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As I am sure that other hon. Members will point out, the inquiry threw up a number of worrying conclusions about the conduct of senior staff at the STFC, the difficulties with the prioritisation process for key awards, the clarity and transparency in decision making, and the issue of whether the whole fiasco and the concern over funding could have been avoided if there had been a slightly better settlement for STFC when it was established
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and took over from the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

Despite the depth of the inquiry, we still have not got to the bottom of the extent to which the issue arose from the initial funding problems of STFC, as the Government response was inadequate in that respect. They simply refute allegations made by the Committee, instead of establishing detailed evidence about the funding of CCLRC and PPARC when they were disbanded, and when STFC took over from them. Paragraph 39 of the Committee’s report makes that very clear and asks the Government to look into the legacy issues in detail. However, all that the Government do in their response is make it clear that they provided an extra £185 million in excess of the flat cash settlement over the CSR period. We all know that that additional money, welcome though it was, was to fund specific projects and priorities that had already been planned. There is a lack of detail, and I hope and suspect that the Committee will return to the issue, as we need to get to the bottom of the funding allocation and the extent to which it meant that significant programmes would have to be cut.

In the Government response, there is a lack of recognition of what it will mean for the STFC when the full economic costs come on board; that will, of course, reduce the distance that research grants can cover. When Professor Mason, the chief executive of the STFC, first appeared before the Committee, it seemed to me that the funding had not been received for all the STFC’s commitments. That problem was compounded by a prioritisation of the programmes identified by the STFC; in particular, new areas for growth had been identified. That prioritisation, with subsequent cuts to other parts of the STFC, was the root of the problem and appeared significantly to upset the science community. I know that from my experience in Durham, from a lot of the evidence that the Committee received in its visits, and from witnesses who came before it. The new prioritisation programmes seemed to come from absolutely nowhere, and there had been no real consultation with those likely to be affected.

The relationship between the STFC management and at least one key sector of the physics community seemed very weak, and led to a lot of distrust on the part of the academics involved. In particular, there was a view that disproportionate cuts were being made to particle physics. Conclusion 10, which relates to paragraph 46 of the report, summarises that well:

Two examples are given: the international linear collider and the Gemini telescopes. Scientists in Durham and elsewhere who are involved in ILC-related work maintain that they were not consulted at all about the STFC decision, and it is the lack of transparency and the poor peer review in setting the priorities for the STFC that the Committee wishes to investigate. Of course, the issue has to some extent been overtaken by last week’s report from the STFC on the new priorities. Nevertheless, that was a key issue that the Committee investigated, and some of the Government response was perhaps a little weak.

It was apparent that many people did not think that the peer review panel, which was set up to inform the delivery plan, was fully representative of the appropriate
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scientific community. Confidence in peer review is essential if decisions by research councils are to be seen as legitimate by the relevant academic community. I hope that the STFC has learned from its actions and will do as it has promised and bring on board all members of the academic community who are involved in ensuring that that community has a greater say in the decisions taken.

It is clear from the Government’s response to the report that peer review is not considered a matter for the Government to get involved in directly because of the Haldane principles. I think that we would all agree that it is not appropriate for the Government to get involved in the day-to-day operation of research councils, or even in prioritisation, but it would have been appropriate for the Government to state that the efficacy of the peer review system and processes at the STFC could be improved in the light of the very heavy criticism that we unearthed.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): On the Haldane principle and conclusion 6 of the report, the hon. Lady will be mindful of the fact that the Committee argued that cross-cutting programmes that affect more than one council, largely in pursuit of Government-inspired initiatives, have skewed budgets. Does she agree with that conclusion? I know that she is attempting to be very measured, but is that an issue that the Government should look into further?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: The key issue is transparency. I think that we would all accept that the Government may wish to put more of the budget into one area than another, and I hope that we all feel, across the House, that that is a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do. That may mean that they point research councils in directions that mean pulling their budgets. We have seen that happen with regard to health research. The Committee was not convinced that the Haldane principles had been breached; we merely asked questions to get greater clarity from Government to ensure that the Haldane principles would not be interfered with.

The response from the STFC grudgingly acknowledges in paragraph 86 that more needs to be done in terms of achieving effective consultation across its programmes. We have since seen some evidence that that may be the case. However, it is also the case that unless the STFC makes strenuous efforts fully to involve all parts of the community in its decisions, it will not be possible in the short term, or even the medium term, completely to restore the faith of the relevant academic communities in its ability to represent their interests.

The next matter that I want to consider is international reputation. Many of the scientists to whom we spoke were very concerned about the damage that the whole episode was doing to the UK’s reputation for science investment and commitment to international projects. There was strong concern that the actions taken by the STFC, and the way in which they were taken, would have a detrimental effect on our reputation overseas. It is not enough for the Government to assert, as they do in paragraph 93 of their response, that the UK remains a reliable partner. A reputation for being a reliable partner has to be built up over time, and people will judge the Government by their actions and by the amount of money that is given to the science community
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to enable it to support those international collaborations. I hope that I am making a helpful suggestion to the Government by saying that lessons need to be learned from what happened in this instance. It is important for them to emphasise that they will support and prioritise our international collaborations. They need to go beyond the stage outlined in their response to think about how they are going to address those criticisms and build up confidence again. It is not good enough to assert merely that our reputation is intact—the academic community needs more support than that.

My last point relates to the lack of confidence in some parts of our science community about how secure its future is. That was perhaps the worst thing to emerge from this unhappy affair. In April, I met a group of a undergraduate students, postgraduate students and post-doctoral research fellows in Durham. A few hundred people attended the meeting—students from across the field of particle physics and the wider physics community. They were angry about the STFC decisions but, more than anything, concerned about their future careers. The Government should not underestimate how this set of cuts coming from nowhere without adequate explanation affected the confidence of those students. I find that especially galling given that the Government had done so much to support and raise the profile of science. I would have thought that they must at least see the STFC’s actions as a PR disaster. It was most unfortunate that neither the Government’s response nor that of the STFC acknowledged the damage that has been done to the trust of students and the academic community in general, and more needs to be done to bring that back into being.

Of course, I did my best to assure the students that there was an ongoing commitment to them, to the work that they were doing, and to the particle physics community in general. They have international, globally portable skills, and it is important that the Government make it clear as soon as possible that they will continue to invest in science so that those students can go abroad for international collaboration as necessary but return to have a good career in the UK as well.

Having talked to people in the community since, I know that they are glad that the STFC has softened some of its responses, including on the funding of the international linear collider. I think that that was a direct reaction to the Committee’s report and to the protests made by the science community. Clearly, more attention will be paid to the STFC’s decision-making processes and communications with its own scientific community and the world at large. People particularly welcome the commitment that no changes to rolling grants will be made before the Wakeham review has reported. I am grateful, as are they, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has instigated that review; we all hope that it will enable us to draw a line under the whole process. I hope that lessons have been learned and that Wakeham will be a clear report that sets the way forward for the whole field of physics based on the judgment of the scientists involved and that reflects the Government’s commitment to science funding in future. I also hope that the new programme that has been outlined by the STFC means that we will all be able to move forward knowing that the future of science is to be fully supported by this Government.

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7.58 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as a non-executive director of a satellite company. I make that declaration because space comes into the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I am happy to piggy-back on the report and excellent work done by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. It is an important Committee, and I am glad that it was rescued following the Government’s lamentable failure to keep the word “science” in any departmental name. Fortunately, the House of Commons did not allow it to disappear, and I played my part in trying to ensure that that was the case.

This debate has been largely dominated by the STFC, which is better known as Swindon Town football club by those who are most active in it. It was a big failure by the Government not to anticipate what the implications of this would be. I happened to be giving a speech at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory at the beginning of December, immediately after Keith Mason made his speech at the same conference. I was able to stir things up a little bit because I had been warned by the science community that the STFC’s move to change the budget balance was not very popular, because it had left the gap that the Committee subsequently investigated. Rather than go over that ground again, I would like the Minister to give us some indication of the impact of the £1.9 billion settlement that the STFC announced a few days ago, and to outline whether it largely solves the problems that were previously discussed. That announcement happened only recently, and it is difficult to evaluate its implications. I am glad, however, that there has been a settlement.

When I was Minister, a very long time ago, we always had problems with big physics, not least because of the contributions to organisations such as CERN, which often skewed budgets in quite an alarming way. However, CERN deserves a mention today. In 1994, I was involved with the beginnings of the project now known as the large hadron collider, and we are about to see the culmination of that project after a long time—a 14-year gap. It is a hugely important project. For the record, I would like to compliment the Financial Times, which, in its colour supplement at the weekend, produced an excellent article by Clive Cookson on CERN and the large hadron collider, including some useful glossaries of the terms that sometimes make it difficult to explain why CERN is important.

The studies of fundamental particles and forces that make up the universe are, perhaps, about to be unlocked, and we could reach a sudden understanding of the Higgs boson and all the other excitements that scientists have pondered for a long time, which would justify the British Government’s contribution to CERN over the years. I know it has sometimes been controversial because of its unbalancing of budgets and the difficulties of ensuring that other parts of physics and astronomy got their fair share.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it may be even more exciting and useful for the scientific community if the existence of the Higgs boson were not confirmed?

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Mr. Taylor: It might well be—that is a fair point—but let us find out what happens when this thing is switched on. The construction of it is the most remarkable engineering triumph. I went to see the earlier establishment at CERN, but I have not seen the current edifice, only photographs of it.

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was the foresight of successive British Governments that brought the partnership for CERN together? Indeed, it is fair to say that no Governments in the world could afford to do such a thing now. Do not those British Governments, and Britain, deserve a pat on the back for the things that have come out of CERN, such as the world wide web? They could only have been brought about with the support of the British Government.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman, with whom I have enjoyed several investigative trips to various scientific and telecommunications establishments, has put his finger on it. I am grateful to him for saying “Governments”, because there are times when I think that the Labour party believes that the world started in 1997. Actually, it did not. The project that has now come to fruition goes back a long way and has been supported, sometimes with considerable difficulty, by protecting the CERN budget from those who wished the funds had been allocated elsewhere.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), whose constituency has a very fine university, was a bit churlish, which was worrying. I would not have picked up a party political point of view in what she said were it not for one thing. It is of course correct to say that the science budget has doubled through the money that goes to the research councils, and I have paid warm tribute to my main successor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, for the work that he did in ensuring that that was the case. I put that on the record with no caveats attached. I welcome it; I only wish I had had the ability to persuade my Chancellor of Exchequer that we should do the same thing. It was not for want of trying, but I clearly did not have the powers of persuasion that Lord Sainsbury had when it came to money. Nevertheless, it is of extreme concern that the percentage of gross domestic product spent on R and D by the Government has not increased since I left office in 1997. I wish that the hon. Member for City of Durham had made that point in her balanced speech because it is a matter of great concern to many people, not least those in industry who work closely with other Departments.

Obviously, the Ministry of Defence research budget has declined. I remember working with the then chief scientific adviser to the Government, Lord May, who is now playing an important role in the other place with regard to science. He wrote a paper, which I requested, on the significance of the decline in the defence research budget. Sadly, although the paper was very influential, it did not prevent the curtailment of that departmental research. That has had a big effect on many of the value added companies that this country requires, and I hope that the Minister will take it into account when he talks about the Government’s record. We have to put it in that context.

Other international comparisons are of concern. We always talk about the way this country does well in citations, and I do not dispute that. Nevertheless, we
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can see the rate of growth of research and citations in other countries. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, China shows a particular growth in citations in mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences. For the record, and the ease of those who wish to find it, the previous figure about GDP was taken from page 34 of the Sainsbury review, which was published in October 2007. The point about the worrying tendencies in citations is on page 36. The British Government’s proud record on citations is rather retrospective, and we have to be careful about other countries racing to the top.

It is important to note that page 35 of the same report shows that the amount of research conducted by the British Government in the public sector is still lagging behind that of many of our competitors. It is certainly not something that we should boast about too much. In this country, the private sector does almost twice as much, in terms of percentage of GDP, as the Government. There are worrying concerns if one looks at the Government as a whole, and the impact on science.

My report, which was a submission to the shadow Cabinet on science policy, indicated that we should look at whether further mergers should take place in the research councils. There is quite an unproductive hierarchy among the remaining research councils, which is duplicatory. The Minister’s duty, while preserving the Haldane principles, as I had to try to do when I was Minister, is to give guidance on the linking themes and cross-disciplinary research that the research councils should bear in mind. I know that that is happening, but I am still rather worried about the process.

I have talked to most of the people involved in the research councils during the past 18 months while conducting my research, and we have to be a bit careful about just saying that peer review is wonderful. It would be useful for the Minister to start a proper inquiry into whether peer review is quite what it is cracked up to be in what is increasingly becoming a multidisciplinary age. I do not get such feedback from many of the scientists involved, so perhaps it is a worthy study for the Select Committee.

Mr. Willis: Indeed, successive Select Committees have pondered exactly that question. The hon. Gentleman will know that when broad-based metrics were suggested as an alternative to peer review, nobody could agree about what should be in the metrics, so we went back to peer review.

Mr. Taylor: I agree that it is a conundrum. Given that Select Committees are collectively much brighter than me, I am sure that if the Select Committee is still worrying about how to conduct a review, that proves the complexity of the matter. I still think that it is important, though, largely because science in this country, even basic science, needs to be increasingly cross-disciplinary. I am not sure whether the systems that deliver research grants are helping that process. University vice-chancellors talk avidly about it, but if they do not think that they will get a five-star department out of it, they are not so keen. The challenge is to perform well at multidisciplinary level. I am goading the Minister, really, rather than criticising him. He is relatively new in the job and has made a very good start, if I may say so, but I would certainly want to get my teeth into that matter if I were lucky enough to be in his position again.

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