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House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Inquiry: Science Infrastructure

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into Scientific Infrastructure. The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found here:

The Geological Society contributed to a discussion convened by the Science Council, along with several of their other member bodies, which informed their submission to the inquiry. Their submission can be found here

Submitted 20th June 2013

1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 10,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-specialist audiences.

2. We have not attempted to answer most of the questions raised in the Terms of Reference for the inquiry, many of which we are not well placed to address. The Geological Society contributed to a discussion convened by the Science Council, along with several of their other member bodies, which informed their submission to the inquiry. We support the evidence they have presented, and offer some supplementary comments below. In particular, we strongly support the following points raised in the Science Council submission, in the context of geoscience:

  • Infrastructure should not be conceived of in terms of equipment alone. The skilled trained personnel required to maintain and utilise facilities, and the institutional frameworks within which they operate, also play a vital part. In planning investment, it is often more helpful to think of national capability, which depends on all these elements being in place, than infrastructure in the limited sense of physical kit. In geoscience especially, sustaining the supply of skilled personnel to underpin national capability depends on the continued availability of high-quality taught applied Masters programmes. The UK has an excellent track record in providing such training, but this capability is under threat as a result of withdrawal of Research Council funding for MSc studentships, increased levels of debt among graduates, lack of access to affordable finance for those studying stand-alone Masters degrees, and pressures on overseas student numbers (on which programmes depend for their viability) as a result of wider changes in immigration policy.
  • The value placed on research facilities should not be judged (and funding decisions made) principally on the basis of the number of researchers using them. The nature and duration of work done at different types of facilities and the number of individuals involved varies greatly. Moreover, some numerically small disciplinary communities, with concomitantly modest infrastructure requirements, are both scientifically and economically extremely important. Demand for the research outputs from facilities, and the impacts of this research, are more useful metrics than the number of users. (The Science Council highlighted the example of micropalaeontology – while the number of trained specialists in this field required by the UK oil and gas industry is small, they play an essential part in the exploration and production of hydrocarbons. Failure to maintain this small but vital element of national capability is likely to have very serious economic effects.)
  • Electronic infrastructure and international interoperability of data are particularly important in areas such as geoscience, where much research and data gathering is location- and time-specific. For example, activities such as geological surveying, monitoring of geohazards such as earthquakes and exploration for energy and mineral resources are to a great extent carried out in situ, and at a national or regional level. In order to maximise the value of investment in such research and monitoring, it is vital to be able to integrate the data sets created.


3. In terms of successful collaborative infrastructural UK, EU and international projects and cooperation, there are a several success stories from the geoscience community. Perhaps the most comprehensive is the One Geology project to make geological map data from across the world available on a common platform. The British Geological Survey played a major part in initiating this ground-breaking project, in which 117 countries are currently involved.

4. The award-winning TELLUS border project between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland delivers geo-environmental data collection on soils, water and rocks, resource exploration and geological mapping across six border counties. It is a cross-border initiative between the Geological Survey of Ireland, Queens University of Belfast and Dundalk Institute of Technology and was funded by the INTERREF IVA programme of the European Regional Development Fund.

5. The International Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP) , building on the earlier successes of the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP), has also been a hugely successful international effort to bring together multi-disciplinary researchers, engineers and technicians to explore the Earth’s history and structure recorded in seafloor sediments and rocks. This understanding is vital to addressing issues such as climate change. The IODP includes members from 26 countries all over Europe and the USA, Japan, Australia and China, and is funded by 8 international partners. Sustained commitment to this project, and involvement of UK scientists, is essential to its continued success and to UK access to the research outputs.

6. In terms of equipment, the Diamond Light Source facility and the membership of the ESRF synchrotron facility in Grenoble are examples of high demand, well funded, successful and well-used facilities which have come about as a result of well organised partnerships.

Long term infrastructure needs

7. A particular priority for the UK geoscience community is ‘Earthsense’, described in the Research Council UK Framework for Capital Investment (2012) as a whole-system health check for the environment that will provide an integrated national infrastructure, driving international synergies to observe and analyse how the interconnected air-land-ice-water components of our environment control future living conditions and natural hazards. This aims to build a more effective framework by which environmental issues can be addressed in a holistic way rather than follow a silo-based approach. It includes initiatives such as an Environmental Virtual Observatory that will develop cloud-enabled environmental monitoring and catchment modelling technologies; and the UK component of the Integrated Carbon Observing System which will provide the European infrastructure for determining the greenhouse gas balance of Europe. It will also involve instrumentation and telemetering of up to ten networks of low-cost sensors across a wide range of geological, chemical, physical and biological parameters for the major UK ecosystems and integration of land and seafloor seismic monitoring networks, volcano observations and experimental laboratories for more sensitive sensing systems across Europe.

8. Continued investment in the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellite programme , which carries a range of technologies critical to UK research, is also important. This includes day-and-night radar imaging for land and ocean services; multispectral high-resolution imaging for land monitoring, including imagery of vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas; and measurement of sea-surface topography and sea and land surface temperatures. There would also be considerable benefit from a dedicated multi-parameter satellite for the Earth science sector, as described in the BGS Earth Science Europe roadmap consultation .

9. Another priority area for capital investment is e-infrastructure, in order to support a number of important projects. For example, specialist e-infrastructure is required for MONSooN climate modelling. Significant amounts of data storage and high quality management systems are needed for EU data portals to link existing ice, sediment core, marine and continental infrastructure data, as well as Earth imaging and additional geophysical data acquisition, in order to improve accuracy and time resolution for geoscience spatial data. Continued investment in e-infrastructure will also allow the development of specialist projects such as extensive ocean and seabed monitoring using advanced robotics, an opportunity that was previously limited by the difficulty of handling of terabytes of data, which is now much less challenging.

10. In terms of meeting our energy, water and mineral resource needs, several areas of research are in need of capital investment:

a. Investment in a research centre for CCS would bring together academia, industry and regulators to develop improved technologies, to bring down the costs of CCS, a key element of Government’s energy policy. Such a centre would improve cross-disciplinary working would allow testing of the viability of new technologies at larger scales than is currently possible.
b. Test facilities for new solar and wind innovations would be needed for development of next generation renewable technologies as described in the Research Council’s UK Framework for Capital Investment (2012).
c. As identified in the recent Water Quality report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, there is a need for pre-market technology and innovation test-beds for UK water research, to help de-risk innovation in this area and stimulate private sector investment. This would also encourage multi-disciplinary working across Research Councils, helping the translation of research into market leadership in areas such as sensor technologies and waste treatment. This need is also identified in the UK Water Research and Innovation Framework .

11. We would be pleased discuss further any of the points raised in this submission.