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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)

WEDNESDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2008

IAN PEARSON MP AND PROFESSOR SIR KEITH O'NIONS

  Q160  Graham Stringer: The Committee visited Daresbury on Monday and one of the big surprises that I was not aware of before we went was that the scientists at Daresbury told us—I am going from memory, so I may not be exact—that only 3% of the total basic science that was not done on universities was done in centres outside the golden triangle and most of that was at Daresbury. Do the Government have a regional policy when it comes to science expenditure? Are the Government at all interested in the spatial impact of science?

  Ian Pearson: The Government very clearly is committed to Daresbury and Harwell as science and innovation campuses; we have said that and we continue to say that. We want to develop Daresbury as a world-class centre for science and innovation. When it comes to decisions about allocations of research funding, those are done on the basis of peer review through the research councils. So, there is not a particular regional focus to that, but I would say that the north-west universities do very well indeed out of that peer review process and I think that one of the biggest concentrations of research anywhere in the UK will be found in the north west.

  Q161  Graham Stringer: I am not clear from that answer what you are saying about a regional policy. Are you saying that you do not have a regional policy? I understand your response that you do not want to say, "That is the driver for that accelerator's fund as opposed to that accelerator", I understand that, but surely it is reasonable to say that money should be spent on basic science in Newcastle or outside Newcastle or somewhere else. What is the Government's regional policy when it comes to science expenditure?

  Ian Pearson: Let me be very clear. We do not say to individual research councils, "You must spend so much of a percentage of your budget in the north-west, so much in the north east, so much in the West Midlands or East Midlands", and I think it would be entirely wrong to do so.

  Q162  Chairman: Do you think that it is wrong to have a regional policy for science expenditure? It does not matter to you whether the money on science is spent in Manchester or Camden?

  Ian Pearson: Clearly, we want to see a situation where we have world-class science being conducted in very different parts of the country and we want to see centres of expertise in all parts of the country as well, but what I do not think you can do, Graham, is get to a situation where you are actually dictating to research councils that a certain percentage of their budget has to be spent in a certain region. What we do have to do is to allow the research councils to make the best decisions based on peer review evidence.

  Q163  Graham Stringer: I come back to the same point that you are saying that you would like science to be dispersed throughout the UK but you have no levers whatsoever nor do you want any levers which would enable you to focus money elsewhere within the United Kingdom.

  Ian Pearson: If you look at how the science budget is allocated, you will find that the Government overall sets some strategic priorities. For instance, we actually say full economic costing was a strategic priority for us going into discussions on resource allocations. We say that we are committed to developing Harwell and Daresbury as science and innovation campuses. We are saying that we want to see cross-council programmes which address some of the Government's biggest strategic priorities such as ageing, such as living with environmental health, global threats to security and energy. We say all that as a government. We do not specifically say then, "You have to spend a certain proportion of your budget in a particular area" and I do not think that it would be right to do so.

  Q164  Chairman: Minister, in some ways, the point that Graham Stringer is making here is that you have gone on record, as has the Secretary of State, saying that you want to have world-class—world-class—science and innovation campuses at Harwell and Daresbury.

  Ian Pearson: Yes.

  Q165  Chairman: That is regional policy by default, is it not? It just so happens that Daresbury is in the north-west, but that is regional policy by default. How on earth can you move from that to saying, "We have no interest in having world-class facilities on the Daresbury site" and that you are prepared to allow it to just disappear?

  Ian Pearson: I am not saying that at all and in fact, as a government, we have said very strongly that we want Daresbury to be developed as a world-class science and innovation campus.

  Q166  Chairman: Without world-class science.

  Ian Pearson: With world-class science.

  Q167  Chairman: What does that mean? What does world-class science mean at Daresbury?

  Ian Pearson: Firstly, if you look at the STFC's delivery plan and if you look at their published statements about Daresbury as a science and innovation campus, they talk about developing the Cockcroft Institute which will have world-class accelerator science; they talk about the Hartree Centre which we anticipate will have world-class computational science and they talk about setting up a centre for detector systems as well. As you will be aware, Daresbury has been working on SRS and the next generation light source.

  Q168  Chairman: They are all going, Minister. They are all going. You are not making a guarantee for any of those. All that science is disappearing. It is just hot air.

  Ian Pearson: It is not true to say that all that science is disappearing. The fact that SRS was going to close has been known for a considerable period of time.

  Q169  Chairman: I agree.

  Ian Pearson: And there are redundancies associated with that which have already been announced. As you will see from the STFC's press release on this matter, apart from the SRS closures, there are not intended to be any compulsory redundancies certainly before the McKillop Review reports and one of the things that the Government have done, as I am sure you will appreciate, is that we have asked Sir Tom McKillop to conduct a review about the future of Daresbury. I actually believe that Daresbury has a very bright future indeed and I expect that, over the next few months, we will be able to see some positive announcements about Daresbury, but it is undoubtedly a fact that, as a result of the decisions on Diamond which were taken a number of years ago and the decision that was taken last year on 4GLS, there are problems in the interim and I cannot deny that.

  Dr Iddon: I am sure you are aware that the formation of Cockcroft Institute on the Daresbury site was a combination pulling together Liverpool University, Manchester and Lancaster Universities. They were attracted to come on to that site because of the world-class accelerator and work that was going on there, some of which has moved now and some of which is uncertain. The Director told us on Monday when we visited the site that he was attracted to come to Daresbury all the way from the United States of America and indeed three other people came on the reverse brain drain because of the creation of Cockcroft on that site and because of the facilities there: the computational facilities, the fact that there were engineers there who could build advance instruments that the world has not seen before, because there was a world-class library on the site which we hear is going to close or it has potential to close. He told us frankly on Monday that he is clearing off and other people who were attracted on the reverse brain drain will also clear off unless some definite decisions are taken about the future of Daresbury. The general feeling on the Daresbury site on Monday was that a decision has been taken behind the scenes by the TFC to concentrate basic science at the Harwell site and to develop Daresbury as a technology park and we heard also that three major new companies were coming on to the site to join the others. I put it to you: do you believe that world-class companies will be attracted to the Daresbury site if the basic science there is being run down as it clearly is at the moment?

  Q170  Chairman: That is the key point, Minister.

  Ian Pearson: Clearly, there are decisions that follow from the closure of SRS which has been known, as I say, for some considerable period of time and following the review on the next generation light source where it was decided that neither 4GLS nor Sapphire were likely to be appropriate. Let me very clear on this. Let me quote from the press release that the STFC issued. It says, "At its meeting on 29 January 2008, the Science and Technologies Facilities Council confirmed its commitment to the development of the Daresbury science and innovation campus as one of two national science and innovation campuses that it will develop". It goes on to say, "The Council is committed to retaining key scientific and technology expertise at Daresbury in high performance computing, accelerator and detector research development for next generation facilities and underpinning technologies and is looking to expand expertise on this site as its plans develop". There is undoubtedly a period of change going through which is very difficult for those who are working at Daresbury, but the STFC have stated on the record and through their Council that they are committed to developing Daresbury and that is exactly what we want to see as a government.

  Q171  Dr Harris: You do not believe everything that is in a press release even your own, do you? It is not a statement of fact, it is an aspiration and, if that aspiration comes to fruition—

  Ian Pearson: This is a decision that has been taken by the STFC Council and it is confirming its commitment to this which is exactly what the Government have said they want to see because, as a government matter of policy, we want to see the development of Daresbury and Harwell as campuses.

  Q172  Dr Harris: Let me tell you what the Cockcroft Centre actually said to us. "Are the plans to make Daresbury a Science and Innovation campus viable?" and that is a term you used. "We fear the answer is `No'. Lack of support of the STFC leadership for scientific flagship facilities on the Daresbury campus by design renders as such a plan incredulous. The Cockcroft Centre by itself, without a thriving Daresbury Laboratory will have no reason to be on the site and will retreat to the universities failing the lofty DIUS goals". Does that not give you pause to think that maybe the STFC are not going to be able to deliver for you your policy objectives?

  Ian Pearson: What it says to me is that there is low morale at Daresbury at the moment and I understand that and it is a difficult time and, when you are seeing a situation where work is finishing on SRS, then undoubtedly there is going to be a period of uncertainty. I want to assure people at Daresbury that the Government remain resolutely committed to developing Daresbury as a world-class science and innovation campus.

  Q173  Dr Harris: That is not enough in itself and it is not just SRS. 4GLS has been delayed for two years and no-one we met at Daresbury was confident that that would eventually come to Daresbury. ERLP, the Alice Programme, is under threat—and Dr Iddon may have something to say about this—and that undermines the potential for another project for (?). They do not think and I am concerned that you are not aware that it is not just morale but its intentions to not stay at that site for the basic science.

  Ian Pearson: Again, let me be as clear as I can be on this. It is government policy that we will develop Harwell and Daresbury as world-class science and innovation campuses and we will do that. The STFC understands that that is a firm commitment of the Government and the STFC's published statements and its delivery plan say that they will develop Daresbury as a world-class science and innovation campus.

  Q174  Dr Harris: If STFC thought it was not viable, would you let them not do that or are they forced to try and try to implement your policy objective?

  Ian Pearson: This is the policy of the Government and it will remain the policy of the Government. Obviously in areas like next generation light source, we have to be guided by what the science says and when the science looked at 4GLS and looked at Sapphire, the conclusions of an international peer review suggested that neither was likely to be appropriate and we have to accept that, but the strategic commitment to Daresbury by the Government remains.

  Q175  Chairman: Minister, there is a fundamental flaw in what you are saying and what STFC are saying. I do not think that any member of this Committee doubts your commitment and I say that really quite openly and honestly.

  Ian Pearson: What you are suggesting is, can we deliver on it?

  Q176  Chairman: Yes.

  Ian Pearson: I am saying to you that I believe that we can deliver on this, that we will see the developments of the three centres that I talked about—the Cockcroft Institute, the Hartree Centre and the Detector Systems Centre—and we will maintain strategic capability to do work on the next generation light source.

  Q177  Chairman: Minister, genuinely we are not doubting your commitment and intention, but the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Daresbury, the Deputy Chief for STFC, believes that you can have a striving Cockcroft without having the new basic large facilities on that site. Everybody else feels that that is incredulous. I do not think that you have fully understood the connection—I am perhaps doing you a disservice—between having 4GLS or having some major facility and in fact retaining this as a world-class science site and not just simply any other science business park.

  Ian Pearson: I think that you are doing me a disservice, to be fair.

  Q178  Chairman: Well, I do not mean to.

  Ian Pearson: It would be great if a decision could be taken on what is the next generation light source and then a decision was taken on location. We are not at that stage though because, as you know very well, it has not been fully determined what the next generation light source should look like, let alone a decision on what its location should be. I personally very strongly believe that, if we get to the stage where we can make a decision that it is right to have a next generation light source project and we know what that project is, then its location should be at Daresbury, but we are not in that situation at the moment.

  Q179  Dr Iddon: I think that the problem is the Haldane principle. As the Chairman said, we do not deny that the Government's intention is to have world-class science on the Daresbury site, but can you break the Haldane principle? Can you tell the STFC what they should be doing on the site when indeed they do not have the money to reach some of the commitments? I think that the two words which are important are "critical mass". We had critical mass on the Daresbury site but from what we were hearing on Monday from all the scientists from all the divisions at Daresbury—we saw an awful lot of people on Monday—the message was coming over clear: the future here is so unsure that we are clearing off now. The critical mass is crumbling. Cockcroft is crumbling. It does not look as if Hartree will even arrive on the site because, the way we are going, they will be lucky to complete. Can you break the Haldane principle of what the STFC do on the site? I can tell you that there are clear rumours behind the scenes that the STFC have been considering closing down basic science on that site.

  Ian Pearson: I hope that the Committee is very careful in terms of its conclusions in this matter because the last thing that I think we ought to be doing is talking down the prospects of Daresbury as a science and innovation campus. We will not do that as a government. We are fully committed to developing Daresbury as a science and innovation campus and the STFC know that. They know that it is a strategic priority for us as a government and that is why it is reflected in their delivery plan. We would not have approved the delivery plan for the STFC if we thought that it did not have in it the development of Harwell and Daresbury as science and innovation campuses. I know that there is a great desire to have what you might colloquially call a big piece of kit and that, as 4GLS has not been proceeded with, that piece of equipment is not there. There is certainly the commitment from the Government however to develop Daresbury and to ensure that world-class science is conducted there. We need to look at this and it is one of the reasons why Sir Tom McKillop is producing his report which will set out a vision for Daresbury. There is a vision of Daresbury being developed with those three centres that will conduct world-class science and, I believe, will make it an extremely attractive location for scientists who want to do world-class research and produce the additional benefits of having companies that want to be associated with that. I think that Daresbury has a very bright future, but it is obviously going through a difficult time at the moment and I think that the last thing we ought to be doing is saying that we are gloomy about the prospects for Daresbury because I just think that is reading the long-term situation completely wrong.


 
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