Reasons to set sail
Laboratories and computer-models can produce a lot of information for scientists but they don’t always provide the type of data required. Satellites use microwaves that like most other electro-magnetic waves, including light, can only penetrate the sea surface a few metres. Therefore sound and physical tools remain the only viable way to reach the depths beyond. Research vessels and, increasingly, unmanned vehicles are used to carry out investigations. An expedition is a complex and expensive exercise so it is not one that is undertaken lightly. Scientists have to undergo a rigorous process to justify the need for their research and why it needs the use of a research vessel and/or other specialised equipment.
Research is the way we gain knowledge and understanding; outputs are the way we share this. A scientist’s ability to generate peer-reviewed outputs, from their time spent onboard a research ship, defines the quality of their work. While increasingly it is the societal and environmental impacts of this work which ultimately defines how successful it has been. The ‘life-cycle’ of an expedition is one that covers several years; from the gestation of an idea right through to the ultimate reporting of scientific results.
A proposal is a detailed explanation of what a scientist wants to study, why they want to study it and how they plan to do so. To turn the ideas of a proposal into reality of an expedition resources are required. NERC gives access to its ships and equipment 'free at the point of use' for science that is of an international quality. But other project expenses still need funding. With so many potential expeditions who decides what ones to support and how is the decision reached?
International collaborations are an incredibly important component of supporting modern science at sea. Many issues facing marine science are global in nature and so require international solutions, such as the bartering or exchange of ships and equipment. In addition, when compared to other ship operators, research vessels form a niche area of activity in the shipping industry, so sharing of knowledge and best practice is vital.