Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 77

Submission from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is one of the UK's seven Research Councils. It funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists

2.  Details of NERC's Research and collaborative centres and Major Programmes are available at www.nerc.ac.uk.

  3.  NERC comments are based on input from Swindon office staff.


    "Has the time come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage?"

Q1.  What form a debate or consultation about the question should take and who should lead it

  1.1  The debate needs to consider the whole of the supply chain and all points at which benefit are delivered to the UK economy. So, whilst it is sure to be important to understand the relevant commercial markets, issues such as avoided cost by better environmental policy, and the stimulus that regulation could bring to delivering a "green economy" need to be embraced.

Q2.  Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary

  2.1  Currently although broad statements have been made about research focus, it is not clear what the government's expectations are for where the UK needs to be, what the UK already does and what the gap is that will need to be met.

2.2  The research councils have focused on six interdisciplinary areas of research through the cross-council programmes (for example, Living With Environmental Change), each of which use excellent research to tackle major challenges for society. They draw on a range of users including business in co-designing programmes through to exploitation of research knowledge.

  2.3  NERC focuses most of its research funding strategically. This takes into account what the key scientific challenges are and what societal and economic outcomes may derive from these, using the world-leading scientific capabilities that the UK has developed. Also importantly, NERC maintains responsive funding to identify emerging priorities for the future and train the next generation of scientists—these roles for responsive funding are strategic in their own right, without the need to be thematically focussed.

Q3.  What the potential implications of such a policy are for UK science and engineering, higher education, industry and the economy as a whole

  3.1  Whilst there are positive benefits for the UK in focusing on key economic areas of competitiveness, there is also a need to look to the future and take advantage of the development of new knowledge and new capabilities that may develop emerging economic opportunities.

3.2  It needs to be clear that not all research that is undertaken has a direct economic impact. Research is needed to provide evidence on broader issues such as regulation, policy-making, quality of life, societal outcomes.

Q4.  Were such a policy pursued, which research sectors are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to lose

  4.1  For the environment sector, there is a major opportunity to combine our leadership in prediction of environmental change, with our technology and engineering skills, to contribute to a successful, new green economy:

    —  developing and implementing technologies and solutions that ensure environmental sustainability;

    —  making optimal use of natural resources and processes; and

    —  understanding environmental constraints and the process of environmental change.

  4.2  Doing so successfully needs a very broad range of skills across the environmental science and engineering disciplines and beyond—and so there is a significant opportunity for extensive engagement, rather than the risk of communities losing out. A particular opportunity for the UK is to capitalise on our skills in predicting environmental change by developing new markets in the area of environmental information services—"seeing the future" of the environment on business sensitive time and space scales.

  4.3  It is notable that other nations which have prioritised the green economy (for example, Denmark, Germany and Spain, and no doubt soon the US) have already seen their businesses take a major market stake in relevant sectors (for example, offshore and onshore wind energy generation).

April 2009

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