Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)



  Q340  Dr Spink: Which are the geographical areas where you think there are gaps at the moment?

  Mr Burt: For example, if you are making deep ocean measurements for long-term climate change monitoring, there are going to be different types of measurements you would make, for example, in coasts and regional cities. There has been a significant targeting at the moment for the deep ocean programmes, the TOGA programme, the ARGO programmes, which are building upon long-term datasets, which is good. Certainly there are gaps in biological oceanography. There is a lot of emphasis on physical oceanographic datasets, which are very, very important, but, once those are becoming established, how the biology varies upon that is very, very important and that clearly leads to two areas. One is CO2 uptake—which everybody is very keen to look at these days—and resulting ocean certification. Both of those are very early in their stages of knowledge.

  Mr Gallett: I think there are two issues here. One is gaps in types of observation, so areas where, perhaps, sensor technology is not capable of making observations we would like to make, and then there is the issue of lack of continuity in routine observations. I think oceanography is going through a fundamental transition with the science at the moment, in that operational oceanography is a relatively new activity and there are huge problems with continuity of observations. Most observations in the oceans have their origin in research projects and research projects are generally short lived, so we get snapshots of the way the ocean behaves from a particular perspective and then that snapshot may cease. I see the biggest problem here is how do you ensure that certain key observations are made continuously and made consistently. This is not research. It may underpin research but it is not research. It is a fundamentally different activity and it needs to be managed and operated in a different way. At the moment in the UK, and I would say at an international level also, the mechanisms properly to underpin the funding of those regular routine observations are not well established and so what tends to happen is that we have a stop-go sort of situation. We will have some observation capability in place, whether it is space based or in situ within the oceans, and then that observational base will suddenly reach the end of its life and there has been no attention paid to proper continuity. Clearly, if we do not get the basic long-term observation correctly undertaken we will not be able to understand properly the way in which the oceans drive climate. That is one half of the equation. The other half, as Richard has said, is that there are gaps in terms of the types of observation that we are able to make and they are embedded in the research area because there are some things we would like to be able to observe routinely that we cannot observe routinely at the moment because the technologies to do so are not sufficiently developed. There are two different areas here that I think need to be addressed. One is bringing up to speed the technologies that are needed to fill gaps in the types of parameters that are being measured. The other is creating mechanisms at a national and a global level which properly ensure the continuity of routine observation of the oceans.

  Mr Gallett: One of the other things that we do suffer from is that we have packets of data scattered around the place. Quite often they are not being joined up, they are not being utilised. The MOD has quite a lot of data that it is very unhappy to release because perhaps it might reveal operational activities of vessels. I do not know to what extent in recent times those have been looked at again but there is an awful lot of data being held by the MOD through their hydrographic office in areas which probably other people have not been working on. There are other packets around in some of the other research places as well that have not been brought into the fold.

  Q341  Dr Spink: Added to the problem of inadequate funding and technical knowledge and a lack of coordination, you would say, is protectionism—probably for fairly sound security reasons.

  Mr Gallett: Yes.

  Q342  Dr Spink: What do you think is the significance of the Global Ocean Observing System?

  Mr Burt: From a scientific point of view, it is very well proven, and I think its significance is very clear. Also there are two other key aspects. It is global, so that it does act as an overarching coordinating activity for marine science and technology, but, also, from a commercial aspect for companies that will participate in it. Again, that is companies from developing technologies to giving added value to data products. There is one interesting aspect of the Global Ocean Observing System which is yet to be addressed. We have alluded to that today. That is the significant change in the technologies that are needed to achieve the data products that you require. If you were to look around at worldwide technologies, instrumentation products that are being used for Global Ocean Observing Systems, they all invariably have their roots in scientific programmes. A simple instrument for measuring temperature in the oceans, salinity in the oceans, all have their roots in scientific programmes, where a scientist may take some equipment to sea and make a measurement. Very few, if any, are designed for what we would call long-term operational deployments. At the moment you have a very large number of observing systems using scientific equipment and then a significant part of their budget, for example, would go towards maintaining that system. It is a little bit like having a very, very expensive racing car you want to use a few days a week. It is so expensive to maintain. Whereas the technology input required is to develop instrumentation and technologies that will last for many months or years in the ocean environment and report good data continuously. That may be seen as a very good topic for research, but if you then sit and think about how many different oceanographic regimes there are around the world, all inputting to a Global Ocean Observing System, it gives you an idea of the size of the project. For example, if you wish to measure a given parameter in the Thames Estuary or in the Solent, you may use a totally different technology for the same parameter from that you would use in the Arctic or in the surf zone or in the middle of the Pacific. There is a huge opportunity for assessing the types of different technologies that you require and applying those to the most suitable regime, even though at the end of the day they are all giving you the same information: the temperature is X. There is a significant opportunity and it is an opportunity that is not being addressed at all2[2]. The European aspect of the Global Ocean Observing System, EuroGOOS, has identified this many years ago as a technology gap that is required to be filled and it has looked, within the European context, at where it can obtain this information. It cannot fund initiatives but it can identify and act was a catalyst to try to get things done. Certainly up to this stage, it has not been successful in doing that. Many, many workshops and discussions that I have been directly involved in have tried to achieve this technology gap in trying to fill it but at the moment the consensus is still that we continue to use scientific instruments and maybe adapt, whereas in the long term adapting is too expensive. You need to design again from the grassroots.

  Q343  Dr Spink: We saw in the United States a couple of weeks ago instruments that were dropped in the ocean and left there to operate over a number of years, a decade perhaps, that bob up from time to time, release their data and go back down. Is that technology not shared around the world for everyone to use?

  Mr Burt: It is a well known programme. All the technology requirement came out of the US and the technology development to meet that came out of the US as well.

  Q344  Dr Spink: Hence your earlier comment about the US being more effective in start-up, seed corn funding.

  Mr Burt: Absolutely. The US did provide full funding for the manufacturers of the sensor technologies on those particular buoys, to produce instruments which are designed for that use. Certainly at the time of requirements for sensors on those buoys, the American pull-through of technology was far better than it was over here. We had full visibility of it but it was not economic to pull it through.

  Q345  Dr Spink: Do you think the UK's participation in the GOOS project and its long-term viability are sound and becoming more secure as we get more political understanding of the need for these datasets or do you think they are at risk in any way because of short-termism?

  Dr Rayner: Clearly, the Global Ocean Observing System is an absolutely critical component of the overall earth observation system and there is a well-formulated plan for how the Global Ocean Observing System should be created. Necessarily and by definition it is a global endeavour but it relies on effective participation of individual nations to perform a routine programme of observations. The UK's participation is not particularly strong. There have been several recent instances, in fact, where the UK has reduced its level of participation. You mentioned the ARGO programme specifically in your earlier comments.

  Q346  Dr Spink: In fact there are some people in the industry who believe the UK should double its financial participation in this project.

  Dr Rayner: And should engage perhaps at a different level.

  Q347  Dr Spink: Would you explain that.

  Dr Rayner: At the moment the representation to the Global Ocean Observing System is through IACMST and it is funded through the research councils. I would argue again that it is not a research council function. It is so fundamental to our understanding and routine monitoring of the planet that it should receive much more attention and perhaps be elevated to a different position.

  Q348  Dr Spink: An operational department like the Met Office or something.

  Dr Rayner: Yes.

  Q349  Chris Mole: Who should operate that?

  Dr Rayner: At the moment the only organisation I think in the UK is positioned to do that is the UK Met Office. But of course it is not funded to do so.

  Q350  Dr Spink: What part has the Marine Climate Change Partnership had to play in addressing the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the oceans?

  Mr Burt: In terms of our scientific gaps, I do not know, but, in terms of technology applied to it, I am not aware that we have had any pull-through yet.

  Chairman: Is that across the board? Yes. Okay.

  Q351  Dr Turner: I would like to ask some brief questions about international collaboration and organisation. There are many international and European organisations involved in the governance of the oceans. Do you feel, Dr Rayner, that the UK is adequately represented at the international level in UNESCO and the other bodies like the IOOC and the International Maritime Organisation?

  Dr Rayner: It is certainly represented. I would ask the question of how the position of the UK is determined in some of these bodies. Who briefs representatives? How do they decide what position is taken when they attend those sorts of fora?

  Q352  Dr Turner: In other words, should our representation be more forceful?

  Dr Rayner: I would say yes, it should be.

  Q353  Dr Turner: What impact do you think better representation or more effective representation could have on our own marine science and policy development?

  Dr Rayner: It would be more informed by what is going on in other countries and what is going on at a global level.

  Q354  Dr Turner: How serious a deficiency do you think this is?

  Dr Rayner: I would say it is a relatively serious problem. It is very difficult to understand or even to see if there is a process for how UK position is determined in those bodies.

  Q355  Dr Turner: Do you all feel this to any degree?

  Mr Gallett: It is outside my field.

  Dr Thompson: It is outside mine.

  Mr Burt: I would agree totally.

  Q356  Dr Turner: There is a European Marine Strategy Green Paper, what impact is that going to have on the UK?

  Dr Rayner: If it forms the basis for the Maritime Directive it will have quite a specific impact on the UK, in that the UK will have to enact legislation appropriate to that Directive. Formulated in the right way, it will create some coherence and it will raise this whole issue to a higher level.

  Q357  Dr Turner: It is a reasonable expectation that a Green Paper will lead to a Directive. Do you feel that the Green Paper as published is good or bad for us?

  Dr Rayner: I think it is good for us.

  Q358  Dr Turner: If the Directive follows that, you will be quite happy.

  Dr Rayner: Because I think it will create a focus for the maritime sector which is currently lacking.

  Q359  Dr Turner: Could I ask you all finally to comment on how well the UK collaborates internationally with the development of marine technologies?

  Mr Burt: Let me try to answer that with two examples. One is the well-known European framework programme which, by its necessity, forces collaboration or otherwise you do not participate. Certainly in previous years there has been a significant dip in what I would call SME participation. It was very, very positive and then, as the funding mechanisms became less attractive, fewer and fewer SMEs participated. In the current round now, framework 7, it is a lot better. It is early stages but there is more funding for SMEs at a greater percentage level, which is good, and also there is a stronger role that SMEs are expected to perform within the projects so there is less opportunity to undertake research for research's sake. With collaboration, you have to outline explicitly how your technology pull-through will happen. I think that is good. The second example is if we look across the water—dare I say again—to the United States, to look at what is happening there. There are opportunities for UK companies to license technologies from the US and to develop those—again, coming back to our funding models, perhaps at our expense—then launching them on to the US market. I think UK companies do as good a job, if not a better job, at technology pull-through than US companies. Whereas US companies have more opportunity, I think we can do a better job, but it is beholden on the individual companies to go over to find the perfect technologies and bring them back.

2   2 Footnote by the Witness: In the USA, NOAA has established the Alliance for Coastal Technologies to specifically address the technology requirements for long term marine measurements in the coastal zone. Back

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