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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


22 APRIL 2008

  Q40  Dr Gibson: Just to make clear in my mind a conversation I had which was very similar with Arnold Weinstock of GEC many, many years ago, when there was rationalisation taking place, which was not a word they used then. I guess any new strategy could involve rationalisation of some sort, restructuring, job losses, job creation even. Would all that be part of the equation too? We cannot rule out the fact that it is very much an important part of consideration during consultation stages.

  Professor Watson: I cannot give you a direct answer to that, I have not been part of the planning committee at the moment, John Lock has been chairing it on behalf of Defra, but what I normally find in all research programmes is that they evolve over time. In other words, with or without a new marine strategy, the type of research that we would do within the marine sciences, or the atmospheric sciences, or the biological sciences would naturally evolve over time as individual questions are answered, so you would actually want to have a smooth transition from the research being done today to the research that would be needed under a new Marine Bill. You would not want dysfunctionality in the academic community or in the private sector, you would want to finish of the pieces of research being done now, and, as we all know, it is always an interesting combination of Blue Sky academic research and very policy-targeted, because you are never sure when you are going to make those scientific breakthroughs, and that is going to be the interesting balance, trying to balance some thing that may look academically interesting but may not be so policy-relevant—which is why we have research councils—and at the other end of the spectrum some very policy-relevant research we already know we want. It is actually betting that balance that is always a challenge.

  Q41  Dr Gibson: Would you say that British science now is moving away from the fragmentation stage into the centralisation of scientific endeavours, taking away all the small units and putting them into one? Is that a pathway you see happening?

  Professor Watson: What I see with LWEC is clearly that the research councils and the departments are trying to come up with a more holistic strategy where we can appropriately leverage each other. What I would hope is, as those strategies are developed, they will have an appropriate balance between fundamental and academic science and policy-relevant science. One is seeing a movement in some cases towards what I call large and multi-disciplinary teams. The Tyndall Centre would be a perfect example, and it is a consortium of seven universities. I see it is that type of consortia, whether it be for climate change or for some of these other issues, that is the way to bring together excellence across the United Kingdom, so bring those skills together as needed to address specific problems.

  Q42  Dr Gibson: But before you have all the confrontation, if that did kind of happen, a centralisation, it is essential that you have the people in the policy-making arena right from the beginning rather than being dragged in screaming, carrying placards late on.

  Professor Watson: Sure; absolutely.

  Chairman: We are not carrying any placards here.

  Q43  Ian Stewart: Good afternoon. I am absolutely fascinated by the implications of this subject and the wider environmental issues. I did not realise before coming to this just how important this is. Having said that, Bob, before you answered Ian's last question you were talking about what the big questions are. In the introduction to the draft Bill it refers to the need for research, as you highlighted, to underpin Defra's ability to make good policy and good management decisions. I want to press you a bit more on that, if you do not mind, but the first thing I would like to ask you is when will the Marine Bill be enacted?

  Hilary Benn: We have got the Bill in draft now for pre-legislative scrutiny and it is subject to the normal processes, the Queen's Speech and, since the innovation of last year, the draft Queen's Speech, and just watch this space, I think is the answer to the question.

  Q44  Ian Stewart: A year, a year and a half?

  Hilary Benn: We have a very clear commitment to enact the bill in this Parliament, and we intend to do so.

  Dr Gibson: Has the Prime Minister agreed to that? Do not answer!

  Chairman: It will be done before 2010.

  Q45  Ian Stewart: I think also, Bob, you, by inference, accepted that there were gaps in the data that is needed to make the proposals in the draft Bill work. Is that right?

  Professor Watson: Let us be quite candid and let me pick climate change as a particular issue. There is a huge amount we know and, as we all know, it is a clearly serious environmental development and actual security issue, and we clearly know enough that we must, indeed, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to try and limit the projected changes in climate. Having said that, there are still some fairly significant uncertainties, whether it be in our understanding of the oceans, ie one good example would be what are the implications of the acidification of the ocean? There is more carbon dioxide being taken up by the ocean. What are the implications on marine life in the oceans and biodiversity? The fact that ocean temperatures will change and ocean circulation patterns will change will mean there will be different patterns of nutrient flows. What will happen to fisheries there? It could be that simply the fisheries move; it could be there is a decrease in total catch. So, no, there are some significant questions, especially what are the implications of climate change on fisheries, agricultural production, human health, natural ecosystems, and how can we adapt to them? So, there are uncertainties in the marine science, the atmospheric science, our land science, and it is trying to get the priorities right across the earth's sciences of what are the most important policy questions and how do we get the answers to those important policy questions. One of the key issues is the exchange of energy and chemicals between the atmosphere and the ocean? To what degree will there be changes in storm surges in the oceans? There is a number of questions.

  Q46  Ian Stewart: Those are very interesting questions, even to lay people like me, but are you confident that Defra's own research programme would be sufficient to fill those gaps?

  Professor Watson: No, not a hope, and nor will the UK's programme, nor will the EU's. This is why I do stress, especially for an issue like climate change, we have to take a truly global perspective to see what research is needed. Again, I hate to hark back to a previous job I had, but even 11 years ago within the seven billion dollar budget of which I had macro-oversight, not day to day oversight, the climate change programme was fairly close to one and a half to two billion dollars a year then. It is probably comparable now. So we have to place not only Defra's research but the UK research within this wider context, and that is why we need collaboration and partnerships. Defra alone could not ever hope to understand the earth's system, even major parts of it.

  Q47  Chairman: To clarify, you have identified within the draft Bill that there are gaps in the research which we must plug in order for that bill to become an effective piece of legislation. The question we want answering is: are you confident that Defra has the resources to be able to plug those gaps?

  Professor Watson: Defra has to place its research programme in the broader context of the UK at least. NERC funds far more ocean research than Defra. In other words, we should not say what will Defra's role be.

  Q48  Chairman: I am sorry. There is no point in having a bill, is there, if in fact you know from the start that you cannot in fact deliver its objectives, because you cannot plug the gaps in terms of research?

  Professor Watson: Okay. I have often testified in US certainly and the US House of Commons and they always used to ask me: "If I give you so much money, how many years will it take you to plug those research gaps?" I always refused to answer. You can put funding into research; you never know when the answers are going to come out. All we can do is make sure that we identify the key gaps, identify the best researches and hope that science will follow a reasonable evolutionary course to produce answers. You can never guarantee answers, in my opinion.

  Hilary Benn: I would not say that was an argument for not coming forward with a marine bill.

  Ian Stewart: If you could come forward with the Marine Bill, you must have some idea of how much additional investment you are going to make to plug these gaps, surely, even at the level that the UK can do on its own?

  Q49  Chairman: The bill does not mention research; it virtually ignores it.

  Hilary Benn: Clearly the decisions that we as ministers will take---. For example, let us talk about marine conservation zones. The decisions that we will take, on advice—

  Q50  Ian Stewart: I am sorry, are those the same as the marine protected areas?

  Hilary Benn: Yes, they are called marine conservation zones in the bill. The decisions that we will take, on the advice of the JNCC and Natural England, based on the knowledge that we have currently and the knowledge as it evolves in the way that Bob has described, will allow us to designate more areas as marine conservation zones. As you will know, it is currently 2.2%, I think, from memory. Studies have been done which have suggested it should be about 20%. The MCZ is a flexible means of doing that. You can have what other people have called highly protected marine reserves, but the MCZ is an instrument which can give you as much protection as anyone can possibly imagine over here, a different type of protection here and a bit of protection here, depending on what the nature of the seas are and what it is that you are trying to protect. If the argument was, until you have guaranteed enough funding to answer all of the questions—and I am not saying you are advancing it—there is no point in bringing forward a marine bill, I would not agree with that because I think we need what the Marine Bill is going to provide, but it is going to have to be informed by the science and the purpose of all of this discussion, and the purpose of the science is to find out the answers but to inform policy.

  Q51  Ian Stewart: Why I am pressing these questions about funding in that sense is I think, Bob, earlier, as an aside in relation to another issue, you talked about the ability to get research on the cheap and, therefore, it is difficult for us as a committee to scrutinise just what your plans are within this bill if we do not have any idea of the sort of investment that you intend to make, at least at the UK level, to address those gaps?

  Hilary Benn: I am not sure that I agree/understand. The bill will do what the bill sets out to do, in the way which the draft Bill describes. We have a certain amount of knowledge currently. That will be drawn upon by those who will advise ministers. Since we are talking about marine conservation zones, part of what we need to do is to provide resources to look, to understand better what is down there currently—that is what we are talking about, because we have some knowledge but not all the knowledge that we do need—but that is going to be a process over time. I would not see it that you hold up either scrutiny of the draft Bill or the enactment of the bill whilst saying, until you can say here is X amount of money which is going to deliver Y results in terms of knowledge, until we know that, we do not think you should get on with it, because actually people have been pressing us to get on with it and we waited a long time for the bill.

  Q52  Ian Stewart: The problem you are posing for me personally is that, in terms of filling the gaps in research, Bob accepted that Defra's own research base could not possibly cope with it. There is a need to work with others externally.

  Hilary Benn: Fine.

  Q53  Ian Stewart: But he then took it to a global level, saying that even the US could not fill those research gaps. I then brought it back to UK level that relates to this bill, and if you accept that there are gaps that need to be filled, there must be an understanding of what those gaps are and how, within this bill, you can fund the research to cover those gaps. That is what I am seeking, to get an idea of what will happen in practice on the ground.

  Hilary Benn: Defra can certainly set out—and Bob says he is going to have overall responsibility for it—what Defra's research budget is going to be spent on. The MMO, as I said earlier, is going to be represented on the new Marine Science Co-ordination Committee. One of the things that the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee is going to look at is where are the gaps, seeing what everybody is up to currently, and if the MMO says, "Here are some things that have been really useful for us to know, and the JNCC and Natural England, in advising ministers on where there should be marine conservation zones and of what type and what it is that we are trying to protect", then that is part of the process. I am trying to provide an answer to the question that you have quite properly asked. It seems to me we are in a better position to do it now, and will be in the future, because of your recommendation that there should be a co-ordinating committee that is more effective, with ministerial leadership, and the fact that the lead minister, the champion, for the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee and for the strategy is also the minister in Defra who has been leading on the Marine Bill, I hope, will also give some comfort and the two bits can live together, but Bob may want to add something.

  Professor Watson: I think we always manage the environment, whether it is the marine environment, whether it is the terrestrial environment, or whether it is the atmosphere, with current knowledge, which is why we call it adaptive management. You use the best knowledge you have today, so it is always decision-making under uncertainty, and you continue to do research to try and reduce that uncertainty. We have a Climate Change Bill that talks about mitigating climate change, we have uncertainties, but it does not stop us coming up with a well thought through, cost-effective plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It talks about adapting to climate change in the UK. Again, there are some uncertainties, but again that does not stop us coming up with a well-defined strategy that would continuously be informed by further research. Our job is to think through where are the most important research gaps that we should emphasise to reduce those largest uncertainties, which are, on the one hand, the most policy-relevant uncertainties, and so it really is adaptive management where research continuously informs.

  Hilary Benn: One of the things we are doing through our research spend is to look at it and ask precisely the question that you have asked of me: what is it we need for the purposes of the implementation of the Marine Bill so that it has an impact on where we prioritise the expenditure that we have got? Perhaps I should have said that at the beginning.

  Q54  Ian Stewart: So we agree there is a question, but there is no answer to it at this point in terms of finance. Then perhaps, Bob, you would say what work has been done so far to establish the mechanisms to facilitate the release of data, the interaction between producers, suppliers and users of marine data?

  Professor Watson: Clearly, the Marine Bill will be implemented on the knowledge we have today, whether it is knowledge that has come from Defra research or other research entities or the private sector. I think we need to make sure we have all the relevant information up-to-date, peer reviewed, validated, as much as you can validate research findings, as we start to manage the system. This would be the normal way of business actually.

  Q55  Dr Iddon: When I visited Plymouth I got the distinct impression that we did not know too much about the areas we need to protect, except in the case of some well-known examples; yet we are putting off-shore wind farms out; we are putting wave and tidal machines out. Perhaps I direct the question to Bob. Do you think we know enough about even the Continental Shelf, never mind the deep sea beyond it, in order to have marine protected areas at the moment, or is this a fairly unknown research area?

  Professor Watson: I think the question is: what are we protecting and why are we protecting it? There are many things you can protect. There is a complete dearth of marine protected areas anywhere in the world. If you compare the marine protected areas compared to terrestrial protected areas, there is a couple of percent across the world. I think one of the questions we have, and I have got the same question actually, a major question on terrestrial protected areas, first, do we know what we are protecting and why and do we know how to protect it? Let me say why I think it is a challenge, and I think it is a challenge both in the marine environment and the terrestrial environment. If we are correct about climate change, the climatic zones for a species in an ecosystem could well shift 300 to 500 kms poleward, towards the North Pole in the northern hemisphere and the South Pole in the southern, and could move up an altitude in grading a mountain by 300 to 500 metres. In other words, if you have tried to protect a particular species where it may sit very happily today, it may no longer potentially even reside in the UK, or, if you are in Brazil, it may not even reside in the protected area you have got. So one of the challenges we face is not only to decide what do we want to protect and why but, if, indeed, we are seeing a major change in the environment, and climate change is the classical one that I would put, we have got to think what the implications of climatic change are, to think through the whole concept of protected areas, and so there is a real challenge whether it is in the terrestrial biosphere or in the aquatic biosphere.

  Q56  Ian Stewart: Some of the climate change things are going to happen, so why do we try to protect the north Norfolk coast? Why do we protect the Broads, Bob? Why not just flood them? Nature Heritage has said that, has it not?

  Professor Watson: I think the question we have to decide is what we want to protect and why, and, clearly, for those living in the Norfolk Broads and in Norfolk, they would want to protect it. I think the question is, and it is a classical question, what parts of the coast do you protect, what parts do you let retreat, and then you have to look at it from an economic, social, environmental perspective. There will be parts, I believe, of the north Norfolk coast that you actually purposefully will protect and parts that you may actually allow to retreat because it is actually the most cost-effective and socially defensible.

  Q57  Ian Stewart: So you would protect the Labour seats, I hope, and allow the Liberal Democrats to sink!

  Professor Watson: I would hate to make a political statement.

  Q58  Chairman: There were a number of rotten boroughs which are in the sea and perhaps others will follow them!

  Hilary Benn: Can I just add to the question. When we launched the Marine Bill I went out, for the first time in my life, to see an off-shore wind farm off Whitstable, and one of the things that is immediately obvious when you go and have a look is that the putting in of the piles would have disrupted things down below, but once you have got one of those things there you are not going to go and fish there. One very interesting question for me also as a lay person is: what is the long-term impact of that and do you find that things recover quicker than people thought and do you find that species of fish will actually tend to congregate there because, by definition, people cannot come and fish? The interrelationship between the human activity and biodiversity is something that we need better to understand, because one thing I think we do learn from nature is that in the right circumstances it is pretty vigorous and pretty good at redeeming itself and recovering sometimes in ways that would astonish us. The other thing is that in the publication—I see that Bob has got it here—as someone who was new to this when we produced this very nice brochure publicising the work we are doing on the Marine Bill, some of the photographs there, if you showed them to people and said, "Where in the world do you think these pictures were taken?"—this goes back to your question about public awareness and understanding—people would have said, "That is the Bahamas. That is the Great Barrier Reef", when actually they are taken in the seas around our coast. Understanding what is there and how marvellous and wonderful some of it is, it seems to me, the reason why there is so much support for the Marine Bill and why we are going to go on and get it on the statute book.

  Q59  Chairman: Before the election in 2010! Can I finally turn to an issue which you have both raised on a number of occasions this afternoon, and that is this issue of monitoring and the importance of monitoring? In fact those of us that took part in this investigation I think were struck by just how crucially important maintaining long-term datasets is, maintaining our support for the ARGO floats programme and, more so, for deep-ocean piling, and so on, and I just wonder what additional money is in the CSR, to start with, to actually support marine science as a whole, but particularly the preservation of long-term datasets? Is there any additional money at all?

  Professor Watson: As you know, we have kept the Defra budget constant from last year to this year for research at around £132 million per year and in the monitoring and surveillance issues we are trying to get a handle around it. NERC, of course, had just over a 5% increase in their research budget, but a significant amount of that got eaten up by overheads, et cetera. To be honest, I would imagine the total budget for the long-term monitoring is fairly flat, but this is why we need to look at the research strategy and monitoring strategy to ask are we putting enough emphasis on monitoring versus some other elements of research, how does the UK monitoring fit within the global perspective? You are absolutely right, long-term monitoring is absolutely critical—there is no question—for trying to understand things such as changes in the earth's climate and changes in biodiversity. There are short-term fluctuations that can be seasonal, inter-annual, even decadal, so unless you look at the processes over a long period of time you cannot tell what is a natural fluctuation versus what is a long-term trend, which may be induced by human activity. Equally, if you then put a policy in place, say, to try and reverse damage, you also need the long term to see whether or not that policy is having the effect it is. I can only agree with you on long-term monitoring, but to me it is one of the biggest challenges we in the UK face.

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