Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
WEDNESDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2008
MP AND PROFESSOR
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
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
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 transitionthere is no doubt about thatand 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
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.
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
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
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Let
me put a few facts on record.
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 numbersand I want
to get them correctwhich 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 suggestsand we know that this is a big
priority for the Government, a big opportunity with the NHS and
translational researchthere 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 crisisit is the end of
the world as we know it; the universe is overwhen 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
troubledand we had evidence on this matterabout
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
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