Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  Q40  Chairman: Did you say we are second only to the US in science?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Yes, in science overall.

  Q41  Chairman: What about Germany?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: We are second only to the US. In terms of any measure of productivity, that is bang for the buck, we are by far ahead of the other G7/G8 nations in productivity. In some areas of science, particularly in the biomedical area of science, in the real cream, the most highly cited part of that science, we actually lead the United States in absolute terms. It is a huge success story which sometimes goes a little unnoticed.

  Q42  Dr Pugh: May I take you back to Mr Touhig's question about the Diamond Synchrotron? I have not had the advantage of a tour around it, but I have a suspicion that it would work just as well in Cheshire as it would in Oxfordshire. Am I correct in that supposition? It is now doing splendid stuff at Harwell science and innovation campus but there is no reason why it should not work in Cheshire. There are no fears about the water there.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: As a piece of physics it could.

  Q43  Dr Pugh: You said there was a scientific reason.

  Sir Brian Bender: May I just perhaps explain the rationale for the decision to locate it in the one rather than the other? Lord Sainsbury was the minister at the time. He received a number of bits of advice from various sources and he did in fact write to the then Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in 2000 and identified that there was little to choose between the two sites but there were five particular reasons which pointed to Harwell rather than Daresbury: there was potential for synergy with other facilities at the site; there was potential to make a world-class international research centre; there was sharing of support and technical functions; there was the proximity to the biosciences expertise at Oxford; and, importantly, there were also the views of the partner because there was a private sector partner, Wellcome, on this. On balance those were the five reasons that Lord Sainsbury gave at the time.

  Q44  Dr Pugh: The interest of the private sector in this has obviously got to be weighed, if they are involved in a co-funding relationship, but I understood from Sir John Bourn and the way he put it that the research community basically did not want to vacate attractive Oxfordshire and move to a really rough area like Cheshire.

  Sir Brian Bender: There was a synchrotron already in Cheshire.

  Q45  Dr Pugh: Yes, but it would be fair to say that the balance of scientific activity at the moment is going on in the Oxford/Cambridge area.

  Sir Brian Bender: The other thing that the Government announced in the 2006 Budget was that Daresbury would be an important part of national science and innovation campus policy. It would certainly be wrong if I were to leave the Committee with the impression the Government had vacated the North West for science and moved down to Oxford. Daresbury is an important science and innovation campus with a lot of good activity going on there.

  Q46  Dr Pugh: In terms of your decision-making process, do you take into account the differential effect on the economies of those areas? Obviously you are spending an awful lot of public money and there is an impact which can be to a greater or lesser extent for the public benefit. As part of the equation did they look at the impact of building up the hi-tech base at Daresbury as opposed to adding to the already substantial hi-tech base in the Oxfordshire/Cambridgeshire area?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Going back over the decision-making process which was crystallised in Lord Sainsbury's letter to the Public Accounts Committee, the regional economic impact of developing that facility was not a significant part.

  Q47  Dr Pugh: Why not, seeing that it was using a substantial amount of public money?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: That is a question to be addressed to Lord Sainsbury.

  Q48  Dr Pugh: He is not here and you are.

  Sir Brian Bender: The best way I can answer is to come back to the earlier answers I gave that the primary rationale for these decisions is science. The economic benefits do need to be taken into account. The other point I would repeat is that Daresbury—

  Q49  Dr Pugh: The reasons are as much social; they are to do with the community, they are to do with who is already there, what firms. They are not actually scientific reasons. They are good sociological reasons possibly.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Just to move the point on. There are two areas in the UK that are designated as science innovation campuses which have been designated for the natural benefits of those regions: one is Harwell and the other is Daresbury and Daresbury has all sorts of benefits in terms of high quality, lots of universities—Manchester, Liverpool, Lancaster—good access to airports and so on. The Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus is actually developing at a pace and one has to say the North West RDA has added a great deal. It is current government policy that if we built a fourth generation light source, that is something which follows and complements Diamond, it is quite likely to be either at Daresbury or Harwell.

  Q50  Dr Pugh: You will be aware we are trying to decentralise.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: The key thing is that it has not got conflated with regional policy.

  Q51  Dr Pugh: I agree. However, the key thing, what I am trying to tease out here, is that in terms of decentralising government functions in this country, a huge deadweight we have to counteract is the fact that civil servants in large numbers already live in London and the South East and wish to stay there and a similar thing could happen with the research community. Even though it is an international enterprise, they might simply have a preference for that. May I change the focus of the question? Accepting that science is an international enterprise, when you commission these activities, say for example a muon scattering facility, you must ask yourself the question, I guess, as to whether or not you actually need this. It is not self-evident that every country needs a muon scattering facility and other possibilities are to do as astronomers do, rent capacity in other areas of the world and so on. As part of your evaluation of the exercise, of whether it is worth doing, whether it is worth spending public money, can you discount absolutely the sheer prestige element, the element that the research community says, whether or not we need to have one, we want to have one because that affects our standing?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I was formerly a practicing scientist, it would be incorrect to say that scientists are disinterested in prestige and scientific facilities. I believe the way things have operated, and are operating, pure chest-beating prestige is not a factor. But it may well be a factor to be the first into a particular area which has great scientific merit and where we have a natural advantage. Coming to the muon ionisation device, that is an area working with neutrons where we have really had a world lead for a long time; there is a very big area of physics there in neutrinos. There are very few places in the world where you could do this. This has built on a natural advantage that is there, but, properly so, it has investment from other countries, from international sources in there too. I am trying to be reassuring by going into those details.

  Q52  Dr Pugh: As long as the questions are asked.

  Sir Brian Bender: They are.

  Q53  Dr Pugh: Can we lease it elsewhere? Can we share it with somebody else? If we cannot, then we must build.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It is a fair question.

  Q54  Dr Pugh: One thing that surprised me in the Report is the fact that the NAO say you have objectives and measures of success, but they say the value of some of these factors was reduced because they were not specified in a way which would readily facilitate measurement. Here we have institutions which make the finest, most refined, most exacting measures of very, very small particles and the like, but the whole project cannot be measured in any quantified way or its success cannot be. Does that slightly disturb you?

  Sir Brian Bender: It comes back to one of the points maybe the Chairman or Mr Dunne was asking earlier. We do need to get smarter at assessing the overall benefits of some of these projects and that is where we agree with the NAO. We do quite a lot to assess the benefits and measure them, but actually we do not do enough. We need to get better at that and I would only be repeating one or two of the points I made earlier if I carried on along this line.

  Q55  Dr Pugh: In terms of the obvious measures, one measure is counting the number of research papers that are generated. You clearly would not accept that as a viable way of measuring the success of a project, the fact that it generates hosts of scientific articles, because scientists will generate that for themselves anyway, will they not?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: In terms of the success of the investment in one of these projects, there have to be measures of its pure scientific success, whether this is world class science, whether it has actually generated any economic benefits and whether the people who have trained there have also gone off and generated economic benefits. In terms of measuring the scientific success, that is generally worked in quite well. What we completely accept, and again will not go over the same things again, is that,the overall economic impact, both specifically of investment in that project and of the people that have been trained in it, is something where we do not have a good enough understanding.

  Q56  Dr Pugh: I accept that it is extraordinarily difficult to assess success. Given that it is a very tricky business and you are hiring project managers for what are by and large one-off projects, maybe unheralded elsewhere in the world, is the whole process of hiring a project manager a very high risk process?

  Professor Mason: One of the things we are trying to move away from is having to hire one-off project managers for each one of these projects and one of the elements that a new research council brings is a great deal of experience in managing large projects. What we intend to do is to maintain a cadre of expertise in those areas of project management generally of large projects. For individual future projects we will need to supplement that with appropriate expertise in the specific areas that we are dealing with, but what we can provide are the generic project management skills and the experience of having managed several large projects previously. We will absolutely agree that we need to move away as far as possible from hiring one-off managers whose expertise we then lose.

  Q57  Derek Wyatt: I wonder whether I could move the debate a little bit to the international perspective. As I understand it, the Prime Minister has set up UKIERI, which is the UK India higher education relationship. I wonder how you feed into that.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It is an initiative with the Office of Science and Innovation and it is the Office of Science and Innovation's resources that are matching Indian resources in that. How does this particular initiative feed into it? Not in a particularly direct way, but if you see UKIERI as part of an initiative to engage further with India, more deeply with Indian science—and the same would be true for China as well but that is another story—then one would expect these facilities to become part of that in scientific engagement and so on. Some of the facilities that Keith is responsible for, international facilities where we would be contributors in CERN, have a panoply of engagement including India and China.

  Q58  Derek Wyatt: On the science side do we have MoUs (Memoranda of Understanding) currently with the senior research bodies in India and China?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: We have a great many MoUs. We do have formal agreements in medical research with China and neutrons with India, but let me just take the opportunity—

  Sir Brian Bender: We can provide you with a note on some of the international relationships.

  Q59  Derek Wyatt: No, no. Mr Dunne asked about the science and in computer science in Britain fewer people qualified this year than in 1997. On my visit to Bangalore a couple of years ago I was astonished at the quality of the graduates, so I am equally going to be astonished at what is coming out of Shanghai and Beijing and other cities.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Yes.

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