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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


22 APRIL 2008

  Q20  Dr Gibson: So why does it take that long, Minister?

  Hilary Benn: We are talking about a year and a bit. I would not say that was that long.

  Q21  Dr Gibson: Who is talking about it then?

  Hilary Benn: There is a sub-group of the MSCC which is starting work on how this is going to be put together. We would want to publish it in draft, because I am a great believer in doing it that way. That is the final publication, just so you do not look too perplexed. So you would want to get a draft out, obviously, earlier than that to go round all of those who have an interest to allow the answer to the question that you put to me to be given, say, "Okay folks, what do you think of this? Is it what you think a marine science strategy ought to look like?", and then the result of that consultation can inform the final publication of it. That seems like a reasonable time.

  Q22  Dr Gibson: I guess you and I are living with the anomaly of the Post Office consultations at the minute. There have been decisions made, three months or three weeks, whatever it is. During that consultation period, how long is it going to be and how serious would you take it, you know, when people from the University or East Anglia, or wherever, want to come in with their ideas, which may be sharp and bright but they do not fit in with the political scenery?

  Hilary Benn: I do not know, is the answer to your first question. We will have to decide what a sensible period for consultation is. Secondly, I can only answer your second question when people feel, or do not, that what they had to say in being asked for their view is reflected in a final document. Certainly the spirit in which I would want it to be done, and I know that certainly goes for Jonathan in chairing the ministerial group, is one of openness, but you just have to test it.

  Q23  Dr Gibson: Do you think the marine scientists are as passionate about all this as people who are having their post offices taken away from them in Yorkshire in your experience?

  Hilary Benn: It is an opportunity to express that passion. After all, you talked to lots of marine scientists in the course of taking evidence for this inquiry and what a number of them said to you was, "We do not think", as I said to you earlier, "we get the attention we deserve. We are not as loved as we feel we ought to be." Here is a wonderful opportunity to get across to a wider audience why marine science matters. That is why you made the recommendation that we should have one, that is why we accepted it and that is why we are going to get on and do it.

  Q24  Dr Gibson: Do you as a minister think it is more important to have that interaction with the public and marine scientists, and so on, that just cross-departmental interactions? You could argue that you believe in both.

  Hilary Benn: Both, because you need all of the people who have got an interest to have a chance to shape it. Part of this goes back to Mr Iddon's question about the representation on the MSCC, because it is going to be overseeing this process, so you want the right people feeding in in the drafting and the preparation and then the consultation. Bob.

  Professor Watson: There are two points I would make. First, as we put a marine science strategy together we have got to place it in the context of what else is going on in the European Union and globally, especially for monitoring, but we have also got to place it in a context of what is the problem we are addressing. If it is climate change, you can have a lot of people advocate for the marine part of it, or the atmospheric part, or the land part. Our job actually in both government and working with the scientific community is what is the right balance to actually get the answers we need on climate change? To what degree do we need more marine research versus more understanding of clouds, water vapour in the atmosphere, the exchange of energy and chemicals between the atmosphere and the ocean, et cetera. So, one of the things we are going to have to do, and I think this is where Living with Environmental Change will be a good platform and all the objectives, we need to evaluate what are the highest priorities from both the scientific and policy perspectives for the UK and how do we put that balanced programme together, of which marine is one element? A bunch of people, scientists, came to see me arguing, "Why did we not have more carbon dioxide atmospheric measurements in the UK?" We do not have them. We have only got one in Ireland. They said, "Do I need more as a policy-maker or as a scientist to understand atmospheric carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?" No, but the UK community said, "But we do not have any measurements, Europe does, North America does", so we do have to place what we are doing in the UK within a European global context because we cannot fund everything. We are one of the world's leaders in, say, the Hadley Centre, in theoretical modelling. Many other countries do not have a theoretical model. So we do have to look at the balance, basically, of what we can do versus what others can do, and marine is a major element within that broader framework.

  Q25  Dr Gibson: When you look at other countries, like the USA, where you have been, and Portugal, and so on, what have they got to teach us, do you think, in your experience? You have been around a long time in this field.

  Professor Watson: I think all of us need to understand how to get a truly integrated multi-disciplinary holistic programme that is both academically rigorous and policy relevant. I think all programmes that I have seen to date actually lack something very fundamental, and that is adequate attention to the social sciences and behaviour, to be quite honest.

  Q26  Dr Gibson: What does that mean, Bob, at the grassroots though?

  Professor Watson: We have got to embed more social researchers into our programmes to understand social behaviour at the individual level, the community level, the private sector, the non-state actors, and it is actually a cheap form of research, I have to be honest, compared to when you are in the natural sciences you need ships or satellites, et cetera. It is a relative statement, of course, but I think we are moving in the right direction—do not misunderstand me—and the right direction is multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary science that is, indeed, policy relevant and academically rigorous at the same time. We actually need to get the cultures of Defra and DFID aligned, or agencies, or departments such as that, with the culture of the research councils, and there is some cultural change that is needed. NERC tend to look at the natural sciences, the ESRC look at the economics and social sciences, EPSRC the physical side. Like us, they have to think much more multi-disciplinary. The sciences have to learn to talk to each other, basically, and so I am not sure anyone has quite got there. Both in the US and Europe, we are all learning together about what works and does not work actually.

  Q27  Dr Gibson: Can we leave it to happen spontaneously, those interactions? Is there going to be some inducement?

  Professor Watson: No, it has to be induced. Clearly, as we develop LWEC we have to have interactions with the academic community. One of the best ways to understand what the academic community believe are priorities is through entities such as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, where they have assessed the knowledge and have actually said what we know, what we do not know, what is policy and where the big gaps are. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, I had pleasure of chairing, also looked at what we knew about ecosystems, biodiversity and where the gaps were; the International Agriculture Assessment I directed that we release last Tuesday looked at the role of agriculture within both an environmental and a social context. In each of those cases hundreds, if not more than a thousand, scientists participated, so they not only evaluated knowledge, they also identified what were robust findings and what the key uncertainties were, but this is a continuum. Defra actually about two years ago organised, before I joined Defra, the Exeter Meeting, which was a very powerful meeting identifying the key uncertainties and provided information to Defra. We have actually just commissioned, about three months ago—a report will come out—what were the major implications of the IPCC for scientific uncertainty? So Defra put out a small contract. It has actually reached out to many, many in the academic community. So, no, it is always a two-way street.

  Q28  Dr Gibson: Do you think this is a new world for the United Kingdom science-base?

  Professor Watson: No, I think the United Kingdom actually, other than the US, is probably the leader in much of this. I would actually pick three countries in the world. It would be the US—they are larger, just the sheer size, to be honest—but the UK I would either put second or co-second with Germany in this field.

  Q29  Dr Gibson: Do you think the public or the Government know this?

  Professor Watson: The public may or may not know it. That is a fair point. The scientific community know it all too well. You only have to look to see what is the percentage of academics that have been involved in either the IPCC, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment or the International Agriculture Assessment, and proportionally it is very high. It really does demonstrate leadership within the UK.

  Q30  Dr Gibson: Is there anything in the European dimension that we could learn about, areas that are not touched upon in Europe that we could take up and have a priority influence on? Transport?

  Professor Watson: I have not looked at it carefully enough to give you an informed answer. I would have to look at that more carefully, to be honest.

  Q31  Dr Gibson: Do you think there might be?

  Professor Watson: We cannot be leaders in everything. As General Electric said, they could only be as a business either the first or second best in the world, otherwise as a business they did not get out. I think we all make too many mistakes by being absolutely broad and trying to do absolutely everything rather than pick certain things and go into absolute depth and be true world leaders. With the budgets we have got, which are clearly generous, we cannot be the leaders in everything; so what we have to do is place our research programmes—that is the UK, not just Defra—in the context of the US and Japan to some degree and see where we place it basically.

  Q32  Dr Gibson: Have you got a list of five things somewhere under your pillow, for example, where you could achieve, in your opinion, very quickly, five, ten years, or whatever, rather than trying to do everything?

  Professor Watson: Sure. Improve probabilistic forecasts at the spatial level that we need for impact and adaptation studies in climate. I think the Hadley Centre is as good, or better than, anyone in the world. The only challenge there is a significant need potentially for a super computer to go to that next level. You also need some underlying science to make sure you have got the physical and chemical processes. I would say we actually are equal and we can be the world leader with the right investment. I would argue in biodiversity actually promoting the ecosystem approach, which comes out of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that Defra announced, would be a world leader in showing how we could have multi-function agriculture, that is increased productivity, and at the same time making absolutely sure that we are protecting our environment and we recognise all the other attributes. They are two that hit me absolutely immediately where we can be world leaders.

  Q33  Dr Gibson: Are the training processes getting the people coming into them that we need to carry out those intentions?

  Professor Watson: I cannot give an answer to that. I would need to find out. We need to look at, effectively, human capital and to what degree are we investing adequately in that next generation of scientists, but that is something I have not personally looked at.

  Hilary Benn: Could I add, very briefly, one thing? It seems to me that the recommendation you made that we have a marine science strategy provides the opportunity for all of the things in the questions you have just asked, Dr Gibson, to be reflected upon, and what an opportunity actually. I would I hope that the scientific community would be busting a gut to say, here is a chance—to go back to your question about how many people understand—to tell the story. Actually the Marine Bill also gives us an opportunity to do the same thing.

  Q34  Dr Gibson: The scientific community cannot provide the resources. Government has to provide those resources for that to happen.

  Hilary Benn: Indeed it does, but the act of drawing up a marine science policy, the fact that it will come out in draft, that there will be a chance for people to express a view, argue, debate, discuss—that is the purpose of it. I have not got one tucked in the corner that I wrote earlier and I am just going to bring it our according to a timetable. This is a process. You have started, and I want it to be a success and so do you.

  Q35  Dr Iddon: When we made our recommendation of setting up a marine agency, which your department rejected, we consulted widely about that, of course, over a period of a year. Instead, you have set up, or you are setting up, an MSCC organisation. Can I ask you how widely you consulted before you came to that decision and, secondly, in setting up the new marine strategy, who are you expecting to consult? Are you consulting all the stakeholders? Will they get a chance to shape that strategy?

  Hilary Benn: The answer to the first question, Dr Iddon, is that we reflected within government but we did not go through the same process that you had gone through in talking to lots of folk about it. Having read your evidence sessions, there were some people who came and gave evidence who were not entirely persuaded that that was the right thing to do, but the reason why, in the end, we reached the view that we did is the reason that I set out in answer to your earlier question: both because it was not absolutely clear to me what was being sought but also because we had already embarked, with the Marine Bill White Paper, the creation of the Marine Management Organisation, on a course of action and I think we need that body to deal with what the Marine Bill is seeking to do and, I will be very frank, I was not persuaded that the right thing to do was to put all of that together in the way that it appeared you were suggesting, but I think we achieved the same objective by having the Marine Management Organisation over here doing the work in relation to the Marine Bill and the MSCC over here doing the things that you asked for, including drawing up the Marine Science Strategy. The view across government was that this was the right thing to do, and your recommendation said we want better co-ordination, and our preference was now. That was the way that you chose to phrase it, and we have thought about it very carefully. I hope you will feel, on reflection, what we have done is not a rejection, we do not accept any of this. Not at all. I think it is a different way of achieving the objective that you set out very, very clearly in your report.

  Q36  Dr Iddon: I think what the stakeholders who are listening to this discussion want to know is whether, now, having rejected that first proposal, your department is going to consult widely about shaping the strategy. Can we have an assurance about that today?

  Hilary Benn: Absolutely.

  Q37  Chairman: Before you answer that, and it is also why the membership of the MSCC is so important if that, in fact, is going to be, if you like, the body that actually brings the strategy together.

  Hilary Benn: I accept that completely. The reason that I have brought the bit of paper along today, which I will leave with you, is precisely because we have had two meetings of the planning group trying to work out what this thing is going to look like, and when I say today (and this is a genuine offer) if as a committee you have got views, having read that bit of paper, about what you think the balance of representation looks like, would you please let me know and I promise to go away and to think bit. Again, this is not a process that we have gone away with a towel over our heads and said, "Right, we have got it all sorted." We are in the process of working it out, we wanted to demonstrate today that we are getting on with it having accepted your recommendation, but it is not finalised in stone, so, please, let me know what you think about how it is evolving, and that is the purpose of the note.

  Q38  Dr Iddon: That is not an answer to my question. The question was can the stakeholders out there be assured today that in shaping the strategy you are going to consult them?

  Hilary Benn: The Marine Science Strategy. Yes, I am sorry, I thought I had made that clear in answer to the earlier questions, Dr Iddon.

  Dr Iddon: Sorry to press you.

  Q39  Chairman: Just before we leave strategy, I was very struck, Professor Watson, with your comments that we cannot do everything, and I think this committee would accept that and that we are also part of a European, a global network and, if you like, the deep-ocean drilling, the ARGO float, was a classic example of where things are done much better on a global basis. Could you give us an assurance that the new strategy, as it emerges, will not in fact be enough layer on top of a host of smaller strategies within departments or organisations but will, in fact, be sweeping up everything into a single, straightforward strategy which actually drives this whole agenda forward: because there is nothing worse than simply having yet another layer on the cake?

  Professor Watson: No, we need to start with what is our vision for the oceans and how is that placed within the whole earth system. What are the objectives of the research that we need, whether it is better understanding of climate change, better understanding of the oceans' biodiversity, better understanding of sustainable fisheries. So we need to step back, ask what our vision for the oceans is, ask what the big questions are that we are trying to understand, ask what research we already have—what do we already know, what are the research gaps, what is needed to fill them—and then we must place that within the overall context of what is happening either within Europe or within the United States, and I think that is especially important for the large observational programmes, which are phenomenally expensive. Even the US cannot afford to do all the measurements. I have not been in government now, obviously, for 11 years—I was in the World Bank—but it is quite clear, especially when you try to do significant observations form buoys for ships or from satellite observations, it is extremely expensive, so some real priorities have to be set, and it has to be set on what are the scientific questions you are trying to ask and answer.

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