Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
WEDNESDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2008
MP AND PROFESSOR
Ian Pearson: When I see reported
that Ray Orbach from the United States has called for the International
Linear Collider to be delayed until the results come in from the
Large Hadron Collider then I listen to people who say that. I
think Congress when it made its decisions recently on the International
Linear Collider reflects this scientific opinion, so I do not
think in that area there is reputational damage. I know there
has certainly been some criticism of the decision to withdraw
from Gemini. The STFC, as I understand it, and I know you are
going to be meeting with them again next week, has not yet withdrawn
from Gemini; it is paying its subscription to July this year;
and it has been looking through its peer review process as to
how Gemini stacks up. One of the reasons it made its decision
on Gemini, and Keith Mason told you this in his appearance, was
that on the peer review process Gemini was a lower priority than
the European Southern Observatory. Again I think it is recognised
in the scientific community that the European Southern Observatory
ought to take priority. Just on Gemini, the STFC still do want
to ensure that researchers can have access to facilities in the
Northern Hemisphere and I hope they can be successful in concluding
negotiations on that. I know that a negotiating team from the
STFC will be meeting with the Gemini Board next week.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Can
I make a quick comment on reputation.
Q201 Mr Boswell:
May I just press the Minister on one point. Just for the record,
I think from some earlier exchanges that you had with my colleague,
you indicated that as part of your general responsibility for
science policy that issues of reputation and, as it were, international
relations would be within your remit and I would like you to comment
that whatever the means or the outcome, in that sense, you are
regard yourself as responsible for safeguarding the reputation
of British science and its international credibility.
Ian Pearson: I want the UK to
be seen as a place where we conduct world-class science and innovation,
and so our ability to conduct world-class science, and our reputation
internationally to do that is something that is very important.
That is why we need to ensure that all the scientific disciplines
are in a healthy condition. It is one of the reasons why we have
set up the Wakeham Review. Your comments about back-scratching
I will leave to Keith because Keith will understand this situation
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Thank
you for that endorsement. Can I say I think you are absolutely
right to bring to attention reputation and reputational damage,
and I think it is a proper and sensible point to focus on. The
UK is really quite pre-eminent in science; we must not forget
that. We are second only to the United States and our position
globally is still improving in basic science and basic science
output and we are getting better at translation. We have been
extremely attractive to other scientists around the world in our
universities which now have proper infrastructure, so reputation
is immensely important. On this settlement, we all know no matter
how much money you have got you will never have every bunny happy
at the same time and you expect some criticism. What was totally
unexpected to me was that we would have such an uproar in this
particular part of physics. That is a problem because there are
a lot sensible people that have expressed these concerns. I have
no doubt that there is a very significant degree of orchestration
and that also is unsurprising given the depth of concern that
a lot of sensible people have. It is also my belief that now we
have got all the facts on the table about the overall increase
in physics, the real state of astronomy and research grants in
STFC, and the fact that we have the Wakeham reviewreviews
tend to be inflationary in my experienceis likely to be
making sensible and supportive recommendations about physics in
general, is a situation, that very few other countries could identify
that as a crisis but, instead, rather a nice problem to have.
I suspect that it is going to take some time in these particular
areas, I suspect, to repair that reputation. It is unfortunate
but I do not think ultimately the facts justify the damage that
has been done. It is very fair of you to identify it.
Q202 Mr Boswell:
Very briefly on this, if there is an issue for the future it may
well be lessons learned in terms of the handling and presentation
of this issue as well as the substance.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
think there are lessons to be learned from here and there are
always lessons to be learned after every allocation round. When
I was given this job until March by Brian Bender two years ago,
I said, "until Christmas," he said, "No, you have
got to stay to March and take any flack that you might get from
the allocations," and here we are!
Chairman: This is a polite discussion,
Q203 Dr Harris:
Would you agree with Sir Keith that there has been damage (f I
got you right Sir Keith) to the UK's international reputation
in respect of being a partner for international collaborations?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
hope I used the word "potential"; if I did not I will
correct the manuscript immediately.
Q204 Dr Harris:
Has there been damage, is my question to you, Minister?
Ian Pearson: I agree that there
has been potential damage in the short term as a result of the
way the science settlement in the particle physics and astronomy
community has been perceived. When you get the facts on the table,
as Keith has said, then I do not believe that we should be in
a situation whereby we are challenging the extremely strong reputation
that the UK has for conducting world-class science.
Q205 Dr Harris:
Let me tell you what Professor van Eyken, who is the Director
of the Scientific Association of EISCAT, said in a letter to you:
"I would like to emphasise the implications of the UK withdrawal
from all ground-based Solar Terrestrial Physics which was announcedseemingly
with no warning or consultation whatsoeverin the first
Delivery Plan to be issued by the STFC last week." (The letter
is dated 21 December) He says: " ... I would like to make
some comment on the reputation of the UK scientific community,
and their trustworthiness in international collaborations. The
prospect of the UK belonging, for several more years, to an international
association, namely EISCAT, which it does not then exploit, is
very damaging to its credibility as a competent research nation.
That the UK would not honour its commitment, thus also destroying
its reputation as a trustworthy partner for international collaboration,
is presumably quite unthinkable." That does not sound like
potential damage to the UK's reputation; it sounds like damage.
I have to take the car into the garage when there is damage, not
potential damage; it is damage.
Ian Pearson: You talk and quote
about the issue of solar terrestrial physics. My understanding
of the situation is that the STFC's predecessor took the decision
to withdraw from ground-based solar terrestrial physics in the
last Spending Review SR04. My understanding also is that that
was taken as a result of peer review which said that ground-based
solar terrestrial physics was a low priority activity. I understand
that since then there has been a subsequent peer review process
conducted which also confirmed that ground-based solar terrestrial
physics was a low priority activity
Q206 Dr Harris:
--- That is not my question; I just want to ask you about the
Ian Pearson: --- And said that
we should continue to withdraw from it. For a number of years
the STFC has announced its intention to withdraw from ground-based
solar terrestrial physics. I would also point out that ground-based
solar terrestrial physics is actually funded through the EPSRC
as well as through the STFC. As far as the STFC is concerned,
and it makes decisions on its priorities based on peer-reviewed
Q207 Dr Harris:
That is not my question. My question was about has there been
an actual dent in the UK's reputation. If there has, how is it
that they think there has been no warning if you are saying this
was a decision that was made or presaged four years ago?
Ian Pearson: You are quoting from
a letter from an eminent Professor, and he has not drawn attention
in his letter to you the fact that the STFC have looked at ground-based
solar terrestrial physics and whether they should fund it over
a considerable period of time. He has not drawn to your attention
the fact that for a long period it has been known that the STFC
was withdrawing from that activity. You should not necessarily
believe as gospel the pleadings of one individual in a letter.
Q208 Dr Harris:
That is not my point. My point is that our reputation is the view
of people like that. You cannot say his view is not that view
because it is up to him to say that is his view. I think you are
a great guy; you cannot say that I do not think you are a great
guy because it is for me to say. Is that not evidence that the
UK's reputation is damaged?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Can
I just point out that there are representations from many other
areas of physics that come to DIUS and come to ministers that
do not reflect the view that these decisions are damaging, and
what ministers have to balance is views from some other physicists
that are really rather indifferent to this plight. I think the
overall damage to physics in reputation terms is not great. There
is a serious point in this particular area but not every physicist
would agree with the letter.
Chairman: I am going to stop you there
because my reputation will be damaged irreparably we do not move
on. I would ask the Committee to be as succinct at possible.
Q209 Dr Iddon:
I just want to clear up some confusion that I am detecting this
morning about Wakeham. I thought you said earlier, Ian, to Gordon
Marsden that we had to wait until Wakeham reported until some
decisions were made, but I thought I also heard, and I think I
read in the press, that the decision on Gemini is to suspend,
and I think you have confirmed that this morning, but you have
also indicated I think that the International Linear Collider
decision has been made. These are two important aspects of Wakeham
and therefore I ask you if the Gemini and ILC announcements this
morning are correct, why can we not wait until Wakeham has reported
Ian Pearson: As Sir Keith Mason
actually said in his evidence to you, the STFC's delivery plan
has made two and a half decisions. One was on the International
Linear Collider; the second one was on our intention to withdraw
from Gemini; and the half a decision was the withdrawal from ground-based
solar terrestrial physics. He says it was only half a decision
because it had been taken a long time before, which I was pointing
out to Evan a few moments ago. Those decisions have been taken.
The Wakeham review has had clear terms of reference and you have
seen as a Committee the terms of reference and the membership
of the Committee. What is very clear is that where the issue of
the health of the disciplines is concerned, the primary concern
has been on post-doctoral research grants, and the situation with
regard to particle physics will be unchanged, apart from the International
Linear Collider research, because none of these positions is up
for review in this coming financial year. As we have said, the
situation with astronomy is broadly flat as well, having gone
up significantly this year, so there is time for Bill Wakeham
and his Committee to do their work and for us to consider what
their findings are.
Q210 Dr Iddon:
Let me just go back to solar terrestrial physics for a minute.
It may be dropping in the priorities of the STFC but this Committee
has heard from scientists that are funded by NERC that solar terrestrial
physics is quite critical to some of their work. Therefore my
question to you is: have you investigated or do you intend to
investigate escape routes, for example, for solar terrestrial
physics? Could NERC, for example, not take on board that part
of the work at least, if not all of the work of solar terrestrial
physics so that their scientists' interests are preserved?
Ian Pearson: I do not think it
is for me to get involved in individual detailed decisions about
research grants. They have to go through a peer review process
and it is the responsibility of the research councils to do that.
You are absolutely right to point out that as far as the Natural
Environment Research Council is concerned, some of the observations
and research that can provide important information come from
ground-based solar terrestrial physics, which is one of the reasons
why it has funded that sort of research in the past. It will depend
on NERC's view of its priorities and the quality of applications
(which will be peer reviewed) as to how much ground-based solar
terrestrial physics it will support. It could quite easily be
the case that some of the people who are currently working on
projects that have been funded by the STFC will migrate to projects
that will be funded by NERC in the future. That can only be done
on the basis of an assessment of the excellence of the research,
which NERC will have to make.
Q211 Dr Iddon:
Could I turn to another aspect which we have not considered this
morning that has made life difficult for the STFC and that is
in previous years the international subscriptions (which are susceptible
of course to exchange rate fluctuations) the exchange rate fluctuations
have always been carried by the main science budget, but this
year of course that responsibility has been transferred to the
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: We
made some of those transitions in SR04 actually and, up to a limit,
the fluctuations are carried by STFC, beyond which they are not.
This is quite a tricky area. Our judgment is that the burden and
uncertainty that is put on the £1.9 billion budget, which
is what STFC have across the SR, can go plus or minus and is not
great, and that is the judgment we have reached.
Q212 Dr Iddon:
Can you put a figure on it for this year?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
can put the figure on it but it is not in my mind. I am very happy
to let you have it precisely and the arrangements and what was
organised with those councils back in 2004.
Minister, you say that so far as solar terrestrial physics is
concerned that in principle, provided the research councils sorted
it out, you would have no difficulty with some of the solar terrestrial
physics going to NERC and in fact being supported by NERC, but
that that is their decision?
Ian Pearson: Let us be clear,
we are talking about ground-based solar terrestrial physics rather
than solar terrestrial physics.
You have no objection in principle for ground-based solar terrestrial
physics going to NERC?
Ian Pearson: What I am saying
is it is not a matter for me; it is a matter for researchers to
apply to research councils with proposals and for those to be
peer reviewed through the normal process.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: If
I might just add, Chairman, the advice that we have to give ministers
is whether research councils have an adequate peer review process
to come to what may sometimes be unpopular but rational judgments
about priorities. The detail of whether the British Antarctic
Survey, which is the wonderful viewing place for solar terrestrial
physics, is a high priority within the British Antarctic Survey
and NERC programmes vis-a"-vis others has to be left for
peer review processes, and I think ministers have to be assured
that a proper process exists. I do not think it is the position
of government to ask the minister whether he thinks NERC should
be running a solar terrestrial physics programme.
I was just asking in principle was there an objection and clearly
there is not. In terms of the ATC in Edinburgh, would again there
be any objection in principle for the ATC to be subsumed within
Edinburgh University and the excellent department it has in terms
Ian Pearson: My understanding
of the situation with regard to the ATC in Edinburgh is that the
STFC are at early stages of discussions with the ATC about their
future. One of the options that they are discussing is whether
there should be closer links and a tie-in with the University
of Edinburgh. There is the example from BBSRC of the Roslin Institute
which has moved into the University. It is my understanding that
people working at the ATC have different views about what their
future might be. I am keen that the STFC listens to those views
and comes up with a satisfactory outcome.
Q216 Mr Boswell:
A very small point, I wonder if Sir Keith can help. Particularly
within STFC is there any attempt to lay off any of the exchange
rate risks of subscription?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: You mean
do they hedge?
Q217 Mr Boswell:
Hedge might be rather
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Can
I add that to the note because I do not know.
Ian Pearson: It would be too small
to do that.
Q218 Dr Blackman-Woods:
Is there anything that you think the Government could have done
differently in terms of setting up the STFC to have avoided this
Ian Pearson: In terms of setting
up the STFC, I probably ought to hand over to Keith because it
was set up before I arrived as a DIUS Minister, but from my reading
of all the paperwork around the setting up of the STFC, it was
clear that due diligence was undertaken as part of that process.
Keith referred to the NAO Report, so I think proper steps were
taken to ensure that the STFC was not created with a deficit which
would create future problems. I do not know whether you want to
add to that, Keith?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
would agree entirely with what the Minister says. I do not think
there is anything in the setting up of the STFC that we would
have done differently, even with hindsight. Returning to an obvious
point, however, given the difficulty that we have had prior to
all the facts being properly on the table and well understood
in the community and FEC, there will be lessons to be learned
from that and other allocations by other research councils.
Q219 Dr Blackman-Woods:
Was it given enough time to adequately consult with the community
about where the cuts would be or indeed about priorities for the
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Looking
at it from the DIUS point of view and looking across research
councils, we do not see very much difference in process. This
process kicked off in 2006 with the predecessor councils, but
with a vengeance in 2007, so delivery plans have been discussed
at all stages over the last year. My understanding from STFC is
that their Science Advisory Council, which is quite independent,
have seen these at all times and our expectation is that councils
and advisory committees will be consulting and inputting information
from the community, so in terms of process I saw no evidence for
intervening or advising Ian that the processes that were set up
were wholly inadequate for getting advice. I do know that there
are people in the community that feel that consultation was inadequate,
but in terms of the process that STFC and other research councils
carried out, I think they were broadly comparable.