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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 75)



  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 so.

  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.

  Q64  Chairman: 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.

  Q65  Chairman: 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 involved—Brian Foster at Oxford is the European leader of the ILC programme—were 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 line.

  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 EPSRC—of course it is rather difficult because FEC is complicating the calculations—and 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 post-April?

  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 for that.

  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 Anglia—as Ian Gibson knows well—but in fact they have several dozen people whose first degree is in physics.

  Q75  Chairman: 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 helpful

  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.

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