Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)

9 JUNE 2004


  Q380 Mr McWalter: Each flooding system has a different geology and different flow characteristics, and a whole range of different new issues get raised if someone is working in the field as opposed to sitting in Imperial College designing mathematical models. Is there not something to be said for that kind of research as well?

  Professor O'Reilly: Yes, there is, and that is what I meant by saying it is a relevant and an appropriate case study that would link into the generic research that the EPSRC would more reasonably fund. It is not an irrelevance, it is not a lack of interest in any sense whatsoever; it is: "Where do we fund research and whom do we fund?" We primarily fund, as you know, researchers in the UK, and the problems they address are basic, strategic and applied research. It is in that last end of those where the case studies are likely to be—

  Q381 Dr Iddon: Would you be concerned to learn that some witnesses have told us that they do not think your research council is interested at all in the developing world?

  Professor O'Reilly: I would like to explore what they mean. I am concerned of course by the statement but I think we would need to unpick it and see what it means. A lot of EPSRC research is extremely relevant and there are interactions.

  Q382 Chairman: That is really what Sir Keith O'Nions says—you must have read it: "Given that Research Councils are the bodies that are funding the greater part of the basic science and most of the applied science in the UK—and therefore have access to a massive part of our intellectual wealth and scientific wealth—and if government policy is calling for that to be deployed progressively in international development, they must have a part to play."

  Professor O'Reilly: I think that is perfectly reasonable, Chairman. I consider that to be compatible with what I have been saying.

  Q383 Chairman: You are not doing it. We want to know why.

  Professor O'Reilly: Let me be very clear, Chairman. EPSRC is funding substantial work that is relevant to the developing countries. The researchers that we fund are involved in collaborations and are engaging people in the developing countries, but the nature of the research that we support is more of the generic nature, and then the developing countries provide one set of case studies, just like the Thames Valley might provide another set of case studies. Mr McWalter is absolutely right, these are different, and it is very helpful to have the different perspectives that help to test the models and so on, but that is the nature of the collaborations that go on.

  Q384 Chairman: Let's hear from Andrew Cotton and Peter Cameron at this stage.

  Dr Cotton: My response to your initial comments is that, rather than there having been nothing going on within DFID, it is a question of visibility and profile of engineering and technology based work within DFID. There has been a very innovative Knowledge and Research Programme in what used to be the engineering division in DFID. I would say the issue is the prominence that gets within DFID as an organisation and the way the outcomes of that work do or do not get fed through to country assistance programmes. With the restructuring of the policy division, there is the potential now, through dealing with research in a much more central fashion, actually to build synergies that my personal view would say were not there in the past, where you had quite different streams of research going on with different dissemination strategies.

  Q385 Dr Iddon: Is that integration the research councils—

  Dr Cotton: No, sorry, I am talking about within DFID itself, within the different sectoral programmes; for example, health, economics and social science and engineering.

  Q386 Chairman: What do you think of EPSRC?

  Dr Cotton: Coming from an institute which works totally in development, we do not interact with it.

  Q387 Chairman: You have never had a research council grant from EPSRC?

  Dr Cotton: We have not in my centre.

  Q388 Chairman: Have you ever applied?

  Dr Cotton: We applied quite a long time ago. One of the reasons for not pursuing that was that we are basically a self-funding unit and when there are other research programmes, for example the DFID research programme or through the World Bank Water and Sanitation Programme, on which it is much easier for us to focus our proposals, then we choose those.

  Q389 Chairman: I put it to you that you know quite clearly that EPSRC do not do development, so you do not bother. Is that what people say on the grapevine?

  Dr Cotton: I will only answer that from my own perspective.

  Q390 Chairman: Yes, that is what you can do.

  Dr Cotton: That perspective is of somebody who is working within an academic institution but whose primary focus is on the application of findings to Millennium Development Goals, to poverty eradication. From that point of view, it is very much the development end of research and development. So, from that point of view, it is an issue for me about personal interest and interest of the other staff in the institution in which I work.

  Q391 Dr Iddon: Could I come back to EPSRC for a moment, and ask John: Do you have any interaction with DFID at all?

  Professor O'Reilly: Yes.

  Q392 Dr Iddon: At what sort of level?

  Professor O'Reilly: They are on the scale of exchanging information and awareness more than collaborative-funding of research at this stage.

  Q393 Dr Iddon: Is that in meetings? Is it formalised in any way?

  Professor O'Reilly: There have been meetings, as you know, through two main programmes from the EPSRC perspective. One is the programmes, the programme managers and their teams, in terms of interactions and meetings. The second is that EPSRC has over recent years developed a policy of sector teams which look at different relevant sectors, and some of the DFID interests would fall into those sectors. So it is two different ways of getting a perspective. That is the sense in which the development perspective sits alongside those things which are within the UK and so on, and we debate together on them.

  Q394 Dr Iddon: Would DFID know of all the research that EPSRC are funding that might be relevant to developing countries?

  Professor O'Reilly: I cannot speak for DFID in terms of what they would know. I can say that they have access to it. We provide that information and, more recently, in some of the interactions, we have drawn to their attention the power of our browsing facilities of our database and have had discussions about sharing that information more intimately.

  Q395 Dr Iddon: Have you thought of developing a concordat, like the MRC have developed a concordat with DFID? Did you know they had a concordat?

  Professor O'Reilly: I am not at all surprised that MRC had. Although I did not know this specifically, I would expect them to. EPSRC does have concordats with many organisations, and we have had those discussions with DFID as to the extent to which that would be appropriate and are very open to moving forward in that way.

  Q396 Dr Iddon: Has your connection with DFID been long-standing or has it come about as a result of recent reforms in DFID?

  Professor O'Reilly: There are two sorts. There are some long-standing interactions, and those are the less formal ones—although I believe they have been very effective. In terms of flooding and in terms of earthquake engineering—which, incidentally, is an example we have not touched on, Chairman, where there are very substantial EPSRC-funded interactions—then I think there have been but those have tended to be on an individual topic basis. You are right, of course, that the recent reappraisal provides the possibility of a more formalised framework, and we would be very happy to move forward in that way.

  Q397 Chairman: Peter Cameron, you have sat here very patiently. What would you say about interaction with EPSRC? What would you say about DFID's changes?

  Mr Cameron: Let's go back to the DFID changes and how we see DFID. I think, with some apologies, in a way, the paper that we submitted to you does appear to be fairly critical of DFID, but it is, I suppose, as a result not so much of saying "you are not doing anything" or "DFID are not doing anything" but that there is an awful lot still to be done and we cannot just relax. We were very excited when DFID produced its Making Connections paper. That is seen to be really attacking the whole root of the world poverty issue and highlighting where the engineering and other sectors need to be focusing, and it stressed the need for very clear, very good infrastructure provision. Delighted as we were to take part in the organising workshops for the Applied Technologies to Improve Livelihoods papers that DFID organised in order to formulate their new engineering strategy, a frustration for us was that we were tended to be warned off the word "infrastructure"—as though: that has been done, you have been there, you do not need to do any more about that—whereas in engineering terms, simple engineering terms, infrastructure is so fundamentally important that we must not take our eye off that ball at all. Allied to that, we do recognise there is a lot going on within DFID. A lot of very interesting research projects are being done, a lot of good work. I suppose really, in short, we want more and more of that.

  Q398 Chairman: Has the amount gone down, do you think, that DFID has been investing in these enterprises?

  Mr Cameron: We are slightly disappointed with the paper that came out, that the engineering aspects would be evaluated and thought through, and no real strategy for developing that, and that was indicating a slight downturn against other areas which were increasing. But that is looking at the industry as a whole. ICE does not normally receive or seek funding from DFID and, therefore, in that respect. we are probably not able to talk very much about how DFID is funding research—although, of course, it has made a major contribution to our project of Engineers Against Poverty, which is the group formed out of the Telford Challenge, and now we are looking at a new development, Engineers Without Frontiers, which is looking at how the engineering profession can make a major contribution. With that, obviously, we will be looking to strengthen the existing ties with DFID.

  Q399 Chairman: Do you know our man in Malawi, for example?

  Mr Cameron: I do not.

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