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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  Mr Marsden: Minister, you know that the history of government decisions is littered with a list of unintended consequences and I think that what this Committee is trying to say is that if you will the end to Daresbury without fundamentally breaching the Haldane principle, you have at some point to will the means before the (inaudible). I want to address you further on the relationship between the Government and the STFC's delivery plan because, when the Secretary of State came before this Committee on 16 January, he said very straightforwardly that the Government had responded to concerns over STFC funding in the areas of physics and astronomy by commissioning a review from Professor Bill Wakeham. However, when Professors Diamond and Keith Mason came before the Committee, they told the Committee quite straightforwardly that the Wakeham Review had no impact on the delivery plan at all. I have to ask you therefore, is this not another example of the STFC cutting across clear departmental steer and actually undermining the points that were made originally?

  Ian Pearson: No, I do not think it is a question of that at all. The Wakeham Review is a major piece of work. It is the first of a number of reviews looking at the health of the disciplines, in this case physics. The simple fact is that we have a science budget and it has been already allocated, so there is no new money, but we will obviously want to pay full attention to what Bill Wakeham says in his report about the health of physics and I do not think it is right to speculate on what is going to be in the Review. Bill, as I understand it, is in the process of taking evidence and will produce a report in due course. I think that what the Secretary of State has said is completely right, that we have set up this review and we will want, as a government, to consider its conclusions.

  Q181  Mr Marsden: Minister, I am not asking you to prejudge the Wakeham report. The point I am making is a rather different one. Here we have the Secretary of State commissioning a report after some very strong concerns in the physics and astronomy community and we have no idea as to whether that report's outcome, whatever it is, will have any impact on some of the basic fundamental decisions that are being made in that community by STFC. When Professor Mason came before the Committee, he said that it was not an option to delay any of the existing cuts. If it is not an option, then what is the point of having a review which may suggest a fundamentally different approach?

  Ian Pearson: I think that there is every point in having a review that looks at the health of physics overall and that is exactly what the Wakeham Review will do and, as a government, we will consider carefully its findings because we have a responsibility overall to ensure the health of physics for the future. It is not the responsibility of government, respecting the Haldane principles, to make detailed decisions in terms of how a research council should allocate its budget. That is up to the STFC and its decision-making processes which involve the scientific community.

  Q182  Dr Blackman-Woods: Minister, I would not want you to gain the impression that we are talking Daresbury down. We went to see it to find out the information. The information that we got on Monday was very much that the scientists there do not feel that their future is being invested in properly. They have gone to great lengths to recruit excellent scientists from a global market and they are losing those scientists at the moment. What the Committee is trying to press you on is, are you aware of that and can anything be done in the short term so that we do not lose the excellent scientists there?

  Ian Pearson: I am certainly very aware of the situation at Daresbury. I have, as you know, regular contact with north-western MPs. Officials have been to Daresbury. I have been due to go twice, once yesterday when we were required to vote on other things, but I hope to visit there myself to talk to people there about the situation. Daresbury is going through a transition—there is no doubt about that—and that is a difficult situation and any process of change creates uncertainty. What we do not want to do is to damage the strategic capability of Daresbury as a science and innovation campus. I fully understand the concerns of the Committee which are obviously relaying the views of people who currently work at Daresbury. I just want to assure the Committee that we are very well aware of that and we want to maintain that strategic capability, we want to see it develop and we want to work with the STFC that has the operational decisions to make in these matters to ensure that Daresbury is developed as a world-class science and innovation campus.

  Chairman: Graham, we side-tracked you and I am very sorry!

  Q183  Graham Stringer: I would like to finish with one point. It is not a question of being propagandist for or against Daresbury, it is trying to look at the objective facts and they look pretty sad at the moment when we talked to people there. What I am interested in is democratic accountability. If basic science at Daresbury goes to the wall, if, as is happening, solar-terrestrial physics is decimated, astronomy is decimated and particle physics are decimated, whose head do I ask for? Who is responsible for those policies? That is the basis of democratic society. I do not want those things to happen. Who is responsible for them happening?

  Ian Pearson: May I say first of all that I do not accept any of the "ifs" and let me say something about that in a moment. In terms of accountability, it is the Government that decides at a high level overall strategic priorities at the start of a budget allocation process and it is the Government that will make the final decisions on allocations according to those broad decisions and based on our understanding of delivery plans for the research councils. It is not our responsibility to make a decision about how many telescopes we should have, where they should be located, what the priority is between research on an international linear collidor or subscription to the European Southern Observatory or subscription to the European Space Agency or to CERN. Those are decisions that have to be taken by science.

  Q184  Graham Stringer: What I am trying to get at is that there is a fundamental change taking place in the fundamental science that is being undertaken at the moment. Is that or is that not government policy? Do the Government support those huge changes in basic science and in physics that are taking place? Is it ministers who are pursuing that policy? Is it an accident or should we be asking for the head of the STFC?

  Ian Pearson: May I put some facts on record. Firstly, if we look at the issue of research grants where there has been a lot of press coverage over the last few weeks and there has been an impression out there that swingeing cuts are taking place, the fact is that when you include the impact of full economic costing, overall funding for astronomy exploitation grants will have risen by 67% in this coming financial year compared to 2005-06 and again, for particle physics, when you include full economic costing, the amount of funding in this area will be 43% higher in 2008-09 than it was in 2005-06. So, there is significant extra funding going in to university research departments for these activities. The STFC have confirmed that this year, which has seen a big increase in astronomy grants from 278 to 329, will, in the coming financial year, see 323 grants awarded, so a broadly flat position. I also asked officials to compare the three years of the SR04 period with the three years of this CSR07 period and, from the figures that I have had, 854 astronomy research grants were awarded through the SR04 period and it is anticipated that there will be 855 during this CSR period. So, no net decrease in astronomy research grants at all.

  Q185  Dr Gibson: How many were turned down?

  Ian Pearson: I do not have the—

  Q186  Dr Gibson: That is what counts, is it not, because that means 800 turned down, 800 grants, 800 laboratories ...

  Ian Pearson: I do not have the figures for how many were turned down under the SR04 period over the last three years and obviously I do not know how many applications there will be for research grants in this coming financial year. If you look at the volumes for astronomy grants, the volumes over the next three years will be exactly the same, according to the latest figures that I have, as they were in the previous three years and, as we have heard elsewhere which we discussed at the start of this meeting, the situation is that, in other research councils, there will be some reductions in volume because of full economic costing.

  Q187  Dr Turner: A much more representative measure is percentage success rate of alpha plus rated projects. Are you able to give those figures?

  Ian Pearson: I do not have those figures to hand for previous financial years and obviously they are not available for the future as well. If the Committee would like that, I would be happy to write to them with details.

  Q188  Chairman: I think that would be useful.

  Ian Pearson: Again, to emphasise the basic points including full economic costing, a 67% increase in funding and, for astronomy grants, the same number of astronomy grants in the next three years as there were in the last three years. This is not a crisis.

  Chairman: This is not a crisis, okay. I have a crisis of time now and I ask the Committee to be fairly speedy.

  Q189  Dr Turner: Sir Keith, you told our late-lamented predecessor Committee and gave them an undertaking that Swindon Town Football Club would not inherit any financial difficulties from the merger with the CCLRC. How does this square with the actual fact that STFC have had to make £80 million worth of cuts in their grant-awarding budgets?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Let me put a few facts on record.

  Q190  Chairman: Can you do that as fast as you can, Sir Keith.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I will try and go as fast as I can but I would like to get the facts on record. When CCLRC and PPARC were merged, we did have the NAO undertake due diligence and it was clear that there were no deficits in either council upon merger. Previously, we had an independent review of finance and planning in CCLRC, which indicated that their processes were satisfactory.

  Q191  Dr Turner: May I clarify that. There may not have been any actual existing deficits, but were there future funding gaps implied by strategic decisions that had been taken but which were not funded?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Let met stick with the facts and then I will try and answer that question. The NAO due diligence that was carried out did not reveal any deficits and in fact, in the year 2006-07, both research councils underspent by a total of £31 million. EYF of some £66 million was taken forward into STFC from the combined councils. We had previously had an independent audit of CCLRC because we were concerned about whether planning was suitably strategic in financial terms and whether they had a management capability to deal with costs that are very easy to get out of control in these very big science and big physics facilities. Basically they got a clean bill of health in planning capability, so there was no particular reason to assume that this was going to carry an impossible situation. Were they carrying difficulties at that time? In some ways, yes. That is one of the reasons why STFC was formed. In big physics and big science, these are complicated things to manage, they are very long term, there are international subscriptions, they are often pro-rata to GDP and so on. So, it does require a level of long-term strategic planning and decisions which may be quite different to what would take place, for example, in EPSRC where they do not own big facilities. We were quite aware that there was the potential for these areas running out of control without very close management and that was our aspiration for STFC, having a very good management control on areas that are difficult to manage in all countries.

  Q192  Dr Turner: Where has the management control failed?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I have not said that the management control has failed.

  Q193  Dr Turner: The evidence speaks for itself in the cuts that STFC—

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Wait a minute, let us talk about cuts. You have fallen into the trap of the same statement. It is an £80 million cut on what a research council would have liked to have done. It is not necessarily an 80% cut on what it is able to do. May I put one other fact on record because I am rather troubled by some of the comments around here particularly language like "decimation" because, frankly, if you trot out that sort of language, it is sure to hell going to get us there when there may not be the justification for doing so. Let me put on record some numbers—and I want to get them correct—which may well show you how perplexing it is in what is a budget settlement for science and a problem that most other countries would like to have rather than call it a crisis. Putting the Medical Research Council to one side as the Chairman suggests—and we know that this is a big priority for the Government, a big opportunity with the NHS and translational research—there are six other research councils. They are all allowed by the Treasury to plan ahead at flat cash. So, every research council, by definition, must have a plan going ahead for flat cash because that is their planning envelope. In this spending review, they were able to plan ahead a flat cash plus FEC and remember, in this spending review, there is going to be more than £700 million worth of FEC go into the research universities. These are huge numbers: £700 million in this coming CSR and £400 million in the last. So, they were able to plan ahead at FEC plus flat cash, a planning assumption for all research councils, prior to the settlement. Relative to that, STFC had the best increase percentage settlement of any of the other six research councils: it got a 3.2% increase over flat cash plus FEC. My advice to ministers was that that is actually as strong a place as we can be in. Just for reference, EPSRC was minus 1%, NERC is less than 2%, AHRC is also minus 1%. That is the reality. It is therefore perplexing, with numbers like that, that you might have out there a crisis—it is the end of the world as we know it; the universe is over—when actually physics expenditure from the five research councils is increasing overall over this CSR.

  Q194  Dr Turner: Does this not bring into focus the fundamental difficulty of combining these two research councils and STFC where you are putting very large, very expensive big kit facilities with all sorts of imponderables together with a council working primarily in response mode and they make some inevitably uncomfortable bed fellows? Was this in retrospect a wise decision?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I think it is a fair comment and I think it is a fair comment as to what the challenge is and it is fair to say that if you are in the Department of Energy in the United States, actually running these enormous facilities is also a big problem. The International linear collider has gone there in the US also. These are very difficult management problems. I think it is right you have research grants closely tied to the existence of big facilities. We spent £700 million on the collider at CERN; it would be dumb to spend £700 million on it and then not have grants to go with it. I think it is right to have them alongside, but I would agree with you, this not a trivial management challenge. When we put STFC together, we were very impressed with some aspects of both research councils where they had managed these very big and difficult projects successfully. So, it is a very big management challenge, however you put this together.

  Q195  Dr Turner: Following the precise point that you have been making there, does it worry you that STFC, in making the hard decisions they have had to make, have focused on the large facilities at the expense of precisely the response mode grants which you rightly say need to be associated with them and what deleterious effect has it had on our science reputation in innovation?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Myself, colleagues, ministers, everybody took very seriously the depth of concern that was present in the astronomy and particle physics community. To remove some of the more shrill remarks that have been made, there are a lot of very sensible people who have expressed very considerable concerns and numbers like 25% reduction in physics across the nation are things that took hold and took root. Now that we have the benefit of Sir Peter Knight's science advisory input to STFC which I think has now been published by STFC, the facts are now on the ground and there are two sets of facts. One is that there are some facility reductions that the independent advisory group has proposed. Astronomy grants, which grew rapidly through the last CSR, are maintained with no more than about a 1% change during this year. Remember that through FEC universities have much more flexibility to manage these, it is not purely a grant issue. There are no changes in particle physics grants this year. The Wakeham Review will add valuable information as to how STFC and indeed the other four research councils that support physics should respond. So, we are certainly not in a crisis situation for this year and those grants are well maintained, at least as well as other research councils are able to do it. Just remember that physics overall will be £500 million a year at the end of this spending review.

  Ian Pearson: I want to reinforce the point that Keith made about the myth of the £80 million. The £80 million was based on the sort of budget that the STFC might have wanted to have, it was not based on its baseline. I do not know how you do budgets but I tend to base them on what my baseline is, what I am spending at the moment, and the facts which I would encourage you to look at when you come to write your report is that there is 13.6% increase from the STFC's baseline, so we are not talking about cuts in that sense of the word and I would reject that as a characterisation, and the STFC will have an additional £185 million over the spending review period compared with its baseline.

  Q196  Dr Gibson: What did you ask for in terms of money? What did you ask the Government to pay to keep the science base where it is and to move it on? You are enjoying the 17% increase but did you ask for a 30% increase?

  Ian Pearson: The decisions on the science budget were actually confirmed in March before DIUS started as a government—

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I am happy to make a comment on that because this is the agreement that the Secretary of State in DTI, Alistair Darling, made with the Treasury at that time. I think what is absolutely clear is that everybody pushed very hard to maintain the commitment that was set out in the much lauded 10-year framework for science innovation published in 1994 and I think we have agreed at previous sessions that the best reading of that carefully crafted language is to grow the science budget over that decade at about the rate of GDP growth. That was the commitment that we were looking for. Obviously we would always ask for more than that. I think that, at the time, it was considered to be quite a success to receive an award for these three years that maintained was in the commitment set out in that 10-year Framework.

  Q197  Dr Gibson: But you did ask for more.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I always ask for more and sometimes I am successful.

  Q198  Mr Boswell: I want to come on to the issue about reputation briefly. I am troubled—and we had evidence on this matter—about the implications of this for the wider community, the international community. We have had representations, for example, from the Institute of Physics in Australia. Is it your view that these consequences which are clearly concerning are simply a matter of, as it were, professional persons scratching each other's back and backing up their own position or is there something that we should be worried about both in terms of the withdrawal of subscriptions to international organisations and also the implications for the personnel science workforce?

  Ian Pearson: Let me begin and, Keith, who has obviously been immersed in the science community for many years, will obviously have additional insights. I want to begin by saying that I appreciate that the way that this science budget settlement has been portrayed in the wider community has been unfortunate. I do not think that it has been realistic. I think that some of the facts that I have put out today, which I hope will be reflected in the Committee's report, demonstrate that there are overall increases in funding and that physics overall will actually see an increase in funding over the next three years which—

  Q199  Chairman: May I bring you back to the question that Tim asked.

  Ian Pearson: What I am saying is that there should not be reputational damage because internationally the UK is seeing increases in funding across the science base over the next three years. When people look at the figures, I think they will understand that. Obviously, a couple of the decisions that the STFC have taken in terms of large facilities can cause problems in some quarters. I happen to believe that when you look at the detail of the decision on the International Linear Collider for instance, it seems to me as a lay person to be a sensible thing.

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