Outlook - good but changeable

February 19, 1999

In the last in a series of profiles of research councils, Julia Hinde reports that climate science must develop its spin-off potential

As the 20th century draws to a close there is a growing realisation among scientists, politicians and the public that the earth's climate is changing. What is needed, says Sir John Krebs, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, is a new kind of climate science to confront these changes in the next millennium.

"In the past, oceanographic and atmospheric systems have been used to predict the future," Sir John says. "We need to do more of that, but now governments have accepted that climate change is happening, to underpin this acceptance we need a new kind of research."

What he has in mind is a multidisciplinary research collaboration linking the climate science funded by his council with technologies that could be deployed to mitigate these changes and to study the social and economic consequences.

A climate research centre housed in a university or a research institute, bringing together scientists from NERC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council has been approved in principle by NERC as it redefines its research portfolio following the comprehensive spending review.

The CSR did not bring NERC the vast increases seen by the biological and medical research councils, but a 3 per cent increase in real terms by 2001-02 (11 per cent in cash) amounts to an additional Pounds 40 million over three years.

"I think NERC can be pleased with the money," says Sir John, who will step down as chief executive later this year to return to Oxford University as a Royal Society researcher. "It gives us significant money for new things. We won't be able to do all the things, and not as quickly, but we can do a lot."

Particular winners will be atmospheric terrestrial and freshwater sciences. Investment in the former, including research programmes soon to be launched into the coupling and interactions between atmospheric and oceanic climate models, is planned to increase by 30 per cent (from Pounds 6.4 million per year to Pounds 8.3 million in 2003-04), while terrestrial and freshwater sciences can expect about a 25 per cent increase (from Pounds 17.9 million to Pounds 22.3 million).

There is funding too for a small number of new five-year grants. In the first instance NERC has put aside about Pounds 2 million a year to fund these awards, first proposed last year in its strategic "Looking Forward" review. The project will start on a small scale and there are unlikely to be more than a handful of grants in the first year. Outline bids are now being submitted and there is hope the scheme can be expanded. On offer is support for both those at the beginnings of their academic careers and those who are more established. According to David Brown, director of science programmes at NERC, the latter awards will save established scientists from having to "jump through hoops every two or three years".

NERC's PhD students are also set to benefit following the CSR. Already minimum stipends have been increased in line with other research councils, by Pounds 1,000 to Pounds 6,500, and now the council is making provision to fund more of the laboratory costs of research students. "At the moment, if NERC students do fieldwork, they can get money to support their work," Sir John says. "Yet it is harder if they do lab work. We are addressing that."

The council is still pondering whether the level of the PhD stipend has been set correctly and is canvassing its community's opinion on subjects such as levels of support, the appropriateness of three-year PhDs and the effects of student debt. Sir John is "sympathetic to a higher stipend", saying that he had hoped in the run-up to the CSR to see a minimum increase nearer to Pounds 7,500, yet he believes the councils cannot move further without statistical justification and evidence of the need for further increases.

He adds that he thinks the councils should undertake a co-ordinated review. "If you look at the simplest measure, the number of people applying with firsts, that has not changed," Sir John says. "But if you talk to university departments, they say recruitment for PhDs is harder." Mr Brown adds that any further increase in stipends without additional funding would reduce the number of PhDs trained. "Evidence suggests that we have about the right number," he says.

At a time when the biosciences, and more importantly the potential post-genome revolution, are being flagged as the research areas of the future, NERC too has got in on the act, stressing the importance of research on genomics and the environment. According to Sir John, "genome science will have a big impact on understanding the environment". He points, for example, to using molecular information to look at the evolution of biodiversity. Understanding this, he says, will help us understand limits to biodiversity. A workshop is planned for May to stimulate debate in the community on what programmes are desirable in this new and fashionable area of research.

Knowledge transfer is the other fashionable area that NERC and the other research councils are having to address. A requirement from the Treasury at the time of the CSR for a 50 per cent increase in the number of spin-off companies created annually by 2001-02, and the emphasis on commercialisation of research in the competitiveness white paper, have left each of the councils looking carefully at their portfolios.

NERC, unlike the bioscience research councils, has only limited experience of spinning off companies from environmental science, and an increase of 50 per cent on very few may not seem such a tall order. But the council is being careful to stress that spin-off is just one way of transferring knowledge. It points also to licensing agreements and strategic alliances with industry. NERC's council has asked for examples of potential NERC work that could be spun off. "The question is, how is science going to prepare itself for the next CSR?" Sir John says. "We see that as an important objective in the next year and a half. Part of that will be to demonstrate that the generous CSR settlement has made a difference.

"Because science is a long-term project, to demonstrate this in two years is not going to be easy," he adds. But he remains confident the sector can show "very significant pushes forward".

However, as NERC looks towards the next CSR and how science can again win the battle for the public purse, there may be other more immediate worries. Still unresolved are long-running questions about the future of the UK's research flight. A reduction in funding by the Ministry of Defence for the Meteorological Office's specially equipped plane means NERC, which uses the plane, will be looking for a new platform for monitoring atmospheric chemistry. The NERC community is talking about the possibilities of looking to the new Joint Infrastructure Fund for support, but details are still unclear.

Also unresolved, and hanging over from before Sir John became chief executive, is the dispute over the building of the Southampton Oceanography Centre. The operation, which opened in 1995, two years behind schedule and about Pounds 15 million over budget, was described last year by the House of Commons' public accounts committee as "a mess", with NERC "parasitic" on the taxpayer and "out of its depth".

A year on, NERC remains in dispute with contractors and could face an expensive court hearing towards the end of this year. If NERC loses, the committee is unlikely to hold back in its choice of language. No wonder Sir John is keen to house a new climate centre in an existing university or research-centre building.

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