Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
MONDAY 21 JANUARY 2008
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.
Professor Main: Absolutely. I
think what has happened here is that for a number of reasonswhich,
I have to say, are not entirely transparent from where I am sittingthe
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
Overall you would agree that the 17.4% for science was a generous
Professor Main: Absolutely.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Mr Bell: We were not aware of
them; again there was no consultation with staff.
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
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
itwhich 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 structurethey would have
been consulted about bits of the plan and they would have felt
some ownership of the plan.
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 CommitteesParticle 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.
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.
Trying to cut to the chase, this £80 million deficit that
we all agree onthere are also other savings within the
STFC budget going up to £120 million, that is what it says
in the Planis 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.
So with £120 million£80 million plus the extra
headroom to £120 millionyou say it is displacement
funding; it is taken from one to put into new research.
Mr Bell: Yes.
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.
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.