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Volume 124: debated on Friday 18 December 1987

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1.31 pm

I appreciate the opportunity offered by the debate to draw the attention of the House and particularly of my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for civil science policy and the research councils to the excellent and frequently pioneering work undertaken at the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon laboratory in my constituency, where, for almost half a century, a group of distinguished, committed scientists have studied the oceans.

The oceans cover seven tenths of the earth's surface. They modify our climate, offer numerous tapped and untapped resources and regulate the cycling of natural and man-made materials. Britain is a maritime nation. As it is an island, the oceans surrounding our country have played a major part in our history. We have depended on the seas for trade, defence, fishing and, more recently, offshore oil and gas. We have also used the seas for recreation and frequently as a way of disposing of industrial and domestic wastes.

The Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon laboratory, which I have the privilege of representing, is among the foremost laboratories specialising in the study of the seas and deep oceans. This year, the European Year of the Environment, the institute was renamed the Deacon laboratory after Dr. George Deacon, the first director of the National Institute of Oceanography. He remained director for 22 years, during which time the institute became a world leader in the subject. The institute's work is based on the fundamental studies of the physics, biology and geology of the marine environment. Many scientific discoveries, technological developments and advances in instrumentation have been initiated there.

The ISDL is part of the marine sciences directorate of the Natural Environment Research Council. The NERC receives a grant in aid from the science budget. Funds are allocated from the science budget to the research councils on the advice of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. Internal funding allocations within the research council are a matter for the council itself.

In recent years, there have been fundamental changes in NERC, with the organisation being streamlined and reorganised in line with Government policy. They have introduced many long overdue reforms. There has been more selectivity in research areas, increased emphasis on commercially viable projects and greater co-operation between industry and science. All these are important to the maintenance of a healthy scientific community.

Earlier this year, the distinguished Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Lord Sherfield, visited the institute. In its first report, his Committee called on the Government to promote science as a means of achieving economic recovery. The Government responded to the report in July this year in a paper entitled "Civil Research and Development". Although it is made clear in the document that the Government do not intend to fund applied research, which is the responsibility of industry, there is a clear recognition by the Government of the need for public funding of more basic research for the generation of highly trained manpower, to underpin industry's needs and to provide social benefits in health and the environment.

The report states:
"Advances in science and technology and the early exploitation of those advances are essential to national success."
It continues:
"Public expenditure on science and technology serves various objectives: the advancement of knowledge, support for policy formalation and implementation, improvement of technology, improvement of health and the environment, support for procurement decisions and support for statutory duties. Government support for basic science and enabling technology, particularly in the universities, is intended to lead to the development of knowledge and the acquisition of skills; these have a major impact on the United Kingdom's economy and position in world markets. The Government agrees that it should be a major national priority to focus the effort of the scientific community and industry on increasing the economic effectiveness of our national investment in science and technology. The challenge is to target scientific and technological resources without constraining individual creativity and to co-ordinate related parallel R and D programmes without divorcing them from the individual objectives they are meant to serve."
Government action is already seeing clear signs of success. We have witnessed an increased awareness of the marketable aspects for research within the scientific community. The universities and polytechnics have made dramatic progress in working closely with industry. In my area, the university of Surrey works closely with local industry generating more than any other university from private sources, having recently opened its own research park. Within the NERC, duplication and waste have been reduced, resulting in greater economic efficiency.

Many would argue, however, that now is the time for a reappraisal of the financial assistance for basic research in the natural sciences. Only this week in the New Scientist there is a leader headed "Bring back real science". The editorial argues:
"It is impossible for every researcher to work on subjects that offer short-term economic benefits. Someone has to do the research that will one day turn into technology. This country's poor record of innovation does not mean that Britain should shut up shop on science. If anything, industry deserves the chop. After all, it is industry that has failed to build on past successes in science. Why clobber research done for its own sake?"
Although there is clearly an important part for the private sector, it is important to re-evaluate the part of Government in funding basic research in the natural sciences.

I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to consider some of the major developments that have been pioneered by the institute. Over the past 20 years, a major achievement has been the development of the Gloria deep ocean survey device. In 1986, the institute was awarded the Queen's award for technological achievement for the development, construction and operation of this long-range, side-scan sonar system. Gloria was developed at the IOS to meet the needs of research scientists, but it proved to have considerable commercial potential. It is a unique facility to provide sound pictures of the ocean floor extremely quickly and relatively cheaply. It maps the sea floor geologically to find areas of potential commercial exploitation. It is currently under contract in the United States to scan the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

It took Gloria 102 days to map the 200-mile EEZ off the Pacific coast. More than 200 new isolated mountains were discovered, including five volcanoes bigger than Mount St. Helens. A canyon hundreds of miles long was found that carries sediment west from Monterey bay. Vast ripples in the sediment off Oregon and Alaska showed for the first time how currents from land combine to change the sea bed.

The economic implications of this remarkable development are numerous. Apart from identifying resources in the sea bed, the survey, by highlighting mountainous areas, can give guidance for cable-laying companies. An underwater cable costs $1 million to mend. In the Pacific, fishing is a major source of revenue. By locating isolated sea mounts, it is possible to make predictors for the fishing industry. With a growing number of exclusive economic zones being declared, many states, especially small islands in the Pacific, will have increased the area of their national sovereignty 100-fold or more. Even large states such as the Untied States and Indonesia have doubled their area. By acquiring such vast new territories, coastal states are inevitably concerned to see what resources lie there and how they can be exploited. For many, such resources offer a vital means of boosting their national economy, ensuring supplies of strategic minerals or improving their fisheries.

The success of the United States survey with the Gloria technique led to inquiries from many other countries about surveys of their EEZs using the same technique. The institute established an agreement with Marconi Underwater Systems Limited by which it transfers the technology. Early next year, the British oceanographic vessel Charles Darwin, which is owned and operated by the NERC, will carry out Gloria surveys in Indonesian waters for one month. Other engineering initiatives include Tobi, the towed sonar vehicle, PUPPI, the pop-up pori pressure instrument, DOBS, the digital ocean bottom seismograph, and Fido, the deep ocean particle sampler and counter. The institute is splendid not only at developing these new initiatives—it also finds splendid names for them.

There are vast economic returns to be gained from exploring and exploiting the world's sub-sea resources. In January 1986, the Department of Trade and Industry launched a resources from the sea programe. It has been estimated that vast potential markets worth more than £160 billion are available to United Kingdom firms which explore and exploit the world's sub-sea resources. It is important that British industry seizes the enormous commercial opportunities available from developing advanced marine systems and equipment for exploration and exploitation of the oceans.

If the United Kingdom could capture between 5 and 10 per cent. of the world market, it would be a significant wealth and job-creating sector, possibly up to the present size of the British motor vehicle and component industry.

Another area where previously fundamental work has shown a strong commercial application is wave research. Wave data collected during the past 25 years have been invaluable for the construction of offshore structures. Engineers who design oil platforms must be sure that their creations will survive the worst waves. Forecasts for 50 years in advance are needed and estimates have to be extremely reliable. An under-estimation of the highest wave results in damage—whereas an over-estimation of merely 1 m can add more than £1 million to the cost of the platform. As with Gloria, research which was initially regarded as non-commercial has proved extremely beneficial and productive in the private sector.

Among other important projects for the future are those on climatology, which could have a powerful influence on the spread of famine in Third-world countries, the study of pollutants and the implications of dumping waste at sea and the effects on the oceans of burning fossil fuels. All those subjects have long-term social and environmental effects on civilisation as we know it.

These have been difficult times for the institute, as available financial resources have been constrained and staff numbers are falling. The cruise programme, for example, had to be seriously constrained. As the NERC has faced reduced funding, resources have been transferred to the universities and polytechnics. The NERC and the marine science and technology directorate have made every effort to restructure their organisations.

Establishments have been encouraged to seek compensatory income from commissioned work. Financial constraints have been faced by the IOS as a result of a major decline in income from commissioned research. Rising scientific costs associated with the growing sophistication of science mean that the budget is unable to pay for what it used to buy. We must also consider the implications of the new pay structure negotiated by the unions with the Treasury, which has resulted in significant and, for them, welcome pay increases for scientific grades, which are well above the current level of inflation. My hon. Friend the Minister will be well aware of the distinction between level funding and level value, as he drew attention to it clearly in 1985 in a debate on Government policy for science.

There is concern at the institute that long-term planning is deeply influenced by its inevitable dependence on Government and NERC grants. Increasingly it tends to be limited to essential research for commercial projects. Recruitment constraints have caused difficulty in the pursuit of some commercial contracts and the number of overall projects being turned down because of financial problems is on the increase.

The institute has made every effort to restructure and to streamline the facility as much as possible. However, I have had representations from constituents who are deeply worried about the future. The eminent director of the institute, Sir Anthony Laughton, recently said:
"Our ability to pursue long-term goals has been deeply compromised. It is hard to see how the achievements of the past can be repeated. All of which creates tremendous difficulties in motivating and retaining our highly skilled scientists."
My hon. Friend will appreciate that, as I am in regular contact with many constituents who work at this distinguished institute, I wish to take this opportunity to pass on their anxieties.

Another particular matter which has frequently been raised with me is the concern that oceanography will be too easily linked with astronomy and nuclear physics. In a recent letter, a group of constituents who work at the institute stated:
"Nuclear physics and astronomy are both regarded as areas of 'big' science whose level of funding is at least three times that of oceanography and furthermore neither of them has as great a commercial and practical impact on the nation's economic well being as oceanography. The implication of the report seems to be that government spending should be cut in each of these three areas; we at IOSDL view this possibility with grave disquiet."
I can do no more than take this opportunity to highlight the excellence of the work undertaken at the institute and my pride at representing this dedicated and talented group of individuals. I want to pass on to my hon. Friend the real commitment that has been shown by all the members of the staff to reorganise and streamline and to work with the private sector. Inevitably, at a time of turbulence and change there are effects on morale. There is an anxiety that the force of recent strictures on science will lead to too short-term a view of science funding. I am passing on the view of my constituents that long-term science must be given the priority that it needs.

Finally, I can do no better than quote my hon. Friend's conclusion in his debate two and a half years ago. Having rightly pointed out the concern about the balance of our national investment in defence rather than in civil science, he said:
"I urge the Government to think again about their policy for science. The central theme of much of their thinking, quite rightly, is to seek to improve the translation of scientific ideas into profitable business. I do not seek to criticise this emphasis, but I do not believe that it makes resources irrelevant—whether the total quantum of resources or the pattern of its distribution."—[Official Report, 14 June 1985; Vol. 80, c. 1170.]

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Robert Jackson)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) on raising this important subject. She made an excellent speech and gave such a good survey of the subject that I scarcely need to speak.

Oceanography is vital for any nation with a coastline, particularly for Britain with its long history of maritine activity. The debate is timely because this week two important events should ensure that British oceanography and the wider topic of marine science has a strong and vibrant future. On Monday 14 December the Natural Environment Research Council published its new strategy for marine sciences, and earlier today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the terms of reference and the membership of the co-ordinating committee for marine science and technology which is to be chaired by Sir John Mason.

The National Environment Research Council document, "The Challenge — NERC Strategy for Marine Science" shows clearly how Britain is benefiting from the results of marine research and development in past years. It emphasises Britain's dependence on knowledge about the sea for her defence and her economic and social well-being. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West drew attention to a number of those developments. She mentioned Gloria, the splendidly named long-range sonar device for mapping the ocean floor, which can map an area the size of Wales in a single day. As my hon. Friend said, it has obtained an important contract from the United States to map the United States exclusive economic zone.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of wave and current research for North sea oil platforms. It has been estimated that such research has saved about £1 billion in the development of North sea oil, whereas the cost of wave research has been only about £500,000. That demonstrates the tremendous leverage that such research can produce.

My hon. Friend did not mention flood prediction and its importance in the construction of the Thames barrier, so vital for the protection of people in London. There has also been progress in understanding climate and the way in which the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, thus helping to balance the so-called greenhouse effect. Britain has also played a key role in analysing the cycle through which nature moves in terms of its influence on the climate, through the NERC ocean flux study led from the Plymouth marine laboratory. The Government are well aware of that progress and consider that Britain is well served by the marine research community, and look forward to its substantial contributions continuing.

The NERC strategy is designed to maintain British marine science and technology alongside the rest of the world leaders by undertaking a balanced programme of basic and strategic research. I give my hon. Friend that assurance. That research will be undertaken at universities and polytechnics and at the council's own laboratories, including the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon laboratory in my hon. Friend's constituency — she referred to the dedication and commitment of the staff there.

The core of the NERC research programme comprises five major projects, which address subjects that offer great promise of yielding substantial benefit in the late 1990s and in the early years of the next century. Those five projects are the North sea project, the biogeochemical ocean flux study, the fine resolution Antarctic model, the unmanned autonomous submersibles development and the world ocean circulation experiment. I look forward to seeing the acronyms that spring from those projects. A common theme of those five projects is the need to predict the movements of the oceans, as they affect such matters as wind, waves, tides — for ports — storm surges for protection against flooding, and mineral resources under the sea.

A major factor in selecting those five core projects is the continuing exponential growth in computing power, which increases by a factor of 10 every five years and offers a prospect of novel forms of ocean prediction by the end of the century, touching such things as water quality in coastal waters and large-scale currents and life in the sea, some of which control climatic change. The five projects on which the council decided to focus its strategy address problems that have to be solved before operational forecasting systems can be designed to achieve potential benefits. In future, NERC will devote a large fraction of its resources to the five core projects identified in its strategy.

In addition to the core projects, the NERC strategy includes a broad programme of additional strategic research to be carried out at the NERC laboratories. Those will be carried out as science budget funds, and commissioned work from various Government Departments, permit. To achieve its research strategy, NERC maintains a wide panoply of facilities including four major marine laboratories, two of which are devoted to oceanography — one is the institute in my hon. Friend's constituency. It maintains a fleet of research ships and a national pool of equipment for use at sea providing data, remote sensing and computing services.

My hon. Friend referred to resources, which are of central importance. I agreed with her analysis. She quoted back at me some words of mine in an earlier debate. It is plain that we must maintain a basic and strategic research capability. It is also plain that, to maintain our position, public funds must be invested in long-term, basic and strategic research. On the other hand, we must recognize that opportunities for high quality research have also grown since 1979. I have shown the way in which that has happened. They have been growing at a much greater rate than the funds that are available. The more science we have, the more science we can do, and the more it will cost.

However, there is a limit to what can be afforded and the research councils must consider their priorities within the totals made available. It is essential for high priority work to be funded at a satisfactory level. That is crucial. It cannot be achieved if we adopt a policy of simply spreading the available resources, whatever they may be, over too many projects. We must realise that Britain is not the only country that is undertaking research in this and other areas, so our plans must also take into account work that is being done elsewhere. In suitable cases, we must work for collaboration or co-ordination on an international basis as the best way to proceed. It seems to me that the NERC strategy for marine science, which it has adopted as an independent research council, is an excellent example of all those points. It is a consideration of priorities that take into account national needs and work that is being carried out elsewhere. The council should be congratulated on those most important recent initiatives.

So far, I have been talking about the work of the NERC, but the Science and Engineering Research Council—which has the equally unattractive acronym of SERC—is also involved in the technology of exploiting the oceans' resources. Some years ago it set up a marine science and technology directorate to focus its activities on this area. The directorate has now transferred to the private sector, although SERC still provides support for academic research grants. Other Government Departments have specific interests in research in that area, too, some commissioning work from NERC on the basis of their judgment of their needs. My hon. Friend referred to some of the implications of that for the Deacon institute. I noted what she said with sympathy. I take on board the points that she made about that commissioned research.

With that diversity of interests at stake in oceanography, it is important to have a national strategy to achieve the right balance between basic and applied research. My hon. Friend's speech addressed that theme. The key to that is the co-ordinating committee for marine science and technology, the membership of which was announced earlier today. It will report to the Government through the Secretary of State for Education and Science and will be supported by a secretariat within NERC.

That is only a part of the Government's overall strategy for scientific research and development. It includes obtaining and disseminating accurate information through the annual review of Government-funded R and D and, very importantly, the new co-ordinating arrangements announced by the Government in July this year, of which an important component is the establishment of the Advisory Committee for Science and Technology — another acronym, ACOST. In the past Britain's national research and development effort has perhaps been too much dispersed, a little too fragmented. Now at last machinery is in place which we hope can achieve better coherence and co-ordination.

Returning to oceanography, I am confident that Britain can continue to rely on the basic and strategic research community in that area to provide the necessary underpinning of the country's requirements right into the next decade. My hon. Friend deserves our appreciation for raising this important matter on the Floor of the House. I think we can join in wishing the research community well, especially her constituents at the Deacon laboratory.