Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
MONDAY 21 JANUARY 2008
Q60 Mr Marsden:
Tony Bell, could I ask you, because it was you who flagged this
up in the evidence and echoing what Professor Main said, is it
not possible that there is a huge dichotomy here between the declared
and the sustained intention of ministers to diversify outside
what I think one of my colleagues referred to as the "golden
triangle" and what appears to have been a sort of handed-down
very quickly and very regionally focussed decision. Would it be
unfair for those looking at it from the outside to say that actually
the STFC have taken advantage, potentially, of this situation
to produce a rather slash and burn approach to Daresbury?
Mr Bell: It does look like there
have been radical decisions taken in the Council in light of the
CSR and certainly our members in Daresbury are saying, "Well,
where will be the critical mass for this technology campus if
those sort of programmes are being stopped?" They are very
doubtful for the future for a technology campus at Daresbury.
Q61 Mr Marsden:
So that is a central issue for Wakeham as well, is it?
Mr Bell: I would have thought
Q62 Dr Gibson:
Just for the record, this will affect Scotland as well. You cover
the work that goes on there and there is a very proud tradition
of physics and astronomy. Edinburgh, for example, is very frightened
that they are going to lose a lot of facilities which are international.
Is that true?
Mr Bell: Absolutely.
Q63 Dr Gibson:
Just to correct the record, everything is not just in the north
west, it is right across the country.
Mr Bell: Yes.
Professor Main, we have been told that solar terrestrial physics
is going to be removed totally from the UK's portfolio. What is
going to be the effect of that?
Professor Main: Could I just say
that one of the international people we did contact, Professor
Roger Blandford, made the comment that it was a rather curious
thing to be doing at a time when climate change is so important.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Just
to make clear, it is ground-based solar terrestrial physics facilities,
it is the ground-based radars but there are still space missions
doing solar terrestrial physics. The key point about the ground-based
radar is they complete the picture of the interaction between
the sun and the earth. If the sun is active in solar storms and
so on it can trace them through space and then you see the impact
at the earth with the ground-based radars. As an aside, they also
track debris from the Chinese satellite destruction so they have
a value for society basically. These solar storms, of course,
disrupt electrical networks and cause potential harm.
The other point we have received a lot of information on is really
the International Linear Collider and the abandonment of any involvement
in that programme. Surely the fact that we are continuing to invest
significantly in the Large Hadron Collider demonstrates a commitment
to this area of particle physics and therefore we do not need,
given tight resources, to actually involve ourselves with the
International Linear Collider.
Professor Main: The International
Linea Collider of course is much further down the line. I think
the biggest criticism we would put forward there is that the decision
was made with very, very little consultation with the people involved.
The people who have been involvedBrian Foster at Oxford
is the European leader of the ILC programmewere not given
any opportunity to present their case before the project was terminated.
It is not useful at this sort of meeting to get involved in the
ins and outs of whether it is a good thing; they are very complicated
issues. It is really a question of the time available for the
decision and the lack of consultation.
Q66 Mr Cawsey:
I would like to ask a little bit about the headline increase of
17.4% for the research councils which disguises some considerable
variation in the amounts received. What do you make of the range
of increases that different research councils have been allocated?
Professor Main: It seems to me
that the Government has the right to put priority where it thinks.
It is the Government; it decides where the priority should be
in the science budget. I think it is perfectly reasonable of course
to put more money into medical research and perhaps the environment.
I do not think we have any problem with that. I think the problem
has been the way it has been concentrated on these specific projects
and such a large cut was not intended when it made the original
plan to allocate the budget as it is.
Q67 Mr Cawsey:
You say that obviously the Government has the right to make priorities.
Professor Main: Yes.
Q68 Mr Cawsey:
Do you generally agree with the priority calls they have made?
Professor Main: We would like
to see that physics would be at the heart of all the sciences.
One of the things about physics is that it is basic nature and
I hope that the Wakeham Review will take that into account. I
used to be at the University of Nottingham; my colleague Peter
Mansfield is a physicist but he won the Nobel Prize for medicine.
I think the actual priorities are fine but one has to recognise
that the contributions to those priorities will not necessarily
always come from medical schools in medicine, they will often
be from physics.
Mr Bell: I think as well that
we should be aware that the process is not as joined up as just
looking at the CSR for science, I would imagine, because there
is no coordination with the spend on science in other government
departments. We are only looking at a microcosm of the UK science
spend; the rest of it is vested in departments and I am not convinced
that departments talk to each other and research councils talk
to departments. We are only looking at that small part of it.
The wider picture is not known to us.
Q69 Mr Cawsey:
Is that what your members have been saying?
Mr Bell: Yes. We have been saying
for ages that there should be a coordinated policy across government
for spending in science. We already see the very point you are
making, that there are large differences just within the research
councils. When you start looking at government spend across the
departments as well there are huge variations and that has impacts
because they are all inter-related.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Coming
back to this point about unintended outcome, basically the intention
was to have a big increase in science spending, tick; the intention
was to focus that pretty much on medical research, tick. The unintended
consequence was slashing cuts in key areas of physics. That was
not intended and that, I feel, was an error somewhere along the
Q70 Mr Cawsey:
Moving on from that, Professor Main, the Engineering and Physical
Sciences Research Council received a funding increase of 18.6%,
so why are you predicting a reduction in grants?
Professor Main: Shortly after
the CSR Review was announced we spoke to officials from EPSRCof
course it is rather difficult because FEC is complicating the
calculationsand in terms of their volume of research they
are expecting a decrease over the CSR period roughly according
to inflation. In other words, their allocation is flat in terms
of the volume of research. What has happened of course with FEC
is that more money will be going into the university sector as
a result of the increases. This is to be welcomed; certainly the
universities have been calling for it for some time. I was speaking
to the chief executive of EPSRC just three days ago and he was
saying that one of their key issues for the next year was educating
universities in the use of the full economic cost funding. I think
that will be very, very important. It was always the case that
FEC money was not going to increase the volume of research; in
fact, even in EPSRC there is going to be a slight decrease in
volume as a result of getting flat cash.
Q71 Mr Cawsey:
Some people are going to see a benefit of flat cash elsewhere.
Professor Main: There will be
benefit within the universities and if the money is spent wisely
in the universities it may give an overall benefit to science.
Q72 Mr Cawsey:
UK subscriptions to international projects are currently compensated
by the OSI to currency fluctuation but that is due to end at the
end of March. I would be interested to know your view on what
is likely to happen if there is a drop in the value of the pound
Professor Main: It is clear what
will happen, there will be a further cut on the flexible funding
that we have referred to, Michael's unintended consequences, and
so the grants will be cut even more. I have to say that this change
in policy is quite extraordinary. It could go the other way; it
would be just as absurd for STFC to have more money simply as
a result of a slightly stronger pound than it is for it to have
less money due to a weak pound. I do not see this as a very sensible
decision at all and it is quite out of kilter with most of the
rest of our European colleagues.
Q73 Mr Cawsey:
It is bringing in additional uncertainty.
Professor Main: Yes, absolutely.
It is uncertainty in funding which, as any funder will tell you,
is not what you need because you always have to have a contingency
Professor Rowan-Robinson: It is
not just currency fluctuation, it is also GDP changes so that
drives several of the subscriptions as a proportion to GDP. If
the UK does really well and has less funding then the subscriptions
go up. Our belief is that these international subscriptions should
be taken out of the budget basically, they should be paid either
off the top or RCUK or at the Treasury or something like that.
Fluctuations should not sabotage science planning.
Q74 Mr Cawsey:
The review of physics is to be followed by reviews of other subjects.
Is this something you welcome
Professor Main: Yes, although
I would say one thing that slightly concerns me and that is the
way that the subjects are split up and really there is a continuum
in science, physics in particular. One of the things I always
say is that if you look at where physics graduates go, they go
everywhere, into all the sciences and engineering. You can visit
any campus and you will find people with physics degrees in all
sorts of different areas. The campus at UEA is an excellent example.
They do not have a physics department at the University of East
Angliaas Ian Gibson knows wellbut in fact they have
several dozen people whose first degree is in physics.
Tony, would you agree with the fact that disciplines with those
caveats should be included in these reviews?
Mr Bell: Yes, I think so. I take
the point as well that it is very difficult to make these arguments
on rigidly academic discipline lines. There is a lot more integration
of science happening which is surely to be welcomed and I think
breaking it down into these little subheadings is not necessarily
Chairman: On that note, where everyone
seems to agree, could I thank very much indeed Professor Michael
Rowan-Robinson, Professor Peter Main and Tony Bell for being excellent
witnesses. Thank you very much indeed.