Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 172 - 179)




  172. Professor Brook, Dr Hedges, thank you very much indeed for coming along to the Committee this afternoon. Professor Brook, you are an old friend of this Committee. You last came to see us about two years ago I think. Dr Hedges we have not met before. For the sake of the record, Professor Brook, would you very kindly introduce yourself, the position you hold and the responsibilities you have, and I shall ask the same of Dr Hedges.

  (Professor Brook) My current position is that of Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. This is a position which I have held since April 1994 and my term of office will be ended in September of this year, so I complete seven years at the end of this week. As such I am responsible for one of the six research councils that work within the Office of Science and Technology system with the Director-General of Research Councils, Dr John Taylor, as co-ordinator for that group.

  173. Thank you very much indeed. Dr Hedges?
  (Dr Hedges) I am the EPSRC Programme Manager for Infrastructure, the Environment and Healthcare, a post I have held for only about four months. Before that I was responsible for another of EPSRC's programmes in general engineering. So my specific responsibilities are for aspects of engineering relevant to quality of life issues—renewable energy, sustainability, waste, etcetera, etcetera. My own background is that I have worked for EPSRC and its predecessor SERC for 10 years.

  174. Thank you very much indeed. I think what we shall do as a Committee, Professor Brook, is direct questions to you primarily. If you think they should be answered by Dr Hedges, either because it is appropriate or they are too difficult for you, can you pass them on to him. If Dr Hedges feels he wishes to make a contribution please catch my eye and I shall invite him to do so. Can we start by asking you to outline the work being done by the EPSRC on the renewable energy programme and perhaps tell us at the same time about the restructuring we have read about. Why is the restructuring taking place and what is the timescale for its completion?
  (Professor Brook) The EPSRC organises its research support systems through eight programme areas. We have the classical science subjects, maths physics and chemistry—and I will not refer to those further although physicists are of course interested in energy, as in everything—we have technology subjects, that is a materials programme and an information technology programme, and then we have three engineering programmes. One is devoted to engineering for manufacturing. That is really engineering and wealth creation. We have engineering for the environment infrastructure and health—what Dr Hedges has already referred to as "quality of life" issues. Then we have an engineering programme which allows engineers themselves to point out to us where the next step in their subject development can lie and then we have the opportunity to support that. Our energy work lies predominantly across these engineering programmes although there will be important contributions from such subjects as materials in particular and, as I have mentioned, from chemistry and from physics. The overall energy portfolio has been estimated by an evaluation panel to lie between £15 million and £37 million per annum. You may say why is there so much uncertainty about that? It is the extent to which you would include things like materials for gas turbine engines within an energy programme. But if we take a figure of £20 million per annum that would not be out of order. Within that there is a renewables programme which is of the order of £5 to £6 million per annum. As often arises with renewables, it is difficult to make the choice at the outset that this particular renewable is more promising than any other renewable and insofar as the research councils are responsible for fundamental work on new possibilities we do have reflected within our portfolio each of the principal renewable types—wind, wave, fuel cells, photovoltaics, and so on. The operation of the portfolio is part training support part research support grants. The grants are given out in two modes. One is the so-called managed mode where we indicate to the applicant the subject area where we would wish to receive proposals, and the other is where we leave it to the applicant to point out to us a subject area which is considered promising and they then say how they would wish to research it. That is the so-called responsive mode. Both are reflected in the energy portfolio. We have a specific managed programme in renewables in new energy technologies. That is one of a sequence of managed programmes which we have had in the renewables sector. Alongside that we have the responsive mode programmes. When an evaluation takes place it does often arise that people point out to us there would be great benefit in some co-ordination and concentration of effort and a clearer strategy for the portfolio than arises from responsive mode portfolios. It is in that spirit we believe we should cluster activity into larger groupings where we can identify clearly the progress which is being made.

  175. Is this the multi-disciplinary research projects referred to in your brief?
  (Professor Brook) This is the new managed programme that will replace the so-called RNET programme which is in the brief. There is to be a meeting in June of this year where the energy community will come together and advise us of the shape which that programme should have and then that can be included in the form of thinking for it. Dr Hedges is going to be responsible for the operation of that programme and it may be that he can give you a better picture of the timing.

  176. When he does, again in your note to us you talk about wanting to encourage "the submission of more adventurous, multi-disciplinary research projects", perhaps he could touch on that point and how you are going to encourage these projects.
  (Dr Hedges) It is a good question. What we have found in the past is that with the managed programmes we have operated like the renewables and energy technology programme we tend to fund a lot of individual projects that tackle one particular aspect of a technology or a particular way of developing wave energy, for example, and we provide in the brief examples of projects we have funded in this area in recent years. Increasingly in this area we have been getting advice from industry and academics alike that in order to really stretch the boundaries of the technology—with the view we get increasingly from colleagues and from DETR that we are talking about major step changes in technology that are needed—a multi-disciplinary approach is crucial. That is often quite difficult to support through individual research projects of two or three years' duration. The intention, therefore, is to fund much larger consolidated projects over a four or five-year timescale with a strong emphasis on multi-disciplinarity. How we are going to generate those projects is to some extent open to debate. We have some ideas now about how the system might work but what we certainly expect is we will be spending more of our own management effort on trying to broker collaborations between academics and industrialists for example, which we traditionally have not done. What we have said is: "The door is open, come and tell us what projects you want to do." Increasingly in the future what we want to do is to try and marry up groups with related interests and try and consolidate their support together, so it will be a fairly interactive process. The workshop in June is going to be the first stage in that process.

  177. My final question before we go to Dr Kumar is back to Professor Brook: NERC have told us that they have been given the lead in co-ordinating cross research council activities on sustainable energy. Why is this? What does this mean? And what is the difference between their approach and your approach?
  (Professor Brook) The last question is the one I should answer first. I hope there will be no difference between the approach of the NERC and that of the EPSRC. It has been a special ambition of John Taylor in his period as Director-General to ensure that the research councils are capable of acting as a coherent unit in addressing national concerns. The history of NERC's involvement with sustainability began with the last spending review where the OST did put forward bids to the Government indicating where science would be of particular importance in the coming years—the genome challenge, basic technology, e-science (that is the link between information technology and science)—and sustainability was mentioned. At that point it was sustainable land use which was given particular emphasis and it was therefore quite natural that the Natural Environment Research Council would be the one associated with it, but the response from the spending review debate was that sustainability should be given importance and it should be recognised to include the energy sector because of the crucial importance of global warming and other climate events, and therefore the NERC was asked to take that on as well. So there is now a group which John Lawton, the Chief Executive, is leading which is bringing together the programmes of the different research councils and making sure that that can be presented as a coherent addressing of energy.

  178. Are there any problems with this in your mind? Are the two research councils working well enough in a mature enough way not for anyone to say: "My nose is being pushed out. There is favouritism. Their work is inferior to ours and yet it is being taken more notice of"? Is that sort of thing out of the window?
  (Professor Brook) It is very natural that such concerns should be expressed about a national system which has six research councils, but I do believe that in recent years the system has shown itself capable of acting in an organised and generally collaborative manner. So that would not be my worry. I think the conceptual difficulty which I have is the linking of sustainability with energy. I can see the connection, of course, but sustainable land use has a very different cultural climate from the energy sector with its very rapid fluctuations caused by oil prices, etcetera, etcetera, so it is an issue of the tail and the dog slightly.

  179. It is almost as though the linkage is a word that happens to be "sustainability"?
  (Professor Brook) That is a risk.

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