Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)

9 JUNE 2004


  Q400 Chairman: I mean, the man who is responsible for the engineering projects?

  Mr Cameron: But certainly our local representatives would have good links with your country reps, and we need to build on that.

  Q401 Mr Key: Andrew Cotton, your memorandum actually says, ". . . a detectable reduction in the emphasis placed by DFID on the role of technology and engineering" has occurred. How have you detected that?

  Dr Cotton: I would pick up on a point that Peter made where I think he said, "Don't mention infrastructure too strongly when you are in some of these dealings". That was a feeling that we got, for example, through the Knowledge and Research Programme of the engineering division. One of the important things it did was to go for an interdisciplinary approach with engineering-based research projects. My question would be—and I do not know the answer to this—Did other sectoral programmes within DFID make a similar question? In other words, had social science based research programmes made an effort to incorporate engineering views and engineering considerations within that? We certainly felt that we had to keep off too strong a statement about infrastructure and technology being at the forefront of what we were doing. I would add that, in the that work we have done and in our experience, technology and engineering is but one component. It has to be viewed within the institutional, economic, financial, social, environmental context—so it is one of six—but we tended to feel that we were keeping it a little hidden.

  Q402 Mr Key: Are you confident that people in DFID are competent to assess the role of engineering in their programmes overseas? Do you think they have the right staff? Is it perhaps because they do not have the right staff in DFID that they do not see the importance of engineering and technology?

  Dr Cotton: Of the staff that I know, the engineering advisors, to a man and a woman I believe them to be highly competent and very good and they have a very good understanding of development. My question would be of the number within the cadre, as to whether you have sufficient given the up-scaling of the overall aid programme budgets to reflect the need for improved infrastructure. So I think it would be more to do with the numbers on their advisory group within engineering that would be of a concern.

  Q403 Mr Key: I wonder if I could ask all three of you whether you feel DFID is right to focus on the application of access to engineering rather than new technology per se. Because that is the impression we get. They are not very interested in promoting new research in technology and engineering.

  Mr Cameron: It is an interesting question, in that I think there has always been an eagerness, certainly with our contacts with DFID, to promote and look at new technology. I think it is interesting, though, that DFID have moved away from having an engineering division to having an urban development and infrastructure division, and that tends to suggest to me and to us that the engineering side is more subservient to the general research programmes.

  Q404 Mr Key: Would anyone else wish to add to that?

  Dr Cotton: I think the emphasis on application is prominent. Let me say, around water and sanitation—which is a key area, it runs through the Millennium Development Goals—that there it is the application which needs looking at. And I think it is the application within a context: the dissemination and the uptake. There are a lot of ideas there, there is a lot of research there, but I think we do not have the exploration of what works well and what does not work well. Where is the evidence base within particular contexts? From that point of view, I would say that that focus in water and sanitation is correct. More broadly, I can think of areas where in technology terms it is the quantum leap stuff which has real application to development; for example, mobile telephony and global positioning. Now, in terms of locating rural water supplies, water sources right out in the bush, wherever you are, somebody can go there with this kit, click it in, and you can start to map your assets. The technology of the assets is simple and appropriate but you are then using a very high technology approach to do the asset registers, which is what is going to lead to then get good management of those assets. I think that is the exciting area: when you can look at the quantum leaps in technology which can apply straight to these situations.

  Q405 Mr Key: And you are saying that DFID really is not very excited about these quantum leaps.

  Dr Cotton: It is a question of whether they are looking to develop these quantum leaps themselves. I guess that is where John said there would be scope maybe for improving those links between that type of exciting new technology and its application.

  Mr Cameron: If I may add to that, I think it is unfair to say really that DFID are not interested in the quantum leaps, that they are not interested in development technology. Clearly from the contacts we have there is a lot of enthusiasm for getting into a lot of very interesting research projects. I think that vital within that, as Andrew has just said, is to be able to have a very clear assessment and record and database of what works and what does not, so we can move forward all the time and discard those that have clearly failed.

  Professor O'Reilly: First of all, I think the two other participants have put the case, in a sense, very well, but perhaps I could just pick up on how this might actually relate to EPSRC and EPSRC researchers. Some of the "quantum leap" kind of discussions are the sorts of things that EPSRC itself has funded. It has been research which has been undertaken here, which has been informed by opportunities in developing countries and looking at telecommunications for regional areas—how one can deploy that and so on—and the research that we do in telemedicine that would carry across and so on. But in terms of you saying, "But what about the really big development?" let me reiterate what I said at the beginning, Chairman: I do believe there is a very important role for EPSRC—and I think we are very open to it—in terms of providing really good training opportunities, such that the countries themselves are able to pick up and take on that thought for the future. That was really why in my opening remarks I said that I think one does have to look at what is the best fit in terms of the remit and the mission and those things which we are already well set up to do and do well, and getting good synergies in there. You will find those in the Masters programmes that we operate, where people come and so on. I think in the recent discussions with DFID that may well be an area for future development that I would be very keen to develop. I think the Dorothy Hodgkin scholarships are a superb initiative that fit in very well with that, and EPSRC is a strong contributor and indeed is administering this scheme. So I think these things play in different dimensions to the different facets.

  Q406 Mr Key: Does the Research Assessment Exercise affect your attitude to doing research on international development?

  Professor O'Reilly: That is presumably not a question to me as EPSRC.

  Dr Cotton: Shall I take that one.

  Q407 Mr Key: Yes, please.

  Dr Cotton: It is difficult because we have to try to make a balance between producing the peer review journal outputs which are required for research assessment . . . . I should say that my institute has actually been in and out of the RAE: it has been in it, it has been out of it, and it is back in it again. From that point of view, we are interested. We are part of Loughborough University and therefore we desire to do the peer review publication to contribute to RAE as a key thing. It is actually difficult because our primary work and our bread and butter is much more on the development and the application. Also, we find that we have to have a balance of activity—it is not just research, it is capacity building, training and consultancy—and basically that gives us our competitive edge. That enables us then to make, if you like, the cutting-edge research applications, because we have worked in the field. In a sense, the proportion of our time that we spend is squeezed and it is not easy to allocate the time for RAE contributions.

  Q408 Chairman: Do you think the RAE should be modified to allow for your ventures?

  Dr Cotton: I certainly think it should.

  Professor O'Reilly: If I may add a small thing, prompted by your discussion. There is a certain sense in some of what Andrew is saying that this is a different dimension on knowledge transfer as well, is it not? The question then would be how in our system do we give proper recognition and put it in the right place in terms of that sort of dimension. Of course the old RAE was not designed for that. The new RAE or whatever informs the knowledge transfer funds could take account of these and I think that would be a very healthy thing to have considered.

  Q409 Mr Key: A large chunk of our international development budget is channelled through the EU. What is your experience of applying for EU money in international development projects?

  Dr Cotton: Our experience is difficult. We actually have a number of applications on the go at any one time, but it has certainly been difficult—and we have not been particularly successful at it, largely because we have not I think maybe focused at that source of funding, which is something that institutionally we are now doing much more strongly and putting more resources into doing.

  Q410 Dr Turner: Does it involve the same sort of complexities as the framework development funds? Do you have to identify European partners in order to make your bids and so on?

  Dr Cotton: Yes. Definitely it has those. It is around different sorts of partnership building. We have good partnerships with the south and we have partnerships with a number of European organisations, but we are looking to extend that.

  Q411 Mr McWalter: We have heard that other European countries, when they finally do get some EU recognition for their work, then get correlative funding so that the project is viable, while, in the UK, the UK government is much less willing to provide that correlative funding and EU funding itself does not even fund the total level of overheads the projects incur. I cannot see why you would bother doing it in those circumstances because all you are going to end up with, even if you get the EU money, is a loss-leader. Should British government policy not change so as to make these projects more viable?

  Dr Cotton: It would help if British government policy changed. Certainly, from where we sit, if we are making a serious EU application we have to look very carefully at that and we do have to treat it as something which does not recover our overheads, because we do have to recover our full overhead costs.

  Q412 Mr McWalter: It is not the EU's fault, is it? It is DFID's fault, because if they took this seriously they would make the representations to the government that this needed to be done.

  Dr Cotton: I think it is a problem that needs to be sorted out.

  Q413 Mr McWalter: Why are you so pussyfooting on DFID? We ask you about numbers of engineers and you say there is a bit of a problem about numbers. Why do you not say straight out that there are not enough engineers?

  Dr Cotton: With respect, I suggested that you had a good look at it, and I said in here that maybe you should take one of your indicators to be that, so I do not think I have pussyfooted around it.

  Q414 Chairman: The RCUK's written evidence suggests that "At country level DFID can also increase its engagement with the international development programmes of the International Agencies, the European Union and its European partners." How can that coordination be better achieved?

  Professor O'Reilly: I think you have to look at the inhibitors, Chairman. To whom can we talk? I think there are very good ways in which we do that through other research councils in Europe and so on.

  Q415 Chairman: Talk is cheap.

  Professor O'Reilly: Exactly so. I think the biggest inhibitor does not apply just for the development; it is actually to do with EU funding of research. You have been touching on something that is not particularly a DFID problem—although there is the possibility of some amelioration of it. My personal view—and you know this because you have heard me say this, Chairman—is that it would be far more sensible if in Europe we actually cut to the quick and said, "Let's fund research from Europe properly so that people do not have to dance around all of these things." I think that applies to development, just like it applies everywhere else.

  Q416 Dr Turner: DFID's change of research strategy wants to focus on four primary themes: agricultural productivity in Africa, killer diseases, states that work in the interests of the poor and climate change. First of all, what are your views on this strategy? Secondly, what do you think you as engineers have to contribute towards this?

  Mr Cameron: Certainly, as I said earlier, as important as all those four areas are, I think there is an underlying problem that the engineering aspects are tending to be demoted. Underpinning all of those things, as we said in our paper, are the infrastructure elements and none of those aspects of research can stand alone without adequate water, sanitation, access, communication, energy, buildings and so on. If we forget about those and think that we can solve all of the poverty issues without those, we are going to be very much mistaken.

  Dr Turner: I do not disagree with that.

  Q417 Mr McWalter: To put it colloquially, you are saying they are plonkers, are you not?

  Mr Cameron: I am not saying that, I am saying that the new strategy paper is not giving sufficient significance to the engineering that underlies all those aspects of development that need to be studied properly and much more so.

  Q418 Dr Turner: You co-hosted the applied technologies workshop during the DFID consultation for the research strategy. What are your views on the way DFID conducted that consultation? Was it an adequate process? In fact your earlier remarks imply that perhaps it was not, because the importance of the infrastructure policies does not seem to have come through in the strategy.

  Mr Cameron: I would not say necessarily it was the fault of DFID or people who have helped develop those workshops. It may well be our fault for not being sufficiently trustful in driving the fact that the infrastructure has to underpin all of those aspects. I think we were frustrated that, possibly due to lack of eloquence on our side/a high level of eloquence on the other side, the aspect, important as it is, of the topic of agriculture did seem to take prevalence over everything else.

  Q419 Dr Turner: DFID's new strategy shows a commitment on DFID's part to public/private partnerships. You have expressed a certain amount of scepticism regarding their benefits as far as developing countries are concerned. What is your evidence, your judgment, of the possible role of PPPs in developing countries?

  Mr Cameron: The evidence is hearsay. There are clearly some good examples of private partnerships but they depend totally on which organisation is promoting them. How strong is that organisation? How strong is the contract prepared for the private partnership? To what extent is that partnership developing and underpinned by the desire for corporate social responsibility? If the contract is purely written on a profit gain basis for the private investor, it is going to fail—and it will fail because it is likely to disenfranchise the poorer part of the poor people who cannot afford the new taxes and tariffs that are imposed. So we have concern in that way. To some extent we have seen overseas some possibly corrupt organisations promoting private partnership as the way out of the problem, but, unless the contract is written by someone separate to that, you are likely just to make the situation worse.

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