NERC then and now

Sampling the Tamar river in 1972

1972 - sampling from the bed of the Tamar river

5 October 2015 by Tom Marshall

The past may be a foreign country, but when it comes to the ancient history of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) it's one that feels oddly like home. As part of the events to mark NERC's 50th anniversary, Tom Marshall spent a stint in the archives. He describes what it revealed about the organisation's early years.

In 1965 the government saw that the environmental science landscape was too fragmented, spread across many small institutes and labs. It created NERC to combine them into an organisation with the kind of overall strategic view that would help the nation both do better science and make better use of it. This involved bringing together institutions as varied as the Institute of Geological Sciences and the University of Aberdeen's Fisheries Biochemical Research Unit.

Our research portfolio is still incredibly diverse, and in terms of their broad field of study many of the disciplines within it haven't changed much. But the way science gets done has. We've seen successive revolutions in environmental research, from genomics to satellite sensing and - perhaps profoundest of all - computers. These have transformed researchers' ability to manipulate data and model the environment's workings. Today's projections of climate change or the impact of shifts in how we use the land would have been inconceivable half a century ago.

The amounts the young NERC handed out to scientists were tiny - in its first year a palaeontologist at Newcastle University received £200, which wouldn't get you far these days - though inflation means it's around £3,500 in today's money. The biggest grant was around £23,000 - more than £400,000 today, but still small beer next to today's multi-million-pound research programmes. For comparison, NERC's smallest grant in 2013 was around £12,000 - to investigate the geological effects of the 2012 Shwebo earthquake in Myanmar.

Documents from our early years are a strange mixture of the familiar and the alien. In many ways the era of our Royal Charter in 1965 looks like a different world. Women were just starting to make inroads into the scientific establishment, and judging by photos environmental research was still largely the domain of middle-aged men gazing seriously at large bits of equipment. (And they're surprisingly often wearing suits and ties, even in the field.) These days things have improved a lot: in 2013-14, grant applications from male and female researchers had the same success rate - though there were still more proposals from men.

Many other features of NERC's youth seem strange to modern sensibilities, to say the least - for example, the National Institute of Oceanography's Whale Research Unit, which an early document suggests should continue despite the collapse of the British whaling industry, so that it can help put that industry back on its feet once whale numbers had recovered enough for commercial exploitation to resume.

Plus ça change

So superficially it's all change. Look deeper, though, and just as striking is what's stayed the same. Our strategy, The Business of the Environment, emphasises our commitment to working with business, government and other partners to ensure our research creates the greatest possible benefits for the UK's society and economy. This attracted criticism from some, who complained NERC was abandoning science for its own sake, giving up the pursuit of pure knowledge to do the bidding of government and industry. But reading about the research council's early years makes it clear the new strategy is hardly a leap into uncharted territory.

Understanding our changing planet was as fundamental to our future economic prosperity and wellbeing in 1965 as it is now, and applying scientific expertise to practical problems in service of the national interest was one of the main reasons NERC was set up. Its first annual report cites the government review that prompted its creation on the central importance of "the problems of preservation, improvement and proper utilisation of our natural resources". The next year's makes the point more explicitly:

"The important part which the Council and its constituent bodies can play in the economic and social interests of the country is becoming increasingly recognised by Government Departments. Not only is it accepted that geologists play a major role in providing the basic knowledge needed for exploitation of the mineral resources of the land area and the continental shelf, but also that to make the best use of our biological resources, such as fisheries and forestry, and to protect the terrestrial and marine environments from pollution, much more scientific knowledge is needed. The Council is anxious to adapt its research programmes to fit the nation's needs..."

Elsewhere we read that when deciding which grant applications to fund, "special attention [is] paid to projects which have a definite utilitarian objective, particularly where there is already some support from industry. At the same time, the importance of fundamental research is fully recognised, and financial support is being given to projects of scientific merit which do not have an immediate applied objective in mind."

So there was never a time when NERC was only about gathering knowledge for its own sake - we've always been committed both to research that's driven by curiosity and to science that's motivated by very practical ends. From the very beginning, we've been aware of the need to put expert knowledge to work.

Also part of the early NERC's DNA were organisations like the Nature Conservancy. So from the beginning, understanding and managing what we'd later come to call the nation's biodiversity was a goal alongside supporting responsible economic growth. Documents from the time amply demonstrate the growing awareness of the need to understand not just how the environment affects us, but also how we affect the environment. Like many of our original component institutions, the Nature Conservancy has since been merged with several others; this process has created centres of excellence in every aspect of environmental science.

There are continuities in less weighty matters, too. Scientists' enduring love of the outlandish acronym was already in evidence, for instance. These days researchers labour on GUNG-HO and TEA-COSI; back then we were already deploying the Geological LOng Range Inclined Asdic - GLORIA for short. Some things never change.

So what will the next 50 years hold? Our first half century has seen NERC grow in confidence and vision to become the driving force of investment in environmental science. Our structure - and our acronyms - may be different in 50 years' time, but NERC will continue to advance the frontiers of environmental science, focusing our efforts where scientific discovery can make the biggest contribution to everyone's prosperity and wellbeing.