Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-283)


21 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q280 John Smith: Are you concerned about the closure of the physics department at Reading University which was announced yesterday given the number of recruits you take?

  Lord Drayson: Speaking more generally, the number of physics departments which have closed in the country is a concern to us. This country depends upon having a significant and growing pool of scientists and engineers, physicists, chemists and so forth, therefore we need to look at the way in which we encourage young people to want to go into these disciplines and then make sure that the support is there for them. We have a number of other sources of physics graduates apart from Reading, but it is true that we believe it is a pity that the physics department at Reading has closed. It is not affecting us in a dramatic sense, but speaking generally, if I may.

  Mr Gould: As I understand it, recently recruitment of physicists has not actually been the main source of difficulty in recruitment at Aldermaston. Some of their other disciplines have been more challenging.

  Q281 Chairman: What skills are most at risk and hardest to find? If a civil nuclear programme is pursued, what will happen to skill retention at Aldermaston?

  Mr Bennett: It is interesting that the most difficult skill we have to recruit at Aldermaston is actually project management. In terms of managing a significant infrastructure programme and delivering that to time, bringing that in has proved something of a challenge and we have covered that by Aldermaston doing a partnership deal with a project management specialist company while we continue to try to grow and develop those skills. Across the rest of the organisation it is actually extraordinarily healthy and retention rates are significantly higher than the industry average; a large number of people queuing up to apply and trying to join the organisation.

  Q282 Chairman: Would the civil nuclear programme drain skills away from Aldermaston?

  Mr Gould: There might be some impact, but actually it is a very different operation. The civil nuclear programme being run by the power generation companies will use what is now pretty mature technology: third generation reactors are mature in terms of their design. We are really talking about engineering and not the kind of physics which goes on at Aldermaston. There might be some overlap, some competition for disciplines, but actually there is not really a great deal of pull to the civil programme from Aldermaston.

  Mr Bennett: We should be clear that it is not just physicists either. Across the materials and the computing and other fields a significant number of other engineering and scientific skills are required, so please do not just focus on physics.

  Q283 Mr Havard: I am trying to concentrate on the functions it is capable of doing. The question of what it is doing and what it would be expected to do or not and how that relates to treaty obligations and other things is a separate but related set to questions and at some point we do have to get into that, because we have assertions made that some of it is not consistent with ... That is not for today. As far as the actual facility itself and its capabilities and skills are concerned, we have cleared that issue. You would require it whether you were doing away with it or developing it.

  Mr Bennett: You would.

  Lord Drayson: May I make a general point that it is not just in this area? We are seeing a real pressure on project management skills. The level of growth taking place in the country, the projects, major infrastructure projects which are taking place, things like the Olympics and so forth, are having an effect in terms of the availability of top level project management skills which, along with top level systems engineering skills, are two areas of capability where we need to do more in terms of the development of numbers of graduates in the country.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for that evidence session; it was most useful. It was most helpful of the Ministry of Defence to come along and give evidence today.

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