to ramp up the efforts in the Arctic? Is it simply ships,
people? What are the factors?
Professor Willmott: I think we
have the intellectual base; we have the people, but I think we
do not have the infrastructure to go up there and carry out programmes
either in marine environment or working looking at meteorological
changes. I think it is a question of, it is expensive to get up
there and carry out field programmes and we do not have the capacity,
certainly within the UK, to do that at the moment.
Q253 Dr Turner: How many icebreakers
should we build and how much?
Professor Hill: I do not think
we should do this alone; we should be doing this in partnership,
and in Europe particularly. But we must build the relationships
and we must build the networks to be able to work in significant
partnerships with major collaborators to do it. The UK cannot
Professor Liss: And there is a
European proposal to build an icebreaker vesselAurora Borealis,
I think it is calledand that proposal has been around for
some time but it has not yet led to the vessel. But we must do
Chairman: On that positive note we will
end this session. Professor Ed Hill, Professor Peter Liss and
Professor Andrew Willmott, thank you enormously and my apologies
to all of you for the very quick countdown and for you being so