Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)



  Q320  Dr Iddon: How do you determine the balance between the pure research and the applied research?

  Dr Thompson: We do not ever determine that balance in that way. The way we manage our funding levels is that we divide up engineering and physical sciences into a number of technical programmes (so physics, mathematical science, engineering) and the council every year decides a budget that it wants to invest in each of those technical areas. Then, given that 70 per cent of the portfolio is responsive, it depends on the ideas coming in from the academic community that pass quality peer review that we can then afford to fund. So we do not determine it in the way you are suggesting.

  Q321  Dr Iddon: It has become very obvious to us that quite a considerable amount of marine science is database collecting. It is absolutely essential to learn about all the earth system.

  Dr Thompson: Yes.

  Q322  Dr Iddon: Is there a case, because of that, do you think for the EPSRC to put more money into core funding to support those kinds of programmes?

  Dr Thompson: With respect, understanding the earth systems is very much the remit of NERC but we have worked with NERC on some areas that would help with that, so the whole E-science programme, which was about how you shared information, how you mined data, was a joint activity with a very strong interaction between EPSRC and NERC. But collecting data to understand earth systems is very firmly footprinted in NERC.

  Q323  Dr Iddon: That was just an example.

  Dr Thompson: Yes. Clearly we have a very big programme in information and communications technology and a lot of the people that are engaged in that research have strong connections to people in other research environments. This recent project we funded at Southampton comes out of electronic engineering but it is to be able to measure things in the marine environment. That is a joint venture and joint funding between EPSRC and NERC. We provide the underlying knowledge base to do smart information collecting and researching and things, but colleting data from the marine environment when it is to understand earth systems is very much NERC. I would have to look at specific projects. It is very difficult to generalise this discussion—and I am not trying to be obtuse.

  Q324  Dr Iddon: You have mentioned NERC but of course some of your programmes are collaborative with BBSRC and of course the Office of Science and Innovation are also important in all of this.

  Dr Thompson: Yes.

  Q325  Dr Iddon: And many of the marine science programmes are interdisciplinary in nature. How often do you come together with OSI and research councils to discuss future programmes in marine science?

  Dr Thompson: I am a member of the Research Directors Group which meets every month. That is all the research directors from all the research councils. The best part of the job we do then is talking about new science opportunities. It is not talking about worrying about small things. We do that monthly and we look at new science opportunities. Clearly, in the run-up to a comprehensive spending review, we have been working very closely together to identify the clearest opportunities for the UK both in terms of scientific excellence but also in terms of ensuring we are tightly linked into better exploitation opportunities to put forward the programme of joint research activities. Energy is clearly a high priority across all councils. Living with environmental change, a high priority. The digital economy, a high priority—because if you just look at how the whole world is changing by the revolution in ICT, we clearly have to make sure that is closely coupled to the economy. Nano-technology are the other example and ageing and healthy living. They are five examples of where we think it is important to have a large thematic programme. Clearly research opportunities come up all the time from one-to-one dialogues with researchers and so making sure that researchers can come in and can receive a level playing field, whether they are working in core physics or at the interface with BBSRC or another research council, is critically important to us. I spent five years of my life working as EPSRC developed its life-science interface, which was about making sure there was not a gap but wherever possible there were funding overlaps, and understanding where the gaps were and how we might address that to make sure the environment was right for science in the UK. It is second nature now to work with other research councils because the problems of the world do not neatly fit into our administrative structures.

  Q326  Dr Iddon: Are you aware that some of the academics make a criticism that where they are doing this kind of interdisciplinary work, sometimes they find it difficult to make the grant applications. They make them for BBSRC and they bounce back and feel that is a NERC opportunity. What are we going to do about that?

  Dr Thompson: One of the problems we suffer is people remember past experiences much more strongly than the current situation. If somebody has been bounced between two research councils in the past, they will have a much stronger belief set about that than they will about the current funding environment. For a number of years now, and it was renewed last year, there is a funding agreement across all the research councils which clearly articulates, if you have a research idea across any research council's remit or across two or more, how we will handle those proposals. For EPSRC I watch what happens to cross-council proposals very, very carefully because I think it is important that the UK community does not suffer if it works at an interface. Colleagues in the same position as me in the other research councils do likewise. I think the situation has got much better but clearly we have to be ever vigilant. The other issue we have to then address is the attitude of peer reviewers, because every penny that we invest is invested through peer review judgments and there is nothing worse than somebody who peer reviews, when they write a proposal, being this very broad-minded person, who becomes this very narrow-minded person when they review it who says—and I have to be careful what I say—"This is not good chemistry, so I am going to dismiss it." Encouraging people to be open-minded in the peer review process as well as us making sure we try to provide a level playing field is an absolutely critical thing, going forward.

  Q327  Chris Mole: When the Committee visited some businesses in the marine engineering field in the States it was very clear that there was significant US navy funding. What is the role of the RN in funding engineering and science in this area?

  Mr Gallett: Obviously the MOD would be funding rather than the Royal Navy itself. When you go to the States it is very striking how much the US Navy is involved at the ground level. From my own experience of the Navy, which is now ten years out of date, we were never quite so close to that. I did work in MOD at times and we worked quite hard to get areas we thought were beneficial to the RN to get those research activities funded but my own experience at the moment is that there is not that much funding around for the sort of things the Navy would probably like.

  Q328  Chris Mole: Do they deal with the work themselves if they need it done?

  Mr Gallett: Or it just does not get done. As I say, my knowledge of this is somewhat outdated now, I am afraid.

  Mr Burt: I do work with the Navy on oceanographic aspects. Certainly the Navy procure oceanographic systems and marine science systems for their own target area of environmental knowledge rather than doing marine science. A few years ago, certainly, there was more marine science and technology undertaken by the MOD and placed with small and medium sized enterprises externally. That really has stopped now. Most of the contractual work that appears from the MOD relating to marine science and technology is in support of environmental mitigation: acoustics and mammals and things like that, and very little is done in what I would call the science of instrumentation for example. If you put acoustics to one side, which is very much a Navy remit, then there is very, very little done outside. Certainly companies I am aware of in the past had a lot more work from that aspect of the Navy than they do now. In fact, we see more innovation for instrumentation, for example, coming out of areas of homeland security than we do from the MOD.[1]

  Mr Gallett: Perhaps I could add one more thing. One of the areas in which I am concerned at the moment is autonomous underwater vehicles. These are underwater robots. One of their roles will be to measure the oceans but they are also being used now by all companies to do pipeline survey and do the survey beforehand. From the military point of view, they have a great interest in that for mine clearance and mine hunting. Lots of the funding for that, as far as I can see, has dropped dramatically off over the last few years. Certainly QinetiQ did have quite a bit of funding going through and there is quite an operation still at Bincleaves but some of the activities in which I was engaged through the SUT, my society, have fallen away dramatically and it seems to be from lack of funding.

  Dr Thompson: We do not have any direct funding that I can see on our research grant portfolio with the Navy but we do have joint funding with the Defence Procurement Agency.

  Q329  Chairman: Could I pick up on Mr Gallett's comment about autonomous underwater vehicles and ask you, Dr Thompson, whilst we understand response mode funding—and thank you very much for your comments about the peer review going across interdisciplinary projects which I thought that was a very useful comment to make—do you ever at any time drive the technology? When we were at MIT we saw superb examples of technologies coming together and being driven, if you like, by research which are not only spin-offs but procurement in private sector companies as part and parcel of really quite sophisticated autonomous underwater vehicles. What do you do in that area, rather than waiting for things to come to you?

  Dr Thompson: In areas where we think there is a gap in the portfolio or opportunity, where they are not coming in in the volume or in the type of proposal that we like, we take intervention action.

  Q330  Chairman: Could you give me some examples?

  Dr Thompson: Four years ago we decided that the whole area of wired and wireless sensor systems was an area where the UK had strengths but we were not pulling those strengths together. We have now invested £16 million in funding large, collaborative projects in partnership with industry in the whole area of wired and wireless network systems, of which some in the marine environment could have come in but did not. We then identified there was a gap. We thought there was a need to stimulate more research more in autonomous systems in the UK, so we issued a call to try to establish an interdisciplinary research consortia in autonomous systems. Unfortunately, when the proposal came forward through peer review it was deemed of not satisfactory quality to be funded, so we took the judgment not to fund it, but now we are working on additional ways and other approaches we can take to try to stimulate more research in autonomous systems in the UK. That is working very closely with defence, because there is already a Defence Technology Centre set up in autonomous systems. We really wanted to put to the two together, so they were complementary, to add even more capability in the UK rather than competing with each other. Unfortunately that one was not funded but I am more comfortable with wanting to take an intervention, deciding the quality is not sufficient and not funding it than funding second-rate research because the competition on our funds is too great.

  Q331  Chris Mole: Could I ask all of you what you think the skill shortages are in the marine science and technology sector. What are your concerns for the impact of this, going forward?

  Mr Gallett: From the oil and gas industry's perspective there is a huge skill shortage worldwide, not just in the UK. Certainly in all the developments that are happening around the world—bearing in mind this is very much a global industry, it is not just specifically to the UK—there is a crying shortage for skilled engineers.

  Mr Burt: From an oceanographic SME Perspective, when you look at the companies that we have been discussing this morning, this dozen or so marine science and technology companies, very, very few are employers of what I would call marine science graduates. If you look at the type of products and instrumentation that people develop, then the requirement is for electronic engineers, software, embedded software, display software programmers and design engineers. Certainly, if you move towards the added-value product side, in terms of data and data display and added-value products, then there will be more of a call for marine science oceanographers in that role.

  Dr Thompson: I think there is an area where we did identify a skills shortage in the UK and that was marine energy. That is an area where we tried to take intervention action. We continue to monitor the portfolio. We have a general concern at the number of kids that want to come in and do engineering and physical sciences and that naturally has a consequent knock-on to the people that the UK will be producing in the future. That is a much bigger issue for this Committee here today.

  Q332  Chris Mole: Does EPSRC have a specific dialogue with the industry marine sector about the health and future needs of the marine science sector?

  Dr Thompson: We spend a lot of time talking to lots of people about skills requirements. It is one of the hardest areas in which to identify needs, so even my own organisation could not tell you the sorts of people we are likely to want to employ in ten years time. Because the market we are in is PhD, whilst there is a PhD training, trying to get companies to give you their needs is very hard. They can identify specific skill shortages and we work on that to try to address that. We have a whole programme of industrially relevant PhD training called the engineering doctorate. We are looking at refreshing the engineering doctorate and clearly part of the dialogue is with industry as to their shortage areas. If we identify shortage areas, we will focus on those areas, but quite a lot of our training is given to universities to try to identify where they have shortages. Certainly we have a number of universities which are running masters courses in marine technology areas in response to employers coming along and saying, "We need masters training in x, y or z. There are five courses running currently. In Southampton there is one in coastal engineering for climate change which is looking forward. In Newcastle there is a masters' course for marine technology. There are people being trained. Whether they are sufficient and of the right volume is a problem we worry about all the time.

  Mr Gallett: A lot of the students undertaking courses do not come from the UK. They are very much worldwide. If you look at the Cranfield course, which is a pure masters' course, there are at least five French students on the current course of about 25 people, and about another five Nigerians.

  Q333  Chris Mole: Do other members of the panel think the IACMST is well placed to examine future needs of the skills base for marine science and technology?

  Dr Rayner: It has not historically had a strong role in looking at skills requirements. I think you would have to find a way of more actively engaging industry if you were going to go down that route. Yes, if you could create that structure, it would be a good place to start.

  Q334  Chris Mole: Is there not a risk that the industry is just sitting around twiddling its thumbs complaining that nobody is turning up?

  Dr Rayner: I do not think the industry is doing that at all. I think the industries in this sector are actively seeking to recruit anywhere they can and often outside of the UK, in countries that are generating the skill base in engineering, with numerate scientists, because they have to. They have to fill those positions. But there certainly is not a body that is looking specifically at that issue for the marine science area.

  Mr Gallett: Or in the engineering area. The other thing I would say about IACMST is they have certainly funded my society in the past to provide a careers pamphlet for children. We have had that quite a long time and we have kept it going. We run quite a large scale careers thing for people in marine science and technology engineering.

  Q335  Chris Mole: Is there a case for teaching more about marine science in what I think we all recognise is a very crowded curriculum already?

  Dr Rayner: Yes. It does not receive much attention in the curriculum, certainly not as a science, so there is little awareness amongst school children about the sector. I would very much like to see that position changed. I think there needs to be much stronger awareness of the issues surrounding climate change and the critical role of the oceans in the climate.

  Q336  Dr Spink: Following on from what you have said, Dr Rayner, given the public perception of the importance of the oceans in driving climate change, do you think EPSRC's priority, by putting one half of a per cent of their budget in that area, is a problem? Do you think they should readdress their prioritisation?

  Dr Rayner: I do not think it is the role of the EPSRC that needs to be looked at here. Indeed, I think one of the issues here is not primarily a research issue; it is more of an operational issue. In one of the earlier comments, a distinction was made between pure and applied research. There is a further area in oceanography and marine science that I think is critically important that is not being addressed and should not be addressed necessarily by the research councils and that is the whole area of operational observations. How do you observe the oceans on a sufficient scale and density to address some of the questions?

  Q337  Chairman: If it is not the research councils doing that, who should be doing it?

  Dr Rayner: That is the difficulty. It is not clear where that role should lie.

  Q338  Chairman: Who do you think it should lie with?

  Dr Rayner: It possibly could lie with an existing operational body like the Met Office. To some extent, the Met Office already does occupy, in part, that role. I would go so far as to say those sorts of observations are so critical to understanding climate change that they should be regarded more as critical infrastructure in which nationally and globally we need to engage in effectively. Perhaps we do need a new body, perhaps at a European level, to engage in that whole area.

  Q339  Dr Spink: That leads me neatly into datasets observation. Of course they are important not just for climate change but for fish stock management and the commercial exploitation of minerals and so on and so forth. I am coming on to datasets. The Oceans 2025 mission statement reveals that we face three closely related challenges. They say that the first is to know the rules of ocean behaviour. The second is to be aware of what is happening: we need to keep track of the many changes that are already occurring. The third is basically to find knowledge-based solutions based on the first two, which are the datasets. That establishes, I hope, the importance of the global datasets, not just for this country, of course, but for the world. First of all, which are the most important gaps in our knowledge of the oceans on which we are trying to establish data?

  Mr Burt: The gaps really are going to be twofold. One is the long-term datasets for climate change and certainly the gaps in specific parameters are going to be geographically dependent. In some areas certain parameters will be more important than others. The second aspect is the technology that can enable you to fill those gaps.

1   1 Footnote by the Witness: The MOD has established, through the Research Acquisition Organisation, the "Sensors Tower of Excellence". This serves as an excellent, efficient brokerage forum to match the MOD "Capability Shortfall" in in-water sensors to industry capability. Back

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