Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 253)



  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 to it?

  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 process—that is the deep oceans investigation—yet 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 Infrastructure—ESFRI Programme—and 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, thank you.

  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, postgraduates?

  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 Antarctica—these 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 address that?

  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 panel—and 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 Kingdom—increasingly 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 climate—both 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 happens—and of course it may well be significantly ice free much earlier than that, 2050, maybe even 2020—all sorts of things will start happening in the Arctic, driven by market forces—hydrocarbon 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 happened—very 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 grants—we 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 go alone.

  Professor Liss: And there is a European proposal to build an icebreaker vessel—Aurora Borealis, I think it is called—and that proposal has been around for some time but it has not yet led to the vessel. But we must do it Europe-wide.

  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 cooperative.

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