Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-335)|
MP AND PROFESSOR
17 JANUARY 2007
Q320 Dr Harris: So surely putting
your specialist area of responsibility together with your view
on targets, and you have got a whole new area now which is the
behaviour of OSCHR, surely you are in a position to give view
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: OSCHR
is a joint responsibility between two departments.
Q321 Dr Harris: Yes, I understand
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: And
it does not exist yet.
Q322 Dr Harris: Surely you can give
your perspective on the effectiveness or merits or imposing targets
on what is a complex peer review process?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
will be a member of OSCHR and I will happily do so when I see
the totality of the views there.
Malcolm Wicks: I do think Dr Harris
is being uncharacteristically unfairI think they are the
two negatives I was trying to go forbecause (a) this is
a shared responsibility with the Department of Health and we cannot
speak for the Department of Health side on it, and (b) this is
a proposal for a new body that is not yet established. I think
in due course we can give you more information about this.
Q323 Chairman: Were you surprised,
Minister, or indeed Sir Keith, that Cooksey in chapter 7 came
up with a series of recommendationsthis point follows on
from Dr Harris's point a bitabout the translation of research
into economic benefit? He was never asked to do that. Are you
content with that as being the measure of performance?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It
is a good read, and I enjoyed reading it very much, actually.
Q324 Chairman: But did it surprise
you? Be honest. Nobody is listening.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
knew it was coming. I had had the benefits of many conversations
with David Cooksey during his review.
Dr Harris: Rather like a redundancy notice,
Q325 Dr Turner: Going back to the
Research Assessment Exercise, which is going to change from 2009
onwards, have you had any feedback from the scientific community
about those changes and are you happy with the quality indicator
that is going to be used to judge science, engineering and technology
Malcolm Wicks: I have not had
a lot of feedback yet but that might just be because my tenure
in office has been still relatively brief. This is, of course,
a matter for the Department for Education and Skills and you may
have occasion to put those questions to my colleagues in that
department. I think it is the earlier debate. The importance of
traditional methods and peer review I think will be maintained.
The data we often cite in terms of citations to prove how good
Britain is at science are based on peer review. That is the academic
procedure, so I am confident about the direction that is going
in. I think I am more seized, because I think it is more my territory,
as to how we can ensure that, while maintaining the excellence
of the academic base in the universities, we can measure that
appropriately, how we can almost develop complementary indicesand
I think this is really rather difficult and we have touched on
thisfor the university that does not just write about satellites
but actually builds them, the University of Surrey, and has them
sent into space where they do vital work in all sorts of ways,
environment monitoring and so on. How do we capture that in the
metrics? How do we capture the university that might not be in
the top 20 but regionally is doing vital work with local companies
in engineering or whatever it might be? How do we capture the
applied social scientist who is working hard with the local primary
care trust or the social service department or the education department
to help with some important societal work in that sphere? With
respect, that is more my territory in the DTI, I think, as Science
Minister. Again, I welcome opportunities for debating this and
discussing this with your Committee, Chairman, because I think
these are very difficult things, but at the moment it seems to
me we are not capturing a lot of very important work that happens
in the universities. I have not got answers, I have got questions
about that, almost as a complement to the importance of maintaining
the excellence of the academic base and the debate about RAEs
and peer reviews and the rest.
Q326 Dr Turner: But those are very
valid questions, Minister. Have you been involved in any discussions
with HEFCE on the development of metrics? You clearly have something
Malcolm Wicks: Not yet.
Q327 Dr Turner: Are science departments
and universities happy about being the guinea pigs because they
are going to be treated rather differently from the humanities
in the first round? The humanities will be subject to this much
lighter touch regime. Have they said anything to you about that?
Malcolm Wicks: Not yet but, Sir
Keith, can you comment on that?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Again,
it was DfES that ran the consultation. We obviously watched this
with huge interest because it is the other side of the dual support
system. These are the two pillars of running the enterprise. I
have not personally had very much response from universities on
that. I think though you obviously knew it was coming and it was
trailed through Next Steps. All I say on a personal level
is that I am confident that for STEM subjects we can go to a metrics-based
system that is fair and rational as part of the other leg of the
dual support system. I am much less confident as of now that this
will be as applicable in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Some people disagree with me and actually say, "We can probably
do it". That is obviously an area where a lot of careful
work and so on has got to be done. As for your specific question,
are colleagues in universities happy, there is always a spectrum
of opinion in universities. Certainly science colleagues are pretty
relaxed. It is often Vice Chancellors who are less relaxed about
seeing if they are going to have £50,000 less in 2008-09
than they had in 2007-08.
Q328 Dr Turner: How frequently will
the exercise be conducted in future?
Malcolm Wicks: I do not know,
is the answer.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: But
if there is something we should know can we drop you a note?
Malcolm Wicks: It is another department
which will know the answer.
Q329 Chairman: Hopefully somebody
does know that. Minister, when we sat on the committee looking
at formally setting up the new STFC there was a sense that it
was simply going to be an extension of PPARC. Was that your view
or do you think this is going to be a new body and we are going
to add significantly to our scientific capabilities?
Malcolm Wicks: You are talking
about the new merged research council?
Q330 Chairman: Yes, the new Science
and Technology Research Council.
Malcolm Wicks: I have not yet
had an opportunity of visiting any of these large facilities an
so I do not want to suggest, Chairman, that I am more knowledgeable
than I am on this. Given the sheer importance of large facilities,
the fact that we are good at this in Britain, the need for international
collaboration in this area, I was convinced by the case that I
put before the Statutory Instruments Committee (it is always helpful
to be convinced by your own arguments) that this merger was important
and I do think it commands a great deal of respect, but in terms
of its specific work I need to learn more about it.
Q331 Chairman: It is just that NERC
in particular, and this was a comment they made, a council whose
mission is driven by supporting facilities rather than having
a clear scientific mission, may find it difficult to maintain
a strong relationship between facilities and users. I just wondered
whether you had a concern and indeed whether Sir Keith has a concern
that STFC is going to adversely affect the relationship it has
with the stakeholders because of the dominance of the large facilities
within its portfolio. Are you happy about that?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
am entirely happy. I think the key point with large facilities
is that they are free at the point of use. The business of people
having to get grants from a different research council to go and
use one of these Synchrotron sources or to contemplate a ticket-type
system got swept away four or five years ago now. I think you
will be quite impressed with the sort of committee and advisory
structure that is being put together for STFC. It is going to
be a very distinctive and exciting council and I hope you will
have a look at what emerges later this year.
Q332 Chairman: We certainly intend
to do that. Do you think there will be significant administrative
savings in the long or short run?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: There
will be administrative savings, I think, overall in the research
councils. As for that which is directly attributable to STFC,
I think these will be not exceptional ones. The main saving comes
from the convergence of Research Councils back office work which
is on track for 2009 to be completed. The estimates there are
for quite substantial savings as early as two years into the converged
back office. CCLRC and PPARC will all be part of that. There will
be savings there. I do not think there are any particularly large
savings but certainly no significant expenses either in merging
the two councils.
Q333 Dr Harris: At the SI committee
that myself, Dr Turner and Mr Willis attended I raised a number
of questions and you kindly said that you would fill me in later
on the answers. I certainly got a letter about the other SI we
considered, which was the Technology Strategy Board order, but
I cannot find one yet, and it may have been sent, on the Large
Facilities Council, but perhaps with Sir Keith here you can just
check on a couple of questions. I asked that the CCLRC was currently
in deficit and would that have an impact on the overall grant-giving
budget when it was merged with PPARC.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: You
may have asked me before and I ought to have been very sensible
and checked what answer I gave before, but the answer that I give
now is that the budgets of those two councils have to be left
without any legacy difficulties at the time the new council starts
Q334 Dr Harris: It was a question
that was raised in the committee. I do not think we have discussed
this before. What does that mean?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: What
I am saying is that if there are any holes in the road that need
to be filled in we will have to make sure they are filled in.
We do not want to start a new Council with legacy issues.
Q335 Dr Harris: Okay. Another issue
was how would potential conflicts of interest among people who
were finding themselves awarding grants but who also used the
facilities be monitored? Is there a potential conflict there?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
actually had not thought of one, but I am pondering it. I cannot
think of any conflicts of interest beyond that which potentially
arises in any research council where a judgment is being made
by a potential beneficiary. They have the process of declaring
conflicts of interest. If there was somebody from the Physics
Department in Imperial College for example he would generally
leave the room when that sort of conflict arose. I cannot think
of anything that would not be easily caught by the procedures
that we have.
Malcolm Wicks: We will give you
more definitive answers, or certainly we will put them in printed
words because if I have not written to you yet on those two issues
I am sorry and we will.
Dr Harris: Thank you.
Chairman: On that note could we thank
you enormously, Minister, for joining us this morning and thank
Sir Keith also for joining us.