Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
MONDAY 21 JANUARY 2008
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
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 commitmentsminor
in monetary termsbut 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also withdrawn funding for the next year and I think this is a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
hemisphereGemini provides a fifthand 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
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
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.
I am confused now. The 25% cut in terms of grants is still open
Professor Mason: I was talking
about programme cuts, cuts to projects like Gemini and ILC.
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,
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
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.
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
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 somethingas I understand it
and this probably applies in other disciplines as wellthat
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 investmentas
you might be entitled to do based on good science and evidenceyou
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 instancesone was
quoted by a previous witnessof 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 careerswhatever
the reasons for itis to become a stockbroker. That cannot
be what you are saying.
Professor Diamond: I am not saying
Q134 Dr Harris:
Before you answer that, I understand that when one does collaborationas
one does collaboration with other fieldsI 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 aboutlet us say you are involved in solar
terrestrial physicsthere will be no future in your career
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
dothere 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
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 timeit is nothing
to do with the spending reviewthat 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.