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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)



  Q280  Chairman: And the International Linear Collider, do you feel that there was adequate peer review before that decision was taken?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I have very fundamental concerns about the whole business of so-called peer reviews conducted by STFC to the point that I would think that the position of the Government, in holding its principle of allowing research councils to make their own judgments, might be compromised once the integrity of the process is not kept preserved. In the case of International Linear Collider, as far as I know there has been no consultation or review with the community about their decisions and no consultation with the international community that we know of. It came out of the blue. In the case of the light source review, the committee members were chosen entirely by STFC's management. In my letter of 30 April I pointed out the inadequacy of that review, with committee members not having much expertise in the field of light that, for example, the GLS was trying to promote. In the case of accelerator science and technology, none of the members that are being contemplated has been put in based on input fed back from the community. That struggle is going on. If the review process is not inclusive and if the community and the agency do not take ownership of it together it is going to be flawed and biased. This is something I feel very strongly about.

  Q281  Dr Gibson: How many peers were there?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: In the case of accelerator science and technology there are four and many of them do not even stand up to the standards of UK scientists who are being reviewed, they are inferior.

  Q282  Dr Gibson: Be careful with the libel laws!

  Professor Chattopadhyay: In the case of the light source review, they picked community members who had interests in a field totally orthogonal to what they were reviewing.

  Q283  Dr Gibson: Richard, how many peers did you have?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Four.

  Q284  Dr Gibson: Four in both?

  Professor Holdaway: Correct.

  Professor Chattopadhyay: There was no detailed consultation. Let us say the community gives 25 names, they pick four out of these 25 and that is okay. That process was not there.

  Q285  Dr Gibson: Was it a unanimous decision of the peers? Did it split two:two and the chairman decided? How did it work?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: No. As an outsider I complained that the committee was flawed to start with. I had warned the Director of Strategy it was flawed in a letter. The committee went ahead and did the review anyway and I think you got a flawed recommendation.

  Q286  Ian Stewart: Could you outline how the Delivery Plan will affect the Daresbury site in general?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I am going to address Daresbury only as an example of a troubled syndrome that could very well apply to the Rutherford Lab as well as other institutions. I am really addressing a very generic syndrome that troubles me. The Delivery Plan calls for a significant reduction in staffing at both the Daresbury Lab and Rutherford Lab. It is a bit more at Daresbury Lab because of the closure of SRS. People have been anticipating that for quite some time. Right now the practical consequences of the Delivery Plan are such that with a planned reduction of about 90 or so due to the closure of SRS 300 letters have been sent alerting scientists and engineers to the fact that their positions are at risk. About 50 employees in STFC belong to the Cockcroft Institute. Most of them have been able to put the United Kingdom in the front row in molecular science internationally. Most of them would probably survive. Although they are at risk, it is probably due to legal reasons that STFC is giving out these letters to these employees. However, as you know, fast track molecules disappear fast. These people can write their own cheques, they can get jobs at multiple places. There will be multiple offers from the United States, Germany and France. Twelve people out of Cockcroft's 90 staff have volunteered out of this call and none of those 12 is intended to be separated from the lab. We really are being threatened by a loss of talent that the United Kingdom would need at Cockcroft, Daresbury Lab and Rutherford Lab and at the other universities in the future.

  Q287  Ian Stewart: We understand the redundancy exercise is a voluntary exercise for some. Is that why you are saying that there is a question mark about whether people with the high level skills that we need to retain may choose to go?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Yes. The voluntary reduction is only a first step towards if we have to impose a compulsory redundancy. I have gone through five of those in the United States and the hope is that if you get the sufficient number of the right type of people volunteering to go you probably will not have to impose compulsory redundancies. However, the nature of that consultation had been deficient in discussions with stakeholders. I will give you one example. In the Human Genome Centre at the University of California there are three stakeholders, government, Genentech (the industry) and the university. When there was significant instability in one of the stakeholders, the Department of Energy, that agency sat down around the table with the Director of the Human Genome Centre and discussed how they could mitigate the loss of skills for genetic science and engineering. The Director happened to be a professor from the University of California. That process never took place. In the case of STFC, there were only inward looking and secretive discussions within STFC without bringing in the university and other stakeholders.

  Chairman: We are going to probe a little bit here. Can I bring in Brian?

  Q288  Dr Iddon: Professor Chattopadhyay, could you tell us what brought you all the way back from America, along with some colleagues of course, which you told us about last Monday week? What was it about the Cockcroft Institute which excited you to come back to Britain?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Thank you for asking the question. As I said, I was serving in a major executive capacity in a major national lab in the United States and most of that time we would expect such persons to be coaxed into other positions for 10, 15 years and then retire. What I saw in the UK's pre-eminence in this field—and they have been able to attract back many of the people to the UK, and I have lured back in my 20 years here about 12 of them—is this vision, which is I guess a DIUS vision, which I admire of integrating universities, academia, national research facilities and industry under one umbrella to generate wealth for science, which is scientific knowledge, at the same time as generating wealth for the common man on the street. That attracted me. They have described that in the past in the United States but they did not quite succeed. I thought maybe the UK as one of the members of the G7 nations could be put in the front row with the top nations surpassing the United States and could maybe make it work. That, coupled with private interest from the Cockcroft family and the fact that we see a tremendous investment in the UK in this field, that the whole world looks at the UK as the premier place to be, dislodged me. The United States is following suit to create a couple of institutes like Cockcroft.

  Q289  Dr Iddon: Could you tell us what you actually need on that site to retain the Cockcroft Institute on that site and what you object to losing most from the site which would interfere with the concept you came to promote?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Again I am going to use Cockcroft as an example, I just want to make sure that you understand I am really representing all my colleagues, Cockcroft is just an iconic symbol but it applies to the Daresbury Lab, scientists at Rutherford and John Adams. I think the site in an institute like Cockcroft, the academic side, is keeping its part stable and strong—we are recruiting professors and lecturers at the three universities—the development of an agency with a local economy which is strong and giving us infrastructure and the industrial connection that we need. Given the nature of STFC, we should expect operational scientific facilities on site and expert labour so that Cockcroft could be complete. What I see as the fundamental flaw in the vision of the Daresbury site is, as I heard the chief executive particularly say, the fact all operational facilities are supposed to be concentrated in one site and Daresbury would be comprised of major technological development centres, and the way it is evolving it is going to be a business park with a call centre for technologists to solve a particular problem. If you look at major scientific break-throughs in countries like the United States, all those science parks have evolved around some core scientific unit either university-driven or a lab-driven, like Stanford or Berkeley. Cockcroft by itself, having experts there without any operational scientific facility around and technical expertise around from STFC, is not going to be attractive to stay on the site.

  Q290  Ian Stewart: What would the Daresbury science campus be for without a new facility?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Daresbury had a facility, which was the synchrotron radiation one, before that there was a synchrotron for nuclear physics, there has always been a facility which is the engine which drives science. Even if you have technology centres, you need scientific facilities on which to develop the technology.

  Q291  Ian Stewart: So what happens if they do not have the new facility at Daresbury?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Then it will cease to be a scientific campus.

  Q292  Dr Iddon: If I could follow that up a bit more bluntly, if we lose ALICE (there is some doubt about ALICE), 4GLS has been postponed, there is some doubt about EMMA, and we heard that the Daresbury Library is closing, my blunt question is, can basic science survive on the Daresbury site if all those things come to happen?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: If such a thing happened to Daresbury or the Rutherford Lab, no lab can survive with that kind of diminution of capacity. It is a very flawed vision for a site.

  Q293  Dr Iddon: What is the minimum which would keep you at Daresbury?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Scientists would not survive there and it is kind of moot whether I hang on physically or not. I came here for the right reasons but I ask these questions myself every day and I think I invite you to draw your own conclusions. But I am a fighter and I did not come here to lose.

  Q294  Chairman: Sat in your seat last week was the Minister who gave a commitment that there would be world class science on the Daresbury site. Do you have any indication from where you are sitting, as the Director of the Cockcroft Institute, that following the closure of the major facilities there will be any world class science available on that site?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Given this plan, if it is true, I doubt it. However, I must record for your sake that I think Her Majesty's Government did not probably intend such a consequence for any laboratory, not just Daresbury or Rutherford. I think there is a mixed message coming to me from the highest level of Government, that there is a commitment to the Daresbury site for science and operational facilities but that stands in stark contradiction to what I have been hearing from STFC in the strongest possible terms. Under those conditions there has to be a very critical review of the managerial capacity and vision of STFC and one must not hide behind the Haldane principle.

  Q295  Dr Turner: Richard, you are at the centre of things as far as STFC is concerned at Rutherford Appleton, what is your view of the impact of the delivery plan on institutions such as your own and the activity across the piece?

  Professor Holdaway: I am the centre of the activity certainly in terms of the delivery of science and the technology, but as I said earlier on not at the centre of the decision making process. Can I come back to something Swapan said, which is that I absolutely agree it is essential there is a strong science component in each of the STFC laboratories. I should add as well however I do not think a strong science component means necessarily having facilities. On space, we do not have any space facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Lab, we build them and then we throw them 500 miles up in the air, or we have them in remote fields in some far flung part of the world, but the science component part of that is absolutely essential; you cannot develop the technology if you do not have the science background and sufficient numbers of people doing the science. So that is the really key issue. In terms of the effect of the cuts at RAL, cuts are nothing new, over the last ten years I have probably seen 30 programmes cut or stopped, but then I have seen 40 new programmes set up. It is a fact of life, things come to an end, either because they come to their natural end or the priorities change and so we stop things, but then we start new things up, and the really key issue then is what are the new things starting up, are they exciting, are they front line science and technology, is the decision which leads to which programme will be funded made openly and transparently? I think there transparency is really key. Communication is the key to everything. Every organisation lives or falls by its communications and it is a contact sport, so you have to do the communications face-to-face with people, not just in emails and things like that. So we have to get the communications right between and amongst the community as well as between DIUS and STFC and STFC and each community including the part I represent. In terms of hard numbers, the delivery plan calls for cuts of around 150 people at RAL, that process has begun. It has begun on the knowledge of the programmes we know so far, but if there are additional cuts coming we will find out about that, as I said, next week.

  Q296  Dr Turner: Given the cries of pain from the community that we have been hearing, it strongly suggests these cuts are of a different order from the kind of cuts you are used to seeing.

  Professor Holdaway: They are bigger cuts than we have seen for some time, that is for sure. As I said earlier, it does affect particular parts of the community and for them it is a 100% cut. But there are ways of managing that and I think what is missing at the moment is the way of managing it in a practical sense which enables people to shift their careers in a planned way rather than saying, "Your funding will stop the week after next, go and do something else."

  Q297  Dr Turner: I am trying to tease out what makes this round different from previous experiences. You have told us already that you were not surprised that there were cuts but you clearly have been surprised in some way, so is it the manner or the impact of these cuts which has been a surprise to you?

  Professor Holdaway: Looking at the size of the settlement from DIUS, it was clear there had to be cuts. That was the first indication. Then you have the issue of what you cut and how you make those cuts. I think part of the community's concern, and I am integrated inside that community, is that there is clearly a very large cut falling on physics, particularly that represented by the pure sciences, so astronomy, space science and particle physics. I think the community perception, amongst many other things, is it is somewhat odd to be doing that at a time when Government, when the Institute of Physics, when the Royal Society, when the Royal Academy, are trying actively to encourage children to take an interest in science and for those children to go on and do science and technology and engineering in universities because we have a great shortage in those areas. So the two are not quite compatible. So the question there is, is the way in which the cuts have fallen the right way to meet the Government's strategy of encouraging science and technology. Whether we like it or not, despite the fact that the science and technology in neutrons, synchrotron radiation and so on is all very exciting, it is particle physicals and space which motivates kids, far more than anything else. So we have to be very careful, the Government has to be careful, DIUS has to be careful, STFC has to be careful, that it does not throw the baby out with the bath water and cut the wrong areas of science.

  Q298  Dr Turner: We have already heard about the implications for Daresbury and the Cockcroft Institute and so on, is your operation going to continue to be viable as a major player in the light of these cuts?

  Professor Holdaway: If by mine you mean space science and technology, the answer is yes. We are in the process now of cutting staff, it looks like in the first instance it will be of the order of 10 people out of a department of 200, so we are talking about 5% already. I have no idea what that is going to be after next week's announcement on the programme cuts. We will manage it in some form, we will certainly be involved I am sure in some of the future programmes, we are also looking very, very carefully at external sources of funding through direct funding from NASA and ESA, where they provide money rather than us providing instruments for their programmes, and looking at other sources of funding from industry and other government agencies. There are a lot of sources out there. We have that flexibility, we just need to make sure it happens in a way we can manage. I do not want to fire 20 people next week and find I need those same 20 people in six months for new programmes which are coming up. What I want to be able to do is have the flexibility to be able to keep the really good people for the new programmes and manage that. It is not rocket science—if you will pardon the pun—to actually do that.

  Q299  Dr Turner: It has given you a big headache?

  Professor Holdaway: Life is full of headaches, is it not? It is not unmanageable.

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