The future of marine science in the UK: It’s all about the money money money…

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DEFRA report shows the massive pressure that is being put on UK marine science by commercial interests: from setting the research agenda, to running public services for profit, and the desire to dismantle public bodies such as CEFAS and the Met Office.

Last week I stumbled across this report by DEFRA (jointly funded by the department, innovation and skills, DEFRA and industry), which masquerades as a report that is suggesting more cooperation between the public and private sector in the delivery of UK marine science. At first glance it looks like any other government white document: overflowing with the usual mixture of corporate jargon and Orwellian doublespeak. It really is incredibly boring stuff (perhaps deliberately), and if you suffer from insomnia I really cannot recommend it highly enough. Nonetheless, I ploughed through it (if there is one thing studying for a PhD prepares you for, it’s lapping up incredibly badly written, dull documents) because a few key words caught my eye and began ringing alarm bells. What emerges are a series of recommendations for UK marine science that are truly worrying. Among its suggestions are:

1)      That marine science research becomes focused on meeting economic needs, and that industrial and commercial interest groups are allowed to heavily influence the UK’s marine science research agenda.

2)      A large-scale marketization of marine science, where private companies take over many existing public services, currently run by government agencies such as CEFAS and the Met office, and run them for profit.

3)      That the roles of CEFAS and the Met office are drastically stripped back, essentially becoming nothing more than a kite-mark under which private companies operate and exploit overseas markets.

Somewhat ironically for a report on the future of a scientific discipline, the report was compiled rather unscientifically by conducting “semi-informal interviews” with 21 “stakeholders (see the table below to see what their vested interests might be!) and distributing a questionnaire (also below) to 88 people from the industry, with a heavy bias on people from the private sector (87.5% from the private sector, 5.7% from the public sector, 8% from academic institutions and 2.3% from NGOs). I personally find the style of questions very leading, as if the review team were trying to obtain certain answers (e.g. Question 8). The report then proceeds to present their opinions as a consensus view on how marine science should function in the future. The report even admits that it did not engage very widely with potentially interested parties but cites lack of resources as the reason for this:

Table: The 21 “stakeholders” who took part in the “semi-informal interview”. Underneath is the questionnaire that these 21 people and 88 others (87.5 % from the private sector) were asked to fill out. 


Sham questionaire

By far the largest part of the report focuses on the recommendation that marine science research in the UK needs to focus on economic outcomes, and more worryingly that industry should be given a large role in setting the research agenda. The quotes below underline the underlying sentiment, and are really quite concerning for anybody that believes science should have a wider role to play in society above aiding short-term corporate profits:

“A common message was that marine science priorities should be more focused on applied needs and economic opportunities and this should be an explicit part of the UK marine science strategy.”

 “The UK’s marine science strategy and priorities need to be more focused on applied scientific evidence needs and economic opportunities that will support growth in the UK economy. A strategic level ‘horizon scanning and foresight’ programme would help deliver this. UK marine industries and businesses should be closely involved in the development of this refocused approach throughout.”

“Further (economic) benefits can be realised if explicit economic and industrial aims and actions are integrated at a strategic level into the marine science strategy.”

“That the MSCC and MILG, in association with the Marine Industries Leadership Council, undertake a horizon scanning programme to match science needs with UK economic growth and commercial opportunities (such as marine biomass, sustainable deep sea resource exploitation) and, as part of this, consider future scientific and technical needs, arising from new marine developments and industries. This should be undertaken as a high priority to inform the development of the new NERC strategy as well as a number of other emerging programmes.”

“…That MILG work with NERC in the development of the new NERC strategy (being drafted in Feb/March 2013) to ensure that the applied public and private sector needs are factored into research programmes.”

“Key drivers for the market include the development of offshore renewable energy, nuclear new build, and continued growth in the oil and gas sector.”

If you were under any illusion that the priorities of industry may be aligned with wider societal needs, then the last quote demonstrates quite nicely why this isn’t the case: continued growth of the oil and gas sector is quite clearly not in society’s best interest! More broadly, as this recent article brilliantly points out in reference to a similar tactic being employed by the Canadian government, “basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.” The article uses the example of James Clerk Maxwell, whose curiosity about electricity and magnetism in the 19th century led to the foundation of our modern world.

The report then goes on to argue for private sector taking over marine science services that are currently being run by public bodies. As is always the case under the current neoliberal doctrine, “efficiency savings” are cited as the reason for this (the misconception that the private sector can deliver services more cheaply than the public sector has been repeated so frequently that it is accepted as a truism, when in fact there is at best little to no evidence to support this):

“…the cost base of public sector marine science should be reviewed to  establish those areas where the private sector is likely to be able to offer more efficient and cost effective services, and those areas where the public sector is likely to be better placed to undertake directly, marine science activities and services.”

But wait, they hint that the public sector will still have a role in delivering those services where it is better placed to do so. What might those be exactly?

“The majority of respondents felt that, in principle, there are very few priorities and needs that could not be delivered by the private sector. If there is a clear market and a commercial opportunity, the private sector would generally respond.” (hardly surprising, as the MAJORITY of people surveyed were from the private sector!)

Later on in the report there is a hint of what the public sector’s sole advantages may be: according to its survey, the public sector is viewed at being better at carrying out long-term research goals and blue-skies research. It is not surprising that industry should want others to carry out these roles, as it is these things that do not offer immediate profitable opportunities (only long-term social and economic benefits) and are therefore of no interest to the vast majority of the commercial world where people are only incentivised to think a few years ahead… at the most. Yet it is these important roles that are being threatened by the suggestions in this report (The UK science budget is currently frozen, so any increase in applied research WILL come at the expense of basic research).

What follows is a bizarre (or, perhaps, entirely predictable) attack on CEFAS and other public bodies:

“There is concern within the marine science and technology commercial sector that CEFAS and other public bodies are believed to be competing for commercial business on uneven terms to the private sector. There are also concerns that agencies are not reflecting their full costs in their pricing.

“…(It is recommended) that public sector organisations competing in commercial markets (in particular CEFAS) proactively disseminate information to give stakeholders confidence that they are operating in accordance with government guidelines and policy.”

“A number of respondents expressed concern that public sector organisations, the Met Office and CEFAS in particular, were ‘undercutting’ their activity and not competing on ‘a level playing field’.”

You probably notice a glaring contradiction here: on the one hand industry proclaims that it can deliver marine science “more efficiently”, but on the other hand they are up in arms that public sector organisations are currently “undercutting” the private sector and providing services too cheaply. Which one is it? Thankfully the real agenda becomes clear later on:

“One respondent suggested that agencies such as the Met Office and CEFAS should focus on a limited number of core functions and act as a commissioning body for areas such as routine monitoring and data acquisition.”

“At the same time, it was recognised that public sector agencies such as CEFAS had a  potential “flag carrying” role in overseas markets, working in partnership with companies in the UK marine science and technology sector. This could particularly be the case for European funded projects, where, for example, CEFAS have extensive experience, or international projects, where funders have a preference for working with public sector bodies. It was considered that collaborative effort with the cooperation of the relevant public bodies could contribute to growth in the UK economy. An example of this could be for agencies to act as a lead or umbrella organization for UK companies seeking opportunities in emerging markets.”

I had to read this a few times because I was shocked that the real agenda would be stated so explicitly. The commercial sector wishes for respectable public bodies such as CEFAS and the Met Office to become merely a kite-mark under which private companies operate (much as has happened with the NHS recently): under this system CEFAS, for example, would be nothing more than an administrator doling out lucrative contracts to private companies, and helping them to covertly gain access to foreign markets by using their highly regarded reputation to gain a foot-hold.

I have always been suspicious that funding cuts to UK science were about more than just saving money. This quote by Noam Chomsky gets right to the heart of what I think has been going on over the last few years:

“If you want to privatize something and destroy it, a standard method is first to defund it, so it doesn’t work anymore, people get upset and accept privatization.”

This is essentially what has happened to UK marine science since the Tories came to power (In 2010 David Cameron spelled out his priorities for government which were to use, “all available policy levers,” to make it easier for the private sector to “create a new economic dynamism”). Under the guise of austerity, public research has suffered major cuts. Now, in the name of saving more money, the public sector is being rolled back to make way for commercial interests: seen in this light, recent NERC funding cuts were nothing more than a prelude to a massive ‘land grab’ by the private sector. It is unlikely that this new model will offer better value for tax payers’ money, will almost certainly be more expensive, and will lead to UK marine science focusing on commercial ventures that do not necessarily serve the long-term economic or social interests of the public. Even if you do not care about any of these things, if you are a scientist you have a selfish reason to care about these proposals: they will reduce the amount of academic freedom that you have (your research will be reduced to jumping through targeted research hoops set by business), and they will dramatically increase the cost of doing science. The latter point will mean that research grants are even harder to win, and academia will become even more competitive.


David Aldridge has a PhD in Marine Science from The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. He is now planning his escape from academia. He is the founder and editor of Words in mOcean.



1 thought on “The future of marine science in the UK: It’s all about the money money money…

  1. Somebody pointed out to be another important point on Twitter (@PunkScience):

    “One aspect of that sort of report that I would highlight is that the neoliberal model totally excludes environmental research. The sort of research that’s essential to tracking the progress of biodiversity loss and climate change.”

    If you look at the table of some of questioned 21 stakeholders, it really isn’t too difficult to see why some of them would be very happy with this situation.

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