Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 628)

MONDAY 23 JULY 2007

PROFESSOR ALAN THORPE AND DR PHIL WILLIAMSON

  Q620  Chairman: Chicken and egg, is it?

  Professor Thorpe: It is, yes, but it is always a balancing act. In terms of the overall utilisation of the ships, never mind the particular instrument, it is a matter of balancing the proposals that the community submit that are highly graded, and it is possible from year to year, for example, that insufficient proposals are submitted of high enough quality to utilise a particular piece of equipment. That does happen and we would encourage the community to come forward with many proposals that will get supported, and if that is the case we would, I think, again via our national capability portfolio, hope to support those. I would say that probably the issue here is the matching of the high-quality proposals with the utilisation.

  Q621  Chairman: I do not think that was the point though, was it, Linda?

  Professor Thorpe: I was not aware there were technical support issues.

  Q622  Linda Gilroy: I had the impression that there were calls on it to be used but it could not be used.

  Professor Thorpe: I can certainly find out for you. I was unaware of that.

  Q623  Dr Iddon: Our last batch of questions are relating to our relationships with Europe, within the EU. Of course, they have just concluded their consultations on the EU Maritime Policy Green Paper. How does that lie with respect to NERC's priorities? Do you find there is a lot of agreement or a lot of disagreement? Can you comment on that?

  Dr Williamson: The Maritime Policy Green Paper does cover the whole range of maritime issues. The marine subset of NERC interest is only a component of that, but the comments and the input that the NERC-funded centres have given on that Green Paper have been favourable, saying that it is going in the right direction and that it is just the sort of thing that we ought to be doing, that the key issues that have been identified on a European scale give a very good congruence matched to our national priorities and interests, and that we think we could play a major part in taking that forward. There are some specifics within the Green Paper on which I do not have all the information, but on the whole we are supportive and helping to take it forward.

  Q624  Dr Iddon: So it is not going to cause you guys in NERC to alter your current priorities to any large extent?

  Professor Thorpe: In terms of the scientific agenda there is good convergence between Europe and what the European Commission are thinking about and NERC. The NERC Executive Board, which is my senior team, met in Brussels a month ago and it was exactly to discuss this question of how aligned was NERC strategy with priorities that are emerging in the Commission, both in the Framework Programme and in other funding initiatives like infrastructure. We had a very good discussion with senior Commission officials about this and we felt on both sides that there was increasingly a very good convergence of the scientific agenda. I think the UK has shown that in the past by being very effective at winning European funds. I would have said that the convergence on the science direction is pretty good. Of course, there has been discussion about better co-ordination, as we were discussing earlier, within the UK and across Europe as a whole, and this recent Aberdeen Declaration that emerged across the European groups in ocean science again is a welcome addition to getting better co-ordination and recognising the fact that we can do better.

  Q625  Dr Iddon: I was coming to the Aberdeen Conference, which, of course, was held in June with 200 delegates present, as I understand it. Are you also saying that the Aberdeen declaration "A New Deal for Marine and Maritime Science" would not cause you to change your priorities either to any great degree?

  Professor Thorpe: I think we could contribute and align to that cross-Europe initiative quite well. I am not saying we will not change as a consequence of dialogue across Europe but I am saying that I do not see substantial difficulties in adjusting and aligning our programme such that it fits into a European agenda. Indeed, there were members of the UK community that were instrumental in drawing up the Aberdeen Declaration.

  Q626  Dr Iddon: You have just mentioned the Framework Seven Programme, so there is another investigation on international developments in science which we are about to publish. We have detected that some research councils, maybe not yours; I am not going to ask you that, are not really promoting Framework Seven Programmes among their community. There are difficulties, of course, and full economic costing is one. What does NERC do to promote knowledge of and urge being into the Framework Seven Programmes?

  Professor Thorpe: We have an international section in Swindon and the head of that is Ruth Boumphrey who has a very good track record in engaging in the dialogue of the design of Framework Programmes as they are being discussed by the Commission and she is part of—and I cannot give you the name of it—but the group that involves the UK national representative which comes from Defra. She has been quite instrumental in making sure that the UK scientific community's priorities influence the design of the upcoming calls for the Framework Seven Programme, and, of course, our office in Brussels, UKRO, is an important conduit for that. On the other hand, when opportunities have been decided Ruth takes a role with our international section in informing the UK's environmental science community of those opportunities and also our research institutes so that they are well positioned to take those opportunities on board. I think the UK environmental science community has been very effective at winning research monies from the European Framework Programme.

  Q627  Dr Iddon: Do you encourage people to go beyond your priorities in bidding for those monies as well as, obviously, bidding within your interests as well?

  Professor Thorpe: Absolutely, and, of course, the main instrument for that at the moment is the European Research Council, which is essentially a responsive mode blue-skies approach, and we wait to see how effective that is going to be. That is an area where, unconstrained from our particular strategic priorities at the moment, researchers can put in proposals. Of course, we are concerned, as a number of others are, that the demand on the European Research Council is going to overwhelm it, but I would imagine the UK community will want to substantially get involved in that.

  Q628  Chairman: We have heard a lot during this inquiry and again today about co-ordination, both with a UK base and European international bases. One of the things that struck us when we were in Southampton was that, for instance, there was a very impressive international drilling programme and NERC were funding scientists for that and there was clearly some very high quality science going on, but the issue was really about them using the data thereafter and being able to process the data into a format that was available then to other scientists and that seemed to be the really big sticking point. Are you aware of that? What plans have you to deal with that? It is pointless getting the good science if we cannot use the results.

  Professor Thorpe: Absolutely. The Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme is one of NERC's flagship programmes that we contribute to. I should say it is an international programme. We have two forms of funding for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme. One is the UK's national subscription to it, which allows us access to those cruises and those data, and we contribute at the right level for the UK, and NERC takes that responsibility, but also we have a UK IODP directed programme that NERC funds so that those data can be utilised, so it is exactly answering your question, that we have a specific research programme focused on enabling the research to be done with the data. That is of a finite size, of course, but nonetheless it has been incredibly productive and some of the outputs from the previous phase of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme have been among some of the highest cited journal papers that NERC has funded. I am pretty confident that we have supported both the subscription to get ocean drilling and access to it but also the attendant research. Of course, there is also the opportunity for researchers in the UK to bid for research to use those data via our normal responsive mode schemes but we do have a specific pot of money for research with that programme.

  Chairman: Okay. On that positive we will draw this session to an end. Dr Phil Williamson, Professor Alan Thorpe, thank you very much indeed for giving evidence.






 
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