Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Is UK marine research on a slippery slope?

Last week I was part of an international team invited by the Dutch institute Deltares to conduct an audit of part of their science and technology. Deltares is a huge institution with some 900 staff working alongside the public sector facilitating applied science and knowledge transfer. It incorporated the former Delft Hydraulics with its mind blowing array of hydraulic test facilities, up to almost football pitch scale and a new flume that will be 5m wide and ten deep. It was good to see an emphasis on social science and policy advice; almost 90 people working in this sector alone. The Netherlands, like many other European countries, are seeing public sectors squeezed very hard and the economic relevance of funded science is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Not every country has the same attitude to science however. Germany has taken seriously what was once coined as the ‘Obama factor’ – a push for increased investment in science and technology as a motor for economic growth in the medium to long term. Maybe they are doing it even better than the Obama administration which has its own battles with the sometimes uncooperative Congress. Recently, the replacement was announced of the huge German polar research vessel ‘Polarstern’ – an investment of some €250 millions, dwarfing the UK’s recent controversial investment in the new RRS Discovery (we could have bought a fleet of three of them for the cost of the Polarstern!). The question on the table therefore is ‘are we seeing the decline of the UK’s marine research’?

Let’s have a look at some of the evidence: We are accustomed to measuring research in terms of published output. A few years ago, I was invited to chair a panel evaluating the effectiveness of a Swedish research council’s investment in marine science and some Swedish colleagues conducted a fascinating bibliometric study of ten years of publications from 1999-2008. The study looked at key marine science publications, some 38,000 publications from a database of over 10 million. Of these, 23% were from the USA, followed by 8.2% from the UK, 7% Canada, 5.8% Australia, 4.2% France, 4.1% Germany, then Spain, Japan and Italy. So far so good for the UK; we could be seen as punching hugely above our weight. But maybe that is because we have long insisted as measuring science by what is published in key journals rather than how the science is used in our strategic interest, economy and society. Germany does not simply invest in polar science to produce good publications but to increase the knowledge base in a way that can lead to new technologies and knowledge, access to markets, etc … and also for the societal good. And many of these investments are long term. I have witnessed huge investments in sophisticated studies of gas hydrates for example – giving Germany a head start in the field. And is it coincidence that Germany’s rather small slice of the North Sea was full of wind farms long before anybody else had developed them on such a large scale?

I am not trying to argue against high quality publication; quite the contrary, it is a survival game for us all. But the load groan from scientists when they were told that a small measure of impact would be considered in the next Research Evaluation Framework reveals the need for a culture shift that extends all the way to the core of UK science funding and the academic community. We need to look beyond our shores to see how other countries have benefitted from their investment in science, valued it and are – sometimes – prepared to plough more money back into it. Perhaps we can develop a new societal compact with benefits on all sides, an overall expansion of UK marine science and continued production of the key papers.


Laurence Mee, 5 March, 2012

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