Wednesday, 14 November 2012

On turbulent times

Turbulence appears rather often in the press these days. Most people would associate it with stock markets or the BBC but right now I’m sitting in an Air Canada flight heading over the Atlantic towards Ottawa. The crew have just scuttled their trollies away and strapped themselves in as we bounce up and down crossing the Atlantic shelf near the Porcupine Bank and buffeted by the famed Jet Stream. I’m waiting for a lull and the “ping” that releases the air crew and stops my empty food tray from bouts of levitation but it’s quite a rough ride.

Unlike the food (“Would you like chicken sir?” – “Oh, is there a choice?” – “No, it's chicken or nuffen”), I like the maps that appear on the little screen before my eyes because they include oceanographic features as well as the usual coastlines and random settlements. That’s why I know I’m over the Porcupine Bank and I can spot the neatly labelled Wyville Thomson Ridge and the Faroes-Iceland Ridge, the Maury Sea Channel, the Biscay Plain and the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone. Down below, 150 years ago, the ‘highly strung’ Edinburgh professor, Charles Wyville Thomson had taken the first abyssal samples of marine life from the HMS Porcupine. That’s why the Bank got such a strange name (but doesn’t explain the prickly name for the ship!). He later went on to persuade the Government to fund the follow-up Challenger Expedition, the biggest milestone in 19th century marine science, but following its huge success, suffered total mental exhaustion and died a broken man.

Wyville Thomson knew a lot about ‘turbulence’, though the word hadn’t been coined in the way it is used today. Apart from the physicality of a heaving deck, he knew about the difficulty of getting projects funded in times of great financial change. The apocryphal image of studious high-collared and bearded academics in teak paneled laboratories betrays the realities of the cut and thrust struggle for funding that they were facing and the backstabbing rivalry conveyed in neatly penned but occasionally venomous letters.

Have things changed much? Perhaps it is far easier now to dash off a nasty (and often regretted) email rather than brooding over pen and ink… But scientists continue to face a struggle to gain funding. Have you ever seen the track taken by the Challenger? It would be easy to imagine the crisscrossings of the oceans as a product of sails in trade winds but that was not the case. There were two other factors at stake: commercial interests and geopolitics. The expedition was at the beginning of the 19th century communication revolution where cables were being laid to connect outposts of the empire and major business partners … and this needed information about the sea floor in key places. And there were other political interests to pursue in the Southern Ocean. It seems ironic that today’s marine scientists are asked to prove the economic impact of their research if their funding is to continue; the same thing happened to Wyville Thomson. Today’s research leader has to be every bit as canny as his or her counterpart of 150 years ago.

And so I have to turn to the events of the past few weeks. Rarely has the politics of oceanography and polar science found so much space in the press and parliament as the debate over the proposed merger of BAS and NOC was tossed to and fro. Science, good management and economics became intermingled with nostalgic patriotism of the kind normally reserved for the last night of the proms (which I still enjoy watching by the way). The big difference of course is that this debate was not just about fanfares and pith helmets but touched on people’s careers, long-term aspirations and loyalties. It is easy to miss the big picture though; the British economy is in dire straits, fuel prices are skyrocketing and the UK science budget is declining at the current rate of inflation (which thankfully is still relatively low but gradually bleeds away the real budget of publicly funded institutes). With the political prerogative of maintaining UK Antarctic bases and the obligation to demonstrate short term economic impact, long term observations are under close scrutiny, there is little spare change for blue skies research and even less headroom space required for the innovation needed to keep our science on the cutting edge. Something had to be done but there was no simple and obvious solution. On the one hand, there was economic logic in streamlining fleets and services and breaking down sclerotic silos but on the other there was huge value in maintaining prestigious brands (particularly BAS), team spirit and keeping management structures close to the coalface. This was never going to be an easy debate and not everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the plan for merger was shelved.

The big question remains though; how will the underlying problem be tackled? Without a profound and long term solution, this story will simply rumble on and the ‘can’ will be kicked down the political street, or worse, into the long grass. For the naïve triumphalist, this could be a pyrrhic victory. Part of the answer has to be in the way we value our science and join up the dots between discovery and societal benefit. We haven’t been very good at doing that or even framing the questions that will allow us to make meaningful valuations. Take the much talked about BAS discovery of the ozone hole nearly three decades ago. There is little doubt that this, followed by the Montreal Protocol, saved human lives. For Britain, this could be conceived as a remarkable piece of altruism of immense value … but not for the treasury of course. On the other hand, it triggered the rapid development of non-ozone depleting CFC substitutes by the British chemical industry, so there was a major financial reward as well. And nobody was expecting an ozone hole. 

It would be interesting to do an economic assessment of the Challenger Expedition; perhaps we owe one to Wyville Thomson. His successor and SAMS’ founder John Murray was much more entrepreneurial; ‘assertive’ would be an understatement. When the Government refused his request for funding for the Challenger reports, he browbeat them into submission by threatening to fund publication himself … and keep the profit. I don’t think we would get away with that today!

Meantime, this side of the Atlantic the turbulence has subsided. Just before the Grand Banks, we flew over the Gloria Ridge. Therein rests another tale. Gloria was the pioneer long range sonar device developed by the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, the predecessor of NOC. It was a pig to deploy but made a huge contribution to mapping the seafloor. I wonder what unforeseen economic benefits that investment has triggered...

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