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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  Q200  Chairman: Gemini?

  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 The STFC, as I understand it, and I know you are going to be meeting with them again next week, has not yet withdrawn from Gemini; it is paying its subscription to July this year; and it has been looking through its peer review process as to how Gemini stacks up.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 very well.

  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 review—reviews tend to be inflationary in my experience—is 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, Sir Keith.

  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 announced—seemingly with no warning or consultation whatsoever—in 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 reputation.

  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 research—

  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 on everything?

  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 STFC.

  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.

  Q213  Chairman: 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.

  Q214  Chairman: 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.

  Q215  Chairman: 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 of astronomy?

  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 situation?

  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 budget?

  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.

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