Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)

MONDAY 23 JULY 2007

PROFESSOR ALAN THORPE AND DR PHIL WILLIAMSON

  Q600  Linda Gilroy: Research vessels: do NERC's international barter arrangements weaken the case for the UK to fund its own new vessel and equipment purchases? Are barter arrangements the best way by which to provide UK marine scientists with the facilities they need in the future? What is the relationship between the traditional way of doing things and the emerging way of bartering?

  Dr Williamson: Bartering helps make more efficient use of the vessels you have got. It is certainly no substitute. For any barter arrangement there is always a pay-back time, but what that enables is that if the UK has a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean and then another country wishes to do a follow-on cruise in the Pacific, or vice versa, it means there is less time moving ships around the world, and that they are more effectively used. It has an efficiency gain for the use of the vessels, but it does not mean that you do not need to have your own fleet. It does require co-operation and planning. It adds on 5 to 20 per cent efficiency, but it does not substitute for having your own vessels.

  Q601  Linda Gilroy: There have been concerns about Discovery and its reliability and whether it can continue to contribute effectively to the bartering arrangements. Are those concerns likely to be met with the new vessel in time to maintain that balance of contributing towards bartering?

  Professor Thorpe: We are moving as rapidly as we can to replace Discovery. We are starting our procurement of the replacement. There is no doubt that the existing Discovery has had some technical difficulties. It is quite an old ship.

  Q602  Linda Gilroy: It is to be retired in 2011.

  Professor Thorpe: Yes. We will have the replacement in time for that. We are trying to make sure that we align where Discovery is used so that it is not put under undue pressure and that it doesn't go into seriously difficult waters when severe weather occurs. We are trying to design the cruises so that it is most effective in delivery. We have got in place the replacement process, and we are going forward with it as fast as we can.

  Q603  Linda Gilroy: You are categorically saying there will be a ship in time to replace it because there seems to be a perception out there that you are not.

  Dr Williamson: I am not aware of it.

  Professor Thorpe: There is every intention to replace Discovery on that timescale, and we are starting the procurement project now. I was unaware. I think the perception might come from the fact that the existing Discovery had some technical problems because of its age, so we have some concerns; but obviously the solution to that is, as I have said, to put it less at risk by putting it in places where it is not so stressed but also to spend money to make sure that it is repaired so that it can continue until 2011.

  Q604  Chairman: When we were in Southampton last week we heard that there were significant problems with the new James Cook, technical problems, which may mean that it will have to come out of service. That is a worry if a brand new ship is having problems and indeed Discovery is only being used in selected environments.

  Professor Thorpe: The James Cook is a very good vessel. It is cutting-edge. It has a wide variety of capabilities, and in many of those capabilities we are pushing the envelope. You would not expect a new vessel to have other than some issues to deal with. We have one in particular at the moment to do with one particular instrument. We are not quite sure but we are doing some technical assessments.

  Q605  Chairman: This was on the front of the bow. There is a major problem with bubbles, which meant you can not get accurate readings, which seems to be a fairly—

  Professor Thorpe: It is one instrument. It is hypothesis at the moment. The hypothesis is that the bubbles are interfering with this instrument as it looks down to the ocean floor. We are doing quite a bit of work to look at this and we can certainly minimise it by reducing the shedding of bubbles. Nearly all the other instruments are working really well. I do not want you to feel this is the only thing on there.

  Q606  Chairman: No, I am picking up the point that if you are using Discovery in limited environments and the James Cook has got to go into dock—and that is the impression we were given in Southampton, that it may well have to go back to the shipyard in order to have modifications—that would leave us very exposed in terms of capability.

  Professor Thorpe: We have no plans to leave the community exposed in terms of capability. We are doing the preparation work to understand the problem, and it is too early to say what the solution to that problem will be. We do not foresee that it is a major issue and that there will be major difficulties in meshing its work in with the Discovery, which we are doing all the time. This is not untypical of any research vessel at the cutting edge. You would expect that some instruments would require adjustments so that they are working most effectively. It is really within that scope that you are seeing those problems.

  Q607  Linda Gilroy: To what extent is the availability of ships meeting the need through bartering arrangements? Is the availability through bartering adequate for the UK, and what discussions has NERC had with Government laboratories such as Cefas and the Ministry of Defence regarding bartering and their role in that?

  Professor Thorpe: We do have significant arrangements with the Navy. We are very grateful to be able to use Endurance for Antarctic work, and at the time of the tsunami we were able to use HMS Scott, so there is perhaps limited opportunity in terms of the type of ships available but we have had great benefit from using Navy ships, particularly Endurance. That is something that has been a good UK story.

  Q608  Linda Gilroy: That presumably is for use within the UK science community rather than part of the wider bartering?

  Professor Thorpe: I would have said "yes". In terms of UK capacity, there is no doubt that there are other ships. There is a ship, for example, at Cefas. How utilised that ship is I am not sure. There are perhaps opportunities there, but in terms of the international bartering arrangements.

  Dr Williamson: Because of the heavy demand on ships, we are talking about chartering rather than bartering, and chartering is when you buy in the time on other people's research vessels without necessarily saying, "I will borrow time on your vessel and you can borrow time on mine in a future year" For the next two or three years the NERC schedule is pretty booked up, so any additional demand on that would not be solved by a bartering arrangement unless some of that might be re-configured. But then we have to talk in terms of the full economic cost of buying in time on other people's research vessels, and that is expensive.

  Q609  Linda Gilroy: Going back to the question on how far all of that is meeting the needs of the research community, is it a good fit?

  Professor Thorpe: My impression is that it is a good fit. We have a very full programme. You might say, hearing that, that perhaps there is demand out there that we are not satisfying. There is a match here between capability of being able to do cruises and the number of highly rated proposals that get funded. There has to be a matching between those two. There have been times in the past where NERC ships have been under-utilised, but that is not the case now; they are fully utilised and with the highest quality proposals. It is a hard question to know how much demand there is that we are not supporting. All of the high rated proposals that we support are getting ship time.

  Dr Williamson: Sometimes they have to wait a year or two. Oceans 2025 has a five-year cruise programme, but that might be a six-year programme because of some slippage.

  Q610  Linda Gilroy: There is certainly no over-capacity?

  Dr Williamson: There is no under-use. Every month is provisionally booked for the next two years ahead.

  Q611  Linda Gilroy: With the sort of things we have been hearing about the scope for marine science to contribute more, that presumably has implications for vessels. When we went to Rhode Island we heard about some proposals for the use of a commercial fleet for scientific purposes. Is that something that NERC would view favourably? Is it something that you are already supporting?

  Professor Thorpe: We have already started, but we are contemplating an extension of making measurements on the commercial fleet of the more routine variety. This is something that has happened in the past, and we are having active discussions now to extend that, so we see great opportunities there. The atmospheric community has been doing that with respect to planes and even soundings in the atmosphere from ships for a number of years, so the merchant fleet is an opportunity for making certain sorts of measurements, and we are certainly exploiting that.

  Q612  Linda Gilroy: SAHFOS has been doing it for many years and has a track record.

  Professor Thorpe: Yes, absolutely. We see the opportunity there and we are certainly happy to pay for that because we see it as a good adjunct to the science.

  Q613  Linda Gilroy: Where would NERC direct any increases in funding for capital investment in marine resources, were they to be available? You do not have a long wish list obviously at your fingertips! I am sure some of the scientists might have.

  Professor Thorpe: There will be members of the community, I am sure, who might feel that we could use another ship. We have two—of course we have the BAS ships as well—that are particularly focused for ocean-going, for the main oceanography, but I am sure there are those who think that we could use three. NERC is not just a marine funding agency; we have to look across all of environmental science. We would certainly have aspirations on capital spend if we had more across the whole of NERC, and we have to prioritise. We are in the position, whatever our budget is, of having to prioritise. An example of where we are particularly stressed at the moment outside of our direct observations is on computing, where the marine community came through very strongly in Oceans 2025, and more widely, that there is a great demand for increased computing power to utilise the observations that we are making with the ships and to feed it into the climate change question. Therefore, for NERC as a whole, we absolutely do have a wish list of capital expenditure but it is one that has to be prioritised and, as you can tell, there are various diverse calls on that funding. My impression is that we probably have about the right level of marine vessel capability at the moment.

  Q614  Chairman: Including coastal vessels?

  Dr Williamson: For coastal vessels we have access to the Prince Madog. I am not sure who owns it but it is managed on behalf of the University of Wales and we have time on that. There is the potential for having collaborative work with Cefas Lowestoft and the marine lab at Aberdeen and using their vessels but there has not been very much developed in that area.

  Q615  Linda Gilroy: You seemed to express an uncertainty just now as to what capacity there might be with Cefas as to vessels to offer.

  Dr Williamson: They do have potentially some time available. They have made offers for saying, "Here is an opportunity", but then you have to line up a research group to take advantage of that opportunity and that takes time and one does not always get it in place.

  Q616  Linda Gilroy: But, as we have been hearing in some of the evidence submitted to us, that in terms of coastal management issues climate change particularly is one of the areas of mitigation as well as understanding what is going on. Might that be something that should be more clear on your horizon for capital resourcing in the medium term?

  Professor Thorpe: I think a strong case could be made for that.

  Q617  Linda Gilroy: Is scientific use of large resources such as the submersible ISIS being undermined through insufficient availability of technical personnel to support the technology? This was something that the members who visited Lisbon seemed to pick up.

  Professor Thorpe: We are rather in a different place at the moment in being very impressed with the measurements that ISIS have been taking and seeing what great potential it has.

  Q618  Linda Gilroy: But the comments that we have picked up are that it has got huge potential which is not currently being dedicated.

  Professor Thorpe: Because of the lack of technical support?

  Q619  Chairman: Half the time it is in dock because you have only got one set of crew to manage it, so therefore it can only be at sea for literally half the year, if that, because there is not sufficient flexibility in staffing and technical support to be able to have it at sea longer. Were you aware of that?

  Professor Thorpe: Not specifically, but, again, it is not just a question of availability of the instrument, in this case the remotely operated vehicle, and the technical support. It is the availability of proposals that are supported and funded by NERC to carry out that science. There is a balancing act between the two.


 
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