Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-87)



  Q80  Chairman: Where is his constituency?

  Sir Brian Bender: In the North East.

  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 sector.

  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 Department.

  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 Credits' overpayments.

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