Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 152 - 159)




152.  Thank you very much. I see it says you are all energy technology researchers. That is an encompassing term, but you have been sitting in and you hear the nature of our inquiry. Can I start off; you guys tried to get a lot of public and private funds. How do you get on with it? What successes do you have in accessing public and private funds? I know you have all got something to say, if you could just, each of you perhaps, on that one say something briefly? Perhaps you would start, Michael Graham.

  (Professor Graham) Essentially I access public funds and very little from private funds. This is partly because—I should say, I work in wind energy and wave energy and tidal, etc. I have not been able to identify recently suitable sources of funding from the wind industry, which is pretty well non-existent now. It has been difficult to identify industrial funding or private funding. I have had a very small amount of it, but the bulk comes from government funding.
  (Professor Strbac) My area of activity is electrical power engineering and in the context of the debate of renewables, I guess I would say that the area of work which I am involved with is about integrating renewable generation into the electricity system. I come from Electrical Energy and Power Systems Group from UMIST which is one of the largest groups in the UK with also, I think, significant international standing. We have been primarily funded by research councils, European Union Framework 4, 5 and now hoping to be active in Framework 6, DTI. Also we have got a small number of projects which are directly funded from UK industry, but all the projects which are funded by EPSRC are in collaboration with industry in proportion, I think I would say, I guess about 80% would be public funding and say about 20% would be directly from industry.

153.  Which industries?

  (Professor Strbac) I work with all, if you like, major parties in research, generating companies—

154.  Anybody that will touch your research, is it?

  (Professor Strbac) Yes. That is my industry.
  (Professor Acres) My background and interests are in hydrogen and fuel cells. I can speak for both industry and academia in my visiting professor role. I suppose in the context of Johnson Matthey, over a fairly long period, we have had substantial support from DTI, UK Government and in the Birmingham context, particularly with hydrogen technology, they have been quite successful both with the commission, more recently EPSRC. That is not to say that both parties would not have liked to have had more and as the technology progresses, the issue which you raised before, it is one thing to carry out research, it is another one to exploit it. I think if you compare the UK funding with that of Japan in these particular areas, then there is a much greater proportion of the money that Government provides in America and Japan really is targeted at the exploitation than there is in the UK. I think that is one of the weaknesses. But in the context of research, Birmingham, Johnson Matthey have been fairly good.
  (Professor Jones) My area of expertise is electronic materials and in the context of this photovoltaics. Sources of funding, I suppose, are a mixed bag. We get government money through EPSRC, we also get DTI money, but in fact the biggest investment in our group is from industry. It dwarves EPSRC money, it is from BP and it is quite an innovative programme.

155.  Everybody in your field feels hard done by, do you think you are relatively hard done by—try and be as objective as you can—compared with other fields of research? Do you have a feel for that at all?

  (Professor Graham) Perhaps we can each speak separately, because they are different areas and they differ. But the funding, I find, wind energy is in a particular position because onshore wind is seen as a mature industry and as has already been discussed, unfortunately the manufacturing industry has disappeared from the country. So it is actually very difficult to get research grants for the technology for onshore wind. I have currently got research grants for offshore wind, which is principally a marine problem. Wave energy is at the other extreme. There is a lot of uncertainty about it, but clearly there is no industry as yet. I feel the funding is very fragmented and perhaps reiterating what was said by the previous submission, there is a need for some sort of coherence really in energy funding policy from the Government through the EPSRC, which is where quite a bit of the funding comes from. We get funding from the European Commission which is through these big, fairly short, programmes. But they are very big—I have coordinated one with about 10 partners in it and five countries in wind energy, which was quite successful but very short. I think the UK needs to get a coordinated policy of funding and perhaps influence EPSRC to look that way. I can give some other examples, in that I work on marine technology of the conventional offshore oil platforms, for about 25 years, and there, there was a very successful policy operating which had a marine technology directorate and so on. It started off very well and it basically brought a lot of academics together with industry and I think the worry was always that it becomes a sort of cosy cartel and towards the end people think it is not very efficient, but it certainly got the coherent development of research for answering the North Sea oil problem. I would like to see the same approach taken for renewables.

156.  How sensitive is the system to bright new ideas, particularly from younger people in the field?

  (Professor Graham) EPSRC always asks now for adventure in research and ticking those boxes is requested if you are refereeing these applications, but it is just one of the items being assessed and probably the most important are the track record and the scientific quality of what is being looked at. Potentially the system is sensitive to this, but I am not sure that it is really—it is a very doubtful area. Once again, it is the issue of picking winners. As a referee you can see all sorts of exciting things, but you worry that there is a big risk associated with them.
  (Professor Strbac) Could I just add a few words on this? In our particular case, I think we have been reasonably successful with getting research funds. In fact, there is now a position where we cannot respond to opportunities which are out there simply because we are at the limit of our capacity. That is what, in fact, worries me a lot in the context of actual UK responding on the ground to the climate change challenge and also trying to meet the targets which are being set. Large research groups—and there are only a few of those in UK in a similar area—are really working to their capacity. We have been successful, as I mentioned, in actually getting the research support, but in our field we feel that the research base needs to be rebuilt. The capacity needs to be built. I would agree with previous speakers, arguing for a longer term coordinating policy which would actually enable development of research, get researchers in and then actually see the developments on the ground. Just one example to illustrate how difficult the position is in my particular field is that if you just take the sort of rough numbers as to what we need to do to achieve the 2010 targets (never mind 2020) and obviously wind potentially playing an enormously important role in that area, we need to build about eight gigawatts of new plant. If you take an average number, saying that perhaps one scheme would be about 20 megawatts, we would need to be building on a weekly basis the schemes to get there. We just do not have the capacity to do that. I could perhaps elaborate later on, but I do not want to—

157.  Thank you. Anyone else? Then we will move on to Brian.

  (Professor Jones) Answering your question about are we lucky in terms of funding. In my context, industrial funding is substantial and I think we are quite lucky. But in terms of research council funding, it is very hard work. It is very time consuming and very onerous to get relatively small sums of money. In fact, I think the industrial funding we have got is funding a project which really should be funded from research councils because it is actually quite long term research. It is not a short term technology development.
  (Professor Acres) I could quote from Rex Harris's Birmingham University submission to yourselves. There are too many government agencies involved in this area and the picture is confusing. I think, as you are probably aware, to increase the chances of success when you submit a proposal, whether it be to a research council, DTI or the Commission, you need a considerable amount of information on what it is they are looking for. So you either have to be a member of one of their advisory committees, which takes up a fair amount of time, or you have to spend a lot of time in Brussels or next door talking to them. In my experience, if you do not do that, your chances of success are remote and you can spend a lot of time and money on preparing proposals. Of course, in the UK at the moment, as you are well aware, you have got three research councils, three or four ministries, the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, various development agencies that all see this area as an opportunity to create business.

158.  Do you get home much?

  (Professor Acres) Yes. So it is a challenge and, in my experience, trying to persuade one or other of the ministries to act as a focus for it all, they say "Not us. You are responsible". Not me personally.

  Chairman: That is very, very helpful what you have just said. Brian?

Dr Iddon

159.  One of you has indicated that you have had EU Framework Programme money. What about the other three of you?

  (Professor Jones) We have also had from the previous one.
  (Professor Graham) I think I was the one possibly who indicated that. But the EU has been, in my opinion, very good in this respect and the UK perhaps lags the EU a bit.

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