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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-64)


22 APRIL 2008

  Q60  Chairman: I am grateful for that because I think that confirms what the Committee concluded, but we made a proposition. We understood the difficulty, for instance, of the research councils which say, "Look, our job is basic research. Monitoring is not basic research, even though we use the results of monitoring for our basic research". The Departments say, "That is not our job. Our job is to make sure it is the here and now that we are looking after". We made a proposal that, in fact, the agency or the new committee would have a budget which would control the issue of long-term monitoring, in other words to take it out of, if you like, that constant football match between departments and research councils. Why do you think that was rejected, Secretary of State or Professor Watson? It seemed a fairly sensible solution.

  Hilary Benn: It remains a problem. The difficulty is finding a solution for it, given what you have just very clearly set out, as to what the different partners think their responsibility is, but I would be very happy to ask the MSCC because it is there to do a job of work to look at this. If you take examples like the ARGO Programme or Jason-2, it would be good to try and find a way of doing it. What I am reluctant to do is to sit before the Committee today and say, "I have got a pot of money that I could draw upon", because I have not. One of the things I have had to do, as all Secretaries of State have to do, is to make sure the budget of Defra balances. We have got things we are investing more money in, going back to Dr Gibson's question, flooding and coastal defence, a big increase over the next two years, I have got animal diseases to deal with and in the end we have to take some decisions. Bob and I have had a lively conversation about the research budget and what Bob describes is what we have ended up with in terms of the cash sum, but could I suggest that we ask the MSCC, as part of its work, to look at this.

  Q61  Chairman: The UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy identified somewhere in the region of £20 to £25 million which was required to plug the gaps within our monitoring system and maintain existing monitoring systems and there is no way of filling that gap. What Professor Watson and yourself agree are crucial areas in terms of maintaining these long-term data sets will not happen, so what do we do about it?

  Hilary Benn: I am being straight and saying I have no money that I bring to the Committee today to say, "I can tell you we are going to fill the gap", but the issue that you identified does not go away for the reasons you set out very clearly in the report. I would suggest humbly that we ask the MSCC to apply its mind to this and to see if there is a way of providing some greater reassurance so there is not the kind of hand to mouth existence which there has been. I think that is all I can say in answer to the question.

  Professor Watson: That would be my comment. I think we have again to go right back to what are our policy objectives, what are our research objectives, what are the needs in both the research side of the equation, what are the monitoring requirements and then I would also ask how do these prioritise relative to, say, the atmospheric monitoring or the land surface monitoring. Personally, I cannot take the marine, even though we are talking about marine science and monitoring here, completely out of the equation of the other elements of the earth's system because normally we are trying to answer some big earth system questions, of which marine is a part, but I think there are major issues with long-term monitoring. You are absolutely right, I have seen it in other countries as well, everybody points at each other and says, "You're in charge of monitoring", and it is one of the biggest dilemmas. I would argue, just like Hilary, that this co-ordinating committee should look at this as a very specific issue of how you prioritise limited resources.

  Q62  Dr Gibson: Of the financial interactions in the consortium sense in other areas of endeavour, you would try to say, "Look, you have a responsibility for this, so have you; can we put something together". In the Norfolk coast you will have Bacton, for example, and the Home Office has got responsibilities there and so on. You do need some kind of creative activity between different organisations to meet the problems because we will all suffer.

  Hilary Benn: Let us ask the MSCC to see if they can provide that creativity.

  Q63  Chairman: Finally, could I ask you, Secretary of State, both of you have mentioned this issue of raising public awareness and certainly Dr Gibson mentioned it too. Is there a distinct strategy within the Department for you, as Secretary of State, to lead in terms of this raising of public awareness? Some of the issues that we raised within this particular report were very, very crucial to the marine science community but did not really ring many bells, for instance, in the broader media which did not pick it up as a major issue.

  Hilary Benn: I could say equally that when the Marine Bill was published, I suppose because there is a large measure of support for it, it did not get as much coverage as it might have got if people were raging and screaming about it. It was a reflection of our broader society, which we will leave for another occasion. The Marine Bill, as well as the Committee's report and the strategy that is going to be drawn up are all opportunities which each of us has got to seize in the most effective way to make the point. The greatest advocates of all for marine science are the folk who are doing the scientific research and providing opportunities for them to tell their stories about what they have done and what they have found; that is actually how you inform, inspire and encourage. It will also help to address one of the other issues that you put down in your report which is encouraging more people to come and do this, for young people to think, "Hey, that's what I want to do. I want to help discover what is down there so we can have good, decent marine conservation zones based on proper evidence". It then becomes a virtuous circle and there is a lot of fantastic stuff out there, which I am just beginning to learn about. Let us work together and find ways.

  Q64  Dr Gibson: Have Nobel Prizes been won in this area yet, Robert, not that is the sole criterion, but it certainly helps?

  Professor Watson: No. In fact, when you look at the Nobel Prizes they are very explicitly, as you know, for physics, chemistry, et cetera. There is one Nobel Prize for the three scientists who understood stratospheric ozone depletion, Roland, Crutzen and Molina, and there has been one Nobel Prize, of course, the Peace Prize for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are other major prizes. The Japan Prize has got two big prizes, the Japan Prize and the Blue Planet Prize and they are quite significant amounts of money, and then there is something called the Zayed Prize, of which the Millennium Eco-System Assessment was one of the winners. They do not get publicity in the newspapers, even the Nobel Prize is there for half a day in some newspapers and it is gone. The way to get to the public is, indeed, through documentaries and maybe we need to work far more with a guy called Robert Lamb, who is a superb person who worked for TV and is an adviser to the BBC, and David Suzuki in Canada. The marine environment, as Jacques Cousteau found out, is so photogenic, so you can bring in the issue of fisheries collapse and the magnificence of underwater, even if they are short documentaries, that is the way we need to get to the public basically the importance of these systems.

  Hilary Benn: Fewer body makeover, home makeover programmes on the TV and one or two on marine science. Let us hope somebody is listening.

  Chairman: I am sure they have got mindreaders listening. Could I thank you very much indeed, Secretary of State, Professor Watson, for a very, very useful afternoon's session.

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