Published online 23 March 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/458392a

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Ship decision sinks UK marine science

Weak pound forces UK to postpone building of research ship.

Problems of age: the RRS Discovery has been in operation since 1962, and suffers frequent breakdowns.S&G and Barratts/PA

Citing increased costs due to the weakness of the pound against the euro, the British government has pulled the plug on a £55-million (US$80-million) order to deliver a replacement vessel for its ageing research ship, the RRS Discovery, by 2011. The move, which could see the ship pushed further down the line, is a major setback to UK marine science, say researchers. Re-ordering the ship will add years of delay just as expeditions are being postponed or cancelled because the 47-year-old Discovery frequently breaks down.

The Discovery entered service in 1962, and is one of two UK ocean-going research ships widely available for marine science, both of which are operated by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The other is the RRS James Cook, which made her maiden voyage in 2007 but has been plagued by bubbles generated by her hull (see 'Troubles bubble up'). The British Antarctic Survey has another ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, but this is available only 60 days a year for research outside the survey.

NERC and the government had agreed to split the costs of the replacement for the Discovery. She was intended to be built at a Spanish shipyard, the only bidder that responded to the agency's call for tender two years ago, in a then-saturated ship-building market. But NERC officials learned on 11 March that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) had torpedoed the current order, citing the unfavourable exchange rate between the pound and the euro. Matthew Barker, a spokesman for the department, declined to comment further, noting only that an official memo on the topic promised that "NERC and DIUS are committed to procuring a replacement for Discovery as soon as possible subject to affordability".

NERC will discuss its options at a board meeting on 1 April, but the cancellation means that, at best, the procurement pro­cess will probably need to start from scratch. The project as originally envisaged might also unravel, with alternative options being a smaller ship or the conversion of a second-hand vessel. "The bottom line is that there will be a delay, and that delay will be fairly serious," says George Wolff, an oceanographer at the University of Liverpool, UK, and senior representative on the RRS Discovery Replacement User Group.

Ship time is already so stretched that scientists getting an expedition approved now will have to wait until after 2012 to set sail, as the ships are fully booked until then. And even this scheduling is based on the assumption that the Discovery will hang together. Researchers familiar with the vessel aren't so optimistic. "They are keeping her going, but she's liable to fall apart at any moment," says Wolff.

"There has been a desperate need to get this new ship," adds Malcolm Woodward of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who represents UK marine-chemist users on the Discovery replacement group. Woodward knows the problems first hand: later this month, he will try for the third time to set sail on an expedition to study the interaction between the ocean surface and the lower atmosphere. Two previous attempts over the past three years had to be cancelled when the Discovery broke down.

The new vessel would not only have replaced the Discovery but would also have incorporated twenty-first-century technology, such as mini-thrusters, which would allow the ship to remain in a precise position for sampling a water column. And she would have featured multibeam swath bathymetry, an acoustic technique used to produce depth and other maps, together with instruments central to geophysical and other research that are lacking on the Discovery.

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Speaking on behalf of NERC, Edward Hill, director of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, puts a brave face on the government's decision. "It's a disappointment," he says, although he notes that it's a postponement, not an outright cancellation.

To make the high costs of research ships more palatable to governments, scientists in the 1990s touted the idea of sharing the cost of building new research vessels by making them European instead of national. In 1996, Britain, France and Germany agreed to barter ship time on each other's vessels as a first step towards this goal. The Netherlands, Norway and Spain have since joined them. Ironically, the scheme has proved so successful that the goal of a pan-European fleet has all but been abandoned. But bartering time on other countries' ships demands having something to barter with, notes Wolff. "The UK is rapidly running out of barter credit, and this decision to postpone its new ship has diminished it even further." 

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