Science and Technology Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 727

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 12 December 2012

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Jim Dowd

Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Mosley

Graham Stringer


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Professor Alan Rodger, Interim Director, British Antarctic Survey, and Professor Ed Hill, Director, National Oceanography Centre, gave evidence.

Q151Chair: Gentlemen, welcome to the session this morning, with apologies for the slight delay. We have been discussing future inquiries, one of which spills over to the work involved here. Professor Rodger, can I thank you for hosting the visit last week? That was a fascinating insight into the work of BAS.

Professor Rodger: Thank you; it was a pleasure.

Q152Chair: The Committee is looking forward to following online the work at Lake Ellsworth. That sounds a fascinating piece of work and needs every bit of publicity it can get, so, hopefully, through the minutes of this meeting people will understand what is going on at Lake Ellsworth.

Professor Rodger: We hope so. You will be pleased to know that we should start drilling today.

Chair: Drilling starts today.

Professor Rodger: Possibly.

Q153Chair: I suppose that takes us into the first question. Some of these projects cost pretty significant sums of money. What impact have the funding restrictions had on marine and polar science since the last spending review?

Professor Hill: I can start with marine science. The science budget overall has received a relatively generous settlement compared with other parts of the public sector, and the Natural Environment Research Council has experienced an overall cut over the spending review period of 3% cash, which is much greater in real terms. Those clearly have an impact. In addition, NERC is trying to rebalance its science portfolio to move more science into openly competed funding modes, such that the science community can be brought together in new ways to tackle very large earth system questions. Consequently, there is a rebalancing of funding away from the stream of funding that used to be called national capability into socalled research programmes, which are competitive. That is having an impact that is both a squeeze in volume but also a requirement for NERC centres to re-skill themselves in order to operate in a much more competitive research environment. That has led to some reprioritisation of the national capability portfolio in the marine community. We have stopped some areas of work; we have slimmed down some other activity, and, in addition, the National Oceanography Centre, in particular, has made some staff reductions to cope both with that funding reduction and to enable it to operate in the more competitive research environment resulting from the change in funding model.

Professor Rodger: From the BAS perspective, in general, the areas of marine science that are fundamentally important for planet Earth, in terms of some of the physical oceanography, sea level rise studies and the sustainable use of marine resources, are ones we have protected in our reductions and we have focused our reductions on other areas. This is just another example of the prioritisation that Ed described.

Q154Chair: Both the change of direction and the absolute amounts are going to affect some programmes. In respect of the two respective organisations, which programmes are impacted by these changes?

Professor Hill: In the kinds of areas where we have reprioritised, the emphasis has been to try to protect a number of key activities. For example, areas we prioritised very strongly were fields like sea level research, and the UK contribution to the Argo float programme was heavily protected, as was long-term monitoring of the continuous plankton recorder. These are some of the more iconic data series in marine science.

Generally, we have tried to keep breadth across the science base and not lose critical mass in any areas. As to some of the programmes that have been affected, we have got out of some areas of numerical modelling that were probably spreading us too thin, in order that we might concentrate very strongly on the Joint Climate and Weather Research programme with the Met Office and focus on development of the NEMO model. We have also thinned out some of the coastal observing system. There is an observatory in the Irish sea, which we have quite heavily thinned out. It had been running for just under 10 years. It had been initiated as a pilot programme and demonstrator of the technologies, but we brought it to what was a natural conclusion. We are thinning out the frequency of observing in some of our programmes as well. There has been a general thinning-out and stopping of a few specific areas of activity, but that is how we have dealt with it.

Professor Rodger: We have focused, in the reduction in the British Antarctic Survey, on areas of geology, terrestrial biology and some degree of quaternary and middle atmosphere science. These have been chosen partly through a process of internal prioritisation, but the Science and Innovation Strategy Board of NERC also had a view on that and we took that into account when we came to our decisions.

We have focused on areas where we think we are particularly strong, and we think that some of the areas where we are likely to reduce activity we can bring back through collaboration in the NERC family, for example. Those are ways in which we are trying to ensure we can take this more holistic system science approach to understanding how our planet works, particularly in the polar regions.

Q155Chair: On the issue of collaboration, last night at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee one speaker made a particular plea for us to recognise the importance of collaborations in polar regions with the Ministry of Defence in terms of submarine activity. Is that kind of collaboration at risk, and does that create a further knock-on in terms of reductions in capacity?

Professor Rodger: As the leader of the NERC Arctic programme, we have access to additional data on sea ice from the MOD, for example. Of course, what they will not give you is latitude, longitude and time, which are quite useful things. HMS Protector, which goes to the Antarctic that has some tasking associated with our science, is also an incredibly invaluable resource, so I do not see that reducing at all. There are operational reasons that we cannot predict, and therefore we cannot always be assured of MOD support, but I suggest that today we are working closer with them than we were five years ago.

Q156Chair: What do you think the autumn statement does for NERC budgets? Is it clear yet?

Professor Hill: It is not clear yet, but a welcome aspect of that has been the availability of more capital funding for science. That has been a problem for research councils generally. There are a number of aspects of that announcement that fall within NERC areas- for example, big data-but also the marine community has a very strong interest in the area of robotics, and it has a good track record for investing capital in that as well. We do not know the details, but there are certainly prospects there for NERC and marine science in particular.

Q157Stephen Metcalfe: I would like to talk a little bit about the possibility of establishing a marine agency. Could you both expand on the pros and cons of doing that, and whether or not you think the Marine Science Coordination Committee could actively fulfil the same role?

Professor Hill: This is a perennial issue. It was a topic very much in the last inquiry "Investigating the Oceans. It was a recommendation of that Committee that a marine agency be established. The comparator is often made with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States. One way to do it might be to do a thought experiment as to what a marine agency might look like in the UK. What would you bring together to create a marine agency? If you use NOAA as the model, it would be like taking the Met Office, probably the Hydrographic Office Survey, Cefas, which is responsible for fisheries, and maybe all or parts of the National Oceanography Centre, along with the Marine Management Organisation, to create a single agency, which would have a remit spanning forecasting for the atmosphere and the ocean, regulation and fisheries, with a research dimension to it. That is the kind of scope of NOAA.

Would that work in the UK? What does it look like? You can see that it would create quite a few issues, not least the question of devolution. A number of the functions that presently sit in NOAA are devolved. There are separate bodies in Scotland that deal with that, so that is an issue. One positive is that you have everything under one roof. It would then have a very strong focus on delivering services and regulatory functions so that would be clear, and you might have a better chance of dealing with crossover in some of the long-term observing programmes and so forth.

If you did that, one of the obvious problems is that parts of that activity currently sit within the ring-fenced science base and therefore are protected, as opposed to going into an agency of that kind, which presumably would sit outside the science base. Currently, one has marine science being tensioned against other areas of environmental science in the UK, whereas in an organisation like that you would end up with marine science being tensioned against marine services with no real guarantee of protection. Those are some of the problems you might generate by that kind of agency.

While NOAA looks superficially attractive, it has issues. Despite all of that, as would be the case in the UK, you would never capture all of the marine activities under one umbrella anyway, as is the case in the United States. There are attractions for particular areas of activity: the synergies between some of the ocean-observing and atmospheric sciences, particularly as you start to move into climate and seasonal forecasting scales. Many of the observations that you are making in the ocean are very relevant to that, but, putting it all together, it is likely to be unworkable.

Q158Stephen Metcalfe: Could the pros you have described be achieved in a different way, though, without necessarily risking the cons?

Professor Hill: I think they can, and the aim of the Marine Science Coordinating Committee is to try to generate some of those. There are very good examples of bilateral working between a number of members. For example, since the last marine inquiry five years ago, the Natural Environment Research Council has been working progressively more closely with the Met Office. There is now a Joint Weather and Climate Research Programme in which, for example, much of the ocean modelling of the National Oceanography Centre is codesigned with deliverables and timetables as the ocean component of climate and earth system models and is mutually agreed with the Met Office. That really was not happening before. There are other examples. There is a lot of codesign of programmes between DEFRA and NERC as well, so it is possible to achieve some of this bilaterally and multilaterally, and the MSCC is a very good forum for bringing together those bodies to assist in that process and generally aid the dialogue.

Q159Stephen Metcalfe: Are there any particular barriers to the MSCC engaging with the wider marine science community? How would you describe its engagement?

Professor Hill: Its primary focus has been, and continues at present, to be largely about bringing together the Government players in marine science together and assisting that dialogue. That has been very good. A very diverse range of Government Departments and their executive agencies are involved, and it has been very good for bringing that together. One of the things it has very much helped to address is there could have been a horrible disconnect between Scotland, England and Wales on a variety of issues around the marine environment and marine science. That has provided a very good dialogue, which is cochaired between Scotland and England.

If you sit in the academic community and you are a researcher at the bench, probably the Marine Science Coordination Committee does not impinge on your daily life. Nevertheless, it is operating at a strategic level. An issue recognised by the membership of the Marine Science Coordinating Committee right from the outset was the way to engage industry. That has been done with a Marine Industry Liaison Group without industry having a membership on the committee itself. That was because at the outset it was not clear whom to engage and who would be the member. We thought it important that that community should have the opportunity to shape itself, but the time is now right to begin that engagement. That is probably the most important thing that could be done.

Professor Rodger: I have little to add. My only comment is that I work in places that are far away and the MSCC is focused largely on European and UK waters, and many of the issues that face us on the planet today are of a global nature. Therefore, at this stage, it is a little underplaying the potential impacts of more international waters. As you will have seen from the recent White Paper on overseas territories, that is another area that is perhaps underplayed at the moment, but remember it has not been established very long and these are areas it can grow into over time.

Q160Stephen Metcalfe: How would you like to see it improved, just to take a wider view?

Professor Rodger: I would almost like some people at least representing, say, the overseas territories to be there, because they have very high degrees of biodiversity. As I indicated earlier, if you go to the Southern Ocean, it has the least exploited marine resource left on the planet, so some significant issues of a general nature need to be considered. MSSC spent a number of years getting up to speed. Those are the sorts of areas I would identify. To go back to your original question, whatever you do, there are interfaces between wherever. You can draw boxes round bits of organisations. We are generally getting better at recognising those interfaces and working hard to deal with them. Whether, I hasten to say, it is within NERC or between different organisations, we are doing a lot better now on managing interfaces than we were five years ago.

Q161Stephen Metcalfe: There have been concerns about the size of the MSCC and its infrequency of meetings. There was talk of establishing an executive group that might make it a bit more accessible. What are your views on that?

Professor Hill: That is an observation that the Natural Environment Research Council made in the RCUK submission. The MSCC is a very large body, and when it meets in plenary it is a substantial body. It has a number of much smaller sub-groups that I believe are effective, but the number of large funders is quite small. There is perhaps a case for some of those being able to come together within the MSCC in a more targeted way. There is a model for this, in that the Living With Environmental Change programme, which is also a large multiagency grouping, has also been examining its mode of operation recently. A train of thought-I wouldn’t want to preempt any outcomes-is whether that could become a little more focused within the executive group as well. That might assist things. It is always difficult to deal with a very large multi-agency body.

Q162Stephen Mosley: I want to pursue a similar theme but probably coming from a different direction. We have heard from industry reps that they would like permanent representation on there. Do you think the MSCC is representative of the whole breadth of marine science?

Professor Hill: One has to recognise what it was set up to deal with, which was a set of specific problems, some of which were to do with the inability to coordinate within Government itself. That was the original focus and that was why Government Departments and their agencies came together. That was the starting point. It was not to try to embrace all of the activity. For example, the marine science strategy, which was one of its first products, is slightly misnamed because it is not a strategy that embraces all of marine science. It had a very particular focus, which was how to get the best science in a coordinated way to deliver the policy objectives of Government, very much around things like the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. That is where the focus of that strategy is. Some of it is perhaps a little bit of a misnomer in terms of the breadth of its coverage, but probably the single most important area, which was recognised from the outset, was how to engage the industry and business community more effectively in its working.

Q163Stephen Mosley: In the statement you provided earlier, you said that the NOC Association has a role in coordinating with industry, learned societies, NGOs and the like. Could you expand on that a bit?

Professor Hill: Yes. The whole business of trying to organise and bring coherence into communities is happening across the piece. The National Oceanography Centre has a role to try to bring together the NERC marine science community and to bring to bear common views and vision on issues. That is largely about bringing together the academic university community. We also interact with business and NGOs in various separate ways. That is just one example of trying to bring together some of the academic NERC-funded community, but, again, it is not comprehensive.

Q164Stephen Mosley: We have one quote that tells us that apparently NERC "suffers from poor strategic planning on marine issues and inadequate engagement with marine industry, hindering … exceptional R and D." Do you think NERC could do more to accommodate people who think that?

Professor Hill: If you were to take that quote at face value, you would perhaps imagine that NERC was doing nothing, and that would be unfair. NERC does a tremendous amount to engage with business and industry. Its main vehicle for doing that is its centres and programmes like LWEC that it engages in, where there is a very strong business advisory board helping to shape the direction of that programme. Within the National Oceanography Centre, for example, there is very extensive engagement with industry, whether it is the oil and gas sector, which is a very big sector in the marine area, the space industry in terms of designing software and sensors for observing the oceans from space, or the emerging marine renewables sector and other areas too, so there is quite a lot of engagement.

NERC recognises that this is an area where it could further strengthen its engagement, perhaps at the strategic level, as opposed to what is happening at the grass roots or down in individual centres or within individual projects. For example, it has just appointed a director of innovation and communication to lead on the impact agenda and engagement with business and industry at the strategic level. There is a recognition that that is an area where NERC could strengthen what it is doing, but the characterisation of the quote is not fair.

Q165Stephen Mosley: I thought it was a nice quote. Professor Rodger, I am conscious that I have not asked you any questions. Does BAS actively engage with UK industry in terms of the work that you do in the Antarctic?

Professor Rodger: The opportunities for business engagement in the Antarctic are rather limited by the fact that there is the Antarctic Treaty, which prevents, for example, mineral exploitation. We really do not have major business activities in the South. The thing I would draw out for you is that NERC has invested £15 million in Arctic research. There is a programme associated with that where we are trying to build business relationships in oil and gas, fisheries, tourism and those sorts of areas to see whether there are new opportunities as a result of the disappearing sea ice in the Arctic region. It is early days yet, and I hasten to say there are some challenges in working with the oil and gas companies, as you would have expected. They have put big money into some of these things and believe they have solved many of the problems that might be associated with oil exploitation of the Arctic. I am less convinced at this time.

Q166Stephen Metcalfe: Some of our previous witnesses have raised concerns about the collection of marine data. Can you tell us what NERC’s ambitions are for data collection?

Professor Hill: NERC as a research council is primarily funded to support basic science. The motivation for data collection by NERC and NERC researchers is fundamentally to address science questions. We do not collect data for data’s sake and we do not monitor simply for the sake of it. There are a number or organisations and people motivated to collect data for very specific reasons to comply with regulation, to understand what effects they are having on their environment, whether as a regulator or business, but NERC’s primary motivation for collecting data is to address science questions. Therefore, that determines the type, nature and time scale over which data are collected. Sometimes it is a oneoff process study where you want to parameterise something, and one set of measurements or experiments at sea might be enough to do it.

As to other questions that we are addressing, increasingly important in the earth sciences are matters to do with long-term environmental change and variability. As part of its portfolio of observing, NERC has programmes of long-term observing because, fundamentally, it is trying to address questions about decadal change and variability. NERC does this in several ways, but it has a programme of funding through its national capability funding stream that is specifically intended to support long-term programmes. For example, we contribute to the Global Sea Level Observing System that looks after tide gauge records of monthly mean sea levels across the world. There are a number of other sustained observing programmes. I mentioned the continuous plankton recorder survey, which is over 50 years’ duration. That is a very long and unique time series in the world, and NERC is supporting that. There is a variety of these programmes.

In addition, NERC has initiated programmes set up to address particular questions, and the jury is out as to whether they will mature into long-term programmes. The most spectacular example of that has been the Rapid Climate Change Programme, which is monitoring Atlantic circulation at 26º north. It is looking at the overturning circulation of the Atlantic, which is sometimes characterised as the question whether the Gulf Stream will switch off. That array has been running for 10 years because it is trying to address the question: can we detect changes in that circulation, and, indeed, what is the variability of it? It was a very ambitious programme. At the outset, there were quite a number of scientists who believed it was impossible to make these measurements. We have demonstrated that it is possible, and we now understand a lot of the variability. As to whether that is continued, the question will be about the science that needs to be addressed over those time scales, or whether there are any operational users who would like to monitor that system, say, as an early warning system, in which case you might expect some other funding streams to come into that, or not. Those are the kinds of ambitions that NERC has.

In general, aside from the science drivers, NERC has other ambitions in relation to its observing systems. It would like it to become cheaper, or at least more efficient, to enable you to do more with the same amount of money, or more with less. One of the key mechanisms for doing that is to try to develop and use technologies that allow for more autonomous measurement systems in due course. For that reason, NERC has been investing quite heavily in technology programmes to see if we can make some of these systems much more autonomous over time.

Q167Stephen Metcalfe: Do you think there should be a duty on marine industries to help you do that by supplying some of that data? Would that make it cheaper?

Professor Hill: It is an interesting question. When industry is collecting data it has a different motivation from that of NERC. Usually, it wants to understand their impact or the environment it is working in because of hazards that it may encounter. Some of that data is of direct commercial interest-for example, areas of exploration. The question of compulsion is probably not always a helpful one. It is collecting data for those very specific reasons. In many cases data collected by industry are available and can be made accessible to the science community very easily. I will give you an example shortly of how that is being done. There are some areas where data that are collected for industry-for example, as an obligation as part of licensing for baseline surveys and so forth-would be of much greater value to the industry collectively, to the public good, the regulators, and to scientists if they were somehow pooled and put together. For example, you can imagine how seabed and habitat maps might be stitched together into a more coherent picture of the UK seas as a public good.

There is a case to be made as to the condition of some of the licences for those activities in relation to that kind of data, which probably is ultimately not of great commercial value and the public good value is much greater, including the good to the industry sector as a whole. The mechanism to deal with that is probably to encourage enlightened self-interest on behalf of the industry sector as a carrot rather than necessarily the stick of compulsion, although that perhaps needs to be investigated. In areas where the data is very commercially sensitive you are in very difficult territory.

I said I would give you an example of where science and industry are working together very well. There is a programme in which the National Oceanography Centre is a partner called SERPENT, which is about remotely-operated vehicles used by industry to check structures, safety and so forth. When those ROVs are on standby, they have been made available to science. We have worked at about 92 different sites and have done about 390 hours’ worth of ROV time. These are data we could not otherwise have got access to. It is of great scientific value. That helps industry to build up environmental baseline information as well, so there is a real synergy and added value by sharing and collecting data together.

Q168Chair: To summarise that point, I see what you mean about some of the data being commercially sensitive and so on, but there are plenty of examples, are there not, where a slightly more engaged licensing regime could help basic British science if some thought was given to ensuring that the licence conditions required proper data sharing with legitimate science programmes?

Professor Hill: Yes, there are. The most obvious examples are around sea floor habitat and mapping in relation to offshore developments. We have a very poor map of the UK sea floor. It is very expensive to collect. It could never be done by science alone. If people are doing it as part of regulation, stitching all of that together is a really important opportunity. The other example is trying to build up a picture of some of the offshore environment by platforms that are already there, where people are making measurements for the operation of those structures-and making that much more accessible to science and for the public good would be of benefit. It is a question of how to make it happen.

Q169Stephen Metcalfe: A couple of my questions have been answered. You talked about some of the long-term projects and the collection of public-good data. I take it from what you have said, although please correct me if I am wrong, that there is no long-term project to map the seabed around the UK. That is not one of your aims, despite the fact that we are designating marine conservation zones and things based on different sorts of data.

Professor Hill: There is no single project, national or otherwise, whose aim at this point is actively to map the whole of the UK marine area. However, there are programmes in which we are involved with the British Geological Survey and others. One of them, called MAREMAP, is to do with this question of stitching together what is there, taking data that have been collected for specific purposes and putting them together to build this up slowly. There are discussions, for example, within the EMODnet programme, about whether at European level we ought to be building a detailed high-resolution, high-quality map of Europe’s seas for the purposes of marine planning. There is some discussion about what that would cost and how it would be done, so there is a convergence of thought that this is an important thing to do. How to do it is difficult, and at the moment there is no single programme that is doing that. It would be a very exciting programme, because to do it would involve the participation of Governments, who are regulators; it would require a lot of scientific input, and the private sector would be absolutely crucial to delivering a lot of the data gathering. You could imagine creating a huge national capital asset in terms of a high-resolution map of our seas, but that does not exist at the moment.

Q170Stephen Metcalfe: I have two final quick questions. First, who should coordinate that in the UK? Would that be NERC? Secondly, should that work be done before we designate marine conservation zones and potentially restrict our ability to use some of our waters at some later point?

Professor Hill: As to who should do it, it certainly goes beyond NERC. Industry, Government and the science community would all play a part. In terms of what is happening already, the MMO is playing a very important role in trying to develop the databases and maps required. It is in a focal position in England to do that; likewise, Marine Scotland is in that position. They play a very active part in the MAREMAP programme. That is the question of coordination. As to whether one should do the map before one sets the marine conservation zones, that is just not possible. We are talking about a 20year programme here. We are into adaptive management of using the best available information that we have today in order to make evidence-based decisions around designation of areas, so we just cannot stop the world and map the place before we do that.

Q171Jim Dowd: Your responses have been very detailed. You have already alluded to strategic oversight of marine science. Can I ask you, beyond what you have already said, whether you feel there has been improved coordination of marine science, and, if there has been, whether the MSCC, new legislation or financial considerations have been the most important element?

Professor Hill: There has been improved coordination and there have been multiple drivers to bring that about, so the MSCC is not the only force in this. For example, the whole of European and UK legislation in relation to marine planning, which is represented in the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act and Marine Strategy Framework Directive, has set a sort of framework where the policy agenda has become much clearer. That has enabled players to work together. That is where the Marine Science Coordination Committee has done a particularly good job in helping to focus, in the context of the UK marine area, on the science needed to address questions relating to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. That is why Marine Scotland and DEFRA are able to work very constructively, because we are dealing with the same issues and NERC plays into it as well. It has been an important part of providing the forum for these bodies, many of them very diverse, to come together. If it did not exist at this time, we would have to invent it. It is one of those kinds of organisations.

There are a number of really horrible fracture zones that could open up in the way in which we deal with this, and the MSCC has played a part in making sure that does not happen. There are a number of specific examples of things that have been coming together. The issue of long-term observing was raised. The MSCC has helped the partners round the table to think about how they go about prioritising their activity. Each department and body is ultimately responsible for itself, but it has made us stop and think about what others are doing. The UK Integrated Marine Observing Network-IMON-is a product of that thinking. We just cannot carry on observing things like we always did without trying to put them together and think about where we are going long term. Again, that has come out of the atmosphere that the MSCC has helped to create, and there are other examples.

Q172Jim Dowd: Which of the three that I gave you-there might be one I did not mention-do you think is the least important? I referred to the MSCC, legislation and financial consideration.

Professor Hill: As I described in my previous answer, the whole regulatory and legislative framework has been important, but all Government Departments sitting round the MSCC table are subject to financial strictures. All of us have to think about how to work together more smartly to save money and get more out of what we are doing. That has undoubtedly been a driver. The fact that senior-level members of the Departments continue to turn up to the MSCC is a testament to how importantly they view it as a means to help them each address the problems that they are facing.

Q173Jim Dowd: On the NOC Association "Setting Course" strategy in this regard, could you briefly describe what ambitions you have for that?

Professor Hill: It was an attempt to get the NERC-funded academic community to think together strategically about some of the directions in which they are going and to help that community begin to influence the next phase of strategy development for NERC. I believe that communities that are organised enough to be able to articulate their own missions stand a better chance of influencing those strategies.

To boil down a lengthy document, in a nutshell, the key issues in it are for the marine science community to recognise that, increasingly, marine science is to be delivered in an earth system context, and, increasingly, it will be delivering large societally-driven questions around how we respond to environmental change, how we deal with increasing pressures on natural resources and how we make our societies more resilient to hazards and risks. We are not studying the oceans for their own sake, interesting and fascinating as they are, but, as a community, we recognise the need to work in that broader context and that we are contributing to bigger sets of questions.

With science communities, particularly quite coherent ones like the marine one, it is always a risk that you see activities just within your own context. The thrust of it is very much a recognition of working within a wider earth system context and that the fundamental problems we are dealing with and are able to address are those around decadal-scale change and variability. Long-term observing is crucial to what we do. If we are to continue to be able to deliver marine science effectively with world-class status, which it is, we are in a very expensive business and, increasingly, we are going to be reliant on technologies and innovations to do what we want to do at the scale we want to do it in the future. That is what it comes down to, in a nutshell.

Q174Jim Dowd: Professor Rodger, we have been neglecting you. BAS’s written evidence stated that it had no comment on whether there had been strategic oversight and coordination of marine science in recent years. I don’t know whether your silence was strategic, tactical or just practical. Would you care to revisit that now?

Professor Rodger: Over the years we have had a strategy. The current one is called Polar Science for Planet Earth. In the same way that Professor Hill has described, the fundamental background to it is that we address problems of global importance best studied in the polar regions. So, from a marine perspective, it is things like the cryosphere component of sea level rise; it is the fact that the ocean currents are largely driven from the polar regions and they drive 90% of the heat round the planet; and it is the fact that the southern ocean is the biggest oceanic sink of carbon dioxide. Those were very much strategic objectives. What we have not done as well is a more effective integration with the rest of the polar community, and that is something that is very much on my agenda.

Q175Jim Dowd: What is the polar community?

Professor Rodger: In the same way that there is a marine community, there are of the order of 500 scientists in this country who are interested in polar region science in all its various guises, from space weather to the deep earth. The marine part is roughly one third of that or so of that community.

Q176Jim Dowd: How do you feel that the marine science strategy has impacted on the work of BAS?

Professor Rodger: If you map the marine science strategy on to BAS, or BAS on to the marine science strategy, you would see all the key words in there. I have already given you some examples, but an additional one would be ocean acidification. We are doing work on ocean acidification. The key marine science topics are being addressed. What we did not do in our evidence to you was provide that mapping on the Marine Strategy, but I believe we are hitting the big issues facing planet Earth today.

Q177Graham Stringer: Professor Hill, in your answer to Andrew’s opening questions you talked about openly competing funding modes. Can you explain what that means?

Professor Hill: NERC has configured its funding into three streams. National capability provides funding for large-scale research infrastructure, and some of the long-term programmes, data centres and so forth. Those are mainly, but not exclusively, delivered through the research centres on a long-term basis and are refreshed and renewed periodically. It has two further funding modes where, essentially, there are open bidding competitions in which research centres and universities can bid for funding.

These are in two forms. One is where the issue is strategically and issue-led, where NERC has determined that there is an area of science that it wishes to grow or it wants a programme in. Therefore, having taken advice, it sets up a programme in a particular area and invites bids from the community for the best science to address the question. For example, the Arctic research programme is one of those. This is an area where NERC decided it needed to increase activity and have more focus. It said, "We’re going to work in the Arctic", and then invited bids for the best science in that area.

The third mode of funding is entirely investigator-led; it is responsive mode or blue skies research, where an individual researcher with a bright idea, unconstrained, can simply bid into NERC funding, provided it fits within the broad scope of the NERC remit. Those are open to competition.

When I was talking about the shift of funding I was referring to NERC moving funding from national capability into the issue-led research programme mode to reshape the science.

Q178Graham Stringer: This question was partially answered earlier. NERC has said that BAS and the NOC would have to make larger staffing reductions than other research centres. I would like to know why that was and exactly where we are in staff reductions now at both organisations.

Professor Hill: First, we need to be clear on a point that looks like a detail but is quite important. NERC does not say to centres that they have to reduce staff; it simply controls the flow of money to the centres, and they respond according to their own circumstances and needs; so the staff reductions are the responses of centres to funding reductions. The funding reduction, on average, to NERC’s research centres in relation to the national capability was a cut of about 15%, with some further bits of top-slicing going on after that, but that is the approximate cut to those budget lines. Each of the research centres is responding differently depending on its circumstances. The National Oceanography Centre and British Antarctic Survey have been responding with formalised programmes of calls for voluntary redundancy.

Other NERC centres have been responding differently because they have different circumstances. For example, the British Geological Survey, apart from its national capability funding line, has never been strongly dependent on NERC competitive modes of funding; it has a lot of commercial and industry income. Its central response is to generate more of that and it has quite a lot of capacity to do so, so that is how it is operating. It is reshaping its staff profile. I am not aware of the details of it, but it is doing some re-skilling in order to be better equipped to bid for more commercial income.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, as you will be aware, has only just come through a very major restructuring in which it reduced from nine to four sites. Very large numbers of staff were lost and there was a big refresh of staff there, so it is already re-skilled and is in a more competitive environment. It was slightly protected in the current rounds of reductions on account of the fact that it has just been through that, so it is operating differently. The response of the NOC has been to re-skill to deal with the more competitive funding and reduce staff to account for the shrinkages in national capability funding, and it is looking to diversify its income sources.

Q179Graham Stringer: I asked where you are now. How many staff have actually gone?

Professor Hill: In the most recent formal voluntary call for volunteers, in the end, 32 staff have gone, of whom 25 were on open-ended contracts. The others were on fixed-term contracts, which will not be renewed at their due date. The process requires NERC to treat fixed-term staff and open-ended staff by the same process. That is the gross figure. Then there is a re-skilling process going on, so there will be recruitment in some areas of growth where we did not have skills before. That is the number of reductions prior to some recruitment, which will be going on over the next few years.

Q180Graham Stringer: The net figure will be less.

Professor Hill: The net figure will be less.

Q181Graham Stringer: What about at the British Antarctic Survey?

Professor Rodger: It is the same general position, in the sense that, essentially, although we had a reasonably good settlement out of the recent spending review, inflation does bear upon us. We are expecting to lose 18 staff. We started our process later than everybody else, in late October, and we are still on that journey of identifying the voluntary redundancies that are necessary to achieve the £1.1 million of savings that we are expecting to make in staff salaries.

Q182Graham Stringer: You say that is where you are now. Are you expecting to make any more redundancies?

Professor Rodger: No. At the moment, we have a budget that is fixed through to the end of the spending review period. Therefore, if we make these savings now, we believe we have a sustainable organisation. Who knows what will happen after the spending review?

Q183Graham Stringer: Professor Hill, when you are making the decisions on who is redundant, how do you prioritise the science?

Professor Hill: A number of factors played into it. First, we had a national capability prioritisation exercise. There were some areas of science that we knew we were going to stop and some we were going to protect, but, broadly speaking, our policy was to maintain critical mass across all of our major areas, and we wanted to keep the broad base of our observing programme. Our fundamental driver was to maintain and strengthen the breadth across all of the major science areas. We were not getting out of any one major area of science. There were some small areas but not large ones. That was the first thing to do.

The second thing was to ensure that we were able to operate in this much more competitive research environment in which we are expecting to operate. By 2014-15, we are expecting about 60% of our funding to come from fully competed sources of funding, and, therefore, we need a work force capable of doing that. We are, however, a strategic centre, not a university department, so you would expect some differences in our approach. We want to be able to maintain focus on long-term programmes and strategic big-team operation. One of the things that characterises research council institutes in that respect is the relatively high proportions of staff who are supporting principal investigator scientists who are leading the research agenda, so there are good levels of scientists but who are in a much more supportive role around them. That is what enables you to deliver big-team strategic science. We were recognising that we needed to ensure we had the right balance of those two populations of staff within our centre.

Then we wanted to ensure that the people leading the science agenda were the most productive researchers; that they were generating output; and that they were most able to take us forward in this competitive research environment, and, therefore, had a track record in grant-winning and so forth. In developing our criteria, we placed the emphasis on having set that background to ensure that we would retain researchers who were most able to lead us in a competitive research environment and were likely to be very productive and keep up our scientific vibrancy, because, of course, the real game we are playing here is to be internationally competitive against competitors in Germany, the US and elsewhere. We want to ensure that we have the highest-performing researchers.

Q184Graham Stringer: Professor Rodger, did you follow a similar process? Are the three senior managers that you lost included in the figures you gave me in response to the last answer?

Professor Rodger: To take the latter part of the question, no, they are not included in that sense. Currently, we are carrying those vacancies because we believe they will need to be filled. You will know that NERC has already announced that it will appoint a new director of the British Antarctic Survey. The person might expect to be paid, so we are carrying that salary; those vacancies are not part of the long-term savings.

The approach that we took was a little different, in the sense that we have pared down our organisation to a large extent. We wanted to keep a critical mass, but we chose to try to do this strategically, so it is about turning down the volume knob in areas of science where we felt we were less strong than in other areas. There were areas that are probably less relevant to the issues facing the research programme today. We looked at what was relevant to policy. For example, we do quite a lot of work that is relevant to the sustainable management of the southern ocean’s fisheries. We decided to preserve those areas. In the end, we have reduced particular areas of science, and those are the ones I mentioned at the beginning: terrestrial biology, and geology. We have done it by subject more than by some of the characteristics that Professor Hill described.

Chair: I am conscious of time. We have four more questions that we want to try and get through in the next few minutes.

Q185Stephen Mosley: Following on directly from the last point, in terms of the work that you do in Antarctica, have you turned down the knob and reduced some of the scientists and the number of days of research you are doing there?

Professor Rodger: At the moment, the answer is no, for reasons that I do not quite understand. We think this is the busiest season we have ever had. It is helped by what the Chairman alluded to at the beginning that we have a big party doing the Lake Ellsworth drilling, which was part of one of these responsive mode or blue sky projects. We also carry out a lot of international collaboration. This morning we have perhaps under-emphasised the level of international collaboration, and, of course, you get much more science when you collaborate internationally. We have a number of international collaborations as well. For example, NASA is coming down to launch balloons to look at energetic particles associated with space weather. There is a variety of activity, so we are more diverse than ever at the moment.

In the same way that Professor Hill described the fact that we are in a competitive world, we too are looking to round about 50% of our science budget being competitively won. We have to continue to do that and be successful at a time when money will probably be harder to get. The demand on the money NERC has will probably be increasing, so we have to continue to be competitive.

Q186Stephen Mosley: Because of the geopolitical situation that you are working in, do you feel that some of your funding should come from sources other than the science budget-maybe from the FCO?

Professor Rodger: In the statement by the Science Minister early in November, I was pleased by the fact that he talked about it coming from the science base. I would argue that one of the real strengths of the organisation is our holistic approach, in the sense that the people who deliver the infrastructure and the science and the support staff work exceptionally well as a team. If you start labelling people differently in an organisation, it can lead to difficulties, perhaps almost like some of the things that we heard earlier. It is helpful to think of ourselves as a research organisation.

Q187Stephen Mosley: When David Willetts came before this Committee a while ago, he said that he wanted to see Antarctic infrastructure and logistics being funded through a discrete funding line within the science budget. What would be the pros and cons of such an approach?

Professor Rodger: As has been alluded to this morning, the cost of running large infrastructure is inflating at a rate far beyond normal inflation. That is one of the tensions that both of us on this side of the table have faced. The fact is that marine gas oil has gone up, as you will have seen from the evidence, by a factor of six in the last decade. That puts tension on to the science budget. If you have the risk taken away, in principle, that is a great advantage of the infrastructure being funded from elsewhere or from a different line in the science vote.

Q188Stephen Mosley: Have you had any discussions with either the Minister or the FCO on it?

Professor Rodger: There was a meeting at the very end of last month-my first meeting as interim director-which was very positive, in the sense that I felt the FCO, MOD, BIS and NERC were all in a room together having meaningful discussions. While the tone is very positive, it is far too early to say exactly what the outcome will be.

Professor Hill: From an NERC perspective, it has very much welcomed the Science Minister’s announcement of this discrete funding line for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics. The major benefit of it is that it takes out the cost tension that Alan has described. Some of this activity is maintaining an infrastructure in a wider national interest, and NERC recognises there is a wider strategic national interest involved, but there has always been a risk in relation to the Haldane principle that support for that could crowd out NERC’s ability to deliver science in other areas of its very broad mission. The great benefit of that statement is that it provides the basis for taking out some of the tension around the Haldane question, which is why NERC has very much welcomed that statement.

Q189Chair: Isn’t the truth that, whatever structure you end up with, there will always have to be, as discussed earlier, well organised interfaces between other agencies, whether it is the Met Office, the Space Agency, Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office? There have to be effective working arrangements, and the key to that is: how do we make those more effective without being overly-bureaucratic? Isn’t that a bit of a challenge for you, whatever structure we end up with?

Professor Hill: Yes, it is, but there has been great progress in this area. There are drivers that are causing people to work together more closely, and we have talked about some of those. There are some very good examples. NERC has been codesigning and cofunding a number of major strategic research programmes with DEFRA and DECC and working very closely with the Met Office in joint programmes. These interfaces and interactions are working much better than they were, say, when this Committee held its previous inquiry.

Q190Chair: Some of these are internal tensions as well. In your written evidence, you say that BAS is not recovering sufficient income from NERC research programme funding. This is at the core of it, isn’t it? At the end of the day, you have got financial pressures that are very real. It still does not matter where you put the organisation; those tensions will be there.

Professor Rodger: The answer is yes, there are always tensions in there. We have won quite a lot of competitive money even since that number was given to you. We are not doing too badly.

Q191Chair: But are there particular difficulties in getting support for Antarctic research programmes?

Professor Rodger: At the moment, Natural Environment Research Council has no new significant directed science programmes on the horizon where the British Antarctic Survey can be big players. We will be able to get money from some forthcoming programmes, but the last one was the west Antarctic ice sheet instability programme and we did very well out of that.

Q192Graham Stringer: Professor Hill, in your written evidence you say that you are a key source of scientific advice to the Government, and you talk to them a lot and liaise with them. Can you give an example or examples of where your work has underpinned Government policy? How often do you meet with the scientific advisers at DECC, DEFRA and the Government’s main scientific advisers?

Professor Hill: The Natural Environment Research Council has regular bilateral meetings with the key Departments, DECC and DEFRA, and the chief scientific adviser at the Met Office. Those fairly regular bilateral meetings normally involve the chief executive, who will sometimes bring along directors in support of those.

Q193Graham Stringer: Are they fortnightly, monthly or quarterly?

Professor Hill: No; they would probably be quarterly or six-monthly; it is that kind of interval; they are long enough for strategic developments to occur. The Marine Science Coordination Committee is a mechanism for maintaining dialogue at pretty senior level, and that happens frequently. Every six months we will meet there. That dialogue is going on. Can you repeat the first part of the question?

Q194Graham Stringer: Can you give some examples of where NERC’s work has underpinned Government policy?

Professor Hill: There are a number of areas. It is often very hard to trace a line from one particular piece of research to a direct piece of policy advice. Very often in the environmental sciences, it is the synthesis of research over a long period of time that has the impact, but I will give you a couple of examples. The whole of climate policy is ultimately driven by the advice and findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. NERC researchers have been very active both in terms of delivering the basic research that has gone into that and also as part of the IPCC assessment process. The National Oceanography Centre has two authors on the current AR5 assessment going on, but a huge amount of work is going into that. The modelling efforts of the Hadley Centre are being fed and informed by NERC science. You can trace that synthesis going into the whole of UK climate policy.

As to other more specific areas, the work by NERC in sea level research in terms of both the global mean sea level and regional sea level change and its impact on extremes is ultimately the data informing the whole policy around flood defences, so that is very clear. That is not just one particular piece of work; an accumulation of activity over many years is going into that.

To get into something slightly more specific, over the last few years leading up to 2009-10, the United Kingdom, along with other countries, had the opportunity to make claims for extended continental shelf jurisdiction. This is based on scientific and technical arguments relating to characterising the sea floor and how much extension to continental shelf the UK could claim under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Advice from the National Oceanography Centre fed into that. As a result, the UK has claimed over 2 million sq km of continental shelf extension on the basis of scientific advice. Those are a couple of examples in the marine area.

Q195Graham Stringer: More generally, how are the effects of climate change on the marine environment being monitored, and how do you extract from that the natural variability in climate from anthropogenic changes?

Professor Rodger: There is so much we could tell you about how we are monitoring climate change.

Q196Graham Stringer: Particularly in the marine environment.

Professor Rodger: In the marine environment we are making measurements. We are spending about 10% of our national capability budget on monitoring the long-term environment. We have moorings in key positions where we monitor ocean currents and ocean temperatures. Ocean temperatures many kilometres down have warmed. We can trace those waters by looking at their chemical composition and trace chemicals, things like CFCs, embedded in the ocean. I did not get the opportunity to say-and I will say-that the sea, and particularly the ocean, is less well understood and monitored than the backside of the moon. We can monitor the sea pretty well for the space on its surface and into the first few metres, but we are still miles away from understanding the ocean itself. We are under-sampling the ocean, in my view, in a significant way, given that it moves 90% of the heat round the planet.

Professor Hill: Some of the most important observations are the sea surface temperature, which is measured from space, using very high resolution radiometers on satellites. The UK is very much involved in influencing those missions and ensuring their continuity, which is a key issue, and measuring the upper ocean heat content in the upper two kilometres of the ocean, which the international Argo float programme is doing. The UK is contributing to that. There is huge added value from getting a global data set, so that is the surface temperature and the heat content in the first kilometres. Sea level is measured from space by using altimeters. Maintaining continuity of the altimeter record and being able to calibrate that and ground truth it with tide gauge records is important, so that is the Global Sea Level Observing System in which the UK, again, plays a very prominent role and is the custodian of that global database.

The Rapid Climate Change Programme is looking at the critical variable of the overturning circulation, which is of interest in its own right. It is also a key test of ocean models. When you are looking to see whether an ocean model is performing, one of the things that you do is look at how well it is representing the overturning circulation. The rapid climate change programme, which is a very innovative and adventurous piece of work that NERC funded, is dealing with that. That is how you get at the variability. A lot of work then goes on in trying to attribute that to human-induced climate versus actual variability.

One of the big unknowns in the climate system, which is where a lot of the attention is turning, is the root of the problem, which is the carbon cycle itself, trying to understand how and the rate at which the ocean takes up carbon into the surface ocean, and how it gets into the deep sea. So measuring carbon fluxes is important. NERC researchers are very active in trying to work on something called the International Integrated Carbon Observing System to measure carbon fluxes in the ocean, which is all to do with microbial systems and the way plankton take up carbon and so forth. That is a major thrust going into the future.

Q197Chair: The final question is about vessels. We haven’t got time to go through all of the data that exist and the various bits of evidence we have heard about the utilisation of vessels, but you have had five reviews over the last few years. Gardline, in their evidence, say that their vessels are used more effectively than publicly funded vessels. These are difficult judgments to make. Your colleagues tell us that the private sector is not comparing apples with apples.

It seems to me that there is a straightforward point here. It must be to everyone’s benefit to get the best out of these very expensive pieces of kit. I do not think there would be any doubt about that. Would it make sense if the contrary pieces of evidence were placed before the National Audit Office, for example, and they were asked to say whether there is a better way of managing the ship fleet?

Professor Hill: It would be important that the actual data and facts were available and open to scrutiny, and certainly NERC would have no problem with that at all. If I recall, some of the statements that have been made suggesting that NERC is under-utilising its vessels and their days at sea are in the low 200s are not accurate. I can tell you that over the last five years the James Cook has spent, on average, 79% of its time at sea. When you mobilise and demobilise these ships, which are very complex multi-purpose ships, you are reconfiguring them for different science activities. Mobilisation and demobilisation is part of the science programme, and when we give science days that is very much part of it. If you include those as science days, the science mobilisation plus the time at sea means we are talking about 93% of the James Cook being occupied in those ways. We have had problems with the age of Discovery, which have caused her performance to drop below those levels, but we believe there are very high levels of utilisation. I am happy to provide this Committee with supplementary evidence with detailed data behind the remarks I have just made on the utilisation of those vessels.

We also work with our international partners with whom we barter ship time, but we compare data with each other. In terms of the way we use the ships compared with like operators, where we are comparing apples with apples, which are countries operating research vessels, then we are up with the best. Probably the Germans out-compete us slightly, but we are right in the top group of research vessel users in terms of utilisation of the ships. When one is comparing like with like, which is global scientific operations on multi-purpose research vessels delivering front-line leading-edge science, these vessels are being utilised. I will ensure that this Committee has those data so that you can see them. If it would help for that to be scrutinised more widely, I don’t think there would be any issue with it, bearing in mind it is apples and apples that need to be compared.

The issue of research vessels is a major one for NERC. NERC has invested very heavily in ships. The new James Cook has been in service since her delivery in 2006, and we are expecting to take delivery of a new state-of-the-art vessel Discovery in June 2013. These are very substantial investments by NERC in marine science. It is in NERC’s interests to utilise these vessels fully, but they represent a real challenge for us, because, when both of these procurements were initiated, the present financial climate was not as apparent. The rising cost of marine gasoil is a real issue. There is concern about the affordability of delivering this science and we will be looking for smarter ways of doing it, but up until now and into the foreseeable future we see very heavy utilisation of these vessels.

Q198Chair: There are lots of issues. There is the planning of scientific programmes. I know that a lot of effort goes into maximising utilisation in that sense. That is one aspect. There are issues like ship management contracts. I understand there are different ones for BAS and NOC. These are all issues worthy of close examination in terms of our efforts to make cost savings.

Professor Hill: Yes. NERC, as you have said, has certainly not been idle on this score, in that it has been reviewing ships almost to death in trying to get to the root of this question. That is not to downplay some of the complexities. For example, the issue about whether the management of the ships should be outsourced is a perennial one that NERC has asked. Many of the costs associated with ships are fixed. NERC operates crewing standards. There are minimum legal limits and so forth. These vessels are not overmanned. There are a number of areas where private contractors would make savings. They would probably offshore their crew to avoid national insurance and so forth. NERC doesn’t do that; I don’t think we would be allowed to do that. We generally have a policy of employing UK or EU nationals, whereas other private operators might go to the far east, for example.

Maintenance is pretty much a fixed cost that you would have to bear. Fuel is what it is. A lot of these costs are the same, whoever is operating the ships. Most operators try to reduce costs by spreading the burden over as large a fleet as possible. That perhaps reduces insurance costs. For NERC, that is not an issue because the Government are a self-insurer. NERC is not paying VAT on the services it is providing to itself because it is an in-house operation. That is something you would have to look at in terms of a private operation. There are issues there. That is a question that has been repeatedly raised.

There are particular issues around the outsourcing or private operation of the polar vessels because of the broader national interest and some sensitivities around that. That always makes it a more complex issue for NERC. These are not trivial questions, but it is in our interests to maximise the efficiency of the operation of these vessels. What they do is a niche market and it is expensive. We believe on the basis of the evidence we have that we compare well with international research operators doing the same thing.

Q199Chair: But, even within that niche market, there is no reason why it should not be managed through a single structure inside NERC.

Professor Hill: That is an interesting possibility. There are issues around the management of the polar vessels and blue water vessels. Presently, they are managed as two completely separate and independent fleets in NERC. The question about whether they should be managed as a single entity is one that has been looked at several times, and very recently.

Q200Chair: The final question is about autonomous vessels. They obviously have a role and an increasingly interesting one. I have seen some experiments in Liverpool. We have heard evidence that Britain has lost a leading place there, but we clearly have the science base on which further to develop autonomous vessels. Do you see them as a key part of the future?

Professor Hill: Absolutely a key part. It is a different story for another day, probably, as to why the UK may have lost its lead, yet it has not lost its lead, because we are scientifically and technologically in the lead in terms of the development of autonomous vehicles. We have just developed the Autosub6000, which is a unique deep sea autonomous vehicle, and we are about to trial the Autosub Long Range, which has a duration of six months, a depth of 6 km and a range of 6,000 km. This is a unique facility, so, technologically, we are in the lead. The take-up of this to more commercial use has followed a different path in the UK from the United States, and that is an interesting story in its own right. In terms of going forward, they are absolutely essential, and for that reason NERC has been investing strongly in it.

We have established a Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems Facility at the National Oceanography Centre as a community facility to ensure that we rapidly transition these tools from development into availability for use by the science community and that the science community does not have to duplicate lots of expertise that is required technically to support them. There is also a whole set of legal and planning issues to do with using autonomous vehicles, so there is a single point of focus for that. It is a matter of making these accessible to the community. NERC has been making, and expects to continue to make, quite heavy capital investments both in the development but also the purchase of these autonomous vehicles.

They offer the prospects of taking a number of routine observations of ships. For example, we still make hydrographic sections measuring the basic temperature, salinity and other properties of the ocean in snapshots of time to see how the water mass properties are changing for climate research. If we could put these on to autonomous platforms, then you could imagine that, all day every day, we could be sampling these hydrographic sections instead of snapshots once every few years when ships have to go out and do it. There is huge potential there.

Autonomous vehicles have been able to do utterly spectacular things. A British first was in 2010 when Autosub went underneath the Pine Island glacier in west Antarctica, which is believed to be melting because of warming ocean from below. There is no way you can get a ship under an ice shelf, obviously. It did 500 km of track length in six separate missions underneath an Antarctic ice shelf. They were absolutely unique measurements with colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey and elsewhere. Those are the sorts of exciting frontier science you can do with autonomous vehicles, but there is tremendous capacity to take some of the routine work off ships.

In due course autonomous vehicles might be able to substitute for at least some ship capacity. We could remove ships in due course and put more on autonomous platforms. That is the long-term ambition. Today, we are not there. There are some things that you simply cannot do with autonomous vehicles that you need to do with ships; indeed, there always will be, but over time that must be the long-term strategic ambition. To do it, you need not just the platforms to be able to operate it but much more sophisticated sensors and payloads on them to measure all of the biological and biogeochemical properties that we currently do where you need people and water samples to measure. NERC is also investing very heavily in miniaturised sensors to measure these sophisticated biogeochemical parameters, and it is only the combination of the platform, sensor technologies and instrumentation, with low-power requirements and long endurance, that will ultimately give us the capability to do it. We are not there today, but in 10 years’ time I suspect we will be in a place when we will be talking about whether we need as many ships in the global research vessel fleet because of this autonomous capability.

Q201Chair: Professor Rodger, presumably it is particularly important for some of the inaccessible parts that you are interested in.

Professor Rodger: Absolutely. If you take our entire portfolio, we have 54 autonomous instruments in Antarctica at the moment. Those are not just in the marine environment. The spatial-temporal ambiguity is resolved the more and separate instruments one has. I would fully endorse what Professor Hill has said. These autonomous vehicles are a fantastic way to begin to resolve some of the simple things, like understanding seasonal variations.

Q202Jim Dowd: Professor Hill, surely you cannot leave it there. Was the glacier melting from underneath, or not?

Professor Hill: Yes.

Professor Rodger: Yes, of course.We will give you the tutorial on that some other time. We can even explain why the ocean currents have changed and why it is warmer.

Chair: We look forward to the tutorial. Thank you very much indeed, gentlemen.

Prepared 9th April 2013