Research intelligence: An ocean of opportunity

Nerc aims to bolster British marine science by creating a National Oceanography Centre. Rose Wilkinson writes

February 25, 2010

Marine science can be split into two distinct fields: what happens on the surface - on coasts and in estuaries - and what happens in the depths of the world's oceans.

But plans announced this month aim to pull together these strands to make British research in the area more coherent and co-ordinated.

The Natural Environment Research Council is to merge work in two existing marine centres to create the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

One is the Nerc Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL) in Liverpool, where research focuses on the coastal level and considers issues such as wind-wave dynamics, estuary and coastal ecosystems and the movement of water-borne sediment.

The other is Nerc-managed activity in the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), which provides a UK-wide focus for oceanography and manages Britain's national research vessel fleet.

The decision is a continuation of efforts begun several years ago to tackle the fragmentation of marine science in the UK.

These include Nerc's Oceans 2025 partnership, which brought together institutions such as the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science to keep on top of developments in marine science, including climate change research.

Andrew Willmott, director of the POL, said Oceans 2025 had successfully encouraged researchers to work collaboratively.

"But the funding is coming to an end now, and there is a danger that if nothing is done, UK marine science will fragment again," he said. "That's where the NOC comes in."

The plans follow the publication earlier this month of the UK Marine Science Strategy by the Government's Marine Science Co-ordination Committee. The document outlines three focal areas for marine science: climate change, marine ecosystems and how humanity can sustainably increase the ocean's benefits.

The strategy also identifies the marine science centres considered pivotal to the national research effort. These include the POL and the NOCS.

Professor Willmott said: "My lab in Liverpool focuses on sea-level research and Southampton manages deep-sea studies, so the two complement each other nicely."

A single voice

Nerc hopes that integration will strengthen national capability in the field and improve its prospects after the economic downturn and inevitable cuts in state funding.

Professor Willmott said: "It is better to have a single voice speaking loudly for a proper level of funding, because who knows what may happen? We need an effective voice at the moment."

The merger promises to streamline the UK's approach to marine science, but those working at the centres involved have been assured that it will not cause too much upheaval.

Staff at the NOCS, until now employees of the University of Southampton, will work directly for Nerc, with the exception of workers at Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Sciences, who will remain employed by the university.

Under the new structure, the universities of Southampton and Liverpool will be "hosting partners", and "delivery partners", comprising other research institutes and key university groups, will be designated to work on specific projects.

Professor Willmott said that about 60 per cent of the combined centre's funding would come from Nerc, but its researchers would continue to apply for independent funding from sources such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

He said the merger was "not a cash-saving strategy", but added that the centre's total running costs should not be any greater than the previous set-up's.

He assured researchers that any transitional costs would be met in full: "We're going to do it properly - there's no question of scrimping."

At a time of widespread cuts in the academy, it will be cheering for researchers in the field to hear that there is talk not of redundancies as a result of the merger, but rather the creation of new posts.

"There is a commercial enterprises group being formed that will need staffing, and we may also second staff from other universities on fixed-term contracts to work on projects with us," Professor Willmott said.

He added: "The UK in some ways is the leader in marine science research already, but this move will help to advance that position."

Phil Willis MP, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, welcomed the merger.

"We hope it will realise our vision for marine research that is more co-ordinated, better resourced and has a higher profile," he said.

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