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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)

MONDAY 21 JANUARY 2008

PROFESSOR MICHAEL ROWAN-ROBINSON, PROFESSOR PETER MAIN AND MR TONY BELL

  Q20  Chairman: Is that how it looks to you too?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: I do not see it quite that way. I think that having completed Diamond and the ISIS II they felt obliged to fund the running costs of those facilities fully and I think the £80 million deficit is a deficit against continuing the programme as it stands at present. It is a cut, I think, against a level programme. The STFC feels they have to do certain things; they have to run Diamond and ISIS II fully having only just built them; they have to invest in the campuses which they made a big feature of in their Plan. Having done that they then have to look around at what else there is and that is where the blow has to fall; it has fallen both on the labs and on the universities. The universities are facing potentially 25% cuts.

  Q21  Chairman: Another possible explanation is the issue of Diamond and ISIS coming on stream and having to find extra money for that.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Yes.

  Q22  Chairman: That really backs up Tony's point.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Yes.

  Q23  Dr Iddon: Are you suggesting that the running costs for Diamond have not been budgeted for and that the outturn is greater than was in the original budget? Could you be specific about figures?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: I think you have to press the STFC about that. It is hard for us to have clear visibility about that.

  Professor Main: We are told that the running costs were not underestimated but that there is a particular problem in fact with the success of Diamond. It is of course worth making the point that Diamond is used not just by physicists, about a third of its usage is medicine which of course is a major priority for the Government at the moment. I would certainly reinforce what Michael has been saying about where the problem lay for the £80 million. It is because of these fixed commitments and what is causing the problem is not so much the cut; had there been a cut due to inflation, due to the Government giving slightly higher priority to medicine and environmental science—which is fine, the Government of course can do that—that would not have been a problem. It is the concentration of the cut into the flexible funds which is causing so much pain.

  Q24  Chairman: In terms of full economic costs which you mentioned earlier, do you feel that that has had a disproportionate effect within STFC? The other research councils do not seem to be reporting a problem with it.

  Professor Main: I do not think it is a disproportionate effect in total. If one looks at EPSRC, for example, they had a rather larger rise than STFC but in fact when you take into account the effects of FEC on their funds it is flat, so it is about the same.

  Q25  Dr Turner: I find it very difficult to understand why the difficulties with funding running costs of Diamond and ISIS should be a surprise; they should have been predictable. Were they not planned for?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: I think there have been some misunderstandings along the way and perhaps this is something that the Committee can pursue. I do not know for sure but my feeling is that there were two errors really, one is in the allocation so basically the DIUS wanted to focus the big increase in science especially on medical research which is an entirely justifiable thing to want to do. However, they went a little bit too far. The amount involved compared with the total budget is small; it is just that they overdid it. They did not appreciate that they were leaving STFC with a huge problem. I think that was an error.

  Q26  Chairman: So it is the Government's fault.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Yes, I believe there was an error in the allocation. I do not think it was their intention to hit astronomy and particle physics in the way they did. The second part of the error though was at STFC. I think that STFC, having been given this budget, could have managed it in a slightly different way. I think that they almost provocatively set this headline figure of 25% to all university grants which immediately feels like a catastrophe for all the departments concerned. If it had been 10% or 12% or something then it would have just been regarded as bad weather, but 25% sounds like the first step in closing the fields down.

  Professor Main: Particularly since it is taking immediate effect.

  Q27  Dr Gibson: If they had consulted you, what would you have said to them? Suppose they had phoned you up and told you you were going to get a reduction, what would you actually have said to them?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: I did have conversations with Keith Mason in the run up to this. I did not get a clear picture that this was coming at all. I did say to him, "Whatever you do, make sure you protect the grant side". I have said that to him many, many times. He did not attempt to do that in my view. If you look at the Delivery Plan on page two, the introduction, it says, "Our overall strategy ... support a healthy and vibrant university community". Further down it says, "Investment in university departments is of strategic importance". Then you go over to "Strategies" and "Priorities for the CSR Period" and you cannot find a single item in there which is directed towards supporting university departments and universities. I do think that the STFC could have fallen in line more clearly with their responsibilities for fundamental science which is a part of their mission and safeguarded it.

  Professor Main: I think one of the big issues about this affair has been the fact that a number of fairly important and long-reaching decisions have been made in a very short space of time. We know from the meeting that STFC called when we were given a timetable that only the day before the launch of the science budget was the final Delivery Plan agreed. We know some very, very major decisions were made at very short notice. It is the nature of STFC, of course, that many of their projects are tens of years long.

  Q28  Mr Boswell: I have a quick question about reputation in two respects. Obviously science at this level is an international business. Has this damaged the reliability or the reputation of reliability of British science? Secondly, in terms of the participants—your scientists at the coal face of this—is the credibility of STFC itself and the system to deliver a reliable flow of funds also impaired?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Absolutely, I think you have hit the nail on the head. UK physics, UK astrophysics and astronomy and particle physics have a very high international reputation. They are a key part of why the UK score so highly in science ratings. If you look at citations and publications these are areas with the highest international reputation and real harm is being done by the news of this level of cuts. In the Royal Astronomical Society we have many overseas fellows and I get e-mails all the time from them wondering what on earth is going on.

  Professor Main: We went to the trouble of contacting many of the people who did take part in the international review of physics just two years ago now and they made very similar comments. As a member organisation many of our members contacted us and I think it is fair to say that STFC has lost some of the confidence of the community.

  Q29  Dr Gibson: How would you like to resolve this situation? If you had a clear piece of paper from this morning, how do you think you can get it to some kind of compromise situation?

  Professor Main: We have spoken to DIUS, we have spoken to STFC and we have spoken to our community and all three of them seem to regret the current situation. No-one seems to have intended it but it is very difficult to unravel, as we have said. I think that what is important is that while Wakeham is spending the best part of this year reviewing physics and deciding what the medium term funding is according to the terms of reference we saw today, then I think we need to have something in place to prevent irreversible decisions being made in that period, decisions that later on we will not be able to unravel.

  Q30  Dr Gibson: What would you say that something was?

  Professor Main: Money, I would guess.

  Q31  Dr Gibson: From whom?

  Professor Main: I think the money should probably be made available from RCUK. There are various ways of doing this. One could top slice some of the other research councils; one could delay certain projects, introduce delays into the system. We are talking probably about £20 million—it is not a terrific amount of money—in order not to allow things to go beyond the point of no return.

  Mr Bell: I think that is a crucial point that some irreversible decisions will be taken, the redundancies that are likely to impact on STFC we are being told need to be made almost immediately in order to make the saving in the Comprehensive Spending Review. At risk are not only those number of jobs but I think the critical mass, at least two of the sites and a huge capacity for science in the UK. I think that deserves a longer consideration. As far as the staff are concerned they do not understand why this is happening; they do not understand the logic behind the decisions and they are not brought into it. You asked the question about reputation, I believe not only the reputation of the STFC and therefore the UK outward looking, but certainly the reputation of STFC amongst the UK community, particularly among the staff, is now at rock bottom.

  Q32  Dr Gibson: With all this concern then, are you going to take part in the Wakeham Inquiry?

  Professor Main: Yes, of course we will.

  Q33  Dr Gibson: Even though that is just physics and does not include astronomy, is that right?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Astronomy is a loose term meaning astrophysics, cosmology, space science, solar system science. We call it astronomy because the public understands astronomy.

  Professor Main: HEFCE calls the subject physics and astronomy.

  Q34  Chairman: Can I just ask a rider to your earlier question? Tony, you did not give a response to Dr Gibson about the solution. One of the suggestions Professor Main made was top slicing the other research councils' budgets because RCUK does not have any money itself. This would mean that for your members some of the grants they were expecting would go. Is that an acceptable solution to you?

  Mr Bell: I think we need to have a look at why the decision has been taken for the funding to STFC.

  Q35  Chairman: I am asking for a solution; would you support that as a solution, top slicing other research councils' budgets?

  Mr Bell: I think the logic for us and for our members is that there has been no consultation; there has been no understanding as to why we have got to this position.

  Q36  Chairman: I am asking you a question. Would you support that? Is that a possible scenario that you would actually support the top slicing of other research councils' budgets?

  Mr Bell: I think there arguments to be said that some of the research councils—

  Q37  Chairman: You would just make other scientists redundant elsewhere.

  Mr Bell: Not necessarily; I think we have to look at what that funding is being allocated for. The key question that I have is why have the decisions been taken within STFC under which there is going to be a radical reduction in the science delivered in certain areas. I think it is a consideration that Council have gone through in private without consultation either with staff or stakeholders.

  Q38  Dr Gibson: Whilst this Wakeham thing drags on—it will drag on, I am sure, because we are going to have a comprehensive review—people will be made redundant, the subject will lose its international status; you are prepared to live with it.

  Mr Bell: No, we would want this issue to be resolved very rapidly.

  Q39  Dr Gibson: What is "rapidly"?

  Mr Bell: What we need to do is stop people being made redundant now. There has to be a moratorium for that for a proper and fundamental review of the decisions to be taken. After that then hopefully we can have a strategy. Not everyone is going to be happy if we accept that, but it is actually understand and is considered and stakeholders feel they have had a share in it. That is what we are missing at the moment.


 
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