Bidston recollections

John Huthnance, 7 Oct 2016.

I joined IOS Bidston (as it was then) in October 1977. The validity of my appointment could be questioned as the appointment letter came from DB Crowder (the Bidston administrator) who left before I arrived.

It was a good time to join. There were about 80 staff in total, few enough to give a “family” atmosphere with the feeling that everyone knew everyone else. Several colleagues had been taken on during the early 1970s but it was still a time of expansion rather than otherwise.   Scientists like myself had a fairly free hand to pursue promising lines of research within a fairly broad remit. I enjoyed a feeling of support from fellow scientists to do just this. Much of the funding came through a consortium of several government departments with an interest in our research. The negotiations were at some distance from most of the scientists who did not have to spend much time writing proposals, yet it was good to know of “user” interest in our work, always a characteristic of Bidston science. It was still possible to be “the” expert in a topic, a rarity today. I was lucky.

Everyone was expected to go to sea at least once. My first experience was a long trip in October 1978 on RRS Discovery from South Shields to Recife (Brasil)! We had calm across the Bay of Biscay but gradually increasing seas as time progressed. Green terminal screens on board added to my discomfort. It also got hot enough to affect some of the electronics and the salinometer bath struggled to maintain any standard temperature. My struggles with the latter resulted in being one of many co-authors on a paper about steric height around the equator – as I discovered when the paper was published.

My next research “cruise” was less exotic, to the North Sea on RRS John Murray. The picture shows the arrangement for under-way surface sampling – a CTD (device for measuring the conductivity and temperature of sea water at a known depth) in a bucket lashed to the side.

Arrangement for under-way surface sampling
Arrangement for under-way surface sampling

I have seen some changes in the “style” of research – some for the better! In the 1980s John Bowman (Chief Executive of NERC) told us that if we wanted students, we should get a university job. Now student supervision is encouraged (and helped by being in Liverpool). When I started, current meter data processing typically involved printing out all the recorded values. Models were semi-analytic or had reduced dimension or coarse resolution. My thesis compared a few tidal harmonic constants between measurements and a simple model. Now we have millions of observed values, billions of model output values, and we need computer programs to translate these to something viewable. In the end, science wants to compare two independent numbers for the same quantity. With the “Big Data” that modern science generates, is it harder to think what we are aiming at?


North Sea Project - monthly surveys
North Sea Project – monthly surveys

Another change is towards “inter-disciplinary science”. I have been a believer in this owing to early good experience: a seminar at Bidston by John Allen (University of Reading) about sand transport gave me an idea for how sand banks might grow (I had already published about the character of tidal flow around the Norfolk sand banks). The “flip” side to inter-disciplinarity is the overhead of communication with a wider group of scientists. Anyway, Bidston (now Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory – POL) saw this in a big way in NERC’s first “Community Project”, the North Sea Project (formally 1987-1992). John Howarth and I were respectively coordinators of the monthly “surveys” (see figure) and intervening “process studies” for 15 months in 1988-89. I recall a “spat” with Philip Radford (PML) at the concluding 1993 Royal Society Discussion meeting. I showed a diagram characterised by physics-ecosystem. Philip countered with physics-ecosystem. These are of course quite compatible, differing only by which part is under the microscope.

The North Sea Project was followed by the “Land-Ocean Interaction Study” LOIS in the 1990s with POL at the centre of coastal, shelf-edge and modelling studies. Such large-scale projects with many participants involved a Steering group and many rail trips to London. At the same time (and possibly inspired by NERC) the EU Marine Science and Technology Programme (MAST) began. My main involvement was in “Processes in Regions of Freshwater Influence” (PROFILE; two phases), “Ocean Margin Exchange” (OMEX; two phases) – both inter-disciplinary – and “Monitoring Atlantic Inflow to the Arctic” (MAIA) which somehow managed to be only physics. MAST projects had several European partners; the beaten track became the M56 for Manchester airport and flights to partners’ laboratories, EU Brussels and MAST gatherings in rather nice places (e.g. Sorrento, Vigo, . . ).

After formation of Southampton Oceanography Centre SOC, there was an April 1st announcement setting up the “Centre for Coastal Marine Science” CCMS in the mid-1990s as a counterpart to SOC. CCMS incorporated PML, POL and SAMS and resulted in more trekking, to Plymouth and Oban. This was good for inter-lab communications but management went awry, especially regarding finances, and POL became “independent” again (within NERC) in 2001. 2001 was also the year of design for the new building for POL in Liverpool (pictured). There were several reasons for unhappiness about this; building down to a price, inevitable open-plan offices (being cheaper and set by Swindon precedent), more time and expense of commuting for most staff. I had the “joy” being project “sponsor”. In building procurement this does not mean having the money but rather liaison between the “owner” (NERC with the money) and the design team. I was in the architect’s Birmingham offices on “9/11”.

POL's new building in Liverpool
POL’s new building in Liverpool

After more than a year’s delay on completing the Liverpool building, we finally left Bidston at the beginning of December 2004.

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