Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 373-379)

9 JUNE 2004


  Q373 Chairman: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming to help in what is turning out for us to be a really interesting inquiry. We have you here to help us unravel some of the problems in the engineering sector and how DFID and so on interact in the developing world. You will be followed by people in health, and next week we are off to Malawi to inform ourselves of what really does happen at grass roots. We are beginning to feel that DFID have had a reawakening, that science and technology in that sleepy hollow has suddenly come alive again. It has been a pretty low effort, if at any level at all that is worth recording, and I think the Department stands indicted if that be true. Am I talking out of turn here? Is the picture you are seeing that there are changes taking place? In reaction to inquiries or whatever causes, is something changing in DFID? Do you pick it up? Do you hear it through the grapevine, in the pubs and clubs?

  Professor O'Reilly: There are three of us, Chairman, and we come from separate organisations. Would you like us just to run along.

  Q374 Chairman: Yes, I think so. On a question like that, we will do that.

  Professor O'Reilly: Okay, then you can play us as you wish. For the record, I am John O'Reilly, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

  Q375 Chairman: We have your biography, John.

  Professor O'Reilly: Indeed. From the EPSRC perspective, with regard to both DFID and the developing world research, I would say there is very limited direct interaction for EPSRC but, in large measure, that is dictated more by the nature of our remit and our specific mission than any observations I would make elsewhere—and let's recognise that that could be quite different for other research councils, where their missions may well align or the research itself may align. In terms of our specific programmes, it is in the infrastructure and environment programme where there are potential synergies, and there have been discussions and interactions with DFID largely in terms of making sure about awareness and so on, that they are aware of the strengths. In terms of EPSRC-funded researchers, we do know—we have checked—that there are significant activities, collaborations, interactions with developing countries, although our funding is not doing that directly. The area for development I would say probably is in the post-graduate programmes of training for the future. From some of the discussions I have had with DFID, that is where we may be able to open up things very positively.

  Q376 Chairman: If I were to say there is nothing going on, I would not be far amiss.

  Professor O'Reilly: If you said: "Does EPSRC collaboratively with DFID fund in developing countries?" I think you would be right, inasmuch as that is not primarily what we do. The answer in that sense is no. But you would be wrong if you were to say that there is not good awareness and good interaction.

  Q377 Chairman: You are not interested really in this whole area.

  Professor O'Reilly: If you look at the EPSRC mission and our remit, there is not a direct link there, there is an indirect link. There are some good interactions in areas of flooding. Water is one area where there are synergies and so on. As you rightly say, Chairman, we have recently been talking yet more strongly to DFID because the structures make that possible. To say "not interested" I think would be wrong. "Is there a fit?" is the issue.

  Q378 Dr Iddon: The Director General of the Research Councils, Sir Keith O'Nions, said that the research councils "must have a part to play" in research for international development. The MRC do it, the ESRC do it, why does your research council not do it?

  Professor O'Reilly: It depends what you mean by a "part to play". My point there is that the nature of that interaction is going to be different. In the case of MRC, the research itself takes place in the developing countries because what they research on is there. In the case of EPSRC, it is more the products of the research that will have relevance to the international development agenda rather than that we would go there to do our research.

  Q379 Mr McWalter: Managing Mozambique and the floods, say, is not an interesting problem that would require the most extraordinary engineering expertise?

  Professor O'Reilly: From my perspective, it would be an interesting case study that would inform the generic research on flooding in which we are engaged. Indeed, the flooding consortium that we have jointly with the NERC and with DEFRA and so on is a good example of that. So it is "relevant to" but it is not "go there and do the research there" from an EPSRC perspective.

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