Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-87)|
INDUSTRY & SCIENCE
WEDNESDAY 9 MAY
Q80 Chairman: Where is his constituency?
Sir Brian Bender: In the North
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
cannot shed further light on that but there is one additional
complexity which is that initially the French Government were
involved in this as this was going to be a joint project between
the UK and France and obviously that added greater complexity.
Q81 Dr Pugh: I do not want you chaps
to go away thinking we are not all very supportive of scientific
research but it does not follow that we are wholly supportive
of every single big project. It may be idle curiosity, but it
does strike me that there are many huge bits of apparatus around
still which, whatever they did, can now effectively by simulated
by a PC. In the history of big projects, there must be a history
of obsolescence and things being remaindered and white elephants.
Are there such big scientific projects in recent history that
are now essentially obsolete and, if there are any, have we learned
anything from it?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
will give you some examples of where obsolescence has crept in
and the facilities have gone. If you just think in terms of building
aircraft, you used to make a model, you used to put it in a wind
tunnel and blow air over it and see how it behaved and tweak it
and go and build some different wings. That now can be mostly
simulated in a computer. We had a lot of those sorts of facilities
in the UK; we now have a minimum of them, that is computational
Q82 Dr Pugh: But that is in the private
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: No,
it was very much government. It just happened to be more perhaps
in defence, but it was certainly big government expenditure on
facilities which have now gone. That is just one example where
computation has really passed on. There are numerous others. They
will probably come in drug discovery before long; the ability
to simulate what goes on at the molecular level in drugs and how
drugs behave in your body is getting more and more sophisticated.
Q83 Dr Pugh: Learning from that experience,
is there no way we can anticipate that sort of development?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Not
the timescale of it. The question is: are we spending a load of
money at the present time on keeping useless facilities going?
Our budget is a bit too lean and mean to contemplate that.
Q84 Chairman: We were told this morning
that the capacity of the modern Ipod you have in your pocket,
if it had been in a computer system in 1957, would have covered
the entire five square kilometres covered by Diamond Synchrotron.
I want to ask you something Sir Brian, and I think Mr Mitchell
had a point. You were in the DTI in 1993 when Mr Heseltine was
there. Do you not remember him saying that we were very good at
producing Nobel Prize winners in science but quite useless at
translating this into business opportunities? Paragraph 1.16 on
page 13 says: "It is more difficult to assess the longer
term economic impact of a new facility: the science is by its
nature uncertain and the economic benefits can be difficult to
estimate. Internationally, there have been few evaluations of
the extent to which advances in scientific knowledge supported
by large facilities in general, or a particular large facility,
are converted into commercial innovation". I find that amazing
by the way. It goes on to say "The Council for the Central
Laboratory of the Research Council's neutron strategy published
in 2006, has acknowledged this gap in relation to the benefits
of hosting international facilities, and has proposed a study".
Why are we just proposing a study now? Why were you not doing
this 20 years ago?
Professor Mason: This comes back
to the point we discussed earlier. This is actually a very difficult
thing to get to grips with and nobody in the world has. There
is lots of empirical evidence that large facilities like this
do lead to huge economic benefit, but what we are trying to do
is to turn that empirical evidence into something quantitative.
As we have said, we accept the point that we need to do better
in economic impact. One of the main reasons for creating the Public Accounts Facilities Council is to deliver on that aspiration,
to bring business in, to make business aware of the sort of things
that we are doing in science, and vice-versa, because we can learn
from the business community as well, and to take that agenda forward.
Part of that agenda is developing quantitative metrics for the
benefits that accrue. We are actually leading the world in trying
to produce those but we still have a long way to go.
Sir Brian Bender: What you have
quoted Mr Heseltine as saying, the same sort of thing as Mr Mitchell
said, has undoubtedly been the case: we have not been as good
as we should be at translating the science and using the inventions
as we need to be. Several steps have been taken over quite a period
to get better at that and it is a key part of the DTI's and the
Government's innovation policy to help translate the science into
wealth creation. Where I still would not agree with Mr Mitchell
is in asserting that therefore we should be putting much more
of the money into applied science rather than the basic science.
Q85 Chairman: But it does beg the
question: what is the DTI for? You must be aware of all this debate
about whether your Department really serves any purpose. Part
of your budget is now devoted to science. Presumably you are going
to say that the point of having science in your Department is
that there is this synergy between the wealth creators in your
Sir Brian Bender: Yes.
Q86 Chairman: Well that begs the
question: why have you not been more successful in using all the
economic expertise you have in your Department to inform these
decisions of these scientists?
Sir Brian Bender: Some of the
figures I gave earlier about patents, about knowledge transfer
partnerships, about the innovation programme are designed very
much to exploit the synergies of having science in the same place
as the department that deals with business.
Q87 Chairman: So will you continue
to make progress on this many years after Mr Heseltine was talking
about the failures of your Department?
Sir Brian Bender: We are making
progress; we need to continue to make progress.
Chairman: Excellent. Thank you very much
gentlemen, it has been a very interesting hearing and we are very
grateful. Personally I would rather spend £300 million on
a Diamond Synchrotron than waste another £1 billion on Tax