Submission—Marine Science and Technology Plan

On 24 July 1997, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering made the following submission on the Marine Science and Technology Plan.

The following submission uses as a guide the document titled ‘The Proposed Scope of Australia’s Marine Science and Technology Plan’ prepared by the Marine Science & Technology Plan Working Group.


The proposed scope of Australia's Marine Science and Technology Plan is successful in correctly identifying appropriate goals for such a plan. We agree that it ought to be essentially a Strategic Plan, ie, one which is not too prescriptive upon the detail of the diverse activities and plans in MS&T in Australia, but which puts all the elements in an overarching contextual framework, ie what Australia should be doing in MS&T and why.

Relationship to the Australian Oceans Policy

It is significant that the Plan is being developed in parallel with the Australian Oceans Policy. It is essential that the relationship between the policy and plan is clear. While reference is made to it in the ‘Oceans Policy Consultation Paper’ it is not very clear in either that paper or other externally available material exactly what the relationship between the Policy and the Plan is envisaged to be.

We note however that the stated Goal of the Oceans Policy and three of the five Objectives of the Policy are entirely dependent for their achievement upon marine science and technology.

The Plan should therefore be quite forthright in claiming its role and importance in mapping the implementation of the national Policy. Too often it is assumed that S&T ranks as ‘just another service’ within national infrastructure, and will spontaneously adapt to meet national aspiration. Marine S&T especially is extremely diverse yet a disproportionatedly small part of national effort, is historically underdeveloped, less-than-optimally structured, and expensive to conduct. The Plan has a critical part to play in mapping the course to overcome these obstacles and accomplish the Marine Policy goals in the larger national interest.

Major work programs

It is proposed that the Plan be built around a set of ‘major work programs’ that embrace much of the current activity of the national organisations and also include universities and linkages to State programs. This is an excellent approach. It provides an opportunity to give the programs prominence and context in terms of national Policy, and will greatly facilitate the recognition of structures, interactions, synergies, gaps and opportunities from a cross-organisational perspective.

International Linkages

Australia is among the more literate Marine Science and Technology (MS&T) nations, and has been quite prominent over a wide spectrum of subjects at an academic level. This prominence should not be interpreted to mean that we are large in any global sense. Many countries have much greater investment in MS&T in both an absolute and per-capita sense, and per unit of wealth and territorial scale.

Many branches of marine science are merging into international programs. Examples are coral reef research, climate prediction, numerical experimentation and aspects of marine chemistry and ecology. Another trend is the transformation of marine science into an operational activity, as with operational marine prediction of wave and storm surge.

As a small player, Australia has much more to gain by being involved in these multilateral efforts than by going alone, although the benefits may in some cases take time to become apparent. The plan should seek to identify areas of internationalisation which most closely align with national benefit and concentrate national effort in these.

It is important that Australia participates actively in the international marine science and technology effort both through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO and the various non-governmental fora such as the International Association of Physical Sciences of the Oceans (IAPSO), and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR).

Coordination, advisory and evaluation mechanisms

A number of MS&T coordination mechanisms have been applied over the last two decades. An element in their success or otherwise has been the perception on the part of the national agencies of their capacity to add value through collective weight or advocacy, or through encouragement of cooperative behaviour. Adequate representation of the interests of the individual agencies is a key, as is voluntary participation. Coordination must embrace all key participants including States and universities. The Heads of Marine Agencies (HOMA) coordination group has been particularly useful in this regard and should be maintained and strengthened.

In the execution of a national plan, advice and evaluation of content and progress is essential. The scale of a plan may formalise and retard evaluation, and impose an undesirable reporting and ‘response’ burden on the agencies and individuals attempting to implement a plan. This has been the case in recent times with agencies such as CSIRO.

We recommend that the evaluations should be kept at small scale, in the interests of rapid execution. The Academies and learned institutions may represent a useful resource for implementation of advisory and evaluation processes.


The Australian ocean territory is very large, and it is unrealistic to expect that it can be adequately described without the more-or-less continual use of several ocean going vessels.

Apart from the simple scale of coverage needed, plurality of vessels is important in terms of diversity of missions and capabilities, carrying and crewing capacity, access and operating efficiency, and the need for seasonal coverage.

Research vessels make an attractive target for rationalisation. While the successful operation of vessels such as the RV Franklin has demonstrated the importance of maintaining a close professional connection between the vessel and its scientific users, the inefficiencies of fractional usage demand address.

The plan should therefore examine the possibilities for integrated operation of the national research fleet, while being sympathetic to the essentials for effective MS&T. These include:

  • an adequate range of technical capability among the fleet
  • continuous upgrade and improvement of capability
  • inbuilt quality assurance and data management practices
  • adequate access for academic users and basic researchers
  • management responsive to user need, and
  • adequate and fair processes for assigning shiptime, well linked to national strategy

Management of marine ‘scientific’ data

One of the most important contributions a national MS&T plan can make is to define an effective national framework for the management of data and information. Without such a framework, observations remain limited by their accessibility to users and their integrated value is largely lost. It is already recognised how important Australia's management of tidal data has been.

The document identifies marine data as ‘scientific’carrying the (probably unintentional) implication that data is useful only to scientists. Historically this is largely true, but a revolution in data-gathering and processing capability has made direct access to data products by all potential users a practical possibility.

A national plan should acknowledge this possibility and actively promote the integration of product development and operational product delivery as an essential component of national data management strategy. The structures being advanced through National Marine Industry Development Strategy (NatMIS) are an important although basic realisation of this concept. This example also indicates that there are substantial technical development tasks to be addressed. The development of user-friendly systems for data access and archive such as the Blue Pages project is a case in point.

In spite of the quantity and variety of marine data, its coordination in a unified national framework is not an impossible task, because of advances in electronic communication. Centralised archives are no longer necessary. The key factors are

  • A universally recognised national data-management framework
  • Wide accessibility
  • Adequate submission and metadata protocols
  • Security and access controls, and
  • A resourcing framework to facilitate submission and management of data holdings.

Particular attention should be given to the potential role of satellite and airborne remote sensing for data collection and monitoring of the state of the marine environment.

In parallel with national data initiatives there are international developments in the enhancement and coordination of marine data. These include the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) being developed under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Council of Scientific Union (ICSU). Such systems define the design and standards for the international exchange of marine data of common value. They will actually be implemented through the voluntary participation of nations like ours. The benefits that accrue through access to a large global, quality-controlled and continuously enhanced data stream promise to greatly exceed the national investment in a compatible national observing system.

Australia has benefitted from work in marine resources in cooperation with contiguous Economic Exclusive Zones, particularly Indonesia and France (New Caledonia).

It is important that a commitment to the free and unrestricted exchange of basic marine data for scientific research and educational purposes and support of essential marine meteorological and oceanographic products and services be built into Australian marine science plans for the next decade. This is especially relevant to services in the coastal zone as well as to safety of life and property on the high seas.


Australia has a narrow range of sources for external MS&T funding. Perceived deficiencies include:

  • Sector basis can exclude some areas, especially for strategic and common-good research.
  • ARC Grants are discipline-based. MS&T crosscuts disciplines.
  • Some funding bodies do not provide for real infrastructure cost, thereby producing follow-on commitment of core resources by grantees, and restriction of discretion in resource deployment.
  • Research in some areas (eg petroleum) is inhibited by issues of tariff and excise.

The plan would do well to propose or at least to advocate a broad-based scheme for MS&T grants. The success of the earlier Marine Science and Technology Grants Scheme (MSTGS) is an example. In that scheme, Australian Marine Science and Technology Committee (AMSTAC) annually set priorities for funding. The merging of this program with ARGC lost this important feature. Consistent with a dedicated national plan, closer priority setting would be justified.

Skills base

Australian MS&T in the physical sciences has had a brief history and modest beginnings. These are reflected today in the relative narrowness of our national academic training structure. A component of the plan should match the national aspirations for the execution of policy against the base training resource that will ensure the delivery of that policy through national competence in MS&T over the next two decades.

International opportunities

Previous reviews have highlighted the opportunities that exist for Australian marine expertise to be marketed internationally. The success of Australian Marine Science and Technology Ltd. (AMSAT) is evidence that markets exist in the South East Asian region, but it could also be said that the services that AMSAT delivers are value-adding from the expertise available in national agencies (sometimes at the net expense of these agencies in their necessity to secure external funds), and there is no systematic development of national skill-marketing. This could also be explored in terms of a national strategy. Other countries such as Norway and Germany have already done so, and international consortia (such as the so-called EUROGOOS) are aggressively developing their products with a view to world-wide marketing.

For the same reason, Australian should not be too complacent about its corner of the Asian market. Not only is the international competition strong, but several Asian nations are raising their skill-base rapidly.

Promotion of marine science, technology and engineering

The public and government will expect to see a close connection between hard science and real application in nationally beneficial marine products and services and sound management of the marine and coastal environment. For the Oceans Policy to become a true turning point a responsible and professional effort must be put into a public awareness strategy of MS&T.

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