Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
MONDAY 21 JANUARY 2008
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.
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.
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
sciencewhich is fine, the Government of course can do thatthat
would not have been a problem. It is the concentration of the
cut into the flexible funds which is causing so much pain.
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
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.
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 participantsyour scientists at
the coal face of thisis 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
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
Q30 Dr Gibson:
What would you say that something was?
Professor Main: Money, I would
Q31 Dr Gibson:
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 millionit
is not a terrific amount of moneyin 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
Professor Main: Yes, of course
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
Professor Main: HEFCE calls the
subject physics and astronomy.
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.
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
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
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 onit will drag on, I am
sure, because we are going to have a comprehensive reviewpeople
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.