Examination of Witnesses (Questions 563
MONDAY 23 JULY 2007
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 strategywhen it
is published in Septemberfocuses 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 sourceand,
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
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 IPYbut 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 concernand this applies to a lot
of the scientific communitythat 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
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 recognisedand
you can tell from the Oceans 2025 exercisethat 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 2025that 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 countriesand
I name the USA and Portugal as examples, have "holistic"as
you used the wordnational marine strategies. Now you are
saying that we have not got one of those. Do you think that we
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 personallyand I think the Committee
might endorse my viewfeel 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
bethe 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
Q578 Dr Iddon: Do you think the United
Kingdom needs the equivalent of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
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
Professor Thorpe: Precisely.