House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE
investigating the oceans
MONday 23 JULY 2007
PROFESSOR ALAN THORPE and DR PHIL WILLIAMSON
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Monday 23 July 2007
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Dr Desmond Turner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive, and Dr Phil Williamson, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Natural Environment Research Council, gave evidence.
Q563 Chairman: This is the final evidence session of our inquiry Investigating the Oceans. We welcome today Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, and Dr Phil Williamson of the Natural Environment Research Council at the University of East Anglia. I apologise for starting this session slightly late. You have probably gathered that there are some issues regarding the future of the Committee and we want to deal with one or two of those, which means that we are in an even worse mood than we normally are! Alan, we have enjoyed this particular inquiry very much indeed; it has been a very useful inquiry to us. We note that you have a strategy 2007-2012, the NERC strategy, and we wondered where marine science and technology fit into that whole strategy. What emphasis and prominence has it got?
Professor Thorpe: The new strategy is quite a break from the past in that we have a combination of science themes that are cross-cutting. We have seven, which include climate system, system science, biodiversity, et cetera; so they cut across all the disciplinary areas and are thematically based, as the name suggests. We also have a clearer focus on the funding that we give for maintaining national capability in core disciplinary areas in environmental science. We are going to put a clearer emphasis on maintaining and developing that national capability, and marine science and atmospheric science observation are amongst the disciplines on that axis. We will be looking at both maintaining the marine science and technology capability overall, and that obviously is largely but not exclusively delivered by the marine centres via the Ocean 2025 Programme; but marine science appears in the thematic research programmes that cut across. In terms of research programmes, marine science is in many of these themes, as you can imagine.
Q564 Chairman: Are you confident that NERC is addressing the right issues in terms of sponsored science in regard to marine science? The community feels that perhaps it is not getting its fair share. They would say that, I know, would they not; but it is important. There is a feeling that in the past there has been too much emphasis on climate change and that that has dominated over other aspects of marine science. Is that fair?
Professor Thorpe: It is a big question. The issue of whether there is sufficient funding going into marine science is one, of course, of prioritisation, and NERC is responsible for making that prioritisation. The new strategy is very clear in terms of its strategic goal, so it is very mission driven, and it is to deliver what the Council feels are the major priorities in the environmental issues that we are facing. Climate change is undoubtedly one of the main issues that we are all having to face, but the strategy - when it is published in September - focuses on environmental change, which extends not only the impact of climate change but the other ways in which the environment is changing around us, and we have to cope with those changes. I would say that whilst climate change remains one of the central drivers for environmental change, there are many others as well, and they do come out in the new strategy, I feel. I am very confident and content with the new strategy, which, by the way, has been consulted on quite widely. We had an open consultation on the strategy and had a lot of inputs. It has attempted to reflect the priorities that the scientific community, which helped us write it, are interested in and feel are at the front. I would say that the new strategy recognises the importance of climate change but is much more holistic and wider than that. It is definitely focused on addressing providing the scientific evidence to address the environmental issues that society and the economy face. That is an unashamed focus of the new strategy.
Q565 Chairman: Phil, in terms of marine science and ocean science research, do you feel that NERC has got the balance right?
Dr Williamson: I think it has got to compete with the other areas of science and the other interests there. But within all of the seven themes in the new strategy there is a very important marine element there. In the totality of marine science there is not much that one misses out from that; all of the main features are there.
Q566 Chairman: So you are happy that they are being properly addressed. Let me take one area where concern has been expressed to us, and that is about the Arctic. There is a great deal of work, obviously, in terms of marine science, which concentrates on the Antarctic as being the main source - and, to be fair, we were very impressed with what we saw in the British Antarctic survey; but would you accept that we are not doing much in the Arctic and that we need to change our priorities in that area?
Professor Thorpe: Perhaps I can pick that one up.
Q567 Chairman: Do you disagree?
Professor Thorpe: I will see what Phil says! I do not disagree with what you said. The Council has recognised that particularly from the driver for climate change the Arctic is a key indicator of climate change. We expect the impacts to be large. We have made a start on investing more in research in the Arctic in the IPY - but it has been recognised by NERC that we need to rebalance it and invest more in Arctic research. We have a polar study going on to isolate the priorities for the future, both Arctic and Antarctic, and Chris Rapley and Duncan Wingham are leading that. That will provide a focus on the key priority areas. We are also looking at the opportunities to collaborate with other countries in Arctic research. Many other countries are active, and we need to work with them where appropriate. We absolutely accept your point, but the new strategy recognises, and the Council recognises, that we need to do more.
Dr Williamson: From the Oceans 2025 perspective, then there is Arctic work, particularly by the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) but also with the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory that has an Arctic programme. There may not be a dedicated Arctic research institute, but nevertheless there is work going on. Ten years ago you could have made that comment and it would have been fair enough to say we had neglected the Arctic, but I do not think that is the situation now.
Q568 Chairman: You have mentioned Oceans 2025. There is a concern - and this applies to a lot of the scientific community - that we do have the year off and then suddenly it is the year after where people say, "Where is the funding?" How confident are you that we can maintain funding for Oceans 2025 up to 2025 and beyond, or is it just -----
Professor Thorpe: I am very confident because, as I have said, with the new strategy we have specifically identified the national capability to do environmental science, which we think is enduring and long term. Quite a bit of that is marine science capability, but not just marine science. Therefore, the need for research vessels, for maintaining long-term data sets and the need for expertise to innovate in those, are things that the new strategy is clear we have to invest in in the long term. We will not only make that commitment, but we recognise that increasingly the question moves away from whether we need to have marine science capability - but let us make sure that we are running it effectively and efficiently and innovating it. It is not a question of whether we need it, but how we can do the best job on it. That recognises the importance of maintaining long-term capability. It is not just in marine science but in the main disciplinary areas.
Q569 Chairman: It seems to me at any rate that the pressure on NERC funding for research will increase dramatically as there is a greater understanding of the needs to get to grips with climate change and the environmental impact of that, which hits your research council. I know that it hits them all but it hits yours head on. Is marine science likely to be a casualty if you have a limited budget with greater pressure on it?
Professor Thorpe: I do not personally feel there is any special reason why marine science should be a casualty of that. Of course, I could do nothing but agree with you that there is a great need, and there will be a greater need in the future, for environmental science research to underpin the science we need to do in the future. There will be increasing pressures on the NERC budget. Of course, we are making what we feel is a strong case in the spending reviews for our budget to go up; but no doubt there will still be much greater demand than we can fund. I do not see myself any reason why marine science should do disproportionately badly in that. It is recognised - and you can tell from the Oceans 2025 exercise - that marine science in the UK is very high-quality, and the peer review of that proposal made by the Marine Labs was very highly reviewed by the international community. You probably heard that from your visits to Woods Hole, et cetera. The UK community in marine science is very highly regarded. As you know, NERC was very focused on funding the highest quality, highest priority research; so there is every reason to suppose that marine science will do very well in the future, within the constraints of our overall budget.
Q570 Chairman: We were impressed when we were in the States and indeed in Lisbon as to how highly regarded was marine science, though there are a few caveats to that. In terms of Oceans 2025, when I was in Southampton recently I got a different view of Oceans 2025 - that this was the way in which the research institutes were divvying up the programme between now and 2025 and it was about them rather than about the whole strategy. Can you tell us what is the truth about that?
Professor Thorpe: This is a very important point, and I think everybody is clear about this actually. Oceans 2025 is the name given for our core strategic investments in marine science. It maintains the national capability to do marine science; it does not represent the totality of the funding that we devote to marine science, nor does it represent a holistic marine strategy. It absolutely focuses on the funding to maintain those centres' contributions to increase overall portfolio, and particularly to maintain the long-term capability to do environmental science, which the whole community can then utilise as well as those laboratories. It was never intended to be the total strategy for the UK's marine science investments. It is an important part, but only a part.
Q571 Chairman: Phil, why do you think universities did not understand that?
Dr Williamson: I think there are two or three reasons. Ten years ago, NERC did have a marine science strategy and it had an atmospheric science strategy and an earth science strategy, and that is the way it was structured. So when a document comes along that says "strategic programme in marine science" then for some people who are not fully familiar with it, it might look as though NERC has gone back to dividing things up into marine, atmospheric and terrestrial. There is that possible confusion. Also, because Oceans 2025, for better or worse, tried to raise its profile and tell the wider community of what it was doing and what it was trying to do, it might then have suffered from a perception that it was more comprehensive than it really was. It is no more or less than the bid from the marine research centres, but the difference being that instead of having seven separate bids they came together as one co-ordinated bid.
Q572 Dr Iddon: I think that is the clearest statement we have had of Oceans 2025, quite frankly, ever since this investigation started. Other countries - and I name the USA and Portugal as examples, have "holistic" - as you used the word - national marine strategies. Now you are saying that we have not got one of those. Do you think that we should have?
Professor Thorpe: This is an important and complex question. It depends, for me, on what you mean by "marine strategy". For research for NERC we are talking about research components; and a marine strategy for the UK could incorporate science or policy et cetera.
Q573 Dr Iddon: Can I explain how I see it? I see it as used for transport, for energy supply, for recreation, the gaining of minerals particularly oil and gas, the gaining of food supplies, collection of data sheets and research and development. I personally - and I think the Committee might endorse my view - feel that all of that should be part of a holistic marine strategy. That is what I mean.
Professor Thorpe: NERC's contribution to that would be in the scientific research component of that strategy. My perception is that there is indeed not a holistic marine strategy in the way that you described it. NERC is clear about its investments in marine science, and why it is doing it and what it is hoping to achieve from it. Of course, NERC is not the only research funder of marine research in the UK, and there are various mechanisms for aligning and discussing strategies between the different research funders of marine science. I know that you have been discussing those, such as the IACMST, and to a degree also the Environmental Research Funders' Forum. There are fora where there is read-across between the strategies of different research funders. You would expect me to say this, but I fundamentally believe that NERC investments in marine science are coherent and fit into NERC's overall strategy, but I absolutely take your point that the wider picture in the UK in terms of marine strategy is perhaps a more complex and confused picture.
Q574 Dr Iddon: My question was: would it be beneficial to the nation if we had a holistic marine strategy?
Professor Thorpe: I think it would be - the answer must be "yes".
Q575 Dr Iddon: Who do you think should draw that up, now that you have fallen into that?
Professor Thorpe: Clearly, one has to start at government level and seeing where is the driver from government policy point of view for a marine strategy to feed into that. There is a Defra Minister who has marine affairs within his wider portfolio. One might have imagined that beneath that the marine strategy would feed into such a minister, and a body like ERFF or IACMST could orchestrate the scientific component, and perhaps have a wider feed into that policy area. I suspect that the linkage I have just described could be improved operationally within the UK.
Q576 Dr Iddon: Obviously, NERC would have an important role to play.
Professor Thorpe: I would be happy for us to play such a role.
Q577 Dr Iddon: You mentioned IACMST as being a possible organisation to draw that together in a holistic way. We have some evidence that they have certain disadvantages and weaknesses and lack of powers, if you like. What, in your view, would IACMST have to become if it were to be powerful enough to do what we have just discussed?
Professor Thorpe: One should be aware of what it could not be and what it could be. It is clearly a place where one can align strategies and bring strategies of the member organisations together. It is not going to be a place where you can command resources of all of those organisations, but you can help bring together a holistic strategy of what those organisations want to do. The key to me, to make it effective, is that it needs to have a strong feed into the policy and ministerial lead. I am not sure that that is the case. I do not personally sit on the Committee, although NERC does, but I am sure that that would provide the focus, if there were a strong flow-through of that holistic strategy into the ministerial professional. Phil might be able to comment on whether that pull-through is there.
Dr Williamson: At the moment, not much information goes further up. It can be described as a talking shop because views are exchanged and information is collated sometimes, but it does not necessarily drive any major decision-making processes.
Q578 Dr Iddon: Do you think the United Kingdom needs the equivalent of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?
Professor Thorpe: This is another interesting question. In many respects, of course, we have parts of NOAA already, and it is called the Met Office. The Met Office is not purely a meteorological agency; it takes responsibility increasingly for operational ocean forecasting and observations to some degree. It is not a complete oceanographic institution but it has clearly got an operational oceanographic component. One can see the Met Office as playing a key role in a UK analogue to NOAA, and I think the Met Office is a very effective organisation in that regard. We interact on the forecasting via the National Centre for Ocean Forecasting, which is both the Met Office and the NERC institutes. There is the possibility of having such a structure. You can look at NOAA within the United States and ask the question how effective that has been in terms of overall coordination, and there are challenges there within NOAA. For NOAA's total budget there are challenges. Just recently there have been difficulties about the observation component and the lack of funding for it. The head of the Hurricane Centre has just departed because of issues about under-funding of observation for oceanography. It is not without its challenges even if there were a NOAA. One could imagine the advantages of bringing a wider remit of organisations like the Met Office to look more holistically at ocean operational activities, because at the moment it is very narrowly focused in that area. There may be an opportunity there.
Q579 Dr Iddon: You are saying that the Met Office is doing some of what NOAA is doing, but by no means enough.
Professor Thorpe: Precisely.
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 and 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 and putting the climate change issues - the biochemistry, the biodiversity and the biotechnology in the environmental perspective - 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 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 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 funding, and is then translated into operational long-term use, because 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 Co-ordination Committee and the Environmental 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 for the 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 certification, 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 Avoflow(?) 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 sciences?
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 in the UK anyway 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 incompetence, 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 accessing 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 RC-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 - 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 of the research programmes, and that will be bid for across the community, both 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 part that will be within the research programme component. Another aspect of this is that we will have team 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 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; 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 and 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 about Living with Environmental Change.
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 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 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 a 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 goes into seriously difficult waters when severe weather occurs. We are trying to design the cruises so that it is most effectively 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 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 certainly 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 three years' time." 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, although some of that might be region-figured because of that, 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 -----
Dr Williamson: Sometimes they have to wait a year or two; and with the Oceans 2025 programme, of a five-year cruise programme it 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: SAPHOS 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 sciences.
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, I am sure, who might feel that we could use another ship. We have two 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 collaboratory 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.
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 of the maritime issues. The wider marine onset of the NERC interest is only a component of that but the comments and the input that the NERC laboratories or the funded centres have given on that Green Paper have been favourable, saying that it is going in the right direction and that these are just the sorts 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 that 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. We actually have a NERC Executive Board, which is my senior team. We met in Brussels at our meeting 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 align that to cross-Europe initiatives 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 Bumfrey(?) 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 - the group 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 National Research 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 products 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.