Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-335)


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 that.

  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 unfair—I think they are the two negatives I was trying to go for—because (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 recommendations—this point follows on from Dr Harris's point a bit—about 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, I think.

  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 subjects?

  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 indices—and I think this is really rather difficult and we have touched on this—for 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 to input.

  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 in April.

  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.

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