One of the greatest pleasures of being a Chief Scientific Adviser is to visit Defra’s research agencies and to sample the great work being done by its scientists. The work is ‘great’ because it is directly linked to real problems in the real world, and I am hugely impressed by the originality, imagination and dedication of those involved. It is these scientists, plus many within the universities and research council institutions, who hold the baton for the strategic strand which runs through many of Defra’s policies.
A couple of weeks ago I visited the Cefas laboratories in Lowestoft to get an update on their current science and evidence projects. I saw how Cefas is applying new technologies to ocean monitoring, using its data resources to develop new kinds of models of ecological systems and how it is using its excellent research as a foundation for building extensive collaborations. I was impressed just by just how much Cefas is working globally.
Defra has a vision to create a cleaner, healthier environment, which benefits people and the economy. Cefas helps towards meeting this objective by coordinating extensive data collection and modelling of the marine system.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are regions of seas, oceans and estuaries which are protected from human activity to conserve the natural habitat. They are likely to be most effective if they are designed as a network and Cefas has led research across 75 sites to determine the best location to conserve natural marine features. Fifty of these sites have now been designated as MPAs and their condition needs to be measured regularly. Cefas is moving from using ships to robotics to help provide this information. The marine regions being measured cover an area 6 times greater than that of London.
The effects of microplastics in the marine environment have been featured on the news recently. Based largely on the evidence produced by Cefas, a consultation to ban plastic microbeads in cosmetics has been announced by the Defra Secretary of State. Microplastics could be an environmental smoking gun, and I encourage Cefas’ scientists to build as much understanding of this as possible. It is still unknown whether these almost invisible particles simply sit benignly in the marine sediment and are, in effect, lost from circulation; or if they are a pervasive pollutant, causing harm slowly dragging down the functionality of whole marine ecosystems. We need to find out which urgently.
There are also concerns that nutrient run-off into coastal waters add to the probability of the occurrence of toxic algal blooms. If these algae get in to shellfish, their biotoxins can cause illness in people who eat them. Cefas’ scientists are in the process of developing an early warning system for shellfish farmers, to maintain the safety of our shellfish industry.
As with MPA monitoring, Cefas is increasingly harnessing and innovating robotic and remote-sensing technologies to ensure high levels of accuracy in data collection at low cost. These include fixed-location SmartBuoys measuring water quality and the Wave Glider ‘Lyra’ (a 3m long platform packed full of the latest technologies and powered by wave and solar energy) which embarks on unmanned measurement missions, collecting spatial data. This can be linked to satellite data providing a more comprehensive view of the sea surface temperature and phytoplankton distribution across the shelf seas. Overall, we now have some very powerful methods of observing our coastal seas and Cefas has made a huge contribution to Defra’s push for open data. Their data are easily accessible through their own open data portal, the Cefas Data Hub.
Making sense of marine ecosystems requires these data to be then linked to models, which aim to tame the complexity of marine ecosystems and allow predictions about how they might change to be tested. Cefas has been expanding their modelling capabilities across the organisation on a range of diverse evidence projects; predicting movements and accumulation locations of marine litter, determining dispersal of pollution spills to inform emergency response, mapping habitats across large regions and forecasting human impacts on coastal environments.
Developing multispecies stock assessment and ensemble models, to be used in the European advisory process, is a very important contribution being made by Cefas to the management of European fisheries. These techniques, which require the use of high-performance computing, allow fisheries to be viewed as a whole integrated system, rather than individual stock assessments. This approach also enables measures of uncertainty to be included in the predictions and in the decisions which follow. It allows different fisheries management strategies to be assessed.
These examples are just a snapshot of what the scientists at Cefas do. When I speak with scientists across Defra’s agencies, I always get a strong sense of dedication to maintaining public service by striving to be the best in their field and by being highly tuned to the needs of government. They also enjoy what they are doing! At Cefas, I also know this is done in combination with a wider diaspora of scientific collaborators across many different universities, institutions and countries who share these high standards and enthusiasm.
Cefas’ scientists are a hub within a network of like-minded people which extends around the world. I can’t imagine us having a government that functions quite as well as it does without these people and their work.