Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 563 - 579)



  Q563  Chairman: This is the final evidence session of our inquiry Investigating the Oceans. We welcome today Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, and Dr Phil Williamson of the Natural Environment Research Council and the University of East Anglia. I apologise for starting this session slightly late. You have probably gathered that there are some issues regarding the future of the Committee and we want to deal with one or two of those, which means that we are in an even worse mood than we normally are! Alan, we have enjoyed this particular inquiry very much indeed; it has been a very useful inquiry to us. We note that you have a strategy 2007-2012, the NERC strategy, and we wondered where marine science and technology fit into that whole strategy. What emphasis and prominence has it got?

  Professor Thorpe: The new strategy is quite a break from the past in that we have a combination of science themes that are cross-cutting. We have seven, which include climate change, earth system science, biodiversity, et cetera; so they cut across all the disciplinary areas and are thematically based, as the name suggests. We also have a clearer focus on the funding that we give for maintaining national capability in core disciplinary areas in environmental science. We are going to put a clearer emphasis on maintaining and developing that national capability, and marine science, atmospheric science, earth observation are amongst the disciplines on that axis. We will be looking at both maintaining the marine science and technology capability overall, and that obviously is largely but not exclusively delivered by the marine centres, via the Oceans 2025 Programme; but marine science also appears in the thematic research programmes that cut across. In terms of research programmes, marine science is in many of these themes, as you can imagine.

  Q564  Chairman: Are you confident that NERC is addressing the right issues in terms of sponsored science in regard to marine science? The community feels that perhaps it is not getting its fair share. They would say that, I know, would they not; but it is important. There is a feeling that in the past there has been too much emphasis on climate change and that that has dominated over other aspects of marine science. Is that fair?

  Professor Thorpe: It is a big question. The issue of whether there is sufficient funding going into marine science is one, of course, of prioritisation, and NERC Council is responsible for making that prioritisation. The new strategy is very clear in terms of its strategic goal, so it is very mission driven, and it is to deliver what the Council feels are the major priorities in the environmental issues that we are facing. Climate change is undoubtedly one of the main issues that we are all having to face, but the strategy—when it is published in September—focuses on environmental change, which includes not only the impact of climate change but the many other ways in which the environment is changing around us, and we have to cope with those changes. I would say that whilst climate change remains one of the central drivers for environmental change, there are many others as well, and they do come out in the new strategy, I feel. I am very confident and content with the new strategy, which, by the way, has been consulted on quite widely. We had an open consultation on the strategy and had a lot of inputs. It has attempted to reflect the priorities that the scientific community, which helped us write it, are interested in and feel are at the forefront. I would say that the new strategy recognises the importance of climate change but is much more holistic and wider than that. It is definitely focused on providing the scientific evidence to address the environmental issues that society and the economy face. That is an unashamed focus of the new strategy.

  Q565  Chairman: Phil, in terms of marine science and ocean science research, do you feel that NERC has got the balance right?

  Dr Williamson: I think it has got to compete with the other areas of science and the other interests there. But within all of the seven themes in the new strategy there is a very important marine element there. In the totality of marine science there is not much that one misses out from that; all of the main features are there.

  Q566  Chairman: So you are happy that they are being properly addressed. Let me take one area where concern has been expressed to us, and that is about the Arctic. There is a great deal of work, obviously, in terms of marine science, which concentrates on the Antarctic as being the main source—and, to be fair, we were very impressed with what we saw in the British Antarctic survey; but would you accept that we are not doing much in the Arctic and that we need to change our priorities in that area?

  Professor Thorpe: Perhaps I can pick that one up.

  Q567  Chairman: Do you disagree?

  Professor Thorpe: No. Well, let's see what I say, first! I do not disagree with what you said. NERC Council has recognised that particularly as a driver for climate change the Arctic is a key indicator of climate change. We expect the impacts to be large. We have made a start on investing more in research in the Arctic in the IPY—but it has been recognised by NERC that we need to rebalance and invest more in Arctic research. We have a polar study going on to isolate the priorities for the future, both Arctic and Antarctic, and Chris Rapley and Duncan Wingham are leading that. That will provide a focus on the key priority areas. We are also looking at the opportunities to collaborate with other countries in Arctic research. Many other countries are active, and we need to work with them where appropriate. We absolutely accept your point, but the new strategy recognises, and the Council recognises, that we need to do more.

  Dr Williamson: From the Oceans 2025 perspective, then there is Arctic work, particularly by the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) but also with the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory that has an Arctic programme. There may not be a dedicated Arctic research institute, but nevertheless there is work going on. Ten years ago you could have made that comment and it would have been fair enough to say we had neglected the Arctic, but I do not think that is the situation now.

  Q568  Chairman: You have mentioned Oceans 2025. There is a concern—and this applies to a lot of the scientific community—that we do have the year off and then suddenly it is the year after where people say, "Where is the funding?" How confident are you that we can maintain funding for Oceans 2025 up to 2025 and beyond, or is it just—

  Professor Thorpe: I am very confident because, as I have said, with the new strategy we have specifically identified the national capability to do environmental science that we think is enduring and long term. Quite a bit of that is marine science capability, but not just marine science. Therefore, the need for research vessels, for maintaining long-term data sets and the need for expertise to innovate in those, are things that the new strategy is clear we have to invest in in the long term. We will not only make that commitment, but we recognise that increasingly the question moves away from whether we need to have marine science capability to let us make sure that we are running it effectively and efficiently and innovating it. It is not a question of whether we need it, but how we can do the best job on it. That recognises the importance of maintaining long-term capability. It is not just in marine science but in the main disciplinary areas.

  Q569  Chairman: It seems to me at any rate that the pressure on NERC funding for research will increase dramatically as there is a greater understanding of the needs to get to grips with climate change and the environmental impact of that, which hits your research council. I know that it hits them all but it hits yours head on. Is marine science likely to be a casualty if you have a limited budget with greater pressure on it?

  Professor Thorpe: I do not personally feel there is any special reason why marine science should be a casualty of that. Of course, I could do nothing but agree with you that there is a great need, and there will be a greater need in the future, for environmental science research to underpin what society will need to do in the future. There will be increasing pressures on the NERC budget. Of course, we are making what we feel is a strong case in the spending review for our budget to go up; but no doubt there will still be much greater demand than we can fund. I do not see myself any reason why marine science should do disproportionately badly in that. It is recognised—and you can tell from the Oceans 2025 exercise—that marine science in the UK is very high-quality, and the peer review of that proposal made by the Marine Labs was very highly reviewed by the international community. You probably heard that from your visits to Woods Hole, et cetera. The UK community in marine science is very highly regarded. As you know, NERC is very focused on funding the highest quality, highest priority research; so there is every reason to suppose that marine science will do very well in the future, within the constraints of our overall budget.

  Q570  Chairman: We were impressed when we were in the States and indeed in Lisbon as to how highly regarded was marine science, though there are a few caveats to that. In terms of Oceans 2025, when I was in Southampton recently I got a different view of Oceans 2025—that this was the way in which the research institutes were divvying up the programme between now and 2025 and it was about them rather than about the whole strategy. Can you tell us what is the truth about that?

  Professor Thorpe: This is a very important point, and I think everybody is clear about this actually. Oceans 2025 is the name given for our core strategic investments in marine science that maintains the national capability to do marine science; it does not represent the totality of the funding that we devote to marine science, nor does it represent a holistic marine strategy. It absolutely focuses on the funding to maintain those centres' contributions to NERC's overall portfolio, and particularly to maintain the long-term capability to do environmental science, which the whole community can then utilise as well as those laboratories. It was never intended to be the total strategy for the UK's marine science investments. It is an important part, but only a part.

  Q571  Chairman: Phil, why do you think universities did not understand that?

  Dr Williamson: I think there are two or three reasons. Ten years ago, NERC did have a marine science strategy and it had an atmospheric science strategy and an earth science strategy, and that is the way it was structured. So when a document comes along that says "strategic programme in marine science" then for some people who are not fully familiar with it, it might look as though NERC has gone back to dividing things up into marine, atmospheric and terrestrial. There is that possible confusion. Also, because Oceans 2025, for better or worse, tried to raise its profile and tell the wider community of what it was doing and what it was trying to do, it might then have suffered from a perception that it was more comprehensive than it really was. It is no more or less than the bid from the marine research centres, but the difference being that instead of having seven separate bids they came together as one co-ordinated bid.

  Q572  Dr Iddon: I think that is the clearest statement we have had of Oceans 2025, quite frankly, ever since this investigation started. Other countries—and I name the USA and Portugal as examples, have "holistic"—as you used the word—national marine strategies. Now you are saying that we have not got one of those. Do you think that we should have?

  Professor Thorpe: This is an important and complex question. It depends, for me, on what you mean by "marine strategy". For NERC we are talking about research components; and a marine strategy for the UK could incorporate science, it could incorporate policy et cetera.

  Q573  Dr Iddon: Can I explain how I see it? I see it as used for transport, for energy supply, for recreation, the gaining of minerals particularly oil and gas, the gaining of food supplies, collection of data sheets and research and development. I personally—and I think the Committee might endorse my view—feel that all of that should be part of a holistic marine strategy. That is what I mean.

  Professor Thorpe: NERC's contribution to that would be in the scientific research component of that strategy. My perception is that there is indeed not a holistic marine strategy in the way that you described it. NERC is clear about its investments in marine science, and why it is doing it and what it is hoping to achieve from it. Of course, NERC is not the only research funder of marine research in the UK, and there are various mechanisms for aligning and discussing strategies between the different research funders of marine science. I know that you have been discussing those, such as the IACMST, and to a degree also the Environment Research Funders' Forum. These are fora where there is read-across between the strategies of different research funders. You would expect me to say this, but I fundamentally believe that NERC investments in marine science are coherent and fit into NERC's overall strategy, but I absolutely take your point that the wider picture in the UK in terms of marine strategy is perhaps a more complex and confused picture.

  Q574  Dr Iddon: My question was: would it be beneficial to the nation if we had a holistic marine strategy?

  Professor Thorpe: I think it would be—the answer must be "yes".

  Q575  Dr Iddon: Who do you think should draw that up, now that you have fallen into that?

  Professor Thorpe: Clearly, one has to start at government level and where the driver is from a government policy point of view for a marine strategy to feed into that. There is a Defra Minister who has marine affairs within his wider portfolio. One might have imagined that beneath that a marine strategy would feed into such a minister, and a body like ERFF or IACMST could orchestrate the scientific component, and perhaps have a wider feed into that policy area. I suspect that the linkage I have just described could be improved operationally within the UK.

  Q576  Dr Iddon: Obviously, NERC would have an important role to play.

  Professor Thorpe: I would be happy for us to play such a role.

  Q577  Dr Iddon: You mentioned IACMST as being a possible organisation to draw that together in a holistic way. We have some evidence that they have certain disadvantages and weaknesses and lack of powers, if you like. What, in your view, would IACMST have to become if it were to be powerful enough to do what we have just discussed?

  Professor Thorpe: One should be aware of what it could not be and what it could be. It is clearly a place where one can align strategies and bring strategies of the member organisations together. It is not going to be a place where you can command resources of all of those organisations, but you can helpfully bring together a holistic strategy of what those organisations want to do. The key to me, to make it effective, is that it needs to have a strong feed into the policy and ministerial lead. I am not sure that that is the case. I do not personally sit on the Committee, although NERC does, but I am sure that that would provide the focus, if there were a strong flow-through of that holistic strategy into the ministerial portfolio. Phil might be able to comment on whether that pull-through is there.

  Dr Williamson: At the moment, not much information goes further up. It can be described as a talking shop because views are exchanged and information is collated sometimes, but it does not necessarily drive any major decision-making processes.

  Q578  Dr Iddon: Do you think the United Kingdom needs the equivalent of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?

  Professor Thorpe: This is another interesting question. In many respects, of course, we have parts of NOAA already, and it is called the Met Office. The Met Office is not purely a meteorological agency; it takes responsibility increasingly for operational ocean forecasting and observations to some degree. It is not a complete oceanographic institution but it has clearly got an operational oceanographic component. One can see the Met Office as playing a key role in a UK analogue to NOAA, and I think the Met Office is a very effective organisation in that regard. We interact on the forecasting via the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting, which is both the Met Office and the NERC institutes. There is the possibility of having such a structure. You can look at NOAA within the United States and ask the question how effective that has been in terms of overall coordination, and there are challenges there within NOAA. For NOAA's total budget there are challenges. Just recently there have been difficulties about the earth observation component and the lack of funding for it. The head of the Hurricane Centre has just departed because of issues about under-funding of earth observation for oceanography. It is not without its challenges even if there were a NOAA. One could imagine the advantages of bringing a wider remit of organisations like the Met Office to look more holistically at ocean operational activities, because at the moment it is very narrowly focused in that area. There may be an opportunity there.

  Q579  Dr Iddon: You are saying that the Met Office is doing some of what NOAA is doing, but by no means enough.

  Professor Thorpe: Precisely.

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