HL Deb 21 March 1967 vol 281 cc657-60

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken to regain the lead formerly held by the United Kingdom over the rest of the world in oceanography and under-water technology.]


My Lords, in the field of oceanography Great Britain and her oceanographers have been in the past, and are at present, held in high esteem throughout the world. The establishment of the Natural Environment Research Council has led to increased support for, and better co-ordination of, marine science in all its aspects. The development of under-water technology will be related to our particular needs on the basis of the best scientific advice available. The noble Lord may care to refer to the first annual report of the Natural Environment Research Council, published earlier this month, for a brief exposition of the Council's organisation, initial policy thinking and activities in relation to oceanography.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask whether he is aware that there is considerable anxiety that in this matter of oceanography and under-water technology the United Kingdom is falling behind certain other countries in the world? Is he further aware that there is a great deal of enthusiasm and technical ability among quite a number of people in this country who are able to put the United Kingdom back into the lead? Could not the Government try to give greater support to oceanography and under-water technology in the various ways that are open to a Government?


My Lords, I am well aware of the great enthusiasm that exists, not least on the part of the noble Lord himself. I find it a little surprising, when the Government and the Natural Environment Research Council have given such a positive lead, and when such real improvement has taken place, that doubts should he expressed on this matter. I would add that this country is spending more than any other country, except the United States of America, in the field of the oceanographical sciences. While I share the noble Lord's enthusiasm, I am impressed by the real progress that has been achieved, and I would stress that the Government are extremely anxious to encourage all initiatives, including those in which the noble Lord is interested.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that further reply. Is he aware that, while there is no doubt about what the Government are doing in this matter, there is a great desire that they should do even more than they have been doing to further this extremely important work, in which great material and immediate advantages can be obtained for the United Kingdom?


My Lords, the immediacy of the matter is, of course, a field for argument. What is essential is that there should be a continual drive, particularly in the wider scientific fields. One example which I might give of a new initiative is that of the Atomic Energy Authority's Conference on the Technology of the Sea and the Sea-bed, which is being held early next month, under the auspices of the Ministry of Technology. This is an example of the drive and the interest that is to be found in Government circles, as no doubt also in industry.


My Lords, may I ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have taken, or will take, special steps to investigate the effect of surface oil on the growth of seaweed? I have been concerned with this matter in the past and should like to know that something is being done in regard to it.


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord's question is prompted by the disaster that is happening at the moment. I cannot say whether research is being done into this specific subject. A great deal of work is going on in regard to oil pollution, and the many scientific bodies involved will no doubt consider this, but if not I will look into it further and let the noble Lord know.


My Lords, while acknowledging the noble Lord's own personal interest in this matter, and the progress that has been made, I should like to ask two supplementary questions. First, would the noble Lord agree that one of the most important areas for research is the interface between the oceans and the atmosphere from the point of view of meteorological climatic forecasting? Can he assure us that research into this area is being actively promoted, in conjunction with the facilities which the Royal Navy can make available? Secondly, with reference to the noble Lord's supplementary reply, can he assure us that the resources of the Atomic Energy Authority will be available to help us regain the lead which we have lost in under-water technology?


My Lords, I hesitate to accept all the implications of the noble Earl's remarks about the loss of lead. The Atomic Energy Authority will no doubt play whatever part it is appropriate for it to play, but I do not personally wish to rely purely on the Atomic Energy Authority to regain a lead which I am not conscious of our having lost. None the less, I accept that the Authority has a part to play.

With regard to the noble Earl's first question, I would draw his attention to the Report of the Natural Environment Research Council, which states at page 33: Currents and water movements generally have a far-reaching influence on both the biological productivity on the oceans and atmospheric events. That shows that in this respect great minds think alike, and that research is going on in this field. Also, I happen to know that the Director of the Meteorological Office is personally interested. There is great scope for activity, and those who heard Professor Lighthill (as I think the noble Lord did) the other day will appreciate the great importance that is attached in scientific circles to the study of this question of interface.


My Lords, will my noble friend press particularly upon his Government colleagues the importance of this subject, in view of the fact that two-thirds of the globe is covered by oceans and any nation which is master of the riches of this enormous area possesses an empire far more valuable than any ever seen before?


My Lords, I must say that I prefer to approach this matter initially in general scientific terms and in the terms of the needs of the world. Two-thirds of the earth is covered by ocean, and wholly covered by atmosphere, which also is an area for research. Nevertheless, I accept the implication of the noble Viscount's question that this is a matter of great importance.

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