Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report

3 Separation of strategic and operational roles

12. The QQR's recommendation that the CCLRC take more responsibility for providing strategic advice to OST and RCUK on national facilities stemmed from a recognition in the first stage of the QQR of a need to improve the co-ordination of a strategic assessment of requirements for access to large scale facilities by UK researchers.[12] Previously the OST had developed its policy for facility provision on the basis of advice from all the Research Councils and international participation in overseas facilities was pursued on an ad hoc basis by individual Research Councils. Under the new arrangements, it is for the CCLRC to propose strategies both for UK facilities and for UK participation in international facilities to RCUK and then for CCLRC to implement the subsequently agreed strategy, in collaboration with international partners. The new arrangements were judged by the QQR to provide a better focus for large scale facilities within the Research Councils and an enhanced ability to support large scale facility development on the international stage.

13. The first stage of the QQR identified the potential for its role as provider of strategic advice to OST to prejudice its role as a facility provider.[13] In order to avoid the strategic and operational roles of the CCLRC being seen to conflict, the review recommended that "the drawing together and provision of strategic advice on large facilities for the RCUK should be carried out separately from the day-to-day management and operation of its own facilities."[14] It stressed that the strategic advice provided to RCUK and OST should be "objective, open and verifiable". The CCLRC has sought to ensure this separation of functions and openness in its structure. Its advisory role is now taken on by the Strategy Board, a sub-group of the Council, consisting of non-CCLRC members of the Council, such as industrialists, and ad hoc external advisers. It is chaired by the CCLRC Chief Executive, Professor Wood. He explained to us that it was the CCLRC Council, under his chairmanship, that would ascertain whether strategic advice was properly obtained and sound.[15] A Programme Board, consisting of facility directors and other senior CCLRC staff, determines the CCLRC's own strategy. It is also chaired by the Chief Executive. A separate internal Operations Board, on which the Chief Executive does not sit, looks after the day-to-day management of facilities.

14. We received much evidence expressing discontent with the CCLRC's dual role, on the grounds that its strategic advice could not be impartial when its own interests as a facility provider were so directly affected. One member of a peer review panel for access to ISIS expressed this view directly: "I cannot envisage how CCLRC can provide strategic advice that is accepted as unbiased when it operates its own facilities in the same area. I consider that Government should obtain its strategic advice from an independent source that is also advised by the community."[16] One CCLRC user, who is also involved in the bid to host the European Spallation Source in Yorkshire, complained that "CCLRC is placed in the unacceptable position of benefiting financially and materially from the advice that it offers".[17] He also argued that the formulation of strategy is driven by a small number of individuals on the CCLRC operational side and that there is not enough reliance on the views of the appropriate user communities.[18] This criticism is echoed by the Institute of Physics, which argued that: "The CCLRC should make a clear, formal organisational distinction between its two roles: providing facilities and giving strategic advice on facilities. The latter should give a position to the (potential) users of those facilities who have scientifically and technically sound views that deserve to be heard."[19] Other witnesses called for the CCLRC to develop "an inclusive strategy that looks well beyond its own RAL site."[20] The White Rose University Consortium attributes its dissatisfaction with the CCLRC's performance in handling its proposal to host a European Spallation Source in Yorkshire partly on the lack of separation between the interests of RAL and the CCLRC's advisory role.[21] It argues that "CCLRC personnel may well be capable of switching between strategic and operational roles, but we would question whether CCLRC can be seen to be giving balanced advice if it does not implement a clearly defined advisory structure."[22]

15. Professor Wood recognised the potential conflict of interest in his evidence to us and seemed to acknowledge that not everyone was convinced that the new structures had solved the problem. He told us that "we are looking at how our Council can give the requisite reassurance."[23] In April 2004, the new Director General of the Research Councils, Sir Keith O'Nions, asked for a review of progress made in implementing the QQR recommendations. This independent review will focus on the issue of the separation of roles.[24] Professor Wood nonetheless defended the new arrangements and was happy with the current situation as long as the process was transparent.[25] He said "we have to have a transparent mechanism for looking into the future of large scale facilities and we do separate the two roles internally. We have the operational side of the action and we have the strategic side."[26] He also questioned who else was in a position to provide the strategic advisory role[27] and pointed to the fact that other Research Councils faced a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale, in providing strategic advice on areas in which they had their own research institutes operating.[28] We note that few if any other Research Council institutes support the range of disciplines as those at CCLRC facilities. It is right that the Chief Executive sits on both the Programme Board and the Strategy Board, as the two need to co-ordinate their plans, but to chair both gives him an undue degree of influence and risks compromising the independence of both Boards. The Strategy Board should be chaired by someone outside the CCLRC.

16. Professor Wood argued that the CCLRC should only be responsible for the provision of advice in areas in which it has expertise. Thus he did not believe that the CCLRC should be responsible for facilities belonging, for example, to the Medical Research Council: "I think you go to where the expertise is, frankly".[29] We accept this argument. The CCLRC has no role in the provision of access to international telescopes, observatories or research ships, which are the responsibilities of PPARC and NERC respectively. We note that one of the justifications for taking responsibility for the ESRF and ILL away from EPSRC was that potential users of these facilities increasingly came from disciplines outside the remit of EPSRC. Equally, the CCLRC is already required to provide strategic advice on facility access in areas outside the physical sciences. Biology and medicine now account for 23% of time allocated on the existing synchrotron radiation source (SRS) and 17% of time on one of the central laser facilities.[30] It is widely accepted that there will be increasing demands from the life sciences for access to synchrotron facilities as, following the genomics revolution, proteomics is expected to provide some of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the years ahead. Professor Cruise, a Council member from CCLRC, confirmed this view, telling us that one of the two areas which were expected to take off this century was structural biology: "how the shape and structure of proteins actually affect animals, plants and so forth and right down to the genome".[31] An increasing share of synchrotron time being taken up by the life sciences weakens the case for the CCLRC to be the sole provider of strategic advice on these facilities. TABLE 2: Allocation of Percentage Time by Science Area for the CCLRC Large Facilities - the Central Laser Facility (CLF), the ISIS Pulsed Neutron Source and the Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS)CLF Facility 1—VULCAN High Power Lasers CLF Facility 2—Lasers for Science Facility including the Ultra Fast LaboratoryCLF Facility 3—Laser loan pool
Science area CLF ISIS SRS
Facility 1 Facility 2 Facility 3
Biology & Medicine 100%17% 5% 23%
Chemistry 70% 71%26% 24%
Materials 3% 26%21%
Physics 8% 13%40% 27%
Engineering* 2% 16%3% 5%
Total 100%100% 100%100% 100%

*Engineering includes, Instrumentation and Environmental science

Source: CCLRC, ev 27

17. We have some sympathy with those who argue that the CCLRC cannot provide genuinely independent advice while it continues to have such a strong stake in the outcome of that advice, although we note that some of the loudest complaints come from those with specific interests in the location of new facilities. We accept that the Strategy Board does have a strong independent presence and that the CCLRC already works closely with other Research Councils in developing its programmes. But the fact that the DGRC has called for a review of the new structures so soon after the QQR's implementation indicates that all is not well. Perception and trust are vital. The user community must be confident that the CCLRC would act in the best interests of the entire UK user community, even if such actions were detrimental to CCLRC operated facilities. At present, the dual role of CCLRC appears to be undermining this confidence in some quarters. The creation of the two separate but linked Strategy and Programme Boards does not seem to have provided the level of inclusiveness and independence necessary to satisfy the whole user community. Complete separation is the best option.

18. We believe that strategic advice on large scale facilities which serve the needs of users across most if not all the Research Councils would best be provided under an RCUK umbrella. RCUK was established in order to provide the Research Councils with a more coherent voice and a more strategic outlook. The QQR referred to the strategic partnership between the Research Councils in managing the UK large facility portfolio and stated "It is essential that the CCLRC and its independent advice are placed at the heart of these processes—and that guidance and strategic direction is provided by RCUK".[32] It assumed that membership of the CCLRC Council for the Chief Executives of the other Research Councils was sufficient to ensure that advice to the RCUK Strategy Board was fully representative.

19. We would rather that RCUK itself took direct control of this strategic role on the grounds that it is the most natural source of strategic advice on the provision of access to large scale facilities, not only those which fall into the present CCLRC remit but also those which are the responsibility of PPARC and NERC. This would leave the CCLRC free to focus its activities on the management and operation of the large scale facilities for which it is currently responsible. Such a separation of functions would support RCUK's present responsibility for compiling the Large Facilities Strategic Road Map for OST, which provides a strategic view of the large scale facilities likely to be required by the whole research community over a 15 year period, both in the UK and internationally.[33] Of course, RCUK relies upon the input of CCLRC and also the other Research Councils in developing the Road Map and would continue to do so in advising directly on large scale facility provision. The guaranteed involvement of the other Research Councils on an equal basis would provide a more credible guarantee of impartiality than existing arrangements and would serve to inspire in the research community a greater degree of confidence in the provision of strategic advice. It would be up to RCUK to determine how best to ensure that the views of all user communities were canvassed and advanced. We recommend that the strategic advisory role in respect of large facilities currently performed by the CCLRC and other Research Councils is formally transferred to RCUK, along with the necessary resources.

12   OST, Quinquennial Review of the CCLRC, Stage Two, Improving Performance, p 26 Back

13   OST, Quinquennial Review of the CCLRC, Stage One, para 3.2 Back

14   OST, Quinquennial Review of the CCLRC, Stage Two, Improving Performance, p 28 Back

15   Q 17 Back

16   Ev 52 Back

17   Ev 31 Back

18   Ev 31 Back

19   Ev 40 Back

20   Ev 32 Back

21   Ev 37, para 2.2; see paras 55-59 below for discussion of the European Spallation Source. Back

22   Ev 38, para 4.1 Back

23   Q 13 Back

24   Ev 55 Back

25   Qq 18-20 Back

26   Q 13 Back

27   Q 19 Back

28   Q 10 Back

29   Q 12 Back

30   See Table 2. Back

31   Q 71; the other area he cited was designer materials.  Back

32   OST, Quinquennial Review of the CCLRC, Stage Two, Improving performance, para 31 Back

33 Back

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