Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
WEDNESDAY 13 JUNE 2007
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 discussionand 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 prioritybecause
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 saysand
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,
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.
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
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 fundingand
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 makedo 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
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 worldbearing in mind this is very
much a global industry, it is not just specifically to the UKthere
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
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
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
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