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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  Q120  Mr Boswell: We cannot wait for Wakeham and if we were to wait for Wakeham the analysis of the physics side would not by itself by sufficient necessarily to determine the reallocation of resources across the piece. I just want to be clear about that.

  Professor Diamond: In this spending review, no.

  Q121  Mr Boswell: My next question is something I asked our earlier witnesses about reputation more generally, but specifically about international subscriptions. If we are pulling out of international subscriptions is this going to be damaging to our reputation internationally in a way which will make us difficult to be partners in the future?

  Professor Mason: It is part of our strategy to protect the major international subscriptions and we do that because we have a long term commitment to them and they are extremely valuable to the country, not only in terms of science but also in other ways and we are protecting them. We are withdrawing from a couple of relatively minor commitments—minor in monetary terms—but what I look for in international partners for is me is people who tell it as it is. We are being straight with our international partners. We have notified them of our intention to try to negotiate a withdrawal from the Gemini programme. We have told them that we do not believe that the current strategy for the ILC is the correct one and we cannot participate in that. We are being very upfront and very direct. What would be unfortunate in terms of international reputation is if we try and pull the wool over people's eyes and not tell it as it is. Quite the contrary, we are telling it exactly as it is.

  Q122  Mr Boswell: Is it your judgment that any of these projects will fail on account of our withdrawal?

  Professor Mason: In terms of the International Linear Collider you will be aware that the US has also withdrawn funding for the next year and I think this is a signal that we actually need to re-think the future of particle physics and find a more sustainable way to go onto the next stage. That is my own personal opinion. What happens to the ILC project is perhaps debatable, but I am pretty sure at some stage there will be a next generation Linear Collider. In terms of Gemini all the indications are that there are other users who would wish to take up the slack that we leave and I emphasise again our decision to withdraw from Gemini is not that there is anything wrong with Gemini but we are involved in the European Southern Observatory as well. There are four eight metre telescopes in the southern hemisphere—Gemini provides a fifth—and in terms of our overall strategy I think it is clear to the Council that we have to give priority to ESO. I think we have made our rationale clear and I hope people respect us for being open and honest about it.

  Q123  Dr Blackman-Woods: We have had a briefing from the Russell Group of universities that says that these cuts, the £80 million, will add to the general pressures on physics, the closures of departments concerned (we have already heard about the supply of graduates) and increased competition from international competitors. They also say that this will increase the vulnerability of physics departments, that the impact of grant cuts will mean that not only will there be further demoralisation of staff but there will be fewer opportunities for post-doctoral research and for post-graduate research, and that the utilisation of leading facilities will be adversely affected. My first question is, do you agree with their analysis of the impact of the cuts?

  Professor Mason: As we have said earlier, when asked a question would you prefer to maintain the volume or to have full economic costing the unanimous advice from universities was to have full economic costing. This gives them a huge extra resource in order to manage their budget, their research strategy and their research activities. There is at least the option there for universities to handle their research staff in a very responsive and creative way and I hope they will take that, it is obviously not under my control. I do not accept that the opportunities for trained scientists in this country are diminishing; quite the contrary, they are increasing. Maybe it is physics to bio-medicine but the skills of physicists are in huge demand and I do not see any reason at all why physics students or post-docs should be demoralised. The other point I would make in relation to our campuses and to correct a statement that was made earlier that the redundancies that we are talking about will affect the viability of the Daresbury campus in particular, again I do not accept that. We are pursuing a new model for doing science in this country which involves partnership with the private sector and local authorities in order to get more science done. Daresbury is a shining example of this and we are planning huge additional investments from all these sectors into Daresbury; I think Daresbury has an absolutely shining future. The number of jobs that we are going to have to sacrifice for the spending review will be dwarfed by the number of new jobs coming into those areas in a very short timescale.

  Professor Diamond: You mentioned it was the Russell Group that wrote to you and it is the Russell Group that receives the bulk of research council funding, so it is the Russell Group which will receive the bulk of the real additional money that is coming in through full economic costing.

  Q124  Dr Blackman-Woods: You are more or less not agreeing with them is, I think, what you are saying. Can you tell us a bit more about how the decisions were made regarding which programmes to cut? I am totally confused about whether there was consultation or whether there was not consultation because we have had different answers today. I think you need to say something more about that.

  Professor Mason: I will be very happy to. If you analyse our Delivery Plan in terms of decisions, we made two and a half decisions, to put it very bluntly. Those were strategic decisions. We made a strategic decision to withdraw from Gemini; we made a strategic decision to withdraw from ILC. These were not ill-considered decisions made overnight; these were based on advice that we got from our science community over the last year in terms of relative priorities and the fact that we cannot do everything. The half decision was in relation to STP ground-based facilities which was actually a decision that we made at the last spending review but we are confirming this time because clearly within a shrinking budget we could not restore the cuts that we needed to make at the last review. All the other decisions, as I said, are being handled through this £40 million headroom process where we have peer review committees sitting down, as we speak, drawing up a priority list for using that money, so they are fully involved.

  Q125  Chairman: I am confused now. The 25% cut in terms of grants is still open for review.

  Professor Mason: I was talking about programme cuts, cuts to projects like Gemini and ILC.

  Q126  Chairman: In the Delivery Plan you said there were three things.

  Professor Mason: It is unfortunate that we have to make cuts to research grants but research grants actually make up the bulk of the money that we spend in universities so you cannot make the books balance unless you put a reduction on them. I do think actually that people misunderstood but the impact of those cuts is not as great as people are perhaps expressing in some circles. It is 25% of new commitment year on year; it is a gradual rank down on grants and against an aspirational programme that would have been an increase. The actual reduction in research, in the numbers of PDRAs in astronomy for example, will be some 10% down on what they were in 2005 by the end of this period, not 25%.

  Q127  Dr Blackman-Woods: Can I try to summarise what I think it is you are saying and please correct me if I have got this wrong. You are saying that there should not really be this hoo-ha from affected departments because, although they may lose out a bit, they will have some compensation because of full economic costs, they will have new programmes that they may be able to apply for and they should be looking at new methods of funding and perhaps looking more to the private sector or other sources of funding. Because of those three things they should not really be complaining to the extent that they are.

  Professor Mason: From my point of view I do not want to belittle the problems. We do face collectively as research councils challenges in getting quarts out of pint pots; we do have to tackle the inflation problem et cetera. There is real loss of potential here which I do not want to underestimate, but on the other hand I think this is an opportunity to sit down, through the Wakeham Review and wider, to think about our scientific strategy in this country and what we want to do as a nation. Science is quite clearly an important component of the future economic wellbeing of this country. We need to plan it properly; we need to be aware of all the wrinkles, all the difficulties and talk about them in a fully open and calm and collected way. I do not want to comment on the reaction of certain elements of the community, but I think we do have real problems that perhaps have been overstated in some circumstances and in some circles. We actually need to look at the facts and plan our way forward.

  Q128  Chairman: Keith, it would be enormously helpful if the answer you gave to Roberta, which was particularly in terms of the grants, and the actual analysis that you have made of the impact of your cuts in grants could be given to the Committee because that is in direct contradiction to the evidence that we have been receiving from a vast number of physicists and astronomers in the community.

  Professor Mason: I think there is a genuine misunderstanding here which I am happy to correct.

  Q129  Dr Harris: Professor Diamond, is it your view that there is anything in the Haldane principle that prevents the Government from switching money from one research council to another to deal with problems that require additional funding over the short term?

  Professor Diamond: I do not know the answer to that off the top of my head. I cannot think of a reason why not other than, of course, the other money has been allocated very properly. The allocations have been made and the councils have already made decisions on how to spend that money. The amount of spare cash in any individual council at the moment is minimal.

  Q130  Dr Gibson: Why can people not apply to the MRC for money if they are doing medical research that is important?

  Professor Diamond: They can; it is absolutely not a problem.

  Q131  Dr Harris: We know that the Government has been known to take money out of the science budget. We know it did that once and we know that it has taken money from the MRC's innovation fund. Presumably what the Government taketh away it can giveth again. I just wanted to clarify that there is no reason of research council independence that prevents research councils receiving money from the Government. You are not going to reject money on the basis that that is interference.

  Professor Diamond: The research councils are very clear in the great majority of funding that each research council receives comes in grant in aid from the Government and we are very thankful to it and we use it incredibly wisely. Therefore if the Government were to choose that it wished to make additional allocations to the science budget then that would be for the Government to choose, and I do not see anything against and I do not see anything in the Haldane principle to prevent them doing so.

  Q132  Dr Harris: On this question of the health of physics before we leave it, you said there would be plenty of jobs for physicists because physics is funded by other means, but do you understand what the implications are for people who progress down a career in a certain area of physics? It is not something—as I understand it and this probably applies in other disciplines as well—that you can switch out of, from astrophysics into biophysics. Can I suggest to you that if you accept that, if you were going to make a strategic change in the way you wanted to put your investment—as you might be entitled to do based on good science and evidence—you would want to have a lead-in time so that you did not lure people into PhDs when there were no post-doc jobs available after that in that field and have specialists stuck in a post-doctoral area with nowhere to go. Do you accept that that would be a good way of doing strategic re-prioritisation?

  Professor Mason: I do not accept your statement. I think there are many instances—one was quoted by a previous witness—of people who have very successfully changed fields. I think that is one of the beauties and one of the strengths of inter-disciplinary research, that we need to encourage people to branch out and think beyond their own narrow disciplines and how they can apply their skills more widely.

  Professor Diamond: There are a number of research councils, for example EPSRC, who have things called discipline hopping grants which enable people to retrain. It happens an awful lot. One of the things also is that many particle physicists have found careers in the city, not doing particle physics but using their skills to be able to apply them in particular areas. People are prepared to re-train in those arenas. I think it is the case that re-training is part of a career in some instances.

  Q133  Dr Harris: This is a vital point, may I say. You cannot be serious in saying that the solution to wrecked careers, of dead-end careers—whatever the reasons for it—is to become a stockbroker. That cannot be what you are saying.

  Professor Diamond: I am not saying that.

  Q134  Dr Harris: Before you answer that, I understand that when one does collaboration—as one does collaboration with other fields—I can understand that someone can develop an interest from those collaborations and seek to go into it. Do you accept that there is a difference between that voluntary interest-led approach and the suggestion to say to somebody that unless you go right back to an area you know nothing about—let us say you are involved in solar terrestrial physics—there will be no future in your career for you.

  Professor Mason: I cannot agree with virtually anything you have said because I think that the sort of training we give to people both as students and post-doc level is more widely applicable than in the field. This is one of the reasons we do it. We train far more students than can ever go into particle physics and astronomy, for example, because the skills that they pick up in doing those subjects have a very broad range of applicability. Similarly, as was referred to earlier, we need physicists in the bio-medical area, we need physics for bio-medicine, we need people to discipline hop and to apply their skills more widely. It is the way of the future in terms of driving the maximum benefit from the investment we put in science. We need to think across the whole patch and not just think as a solar terrestrial physicist but look at the whole climate system.

  Professor Diamond: One of the excitements across the piece is people broadening and going into areas, looking in new areas and not just ploughing the same furrows. Those opportunities are essential and that is why, right across the research council base, the training of PhD students is to include the broad base of transferable skills which enables people to transfer, not only into a career in research. When you undertake a research studentship you do not say "I am going to spend the rest of my life in research"—although many people do—there are many avenues that people with PhDs have ended up in, some of them sitting to your right. The skills they learn are entirely useful in those arenas.

  Q135  Dr Harris: I am just astonished at the spin you put on this because I thought that our world leading researchers had a publication record in their field. Some of them need laboratories and have senior people below them able to teach because they are specialist in that area. My understanding was that you could only teach specialism as a specialist.

  Professor Mason: There is no reason why you cannot change your specialism and there are many people, as I said, who have a broad range of specialisms.

  Q136  Dr Iddon: Lord Sainsbury created three leading science and innovation campuses; how many jobs are we losing at each of those?

  Professor Mason: I cannot tell you the answer to that because I do not know. What we have done is to put target savings on the costs of running our centres internally and those target savings can be achieved by a number of ways and we are pursuing all those ways. One is certainly redundancies but also by looking at efficiencies in the way we run our operations. There will be reduction in programme and we are encouraging our scientists to look elsewhere for funding. For example, somebody mentioned applying to the Medical Research Council, that is precisely what we should be doing because that is part of our mission. The numbers that might have been banded around, with the exception of SRS where there is a well-defined, long ago defined number, the other numbers that might have been banded around are absolutely worse case if we totally fail at these other avenues. We are working as hard as possible and we are consulting and talking to unions and to our other stakeholders about how to actually minimise the loss of skills, recognising that in the cases of both Daresbury and Harwell actually we are looking at a situation where the requirement for skilled jobs is going to mushroom in the next few years if our strategy comes off, which I am sure it will. In the case of Edinburgh we are not as far along in terms of our plans for Edinburgh because this is something that has come along with the creation of STFC basically, but again I am very keen to explore the possibility of a wider partnership that makes use of the very unique and useful skills that we have in the ATC in order to apply them to a wider portfolio. I have to say just one other thing in regards to the ATC, that the original concept for the ATC was that it should be a group of about 40 people but because it was very successful in the pre-ESO era in winning contracts for telescope building and operation it has actually turned into an organisation of about 100 people. We have known for a long time—it is nothing to do with the spending review—that the work available to the ATC is going to drop off because we are now a member of ESO. We do not have our own telescopes to maintain and build instruments for so we are always looking at a roll off to a number which is not far from the one we first thought of, about 40. As part of the strategy of that roll off we do not want to lose those skills so we are exploring how we can use them in the wider context. There is not enough work for those people in building telescopes any more but they have skills that are generic and can be applied in other areas which are very valuable. As I said, we are beginning a process of working with the local universities and local funding agencies to explore how we might use a similar model to Daresbury and Harwell up in Scotland.

  Q137  Dr Iddon: On 14 December, according to my inside information coming out of Daresbury, your director of administrations, Paul Hartley, told the staff there that there would be 140 jobs left on the site. There are 490 jobs there at the moment and if you do the calculation that is 350 job losses at Daresbury, roughly two-thirds of the staff. Does that support David Sainsbury's leading science and innovation campus idea for Daresbury?

  Professor Mason: Yes. Firstly, Daresbury is a place that is growing. We have an innovation centre at Daresbury which is overflowing; we need more buildings for new companies coming in. What you see happening is a change in the model where instead of having a research staff solely funded by the research council we are moving to a mixed economy where we are, like I said, in partnership with private industry and with local universities and local funders. We are actually growing the Daresbury campus. The numbers that my director of administration mentioned to the unions were, as I said, worse case numbers; that is where we will be if we fail in all these other avenues but I am sure we will not fail so they are worse case. The exception to that, of course, is the numbers for the SRS and the closure of the SRS was something that was decided before my time. There is a known number of redundancies and a known cost to that. What happened was that the jobs that will be lost in SRS have already been created at Diamond so it is essentially because of the position and location of Diamond that those jobs moved to Harwell.

  Q138  Dr Iddon: I have seen Daresbury described as a technology gateway centre. Does that phrase mean that instead of scientific discovery on the Daresbury site we are going to have a science technology campus? You have mentioned involvement of private industry already and there is some there of course at the moment.

  Professor Mason: One of the things we anticipate doing is setting up a number of gateway centres across the two campuses. I do not know where the term "technology" came from but these are science and technology gateway centres. Basically these are facilities that allow users to come in and use the high value facilities that we have across the two campuses (it is a dipole model) most effectively and very easily to increase the amount of science they can do, to increase the amount of economic return that might come if we get industry involved. There is no conflict in these terms and we are fully committed to developing what is already a very successful site to be even more successful.

  Q139  Dr Iddon: I wanted to press you further, Keith, on Daresbury, but time has obviously run out. However, I will just ask this one final question. Tom McKillop is being brought in in some way to look at Daresbury. The Wakeham terms of reference have been released just this very day, can you tell us what Tom McKillop's role is going to be and what his terms of reference are likely to be when they are produced?

  Professor Mason: I cannot tell you; I can try to get hold of them and let you have them. I understand that Tom McKillop is doing a review of issues in the north west and he has been asked to extend it to include the specific issue of the Daresbury area. I would imagine that it is an extension of his current terms of reference, but I can try to get you chapter and verse on that.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 30 April 2008