The UK has a distinguished history of oceanographic research, laying claim to the Challenger Expedition that marks the birth of oceanography as a scientific discipline. But what would the scientists who set out from Portsmouth in 1872 make of today’s research infrastructure? Personally, I think they would find it inconceivable. Today the UK operates three sophisticated research ships supported by profiling floats, robotic vehicles and even satellites orbiting miles above the earth. And how have we reached this point? It is because each generation has sought to build on advances in knowledge and technology to commission infrastructure that can deliver new and better science. In this post I will be looking at how the FMRI transformation is striving to work in partnership with the marine science community to design a new generation of research infrastructure that meets the needs of the science community and society.
Beginning the Journey
The FMRI programme began with a recognition that the current generation of marine research infrastructure will start to reach the end of its useful life within the next decade. The oldest of the NERC research ships, the RRS James Cook, will reach the end of its expected 25-year service life in 2031. Given that it takes roughly 8 years to design, build and commission a ship, in 2019 NERC invited the National Oceanography Centre to lead a scoping study for the future of the national capability. This study explored the likely science priorities and technology opportunities for the next generation of research infrastructure. For the first time it also considered a new imperative, the obligation to embed sustainability at the heart of the research ecosystem.
The Net-Zero Oceanographic Capability (NZOC) Scoping Study brought together an expert team drawn from 8 maritime organisations. This team reviewed prior art, commissioned expert reports on specific topics, and facilitated a series of workshops. In total, 348 stakeholders from 168 organisations across 5 continents contributed to the NZOC findings.
From Vision to Reality
The findings of the NZOC scoping study provide important direction for a transformation in the UK’s research infrastructure, but this report marks the beginning not the end of the engagement process. The NZOC report and other visionary documents such as the NERC strategy for Digitally Enabled Environmental Science and the recently published UN Ocean Decade Data & Information Strategy highlight the importance of building a research ecosystem that provides capability for all. As an environmental research community, it is essential that we leverage this once in a generation opportunity to protect our planet by embracing transformative research infrastructure that enables new and different science.
To ensure that the future research infrastructure is requirements-led, the FMRI team are dedicated to working with the full diversity of stakeholders involved in the design, operation and use of NERC’s world class capabilities. During the options analysis phase of the business case development, the programme will examine how new and conventional technologies can work together to best meet the needs of the scientists and society. And engagement will not end when the programme progresses to delivery phase. Stakeholder input will remain central to the detail of the design, build and commissioning of the infrastructure to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose and that the marine science community has the necessary skills and support to utilise it to its full potential.