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NERC priority shift may damage UK marine and polar capabilities, MPs warn

The Natural Environment Research Council could be undermining the UK’s capability in marine and polar science by shifting its priorities in the wake of funding cuts, MPs have warned.

Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee have said that marine and polar science must not suffer as a result of the structural changes to funding mechanisms imposed on NERC after it received a real terms funding cut in 2010.

The MPs found that NERC’s response to its 3 per cent cash reduction over the spending review period 2010-2015 has been to increase the proportion of the research it funds into openly competed funding modes. This, they say, has resulted in funding being shifted from non-competitive national capability programmes to competitive programmes.

In the committee’s marine science inquiry report, published on 11 April, the MPs argue that these sciences depend on large facilities operated and maintained 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,” the report says.

Andrew Miller, chairman of the committee and Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, said: “We recognise that NERC is currently operating with inadequate resources, but it should consider the impact that restructuring its research funding has had on its support for strategic marine science.”

The MPs singled out NERC’s approach to supporting the British Antarctic Survey, which was threatened last year with a proposal to merge it with the National Oceanographic Centre—a plan that was eventually dropped.

Giving evidence to the marine science inquiry, BAS interim director Alan Rodger said that NERC has “no new significant directed science programmes on the horizon where BAS can be big players”. In its report, the committee says: “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.”

A spokeswoman for NERC said that the council was formulating a response to the select committee’s report.

The committee also considers that there are shortcomings in both the government’s and NERC’s support for long-term monitoring of the oceans. The report quotes Matthew Frost, deputy director of policy and knowledge exchange at the Marine Biological Association, who told the committee that developing expertise in long-term monitoring is very difficult without a stable funding model. “We are concerned that such difficulties could be made worse by NERC’s increasing emphasis on competitively won funding modes,” says the report.

The MPs recommend that government chief scientific adviser Mark Walport should discuss this with the Marine Science Coordination Committee within his first six months in office. “We recommend that the [MSCC] produce an action plan to address this issue and answer the strategic questions posed by Ian Boyd [chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] about how we measure the right parameters in a technologically developed manner.”

The committee also welcomed the government’s Marine Science Strategy, published in April 2011, but said that work was needed to deliver it. The report calls for a 10-year implementation plan for the strategy.

On the designation of Marine Conservation Zones, the report claims that the government has “moved the goalposts” by requiring “robust evidence” rather than “the best available evidence” when deciding on the status of different areas. It calls for the government to set out a clear vision for the conservation zones in its response to the report.

The MPs also suggest that the Technology Strategy Board should get involved in developing autonomous underwater vehicle technologies and become involved in helping the MSCC to recruit more members from industry.

The committee agrees with the evidence given by Boyd that “we have to be a lot cleverer” about using existing data to improve our understanding of the marine environment. The report recommends that the government work on proposals to ensure that more data collected at sea are shared among academics and industry.