Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540 - 562)



  Q540  Linda Gilroy: There was a strong perception amongst the marine science community that a good proportion of the protected areas would be like Sites of Special Scientific Interest on land. Presumably from what you are saying there is no danger that that will be let slip? I have been lobbied by my very large local community to express some concerns that this might not even appear in the Marine Bill, which I am seeking to offer reassurances by other means is not the case. Can you offer the Committee that assurance?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: No, I cannot offer the Committee that assurance. What I can do is ensure that my ministers understand that that could be a potential problem.

  Q541  Dr Turner: There is a very clear possibility that some of the areas which you most want to protect are also areas—for instance, they may have very good tidal streams—that are very desirable for development from the point of view of tidal stream energy, for instance. Do you see a conflict?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: If you are talking about something like the River Severn—

  Q542  Dr Turner: I am not talking of barrages.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: What are you talking about?

  Q543  Dr Turner: For instance, the tidal stream turbine which is waiting to be installed in Strangford Lock right now.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: I do not know. It is a perfectly reasonable question to ask and as a scientist I say why not just get the evidence. Let us evaluate that and look at what is going on. What is the impact of that? Then we can make a sensible decision. Unless an environmental impact assessment had been done prior to that, which would help inform it, you will not get the information you need to put it in and do all the measurements, again a very good case to be made for us getting the science right so that we understand what the implication might be for other places.

  Jonathan Shaw: One of the purposes of the Marine Bill will be that planning will be at its heart. With all of the potential conflict, we need to get the proper planning and regulations in place.

  Q544  Chairman: We have heard a lot of evidence during this inquiry about blue biotech or marine biotechnology. I wonder what the government's policy is towards marine biotechnology and where we are going?

  Professor Sir David King: I am going to defer to Sir Howard on this one because you are referring to exploiting the biodiverse systems that still exist in our oceans for potential economic benefit.

  Q545  Chairman: Or even for soaking up more carbon dioxide or using plankton.

  Professor Sir David King: These are areas that all need to be explored, but I defer to Sir Howard.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: The answer is yes, we are engaged with our partners. It is not the sort of thing necessarily that Defra has a direct, immediate role in. We do work very closely with the Natural Environment Research Council and there is a programme on microbial biotechnology in the marine environment. Indeed, I spoke at one of their conferences very recently on how one could think about exploiting marine systems for biology. Take for example the experiments that Craig Venter has been doing in Bermuda, where he has been looking to identify what sort of organisms are out there in the marine environment. On one major fishing expedition he identified something like several thousand new microbial species about which we know absolutely nothing. That is a very good example, it seems to me, of using science proactively to try and understand what they are doing. What NERC has done very cleverly is look at a whole number of organisms that they have isolated from the marine environment and asked the simple question: do they do anything interesting that we know nothing about? The answer is yes, they do. In a number of cases they are producing pharmaceutical compounds which no other organism on this planet, as far as we can tell, is able to produce. There is an example of exploitation there. We are understanding better how various genes are transferred between one organism and another and that is also making a big difference.

  Q546  Dr Iddon: The Foresight Marine Panel was set up in the 1990s and disbanded. What did we learn from that exercise?

  Professor Sir David King: It was set up in the 1990s, shortly after the original Foresight Programme was established. The question is?

  Q547  Dr Iddon: What did we learn from that exercise?

  Professor Sir David King: The Foresight Programme that was established in the mid-1990s was a very different beast from the one that we have now. What we learned was a matter of very broad ranging knowledge, who was the marine science community, who should be pulled together, what sort of research was already being done and how was the industry interacting with that. There was a very broad learning process. Interestingly, after the Office of Science and Technology stopped the programme, it continued. It had a life of its own and continued for a few years. Clearly, the people within the Foresight Programme felt it was worthwhile to keep connected. Much of the outcome has gone into both the industry and the Research Councils in terms of current work.

  Q548  Dr Iddon: It made a number of important recommendations like campaigning to improve public awareness of the marine environment and the science, leading roles for three Research Councils, the formation of government departmental strategies for marine technology. What are we going to monitor in terms of whether those recommendations have been carried out or not and have been effective or not?

  Professor Sir David King: I am sure the Minister will explain to you that these have been largely taken on board by Defra.

  Jonathan Shaw: In terms of improving the quality of marine water, that has happened. Where there still are problems they are probably for historic reasons in estuaries. We do not pollute the sea in the way that we used to. Man's behaviour is causing other problems in terms of global warming. Elsewhere, I am thinking about the target we have by 2015 to ensure that our fish stocks are at a sustainable level. That was agreed in Johannesburg. That again is an international agreement. There is a great deal of awareness of that. So many people are employed within the marine industry and related industries. It is in the region of 450,000 people. There is awareness. Take blue flags. People are aware of cleaner beaches these days, at a very practical level. We want to open up coastal footpaths and coastal areas. We have made some strides but in terms of monitoring whether we are making sufficient progress, this Committee is doing Parliament's job for it in making sure that we are held to account.

  Q549  Dr Iddon: Could I ask Sir Howard about the European Commission and the Framework Seven Programme in particular, but also the Marine Strategy Green Paper? What input are we putting into one and what are we getting out of the other? Marine science does not seem to play a very large role in the Framework Seven Programme. Am I wrong?

  Jonathan Shaw: We are pleased that marine and maritime have connected. Defra has made contributions to the consultation which has concluded now. We are not expecting any legislation to come forward this year. It will probably come forward next year. Some of the things that we want to do in the Marine Bill we think will be unlikely to get agreement in Europe. What we want to do in the Marine Bill is to be at the forefront of marine legislation and inform Europe as they draw up legislation.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: I am not familiar with the contribution that comes out of the Framework Seven programme on the marine environment. I ought to know it but I do not. We certainly interact with Framework Seven largely through our Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Science Centre because that is an important part of where we interface.

  Q550  Dr Iddon: Perhaps somebody could write to us.

  Jonathan Shaw: I am informed that our memo to the Committee highlights our involvement.

  Q551  Dr Iddon: On research, as you have heard, the Committee has visited the James Cook. I did not go but I gather it is a pretty impressive vessel and also very costly. We have also heard that the number of vessels in our fleet for research at sea or on the continental shelf and in the deep sea has reduced over the past year. Whilst we are talking about collaboration with Europe, are we planning to build more ships or are we going to plan to collaborate more within the European Union for exploration?

  Jonathan Shaw: The James Cook cost in the region of £25 million. That was a substantial capital investment and we hope we get a good return on that investment and the research undertaken. I am pleased that the Committee has been on that important fact finding mission, not a trip of course. In terms of whether we are going to extend the fleet, I am not aware. The collaboration point is well made. I know that in previous evidence you asked whether the Royal Navy were involved in some of that research work and I understand that they are. We will make use of all the resources at our disposal. We are developing new technologies that enable us to record information in some of those buoys.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: CEFAS and NERC both have ships. It is important that you recognise that if you have ships you want to be using them all the time. You do not want them docked up too much. We are trying to dovetail our research requirements with the Natural Environment Research Council and with other people who need access and the use of those ships. That is very important. The whole idea is to ensure that we are all getting the maximum amount of activity out of those. We cannot afford to have them in dock for too long.

  Q552  Linda Gilroy: Whose responsibility is it to monitor and address skills shortages in marine science? Where do you think the key skills shortages are?

  Jonathan Shaw: Defra commissions research. One of its principal bodies is CEFAS. We have a ten year funding agreement with them. That ensures certainty. We have collaboration arrangements. Where there are shortfalls, people are recruited internationally as happens a great deal with science of this nature. In your own constituency, obviously as you are aware, we have the Plymouth Laboratory. We have very highly regarded institutions. People want to come and work in them so I think we are reasonably well placed. Our marine science base is well regarded. It has not been highlighted to me since taking over this job that there are particular shortfalls.

  Q553  Linda Gilroy: It has been highlighted in various sessions with us that there are shortages. The Proudman for example told us that the UK skills base for marine science is not healthy, particularly in the area of marine physics. Other witnesses have identified shortages in everything from mathematicians, oceanographic and ecological modellers, molecular biologists, environmental geophysicists and taxonomists. There is also concern about the recruitment of young people into marine science and whether the opportunities are well enough known.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: All the disciplines that you mention are quite well served in the United Kingdom but not necessarily for the marine environment. In other words, if you look at the molecular biologists, the physicists, the mathematicians, they tend not necessarily to move into the marine environment when it comes to applying the work that they do, but I agree that there is a shortage in certain areas, particularly in terms of taxonomy, ecosystems analysis and also probably in terms of modelling. It is a question really of trying to attract the existing individuals who have skills in those areas to apply them to that particular discipline.

  Q554  Linda Gilroy: How? Given the importance that I think we are agreeing should be attached to the future of marine science, how can we up the ante on that?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: I have just come back from a BBSRC meeting, on which I also sit, where skills shortages have been identified for laboratories such as the Babraham Institute, which feels that it needs a lot more people who understand mathematical modelling. This is now an area which is moving up the agenda for an awful lot of science disciplines. How do you attract people? You put resources into it. You make it an interesting area for people to want to go into. You talk about career structures for people and that is the way you get people to move into those areas. What attracts people to these things is exciting and interesting science. If the science is interesting, needs to be done and is valuable, people will move into it.

  Q555  Linda Gilroy: Given the importance of climate change, how can we ensure that people are aware at the stages they are making their decisions and also that the money is right in research as compared with other attractions that there might be, particularly for mathematicians and modellers?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: I do not necessarily think it is Defra's job to do that. The Research Councils have a very important role to play. Universities have a very important role to play there in terms of trying to stimulate activity in those areas. There is quite a number of courses that are going on in a whole variety of different university departments in these sorts of areas. I think about Bangor, Plymouth, York and all the courses that they put on. Newcastle puts courses on in these areas. St Andrew's puts on some really good courses in these areas. There is a number of different universities that are all trying to stimulate activity there across the piece. Why people get concerned that there are not enough people out there filling the gaps that they perceive is because sometimes these are highly specialised areas that have some difficulty in attracting an individual or group of individuals to those particular areas.

  Q556  Linda Gilroy: Is it also because of lack of continuity of funding and security which we talked about earlier? In particular, CEFAS has complained that lack of funding for salaries and continuity of research is hindering their ability to recruit good scientists. Do you accept that that is a problem?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: Yes.

  Q557  Linda Gilroy: Any advances on what we have already discussed in how that could be put right?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: The way in which you get scientists engaged in these sorts of issues is to pose some very interesting and fascinating problems that they want to work on and in such a way that there is a career structure associated with them too. Once you have both of those in place, you do not have a problem. There is a whole load of areas of science where we have no problem in recruiting people. That is because they are challenging, interesting areas of science and they are at the cutting edge of what is going on.

  Jonathan Shaw: If the ten year funding is not as much as people want that is a shame but in terms of providing certainty, if projects can be undertaken and completed, that is a positive development. I am pleased you have raised the question because it is a very interesting point.

  Q558  Linda Gilroy: Finally, a couple of questions on raising awareness first of all amongst school children on learning related issues and then the wider public. What research has been conducted into wider public awareness?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: As far as school children are concerned, I think they are being served pretty well these days. If I think about the laboratories for which I had former responsibility within Defra and I look at CEFAS, I think they are an exemplar in this area. Particularly for example in Weymouth, one of the CEFAS laboratories there brings in lots of school kids. They spend time there, getting engaged in some of the projects and activities there.

  Q559  Linda Gilroy: Who pays for those programmes?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: We do.

  Jonathan Shaw: We want to see more collaboration with universities and schools. The government set that out within the last Education Act. The recent references to a curriculum change concentrated on climate change and part of that should be about how climate change is affecting sea life. We have published The Marine Fisheries Science Yearbook. I think you have all seen a copy. I have brought you all a copy if you have not. That sets out some of the work undertaken by Defra in a very informative and clear way. There were 226,000 length measurements and 24,500 samples taken of age determination of fish, so huge amounts of work are being undertaken which informs our policy.

  Q560  Linda Gilroy: Does it inform the wider public?

  Jonathan Shaw: Information is disseminated. It has to happen in the first place. Do the public understand that there is an issue in terms of the amount of fish and cod in the North Sea?

  Q561  Linda Gilroy: That is the question we are asking. We have had a very short inquiry on science centres and there is a group of science centres that I would draw to your attention, normally known as marine aquarians, but there are displays in other science centres as well relating to climate change, the oceans, fish, et cetera. When we were in the United States we came across a programme called Sea Grant. I do not know if it is one you are familiar with but I would certainly recommend it as something to look at because it is a programme which funds the States to do a whole variety of public awareness and education of school children amongst that, which I think has produced some quite exciting results and includes the support of some marine aquarians.

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: The other CEFAS laboratories do get actively engaged in it and for example in Plymouth, where the aquarium is and where you have the MBA, the PML, the university all together in one place, they do a seriously good amount of work, working with the local community and with school children. That s a good way of being able to stimulate it. I know it goes on in other university areas. I know St Andrew's carried out a lot of work in that area.

  Q562  Linda Gilroy: Is there scope for having a coherent approach towards that or do you think you already have a coherent approach?

  Professor Sir Howard Dalton: The various institutions are conscious that they need some sort of future life blood fed into them. They recognise the value associated with getting to kids at school age because stimulating them at that sort of stage can be critically important in later years. I know from my own experiences how stimulated I was by those sorts of activities going on in schools and I think that is a really important area.

  Jonathan Shaw: We have not done enough. The funding disparity reflects that. I hope that with the Marine Bill, when we have eight or nine million people who are members of environmental NGOs, all of those organisations getting their members to lobby Members of Parliament to support this important piece of legislation, that will raise awareness of the importance of our actions.

  Chairman: On that note, can I assure you, Minister, that we will also be raising awareness through our humble efforts. Can I thank the Minister, Jonathan Shaw, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at Defra? Thank you very much for coming at such short notice. We very much value your contribution. Thank you again, Professor Sir Howard Dalton, Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra. As ever, it has been a pleasure to listen to you and, in his absence, Sir David King.

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