Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  180. There are two different meanings to the word, the one word is bringing them together, and that is the risk?
  (Professor Brook) That is the risk but I think the NERC courageously is aiming to bring a single programme from it and we shall regard that with sympathy.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Dr Kumar?

Dr Kumar

  181. Professor Brook, in your memorandum you say that you anticipated funding £6 million of research into sustainable energy in the year 2001-02. Has that allocation now been agreed?
  (Professor Brook) That is fair. We estimate on an annual basis what monies we can give out to the different programme areas and there are details of that to be refined, but certainly within the approximation about £6 million would be a fair picture.

  182. Can you tell us how the division of funds between different programmes within the EPSRC is decided and what factors affect the allocation of resources?
  (Professor Brook) We work on an annual cycle. Advice is given to the Council by two panels. There is a Technical Opportunities Panel, so-called, which is largely academic in its representation. The task of that group is to indicate to the Council subjects which are particularly ripe for research scrutiny because the yield will be high. We also have a User Panel which is predominantly industrial colleagues who advise us of anticipated needs that they have identified. The two panels review business plans for the eight programme areas. They consider alternatives for the use of the money and they give advice to the Council which then allocates the finance. The criteria which are used (there used to be six broadly, they grew then to about 18 with subheadings) include such things as the intellectual excitement of the area, the relevance of it for national goals, the question, is there a research community in the country capable of performing this work, the question, is there an industrial community in the United Kingdom that would be capable of benefiting from the research were it done, the question if the EPSRC is unable to fund this will there be other agencies such as the European Union that will be able to step in? A range of criteria of that kind are considered by the two panels as they advise the Council how to allocate its monies. The decisions are made on an annual basis and the programme managers then commit monies to the universities for student training and for research grants in line with those allocations.

  183. How does the allocation of money which you allocate, the £6 million in this case, compare with America, France and Germany, your equivalent counterparts in those countries, and do you consider £6 million to be adequate?
  (Professor Brook) Whether £6 million is adequate I do repeat that the EPSRC is concerned with fundamental research, testing of concepts and identifying the existence of promise in particular renewable categories. You will be alert to the fact that it is often considered that research may require so much money but then development will require ten times more than that and then setting something into place will require 100 times more than that. I do not like to phrase it that way but the EPSRC is working at the lower cost end of the spectrum.

  184. Let me put it another way: would you like more money from the Government for that?
  (Professor Brook) It has never been known that a research council chief executive would sit here and say we are content with the finance. Successive Governments have shown genuine support for science and its place in the scheme of things and I think we have to be grateful for that. The concern we would have is whether there are brilliant researchers with splendid ideas who are unable to win support from us as a consequence of the finance which we have. If you look at the success rates which we are able to bring to energy support, which tend to be round about 50 per cent or even a little higher, then I have to say that in comparison with American, French and German success rates that is not at all a disadvantageous position.

  185. You say you are very happy to have more money but have you tried to increase your spending by levering funds from other bodies or collaborating with research councils, the European Union or any other government departments?
  (Professor Brook) Advantage is taken of opportunities to collaborate where they arise, very often by the academics concerned. I have to say that colleagues in universities are now extremely alive to the opportunities for support from different agencies both within the United Kingdom Government and more widely. I must emphasis again that the EPSRC has this role of supporting fundamental research into these subject areas in a way which allows beginnings to be made and promise to be confirmed but then, perhaps with colleagues in the DTI or other departments within government, you have to call on wider sums of money, larger sums of money to put things to the test and see whether that promise can actually be realised. Again Peter Hedges could comment on the links that arise with other departments.
  (Dr Hedges) We have had some very constructive discussions recently with the DTI in particular because they obviously have their own renewables programme and there is excellent opportunity for improving the synergy between the two programmes. We certainly have discussed with the DTI the prospect of having some joint funding arrangements. It is very early stages at present. Echoing what Richard has just said, there is a concern that it is very difficult to turn up the amount of funding you put into any particular area very quickly because there is a risk that you fund lower quality research which is not necessarily a good buy for the nation, and I think again because of the way we are looking to restructure the programme and fund these large consortia, part of the reason for doing that is to try and build a critical mass of researchers which can usefully use additional funding into the future in a broader programme given the strong political need for further research in renewable energy in the context of global warming.

  186. Any at European level?
  (Dr Hedges) I think there are always good prospects of developing better links between United Kingdom researchers and those particularly in the EU. Certainly I have discussed with members of the academic community research that they are carrying out, for example in collaboration with groups in the US as well. We have discussed with a number of other funding agencies in Europe the possibility of doing things in a more collaborative way and with the advent of the next Framework Programme, Framework VI, I suspect that kind of dual funding or co-operative funding arrangement is likely to grow.

  187. Professor Brook, you slightly hinted that you see your role as an organisation as providing research funding for basic research but would you broaden that and say it is to see good ideas being taken off the drawing board towards testing the feasibility of all possible energy sources, or do you see it as a basic funding body and let everything else follow after that?
  (Professor Brook) I think we would be in error were we to see our task as completing the initial steps in a process then closing the door and refusing to talk with the world beyond that. It is an essential part of it to report on what has been achieved with the finance we have provided and to make sure, where possible, that that research finds its way through into the next stage in the process. It is true that in renewable energy issues a number of the opportunities have existed for a very long time. The fuel cell is perhaps the one with the longest tradition and therefore the rate of progress which you can make is less dramatic than in fresh subjects such as the post genome. So I think it is fair to say that in energy we look for breakthroughs where they can arise but we recognise that the crucial steps between the present and ensuring that one or other of these schemes can come to commercial reality will involve things like costs, in particular, and the competition between the expense of this particular energy generation scheme and another one. Very many variables come into it beyond that of the basic research that lay at the outset. We try to draw everything through of course. We try to find friends that will help us in the next stage of that process but it is a very complex one.

Dr Turner

  188. Professor, your memorandum supplies us with details of the proportion of research grants given to each of the currently available reviewable technologies—wind, solar, and so on. How do you determine how much each technology receives?
  (Professor Brook) A large factor there will be the enthusiasm of those advocating the research, there is no doubt. Within the research council we allocate some two-thirds of the money in the responsive mode—that is where the principal investigator for the research is a product champion for that research—who comes to the council and says: "I believe in this development. I believe I have a particularly attractive way of going about the next stage. Can I have support for that?" We put that proposal out to peer review and if the peer reviewers are persuaded that is correct then money can be allocated. One of the largest factors in the shape of our programme is the shape of the interests of those making applications to us.

  189. Do you take into account the availability of alternative funding or the environmental impact of technology?
  (Professor Brook) I am sure that the peer reviewers take into account special factors such as the environmental impact of the technology because that impacts on its feasibility. Their concern always is, is this work original? Is it relevant to national needs interpreted in the widest range? And therefore they will do some balance of its advantages and disadvantages and try to reach a conclusion.

  190. Of all the range of technologies which you are currently supporting which do you think will be able to supply the most significant part of our energy requirements in the future? If you have a view on that, how do you form it?
  (Professor Brook) I try to keep my personal views out of the council's operations, I suspect correctly, but I have been struck by the fact that those who have been concerned with energy developments both in the industrial and public sector find it very difficult to make choices between these alternatives. If you are saying should we abandon fuel cells and move into photovoltaics completely with commitment, it is very difficult to get people to make that choice because energy is particularly effective in producing champions for given branches of the technology. You get passionate belief that this way is the correct way to do things. As a research council I think we have to respect passion in research where that does arise. My own inclination is—no, I do not think it is business for here.
  (Dr Hedges) There are practicalities concerned with the application of renewables of any form and that, I suspect, is going to be a key driver as to which will reach prominence. There are only so many wind turbines you can put across this country even using offshore. Likewise, there are only so many solar panels you can install bearing in mind the inclement weather. There are a lot of other challenges, for example concerning nuclear power, which is a very big issue and one which is raised with us very regularly. People do argue that nuclear is the ultimate renewable energy generator of course. It is very difficult to say from a research point of view which is most likely to be useful.

  191. Do you have any view about the potential contribution from wind and wave?
  (Dr Hedges) There are a number of challenges which are outwith the technology. If you talk to, say, the regional electricity companies, the regulatory procedures are challenged because wind and wave generation stations are likely to be small and likely to be distributed. They would argue that the existing regulatory regime does not encourage them to install those kinds of generators on the network. So there are challenges in that respect.


  192. I am a little confused. Are you saying it is not your job to try to pick winners and determine what is likely to have the best future, but you should finance everything and it will get sorted out at a different level which is outside your camp?
  (Professor Brook) That puts it in disparaging terms but there is an element of truth in that. For a basic research council there are dangers in deciding too early that this one is going to win over the others, particularly where there are research questions still to be answered. The argument that the Council has often followed is that one reason it exists is to help the country to be ready to deal with the next period of change and the next period of change will involve modifications in the way we generate and store energy, and therefore somewhere within the national knowledge system you want people who are informed about the alternatives. I have noted even in the industrial sector with energy companies that they back horses much longer than I would have thought necessary. There is still a tendency within the energy sector to back every horse within the race. I can understand completely the spirit of your question but I do not feel guilty that we for the moment suspend our decision.

  Chairman: I meant to put it bluntly, I did not mean to put it disparagingly, and if I did I apologise.

Dr Turner

  193. How many projects does your council currently support in the United Kingdom?
  (Dr Hedges) It is ten grants involving eight institutions. The total value is just over £1.1 million.

  194. And are those all for wave energy projects?
  (Dr Hedges) Those are all for wave energy.[1] The total number of renewable energy projects is in the brief.

  195. Did you have any difficulty in finding sufficient projects to support? Were they all of high quality?
  (Dr Hedges) We were content with the quality of the projects that we funded through the renewable energy programmes certainly over the last couple of years, and I think it is a fair assessment that we could have funded more. I think in all of the managed and responsive projects we fund we could finance more projects.

  196. Why is it that there are fewer wave and tidal projects, in fact no tidal projects at all, than, say, fuel cells or photovoltaics?
  (Dr Hedges) It is a combination of two factors. Firstly, historically we had two specific managed programmes that just addressed photovoltaics and fuel cells. A certain number of the existing portfolio are projects that dated from those programmes. Since we have run the single renewables programme (which covers all of the new technologies) wave has been reasonably successful and the success rate for funding is broadly comparable with the other areas. As Richard has said, to a certain extent the projects we fund are determined by the applications we receive. Because we have not at this stage had a specific earmark funding just for wave or tidal we have not specifically said we must fund X projects in that area. They have competed reasonably well. The community in photovoltaics and fuel cells is perhaps larger. It is perhaps more multi-disciplinary because chemists and material scientists are interested in that area so there is a large group of people to call on. Wave power just calls on engineers and as such we receive fewer projects. The success rates are reasonable.

  197. Have you received no tidal applications?
  (Dr Hedges) As far as I am aware. I will have to check to see whether we have received any.
  (Professor Brook) We have a document relating to an evaluation of the overall energy programme which I am pleased to leave with you which does give details about the number of applications we have got in the different sectors and their response rates. May I point to a dynamic amongst academic colleagues. If you set in place a managed programme and indicate to the university community that finance will be available for that you then draw people into that subject area very rapidly. You have then called a community into being which expects to be supported for the foreseeable future, so you have to be very careful about picking one branch of renewables and saying we really believe that fuel cells, as we did a few years ago, are very attractive because then everybody comes and promises to do fuel cell work and you feel happy about that. That means that some years later you have, as implied by your question I think, a balance between these different renewables which looks to be a little more favourable to one sector rather than another.

  198. The Government has told us that the UK is one of the leaders in the field of wave energy. Do you agree with that statement and, if so, how secure do you think our position is or are others likely to catch up and overtake us?
  (Professor Brook) There is absolutely no doubt that the United Kingdom has been responsible for major, ingenious advances within wave energy. I do not call that into question at all. We have national advantage also in that our waves are often quite large ones and tides rise more than they do in the Baltic, for example. If ingenuity and national climate were all that were needed I think we would be in a very good position. The difficulty of course lies in the fact that the energy field is extremely competitive. It is competitive in a fluctuating way because of the dominance of carbon fuels and their price, and therefore it is very difficult to move from the research level, where I think we are in promising condition, to the point where you can say this is now ready to be introduced.

  199. How much part do you think political factors can play in this?
  (Professor Brook) Political factors always play an important role but my impression here is that an industrial champion is needed who believes that this particular risk to introduce this form of renewable energy generation is now worth taking.

1   Note by Witness: EPSRC supports eight wave energy and two tidal energy projects. Back

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