Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)

MONDAY 23 JULY 2007

PROFESSOR ALAN THORPE AND DR PHIL WILLIAMSON

  Q580  Dr Iddon: In that NOAA brings the air and the sea together in tackling climate change. Do I interpret that correctly?

  Professor Thorpe: Yes. The Met Office, because of the Hadley Centre being in the Met Office, brings together the relevant disciplines for climate change prediction and research. The Met Office is quite focused in its ocean-forecasting component. It has a very specific customer in the Navy for that, and it is probably not as broad in terms of the kinds of forecasting it produces as NOAA does; but Phil might know more about that.

  Dr Williamson: NOAA includes the fishery responsibility, fishery management, so any UK equivalent of NOAA would then have to take under its umbrella the fishery laboratories in the UK and Scotland; and that is quite a major issue, bringing all of that under one area.

  Q581  Chairman: Would that be a good thing?

  Dr Williamson: Potentially. Any reorganisation causes some extra costs and resources, and restructuring does not come cheap. It would take several years before any efficiency gains came through.

  Chairman: The reason I chipped in there was that when we went to BAS, and when we were in the States, we saw significant amounts of evidence which showed that it was fishing that had done so much harm to the seabed and that you could not have a proper marine science policy unless fishing was part and parcel of it. That is why we are looking at this area.

  Q582  Dr Iddon: Here, it seems to be treated in a quite separate box to everything else to do with the sea.

  Dr Williamson: If I reply personally, I very much agree, but it is not just a UK problem; it is also on a European scale that the fishing activity and management is distinct from the environmental activities; and so it has to be put back together in the UK and on a European scale. It is putting fishing in the environmental perspective—the climate change issues, the biochemistry, the biodiversity and the biotechnology—and all those links could potentially be improved.

  Q583  Chairman: We have not got a cat in hell's chance with the current IACMST, have we?

  Professor Thorpe: It depends what you require. IACMST can be a place where the whole range of marine, including fisheries, can share strategic overview; but if you are talking about an agency or an operational activity, that is quite a different thing from the way IACMST is set up.

  Q584  Chairman: Would you prefer there to be an agency? Can we put that on record?

  Professor Thorpe: I do not think I said that! I agreed with Brian, and I think Phil did, strongly, that there is a correct perception that there is a split in some sense between the fisheries side and the rest of marine science into environmental science, and we would benefit from bringing them together. I referred to the Met Office being the operational agency that links best on the environmental science of ocean forecasting. It is a more complicated question to ask how to bring in fisheries operationally together, but certainly I agree that it would be advantageous to have a more holistic view.

  Q585  Linda Gilroy: To what extent do you expect the Marine Bill to act as a prompt to that happening?

  Professor Thorpe: That is difficult to answer.

  Dr Williamson: There is not a great deal of science implications for NERC in the Marine Bill, which is essentially about planning and management aspects. It may require a science input and it does require data and the background information, but the Marine Bill does not deal with the major step-change that is being discussed in this Committee.

  Q586  Linda Gilroy: But it will have an impact.

  Dr Williamson: Yes.

  Professor Thorpe: Yes. In many respects the structural elements of the Marine Bill like marine protected areas and marine management organisation et cetera are structures that we would want to have a strong link with to make sure that the research evidence base fed into those activities. Our view about the Marine Bill is that we need a good feed of research evidence into the consequential structures that are set up. It is more difficult for NERC to comment on other aspects of the Marine Bill.

  Q587  Chris Mole: We have been struck by the importance of various decadal-scales, datasets for informing change in relation to the climate or other aspects of the environment. Do you think NERC has the balance of funding right between core scientific research and some of the sustained ocean observation activities that are necessary to provide that sort of data?

  Professor Thorpe: Again, it is an area that we have talked about on this Committee in other contexts on many occasions, and it is something we have to keep a focus on. NERC's position is quite clear: we are driven by the science priorities that we have. Often, to deliver the science that we want to do requires long-term data sets. Where we feel we need those long-term data sets and they do not exist, NERC is happy to invest in long-term data sets. For example, NERC Council took the view that to understand the thermohaline overturning circulation, as part of that system we had to monitor in the Atlantic, and we set up a monitoring system, and we are in that for the long-term. That was a science-driven need, to have long-term monitoring. A very much more tricky thing—and this comes up in earth observation a lot—is where research monitoring and instrumentation is set up, perhaps with NERC funding, and is then translated into operational long-term use. The hand-over of funding for that from the purely research to the purely operational, where NERC finds it much more difficult to invest long-term, is troublesome. It is not just in marine, but that is true in a number of areas. The only counter to that, I would say, is that we have all recognised that it is a difficulty, and there are a number of places, particularly the Global Environmental Change Committee and the Environment Research Funders' Forum, where specific studies are being done at the moment to look at monitoring holistically and to look at the hand-over from research into operational monitoring. I would not underestimate the difficulty, because, as I have said in the Committee before, the amount of monitoring that is necessary of environmental change that is going on is very great, and the resources we have to do it are limited. We are having to focus and prioritise, and that is extremely difficult to do.

  Q588  Chris Mole: What are the kinds of agencies picking up those operational observations and how do we smooth that hand-over?

  Professor Thorpe: I suppose an issue is that there is a wide range of agencies contributing to that monitoring. We have probably mentioned a number of them here. Defra clearly has a role; the Met Office has a role in sustained observations. A number of operational agencies can and do play a role. Even those operational departments and agencies are struggling to a degree to find the large resources needed to maintain observations. Just as an example, again in the earth observation area, the sustained observing that is needed for meteorological and ocean forecasting from space is a considerable burden on Europe, within Eumetsat and within the Met Office contribution to that. I know that Defra feels this acutely in terms of its contribution. We have discussed before various programmes like Global Monitoring for Environment and Security where a number of agencies need to come together to sustain that funding; and it is quite difficult to make sure that they do indeed come together; and the UK plays the dominant role, which I think it needs to play.

  Q589  Chris Mole: What has fallen off the table during those hand-overs? Where are the gaps between what we should be monitoring currently and ...

  Dr Williamson: I do not think we have lost anything serious in the last five years, but it has been tough holding it all together. The problem is that there is no shortage of new things that we ought to be monitoring and measuring and that come up through the science, through NERC, that start as a time series of three years, then it is five years and then there can be very awkward decisions: do they get another five years from NERC and another five years after that, or is there a hand-over time? Some things have European funding and some of them have different agencies. Sometimes NERC pays for half and Defra pays for half, and we keep things going on that basis. It is getting harder all the time, in that the number of additional changes now that we feel we ought to have a handle on and that we ought to know about—ocean acidification, the plankton changes, the hydrographic changes—the value of having a time series is that you do not stop for five years, put them to one side and then come back again. All the time, the number of commitments is increasing, and that is a headache.

  Professor Thorpe: We have been close to the brink on a number. On Jason, which is a satellite altimeter of the ocean we were close to not making the right contribution, although we did in the end—nationally. GMES is another example where the UK would benefit from having a more coherent approach. At the last Space Ministerial we had difficulties with GMES, which were well reported. The ARGO float programme is another area where it has been a challenge to maintain the level of investment across a number of agencies and to make sure that the UK plays its role, because it is part of a global network. I would say we have been close to some difficult points, but we have just about managed to hang on. It shows that we would benefit from an improved co-ordination.

  Q590  Chris Mole: Are you working with Government departments to ensure open access to all publicly-funded data sets for all scientists?

  Professor Thorpe: We are. NERC-funded data collection is made available via the British Oceanographic Data Centre. We have put quite a bit of investment into making sure that our data is made available, and that our researchers have access to international data sets as well. My feeling is that researchers anyway in the UK have pretty good access to data sets from NERC-generated projects but also world-wide. I am sure there are problems somewhere.

  Dr Williamson: There are some problems, but on the whole the academic researchers can get round most of those. The problem is that some scientific institutions have funding trading status and are obliged to sell their data wherever possible and make money. The Met Office is not supposed to give it away, but NERC scientists have access routes to it; but for people in universities there are problems on the marine side, and within NERC we cannot always get hold of the data we want on marine surveys or other information like that.

  Professor Thorpe: The fisheries information, where there are elements of commercial in confidence, can be difficult to access from labs that are not within NERC.

  Q591  Chris Mole: MODs—is some of the data—

  Dr Williamson: Or just not available!

  Q592  Chris Mole: What is the position on ready publication of data?

  Professor Thorpe: Ready in the sense ...

  Q593  Chris Mole: About having it available in a timely manner.

  Professor Thorpe: We get a very rapid access of data that is taken in the field, often in real time of course; but usually the researchers will have a period of time—for example those who have been on a research cruise, where their particular project has been accumulating data, they will have a relatively short period of time to look at their own data, so to speak, to quality-control it, et cetera. We try to reduce that to a minimum.

  Dr Williamson: A lot of data is available online. For the Cape Verde Ocean Atmosphere Observatory, the data is there on the day that it arrives. Others are within six months or a year. For any NERC-directed programme they will have a data policy that says, "Within a year you will have banked your data and done the quality control and you will make it available"; and the programme produces a CD at the end of it, and any reasonable request is met at whatever stage.

  Q594  Dr Turner: If you are undertaking a funding allocation and budgeting project, presumably it is a fundamental change to your whole accounting and financial control procedures. What effect will this have on long-term research projects, and particularly how will it affect research cruises? We have learnt that it takes several years just to do the planning phase of these projects.

  Professor Thorpe: We brought in this project, with a rather opaque title I am afraid, but it represents NERC being clearer about how it allocates its funding streams to—as I mentioned earlier—the national capability to do environmental research, which includes the marine laboratories and vessels, and the research programmes that utilise that capability. We have now, under this project, made clearer what the funding streams are and how we will review them, performance-manage them and evaluate their outcomes. One of the changes will be that part of the research funding that is currently allocated to our centres will come together with previously thematic funding into one pot called research programmes, and that will be bid for across the community, both by research centre scientists and academics within universities. This is a way for us to encourage collaboration between university researchers and our research institutes. We are going to bring this in over the next few years. Oceans 2025 was very much designed with this new way of allocation in mind, so they have been quite clear about the components of Oceans 2025 that are there for the national capability part and the parts that will be within the research programme component. Another aspect of this is that we will have theme leaders for each of the seven science themes. They will be scientists in the community who will act to bring together the community in each of the themes, like biodiversity, to make recommendations to our science board on investments. There are a number of associated changes that this project will bring in, but it is all described quite clearly in our new strategy that will be published in September.

  Q595  Dr Turner: We have heard criticism that FAB has some short-term funding cycles but that these are not really appropriate to marine science projects. How do you answer that?

  Professor Thorpe: The research programme element will be in the form of quite a large set of individual programmes that might run between three to five years, but they will have a finite lifetime. The research vessels, for example, come under the national capability component, where we will essentially have a much longer-term horizon on the funding. This change will give a greater security of long-term support for that capability to do the science. In many respects, this signals a greater long-term commitment for NERC on that underpinning requirement.

  Q596  Dr Turner: Will all these changes have any effect on your ability to encourage inter-disciplinary research, particularly linking physical ocean science with biological sciences?

  Professor Thorpe: The whole structure of the strategy is there specifically to encourage and facilitate multi-disciplinary environmental science. The fact that we have a thematic structure that cuts across the disciplinary areas shows that we are looking to bring the disciplines together to address these environmental issues. I would say that the strategy is multi-disciplinary at its core. Of course, that is at a higher level than the individual components of the marine community, which are the ones you mentioned; but with the multi-disciplinary opportunities that the community will see in these research programmes there will be very great encouragement to work across the marine physics/chemistry/biology boundaries. That is signalled very strongly in the strategy.

  Q597  Dr Turner: So you can guarantee there will be no funding gaps that multi-disciplinary projects can fall into, can you?

  Professor Thorpe: "Guarantee" is a strong word! We are going to enable. One of the journeys that NERC has been on for quite a significant time—and Phil has reminded us that if you go back ten or fifteen years, NERC was very much sub-divided into the disciplinary areas. There was a sub-strategy for marine, atmospheric, et cetera. Under the previous Chief Executive, and I am following through on that, we are taking much more of an earth system approach, recognising that many of the problems we are dealing with, like climate change, involve all of those disciplines. We need to bring those together, so we are very strongly encouraging cross-centre and centre-to-university collaboration in the new strategy.

  Q598  Dr Turner: Do you have any interaction with the other research councils? Are there any fringe areas where you meet?

  Professor Thorpe: We again address this in the new strategy and the new spending review with an initiative that we are particularly excited about called Living with Environmental Change, which brings together all of the research councils. We have now ten departments or organisations on a partners board to look specifically at the problem of environmental change to society, bringing together natural science, engineering, economics and social science, et cetera. I am quite excited about this initiative for the coming spending review. It is very much where we need to be because even NERC on its own cannot tackle these environmental questions; it has got to be done in conjunction with others. That is a vehicle where we will strongly improve our ability to work across, with the other research councils but also the policy departments and other users.

  Q599  Chairman: Natural England gave us evidence that it was difficult getting multi-disciplinary research. When we asked BBSRC, which you would expect to be a significant funder of the main biological science research council, they said to us: "We did not co-fund any marine science research jointly with other research councils between 2002-2003 and 2006-2007." That seems to fly totally in the face of what you have just said to Des Turner.

  Professor Thorpe: It is partly in the realisation that environmental problems have to be multi-disciplinary that we are introducing this new initiative, which I think will be a large opportunity to bring together not just the biologists but economists, social scientists, et cetera. This is seriously difficult to do, so I think BBSRC were right to point that out. In the past we have not stepped up to the plate on this, so I absolutely accept that now is the time to do multi-disciplinary science; but the challenge of it is enormous. We have been having strong dialogue with the Economic and Social Research Council to make sure that natural science on climate change is reflected with really good social science of understanding whether the public wants to take up the mitigation adaptation solutions. These are real research questions and we have not had effective mechanisms, or mechanisms that are as effective as they should be, to do this multi-disciplinary exercise. I am hoping that, with a great deal of effort and resources we are going to substantially have a vehicle for this in the future, which is what Living with Environmental Change is about.


 
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