Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: Good afternoon and could I welcome our witnesses to this, the first evidence session with the Innovations, Universities and Skills Committee, looking into the science budget allocations. Could I welcome our first panel, Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Professor Peter Main, the Director of Education and Science at the Institute of Physics and Tony Bell, the National Secretary for Prospect, the professional association representing many of the scientists in some of our universities and institutes. Professor Main and Professor Rowan-Robinson, in October 2007 the Government announced the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement for science, a 17.4% increase, one of the most generous settlements we have seen. This is building on two successive comprehensive spending reviews raising the overall level of resources for science. What on earth is the problem? Why do you have a problem with it?

  Professor Main: You are absolutely right that government put a lot of money into science and it has really been very, very welcome. A recent international review of physics made the point of how much things had got better.

  Q2  Chairman: Including physics.

  Professor Main: Absolutely. I think what has happened here is that for a number of reasons—which, I have to say, are not entirely transparent from where I am sitting—the settlement for STFC, although it looks very impressive at 13.6%, in actual fact when you take into account the FEC and a number of other factors it has led to essentially a flat cash settlement. Due to the specific nature of STFC with its responsibilities for international subscriptions, for running national facilities, most of the cuts that will occur due to inflation and so on and due to the effects of the increase in international subscriptions have been concentrated in the elements of the STFC budget which are flexible, specifically the 25% cuts which STFC announced for grants.

  Q3  Chairman: Overall you would agree that the 17.4% for science was a generous settlement.

  Professor Main: Absolutely.

  Q4  Chairman: The 13.6% for STFC appears to be a fairly generous settlement, so can I move to you, Michael. Were you expecting more than that in the overall budget.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: I do not think I knew enough about the whole budget of STFC to know what the settlement ought to look like. It is only when you see how STFC meets its various requirements and aims that you start to see that somehow it seems they have a hole in their budget of about £80 million. I want to reiterate what Peter said to make sure we give a positive remark at the beginning, that basically we are very conscious in the case of astronomy that the Government supported our entry into the European Southern Observatory in 2001; it found extra funds to do that. We are also very appreciative obviously of the full economic costs of universities which potentially have a very positive impact. The problem is that once one looks at the STFC plan the FEC increases are entirely negated by the 25% grants cut.

  Q5  Chairman: I am trying to get to the point of why was this such a big surprise? Here you are, the Director of Education and Science at the Institute of Physics and the President of the Royal Astronomical Society, you are leading figures within your fields; surely the consultation that went on before the plan emerged led you to say that something is wrong and why were you not writing to the Committee at that point saying we really ought to do something.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: There was no consultation.

  Q6  Chairman: None whatsoever.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: None whatsoever. Basically it was a complete bolt out of the blue. The first hint of it was the leaked announcement about the withdrawal from Gemini to which we reacted of course, not knowing that this was merely one straw in the wind. The second hint we had was the day before the announcement, I was leaked a figure of 25% cuts to grants. That was the first we had heard. Basically I think STFC did consult the panels it had set up, the Science Board, the PPAN Committee and so on; they were in the know.

  Q7  Chairman: They did not speak to you.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: They were told they must not speak to anybody. I had a conversation with Keith Mason in this period up to the announcement and although he gave hints that things could be bad if the settlement was not good but he did not say that we were facing a huge hole in our finances.

  Q8  Chairman: Tony, we have a situation here where you represent the scientists on the ground and as a trade union you did nothing to flag up these cuts.

  Mr Bell: We were not aware of them; again there was no consultation with staff.

  Q9  Chairman: You were not aware of them.

  Mr Bell: No.

  Q10  Dr Gibson: There are other research councils that are involved in getting settlements, have you ever heard of consultation taking place there in this current situation? Were they consulted about their success or failure, however the Government thought of it? Were you just differentially picked on, that is what I am asking really, as far as consultation is concerned?

  Mr Bell: I believe the consultation in this area, particularly as it is likely to lead to hundreds of redundancies of employees of the STFC, was not done in the same way as it has been in other councils.

  Q11  Dr Gibson: In what way?

  Mr Bell: I would contrast it with the restructuring of the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology undertaken by NERC where there was a business plan produced, there was consultation with the stakeholder community, the unions were consulted with a view to avoiding the redundancies and to comment on the restructuring and we made a presentation to Council prior to the final decision being taken. In this event the funding model has been decided upon through the CSR; we are now being consulted about the impact in terms of redundancies, not with a view to it being changed.

  Q12  Dr Gibson: So there was not even a phone call saying, "We're going to sack you"?

  Mr Bell: When the CSR emerged certainly it was hinted it was going to be bad but there was no hint of it at consultation.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: If you compare STFC with PPARC part of the problem is that STFC had not got around to setting up a proper advisory structure. It created PPAN (Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Committee) and it was clear when that was set up that although that committee or panel was supposed to recommend an advisory structure below it—which would have involved far more of the community and I think in the previous council far more of the community were involved at a lower level in the structure—they would have been consulted about bits of the plan and they would have felt some ownership of the plan.

  Q13  Chairman: I am now reading the Delivery Plan, "4.1 Stakeholder Engagement: STFC Council has established an advisory structure comprising a Science Board and two Science Committees—Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Committee (PPAN) and the Physical and Life Sciences" so it was done but none of your members were on it.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: There are a couple of astronomers on it.

  Q14  Chairman: But they did not speak to you.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: They were not allowed to speak to us.

  Q15  Mr Wilson: I have a quick question generally about consultation. In recent times with the Government we have had no consultation before changes to the foundation degrees, no consultation about ELQs and the changes there and now we find there has been no consultation about this. In general have you found that government is not consulting the science community about changes they are making, or is this something new, something recent that they have not been consulting thoroughly enough with you?

  Professor Main: That is not the easiest question to answer because different situations have led to different consultations. I would say that in general in science there has been good consultation and that in general we feel, in the physics community, that we have had an opportunity to put ideas forward to most of the research councils. I think this is a special case with STFC for two reasons, one is that two very disparate research councils came together very soon before the Comprehensive Spending Review which I think has made a large difference. The other issue to do with STFC which makes it different in this context is the number of fixed commitments that it has relative to EPSRC (which is the other main physics funding research council). EPSRC more or less does have flat cash and that has a less ferocious effect on the finances of physics departments than does STFC where most of the cuts have been concentrated in the areas to do with flexible money, as I said earlier.

  Q16  Chairman: Trying to cut to the chase, this £80 million deficit that we all agree on—there are also other savings within the STFC budget going up to £120 million, that is what it says in the Plan—is this poor management on your behalf and the science community's behalf, the particle physics, physics and astronomy communities? Is it just poor communication as you have already hinted at? Or are there other factors?

  Mr Bell: I do not think I would necessarily agree with you that there is an £80 million deficit here. It does look to me that there is £80 million less than the Council hoped to acquire out of the Comprehensive Spending Review, there is no question about that. Quite clearly, as has been described in the earlier part of evidence, there is basically a level funding across the Comprehensive Spending Review. It strikes us and it strikes the staff that therefore there has been a decision by Council to make a radical departure from one area of science to another to the tune of £80 to fund the bits that did not receive that amount of money. In addition to that they have actually made a decision to increase the amount saved to create what they call a headroom of £40 million, so this is a Council decision.

  Q17  Chairman: So with £120 million—£80 million plus the extra headroom to £120 million—you say it is displacement funding; it is taken from one to put into new research.

  Mr Bell: Yes.

  Q18  Chairman: Do you know where it is going?

  Mr Bell: I know what is in the Delivery Plan; I am not going into any more detail than that.

  Q19  Chairman: You just think that the rational explanation is that it has been a movement of funds from science which the Council no longer wishes to do to science which the Council wishes to do.

  Mr Bell: That is how it looks to the staff, yes.

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