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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 259 - 279)



  Q259  Chairman: Good morning, everyone. May I welcome our witnesses to our final session on investigating the science budget allocations for the next comprehensive spending review. We have two panels this morning. We need to be very quick because we know that Swapan has to be on a flight to warm parts very shortly and we are very grateful for your time. I wonder if I could ask you both to introduce yourselves and to say where you are from this morning, starting with you, Professor Holdaway.

  Professor Holdaway: Good morning, Chairman. I am Richard Holdaway. I am Director of Space Science and Technology at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and here wearing the hat of Head of the Department. I chair the British National Space Centre Advisory Council. I have an overview of parts of the community and their involvement in the CSR outcome.

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Good morning. I am Swapan Chattopadhyay. I am the Director of the Cockcroft Institute and hold the Sir John Cockroft Chair of Physics at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Lancaster.

  Q260  Chairman: The STFC Delivery Plan was written over a period of time in consultation with the advisory committees which were set up by STFC and DIUS. How were you consulted?

  Professor Holdaway: Perhaps it would help if I explained the general setup within STFC first of all. There are effectively two distinct parts: there is the strategy part which deals with strategy and the peer review process, the budgets, the allocations, the decision on cuts and the interface with DIUS; and then there is a Chinese Wall effectively to the operational part of STFC which is where the bulk of the 1,500 scientists and technologists sit. Those are the gentlemen and ladies who build instruments, operate facilities and interface on a day-to-day basis with the community within those three groups. Within that part there are seven operational departments, so particle physics is one department, space science and technology is another department, and we lead those departments. In that sense we are pretty much in the same position as the heads of university departments where we are given an allocation by the strategic part of STFC and we operate within that allocation. We are part of the community in that sense and so there is an exchange of information on the types of programmes that may be funded or may not be funded, but we are not part of the decision-making process.

  Q261  Chairman: How did you find out about the cuts?

  Professor Holdaway: Through the first sighting of the Delivery Plan at pretty much the same time as the rest of the community.

  Q262  Chairman: As the Director of Cockcroft, were you involved at all in the decision-making in terms of the strategic plan?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: No, I was not. I should probably give you a preamble about where I stand. Everything I say today is from the perspective of somebody who is new to the United Kingdom. This is my tenth month in the job after about 30 years of a successful career serving in the US Department of Energy, at two national labs, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Jefferson Lab, and two major universities, the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard. When I speak about my Institute today, the Cockcroft Institute, I am really using it as an iconic symbol that really represents an entire community of excellent scientists and technologists throughout the UK, including our sister institute, John Adams at Oxford and Royal Holloway, Imperial College and particle physicists and natural scientists throughout the UK. The Cockcroft Institute has five stakeholders, the three universities, Liverpool, Manchester and Lancaster, STFC, which is a strong stakeholder, and the North West Development Agency. I happen to be employed by the universities and for reasons of proprietary I have been kept entirely out of the process of the STFC Delivery Plan.

  Q263  Chairman: As the Director of Cockcroft and as the Director of the Space Science and Technology at Rutherford Appleton, you were kept out of the decision-making process, were you not?

  Professor Holdaway: Kept out of the decision-making process and, quite rightly, that is how it was before STFC was formed. In our case the decision-making process on which programmes to fund was made by PPARC, it was not made by CCLRC and we are still in exactly the same position now and quite rightly so.

  Q264  Dr Gibson: Did you try to give them information about what you thought should happen?

  Professor Holdaway: We were able to provide our views on that as members of the community in exactly the same way as the heads of university departments, yes.

  Q265  Chairman: So it was no surprise to you then when these cuts came about?

  Professor Holdaway: It was certainly no surprise that there were some cuts. When the whole community, including ourselves, heard that there was a funding problem because of the size of the allocation from DIUS it was clear that cuts would have to be made. That in itself was no surprise. In terms of which programmes were cut initially—and we will know on Monday of next week what the next round of cuts are in terms of specific programmes—we have no direct involvement in that and, as I said, quite rightly so. You need that Chinese Wall between the operational part of the operation and the strategic part of the organisation.

  Q266  Chairman: Let us talk about the actual cuts themselves and the decisions about them. If we accept that there was going to be a reduction in budget and therefore some reduction in programmes had to take place, what do you understand as the process of actually deciding which bits get dropped?

  Professor Holdaway: The process is undertaken by the peer review panels. So there is a science board and there are two peer review panels that sit below that and those are the bodies that always have and still do make those decisions. They take advice from the community in different ways. There is a difference between the current system and the previous system which is that there are, to all intents and purposes, no advisory panels under STFC whereas there were under PPARC. So it is slightly more difficult for the community to get its input into that process. There are ways of doing it but it is not quite as regulated.

  Q267  Chairman: Swapan, there is a peer review system which looks at funding the best science. The peer review system says we need to make particular cuts because this is not the best science. What on earth is wrong with that? This is how science should operate.

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I have two observations to make. There has been an active request made to the STFC stakeholder representation in the Cockcroft Institute not to share any information about the decision-making process of the STFC Delivery Plan. There was some level of secrecy until the very end of November when it all came out despite my requests to get information out. I am not an STFC employee. First of all, on this whole business of communication, transparency and the review process, I have brought it to the attention of STFC senior management multiple times through electronic messages and discussions with people directly, but I regret to say that there has not been the inclusion of Cockcroft's concerns in this regard in terms of protecting the skills base in accelerator science and technology for the UK. Secondly, as for the so-called peer review process that people talk about here, which I am taking to be below the level of PPAN and PALS, for the last 35 years I have been used to a very inclusive process where the community that is being reviewed knows they are being reviewed and the people that you choose as the members of the review committee are chosen with input from the community about the most respected scientists that could judge the field. Eventually, when the report comes out, you share the report with the community for factual accuracies and courtesy and to ensure there are no political, parochial and scientific conflicts. There have been three reviews that I have partially participated in or been asked to give input to: one was the light source review, one is an ongoing accelerator science and technology review and one is a particle physics review. I think the committee members were handpicked by STFC despite my pointing out to them that at some point --- In the case of the light source review, I even wrote a letter to the committee that chose the so-called peer review committee which was judging on the light source about the incompleteness of that committee.

  Q268  Chairman: The Chief Executive has said to this Committee that he is very proud of STFC's peer review system. Obviously you do not share that view.

  Professor Chattopadhyay: From where I sit the due process has not been followed, the process has been flawed and hence you cannot expect anything but flawed recommendations from such peer reviews.

  Q269  Chairman: Do you share that view?

  Professor Holdaway: Peer review panels have a very difficult thing to do.

  Q270  Chairman: Do you share that view?

  Professor Holdaway: My concern is not about the nature and the make up of the peer review panels themselves. They had a very difficult job to do and I think they have done it perfectly adequately. The concern of the community, which I share to a certain extent, is how hey get their advice. I think the communications and the advice there has not been what it should be and I am confident that that will be rectified for the future, but it has not been that way in the past.

  Q271  Mr Boswell: Coming back to your concept of Chinese Walls, I can see why that might happen, not least because of people who might wish to compete with you in certain respect, for example, in the university sector. It is an attempt to produce an "all fours" situation. I do not think we would object to that in principle. As for the argument about Chinese Walls and the disclosure of strategic decisions only at the last moment and as a result of a process which is closed to you, is it your feeling that that is in a sense being used either as an excuse by STFC or that it is somehow just reducing the quality of the review process through inhibiting dialogue?

  Professor Holdaway: No, I do not think so. The community that I work with within the laboratory and outside is a very close community and of course from time to time we compete with the university groups. Most of the time we are competing alongside university groups. I think we all have pretty much the same view. The community understands fully the need for cuts and that certain projects need to be cut. The problem for individuals is like unemployment, ie unemployment may only be a few per cent but if you are unemployed it is 100%. The same is true of the small areas of the community where the cuts have fallen, they feel aggrieved, rightly or wrongly. In this country we concentrate on the bad news rather than the good news. Yes, there are some cuts that are affecting some people very, very radically. On the other hand, 80 or 90% of the programme is continuing. There are some exciting new programmes coming up and the community recognises that as well. It just wants to be sure that the decision-making process has the proper governance.

  Q272  Dr Gibson: I think that is a general problem in science and the peer review system. Did you know who the peers were going to be? Who chose them?

  Professor Holdaway: They were chosen, as far as I know, by the Chief Executive. You can check that in the next session.

  Q273  Dr Gibson: And you saw the report?

  Professor Holdaway: And I saw the report.

  Q274  Dr Gibson: Do you think the peers would be chosen in different circumstances? Strategically there are going to be cuts so you pick the peers who know what to do, but if they are suddenly going to double your budget presumably you would pick other peers. Is that true?

  Professor Holdaway: I can conjecture. That may have been the process. I think I am the wrong person to ask. Keith Mason will be able to answer that very, very clearly for you. I have seen no evidence that the panel was picked to come up with a particular decision. I think an interesting issue is whether there was any direction from DIUS in terms of the outcome of the review. I have no evidence from where I sit to know that there was but there may have been and that might then dictate the members of the panel.

  Q275  Dr Gibson: Where would that influence come from within the Department, Permanent Secretary level or somewhere else?

  Professor Holdaway: I would not have thought so. If you look at specific cuts in my own area on STP and on Gemini, I cannot imagine for a moment that decisions of that nature would be made within DIUS.

  Q276  Dr Gibson: Do you think it goes beyond the Department to the Treasury?

  Professor Holdaway: Only at a high level. The Treasury may have a view on whether it believes particle physics and space are worthy areas of pure science. In the case of space, I think there has been a big change in the attitudes both of Government in general and the Treasury in particular as a result of the space strategy and the various audits of space science and technology. The oft quoted number by the last three ministers was £200 million investment in space and £7 billion downstream manual turnover. That is a story that speaks for itself.

  Q277  Dr Gibson: What would you say if I said everybody moans about peer review when they do not get their grant?

  Professor Holdaway: Of course. That is a problem with peer review and it has always been the case.

  Q278  Dr Gibson: Is there another system you would accommodate in your work?

  Professor Holdaway: The only alternative is one slightly closer to the American system. The problem with peer review, as I am sure everybody in this room knows, is that when you come to the decision-making process you throw out of the room anybody that knows anything about the subject because if they are any good at their subject they are almost certainly involved in the consortium that is bidding for the grants to get input into the programmes. So that is always a problem. This is why it is very important for those peer review panels to have the right advice before they make their decision and you need the right structure to do that. I think that is part of the community's concern as to how the decisions are made and whether there is transparency in those institutions.

  Q279  Chairman: In terms of the International Linear Collider and Gemini projects, in your opinion was there adequate peer review prior to the stopping of those two projects?

  Professor Holdaway: I cannot comment on the Linear Collider. In terms of Gemini, there was consultation with the community. Gemini has been going 14 years, which is quite a long time for a programme. I know that within parts of that community the feeling was that with things that are coming up, like the VISTA programme which is just about to go online, the exciting new programmes with the extremely large telescope and so on, there are big opportunities for that same community. Those directly involved in the Gemini programme, however, have a problem, which is that if it is cut very quickly they are out of a job tomorrow and that is not really the right way to manage things. That is why I think there has been a change in the situation with Gemini which no doubt Keith Mason will talk about in the next session.

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