At sea without a chart

August 25, 2000

It's high time the UK developed a national policy on marine issues, says Jacqueline McGlade

The oceans and seas are of economic and social importance to the United Kingdom: they provide natural resources, determine our climate and geography and generate a wide variety of commercial activities. But in contrast to the United States, Japan and many of our European neighbours, the UK does not have a national oceans policy into which all of this fits. Does this matter? The simple answer is yes. Without one, future efforts to maintain our international presence will become fragmented, leading in turn to a loss of academic and commercial opportunities.

A few facts and figures help to underline what is at stake. Global marine markets have been estimated by the UK Marine Foresight Panel at about Pounds 800 billion, of which the UK's share is just over Pounds 40 billion - that is, 3-4 per cent of gross domestic product. In some markets, such as marine services, oil and gas exploration and unmanned underwater vehicles, the UK's share is more than 20 per cent.

A range of organisations is involved in marine science and technology in the UK, giving rise to a large number of programmes, regulations, strategies and initiatives. Representatives of the relevant government departments and agencies meet under the auspices of the Inter Agency Committee on Marine Sciences and Technology, which maintains an overview of marine activities across government.

However, significant support for marine science and technology in the UK comes from a variety of other bodies, including local authorities, charities, professional associations and, increasingly, the private sector.

Simply maintaining an overview of the public sector is not enough. Future responses to a number of important issues facing the UK - such as managed realignment of our coast, provision of integrated transport, improvements to storm surge and coastal flood warnings, protection of human health and conservation of natural habitats and resources - all require clear integrated policy guidance built around a strong interdisciplinary research and development base. From an academic perspective, these issues map directly onto some of the most exciting areas of research.

So why would a national policy help? Take as an example the US. At its National Ocean Conference in 1998, attended by both the president and vice-president, depleted fisheries and polluted coastal waters were sufficient signals for the US to re-examine its marine policy and renew its commitment to marine research, education and the balanced use and conservation of limited resources. The results, just announced, are to be a new era of ocean exploration involving underwater observatories, deep-sea expeditions, a panel to establish the needs for future ocean exploration and a commitment to transmit the excitement of ocean science and technology throughout schools and universities. Japan and many countries in Europe have similar commitments.

Here in the UK, we also have overexploited fisheries and polluted coasts. But rather than expanding on our multidisciplinary capability, we have seen the privatisation of key areas of ocean science within the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, the disbandment of the Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS), and the subsequent shift in public funding away from these strategic areas of national significance. The absence of a national policy means that the consequences of these individual actions are unlikely to be properly recognised until the necessary research and development is called upon.

Another area where the lack of a national policy shows up is in education and graduate training. In the UK, higher education institution turnover relating to the marine sector is 1-1.7 per cent of the annual spend on higher education institutions, totalling Pounds 70 million. This supports nearly 600 staff in some 20 institutions, and produces 500 graduates, 100 MScs and 40 PhDs a year. But despite this, there is a growing skills shortage, especially for physical and chemical oceanographers and ocean engineers. In addition, Europe's academic institutions have about three times the overall number of marine science and technology students of the UK. The net result is that the marine sector is largely recruiting its staff from abroad.

In counterbalance, the new UK Marine Information Council and other industry-led initiatives show that the commercial sector has a genuine interest in working with government to formulate national policy and support research and development. In my previous post as director of the CCMS, I found this a high level of interest, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises that need to work with first-class researchers.

So what should be done? Clearly a solid partnership between the public and private sectors is at the core of convincing government of the need for a national policy. But just as in the biotechnology industry, we need to identify outstanding researchers and provide them with entrepreneurial support to help them exploit innovative areas of research. We also need to find our own icons to match such ocean explorers as Bob Ballard, Nansen, Ekman, Picard and the Cousteaus in order to raise the national profile of ocean science and technology and encourage young people to become more involved.

Jacqueline McGlade is professor of environmental informatics at University College London, member of the UK Marine Foresight Panel and executive committee member of Save British Science. She presents The Ocean Planet, a four-part series on BBC Radio 4.

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