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CSA poses big questions for marine scientists and policymakers

Marine scientists and the government have some thinking to do about whether the UK is on the right track when it comes to marine monitoring research, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said.

Ian Boyd was giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee at a session for its inquiry into marine science on 16 January. He said the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee, which comprises devolved administrations and government departments and research councils involved in marine science, has to examine whether the “very long and excellent data sets” marine scientists are collecting in ocean temperature and pH are needed for the future.

“Do we need new parameters to be measured and where will we get the resources for that?” Boyd said. “There are some actually quite difficult strategic decisions to be made. The MSCC is an appropriate forum to make those decisions.”

He also said that he would like to “challenge marine scientists” to ask whether the methodologies and technologies they are employing for marine data collection are appropriate.

Boyd took over from Bob Watson as Defra’s CSA in August 2012. He was formerly director of the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St Andrews.

John Beddington, the government’s CSA, is said to be examining whether the UK’s infrastructure is sufficient for long-term ocean monitoring, an activity for which there has been “a certain amount of fair criticism…in the past,” according to Boyd.

He added that the MSCC should be given more power to coordinate the functions of the bodies involved in marine research.

“My feeling is that a single body to carry out all those functions is an impractical way forward,” he said. “Many of the strengths we have in UK marine science are highly distributed.”

The committee also heard about the impact on marine science of departmental budget cuts. Stephen Mosley, Conservative MP for Chester, noted that written evidence submitted to the committee states that Defra’s marine science budget has fallen from £31.8 million to £30m in the last year.

“I can’t say that we have cut anything out,” said Boyd. “I think we’ve probably found those savings through efficiencies.” He added that the department has jointly funded products and had “a lot of success” with European funding applications, although he did not name any specifically.

Richard Benyon, parliamentary under-secretary for natural environment, water and rural affairs, who also gave evidence on 16 January, told the committee: “I’m hoping that we can prove that actually we’re achieving a lot with less. Whether I can say we’re achieving the same with less, I don’t know.”

But Boyd claimed that “even though the Defra budget may actually have declined we are actually probably doing more marine science now than we did before”.