Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 208)



Mr McWalter

  200. Just taking up what you have been saying about where we go from here. There are, of course, a number of different funders for wave and tide devices—yourselves, DTI, the European Union, private finance. Who does the co-ordinating strategy to take the projects all the way from the drawing board through laboratory testing to full-scale prototypes to development? Is there anybody around who is going to take that responsibility?
  (Professor Brook) It is a plea we often hear that we should have more strategy—

  201. Sustainable Energy Czars.
  (Professor Brook) Indeed, I think the first recommendation of this evaluation committee, and there were 30 recommendations so they were not light on making recommendations—was that a national energy policy would be very helpful in ensuring that the research councils could take an appropriate stance within the system and failing that it would be good if the EPSRC had the strategy of balance between renewable and classical forms of energy generation determined. My suspicion is that in a subject which is so commercially determined in the last analysis it is difficult to make national plans where you can guarantee that you will have success. You have to leave it to the commercial sector to play a role.

  202. It is different from leadership, is it not? I am not quite clear what you are saying there.
  (Professor Brook) What I am saying is that research councils can ensure the information is available, the trained people are available, the country has the resource necessary to move into this subject area should the industrial sector within the United Kingdom decide that the risk justifies the investment. I am inclined to think that that is as far as we can go and believe in a successful outcome.

Dr Jones

  203. The assessment of whether the risk justifies the investment surely depends on the outcome of research? What comes first? It is a chicken and egg situation.
  (Professor Brook) The task for the research council is to ensure that the correct research is supported, that the people who have genuine abilities in this subject are represented in the community performing the research, and that the results of the research are made widespread and well-known. In our sector meetings we try to interest the industrial sector in the work which has been performed within the EPSRC, we draw it to their attention and we can allow our colleagues to say: "This is why we believe in it very strongly." So we provide the information but the decision whether to invest will be made by the end suppliers.

Mr McWalter

  204. What about when those things come together though? In the case of wave and tidal power you yourself say that you can get as far as proof of concept and prototyping but when you are actually talking about real wave energy devices you say it is beyond your scope. Do you then see that stage, which looks as if it is still a research phase—okay using rather big laboratories—as not your job any more?
  (Professor Brook) It is not beyond our scope because we wash our hands of it; this is a pragmatic response. We have £400 million to deploy across the entire engineering and physical sciences research support system and, as I have indicated, the cost of going from a proof of concept to a large-scale energy generating system is enormous and well beyond the resources of the national research council and therefore you have to be capable of inviting into the team people who can call upon that level of resource.

  205. In the case of, say, CERN that is exactly what happened. In the end you could not do the research without some very, very expensive machines. If you talk about wave and tidal power proving it can generate electricity to the right extent, are you not forced to make some major commitment and some real investment too at some stage?
  (Professor Brook) I do not see CERN as a commercial organisation. It is a contribution to our international culture.


  206. Is that not the point Mr McWalter is making; it is not a commercial organisation, it is a research organisation and therefore why can EPSRC not have something (perhaps not quite as expensive) that is also a research project on a further alternative energy rather than waiting at a certain stage for a commercial organisation to pick it up? I think that is precisely the point Mr McWalter was making.
  (Professor Brook) My apologies for not coming to it more rapidly. I would say CERN is a fundamental research organisation in an extremely expensive research sector so the style of research which they conduct is analogous to the type of research we conduct in renewable energies. CERN is not producing something that in the end has to go out and survive in a commercial competition. I am afraid when it comes to energy generation that step is almost unavoidable.

  207. CERN is almost an end in itself?
  (Professor Brook) Yes.

  208. Fine. We have come to the end of our time but we still have one or two points we would like to raise with you. Would it be alright if we wrote to you on the one or two points that are still outstanding and for you to give us a written response to them?

  (Professor Brook) Most certainly.

  Chairman: That is most kind of you. Sorry we cannot go on for longer but, rightly or wrongly, we see ourselves with a timetable beyond our own control and therefore we are having two evidence sessions this afternoon and we have to keep them both to about three-quarters of an hour. Thank you very much indeed not only for the information you have given to us this afternoon but for taking the time and effort to come here. All of us who are asked to go and speak somewhere or do something and are asked to speak for three-quarters of an hour know that it takes five hours out of the day to do that and it must be the same for you and we are very grateful. Thank you both very much.

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