Marine Science - Science and Technology Committee Contents

4  Marine data collection

Current knowledge

36. One of the key issues that was raised in our discussions on Marine Conservation Zones was the lack of information currently available about the marine environment around the UK, both in coastal and offshore areas. The UK's marine area covers almost 3.5 times its terrestrial equivalent, but there is a shortage of reliable habitat data to facilitate policy development. Only between 10% and 20% of the UK continental shelf is said to have been mapped in detail by survey and observations.[137] This lack of understanding will only become more significant as the Government tries to develop marine plans, select Marine Conservation Zones, and implement the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, since these need to be underpinned with scientific evidence.[138] Such evidence requires significant data collection. We were interested to hear about work at the British Oceanographic Data Centre in Liverpool, which provides a national centre for storing and sharing marine data.[139] However, despite extensive commercial activity, systematic collection of such data appears to be confined to the public sector. In this chapter we consider two issues that were raised during our inquiry: the use of data collected in commercial operations and the difficulties establishing long-term monitoring programmes. We then turn to an important emerging possibility: the potential for autonomous vehicles to contribute to more extensive data collection in the future.

Commercial operations

37. Publicly-funded scientists are not the only group researching the marine environment—marine industries carry out considerable activity in UK waters which requires them to collect environmental data. Indeed, the Minister told us that industry collects "enormous" amounts of data around the UK.[140] In a relatively recent development, some of this, in the form of environmental statements, is made publically available by the Marine Management Organisation. We were pleased to hear James Cross, CEO of the Marine Management Organisation, report that industry had been happy to cooperate with it in this initiative.[141]

38. Despite these steps, many of our witnesses argued that industry could go further with regards to sharing its data. We heard that the development of policies to make more data publicly available would be "good for the future of governance of the UK marine environment".[142] This is because data collected when, for example, laying cables at sea or installing offshore wind turbines, could be "highly relevant to much more than just the developments themselves".[143] As Professor Hill, NERC, explained:

    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.[144]

39. However, representatives from marine industries were more cautious. Phil Durrant, North Sea Marine Cluster, urged "we have to be mindful of who is paying for that data collection" and highlighted the commercial sensitivity of some data sets.[145] The issue of sensitivity may be particularly important to developing industries.[146] As Professor Rayner, IMarEST, put it:

    If you look at the example of the oil and gas industry, that started with exactly the same view. Everything they collected they regarded as proprietary and were very reluctant to put into the public domain. That view has changed profoundly in the last decade, because there has been a recognition of the benefit of pooling it for all sorts of reasons, and a recognition that it is not core to the business of the oil and gas industry. The marine renewables sector is a little more difficult. The measurements they make of wind are very core to their competitive position and that is part of what drives their reluctance, but it is also an issue of maturity. I think that as that industry matures it will see the benefit of sharing.[147]

40. The Minister told us "there is an enormous amount of data that is not commercially sensitive, and we have got to be better about harvesting that for the greater good".[148] Indeed, Professor Boyd, Chief Scientific Adviser, stated:

    For example, there are many ships from the marine industry passing through our waters running multi-beam sonar systems. The data are very often not collected. It would be relatively straightforward to collect those data. In fact, if you look at Scotland's marine atlas, [...] on the front of it is a compendium of Scotland's seas that is produced from the fishing industry, because fishing boats are running with echo sounders almost all the time. Some of those data are recorded, and if you pull all that together you can get a very high-resolution map of the coastal waters. We have to be a lot cleverer about how we obtain and use data, and then verify that those data are correct. There is a major job to be done there in terms of data processing and management as much as anything else, and engaging with the stakeholders who are potentially collecting those data.[149]

James Cross told us that this was something the Marine Management Organisation intended to pursue,[150] but he was unsure whether he had the remit to enforce further measures.[151] We support the Marine Management Organisation in their efforts to encourage data sharing from industry. We agree with Professor Boyd's assessment that "we have to be a lot cleverer" about using the data that is out there already to improve our understanding of our marine environment. Whilst we recognise there is work underway to address this issue, we consider that this could go further. We recommend that the Government works with the Marine Management Organisation to bring forward proposals that would make sharing of more data collected at sea, particularly seabed and habitat maps, as well as wind data, a licensing condition on commercial activity in UK waters. We recognise that this may have to contain caveats relating to genuinely commercially sensitive information.

Long term monitoring

41. Our discussions about the effect of climate change on the marine environment highlighted the importance of data sets that can document environmental change over a long-term period. For example, Professor Rodger, British Antarctic Survey, told us "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".[152] To effectively monitor the effects of climate change on the oceans, "the core issue is sustainability in terms of regular data collection".[153] An example of such a project is the international Argo programme (see Box 4).[154] However, there appear to be a number of difficulties collecting and maintaining such data as well as concerns that long-term monitoring programmes "are in danger of being ignored".[155] We consider here both NERC and Government support for long term monitoring programmes.
Box 4: The Argo Programme

Argo is an array of floating devices that provide observations from the oceans. The floats measure temperature, salt content and pressure between the ocean surface and 2000 metres depth. The array is made up of over 3500 floats with an average spacing of around three degrees in latitude and longitude (approximately 300km). This programme aims to provide data describing conditions in the upper ocean, which can be used to improve satellite monitoring of the oceans, measure the effects of climate change on the ocean over seasons or decades, and improve ocean-atmosphere coupling or forecast models. The UK currently provides approximately 4-5% of the array.

Floats are deployed from a ship. After deployment they remain at the surface for six hours to collect 'house-keeping' data before sinking to a 'drifting' depth of 1000 metres. They remain at 1000 metres depth for nine days before descending to 2000 metres. Thereafter the float ascends back to the surface, recording temperature, salinity and pressure as it does so. The information collected is transmitted to a satellite, which determines its position. This cycle is repeated approximately every ten days.

The UK's contribution to Argo is funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Ministry of Defence and NERC. It is carried out by the Met Office, National Oceanography Centre, British Oceanographic Data Centre and UK Hydrographic Office. All the information collected by Argo is freely available in real-time.

Argo is a significant source of data for improving our understanding of the effect of climate change on the oceans. Despite its importance, we heard that funding for the programme from the UK is "rather piecemeal",1 "not a sustained guaranteed input"2 and "below the proportion that you would expect in relation to UK GDP."3 A lack of sustained support caused problems retaining the skills to maintain such data sets. Difficulties securing sustained funding arose partly from a lack of coordination, as "it is not clear where that responsibility should lie. It lies across more than one Department, and there is a tendency for it to be passed from pillar to post."4 It seems clear "there is an issue with sustained observations".5

1 Q 102 [Professor Rayner]

2 Q 102 [Professor Rayner]

3 Q 102 [Professor Rayner]

4 Q 103 [Professor Rayner]

5 Q 122 [Professor Sharples]

42. NERC provides funding for long-term monitoring programmes through its national capability funding stream.[156] Professor Hill, NERC, insisted that "long-term observing is crucial to what we do",[157] yet he also told us that NERC is "thinning out the frequency of observing in some of our programmes".[158] In contrast, we heard from others that NERC "is not really in the business of long-term operational measurements", unless they are a by-product of other interesting science.[159] In particular, the changeable nature of NERC funding programmes was reported to be problematic as "programmes tend to get funded for two, three maybe five years at a time, so you keep hitting these cliff edges".[160] As a result, developing expertise in the field "is very difficult to do if you cannot constantly look ahead and plan, if you are constantly wondering what funding model is going to be used now and whether they going to scrap this whole programme".[161] We are concerned that such difficulties could be made worse by NERC's increasing emphasis on competitively won funding modes.

43. The Minister recognised that "clearly there should be a fully coordinated programme of marine monitoring".[162] The Marine Science Coordination Committee has made efforts to address the issue of long-term monitoring through its working group on the subject. For example, the UK Integrated Marine Observing Network was described to us as an "embryonic capability to coordinate" long-term data streams.[163] However, a former member of this working group told us that it "had incredibly ambitious targets that could not be met with the resources" available.[164] So despite "good intentions", the problems associated with funding long-term monitoring proved "just too insurmountable".[165] Governments, and agencies such as NERC, appear to struggle to make long-term commitments to these programmes, treating them as research projects rather than viewing such data as "fundamental core infrastructure". [166] We were pleased to hear that Professor Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, is "looking at the national infrastructure required in order to sustain long-term monitoring of things like ocean pH, ocean temperature and ocean salinity."[167] Professor Boyd, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, summarised the issue as follows:

    We have to get the balance of the investments right on this. With respect to marine, the costs of doing this are very large indeed. We also have legacy issues to deal with, which involve some very long and excellent datasets. We have to make decisions about whether those long and excellent datasets are the sorts of things we need in the future. Do we need new parameters to be measured and where do we get the resources for that? There are some quite difficult strategic decisions to be made. I think the MSCC is an appropriate forum in which to make those decisions.[168]

He suggested the MSCC should "challenge our marine scientists with the question, Are we measuring the right parameters in the right way and are we doing that in a technologically developed and modern manner?"[169] We welcome Sir John Beddington's work on the issue of long-term monitoring programmes, which are of particular importance to understanding long-term environmental change in the marine environment. We encourage Sir Mark Walport to continue to be involved in these efforts. We consider that there are shortcomings in both the Government's and NERC's support for long-term monitoring and we are concerned that the UK's capability in this field appears to be being cut back. The Marine Science Coordination Committee should meet with Sir Mark Walport within his first six months in office as Government Chief Scientific Adviser to discuss long-term monitoring. We recommend that the Committee produce an action plan to address this issue and answer the strategic questions posed by Professor Boyd about how we measure the right parameters in a technologically developed manner.

Autonomous underwater vehicles

44. We were interested to hear about the developing technologies that were enabling data collection at sea, particularly autonomous underwater vehicles. These are robotic vehicles carrying a range of sensors, which can be controlled remotely as they travel underwater. Fifty four such vehicles are currently in operation around Antarctica and are "a fantastic way to begin to resolve some of the simple things, like understanding seasonal variations".[170] NERC has been "investing quite heavily" in these technologies "in the hope that this could make observing systems cheaper or more efficient".[171]

45. Professor Boyd, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, suggested that "in the UK, we have a lot of the components to turn robotics into a marine success story for us".[172] He suggested that working with the Technology Strategy Board, which advises Government on removing barriers to innovation,[173] could help achieve this success.[174] Despite this investment, and the technologies that are being developed at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, we were concerned by suggestions that the UK was currently "weakly positioned" and at risk of losing its position in the global market for these vehicles.[175] This is partly a result of the difficulty establishing "effective conduits" between the research community driving innovation and industry commercialising that innovation.[176]

46. We agree with Professor Boyd that priority should be given to harnessing the potential of autonomous underwater vehicle technologies. We were particularly interested in this issue in light of our recent work on the commercialisation of research. This area of innovation should be a focus of attention within the Technology Strategy Board. It could also be used to provide a forum for the Marine Science Coordination Committee to begin to improve its engagement with industry. We recommend that the Marine Science Coordination Committee engages with the Technology Strategy Board on the issue of developing autonomous underwater vehicles.

137 and Q 149 [Dr Williamson] Back

138   Q 86 [Phil Durrant] Back

139  Back

140   Q 316 [Richard Benyon] Back

141   Q 301 [James Cross] Back

142   Q 7 [Dr Solandt] Back

143   Q 7 [Alec Taylor] Back

144   Q 167 [Professor Hill] Back

145   Q 77 [Phil Durrant] Back

146   Q 78 [Phil Durrant] Back

147   Q 77 [Professor Rayner] Back

148   Q 316 [Richard Benyon] Back

149   Q 341 [Professor Boyd] Back

150   Q 301 [James Cross] Back

151   Q 306 [James Cross] Back

152   Q 196 [Professor Rodger] Back

153   Q 96 [Professor Rayner], Q 122 [Professor Sharples]  Back

154   See, for example, Q 102 [Professor Rayner], Q 103 [Professor Rayner], Q 122 [all] and Ev 105 Back

155   Ev 106 para 6 Back

156   Q 166 [Professor Hill] Back

157   Q 173 [Professor Hill] Back

158   Q 154 [Professor Hill] Back

159   Q 122 [Dr Williamson] Back

160   Q 115 [Professor Sharples] Back

161   Q 226 [Dr Frost] Back

162   Q 314 [Richard Benyon] Back

163   Q 92 [Professor Rayner]  Back

164   Q 207 [Dr Frost] Back

165   Q 239 [Dr Frost] Back

166   Q 98 [Professor Rayner] Back

167   Q 346 [Professor Boyd] Back

168   Q 346 [Professor Boyd] Back

169   Q 347 [Professor Boyd] Back

170   Q 201 [Professor Rodger] Back

171   Q 166 [Professor Hill] Back

172   Q 352 [Professor Boyd] Back

173 Back

174   Q 352 [Professor Boyd] Back

175   Q 55 [Professor Rayner] Back

176   Q 53 [Professor Rayner] Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 11 April 2013