Ownership and governance of NERC centres

9 December 2013

NERC Council has agreed to proceed to the next stage of its review of the ownership and governance of research centres.

NERC is considering the benefits and potential risks of giving independent status to three of its wholly-owned centres, the British Geological Survey (BGS), National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), and of giving the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) a similar independent identity.

Council considers that this change may offer potential advantages to NERC in ensuring that it can focus on its externally facing roles as a funder and champion for the environmental sciences, and to the centres in allowing them to develop freely and in line with their overall business and science objectives.

To inform Council's consideration of this issue, NERC issued a call for evidence on 2 July 2013, and also established an independent external advisory panel under the chairmanship of Professor Robert Allison, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, to consider the potential benefits and risks of this change, prior to a more detailed analysis of possible alternatives to the present arrangements.

The call for evidence raised a number of concerns about such a transition: the need, for example, to ensure on-going, open access to the considerable data collections of the centres, and the possible effect on access to NERC infrastructure. Respondents emphasised the need to ensure both the short and long term sustainability of the centres and their individual missions. The external advisory panel also addressed the issue of long-term sustainability and concluded that continuing the status quo was unlikely to maintain the national significance and importance of the science supported by NERC and the centres.

At its meeting on 4-5 December 2013, Council considered the first project gateway - to decide whether the potential benefits are likely to be realisable and whether they outweigh the attendant risks. Taking into consideration the responses to the call for evidence, together with the Call for evidence - Responses (PDF, 12MB), Council accepted the view that the status quo was not a viable option, in that ways need to be found that allow NERC to focus on its primary role as a research council, and that the centres must be provided with greater operational freedom.

Council considered that there should be a detailed examination of how these objectives can be achieved, whether within or outside of the public sector, and that alternative ownership models must be examined before it can take a firm view on which might be the appropriate long-term future for NERC and the centres. It also recognised that there were aspects of a possible transition that needed detailed discussion with Government: the extent to which NERC-owned assets, such as ships, buildings or data, could be transferred to independent entities; and how NERC would ensure continued advice and emergency responses to Government.

Council has asked the NERC Executive, together with the centres, to robustly test how the status quo might be changed independently of a change of ownership, as well as developing detailed plans for independent governance that might best suit centres' future missions. This analysis will inform a second gateway decision, currently scheduled for July 2014, when Council will be able to take a fully-informed view of the relative merits of the present ownership arrangements and possible alternatives. While proceeding to the second gateway of this review, Council remains of an open mind concerning a decision that will have important consequences for the future of environmental science in the UK.