Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620
MONDAY 23 JULY 2007
Q620 Chairman: Chicken and egg, is
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
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 ofand I cannot give you
the name of itbut 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.