Marine Science - Science and Technology Committee Contents

2  Strategic oversight and coordination

The UK Marine Science Strategy

5. The UK Marine Science Strategy sets out a 15 year strategic framework "to support the development, coordination and focus of marine science in the UK, across Government, industry, Non-Governmental Organisations and other sectors". It gives a view on what evidence is needed to inform strategic decisions and encourages a coordinated approach to deliver this science.[14] The Strategy identifies three high level priority areas for marine science (understanding ecosystem functions, responding to climate change and its interaction with the marine environment, and sustaining and increasing ecosystem benefits) and aims to provide a pathway to deliver this science.[15] In the words of Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment, Water and Rural Affairs, "the strategy sets out the direction in which we want marine science to go up to 2025".[16] As a result, the Government believes the Strategy should bring about better coordination of policy priorities, research programmes and funding; bring a focus to cross-cutting issues; and increase collaboration across marine science communities.[17]

6. We heard broad agreement from the marine science community that production of a strategy for marine science was a positive development.[18] There was less consensus regarding its progress since publication. The Minister argued that "good progress has been made" following the establishment of the Strategy. He identified research programmes on ocean acidification, climate change and marine renewables as examples of the "much stronger coordination" it had encouraged.[19] However, others were less impressed with the Strategy's achievements so far, suggesting that

  • "little progress" had been made with delivery;[20]
  • "there is little evidence that this has yet produced any substantive and positive outcomes";[21] and
  • "current oversight and coordination of marine science is not fit for purpose".[22]

7. The Strategy's slow pace of progress has been attributed to a lack of focus on delivery or outcomes, which have made assessing its success difficult.[23] This leaves the Strategy as a "high level document" without "any clear pathway to carrying out the work and the high ideals that are expressed there."[24] We heard that an "implementation plan" was needed to translate the Strategy's goals into action,[25] but initial efforts made in February 2010 to establish such a delivery plan do not appear to have been updated since.[26] We note that the Minister has held discussions on "success criteria" for the Strategy, but it is concerning that, three years into this Strategic Framework, a clear direction for implementation has yet to be developed.[27] We welcome the establishment of the UK Marine Science Strategy. However, if the Strategy is to help the Government achieve its vision of "clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas", further work is needed to translate its high level goals into substantive outcomes. We recommend that the Government set out an implementation plan for the UK Marine Science Strategy, with a timetable that articulates expected outcomes at intervals over the next ten years, and how success will be measured. This should be updated on an annual basis.

Marine Science Coordination Committee

8. The Marine Science Coordination Committee (MSCC) is responsible for delivering the UK Marine Science Strategy and improving UK marine science coordination.[28] It aims to do so by "taking forward the three priority actions within the Strategy relating to: long-term monitoring; communications; and science alignment".[29] The Committee consists of representatives from Government departments, devolved administrations and marine science providers,[30] who

  • provide "a high level decision-making body on marine science to meet priority policy needs";
  • give "a strategic overview of marine science"; and
  • consider "the decisions required to deliver UK marine science effectively and efficiently".[31]

Defra told us that the MSCC has been a "strong and effective vehicle for setting the strategic direction for UK marine science and for delivering better coordination."[32] However, we have been told that the Committee suffers from a number of shortcomings, regarding its membership, resourcing, and focus.

9. The current membership of the MSCC is dominated by Government departments or agencies.[33] Whilst the MSCC may have proved effective at bringing together this range of parties,[34] the absence of an industry representative has been criticised.[35] The UK's marine science and technology sector has an estimated annual turnover of £1.35 billion and employs approximately 17,000 people.[36] The Marine Industry Liaison Group exists as an industry forum to liaise with the MSCC, but the gap between the two means "they are not close enough in terms of debate or discussion".[37] We heard that full cross-sectoral integration "cannot happen unless those people are sitting in the same room and debating things at the same time".[38] Gaining industry representation on the Committee was described as "probably the most important thing that could be done" to improve its functioning.[39] The Minister appeared to agree with these concerns, explaining that industry representatives would help the MSCC operate "in a corporate way".[40] He assured us that "we are going to get appointees to this body that will properly represent marine industries."[41] Other concerns about membership included the lack representation for overseas territories on the Committee.[42]

10. We also heard concerns about how insufficient resources might be limiting the effectiveness of the MSCC.[43] Whilst its Secretariat was described as "very good and dedicated", we were told "it is under-resourced in terms of both secretariat and funding".[44] As a result, much of the MSCC's work "relies on the goodwill of the marine science community".[45]

11. Criticisms regarding the MSCC's focus echoed those directed at the UK Marine Science Strategy; namely that the MSCC lacked a focus on outcomes, which hindered the delivery of its work.[46] It was suggested that industry representation could help provide this focus alongside "some objectives and real teeth to drive through some of those objectives".[47] Alternatively, Professor Ed Hill, NERC,[48] suggested greater focus could be achieved through the development of a smaller executive group to direct the Committee's proceedings.[49] The MSCC currently reports to a Ministerial Marine Science Group, which the Minister chairs. He informed us that work was ongoing to see whether such reports "could be supplemented with quantitative indicators".[50]

12. In September 2012, Defra stated that the MSCC had "made plans to consider, over the next few months, its operation; what it could be doing better or more of; and whether the current structure and approach provide the best fit. [...] The Government therefore intends to wait until this short exercise has been completed before reaching a view on suggested areas for improvement for MSCC".[51] We recommend that Defra includes the evidence submitted to this inquiry regarding the work of the MSCC when considering areas for improvement, such as its membership, resources, and focus on outcomes. The Government should set out a clear timetable for the current review and publish its results on the MSCC website alongside an action plan to address its findings. We note that the Minister has identified the absence of permanent industry representation as a weakness in the MSCC's operations and we recommend that a seat for an industry representative on the MSCC be identified within three months.

NERC support for marine science

13. NERC is responsible for research and training in environmental sciences. It is a non-departmental public body, which receives around £370 million a year from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.[52] Its "strategic goal" is "to deliver world-leading environmental research at the frontiers of knowledge".[53] Research funding is provided through three streams: research programmes, responsive mode and national capability. Broadly speaking, research programme funding supports strategically directed research within selected themes, responsive mode funding supports original investigations within NERC's remit and national capability funding focuses on long term investment in large scale research infrastructure or long-term programmes.[54] Research programme and responsive mode funding streams are subject to open competition, whilst national capability is usually delivered by research centres on a long-term basis, and is therefore not usually subject to open competition.[55]

14. NERC received a 3% cash reduction in its funding over the current spending review period, which has put its funding streams under pressure,[56] but it us told that it had "invested significantly in ocean research".[57] In response to the reduction in resources, NERC and its research centres have made some changes to how marine science is supported. These changes were "trying to rebalance" science funding to "move more science into openly competed funding modes" in the hope that this would bring the science community together "to tackle very large earth system questions."[58] This has resulted in funding being moved away from national capability programmes to competitively-run research programmes, which has implications for NERC-funded research centres such as the National Oceanography Centre and British Antarctic Survey. For the National Oceanography Centre, Professor Hill, Director, explained that "the emphasis has been to try to protect a number of key activities".[59] This has led to some areas of work being stopped or slowed down, with 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".[60] Similarly, at the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Alan Rodger, Director, told us that areas of research "that are fundamentally important for planet Earth" had been prioritised.[61] This included "areas of geology, terrestrial biology and some degree of quaternary and middle atmosphere science", which were chosen via internal prioritisation and with the input of the NERC Science and Innovation Strategy Board.[62]

15. We heard a number of concerns about job losses at NERC research centres as a result of these funding reductions, changes to funding streams and internal reprioritisation exercises. In the most recent redundancy exercise, the National Oceanography Centre lost 32 staff.[63] The British Antarctic Survey expected to lose 18 staff.[64] There were particular concerns about how these job losses had been determined at the National Oceanography Centre. Staff reductions were based on a set of metrics which included the rate at which staff published papers or won competitive funding, with the result that longer term strategic work was perceived to be of less value.[65] This was described as "a move away from investing in strategic marine science"[66] with staff having to "to start thinking more like university scientists".[67] Professor Hill disputed that NERC was responsible for these staff losses and told us that it "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".[68]

16. NERC's decision to rebalance research programme and national capability funding appeared to be causing a particular issue for the British Antarctic Survey. At present, NERC has "no new significant directed science programmes on the horizon where the British Antarctic Survey can be big players", though there has been a recent programme on Antarctic ice sheet instability. [69] In addition, "the cost of running large infrastructure is inflating at a rate far beyond normal inflation".[70] This raises questions about NERC's national capability funding more broadly, as it is supposed to cover all facilities as well as long-term science. This is because:

    As the cost of maintaining expensive facilities, that is ships, Antarctic bases and aircraft increases—for instance, we were suddenly hit with a massive bill for marine gas oil—it erodes the funding for the long-term science. [...] It is really important that some of the research programmes—and in fact, the responsive mode research mechanism as well—understand and know that national capability is there as a bedrock for what they want to do. As for the actual balance, we would be in real trouble if we eroded national capability any further before we sorted out how that gets divided.[71]

We intend to pursue our interest in NERC support for marine science in future. We understand the difficulties that NERC faces in prioritising its resources at a time of limited funding. However, we are concerned about the potential for current reprioritisation measures to undermine the UK's long-term capability in marine and polar science. Marine and polar science should not suffer from structural changes to funding mechanisms. These sciences are particularly dependent on the maintenance of extensive or large scale facilities, sometimes operating over long periods of time. NERC should therefore ensure there is adequate provision for research centres that depend on its national capability resources within its funding portfolio.

14   UK marine science strategy p5  Back

15   UK marine science strategy p5 Back

16   Q 314 [Richard Benyon] Back

17   UK marine science strategy p5 Back

18   Ev 97 para 2.1, Ev w23 para 1, Ev w32 para 3, Ev w43 para 3 Back

19   Q 314 [Richard Benyon] Back

20   Ev 123 Back

21   Ev w41 para 3 Back

22   Ev 133 para 9 Back

23   Ev 103, para 11, Ev 127 para 7, Ev 133 para 10 Back

24   Q 204 [Professor de Mora] Back

25   Q 208 [Professor de Mora], Ev w36 para 6 Back

26, MS 15 para 3 Back

27   Q 315 [Richard Benyon] Back

28  Back

29 p2 Back

30  Back

31  Back

32   Ev 74 para 17 Back

33  Back

34   Q 159 [Professor Hill] Back

35   Q 50 [all], Ev w29 para 12 Back

36   Ev 127 para 3 Back

37   Q 59 [Phil Durrant] Back

38   Q 60 [Phil Durrant] Back

39   Q 159 [Professor Hill] Back

40   Q 318 [Richard Benyon] Back

41   Q 318 [Richard Benyon] Back

42   Q 159 [Professor Rodger] Back

43   Ev 136 para 32 Back

44   Q 50 [Phil Durrant] Back

45   Q 207 [Dr Frost] Back

46   Ev 103 para 11, Ev 127 para 7, Ev 133 para 10 Back

47   Q 70 [Phil Durrant] Back

48   Professor Hill is Director of the National Oceanography Centre. He gave evidence in this capacity and as a representative of NERC. Back

49   Q 161 [Professor Hill], Science and Technology Committee, Proposed merger of British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre, para 20 Back

50   Q 315 [Richard Benyon] Back

51   Ev 75 para 26 Back

52  Back

53 p 1 Back

54  Back

55   Q 177 [Professor Hill] Back

56   Q 153 [Professor Hill] Back

57   Science and Technology Committee, Proposed merger of British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre, para 33 Back

58   Q 153 [Professor Hill] Back

59   Q 154 [Professor Hill] Back

60   Q 153 [Professor Hill]  Back

61   Q 153 [Professor Rodger] Back

62   Q 154 [Professor Rodger] Back

63   Q 170 [Professor Hill], out of approximately 540 staff  Back

64   Q 181 [Professor Rodger] , out of approximately 400 staff  Back

65   Q 123 [Professor Sharples] Back

66   Q 123 [Professor Sharples] Back

67   Q 123 [Professor Sharples] Back

68   Q 178 [Professor Hill] Back

69   Q 191 [Professor Rodger] Back

70   Q 186 [Professor Rodger] Back

71   Q 229 [Professor de Mora] Back

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Prepared 11 April 2013