Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


MEMORANDUM 5

Submission from the Natural Environment Research Council

RESPONSE FROM THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL (NERC) TO THE QUESTIONS FROM THE HOUSE OF COMMONS SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE REGARDING ITS PROPOSALS FOR THE CENTRE FOR ECOLOGY AND HYDROLOGY (CEH)

  The questions posed by the Committee are addressed in part in a redacted version of the CEH Business Plan which was posted on NERC's website (www.nerc.ac.uk) on 19 December only after the Committee met on 14 December 2005. The Committee members may wish to look at the Business Plan before they next discuss the matter.

(i)   How was the priority to be given to CEH science ascertained and then matched to the level of resources to be made available to it in future?

  Every five years, NERC invites programme proposals from its wholly-owned research centres. These proposals are considered by NERC's Science and Innovation Strategy Board (SISB) in the light of international peer review. The Board makes recommendations regarding the science and the appropriate level of funding.

  In 2004-05, NERC considered CEH's proposals for the period 2005-10 (the First Quinquennial (Q1) Programme). These proposals included plans for each of the six science programmes around which CEH now structures its activities. The funding allocation to CEH for Q1 was based on the quality of its proposals, their fit to NERC's overall science strategy, and the finite resources available to NERC, for which there is considerable competition.

(ii)   How was the performance and value of CEH measured against other NERC research centres?

  The performance of all NERC's research and collaborative centres is evaluated in five-yearly Science and Management Audits (SMAs). SMAs scrutinise delivery over the previous five years of the science approved by Council at the start of that five-year period. However, they do not examine proposals for the future. Nearly all of NERC's research and collaborative centres (RCCs) score highly on science quality, as would be expected given the high level of expertise of most staff.

  In its 2004 SMA, CEH received a high rating for its science. However, to reiterate, the SMA does not assess proposals for future funding, nor the fit of proposals to NERC's future science priorities. The decision on how much funding a centre receives depends upon the assessment described in answer to question (i).

(iii)   What impact would the closures be expected to have on the expertise available in CEH?

  The proposed re-shaping of CEH would involve a reduction in the number of sites from nine to four and would thus improve scientific synergies, increase flexibility and provide the opportunity to bring together CEH scientific teams. The organisation would become more focused, and would be expected to retain or even increase its level of expertise in certain areas. Because some science would be discontinued, the breadth of expertise would decrease.

  However, it should be noted that ecological and hydrological science is also funded by NERC through blue-skies grants and in directed programmes. NERC would not expect its overall portfolio of this research to be substantively altered by the proposed reshaping of CEH. Also, the proposals for CEH do not imply a reduction in the overall funding NERC provides for environmental science.

  A final decision on the proposals will not be made by NERC's Council until the results of the public and staff consultations have been analysed (closing date 15 February, Council Meeting on 8 March), and decisions on which posts would be affected would be subject to consultation with staff and trade unions.

(iv)   What is the rationale for the number of redundancies planned, and what steps would be taken to minimise this number?

  The rationale for the number of redundancies is contained in the CEH Business Plan. NERC's assessment of the high-quality and high-priority research to be supported at CEH provides the primary basis for setting the core science-budget income level (see also the answer to question (i)). CEH also receives income for research commissioned by outside customers (business and government departments). This income has fallen over recent years to about 40% of CEH's total income, and we carried out a strategic review recently using consultants (Deloitte), both to assess the likely future level of external income and to provide input to the Business Plan, with the aim of identifying a sustainable business model. It is important to note that all staff at CEH are employed by NERC.

  The core science budget, the likely external income and the cost of infrastructure (dependent upon the number and location of sites) led to an assessment of the number of staff needed and hence the likely level of redundancies. In addition, the Business Plan indicates that to be financially sustainable CEH cannot support more than four sites (it currently has nine).

  The detailed analysis underlying the Business Plan certainly attempts to minimise the number of redundancies. In addition, CEH would encourage key staff at sites proposed for closure to relocate.

January 2006





 
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