Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report


4 Use of facilities

New arrangements

20. In line with a recommendation of the QQR, in April 2003 the CCLRC took over the role of managing access to its facilities from other Research Councils. Previously Research Councils had operated a ticketing system, whereby they allocated a ticket with a notional value for use of facilities as part of an overall research grant. Researchers now have to apply separately for a research grant from the relevant Council, and for time on facilities. The CCLRC introduced a common access mechanism at ISIS, the Central Laser Facility (CLF), and the Synchroton Radiation Source (SRS) facilities under which researchers are able to apply for time to do experiments on machines, regardless of whether they have research grants or not. Calls for proposals for access are issued every six months.[34] Proposals are judged by 13 independent Facility Access Panels covering different science and technology areas. Different access modes have been developed to meet the needs of different user communities. For example, the programme access mode provides guaranteed access to researchers pursuing long term major science programmes. There is also a rapid access mode, for those seeking immediate access to pursue new topics. Applications are judged against the criteria of scientific excellence and timeliness, taking into account technical feasibility and safety issues. In addition, for each scheduling period, the relevant Facility Access Panel advises on the balance to be struck between the various modes of facility access.[35]

21. Mr Schildt, Director, Corporate Development at the CCLRC, told us that the new arrangements with direct funding allowed the CCLRC to be more responsive in meeting the needs of the research community and respond rapidly to changes in demand for different facilities.[36] They had allowed CCLRC to take full responsibility for balancing maintenance of facilities and reliability against required usage.[37] The CCLRC reports that the changes have "received strong support from the research community and other research councils".[38] It states that the take up of programme access mode has been "variable", and markedly lower at ISIS and the CLF than SRS. This variability is attributed to the different cultures of research communities and some unfamiliarity with the benefits of the programme access mode. The proportion of time allocated to this mode of use will not be set in stone, but will vary according to demand. The CCLRC has not supplied to us figures with which to compare the anticipated access levels of 25-50% and actual outcome.[39]

22. We have received few complaints regarding the new arrangements, apart from those relating to the availability of funding, which we discuss later.[40] We found some support for the new system[41] and there is evidence to suggest that researchers are finding the new arrangements easier.[42] The application process for time on CCLRC facilities largely replicates that of grant applications to other Research Councils. Although it has taken some years to introduce, we welcome the development of the Research Councils Research Administration Programme (Je-S) electronic application form by the Research Councils and its adaptation for use by CCLRC. This provides a much needed degree of continuity in the services offered by Research Councils. We trust that the new system will help minimise the bureaucracy involved in applying separately to the CCLRC and to Research Councils.

23. Overall levels of funding for facilities have not changed significantly as a result of the new arrangements. Total administrative costs to the CCLRC have increased, partly due to the cost of peer review panels. These costs are counter-balanced by savings to other Research Councils which no longer have to administer the access arrangements.[43] Precise figures on costs have not been supplied to us. Although it is too early to make an assessment of their impact, we welcome the new access arrangements for facilities, which appear to be working well. We regret that detailed information about levels of demand for the different modes of access and statistics relating to administrative costs have not been provided. We recommend that the CCLRC consults with the user community and provides indicative guidelines on the time to be made available on instruments in different access modes wherever possible.

Subscription rates

24. The evidence we received confirmed that the CCLRC's facilities are held in high regard by users and in many instances are world leading. One otherwise critical witness referred to excellent neutron, x-ray, muon and laser facilities which are "amongst the leading facilities in the world", for which "CCLRC should be congratulated".[44] The Royal Academy of Engineering commented on the international respect for the facilities. It reported that users were pleased with support services there and found staff were "customer-orientated".[45] We found nothing but praise for the professionalism and dedication of the staff operating facilities at the CCLRC and we have seen for ourselves some of the facilities at RAL and other sites. We commend the CCLRC for its work in maintaining world class facilities and in matching this standard in the provision of technical and other support services.

25. The quality of the facilities is reflected in levels of demand for their use. Most of the CCLRC facilities are oversubscribed, some by a factor of four, but most by less than two. Eight of 50 instruments are undersubscribed, five seriously so.[46] There may be a fall in demand for some facilities as they reach the end of their working lives, or new technologies supercede them or if alternative facilities become accessible abroad. The CCLRC explained that "The demand for individual instruments is variable and dependent on the growth stage of a particular science area … A low demand figure does not necessarily mean that an instrument is not world leading, but could reflect that a particular area is new and in early growth stages".[47] Overall, levels of demand for most instruments appear to be healthy. The CCLRC reported that demand "remains strong though not excessive, which is almost certainly due to a degree of self-regulation by the research community".[48] It explained that experienced users were aware of the popularity of certain instruments and were able to collaborate with others in order maximise their chances of success. Less experienced potential users are left to apply in the dark as no statistics are currently published on subscription rates. We recommend that the CCLRC publish statistics on subscription rates for its instruments on an annual basis.

26. In cases where instruments are under-subscribed, Facility Directors consult with stakeholders before decisions are taken on whether to significantly change or replace the instrument.[49] In considering whether to close down instruments, consideration is given to overall levels of demand, user feedback and the cost of re-configuration set against the projected scientific return on investment.[50] Decisions relating to the closure of entire facilities would only be taken after thorough consultation with the research community, Research Councils and OST.

27. It is not possible to examine success rates in terms of applications for use of CCLRC facilities in the same way as grant applications to other Research Councils. The applications of many researchers are technically successful in winning some time, but not as much as they applied for. Figures provided by the CCLRC indicating apparently very high success rates—generally upwards of 70%—are therefore not very informative and potentially misleading.[51]

28. In evidence, we received complaints that demand from UK researchers for time on facilities was suffering from a lack of project funding from Research Councils.[52] It is not surprising that there is not enough funding available to support all the research on CCLRC facilities that the UK research community would like to carry out. It is healthy for demand to exceed the supply of funding for the CCLRC just as it is for other Research Council grants. We suspect that the complaints we have heard reflect this reality. Mr Schildt told us that overall, "we are not noticing a reduction in the total demand and the quality of that demand from the United Kingdom science community".[53] Without meaningful figures, useful analysis of the changing patterns of demand for facilities is impossible. Although it is not possible to determine accurately by what factor, it is clear that demand for Research Council funding for projects involving time on CCLRC facilities exceeds supply. In order to better inform the user community and to improve its own strategic planning and liaison with other Research Councils, we recommend that the CCLRC develop broad but meaningful indicators of success rates for applications for time on facilities.

Availability to UK researchers

29. The CCLRC runs facilities for the benefit of UK and international researchers. The criteria for assessing applications from UK and EU researchers under the EU framework programmes are the same: UK researchers compete for access directly with their European counterparts. Applications from other international researchers are also peer reviewed alongside all other proposals. We heard some concerns that, due to a lack of funding from UK Research Councils, CCLRC facilities were increasingly being used by foreign researchers. The Institute of Physics (IoP) reports that researchers are finding it difficult to obtain enough support to exploit the excellent facilities provided by the CCLRC, and that the proportion of experiments being performed at ISIS by UK academic researchers has decreased over the past few years. The IoP argues that unless funding increases "high quality national facilities [will be] increasingly unavailable to scientists in UK universities."[54] Professor Cowley from Oxford University points to difficulties in obtaining funding from other research councils to permit use of the CCLRC facilities and expresses concern that unless there is a change in funding policy "we shall build excellent new facilities only for them to be largely used for research and training of scientists from overseas."[55] There have been other reports that researchers are finding it increasingly hard to cover the cost of research using CCLRC facilities.[56] In order to test these claims, we obtained from CCLRC some statistics on user profiles for its major facilities. These are set out in tables 3 to 7 below.TABLE 3   Usage of Central Laser Facility - VULCAN
1999-2000
2000-01
2001-02
2002-03
UK HEI
93%
100%
89%
92%
EC
7%
-
11%
8%
OTHER
-
-
-
-
TABLE 4   Usage of Central Laser Facility - ASTRA
1999-2000
2000-01
2001-02
2002-03
UK HEI
98%
73%
66%
74%
EC
2%
27%
34%
26%
OTHER
-
-
-
-
TABLE 5   Usage of Central Laser Facility - Lasers For Science Facility
1999-2000
2000-01
2001-02
2002-03
UK HEI
82%
81%
86%
87%
EC
15%
5%
14%
9%
OTHER
3%
14%
-
4%
TABLE 6   Usage of SRS
1999-2000
2000-01
2001-02
2002-03
UK HEI
92%
91%
85%
88%
EC
-
2%
4%
4%
WELLCOME TRUST
3%
3%
5%
4%
COMMERCIAL
6%
4%
6%
5%
TABLE 7   Usage of ISIS
1999-2000
2000-01
2001-02
2002-03
UK HEI
76%
77%
77%
80%
EC and International Partners
24%
23%
23%
20%
OTHER
-
-
-
-

30. The above tables indicate that levels of usage by researchers from UK higher educations institutions have remained stable or have increased in most of these facilities over the last four years.[57] In the specific case of ISIS raised by the IoP, UK usage has actually increased marginally over the last three years. It is only in the case of the Astra central laser facility that the level of UK usage has fallen significantly. Mr Schildt acknowledged that researchers were dependent on their relevant Research Council to obtain funding to access facilities and that "there will be some times when competition in some areas is very strong, and that will include competition from overseas."[58] This is as it should be: no Research Council has enough money to fund all proposals. We conclude that the inability of Research Councils to keep pace with demand for facility access is not, at the moment, leading to a significant shift in facility use from UK to foreign researchers.

31. The maintenance of high levels of usage by UK researchers can be seen as a good indication that UK science is maintaining its internationally competitive position. Nonetheless, there are caps on EU sponsored access to facilities: for example, 35-40 beam days per year for neutron scattering experiments and 15-20 beam days for muon experiments.[59] In addition, a limit of 5% has been placed the availability of beam time to researchers with no contractual arrangements with the CCLRC. But should competition from abroad intensify in future years, or should funding from Research Councils fail to keep pace with UK demand for facility access, there is nothing to stop the fears of Professor Cowley being realized. We recognise that there is an obligation and a benefit to the UK in making UK facilities available to leading scientists from overseas. There has to be a balance. We would not regard the CCLRC to be acting in the strategic interest of the UK research community if it were to oversee a situation in which foreign researchers benefited disproportionately from UK facilities at the expense of the UK researchers. We hope that the competitiveness of UK science is such that this situation will not arise, but the CCLRC is right to impose caps on the levels of use by EU and other researchers should the interests of UK research programmes be seriously threatened.

Availability to industry

32. In addition to serving the needs of the UK and international academic researchers, the CCLRC also permits some use of its facilities by UK industry. At present, industrial usage is low - it does not exceed 5% on any of the facilities. There is no industrial use of ISIS and the Central Laser Facility and only 5% of allocated time on the Synchroton Radiation Source (SRS) is by industry. (See Tables 2-5 above). The CCLRC reports that it would plan to use capping arrangements if demand reached a level that would impact upon research programmes. Unlike Research Council-funded users, commercial users are charged on a full economic cost model, including depreciation and cost of capital. Access for commercial users of CCLRC facilities is determined and allocated by the Facility Access Panels. Income received is redirected into facility operations. The Royal Academy of Engineering argues that industrial use of the CCLRC facilities should remain relatively light, although the Research Council could provide greater support to industry in fields such as micro and nanotechnology.[60]

33. We were surprised by the low level of industrial use of the world class facilities that the CCLRC has to offer. Professor Wood acknowledged that although there was relatively little direct access from industry, many university users included an industry presence. The precise extent of this involvement was not easy to monitor, although efforts were being made to do so.[61] We were told that the one area of significant interest from life sciences based companies is in protein crystallography. Mr Schildt said that, as a result, an agreement had been reached with the life science Research Councils for industrial usage to grow to a maximum of one third of the available time on the relevant instruments. This level has not yet been reached.[62]

34. The general picture is one of lower than anticipated use by industry - no more than 5% for synchrotron radiation as a whole. Mr Schildt told us that only if this rate doubled would caps need to be considered.[63] Our previous inquiries have indicated to us that awareness in industry of the CCLRC facilities potentially available is poor.[64] Professor Wood agreed. He told us that whilst it was his policy to promote engagement, through workshops and contacts with Regional Development Agencies, for example, "it is quite hard leading horses to water in this game".[65] We have also seen in other inquiries that there can be strong latent demand from industry for use of facilities for R&D, but it needs to be nurtured and tapped proactively.[66] We believe that CCLRC has an important role to play in helping UK industry benefit from existing facilities but that it has not pursued this agenda with vigour. For example, there is no training package tailored specifically for industry.[67] Witnesses from CCLRC accepted that there was scope to do more to engage with industry at all levels: from supplying and developing equipment through to access of facilities, whether alone or in conjunction with academics. Mr Schildt told us that "we need to increase awareness of us and exposure of us to industry in a way which we can address" and talked of an "opportunity for a real fresh look at the policy with industry."[68] The efforts of the CCLRC to engage with industry, and to find out why industry has been so reluctant to use CCLRC facilities, have met with little success so far. We welcome the positive attitude shown to rectifying this and will be interested to see how these words are translated into action. To add a degree of focus for these efforts, We recommend that CCLRC sets itself challenging targets for raising levels of industrial awareness and use of its facilities in future years, with appropriate safeguards such as caps on usage levels if necessary.

Quotas

35. Whilst it may not be necessary for there to be hard and fast quotas for user profiles on each facility - there must be an element of flexibility to respond to changes in demand - we would nonetheless expect a long term strategy to include an indication of the balance of user groups that the CCLRC envisages for its facilities. There is no such published indication at present. We recommend that CCLRC develops indications of user group balance for its facilities and liaises with other Research Councils as necessary to ensure that funding levels are kept as far as possible in tune with available levels of access.

Facility Use and the Research Assessment Exercise

36. One of the criteria used in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to analyse the quality of the research output of university departments is the amount of funding from external sources obtained by those researchers submitted to the process. Time awarded for use of large facilities was not explicitly taken into account by the assessing panels in the 2001 RAE. The Institute of Physics argues in evidence that, under the new system for awarding time on facilities, clarification is needed on the extent to which facility use will be taken into account.[69] Up to now, the IoP says that this has been accounted for in an ad hoc fashion and not, in general, treated as the equivalent of research income.[70] Whilst the amount of time on facilities gained by researchers may be submitted for assessment by university departments, it is not clear what weight is attached to this or how it is assessed alongside the cash value of external income. We understand that this issue is due to be considered by the higher education funding councils and Research Councils as part of the development of the 2008 RAE. The IoP argues that time awarded on facilities should be a recognition of quality in the same way that external research income is, as both are subject to similar rigorous peer review processes. Otherwise, insufficient recognition will be given to those departments which are successful in winning time on facilities for the purposes of the RAE. Consequently, the awards of QR funding by funding councils will not fully reflect the quality of research at such departments. We did not take detailed evidence on this subject as we are currently conducting a separate inquiry into the RAE. Nonetheless, the lack present lack of transparency is a concern. We recommend that the CCLRC calculates a cash value for the time on large scale facilities that departments can use in their submissions to the 2008 RAE and that the funding councils provide a clear indication of how such time is to be taken into account in the award of funding based upon the RAE.

Access for UK researchers to facilities abroad

37. The CCLRC seeks to help meet the needs of UK researchers by entering into agreements to secure access to facilities abroad. It aims to strike a balance between building and operating facilities in the UK and providing access to existing leading facilities in other countries. It does this through multinational agreements with partner countries and also bilateral agreements for UK access. The CCLRC manages the UK subscription to the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL) and the European Synchroton Radiation Facility (ESRF) both in Grenoble, and to facilities in Germany and the USA for particle physics research. The UK is an equal partner with France and Germany in the ILL and has a say in the strategic direction of both the ILL and the ESRF. The UK's annual share of the £40 million ILL budget of £10 million increased to a full third share in January 2004.[71]

38. We received evidence from the Chairman of Instrument Subcommittee at ILL, Professor Cywinski, that the failure of funding earmarked in previous spending reviews to materialise had hindered the ability of ILL to complete its programme of refurbishment.[72] Mr Schildt told us that this had been a concern, but that the SR 2002 settlement "encouraged us to think that the United Kingdom will be able to make that level of investment" necessary to deliver the ILL ten year Millennium Programme of facility refurbishment.[73] He spoke of an "aspiration" to make funding available for ILL available as soon as possible to maximise a return on investment but warned that "you sometimes have to move in tandem with your partners at the rate at which they are able to make funding available."[74] He hoped that levels of investment in ILL would enable the strategic goal of complementary European facilities for the next decade to be met. The CCLRC contributions to the Institut Laue Langevin need to be seen in the context of the needs of the UK user community. The CCLRC should spell out in its Strategic Plan how it plans to invest in ILL and then should sustain this level of investment throughout the period of the Plan.

39. The UK is one of eight partners which fund the ESRF. Its share is £6 million out of a total budget of £42 million. The Large Facilities Strategic Road Map reports that the UK's access to ESRF is not enough to meet the needs of UK scientists.[75] At present, the UK has around 14% of available beam time on the ESRF.[76] Demand from the UK includes that of the EPSRC, BBSRC and MRC, which have contributed to the development of new instruments for collaborative research groups, outside the terms of the subscription agreement. The CCLRC should recognise that the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility is unlikely to be able to meet the demands of the UK user community and should base its strategy on the provision of access to alternative long term facilities.

Facility Development Grants

40. CCLRC launched a new Facility Development Grant in autumn 2003. Facility grants were previously administered by individual Research Councils, most of them by EPSRC. The grant is available for researchers who submit innovative new ideas to develop improvements to the CCLRC's major facilities, ISIS, SRS and the Central Laser Facility. Where applications fall within the remit of the BBSRC and MRC, applications are made directly to those Research Councils, which then liaise with the CCLRC in assessing the proposals. Otherwise, proposals are assessed by a Facility Development Advisory Board made up of external experts, with CCLRC facility directors acting in an advisory capacity. In the first call for proposals under this scheme there were 58 expressions of interest and 25 fully costed proposals. The first awards under this scheme were made in March 2004 and totalled £5.1 million. This sum exceeded the £3.9 million per annum transferred from EPSRC for this purpose, a reflection, the CCLRC asserts, of the high scientific quality of the proposals received and the strategic priority it attaches to facility development. Some £3 million of this sum went to the development of the Astra laser at RAL to create the most intense laser in the world.[77] Nine other grants were awarded.

41. The grants are not available for facility development at the ILL and ESRF. Some witnesses thought that this is unfair and places UK users of these facilities at a disadvantage to scientists from partner countries. We heard that other countries support Collaborating Research Groups (CRGs) which gain access to ILL to build and manage beamlines for their own research. There are no UK CRGs at the ILL, and only one at ESRF.[78] Professor Cywinski from ILL argues that these grants should be awarded on scientific and financial merit rather than on geographical location.[79] The Institute of Physics endorses this view: "It is essential that the strategy for facilities incorporates overseas facilities at the same level and with the same role as home based facilities, otherwise the CCLRC cannot guarantee that users will be provided with the best opportunities, or the facilities with the best investments."[80] The CCLRC argues that provision for the development of these facilities is included in the national contributions to operating costs and that the Millennium Programme is intended to fund significant redevelopment and refurbishment.[81] The Edinburgh University School of Physics regrets the transfer of the grant from EPSRC to the CCLRC and is concerned that the overall level of funding available for facility development grants will not be as high as when under EPSRC control and that there is less flexibility to cater for fluctuations in demand and large bids. More significantly, it argues that "there is an unavoidable element of conflict between CCLRC's proper primary role of running and developing world class facilities for the current user community and future UK needs, and the allocation of grant funding purely on the basis of scientific priority alone."[82]

42. Fears that funding for facility development would fall have proved without foundation thus far but the concerns over the CCLRC's dual role are understandable. In administering the Facility Development Grant, the CCLRC needs to make a clear distinction between in its roles of serving the UK user community and acting as a source strategic advice on the development of UK facilities. We would also like to ensure that the interests of the user communities are directly reflected in the development of facilities at ILL and ESRF rather than being filtered through agreements reached by national partners. It is not clear to us that the UK suffers from any built-in disadvantages at present, but we accept that the CRGs may be formed on the back of very different degrees of support from partner countries. At present, it does not seem that the UK is making the most of the opportunities for access provided by the CRGs. A fairer way to ensure quality and provide strategic direction would be for each facility to hold competitive calls for proposals for facility development and allocate a proportion of the overall funding in grant awards. We recommend that the CCLRC explores with partner countries at the Institut Laue Langevin and the European Synchroton Radiation Facility the possibility of making peer reviewed awards for facility development in place of existing Collaborative Research Groups. In the mean time, we recommend that the CCLRC takes steps to ensure that UK researchers are given the same encouragement and opportunities to collaborate in Collaborative Research Groups as those in partner countries.


34   Ev 55 Back

35   Ev 43 Back

36   Q 26 Back

37   Q 29 Back

38   Ev 43, para 5 Back

39   Ev 56 Back

40   See paras 29-31below. Back

41   Ev 41 Back

42   Research Fortnight, 28 January 2004 , p 1 Back

43   Ev 57 Back

44   Ev 31 Back

45   Ev 33 Back

46   Ev 29-30 Back

47   Ev 44, para 12 Back

48   Ev 55 Back

49   Ev 56 Back

50   Ev 56 Back

51   Ev 12 Back

52   See paras 29-31 below. Back

53   Q 36 Back

54   Ev 40-1 Back

55   Ev 52 Back

56   For example, Research Fortnight, 28 January 2004, p 1 Back

57   Figures for earlier years were unavailable. Back

58   Q 36 Back

59   Ev 57 Back

60   Ev 33 Back

61   Q 40  Back

62   Q 41 Back

63   Q 41 Back

64   See for example, Fifth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2003-04, Too little too late? Government Investment in Nanotechnology, HC 56-I, para 86. Back

65   Q 43 Back

66   See for example, HC (2003-04) 56-I.  Back

67   Ev 59; see paras 67-70 below.  Back

68   Q 104 Back

69   Ev 41 Back

70   Written evidence to RAE inquiry, HC 586 to be published in summer 2004.  Back

71   CCLRC, Operating Plan 2003-06, August 2003, paras 67-69 Back

72   Ev 32 Back

73   Q 53 Back

74   Q 52 Back

75   OST, Large Facilities Strategic Road Map, Executive summary Back

76   OST, Large Facilities Strategic Road Map, Chapter 3 Back

77   CCLRC Press Release, 23 March 2004 Back

78   Ev 39; www.ill.fr/; www.esrf.fr/info/science/newsletter/apr98/DOSEXP/EXP4.HTM Back

79   Ev 31 Back

80   Ev 41 Back

81   Ev 57 Back

82   Ev 30, para 2 Back


 
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