Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


22 APRIL 2008

  Q1 Chairman: Could I welcome the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, and Professor Bob Watson, the Chief Scientific Adviser for Defra to this one-off evidence session of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Sub-Committee which is looking at the response from the Government into our Investigations of the Oceans report which was done by the previous Science and Technology Select Committee. Could I make a special point of thanking you very much indeed, Secretary of State, for giving us your time, we are particularly grateful to you, and also, it is a pleasure, Professor Watson, to meet you before the Committee for the first time. We hope that you are enjoying your time in the department and that you are as controversial in the department as you were in the States. I wonder if I could start, Secretary of State, to just ask you that basic question. This was a report which actually tried to emphasise the importance of marine science, not only to the UK but as part and parcel of our contribution to world marine science. I just wonder how important it is to the work of Defra? How important is it to you as Secretary of State?

Hilary Benn: It is very important, and I agree, I think the subject needed consideration. I think, if I may say so, it was a powerful report that set out the case for change, and I have got one or two things I would like to say, having reflected further on your report, to assist the committee in the evidence session this afternoon, but, fundamentally, science and our understanding of our oceans and our seas is really important to inform the right policy decisions and, with oceans and seas being about 70% of the earth's surface, we know a certain amount, but, as I think your report demonstrated, there is quite a lot that we do not know, but our understanding of the importance of the oceans when it comes, in particular, to the impact of climate change and the contribution that they can make to understanding what is happening and to dealing with it makes that research even more important than was the case in the past. As you will know, because you looked into it in great depth, Defra funds quite a range of work, but the system, I would say, has not been working awfully well. It seemed to me, if I may say so, you were saying that not everything was getting the attention that it deserved, that we had not got the structure right, that we needed a marine science strategy and there had to be clear ministerial leadership, and I would be happy to say a word about that now or come on to that.

  Q2  Chairman: I think it is fair to say, we were hugely disappointed in the Government's response—I say that in a spirit of friendship—and there seems to be a failure by Defra, in particular, to make the connection between marine science and its importance within climate change. I just wonder why you feel that there was such a lukewarm response by the department to the importance of marine science, there did not seem to be that connection between marine science and environmental change, when we know that you are particularly committed to this agenda?

  Hilary Benn: I am not sure, Chairman, that I quite agree with what you have just said. The reason I have been looking forward to this evidence session and, indeed, discussion, if we can handle it that way, because it certainly helps me to do my job, is to understand exactly where the disappointment was. It seems to me, if you look at the key recommendations that you made, one that we needed a marine science strategy, we have accepted it and we are going to get on and we are going to produce one, a recommendation that there needed to be a clear leadership. One of the things I wanted to say to you today on that point, I want to make it clear to the Committee that Jonathan Shaw, as the Minister for marine science, is going to be the champion of marine science, that he is going to chair a new ministerial committee that we are going to establish to oversee the new Marine Science Co-ordination Committee, which is what, as you will know, we proposed.

  Q3  Chairman: Will that report directly to the Minister then?

  Hilary Benn: It will report to a group of ministers that will be chaired by Jonathan, and, as he said to you when he came to give evidence I think two weeks into the job, just so there is absolute clarity about this, because there appeared to be some uncertainty, he is the Minister for Marine Science, he will chair, subject to the devolved administrations being happy with the proposal, this ministerial group. As I read your report, it seemed to me one of the things that you were saying, and I have had my ear bent by one or two other folk in the field of marine science who said, we need a champion, we want clarity about who is leading, and actually when Jonathan and the late and much missed Howard Dalton and Dave King came to give evidence there was a bit of to and fro about the previous IACMST, or whatever it is called, who it reported to, and so I wanted to come to the committee today to say I want there to be absolute clarity. I am saying to you that Jonathan will take that lead, that there will be a ministerial committee, and I think that that responds very directly to recommendation 17 and 58 in your report. The real test of the new committee, given that you said very powerfully that the existing arrangements did not work, is: "Does it address the things that were not working?", and I think it is going to be different from what it will replace in a number of very important respects: one because it will report to ministers, chaired by the new ministerial champion, which is what you said you wanted; it will have a bigger secretariat; all of the members will contribute to its funding; it will draw up and oversee the marine science strategy, which was a central recommendation in your report, and I think that is a very important development. We needed one and we are going to get one thanks to what you have done. It will monitor spend on marine science, because clearly one of the other issues that came out from your work was a lack of clarity about what was being spent, and there has been some to an fro between us, but also there has not, as I understand it, been a kind of regular system for checking how it is going. That is one of the things which this new body will do. I think it will provide us with a better way of dealing with the issues that cut across all of the various bodies that are doing things, because I do not think that you need a central body to take on all of the functions of all the existing bodies, not trying to replicate or duplicate but to fix the bits that are not working, and I hope it will also give a higher profile to marine science, which was another really important message in your report. I have got today, which I could leave with you, if that would be helpful, a note on how we are getting on with setting up the MSCC, because we have not just done a response to you and then gone back to what we were doing before. Colleagues in the department and John Lock, who is also here today, have been working really hard on getting on with working out what this structure is going to look like, what the membership is going to be, how it is going to operate, what its role is, and we have got a note which updates you on the 1 April briefing note that we provided you with previously.

  Q4  Chairman: We will come back to that, because I know that Brian Iddon wants to raise an issue on that. That is very helpful, Secretary of State. In terms of resources to actually support the new organisation, there was a real sense when we were doing this particular inquiry that marine science was very much left out in the cold as far as resources were concerned. Is there any new money which is being applied at all to this area?

  Hilary Benn: The MSCC will have a bigger budget than IACMST had previously. Straight up, we have got to negotiate with the other bodies that are going to be represented, including other departments, and what they are going to put into the to the pot, but it will need more resources to do its work, firstly.

  Q5  Chairman: But nobody is going to agree to that, are they?

  Hilary Benn: Why do you say that?

  Q6  Chairman: We had a session here yesterday with one of your ministers talking about another area in terms of bio-security, and there was a great reluctance to commit even a penny extra anywhere. So I am sort of fighting for this marine community, that there will, in fact, be the resources to deliver what, clearly, you as Secretary of State anticipate is going to happen?

  Hilary Benn: I think the answer to your question would be we will know when we see how we go in talking to the other people about what they are prepared to contribute, and I hope that the decision that I have taken makes it absolutely clear there is a ministerial champion, there is leadership, that we are taking on the role that you asked us to undertake in your report. We will give this some oomph and a boost and a higher profile, and your report has certainly done that. Secondly, must say, I was quite struck reading your report. On the one hand, in the evidence sessions, many people saying the UK has a huge role in marine science, the contribution that UK scientists make, recognised around the world, and on the other hand, as in most areas of life, if you say to people, "Is enough money being spent on your particular area?", in general you get the answer, "No, it is not." Clearly, it cannot all be doom and gloom.

  Q7  Chairman: No, but you would have also read in that report that some of our best scientists were haemorrhaging out of the UK, for instance, to Germany, which is rapidly expanding in marine science; they were going off to Japan; they were going off to Woods Hole in States. So it was not that we have not got brilliant scientists, we recognised that in the report, but the matter was trying to keep that community together to enhance it so it could play a much more significant role in climate change, which was an absolutely top priority for government. I think we are trying to balance that rather than say that we are weak in this area, because we certainly are not.

  Hilary Benn: I agree with that. Bob might want to say something about the science budget that he has got because, having arrived at the department, one conversation that we have had is in deciding where Defra's research budget is going to be spent. We tended to operate a system in the past where it was fairly devolved, and one thing that we have agreed between us is that Bob in his role will look at the overall priorities in relation to what Defra spends, and I think the role of the new MSCC will give us, with greater clout and profile, ministerial leadership. The object is to do the same looking at the investment in marine science right across the piece. If you take NERC, which is a big funder, they will still take decisions, and a lot of your recommendations as a committee were directed at NERC. I am not envisaging that the MSCC is going to take on that role, but it will have things to say and it will be able to pick up items that, as your report demonstrated, have fallen through some of the cracks in the system.

  Professor Watson: There are two things to say. The first is we are trying to get our hands round the whole research budget within Defra, and so, rather than having it disaggregated between the climate change programme, natural environment, food and farming, we are standing back to ask: what are the big policy questions within Defra and how can we have a much more joined-up integrated programme within Defra? Secondly, there is the issue of how do we view Defra in relationship, not only for marine sciences but all sciences, with the other departments and, effectively, the other research councils? Living with Environmental Change, which is the multi-department, multi-research council, I think really gives us an opportunity here. As you know, there are six objectives: climate change, biodiversity, development, human health and animal health infrastructure and an element of behaviour. The oceans, effectively, need to be integrated very much in at least climate change, biodiversity, health and even in the infrastructure, obviously for coastal infrastructure. So, clearly the Living with Environmental Change will be critical so we can leverage each other's resources, and Defra is actually going to take the lead with NERC in putting the original programme plans together on both climate change and on biodiversity. We will work with the other agencies and research councils on the other four objectives. We have also got to place this, though, in a European and a global context, especially for monitoring. One of the things that the Environmental Research Funders Forum found was that when they looked to see how we were spending research money, they had a pretty good idea; when it came to monitoring they had no idea at all, and so I have offered to chair, on behalf of the Environmental Research Funders Forum, a study on how we are spending the monitoring money. We really are quite clueless, whether it is the marine environment or the atmosphere or the land, and there is a number of mechanisms which this new Marine Co-ordinating Committee will fit very nicely into as we establish priorities on research and monitoring and see how we can leverage each other.

  Q8  Chairman: While you have got the floor, Professor Watson, in your Fleagle Lecture in Washington I think last year you made a fairly strong comment that scientists need to learn to communicate better with civil servants (and you will remember it caused a little bit of a stir at the time), decision-makers and the media. Do you think the perceived lack of urgency up until now, if I can put that way, of Defra's attitude to marine science was as a result of the science community not conveying their message strongly enough, or was it Defra that was not listening?

  Professor Watson: I cannot say, because I only joined six months ago. To be honest, just as Hilary said, I have been lobbied by every part of the community, whether it is the atmospheric sciences community wanting more money, whether it is the animal health community wanting more money, the oceanographers wanting more money, especially with my position at the University of East Anglia some of those oceanographers at the University of East Anglia are lobbying very heavily, and so, as Hilary said, I think most of the academic community will always argue for more money. Where we need the dialogue with the academic community is effectively, from a Defra perspective, what are the big policy issues facing not only Defra but the UK Government? Obviously, some include climate change, but not limited to it, i.e. sustainable fisheries, and so we need a dialogue so they understand the policy constraints and we understand them so that we can put together an academically rich programme with the research councils that meets the needs of the academic research, on the one hand, that the councils do and the more policy-relevant research that we, Defra, need to help formulate policy and implement policy. I think there is two-way dialogue that is needed. Probably there was a weakness on both sides.

  Chairman: You will make a politician yet!

  Q9  Dr Iddon: Hilary, we talked to a lot of people, of course, during this investigation, including people particularly in America. America does have an operation which oversees all aspects of the sea, whether it be tourism, energy, fishing, shipping, pollution, gaining oil and gas from the sea, climate control and deep sea as well as Continental Shelf work. Absolutely every aspect of the sea is looked at by this organisation in America. When we undertook this investigation, we felt that the whole apparatus that we have set up to monitor all those things was distant from one another, fishing seemed to be way out on a limb compared with everything else connected to the sea, and we made a radical solution in suggesting the Marine Science Agency. I just wonder why we have gone for a much smaller and, we believe, less effective organisation than the Marine Science Agency that we recommended, which would shadow what America has now?

  Hilary Benn: First of all, reading your report I was not absolutely clear. You said in your recommendation we need more effective co-ordination and then you said in the recommendation, "Our preference would be for", what you have just described, but it was not absolutely clear to me whether you were talking about a marine science agency or a marine science and maritime agency. I will give you an example of that. I think in the very last recommendation in your report you talked about the EU Maritime Green Paper and said the Department for Transport was not really the right body to look at this, and yet the Maritime Green Paper is going to deal with a wide range of things but among the things it is looking at are maritime security, shipping law, careers and employment, tourism and other matters. Question: would it be sensible to have one body that was dealing with all of those things? To be honest, I was not persuaded that that was the sensible course of action to take, bearing in mind the point I made earlier: do not fiddle with the bits that work but deal with the bits that do not work. You also talked about an executive body requiring the co-operation of government departments, which is quite an interesting concept because I thought it was, generally speaking, the other way round, the government departments requiring the co-operation of executive bodies. Lastly, there are all of the complexities to do with devolution that, I think, made it difficult to see how that could work in practice. Having said that, you have got the co-ordinating committee, which was the first bit of your recommendation, with the functions that I have described and which we have set out and which we are getting on and developing, but that is not to say that having a look at wider maritime needs and issues is unimportant, it is incredibly important, and at the same time as this, of course, since you produced your report the draft Marine Bill has been published and you are going to have the Marine Management Organisation and this completely new departure, and a very welcome one, seeking to do in the UK for our seas and, as I have described it, the wonders that lie beneath them what we have evolved over the years for the land in the form of one way of looking at the competing demands on our seas and working out what it is that we are going to do, and the marine management organisation is going to play a really important part in that and it will be represented, when it is established, on the new Marine Science Co-ordinating Committee. I think it is a different way of achieving the objective that you set. In the end we formed the view that it was a better way of doing it than creating a marine science (question mark) maritime agency.

  Q10  Dr Iddon: We called it a marine agency, with a view to looking at the wider aspect, the second alternative that you gave when you opened your remarks a moment ago, and that was our intention, not just to take the science into account but everything that affects the behaviour of the sea, what we gain from the sea and how we use the sea. That is what we felt and that is what, I think, Chairman, we picked up by talking to the large number of people we talked to, mainly scientists, of course, but they have a wider outlook than just the science they are doing, including the long-term observations that Bob Watson has mentioned.

  Professor Watson: Let me make a comment. The one thing I actually understand rather well is the US system. I used to be the Associate Director for the Environment in the White House, so at that particular stage—this was 11 years ago, I have to be honest—I had oversight for a seven billion dollar a year programme. Actually, most of the research is not done in NOAA; the really good oceans research is actually done in NASA and the National Science Foundation. NOAA only do the operational part, which is very, very important—do not misunderstand that comment. NOAA do some incredibly important things on the observations in a routine monitoring sense of both the atmosphere and the ocean and fisheries, but some of the most vibrant research is actually done in NASA, the National Science Foundation and the others, and so, again, the way the research works—because I actually helped to put an inter-agency committee together—is very similar to this maritime committee actually, and so the strength of the ocean research embedded within the atmosphere and the land research, which is what you have to look at as the couplet for climate change and even for biodiversity, was actually bringing all the agencies together. So I could argue from a research perspective, not necessarily some of the other fisheries issues, that what we are trying to do here in the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee is not dissimilar to the committee that I helped to put together 11 years ago in the White House to co-ordinate science right across the agencies.

  Q11  Chairman: Fisheries are not even part of this.

  Professor Watson: No; agreed. That is why I kept my remarks to the research to understand the oceans, including biodiversity, the role in climate, the role in fisheries basically. The pure science behind the marine system in the US is highly fragmented, well, relatively fragmented and so even there you need an inter-agency committee, very much like one is suggesting here.

  Q12  Dr Iddon: We picked up strong criticisms of the existing IACMST organisation, which the people we talked to felt was not co-ordinating all the work that needed co-ordinating and, indeed, had very little powers, for example, of compulsion and very little effect on the behaviour of the Government. They felt that IACMST was an extremely weak organisation, but it did have a wider membership than what the Government is now proposing to set up with the new MSCC. For example, there will be no industrial membership, as far as we have been told, on the new MSCC and the research councils do not appear to be playing a role. Why have we chosen a much narrower body? It may have stronger powers, as you indicated, Hilary, at the beginning, but it is a narrower focus than the existing organisation of which we have received, let me repeat, strong criticisms, not of the people who operate it, by the way, but just of the structures and the way it operates.

  Hilary Benn: I agree with the criticisms that the committee made. That is why I accepted your recommendation that we should have a new co-ordinating body. What is different about is it what I described in answering, Chairman, your original question. It might be helpful. In this paper, which has got a bit more detail, which I will leave or circulate now, whatever is most helpful to the committee, the proposed structure, "Members of the MSCC will be at director level, representing the following departments and agencies: Defra, BERR, MoD, DfT, DIUS, NERC, devolved administrations, Environment Agency, DFID. It will be supported by a support group with representatives of departments and agencies who have got direct science budget responsibility. In addition to the departments and agencies represented on MSCC, the support group will include representatives from the Met Office, CFAS, UKHO, JNCC, FRS." On the very specific point that you raised about other membership, we are planning, if you like, three independent reps, because I know that has been an issue that has been raised, one coming from the academic world, one from fisheries and industry, which I think picks up the point that you made, and, say, one NGO. We have not quite finalised the decision there. The purpose of giving you the note of the planning group that has now had two meetings is for you as the committee to have a chance to look, and can I make this offer now? If you have got views, which I am sure you will have, about what you think of the membership, could you give us a shout, because we have not set it in stone yet, we are evolving the process, the organisation itself, and I want it to work effectively, to hang on to the good things there were about the previous organisation, not to lose that, but to deal with the bits that were not working, which is why we accepted your recommendation to establish a new co-ordinating body.

  Dr Iddon: I think we could say right now, Chairman, could we not, that the balance is so much in the public sector favour that the private sector was very disappointed to learn about the new MSCC. You just mention one industrial/something else amendment. I think if you put that to the private sector, they will be even more disappointed, bearing in mind that the sea is going to be used much more in future, if we exclude shipping and fishing, by the energy sector—for example, off shore wind farms, wave and tidal machines—that part of the use of the sea feel that they need to be represented on this body.

  Q13  Chairman: It is also the university community as well which are ignored. So the whole of those three communities. The private sector, if you like, the BPs of this world, who are huge players in marine technology, marine science, the technologies which Brian has just mentioned and the universities are three communities which we felt strongly should be part of the agency or, now, the new committee which has been established.

  Hilary Benn: I agree with that, and that is why the three reps that we are currently thinking of in the working draft that we have produced responds to that. The other point I should have made is, of course, do not forget the marine management organisation: because as you came on to the last points that you made in responding to my answer, that is what the Marine Management Organisation is going to be dealing with and it will only be able to do its job if it is supported by and involves and talks to all of the interest groups that you have just drawn attention to. One of the striking things about the Marine Bill and the concept of the MMO is, I have to say, the very wide level of support there is for it and the welcome there has been for the bill, not because people think, "Hey, we are being left out of this", but actually because I think they recognise it is long overdue, it is groundbreaking, it will do something for the seas that we have never done before, and, in effect, it is a means of trying to mediate between all of the competing demands on our seas, which are growing for the reasons that you have set out, so that we have a way of taking decisions about how the seas are going to be used and at one end saying, "Right, this is so is special and precious, nothing can go on here"—that is what marine conservation is about—but it is a flexible instrument because you can go from no activity to not some activities, so you have got a flexible means of protecting what you need to protect, but there will also be the mechanism for determining where you are going to give the go-ahead for wind farms, and so on and so forth. If I may say so, I think you need to look at the two things operating together, because we have accepted, I hope you will feel in the spirit of what you are asking for, a different structure for doing it, the MSCC here dealing with the marine science, which is what your report was principally about but not exclusively, and then the Marine Bill and the Marine Management Organisation over here, remembering, of course, that one of the things that will govern the work of the Marine Management Organisation is the Marine Policy Statement which the White Paper and the bill commits us to draw up, which will give us the place to put---. In a sense, it will do what you have asked for the Marine Science Strategy to do for marine science. The Marine Policy Statement will do the same for what is the policy framework for deciding what is going to happen in our seas and underneath them?

  Q14  Dr Iddon: Will we have a bridge between those bodies or a valley separating them?

  Hilary Benn: I said a little moment ago that the MMO will be represented on the MSCC, because it has obviously got to have the connection, and, to be honest, the other way round, that is something I will go away and think about.

  Q15  Dr Iddon: I have one last question, which is quite simple. When will the new organisation, the MSCC, be up and running, Hilary?

  Hilary Benn: If I can refer to the note here, the next meeting of the planning group will be on 15 May, and then Defra will invite MSCC members to a first meeting in June or July to examine the planning group paper in detail, confirm the structure, develop a forward plan of action, consider the shape and content of the strategy. So we are getting on with it, and that is one of the points I wanted to get across to you today.

  Q16  Chairman: Do you have a deadline for when you want to see this completed?

  Hilary Benn: To be honest, as soon as possible. The fact that we are making the progress that we are, I hope, will encourage the committee that we have taken the recommendation, we are getting on and we are going to make it happen, but I cannot say I have got a tenth of whatever.

  Q17  Chairman: But if by the end of the year it is not firmly in place, which this piece of paper says—

  Hilary Benn: I certainly envisage that the MSCC---. No, that is not what that bit of paper says, but I certainly envisage that the MSCC will be operational by the end of the year, and you can come and tell me off if it is not. That I will make as an offer to the committee.

  Professor Watson: And that timing would actually be good, especially if we can make it earlier. There have already been two planning meetings so far of the planning committee. The third one, as you hear, is going to be actually in a few weeks time, because we hope to have some draft initial strategies for LWEC (Living with Environmental Change) by about the middle of June, so I think all these things are moving together. As I said earlier, I think we have to place marine science, important in its own right, in the context of all these other issues on the land and in the atmosphere as well.

  Q18  Dr Gibson: How will I know when we have got a marine strategy? Where would I first see it and how would I first find out, and what is it anyway? John F Kennedy had a strategy: it was to get a man on the moon at the time, and I guess he did that, but that was a strategy. How precise does a strategy have to be before it convinces cynics like me that you have got one?

  Hilary Benn: I never had you marked down as a cynic, Dr Gibson. The answer to the question is that we aim to draw it up so it is available in the second half of next year.

  Chairman: The second half of next year?

  Q19  Dr Gibson: Two thousand and nine?

  Hilary Benn: Yes, 2009.

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