Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580
MONDAY 23 JULY 2007
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
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
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 perspectivethe climate change
issues, the biochemistry, the biodiversity and the biotechnologyand
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
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
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 thingand this comes up in earth
observation a lotis 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 aboutocean acidification,
the plankton changes, the hydrographic changesthe 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 endnationally. 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: MODsis 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
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 timefor 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
toas I mentioned earlierthe 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
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
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
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 timeand 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
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.