Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)

WEDNESDAY 13 JUNE 2007

MR IAN GALLETT, DR LESLEY THOMPSON, DR RALPH RAYNER AND MR RICHARD BURT

  Q260  Chairman: I am sorry, are you saying the industry is developing these technologies that they think the customer wants.

  Mr Burt: That is certainly one aspect and the other aspect is working alongside the centres of excellence, where technologies have been developed in the laboratories and the government institutes, and pulling those through. But the disadvantage with the current system is that, more often than not, (a) there is no mechanism to enable early engagement between industry and the centres of excellence, and (b) there are really no formal funding mechanisms to take that through. It is often a question of industry assuming it is making the right liaisons in the first place, and that is down to industry's initiative, and then hoping that it carries the right ones through to the market-place.

  Q261  Chairman: Whose role is it to do that coordination? Is it industry's role? Is it the Government's role?

  Mr Burt: At the moment it is happening through industry's initiative. Industry is very much looking for the Government to give better links and clarification across agencies because, more often than not, there may well be a technology in one agency that would be very applicable to use by others where commercial products are needed and that cross-agency link is certainly unclear.

  Q262  Chairman: Mr Gallett, in terms of looking at the oceans, traditionally things like fishing have been the main exploitation of the oceans. Whilst you have said that fishing was in reasonably rude health—which was a comment you made earlier, as far as the UK is concerned and its competitiveness with Europe—where are the new areas of exploitation of the oceans that we are looking at?

  Mr Gallett: If you are talking about industrial exploitation, I think there are several areas. The first one is oil and gas. That is a very strong area and it is one of the things that has often been neglected from a view of a marine world. Most of the UK expertise lies in sub-sea technology. We are now operating, not in the UK itself but using UK people, UK firms, UK expertise, in over 2,000 metres of water, where you are putting a well-head, effectively, on the sea floor and connecting it up which is a major task in that sort of water beds. The area that I see growing dramatically is offshore fish farming. We have recently run a conference, for instance, in Malta on that particular subject. I think it is one of the growth areas. There is agreement around the world, there is a recognition, that the world is going to be short of protein in the near future. There are no more wild fisheries or very little to exploit—in fact those are declining in general terms. The land production of protein is also maximised at the moment. One great thought there is that a lot of it will now become offshore fish farming, where you do not have a lot of problems with detritus and the other problems that are familiar with farmed salmon, for instance, in lochs and fiords.

  Q263  Chairman: Do you have anything to add, Dr Rayner?

  Dr Rayner: Renewable energy is probably one area that should be included. Offshore sources of renewable energy and marine sources generally.

  Q264  Chairman: Is this using the ocean itself, using tidal power?

  Dr Rayner: Using tidal power, using wave power, using tidal stream, using the temperature differentials in the ocean, not necessarily as a direct source of power but there are now schemes using cold water from the oceans as an aid to cooling buildings, for example. There are lots of areas which are open for exploitation.

  Q265  Chairman: Mr Burt, are there new areas of exploitation of the oceans? Nobody has mentioned health, for instance. I thought that might have been an area using marine products for health and for chemicals.

  Mr Burt: There are significant unknowns in the oceans which could be exploited for the health industry. It is very early days and it is really just feasibility studies at this stage.

  Mr Gallett: Marine bio-technology is another area of great interest. Some of the mechanisms in the ocean are still unknown but quite a lot of them have perhaps usefulness in the bio-technology area. The main link considered in that is that the source will be the marine bodies but not in great volume. Once you have extracted what you need from it, you can then grow that in a laboratory. In terms of a large-scale resource, probably not; but in terms of new ideas for marine bio-technology, certainly.

  Q266  Chairman: Are you all heavily involved, for instance, in the climate change agenda and in terms of what is happening to the deposits of carbon?

  Mr Gallett: Yes, very much so.

  Q267  Chairman: Is that a growing part of your business?

  Mr Gallett: Yes, I think so. Dr Rayner mentioned renewable energy and I was going to mention that as well. It is the key one, I believe, but also another area of interest is the disposal of carbon into the ground through carbon capture and storage. Most of that would go under the sea—not in the sea but under the sea. That is using the same technologies that the oil and gas community has already developed for developing the UK continental shelf, for instance.

  Q268  Chairman: Will we ever get the Peterhead project off the ground?

  Mr Gallett: A good question, sir. I do not know. Scotland was very annoyed about that when I was up there a couple of weeks ago.

  Q269  Chairman: We will leave that hanging. Dr Thompson, future demand for marine technologies. What do you see in research terms? Where is the demand going to come from and how are you going to meet it?

  Dr Thompson: Energy is one area where clearly the marine environment has a big part to play, both in energy generation but also carbon storage. We see that as a really important area. Another area is the whole issue of living with environmental change and how we respond to technology to cope with the environmental changes that will come about. There are big opportunities there but also big challenges. They are really the areas we see as most important. The other area is all about transportation, marine transportation and more energy efficient transportation, which is an area where there is a lot of opportunities to improve the efficiency of transportation. Just look at carbon budgets and how transportation contributes to the carbon loading of the world, then there are big opportunities to look at more efficient marine transportation systems.

  Q270  Chairman: How well placed is the UK science base and technology base to do that in research terms?

  Dr Thompson: It is always very dangerous to say we are very well placed because you do not necessarily know what is happening around the rest of the world. We have some real strengths in the UK but certainly from an engineering and physical sciences viewpoints we have some concerns. One of the areas we are concerned about is the strength in renewable marine energy. While we do have some strengths, we do not think we have enough diversity in the UK, so that is an area where we have just targeted to form a new research group through the science and innovation awards, which was a funding stream we received from the last spending review settlement. There we are looking to fund three lectureships, three post docs and three students to come together to form a new critical mass centre to increase the diversity of researchers and groups that can tackle some of the challenges in marine renewables.

  Q271  Chairman: Will that be a co-located group?

  Dr Thompson: It will definitely be a co-located group.

  Q272  Chairman: Where?

  Dr Thompson: It is currently under competition. There are a number of universities that have been short-listed and we will wait to see where peer review says is the best place.

  Q273  Chairman: You cannot give us a hint.

  Dr Thompson: I cannot give you a hint, but there are some strong universities short-listed.

  Chairman: Excellent. We will move on.

  Q274  Dr Turner: 1991 saw the establishment of a committee with one of the worst acronyms I have ever come across: IACMST. What effect has this had on the coordination, organisation and funding of marine science in the UK? Has it produced?

  Mr Gallett: The problem to me is that if you go back to 1984, when the Lords Select Committee looked at it and, following that, set up the Coordinating Committee of Marine Science and Technology which had a specific coordinating role, that came out and produced a strategy for marine science. On the date you gave, that ceased operating and was replaced by the Inter-Agency Committee, which had far less teeth, far less ability to coordinate. Its role was more to try to arrange for the ability to coordinate. Within its remit I think it has done extremely well but it did not enforce coordination, which the original committee was intended so to do.

  Q275  Dr Turner: It lacks any teeth and it lacks any funding, so it is a talk shop.

  Mr Gallett: It does more than that. It has achieved quite a bit.

  Q276  Dr Turner: What would you all like to see done to improve coordination of the UK's marine science activities? Do you think the IACMST can play a role in it? What needs to be done to that body to make it effective?

  Dr Rayner: I think it needs to have more capacity to effect linkages and to enforce linkages. As Ian Gallett has said, the problem at the moment is that it is representative of the different bodies in government but it has no ability to do anything other than talk about coordination as opposed to drive coordination. If I look at the parallel in the United States, in the United States the equivalent of the IACMST has considerably more ability to drive that coordinating process by virtue of having access to more funds which they can distribute.

  Q277  Chairman: Which committee are you talking about?

  Dr Rayner: It is called Ocean.US and it is a cross-federal agency body that represents all of the US federal agencies that are engaged in any aspect of the oceans.

  Q278  Dr Turner: The issue of coordination and, if you like, the advertisement of a strategy and funding cannot be disconnected, can they?

  Dr Rayner: No.

  Q279  Dr Turner: If marine scientists acted as a coherent body and said, "Here are the things which you think are vitally important right now" would that increase your case for extra government funding and any other funding that you could lever with it?

  Mr Burt: We have seen, with the Oceans 2025 initiative, a very good step in that direction but it was a grassroots initiative. From the perspective of IACMST, the coordination, the teeth and the funding are the key points addressed here. I would say, across agencies, that it is very tempting to think of marine science and technology as research and technology within the Government but a cross-agency intiative very much needs to bring in the industrial link. It needs to build very clear bridges where industry can be incorporated into that because there may well be cases where industry needs to engage early in some of these programmes.


 
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