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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  Q40  Dr Gibson: Does the Wakeham Review accept that? Has the Wakeham Review Committee been set up yet?

  Professor Main: No, it has not. The Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics have both been approached to try to nominate some members for the committee. You can ask Ian Diamond later, but I believe the committee is in the process of being set up now and the terms of reference of course have only been made available today.

  Q41  Chairman: You would wait for that.

  Professor Main: We would wait for it but it is absolutely essential that in the meantime could we have some moratorium.

  Q42  Chairman: You would have a moratorium, you would wait for Wakeham and then make some decisions.

  Professor Main: Yes.

  Q43  Mr Wilson: I think your union has been talking about a couple of hundred redundancies and we know how difficult it is to get young people into science anyway. What do you think the impact of these redundancies is going to have inspiring confidence in school and university students to pursue a career in research?

  Mr Bell: I have not actually mentioned 200; the numbers could well be more than that. What I would say is what future is there in a career in physics and astronomy when the capacity is being ripped out of the UK? It cannot send a positive signal at a time when we are having reviews about how we can encourage, particularly in the physics area.

  Q44  Mr Wilson: So you think it is going to be a pretty devastating message.

  Mr Bell: It has got to be.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: This is where I think all this is a mistake. I do not think it is an intended cut in this way because basically the impact of astronomy and particle physics is far greater than its actual size within physics. If you look at what draws school children into science in the first place you will find that very often it is things like astronomy, space science and so on. If you ask why students choose physics at university again it is astronomy and particle physics. We have had recent surveys of first year students suggesting that as many as 90% of them came into physics because of those kinds of subjects. When they get there they find out all the wonders of physics and they do not all do astronomy and particularly physics, which is just as well. They are needed in all areas of physics and the economy needs physics as a whole. However, if you hit astronomy and particle physics in the way they are being hit at the moment the impact is going to be devastating to the whole physics programme and eventually the UK economy, the UK science reputation. The knock-on effect is far-reaching.

  Q45  Dr Iddon: I will put my cards on the table. I am a northern member of Parliament from the Greater Manchester area and when the original decision on Diamond was taken the north west group were very, very disappointed (that is the north west group of members of Parliament), we lobbied the Prime Minister and we got some extra money for Northwest Science, as you well remember. Of course we accept the Diamond decision; that was made and we were expecting 80 job losses during the current year and 30 next year as a result of that decision. I add that up to 110 job losses a result of the Synchrotron decision. I am reading that the STFC are putting it about that 180 job losses come out of that decision. There is a difference of 70 there I cannot reconcile, and altogether 350 jobs look as if they are going to be lost at Daresbury. Where are the rest coming from?

  Mr Bell: My understanding is that 80 were already planned in the reduction of SRS as you described. Further programme will be cut at the Daresbury site which will result in more redundancies. We do not know the numbers yet; it will depend on how many efficiency savings can be made or extra funding could be attracted, but those numbers that you describe sound entirely possible to me from what I understand.

  Q46  Dr Iddon: I do not know what the status is of the fourth generation light source—I do not know whether anybody knows, we will ask STFC when they come in front of us shortly—but obviously there are going to be some job losses there if the programme is either suspended or especially abandoned. Let us assume it is going to be abandoned; to you know how many job losses there would be at Daresbury as a result of abandoning 4GLS?

  Mr Bell: No, I do not, not specifically. We are in discussion at the moment about the implications of the actual numbers that are likely as a result of cutbacks of programme, but the absolute detail is not known to me.

  Q47  Dr Iddon: Do you think that if two-thirds of the jobs go at Daresbury—because that is what it is looking like from the figures that are before me—science and innovation can actually survive on that site?

  Mr Bell: I do not see how it can. We have already tasked Keith Mason with the obvious dichotomy in the statements in the business plan about encouraging a technology campus at Daresbury whilst withdrawing from the key science that would make it attractive. I cannot see how those two square up.

  Q48  Dr Iddon: Does it look to you—as it looks to north west MPs—that the original fear that we had that science was being pulled into the golden triangle and that Daresbury was going to be abandoned is going to come true?

  Mr Bell: It does look that way to me and it certainly looks that way to the staff at Daresbury.

  Q49  Dr Iddon: Obviously there are three science and innovation sites that were declared by the last science minister, Lord Sainsbury—who I think did a good job and we were very pleased to hear that these three sites were going to develop as science and innovation sites—can you tell us something about cuts at the other two sites, the Scottish site and the Harwell site?

  Mr Bell: Again the details are not yet there but quite clearly with the withdrawal from Gemini there will be an impact on the UK ATC and if you look at the Delivery Plan it is quite clear that a different model of governance is being looked at with regards to the UK ATC and I believe that the STFC no longer wish to actually own the site and the staff.

  Q50  Dr Iddon: I am looking at 200 job cuts here at Harwell Rutherford Appleton alone and presumably more at the Scottish site. Has anybody calculated the cost of redundancies and severance packages that will obviously come out of all these job cuts? Has that been allowed for in the STFC budget? Have you asked STFC this question?

  Professor Main: I understand that the £27 million that they were allowed to bring forward in their budget was for restructuring costs which I assume are redundancy costs.

  Q51  Dr Iddon: So it is covered in the budget.

  Professor Main: There was some flexibility allowed to STFC. There was an extra £5 million a year they were allowed to bring in from their capital costs and £27 million, the self-loan, was able to be brought forward to allow for these restructuring costs.

  Mr Bell: I think until you know the numbers you cannot say what the money will be, but it is going to be big.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: On the ATC I can give you a number. The number of potential job losses at ATC is 40 people I believe, so approximately 50% of the workforce there are facing redundancy consequent on the withdrawal from Gemini and the abandonment of the instrumentation programme there. It means that the capability to build instrumentation to support our membership of the European Southern Observatory and get a juste retour from our subscription to them may be lost.

  Q52  Dr Turner: In addition to all the potential damage to Daresbury and the other sites, what is going to be the impact in your view of the research grant costs? What is going to be lost?

  Professor Main: You mean in universities?

  Q53  Dr Turner: Yes.

  Professor Main: It will of course not be evenly spread but there at least half a dozen universities—some large, some small—whose dependence on STFC is about 75% of their funding or more and lots with about 50% of their funding so a 20% cut in that will be a 20% cut in their income. If you look at what the actual figures are—in terms of grants it is money in/money out because you spend it on the research—there are also now full economic costs and the direct costs that go into the university. Some universities are standing to lose about three quarters of a million pounds a year in terms of their direct costs, ie the money they will lose as a result of these cuts. Some departments, even some of the very largest, will suffer very badly. Some of the smaller ones with high dependence on STFC may really be under a lot of financial pressure, particularly since, as we know what I call the parachute funding for HEFCE (the extra £75 million that HEFCE found for certain subjects including physics on the teaching side) is due to in 2009-10. If these things all come together at the same time it will put a lot of pressure on physics departments.

  Q54  Dr Turner: That also implies a further wave of redundancies.

  Professor Main: It is perfectly possible, yes. What is so frustrating about this from my point of view because I have an interest in education as well as research is that we really did seem to have turned the corner in physics with more people doing A levels last year, a lot more people applying to go to university. I am personally convinced that the reason for that is that senior people in government have been sending out some very positive messages about the use of physics, the jobs in physics and how important physics is. What worries me most about this—and I do regret it so much—is that we are all perhaps sending a negative message out and that is very, very regrettable. I know that the Government desperately wants to avoid more physics departments closing; they want more to open. It would be very regrettable if, as a result of this, we lose physics departments.

  Q55  Dr Turner: The message is: study physics and be redundant in a few years. That is not a good message, is it?

  Professor Main: I think that might be exaggerating a little.

  Q56  Dr Turner: It is not good though.

  Professor Main: No, it is not good.

  Q57  Chairman: Just to follow this point up, Tony said earlier in this conversation that this is not a loss of funding to STFC, this is a redistribution of £80 million—possibly £120 million—into this area. One of the big beneficiaries will be space which actually requires physicists and astrophysicists to actually go into that area. There will be a lot of new work for academics; there will be new work for scientists. Why are you not looking at this as a glass half full?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: In astronomy we have our subscription to the European Space Agency, we have our subscription to the European Southern Observatory so ESO will select the missions and the UK will try to get involved with instruments on that but they will be doing so with a budget that is 25% lower. The number of post doctorate researchers available in the universities will be 25% lower in three years' time. The possibilities of significant involvement in these space missions that ESO selects will be reduced. I think the net result will be that whereas currently the UK has a presence in most fields of astrophysics, solar system science and so on and is a major force in European astronomy, that will slowly disappear and we will find that all the opportunities have been taken by France, Germany, Italy or Spain and we will not be able to compete across the full range of science.

  Mr Bell: The work we have done shows that those who are made redundant from science—we followed our members who had been made redundant—the vast majority of them do not remain so it is not as if you can make them redundant now and pick them up in two or three years at another location. A lot of them will have drifted out of science, they will have gone abroad, they will have changed careers or whatever; they do not just sit around in the wardrobe waiting to be lifted back out for another project.

  Q58  Chairman: I was not suggesting that; I was suggesting that overall within the budget there will be new opportunities.

  Mr Bell: But it is the lead time between one and the other; you will lose people.

  Q59  Mr Marsden: Professor Main, earlier you referred to some of the international reactions or concerns that have been expressed about the cuts in this budget. I declare an interest as a north west MP and am profoundly concerned about any implications of savage cuts that would affect Daresbury's viability. My colleague Brian Iddon went through the job numbers but there are other issues as well. For example, Prospect, in their written evidence to us, say that if this results in the withdrawal of STFC from science programmes key to the future of the Daresbury site (they mention the Linac Prototype for a next generation light source and the EMMA project) that this again will completely nullify the intention of the department for Daresbury to act as a focal point for collaboration and knowledge. Is that too stark a prospect?

  Professor Main: I do not think so. I find it very difficult to comment specifically on the Daresbury project partly- as Tony has hinted—because of a lack of transparency in the decision making process. We know next to nothing about how these decisions were reached. I have heard John Denham say in public that he puts Daresbury at the top of his priority list; he says that he will see that Daresbury will continue.

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