The centre for deep thinking
DUNSTAFFNAGE may be a sleepy backwater but it is home to an organisation that is really making waves globally, as well as locally.
The pioneering work being carried out by the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) is rippling out across the world and, particularly, its oceans. But it is also having a huge impact on the Oban area environment.
SAMS has been in its current building since 2004 but traces its genesis back to around 130 years ago, having started life in Edinburgh and having been based in various locations down the years, including Ayrshire.
The organisation moved its base permanently to Dunstaffnage in the late 1960s when it was little more than a small hydrographic station used for research.
The transfer was made for a number of reasons, including recruitment and retention of staff, and, more importantly, because of its marine environment and diversity.
Head of communications at SAMS, Anuschka Miller, is delighted at the way the organisation has grown and the positive impact it has had locally in helping to keep some of the Oban area’s brightest young people on home turf.
Dr Miller said: ‘For the Oban area, we are probably one of the more important places. Over the years Oban has suffered a lot with the vast majority of those youngsters who are clever and energetic leaving when they finish at high school. They all disappear off to Glasgow or Edinburgh or Dundee or wherever to study and gain skills.
‘ We might not be in a position locally to provide people with a whole spectrum of work but we have about 130 students here. We’ve also got a pretty international workforce here and we offer what are the better paid kind of jobs.
‘Highlands and Islands Enterprise has identified us as a kind of seed corn for economic development of the area around life sciences and we are allowing the small companies we have here to grow and be able to stay in the area.
‘ We have the potential to grow into a big business over the years ahead and we have planning consent for more buildings if we need them.
‘That said, we have grown hugely in recent years. In 2001, there were only about 70 staff and there was no undergraduate teaching being done. Now we are three or four times bigger than that and, in 2013, we added the second building.’
Dr Miller stresses that the work done by the team at SAMS benefits from its location, saying: ‘ We have very clean waters here and we have good access to very deep waters from here. That makes it attractive also for other marine institutions.’
SAMS has a number of small boats that are vital to its research work but for bigger expeditions, it hires larger vessels.
The Dunstaffnage facility is also home to what Dr Miller calls ‘the national capabilities’. One is the national facility for scientific diving. She said: ‘All scientific divers are trained from here and our divers support science in all the disciplines. They are funded by the government. We have, as a consequence, a recompression chamber here which is also used by the NHS. So all the diving accidents on the West Coast come here and we have to maintain staffing for that 24/ 7. We probably have 10 or so accidents each year.
‘Our other national capability is our culture collection of algae and protozoa. It’s a little bit like a botanic garden or a zoo, but for microscopic creatures. They are in held in many fridges. This is actually the most diverse collection of its kind in the world.
‘We sell the cultures and we curate the cultures. We are also a depository, so if you have a business that creates an antibiotic that is made from a marine alga, you might want to have a strain living somewhere else as a back-up and we can provide that. People can give us their living creatures and we will host them.
‘ We really work internationally and have blogs that show our research from the Antarctic to the Arctic – especially in the Arctic. We do an awful lot of work in the Arctic: we have students who spend a full year in the Arctic as part of their undergraduate course. There is a course on marine science with Arctic studies.’
SAMS looks set to continue to make a splash globally as well as locally.
Karen Wilson and Colin Abernethy assess data from the Breda.