Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)




  20. Could you send them to the Committee and we will distribute them?
  (Professor King) Very simply, the key areas are biotechnology for tackling major diseases, next generation internet, aeronautics, nano-technology, cleaner energy. These are all high priority issues for funding in the UK. In terms of flexibility, there is sufficient flexibility in the programme to meet a whole range of other areas as well.
  (Dr Taylor) The challenge for us in the research community now is to see, given those areas and those allocations in funding, how we can help the UK community to get the most leverage, the most contribution in certain of those areas. Where is the UK really going to major? Where is it going to take part, minor roles, and so on? That is what the next round of things is all about.

  21. May I just finish the arena I was probing with you? What happens now? Do you just wait for the answer to come back? Is there an ongoing series of negotiations? Have you done your dirty work now and do you just wait to be called in or do you still negotiate?
  (Dr Taylor) The answer varies across the patch. The cross-cutting review is a report which has been submitted and we shall see what happens, what kind of response comes from Ministers.

  22. Do you anticipate a response before the Comprehensive Spending Review is announced in the House?
  (Dr Taylor) We do not know and I do not believe there is any public timetable for the sequence of these things. All I expect is that we shall hear the ministerial response to cross-cutting review as part of the overall Spending Review process, but exactly which will precede which I do not know.
  (Professor King) The Spending Review White Paper, if we go by the previous White Paper, appears in July. We might anticipate that sort of timescale.

  23. Is it a done deal for British science now or do you think there is still a chance to lever into the political process?
  (Dr Taylor) On the Spending Review issues, clarifications, additional pieces of input are possible but essentially the process of saying this is really what we are looking at is pretty well done. In the case of the Roberts review, I believe a governmental response to that will be produced, but again I am not sure what the timing of that is going to be. That will obviously also have Spending Review implications.

  24. So there are people beavering away and they are taking all this and compiling some response for the Chancellor to come up with. Is that what happens?
  (Dr Taylor) I could not comment.

  25. It is a bit strange that we do not know the process, is it not? We are scientists, we want to know how these processes work and we want some feeling for the stages which take place. You have done your work and are left in limbo.
  (Professor King) From our point of view we have had an opportunity to put a very robust case forward and we have been involved in those discussions very deeply.

  26. At what level in the Treasury have you done that?
  (Dr Taylor) In the case of the science and research part of things from the Chief Secretary down.

  27. Has the Chancellor been involved at all?
  (Professor King) No; not at this stage.

  28. He has not directly been involved.
  (Professor King) No.

Dr Turner

  29. OST, that is yourselves, recently commissioned a report from JM Consulting on science research infrastructure. In the best journalistic traditions Nature reported the contents of it last month. Nature tell us that the report identified widespread deficiencies. Are you able to confirm that is the case? Are you able to confirm the figure that UK university laboratories need 3 billion of investment to bring them up to the standards of the twenty-first century?
  (Dr Taylor) As you say, we commissioned that work from JM Consulting. The overall situation is a fairly well accepted one from the Dearing Report, from the results of the transparency review. There is a serious level of under funding. The detailed interpretation of those numbers is quite a technical and variable undertaking. Whether or not I want to confirm a particular number from the JM Consulting report as being the definitive correct number, at this stage I am not willing to say that is the number. That is one of the inputs; there are various inputs and various opinions about how to characterise the number. It depends for example how you really want to account for depreciation on buildings and the value of the estate and the use of capital, cost of capital figures and so on. There is a wide range of ways of looking at those data.

  30. Surely what matters is whether the research infrastructure in any universities is going to be adequate for immediate and future demands or whether, as is alleged to be contained in the report, it actually threatens our scientific future as a nation.
  (Dr Taylor) If you look at what has happened in the last two cycles with first of all JIF putting 0.75 billion in and then SRIF putting a similar order of money into an investment fund for science research infrastructure into the universities, that tells you first of all that the argument that there is a serious deficit is accepted and the recent data from the JM Consulting report reinforces the fact that there is still a sizeable problem. We can debate exactly what the number is, but there is still a sizeable problem. The position that most people would take is that SRIF was better than JIF and SRIF is something that it would make a great deal of sense to continue. That kind of approach to renewing the infrastructure progressively is something which seems to be a very sensible way to proceed.

  31. JIF and SRIF between them have only benefited 15 per cent of the laboratories. That clearly implies that there is still an awful lot to be done because it has been mainly sexy new projects which have been funded through it. The report allegedly states that JIF and SRIF have not in fact had much impact. Do you agree with that alleged finding? If so, are you considering any alternative approach towards addressing the infrastructure problems?
  (Dr Taylor) Let me comment on your remark about the sexy new projects. I do not think that was the intent or the effect of JIF and SRIF. The basic intent was to renew the infrastructure for the very good research groups, the best research groups, not to start new groups. This was not about new recurrent expenditure for new people. This was about facilities and equipment and buildings for existing people. I know people like to think of it differently, but that is the fact. Secondly, I think that putting in something of the order of SRIF plus JIF, which is of the order of 1.5 billion, but let us give you the right number, over a period of three, four, five years, must have had a serious impact, or will have had a serious impact when it is in place, on the kind of situation which is described in the JM Consulting report. It will not be possible to renew all of the infrastructure in all of the universities which do any kind of research on that kind of time frame. The capacity is a real issue in that case. What we are looking at is continuing this programme on a stable basis so that universities will be able to plan for the kind of funding that they can expect and ensure that funding is spent on renewing infrastructure and not on extending the volume of research which is being done.
  (Professor King) May I address your question as well and pick on the general tenor of it? First of all, just to make an historic statement, the under funding which occurred within the higher education institute system over a very long period of time—I would say going back to the early 1980s—has produced the effect that we are now looking at. Over that long period of time, what was funded was recurrent demand and what was not funded was upkeep of infrastructure, to make a very general statement. What we have seen post these two three-letter and four-letter funding efforts, JIF and SRIF, is that there has already been a very significant transformation. I would say the 15 per cent figure which you quote is not giving a fair impression of what you would see if you travelled around the research intensive universities in the United Kingdom. Certainly I have a programme of visiting higher education institutes and what I see is that morale is climbing as a result of the infrastructure improvements which have occurred. On the ground, you will find enormous differences have occurred in specific institutes and in specific science departments. There is a big job still to be done.


  32. Would you like to name any of those?
  (Professor King) I should like to name the Chemistry Department at Cambridge for example, which won a 28 million grant to refurbish the building in the first round, the JIF round. I have to say that the total refurbishment cost will be something like 52 million and the rest was raised from industry and from the university's coffers. That cost sounds like quite a lot of money, but was vitally necessary to create a modern laboratory which is one of the world's leading chemical laboratories. St Andrew's is my most recent visit and they were opening their new laboratories. Nottingham has done well. There are a wide range of universities where the benefits are already beginning to appear. I do not want to sound complacent. I agree absolutely with what John was saying. We have years ahead of us to recover fully from a period of severe under funding.

Dr Turner

  33. Are you satisfied that we are getting the bang for the bucks with that money, that it has been wisely and well spent?
  (Professor King) I believe that if you looked into any one of those Departments where the money has been spent, you will find that morale amongst scientists is high, that the standard of science is improving in those areas and that to me is bang for the bucks.

  Dr Turner: Will we all be able to read the consultant's report? Is it going to be published?


  34. Do you have copies with you?
  (Dr Taylor) We do not have copies with us.

  35. Would you make them available to the Committee?
  (Dr Taylor) Let me take notice of that question.

  36. When will we get an answer?
  (Dr Taylor) I am told it is already published on the website.

Mr Dhanda

  37. I just want to pick up on one point. Is there an over onus on red brick, Cambridge, St Andrew's, Nottingham? All very nice, all very good, but very red brick.
  (Professor King) The answer to your question is that the JIF and SRIF grants were competitively awarded and it is therefore no surprise to find that in general there is a strong correlation between where the money went and the research assessment exercise rating.

  38. There is no correlation between people who are particularly adept at putting those bids in because they have done it before and been very good at it.
  (Dr Taylor) Let me comment. JIF and SRIF were quite different. JIF was competitive. I chaired the board which made the awards right across the patch. It was competitive on a very narrow basis in terms of the absolute quality of the people who were involved in those Departments and those activities. SRIF was done much more on a formulaic basis. This is part of the transition that we hope, Spending Review permitting, we can continue. Formulaically the university is told for the Spending Review period that it is going to get this sum of capital money that it may only spend on capital science research infrastructure, so it can start to plan. That is a much lighter touch. One of the things we did in the SRIF round this time was to have a dialogue with the universities about their strategies, their directions, what kind of serious infrastructures they need to put in place with some of this money. We need to tell them where we think some of the science budget and Research Council money is going to go because some of the research which the Research Councils plan to do will not be doable unless the universities put in place the right kind of science infrastructure to win the grants to do it. We are in the process of developing that kind of dialogue which on the one hand gives the universities considerably more autonomy in how to spend that capital money but say it must be spent on capital, not on increasing volume. It means that we have to have more of a strategic dialogue about where we think things are going to go and where they think things are going to go.

  39. I am sure the Committee would be interested in a list of applicants for those grants.
  (Dr Taylor) Let me be clear. The SRIF process is an allocation to each higher education institution. In that sense, there is no application for a grant. There is an allocation of money and there is some light touch dialogue about what they plan to spend it on. It is not a question of them competing against each other. JIF has finished, has gone. There are widely published lists of all the JIF grant recipients.


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