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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 699 - i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Committee
Proposed merger of British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre
Wednesday 31 OCTOBER 2012
RIGHT HON DAVID WILLETTS MP
PROFESSOR ED HILL, EDMUND WALLIS and PROFESSOR DUNCAN WINGHAM
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 72
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 31 October 2012
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witness
Witness: Right Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, gave evidence.
Q1Chair: Minister, can I welcome you here to this morning’s session? Before we start, I need to put on record a declaration of interest, inasmuch as my daughter is employed on a NERC contract at the National Oceanography Centre. That is on the record.
Can I thank you for agreeing to speak to us at such short notice? You will understand that the timing was not entirely within our gift. Can you explain to us what you know about the NERC decision being brought forward?
Mr Willetts: Thank you very much, Chair. Perhaps I may begin by also saying I am clear that the British Antarctic Survey is a national and international asset. It delivers world-class environmental science in both polar regions and this country’s strategic presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic. It will not be closed down, because we have a very strong commitment to the dual mission.
When it comes to timing-again, I am grateful to you, Chair, for your flexibility in bringing forward this hearing-the decision is for NERC council, but we all had a concern that there was such a level of public concern, which in turn could potentially be affecting morale among staff at BAS, that, as the consultation deadline had passed, there was a strong case for trying to resolve the issue promptly. That is why the council brought forward its meeting. With this Committee’s flexibility in bringing forward its hearing, it will be possible for the council when it meets tomorrow to draw on points made during this Committee hearing today, which is a very useful contribution to the discussions it will have.
Q2Chair: Can I take it from that you agree with us that this matter, although quite rightly it is for the NERC council, is of such public import that it is legitimate for this Committee to examine the evidence?
Mr Willetts: It is absolutely legitimate for the Committee to do so. I am very aware of the Haldane principle. Ultimately, the organisation of operational matters within the UK is a matter for the council. I am sure that this Committee and its deliberations will be taken very seriously by the council. There is a Government interest as well, most crucially the dual mandate because of the particular sensitivities of the Antarctic and the fact that our presence there is a scientific one and we have made a commitment to maintain our footprint in the South Antarctic.
Q3Chair: We would go further and say there is a parliamentary interest, which is why we were concerned that we were not consulted about the change of dates.
Mr Willetts: On that, there were operational issues. People were just trying to move the decision forward so as to reduce the time of uncertainty, and, as I said, I am grateful to the Committee for moving your hearing forward.
Q4Chair: If there were changes of senior management structure, do you take the view that they ought to take place through a process of open competition?
Mr Willetts: There are Government guidelines. I am not actually familiar with the detail. Clearly, senior posts like the chief executive of NERC are publicly advertised with rules on procedure. At what point they become operational decisions within the organisation I am not totally clear, but clearly senior posts-chairman of the council and its chief executive-are major posts that are advertised in accordance with civil service rules.
Q5Graham Stringer: Thirty years ago, just after the Falklands war, I understand from visits to the British Antarctic Survey that its funding was under threat then. Margaret Thatcher put a stop to that for geopolitical reasons. Isn’t it the case that this decision can’t be taken just on scientific economic grounds and that the geopolitical considerations are one of the larger issues?
Mr Willetts: I would challenge your assumption that this is about cuts in funding. This Committee has rightly questioned me on the whole subject before. We have got a cash-protected, ring-fenced science budget. Within that there is the NERC budget and within that the BAS budget. The NERC is ultimately responsible for delivering an efficient organisation that maximises the amount of science it can get for that budget, but, yes, this is a very unusual case in that there is strategic significance in Britain maintaining its level of activity in the South Atlantic and the Antarctic.
That is a Government commitment. NERC knows that it is part of its remit that it should deliver this. Under the dual mandate model it is also responsible for delivering that presence. I have always made that clear and NERC absolutely understands that is the Government’s commitment. There was nothing in any of the proposals in the consultation document that would have affected that commitment. It was not in any way going to change activities down in the Antarctic area; it was about what the organisation should be between logistical support and other issues in Cambridge, Southampton and Liverpool.
Q6Graham Stringer: Baroness Warsi says that Ministers have been deeply involved in this decision. Does that include you?
Mr Willetts: This is where the Haldane principle comes in. Certainly, NERC has kept me informed of what it is doing. I have been very frank with the Committee. The Government have a strategic commitment to our presence in the Antarctic, which I am absolutely committed to sustaining. NERC understands that. There comes a point when operational matters about the organisation of management and support vessels within the UK have to be a responsibility of NERC. That is why it will be the council that will decide at its meeting tomorrow what to do in the light of the responses to its consultation.
Q7Graham Stringer: It is good to have you here because you probably understand the Haldane principle better than any other Minister. Are you content that this is just about administration and not interfering with the science in any way whatsoever?
Mr Willetts: There is a scientific judgment here. I report it to the Committee; I don’t claim any expertise on it. There were two arguments. There was a managerial argument about whether or not you could save money by merging some of the functions. The science argument is that, partly as a result of climate change, polar science and oceanographic science are converging and these hitherto distinct organisations, with slightly distinct groups of scientists, need to be brought together. I don’t claim any competence in assessing that, but that argument was put forward in the consultation document. Some scientists have endorsed it; others challenge it.
Q8Stephen Metcalfe: You have made it very clear that you value what is happening down in the South Atlantic; it has great scientific and strategic value. Bearing in mind that value, do you think the decision about the future should be made by NERC, or would it be best made somewhere else outside NERC?
Mr Willetts: I trust NERC and its council to make that decision. There are wider considerations-NERC is absolutely aware of them-of which the most important is maintaining our presence in the Antarctic and South Atlantic. When you get to operational decisions, they are a matter for NERC council, but it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. That was why there was a consultation exercise and that is why we have this Committee hearing, and I am sure it will take account of the views that have been expressed in the consultation.
Q9Stephen Metcalfe: But bearing in mind the strategic importance, if you don’t like the outcome of that decision, what mechanism do you have to make sure that our presence, given the geopolitical importance, is maintained?
Mr Willetts: On the strategic presence, we have made it absolutely clear to NERC that it has that obligation. NERC completely understands that. It did not intend that the consultation would throw that commitment into any doubt. I have been disappointed that some of the comment has assumed that there is a question mark about that commitment. That commitment stands. NERC understands it; the Government are committed to it. Everything they do in this area has to comply with that dual mandate, as it is called. I think it is probably the only and certainly the most vivid example of a kind of dual mandate within the entire science budget.
Q10Stephen Metcalfe: If you didn’t like the decision, what mechanism would you have in place to change it to protect the Government’s strategic aims?
Mr Willetts: The Government ultimately have the power to issue directions to a research council. That exists; that is a power. I haven’t had any occasion to use that power, and I do not envisage it will be necessary. NERC understands the strategic requirement that we have set them and is happy to work within that framework, but with all research councils that power exists.
Q11Stephen Metcalfe: So you would not want to see decisions like this moved anywhere else; you are quite happy with NERC continuing to make decisions.
Mr Willetts: I have been reflecting on lessons from this consultation exercise. It has brought home to me the extreme sensitivity of our presence in the Antarctic. I think that, wrongly, there was a fear that the consultation on this particular proposal meant there was a threat to our presence in the Antarctic. I have been assured throughout that there isn’t. Perhaps it would help the Committee if I referred to one of the things I have been looking at in the light of this consultation, and I would be very interested in the Committee’s views on this. I can’t pre-empt the next spending review, but I do consider there is an argument that NERC should have a discrete funding line for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics from within the ring-fenced science budget that would ensure a visible UK commitment to maintaining the Antarctic science and presence.
Q12Graham Stringer: Is that a commitment or an idea?
Mr Willetts: We have not yet done it. I will reflect on it further. The Committee may have ideas on it. The thought I share with the Committee, and I think it would help to deal with some of the misunderstandings that have arisen in the past few weeks and months, is that identifying specifically a line within the NERC budget, as provided by us within the science ring fence-a discrete funding line for the Antarctic infrastructure and logistics-might be a way of tackling some of these underlying concerns that come to the surface every time there is a debate about any possible changes to BAS.
Q13Pamela Nash: Minister, Baroness Warsi has made it very clear that the Government are committed to maintaining "their ships, aircraft and base in the Antarctic". Does that leave research and scientists exposed to potential cuts?
Mr Willetts: As to the way in which NERC operates-I don’t want to stray into things that are its responsibility-it has a responsibility for maintaining a presence. There is then a kind of internal competitive bidding process for science projects. My understanding-it will probably be better explained by the experts from NERC-is that then you want to conduct some particular science in the Antarctic. I have had the great privilege of being down to see the excellent science it does there. If you want to do a particular investigation of some aspect of Antarctic wildlife or a potential impact of climate change in the Antarctic, you are one of a range of people bidding for the science funding from within NERC to do your project. Your project has to be judged against other science projects. One of the reasons we have world-class science is that that is how it is done, and that is the way NERC does it.
Q14Pamela Nash: I understand that, but is that pool of money not going to shrink if there is a commitment to maintain the same funding at the moment for the infrastructure it has?
Mr Willetts: That is one of the challenges that NERC faces, which it knows. That is why within that ring-fenced science budget-I have discussed this with the Committee before-every pound saved by improved efficiency is an extra pound for science. To be fair to NERC, however the consultation exercise has gone, its original proposal was driven by a desire to look as if it could save on overhead cost so as to liberate more funding for science. That was the motivation behind the proposals on which it has been consulting.
Q15Pamela Nash: But potentially there could be reduced funding for research in Antarctica.
Mr Willetts: NERC has a given budget. Fact number one is that, if it can make savings on efficiencies, it liberates more money for science. Fact number two is that a whole range of science proposals comes to NERC, as to all research councils, and it awards funding to what it judges as scientists-it is not for me to judge-to be the best science project. If you want to do some science anywhere in the world, you have to stack up against alternative bids, but all that is done within the framework of the commitment to maintain our footprint levels of activity in the Antarctic.
Q16Pamela Nash: As far as I understand it, it is not entirely clear how much is going to be saved by efficiencies, so our job as a Committee is to look at where that money is coming from. If that footprint is to be maintained, is there a potential that the National Oceanography Centre is going to lose out as a result of this merger?
Mr Willetts: I think that is a question better handled by NERC. These are operational matters. As we know, there are these three centres in Liverpool, Cambridge and Southampton. The balance between them was one of the issues in the consultation document. I know that very strong feelings have been revealed in the consultation and NERC council will consider it. At that point it really is a decision for the council and I respect its role. I don’t think it would be right for me to go any further into its specific decisions about the balance between the functions in those different locations.
Q17Sarah Newton: You mentioned that you had the opportunity to go and visit one of the bases in the Antarctic. Would you share with the Committee some of your experiences there and how they have been useful to you in coming to the particular views that you have expressed to us this morning?
Mr Willetts: It was an extraordinary privilege. Especially as this year is the centenary of Scott, and, quite rightly, there has been a lot of interest in polar science, it was a good year to make the visit-I should emphasise with no extra flights laid on-using the air bridge and the schedule within it for flights. At Rothera I saw excellent science; I saw very strongly committed individuals-people who were passionate about what they did. For example, taking a sample of an ice core going back 800,000 years enables us to track changes in climate over hundreds of thousands of years. Using British scientific expertise, the aim is to find the deepest, lowest land on the Antarctic to try to find an ice core that could go back a million years. It is quite extraordinary science.
I was very impressed by the dedication of the people there. To be frank, I thought that the condition of some of the buildings I saw there clearly needed investment and refurbishment, and it is a challenge we face. It is a capital issue, not a science ring-fenced issue, but it is a challenge I am very aware of.
Q18Sarah Newton: Do you think from what you saw there that this proposed merger would improve things?
Mr Willetts: The proposed merger in the consultation document was not, as I understand it, intended to have any effect either way on the BAS presence down there. It was really whether the different oceanographic support vessel arrangements and the logistics supplied for oceanography and polar science could be combined. It is absolutely crucial, whatever the outcome of NERC’s decision, that there be no threat to that level of scientific activity in the Antarctic. Let me stress again that I have great admiration for the work those scientists do and for the work of BAS as a whole.
Q19Sarah Newton: You mentioned that you saw some of the infrastructure-the buildings-was a bit old and tired and needed refurbishment. That is the capital budget. You mentioned that that is somehow separate from the ring-fenced science budget. Could you elaborate a little on that?
Mr Willetts: The science budget is to maintain current activity. It brings together for the first time all the different budgets we have, both HEFC quality research funding and research council funding for current activity. Outside that, there is the need to maintain science capital. We inherited from the previous Government some big capital reductions and have tried in successive budgets to provide for new investment in science capital, and we have had some success in that. We have well over £500 billion of extra science capital. It is very complicated down in the Antarctic because the planning cycle is unusually long. You can only do building work in the Antarctic summer, and you need to plan it a long time in advance. There are some tricky technical issues. Some of the more recent buildings in Rothera are built to very high standards of insulation; some of the older ones, to be honest, probably don’t meet the insulation standards of a suburban semi in Croydon. Some of them just don’t meet modern standards. You would have to go there and see that. The Government cannot make any commitments at all on this because of the long time horizons involved, but I understand the need for some investment down there.
Q20Chair: The quote about suburban semis could come back and haunt you at the bielection shortly. Going back to two quite distinct but overlapping areas, we all agree-I suspect everyone in this room agrees-on the importance of maintaining the science in Antarctica, but on the geopolitical side even the name is a sensitive issue. I don’t know about you, but I was lobbied at my party conference by the Falkland Islands Council, who are very anxious about not sending the wrong messages about British withdrawal from the South Atlantic. Do you regard that as an important issue?
Mr Willetts: I do regard it as an important issue, and as part of my visit to the Antarctic in February I went via the Falklands and had an opportunity of discussing some of their interests in creating an environmental science centre there, which I strongly support. The BAS name is an historic one; it is associated with some excellent science discoveries-for example, the hole in the ozone layer. It does have significance.
A lesson we can all learn from this consultation is that, although NERC had no intention of affecting our presence in the South Atlantic and the Antarctic and, as I understand it, eroding the polar science done by BAS, because it is such a highly sensitive issue these concerns, however misplaced, have arisen again. It is one of the reasons I am interested in the idea of a distinct line within the NERC budget. We need to have some kind of rational discussion about operational issues in the UK that doesn’t get caught up with these issues that are incredibly emotionally significant in terms of our foreign policy about our commitment to the Antarctic, which is absolutely clear and is as robust today as it ever has been.
Q21Chair: Can I push you a little harder on the idea of a line within the budget? Our sister Committee DECC said that there is an argument about merging North Pole and ocean work. There is an obvious overlap. Equally, there is an overlap in the South Atlantic. There are overlaps with other research programmes also funded by NERC and other agencies. Isn’t the simple reality that there aren’t any clean boundaries one can draw here?
Mr Willetts: It is fascinating. Following the debate among the scientists-I respect their views-there are some people who say to me that Antarctic science is completely different from Arctic science. Indeed, one of the issues has been the extent to which BAS and its work in the Antarctic should or should not be seen as being in parallel with work done in the Arctic. These are deep waters, and at this point a science Minister has to stand back and the scientists have to advise.
Q22Chair: You mentioned the work on the hole in the ozone layer as an example. There are other locations scattered all around the planet, both onshore and at sea, working on atmospheric science.
Mr Willetts: You, Chair, have the advantage of being briefed by your daughter, but I will bow to your superior expertise on that point. I am sure you are right.
Q23Chair: Touché. Finally, when we develop this discussion further in terms of the relationships between the various providers of funding in the science programme, do you think that this is opening the discussion even further for a broader look at the relationships between the various funding agencies?
Mr Willetts: On that I am quite conservative. As you know, because the Select Committee has discussed this, when I arrived as the Minister at the last election I didn’t think it was a priority to reorganise things. My view was that the structure we inherited of the arrangements of the seven research councils and the TSB made a lot of sense. I wanted people to focus on the real issues, science activity being sustained, rather than what is often a displacement effort to reorganise things. In the course of the last two and a half years I have had every possible proposal, from the suggestion that there should be one single research council with everybody and everything merged together, to the other extreme where people want lots of mini-research councils with a narrow focus. I am comfortable with what we inherited and have no desire to distract people by a large reorganisation. There is a triennial review of the research councils under way and there may be particular proposals there, but I am not aware of any idea of reorganising them.
Chair: Minister, we are extremely grateful to you for coming at short notice. We know you have a busy diary. Thank you very much for attending.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Ed Hill, Interim Director of the British Antarctic Survey and Director of National Oceanography Centre, Edmund Wallis, Chairman of the NERC, and Professor Duncan Wingham, Chief Executive of the NERC, gave evidence.
Q24Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you for attending. For the record, could I invite you to introduce yourselves?
Professor Hill: I am Professor Ed Hill, interim director of the British Antarctic Survey and executive director of the National Oceanography Centre.
Edmund Wallis: I am Edmund Wallis, chairman of the NERC council.
Professor Wingham: I am Duncan Wingham, chief executive of NERC.
Q25Chair: For the record, I restate my declaration that you heard me make at the beginning of the earlier session. Of the three drivers for the merger, which is the key: scientific synergy, increased research impact or cost?
Professor Wingham: First of all, we welcome the opportunity you have given us to provide you with evidence before our council meeting. We appreciate that you will wish us to feed this back before the meeting tomorrow. We are grateful to you for providing us with this opportunity to speak to your Committee before the meeting tomorrow.
You have to appreciate that the situation we are in is one where there are two clear drivers. The first is the increasing understanding over the last decade or more of the way in which, partly due to climate change and partly because of the way the natural system works, we are facing very large-scale and complex processes in our climate system in both the north and south, which are grand challenges for our science. Since we wish to maintain our UK polar and marine science and the levels of excellence it has enjoyed for many years, it is appropriate for us to consider how we can best bring together our resources to attack problems of that size.
Equally, in the written material I gave to the Committee late last week you can see very clearly that, on the one hand, we are under cost pressure from the top and, over this CSR period, a reduction of the order of 11% in real terms. At the same time, the cost of this large-scale infrastructure is rising quite steeply. Our estimate is that by the end of the CSR-we have not altered it during the CSR programme-it will rise by 7% at the bottom. It is very clear that we need to think hard about how we bring to bear the marine and polar skills that we have in our centres and, more broadly, across our wide university community to try to make sure that we can keep our focus on these large-scale problems.
To come to your question directly, there is no question that, if we say all of these things are important-synergy, impact and, as David made clear, if we can find them, cost savings that we must make in these circumstances-synergy is undoubtedly the driving thing that caused us to think this way.
Q26Chair: That I understand, but I want to push you on the cost issues. The oceanographic centre has been through a redundancy exercise; pay and rations are already managed centrally through central services arrangements, as I understand it, through the joint research councils’ activities. What are the savings that could be accrued, and where would they come from in a merged organisation?
Professor Wingham: In principle, as to savings, if we merge an organisation we can make it flatter and provide one instead of two finance functions and one HR function instead of two. There are some opportunities for looking at the way in which our ships are organised and the extent to which those can be brought together. We estimate that through the merger we might be able to realise savings of the order of £500 k per year. That may not seem much to you, except I would observe that we have been seeking, wherever we can, savings of £500 k per year here and £300 k per year there. This is the situation that we are in.
Q27Chair: None of that saving would be accrued from cutting any further scientific effort at the coal face.
Professor Wingham: No. Indeed, there are reductions as you have referred to under the present spending review. We cannot "not" respond to the circumstances we are in, and those are happening now; they are not simply located in BAS. We are looking across all our centres. This is hardly something we welcome. We are in a situation where we have to compress all of our funding lines across the piste. We try to do this from the point of view of science excellence, sustaining our community and all of these considerations that are normal in a research council, but these are happening anyway as part of the settlement we have agreed with all our centres and in effect are a choice through our responsive mode lines; and these are unaffected by the merger considerations.
Q28Chair: You will appreciate, because a lot of it has been in the public domain, that a massive amount of information has been sent to us by people very closely associated particularly with the Antarctic research programmes, both current and former employees of the system in its broadest sense, ranging from the Foreign Office through to people who have directly managed research programmes. We have been told that the difficulty in closer scientific collaboration is more about the award of NERC grants and how they work than any institutional barriers between BAS and NOC. Would you comment on that?
Professor Wingham: I would have to find out the exact date this occurred, but certainly five years ago NERC changed the way in which it was handling some of the funding to its institutes and essentially put it into a common pot under what we now call research programmes. The purpose of working in that way was to ensure that we brought together the skills in all our centres and our HEIs in order to attack the big problems as we saw them and to bring together the best skill in the country. I think everyone agrees in the round that this has been very effective and has achieved that ambition.
I would point to two very topical examples. One of the largest of these is our Arctic programme. This has been enormously successful in bringing together all kinds of expertise from all over our universities and centres. Only yesterday I visited CEH and had explained to me how techniques with radio carbon that CEH had been using for many years to understand Scottish peat are now going to be employed in the Arctic to understand how the entire Arctic tundra is warming and what methane releases will occur. That programme is already building widespread terrestrial Arctic skill and expertise which previously-I know this because I chaired the NERC polar strategy some years ago-was not regarded as one of the strongest parts of our polar portfolio.
Again, the programme in West Antarctica-the so-called iSTAR programme-is bringing together our BAS logistics and science and the marvellous efforts of our universities too in order to understand one of the great big problems, which is how the ocean is starting to cause the West Antarctic ice sheet to accelerate its slide into the ocean.
When you move your funding in that direction it is necessary for the centres involved to respond to that challenge. The change in funding was not done as a step function; it was done over a period of time in a gradual ramp to allow the centres to adjust to the new situation, build up new skills and train their staff in this more competitive world.
If one looks across the piste, our centres have done marvellously well in responding to this challenge. CEH, which I suspect you will know went through considerable change some years ago, at least in my personal view is now one of the jewels in the NERC crown. It is a truly excellent organisation, which has responded enormously well to these changes. It is fair to say that BAS has not found itself able to respond in quite such an agile way to this change in our funding. None the less, council’s view is firm-speaking personally, I agree with it-that it has been such a successful way of funding in order to bring our expertise together that we wouldn’t want to change that. It has been very successful.
Q29Chair: Going back to the volumes of information sent to us as a result of the proposed change, with hindsight, having seen some of the information-as I said, it has been largely in the public domain-did you really seek the right kind of detail before moving towards a decision?
Professor Wingham: We considered that we needed to restabilise the situation for the CSR. We have made very clear that the Antarctic infrastructure and our polar programmes are being sustained for this CSR, so the whole context of what we are doing is about looking at the way the costs of this infrastructure are rising and our budgets are going, looking to the future, and saying, "How can we best organise ourselves in the future?"
NERC council took the decision in this CSR period to sustain almost in real terms our large-scale infrastructure, and I think that was the correct decision. The weighting of judgment was not quite the same, and I have laid that out in our evidence to the Committee. Large-scale infrastructure is a long-term investment for science, and it would be inappropriate for us to try to change that radically over a single CSR period, so responding in the way we did allows everybody to understand the case and adjust accordingly.
We then looked at how we can best organise ourselves to deal with these big challenges into the future. As David said, we consulted with BIS and the Minister and also with the FCO. We discussed in detail with both Departments of State the appropriateness of our proposals and whether or not they felt those were sensible things to do but, more importantly, whether they affected, as they saw it, these wider issues.
In retrospect, I have been surprised by the volume of commentary. A lot of it is related to the undoubted tension between looking at things purely through a frame of science excellence and the wider national interest, and a considerable amount of this is tied up in a way that is not quite the way we see it, because we see it in rather more clear terms.
Q30Stephen Metcalfe: Could you expand a little on what the purpose of the consultation process itself was? There is a perception, accurately or inaccurately, that it was how the merger should take place rather than the reasoning behind it.
Professor Wingham: If one embarks on a consultation, first of all, it is important to have a document. What are we consulting on? Asking the question whether one should do something isn’t very useful. What we wanted to be able to show to council was what the views were if we went in that direction; what the weaknesses and strengths of such a thing were; whether we were correct in thinking, "Here’s the scientific achievement"; and whether we had fully understood the risks. We wanted to consult. I think we put out a document that was at the right level. We are not consulting down in the detail; this is a strategic judgment and decision. We wanted to do this in a way that informed the decision-making process and wasn’t something that was simply after what was in effect a decision. In the round, this would be my answer to your question.
Q31Stephen Metcalfe: So how much weight will you give to the consultation responses when making your decision tomorrow?
Professor Wingham: We have brought together a summary document of the main points that come through from the consultation. It probably won’t surprise you that the major points aren’t that many. For example, one point that comes through very clearly is whether there are alternative methods to achieve the same aim. There is a group of concerns that relates much more to the wider national interest than to the narrower science, and so on. We have summarised those in what we consider to be a very fair way, and we have asked Robert Allison, the VC of Loughborough, to examine that process in some detail and comment upon it. That summary of the consultation has already been distributed to council members, as I am sure you would appreciate, together with the commentary we have received from Robert Allison. We will put that to council and say these are the main issues and ensure that that is fed into its deliberations tomorrow.
Q32Stephen Metcalfe: Did you give any consideration to the fact that this Committee was also interested in this issue, because you brought the decision forward? Did that play any part in your deliberations?
Chair: Putting it bluntly, we feel that you considered Government but not Parliament.
Professor Wingham: To answer your question quite frankly, no, we didn’t consider this inquiry in coming to that decision. We were focusing on what we felt was a need because of the widespread public concern and the effect that the press coverage, much of which is highly misleading, was having on our staff. That was the discussion we had with our council. Council felt that in the circumstances it was only practical and sensible to try to bring the matter to a close, given that we had had a consultation and we were in a position to condense it and report on it.
I apologise to you that perhaps we didn’t make enough effort to contact you and work out an arrangement. I think we would none the less have done this. Perhaps we missed the step in not speaking to you directly and seeing what might be a sensible way forward, but it was not at all our intention to imply that we don’t regard your Committee as important. We are very happy to be here and are glad that you gave us an opportunity to explain to you why we have taken the steps that we can. again, I apologise to you. It certainly wasn’t our intention or in any sense deliberate to usurp or perturb your inquiry. We just felt this was a sensible thing to do in the circumstances.
Edmund Wallis: It was a misstep, which we regret. We are pleased we are here; it wasn’t deliberate. It is hugely beneficial for us to be here before we see the council tomorrow. We apologise and we’ve learned.
Q33Sarah Newton: We have heard a lot today, quite rightly, about focusing in on the science, but some concerns have been raised by the Environmental Audit Committee, another Committee of Parliament. Within the consultation document there is a whole section that refers to de-risking decisions for investors and businesses. Their concern and mine is whether it is really the role of NERC to facilitate the commercial exploitation of polar environments.
Professor Hill: The consultation document sets out very clearly the understanding in relation to Antarctica in particular around the exploitation of both living and non-living resources. Living resources are highly regulated in terms of exploitation under the Antarctic Treaty, and the exploitation of minerals is prohibited under the treaty. That is very clear and it is stated in the consultation document; there is a very clear and absolute caveat specifically around Antarctica.
To step back to the more general issue, it is absolutely appropriate for a research council and research centres to engage in the timely translation of basic science into beneficial impact for society, whether that is for public policy advice, regulation, human quality of life or economic business benefit. NERC’s royal charter is absolutely clear on the subject that that is an appropriate thing for a research council to be engaged in.
In talking about these statements, the consultation document refers to extreme environments, which include the polar regions and the deep sea. All these regions are becoming increasingly impacted, either indirectly through climate change or increasingly directly by human activity. These pose enormous risks. These are environments that we are not familiar with generally. Many of them are quite fragile in terms of their ecosystems, so there are considerable risks in operating in these environments. There are risks to the environment, to those making investments in those areas, to reputations and of a wider geopolitical nature in all these areas. It is absolutely appropriate that the best science is available in order to inform all of those who are concerned either with being directly engaged in those activities or regulating them, both public policy and industry.
In the 21st century these regions will come under increasing pressure from human activity, and it is absolutely right that the best science available is there to inform the value judgments made by society, political and legal judgments, as well as the wider ethical issues. That is what it is about. I don’t think there is any conflict with NERC’s charter or remit. It is an entirely appropriate thing for science to be involved with.
Q34Sarah Newton: I think people will find the clarification immensely reassuring that it is around the subsequent commercialisation of the scientific endeavour rather than commercial business activities in those regions. I think we would all wholeheartedly agree on the fragility of the environment. Obviously, the Antarctic is protected by these very rigorous treaties, but the Arctic region isn’t to the same extent. Obviously, NERC’s Arctic office is ever-more important. Will the funding for that office be maintained as part of the changes, and where will this fit into the overall budget?
Professor Hill: That is a very specific point. The Arctic office is funded in the context of the Arctic programme more generally to be able to facilitate access to the Arctic and the engagement of the university community in Arctic affairs. There is scientific input, for example, that goes into the Arctic Council where the UK is an observer, so the Arctic office is a bit of a clearing house to facilitate that activity.
It is quite clear that the Arctic is of increasing importance both scientifically and for the reasons I explained. Indeed, some of these exploitation and risk issues are much more prevalent in the Arctic, which is not covered by the treaty at all. It is absolutely imperative that we are able to engage in this.
In terms of polar sciences, an observation is that the way in which Arctic science is delivered in the UK is quite different from the way it is delivered in the Antarctic. The British Antarctic Survey has been a clear point of focus for Antarctic science, the flow of advice into government and for participation in the treaty. The science community delivering Arctic research is largely university-based in the UK and in a number of research institutes. It is a dispersed and somewhat fragmented community that desperately needs focus to be brought to it.
One of the purposes of the Arctic office is to do that, but it is absolutely a journey that we need to pursue in bringing much more coherence into Arctic-related science in the UK. This was one of the other objectives stated around the proposal in the consultation document as a way of drawing out a much more coherent framework for the delivery of true polar science in both the Arctic and Antarctic, and trying to bring some of the strengths in the Antarctic into the Arctic.
Q35Sarah Newton: You are describing the problem really well and I think we would all agree with you, especially the importance of the Arctic and the need for a more coordinated approach, but you didn’t actually answer my question. If the proposals going forward were adopted, would the funding for the office continue?
Professor Wingham: The answer is that for this CSR we have confirmed all of these fundings. Clearly, a research council cannot presume on another CSR outcome, as indeed David, the Science Minister, said earlier, but for the purposes of this CSR we are sustaining all of these things in place and we are not attempting to change those fundings.
Professor Hill: With this answer, the purpose of what I was trying to say is that the functions we are trying to deliver here-greater coherence, coordination and access to infrastructure in the Antarctic and Arctic-is what we want to develop and maintain.
Q36Graham Stringer: Can I just follow up one of your answers to Andrew’s question about the reasons for the potential merger? You explained that there were scientific arguments about putting together the investigations of the Arctic and Antarctic. This Committee has had a long-term interest in the British Antarctic Survey. The last time I was there that point was put and scientists discussed it. None of us who are politicians are shrinking violets, but the argument was pretty intense and severe, so much so that it was calmed down. There is an opposite argument, isn’t there, that the science at the two poles is different? One is land-based and one is not. One can go on. How much scientific representation did you have against this merger?
Professor Wingham: First of all, bear in mind that this is a consultation; no decision has been taken. My own view, looking at the consultation, is that the science arguments against don’t come through strongly, but I would observe that one of the key tasks of a research council is to balance arguments for continuing in one domain, bringing together domains, understanding whether at any given point in time atmospheric science needs more funding because of a crucial issue, or whether this time we have to turn our attention to very dramatic developments in the understanding of the core of the earth, or whatever the balance happens to be.
As to the arguments that the Antarctic is terrestrial and the Arctic is an ocean, to some extent it depends on what you include in the Arctic. Many people would include the Greenland ice sheet and permafrost tundra, which means there is a great terrestrial part to the Arctic. The Antarctic is commonly used to describe not simply the continent but the great circumpolar current that goes around the continent. But what we really see now is the interaction with the cryosphere. For example, in the Arctic we see that the ice is melting away and the entire ocean circulation is spinning up faster as a consequence. In the south, we see glacial movements causing an offload of ice, but we know that these are being driven by spin-offs from the circumpolar current coming up underneath the sheet, melting it out and drawing it down.
There are very strong arguments that there is a great deal of common understanding to do with fluid dynamics, the way water and ice interact and the way that the atmosphere is bearing on both of these systems. Those are quite strong arguments. NERC council is a body that has on it some extremely respected and broad scientists. One has to accept that that is what the council is there for. It is to balance these arguments across the scientific piste and make judgments about the relative balance between them. This is where we are.
Q37Graham Stringer: I just want to make it clear that there were strong arguments. You have put the pro case quite clearly and explicitly, but you accept and you have listened to the arguments that don’t take that point.
Professor Wingham: Of course one has to balance the two.
Q38Graham Stringer: Professor Hill, you have got yourself into the most extraordinary position, haven’t you? You are the director of NOC; you are effectively the current director of the British Antarctic Survey. You have been running the consultation. I understand that you are going to draft a report. You were part of the discussions, and I assume you will present the report or be part of the discussions when they take place. If I was a bookie, you must be a firm favourite to take over the merged institution. Do you think it is helpful to have one person who was previously associated with one institution, however distinguished the role, being in such a crucial position?
Professor Hill: There are a number of elements to that, and I might take different parts of them. Yes, I am director of the National Oceanography Centre and I am in an interim role as director of the British Antarctic Survey. I am also a member of NERC’s executive board and a corporate director of NERC. I am responsible for taking broader views and responsibility, and on a number of occasions I have done broader work for NERC. The task fell to me as interim director. You can ask the chief executive why he appointed me, but I certainly have some experience in the managing of large, complex institutions, in particular those with large research infrastructure, which is a particular issue.
I have been able to draw together into the merger team that I am chairing representatives from the British Antarctic Survey in senior leadership roles around the main functions of the science, large research infrastructure and support services, and their opposite numbers from the National Oceanography Centre, along with key directors from NERC’s corporate headquarters.
If I was the sole player in this, there might be some cause for the concern that you raise, but there are checks and balances in the situation. For example, it will be the council that makes the decision. The council is informed by a whole range of evidence, and they are people of independent minds and will not be unduly influenced by me. In addition, the merger team has been subject to periodic scrutiny of its work by the chief executive and a member of council whose specific role was to challenge what we have done and ask us to look at various issues. That is what we have done.
So I believe that my role has been very much a facilitator to bring the most appropriate teams together, get people to work together to think how this proposal might work and develop some practical conclusions to advise and inform a decision. That decision will be made by council, which is an independent body, and I am providing one stream of advice.
Q39Graham Stringer: I wasn’t intending to impugn your scientific reputation in any sense at all, nor was I saying that you had a monopoly of the decisions, but you had got yourself into a unique position and a controversial situation. Can you tell me exactly what experience you have had previously of running large organisations?
Professor Hill: I run the National Oceanography Centre, which I have done since 2005, and then with the subsequent merger with the Proudman lab in Liverpool. That is an organisation of about 500 staff, with a budget of the order of £45 million to £50 million a year. It runs major research infrastructure with global class research vessels in the National Marine Equipment Pool. That is an organisation of similar scale in budget and staff as the British Antarctic Survey; they are very comparable.
Q40Graham Stringer: With that background, would you accept that the staff of BAS might not consider you to be impartial?
Professor Hill: There are perceptions from all quarters, no doubt. I believe that I have a reputation for being fair-minded and capable of making clear and balanced judgments, and there are numbers who would attest to other difficult situations I have been in when the issue might well have been seen to be one where there was an opportunity for a biased view but there was a very fair-and attested so-outcome. For example, I was responsible for leading the prioritisation of the whole of the marine science national capability funding budget for NERC between 2010 and 2011. That was a very wide process and it was fair.
Professor Wingham: I don’t think the suggestion that Ed got himself into a certain position would be fair. We needed to work with a situation where the previous management of BAS had, for whatever its reasons, decided to leave. We-I actually-had to make a decision as to what to do about that in the interim period. For me, it was entirely natural to turn to the person in our organisation who we, together with consultation with my chair and more widely, felt was best equipped through experience and track record to handle this situation until we resolved the outcome that we wished to see. We had complete confidence in Ed to do that. We are very happy with the way that has gone forward, so we just need to be clear about that.
Q41Graham Stringer: Are you happy with the high senior staff turnover at BAS?
Professor Wingham: I don’t see how in any circumstances one could be happy with senior staff turnover. It is the case that three have chosen to depart. It is clear that, if we go forward into the future, perhaps without a merger, we need leadership in there that responds to the modern challenges and the need for this organisation to work better with a wider cross-section of people, and to up its game in bringing itself into line with our other centres so that we are confident that all of our centres have a sustainable and positive future.
Q42Graham Stringer: Mr Wallis, how many directors of NERC institutes are appointed without external competition?
Edmund Wallis: All the jobs are advertised. In the ones I have sat in, the candidates come from a fairly wide background. One of the problems we are touching on here is that there are very few good scientists. We are talking about the production and development of high-quality science. That is what the council’s remit is about, so we need good scientists. Often in these positions we need good managers. There are few good scientists and few good managers, and there are even fewer good managers of science. Therefore, the field is not as wide as you would probably think, unlike in the general business sense. This is quite a specialist area. I can understand where you are coming from, but when this was put to me my view was-dare I say?-that, in my opinion, probably Ed was our best and most experienced director.
Q43Graham Stringer: So you appointed him without competition.
Edmund Wallis: Not to his job originally, but this is an interim one. You wouldn’t normally go out to competition for an interim director. It’s expensive and takes a lot of time, and it’s not going to last for very long. If you were a bigger company you would have an internal director dealing with the organisational development of the company. We don’t have that; we can’t afford that, so we have to do more of these ad hoc approaches to it, but it is the quality of the guy that attracts me and the council.
Q44Graham Stringer: It is a well understood argument that the quality of a person is usually best tested, particularly when there is a potential conflict of interest, in open competition. You would understand that.
Edmund Wallis: I do understand that, but I don’t think it is appropriate for an interim role, which is going to be under the very close scrutiny of me, the CEO, the council and, for that matter, everybody else. That is why you are asking the question, isn’t it?
Q45Graham Stringer: It is indeed. We had some questions earlier on about potential cost savings and senior staff turnover. Professor Hill, can you explain the basis of sending out the possible redundancy notices to BAS staff when you don’t know what the savings are going to be?
Professor Hill: Yes, and the straightforward answer to this is that we are dealing with two separate and unconnected issues. The programme of voluntary redundancies and a call for volunteers for redundancy, which went out on 24 October this year to staff in the British Antarctic Survey, is a completely separate matter from the question of merger or otherwise. It is about the funding levels in this Comprehensive Spending Review period, as the chief executive has already explained. This is a programme that is going on across all of NERC’s centres; it has been handled in different ways.
Q46Graham Stringer: This is on the basis of consistent cash and no increase for inflation.
Professor Hill: Yes, which still means a real-terms budget reduction. The National Oceanography Centre has just been through a series of staff losses. This is happening in other NERC centres and this is what is happening in the British Antarctic Survey, so it is completely separate from the discussions on the merger. If that was not happening this would still be taking place, so the merger discussion and decision is altogether different from that. This is simply playing out the budget reductions and reprioritisation of science that is going on as a result of spending reductions in this CSR period.
Q47Graham Stringer: So it is nothing to do with the merger; it is entirely to do with the cash limits on budget.
Professor Hill: Yes.
Q48Graham Stringer: You are able to put a very precise cash figure on that.
Professor Hill: Yes.
Q49Graham Stringer: Can you tell us what it is?
Professor Hill: I can elaborate on that now. What we are looking to save in the British Antarctic Survey by the end of this CSR period is a £3 million cash reduction. We have sought broadly to balance that-it is about half and half-between savings on the large research infrastructure and the science. The first question I was asked when I arrived at the British Antarctic Survey was whether I was going to cut all of the science because of the inflexibilities in the infrastructure-in other words, whether all of the £3 million would come from science. That is obviously a risk in an organisation like the British Antarctic Survey.
I am very pleased to say that I was able to work with the senior team of the British Antarctic Survey to share those funding reductions in this CSR period broadly evenly between research infrastructure and science. We have done that in research infrastructure in ways that involve a small number of post reductions-probably about five-and in a series of pragmatic, sensible measures, either for reducing costs or increasing revenue generation around research infrastructure in a way that has no material impact on the level of presence or activity in Antarctica. We have shared those proposals. Those are being implemented now.
That leaves about £1.5 million to be saved in the science area. We are going to make about £400,000 of savings through non-pay measures, leaving £1.1 million to be saved from staff cost reductions, which amount to something like 18 posts depending on the salary level of the people who actually leave.
Q50Graham Stringer: Do you have a figure for the savings from the merger?
Professor Hill: That was given earlier. The savings that would result from some of the direct issues-
Q51Graham Stringer: That is just a point about BAS.
Professor Hill: No. The issue around the merger is the total savings that you get from the new structure, so you would save around senior management levels and in a number of the back office functions: one HR function instead of two; one finance function instead of two. The savings across the board from replacing two existing structures with a merged one, which would seem sensible in a merged organisation, is about £500,000 a year in those kinds of functions. That is not to say going into a future CSR period that you would not have created opportunities to manage things differently where there would be potential scope, but that all depends on what happens in future CSRs.
Q52Graham Stringer: With all this extra work, what work have you had to put on one side from the NOC?
Professor Hill: First, I am blessed and very grateful for a very fine senior management team in the NOC whom I am able to delegate to and who take on a number of responsibilities. They have taken on a number of delegated activities. For example, I am not taking as close an interest as I would otherwise have done in a major activity that NERC has initiated around the evaluation of the quality of science in research centres. That has been much more highly delegated than if I had remained at the NOC full time. That is one example of an area where I am putting in less effort than otherwise.
Q53Stephen Mosley: Professor Hill, in your answer to Graham you mentioned the cost of the research infrastructure. When we went to the British Antarctic Survey last year, we heard that the biggest cost in terms of the capital programme was the new ships, and I imagine the operational costs of the ships would also be large. As far as it goes across the whole of NERC, I would have thought that, with the ships being such a big cost, you would have done some sort of review into how you can save costs. Have you done that?
Professor Hill: Yes. NERC has done three reviews around ships; in fact it has done more than that but I would be going into deep time. There was a review in 2000 around ship management. More recently, there was a review in 2009. Another review was started in 2011, but it had a rather specific focus. I would say its conclusions were rather overtaken by events, so that is not really concluded.
The perennial question that has arisen in some of those reviews is whether NERC should manage its ships together as one fleet. It does seem rather strange to the outsider, and indeed many insiders in NERC, that we have two research vessel operations of two ships, which is a small number for a fleet management operation, within the same organisation and very little read-across between them. The perennial question is why NERC doesn’t have a single fleet instead of two times two.
In 2000, the review highlighted that a number of benefits could be accrued by bringing them together, but it concluded at the time that there were a number of difficulties. The very important integration of the polar ships with the polar Antarctic infrastructure was one; there were a number of management changes going on in the blue water ship management at the time and it was all considered a bit too difficult, so the conclusion was not to do it.
In 2009, the issue was looked at again to see whether something might be done, although there was another flavour to that, in that the question whether the ship management ought to be outsourced to an outside contractor was an element of it. Again, this was quite a contentious issue. I think the operators of the blue water ships were quite open-minded about the idea of outsourcing ship provision.
In the British Antarctic Survey there were a number of constraints, not least some of the geopolitical ones we have been talking about, so the idea of merging the fleets as a precursor to outsourcing was not seen as a good idea, given the very different constraints that applied to each other. Nevertheless, that review did identify areas where perhaps there ought to be more synergies around the joint programming of the ships and trying to have more harmonisation on marine engineering, which then led to a subsequent review about whether we could harmonise engineering and so forth.
This is an issue that has come up repeatedly. I would characterise the conclusions of these generally as recognising that there seem to be benefits, which are somewhat hard to quantify, but there is also quite a strong element of putting it into the too-difficult-to-do box. I would also remark that neither of those reviews was conducted within the context of the present sets of real constraints that we now understand the research infrastructure is placing on the rest of the NERC budget, so it was perhaps what you might describe as a more relaxed environment and it was easier to put things in the too-difficult-to-do box.
Q54Stephen Mosley: Ultimately, those reviews were done but they came up with a conclusion that is not exactly what you are doing at the moment.
Professor Hill: Yes.
Edmund Wallis: I wasn’t involved, but I did insist that the last review was done. A lot of my experience is in the private sector. As Ed said, if a business basically has four ships but splits them into two, with one set of crew on one set of agreements and another on another, despite it being the same trade union, would we operate them in all time scales from procurement to decommissioning? Would we get the right balance of the ability to supply, do research and ice-breaking in four ships this way? The private sector CEO would come in one morning, maybe in a bad temper because his wife had upset him, get the two in together and say, "Put them together", and within three months it would have been done. I am not saying we should do that here. Probably we should but we won’t do it here. A different sort of approach in a different area would have produced a different result, but we are where we are.
Q55Chair: Can I push you a little further on this? When we visited the research councils we gently skirted around the issue of whether their structure was right and, given that they had merged pay and rations and other central service issues, why not the rest? We were given a very robust argument about why that should not be the case. Surely, there is a parallel here in terms of BAS and NOC. There must be ways of gaining efficiency savings from things like the ship management programme that aren’t predicated on merger. Isn’t that correct?
Professor Wingham: That is right. Among other things, I am the senior reporting officer on a team that is looking at how we may integrate and merge across the research councils to the extent that it is useful. There is a strong view across RCUK chief executives that each of these councils represents and understands the detail of its scientific community and we should not alter that. Clearly, though, there is an increasing understanding that councils already do work together, but they ought to be working together much more effectively in this domain.
Q56Chair: We would agree.
Professor Wingham: I can give you an exact example. Since I took over we have been moving teams of people together so that we work much more effectively with BBSRC, because, for example, in the whole domain of food security, bringing the two councils closely together and looking and acting on integrated research programmes is a very obvious win-win. There is more we can do together, and I think you will see us increasingly work in that way.
Q57Chair: In the private sector there are complex companies that cross lots of disciplines. I think of companies like Unilever as an example, which have wildly different product streams and research programmes but integrate beautifully together without merging, changing and losing historic names. That’s right.
Professor Wingham: It is fair to say.
Q58Stephen Mosley: Following on from that and just leaping ahead a bit, it might be worthwhile asking about the Marine Science Coordination Committee’s review of all seven research ships in total. Have NERC and BAS been involved in that process?
Professor Hill: Yes. NERC has been involved in the Marine Science Coordination Committee process. It was this Select Committee some years ago that recommended the creation of that committee. It also noted in its report investigating the oceans that there was an issue around lots of research ships in the UK community and maybe something ought to be done to bring this together, so this is a response.
A task team was set up by the Marine Science Coordinating Committee, chaired by Marine Scotland. It looked at seven vessels: the four NERC research ships-two blue water ships and two polar ships-and three ships that support fisheries and environmental survey from Cefas, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Marine Scotland and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute of Northern Ireland. NERC was represented on that committee by Mr Geraint West, head of National Marine Facilities Sea Systems based at the National Oceanography Centre. A draft outline report has been produced. It has not been finalised; it is still in draft form and won’t be published until the spring. The British Antarctic Survey had an opportunity to comment on it and provide input to it, but there was a single NERC representative.
I won’t prejudge its conclusions, but there are some obvious observations in it. One is that NERC’s research ships, which have a global and polar remit, have a rather different functionality from the three other vessels that are dealing with UK coastal waters and have a mission driven much more by statute as opposed to a science mission of the global research vessels. Consequently, the opportunities for integration and synergy between that functionality are a little more limited than one might have expected.
There are some thoughts there about how, nevertheless, one might move towards a more coordinated operation of the fleet and much more sharing of the programme, seeing if you can move science between one ship and another. That might help NERC with an issue raised by the report on investigating the oceans about whether the UK science community has enough access to coastal vessels, for example, where the vessels we are talking about there are coastal.
NERC has been very positively and actively engaged in that report, but those are the issues around it. I don’t think it poses any particular threat to NERC or the British Antarctic Survey vessels in particular. It presents opportunities, but, for the reasons I have already elaborated, I don’t think one will see any dramatic outcomes as a result of that report in terms of the way those ships are operated.
Q59Stephen Mosley: Can I go back to the specifics of what you are proposing? You are proposing basically to have the ships managed from Southampton. In order to ensure integration of the polar operations and so on, would it not be best to consider having more in Cambridge than in Southampton?
Professor Hill: The proposal is to bring all the research infrastructure, including bases, aircraft and ships, under a single unified management, with the focus on ship management of the four vessels being at Southampton, with the rest of the polar continental infrastructure being based in Cambridge, so there is a clear Cambridge/Southampton division of labour there.
It is also important to emphasise the difference between what I refer to as strategic and operational management. Let me explain what I mean. The issues around the ships are really about where the budget is held, how one plans fleet maintenance and how the fleet is deployed, for example. It is likely that in the next CSR, if we need to save more money, we might get into the area of thinking, as we already are, whether we should do more chartering of the vessels or maybe even lay them up for periods of time. Then there are questions as to which is the right ship to charter for which period and how you shunt science from this ship to that. Therefore, it makes sense to look at that in an integrated way. That is what I call strategic level management: the annual planning of the cycles, and so forth. That is the ship management function at Southampton.
Clearly, there is an operational issue around day-to-day operations. There are issues arising from the ships every day. In particular, for vessels working in polar waters there are complex operational issues. If a ship gets stuck in ice for a period, you have to change the plan and so forth. It affects the date of resupply of a base and so on. For that kind of operational day-to-day decision making you need a very close interaction between the polar ship and the rest of the polar infrastructure. For that reason, the proposal is very clear that you would need those kinds of operational people based in Cambridge working very closely on a day-to-day basis to ensure the safe and effective operation of the ships, but as for the strategic management of the fleet it seems appropriate that that function is focused at Southampton, where there is considerable expertise in fleet management.
Q60Stephen Mosley: You are talking about the safety and efficiency of operations. We have had a number of submissions suggesting that merging the fleet could cause problems in that respect. Have you done any assessment of changes to safety procedures?
Professor Hill: Yes, but there is an ultimate backstop to this that is very clear. The management of safety issues in NERC, as with any organisation, has very clear lines of accountability that go to the chief executive, who is ultimately responsible. The proposed structure that we have been thinking about as the basis for how the centre might work in this area in particular has absolutely unambiguous reporting lines in that respect.
Ship safety management, though, is a very serious business and is highly regulated. The International Safety Management Code under the International Maritime Organisation-IMO-is regulated in the UK by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and so forth, and it is subject to rigorous scrutiny and audit. It simply would not be possible to design a management structure for an integrated fleet without it first being scrutinised by the MCA for compliance with the ISM code, and we would be told in no uncertain terms if it was noncompliant. There is an absolutely clear backstop to the way in which both safety is managed and the governance arrangements for it. It would simply have to be compliant in those ways.
Q61Pamela Nash: It is clear to us that the British Antarctic Survey has not just a scientific research role but it is also of strategic and political importance in maintaining a UK presence in the South Atlantic. Was that taken into consideration when the decision to merge was taken?
Professor Wingham: The first observation I would make is that whether or not we did this merger would not alter that situation. It doesn’t bear on it particularly. The merged object would have the same responsibilities as the unmerged object. We have made very clear on more than one occasion that for this CSR we are committed to retaining this capability. The merger does not alter the need to attend to this wider national concern as well as the more focused scientific ones.
Q62Pamela Nash: Is that something you have discussed with the Foreign Office?
Professor Wingham: Yes. Since I took over we have been having regular meetings with BIS and FCO officials to discuss the general situation and the specifics. We have also been discussing with them this merger proposal.
Q63Pamela Nash: Is this going to be taken into consideration in the naming of the new centre?
Professor Wingham: Yes. We have already stated that we would not do anything to alter the use of the name British Antarctic Survey in and around Antarctica. We have stated that this is the case and agreed it with the FCO. We have no interest in perturbing the historical presence down there in size, naming convention or anything else.
Q64Pamela Nash: Just to be clear, the centre would operate under a different name in that area from the rest of the world.
Professor Wingham: It may or may not, but in all events the term British Antarctic Survey would be retained for all of the Antarctic infrastructure, the supply, the bases and all the logistics around that activity.
Q65Pamela Nash: To be clear, you said that you had regular meetings with officials in the Foreign Office. Have you had meetings with Ministers?
Professor Wingham: As David indicated, we have ongoing discussions with the Minister for Science. I have not myself discussed this with FCO Ministers. In terms of interaction, that is something that those officials then take up with their Ministers.
Q66Pamela Nash: Has anyone from NERC met with Foreign Office Ministers with regard to this decision?
Edmund Wallis: No, and in a sense I don’t feel it is necessary to do so. When Duncan took over, the change I made was one that said, "Duncan, I want you to be the interface with the Foreign Office from now on." He has done that. From all the feedback that I have had from these meetings, I believe the relationship is very good. I didn’t see any need to interfere with it. Of course I do see David Willetts quite frequently and we sensitively discuss things like that, so I gave him the same impression. Around Christmas/January I wondered whether I should try to see a Foreign Office Minister, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate or that I had good reason to; I didn’t think it was necessary, so the answer is no. Nor has anybody else seen a Foreign Office Minister. I am sure that if they had wanted to see us or me they would have done so.
Q67Pamela Nash: Do you think that, on an issue with such political significance on our presence in the South Atlantic, a research council is qualified to make that decision without input from Foreign Office Ministers?
Edmund Wallis: It depends on what decision we are making. Let Duncan talk about that.
Professor Wingham: First of all, let’s be clear that we are a research council and our parent Department is BIS. We then report in a formal way to our Science Minister. It is inappropriate for someone in our position to be approaching Ministers from other Departments. Indeed, that can lead to considerable difficulties. So the appropriate thing is that we work with our Ministers; we work with Foreign Office officials, and in a sense it is then for our Minister and those officials reporting to their Ministers to decide what is the appropriate interaction between the wider Government Departments.
As I said before, there is a tension between this wider national interest and other scientific matters in NERC. This is not an unusual tension. There are tensions between atmospheric science and the science of the core and between terrestrial ecology in Britain and studying earthquakes in the Pacific ocean. There are all sorts of tensions, but this is of a particular and peculiar kind.
For reasons that I think are very clear to all of us, this tension, which has lain latent, is becoming greater. The reasons for it are very clear. They are to do with the dropping of our headline budget and the rising costs of this infrastructure. We have to acknowledge that tension and find ways as we go into the future of handling this in a way that is to the satisfaction of all parties. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the wider commentary about this merger is not related to much of the detail of the merger itself; it is to do with the absolute recognition of that tension and, depending on how people see it, it generates a certain concern about the way the future must evolve.
I must say, and here I can only speak personally, that I was very encouraged to hear David earlier this morning indicate that one way out of this would be to have a separate allocation to NERC, separate from the rest of the NERC budget, which I remark is not a unique solution. There are precedents for handling this kind of problem. My own view is that, if we move forward into the next CSR in this way, we will be able to defuse this in a way that Government can be confident that the wider interest is sustained and, on the other hand, we feel that we are in a position where we can appropriately balance our science.
Q68Pamela Nash: You have highlighted the complexity of this issue, which again would lead me to think that there should be work with the Foreign Office at ministerial level when this decision is being made. My understanding of a research council is that it is a nondepartmental body, so as you get the majority of your funding from BIS it would not be inappropriate for you to approach Ministers from other Departments when making a decision of this magnitude.
Edmund Wallis: That is something we can take away and think seriously about. The mindset I was in at the time was that by the time we had got-shall we call it CSR1?-the present CSR set and out there, allocated, people were operating to it. When we said that we had no intention of changing the name in any way in the South Atlantic, it meant that the name, the ships, planes and bases didn’t change. It is those issues, I believe, that the Foreign Office is primarily concerned about. Therefore, Duncan at his level as CEO made it very clear to the Foreign Office that there would be no change as a consequence of this decision. In my mind, the click was, "We don’t need to see a Foreign Office Minister." I am sure there would be times when we ought to do that, and we could and we would, but that was why we didn’t on this occasion.
Professor Wingham: I didn’t quite hear whether you were questioning what I said or agreeing with me because the acoustics in the room aren’t marvellous. We are, as you say, a nondepartmental body and we work in the first instance with our Science Minister. Particularly in an area of some tension it would be very unwise, and not conducive to good working together between Departments, if at our level we interacted with Ministers separately. It is much more effective for us to work with senior people in the Foreign Office, one down from their Minister. We then report that through our processes, and, in an entirely proper way, the Ministers concerned can choose to have their conversation, and then it comes back down to us. I think that is the right way to do this. The danger if you go another way is the growth of confusions in various parts of Government, and that really isn’t helpful.
Q69Pamela Nash: Before I hand back to the Chair, we will agree to disagree-
Edmund Wallis: Okay, that’s fine.
Q70Pamela Nash: -because, for me, the advantage of being a nondepartmental body is that you interact with other Departments.
Edmund Wallis: We will think very carefully about what you say, I promise.
Chair: Just before we close what has been a wide-ranging discussion, are there any other points you would want us to consider in drafting our report? Graham has one quick question.
Q71Graham Stringer: Mine is not the same as the Chair’s question but it comes from the same background. Having listened to you-you have answered our questions as directly as you could this morning-from the way the consultation and process has been structured, I have not heard the authentic voice of the British Antarctic Survey. If you don’t think that’s fair, I would like you to tell me why before we write our report.
Professor Wingham: My question would be: who is the authentic voice of the British Antarctic Survey? It would be quite wrong to imagine that the only mechanism of communication between the chief executive of NERC and our employees in Cambridge is a consultation process. These are our employees quite directly; we talk to them all the time. We have more than one mechanism of doing so. I myself visited BAS both prior to the consultation and afterwards and talked directly to staff. I have talked directly to the staff as a whole; I have talked to scientists in groups and to operations people in groups. It is certainly the case that the staff of British Antarctic Survey are not well represented in many of the statements in the press. Their view is much more nuanced. They are much more ready to realise that change is upon us; it is necessary to think about ways in which they can work with us to create a more sustainable future.
We have to isolate our staff and what they think and our communications with them, which in my view is an entirely proper and sensible process, from a great deal of the voice in the media, which is quite a different voice, I would say.
Edmund Wallis: Mr Miller, to conclude from our point of view, it has been hugely helpful to come here. We have listened very carefully and learned some lessons, and we will take those away. The important reassurance that we give you is that the CSR1 round is in place. That means that everything in the South Atlantic will stay exactly as it is until CSR2, whenever that becomes operational.
The consultation and deliberations that we as council are going through and the line
that David referred to earlier are all issues as part of a debate and a set of considerations that will prepare us for how we take these businesses forward into the longer term and are really appropriate for CSR2-not CSR1. We fully understand that they are very serious considerations that we have to take. We have a lot of consultation. We will consider that carefully and make our decision tomorrow, or whenever we are ready to make it. We are not saying we will take it tomorrow. I have no idea what decision will be made by council when it is made; that is for council, but we appreciate having been here. Thank you.
Q72Chair: Thank you very much for coming this morning. I hope you don’t feel you were railroaded here, but the timing was not of our making. We were hoping to invite you here later this month.
Professor Wingham: It is about events, isn’t it?
Chair: Thank you for attending.