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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 318)



  Q300  Mr Boswell: Can I turn to Gemini for a moment. It is a seven-country collaboration, as it were the potential for a natural break at 2012 when it can be renegotiated, it is not clear to me at the moment whether we are in or out, so I would like your comments on that. Secondly, whether, quite apart from the HR issues here of the things you have been talking about, the international reputation of the UK is being helped or damaged by this process?

  Professor Holdaway: In a sense two separate issues. Are we in or not? The answer is, we are in. We were in and out and in and out and now we are back in again. We are in to the extent there is an agreement between STFC, the strategic part and the Gemini Board, that we are back in the programme, have access to data and science in both Gemini North and Gemini South. That is the situation as it currently exists I believe and again Keith Mason will confirm later on no doubt that position will be reviewed over the coming weeks and months. I think there is a longer term issue of how long we stay within the programme and also whether we provide instrumentation for future programmes, which is also a key part of the future of ground-based astronomy. For the moment, we are certainly back in the programme for both telescopes and have access to data from both telescopes. That is really important I think for the community. In terms of reputation, it is a really important issue right across the whole patch of science and technology. The UK has a pretty good reputation internationally because it has been a good partner and—we throw out this phrase regularly but I think it is true—we punch above our weight. However, we do that with a background of integrity on what we do and we need to maintain that integrity and make sure that when we have obligations we fulfil them and at the moment STFC is continuing to do that. My concern parochially at RAL is that with the development of the campus—and there are some incredibly exciting opportunities there, as they are indeed at Daresbury Laboratory—part of the remit there is to bring in not just national organisations but international organisations and we have to make sure they do not see us pulling out of international agreements and say, "What the hell do we want to move on to the site at Harwell or Daresbury if the UK is going to renege on international agreements"? I do not think that is happening but I think there is a danger of that and we have to make sure we get that communication right.

  Chairman: I am even more confused about Gemini than where we are but we will pick that up with Keith Mason later. Evan, can you be as brief as possible?

  Q301  Dr Harris: Have you seen the letter we have received from van Eyken, the director of EISCAT?

  Professor Holdaway: Yes I have, Tony van Eyken.

  Q302  Dr Harris: What did you make of what he said about the impact on the UK's reputation in terms of not just Gemini but going wider and the commitment they now think the UK has to this area of physics?

  Professor Holdaway: I believe the situation is that approximately two years ago the UK agreed to continue subscription for another five years; five years from two years ago. However, I think it is actually a five-year rolling programme so if you want to withdraw you have to give five years' notice. So we are still in the EISCAT project from that point of view. The issue for the community of course is then access to data information and the support for the EISCAT programme as well as for other parts of ground-based solar-terrestrial physics. STP is in a very different position from EISCAT. STP is a truly cross-disciplinary programme and the system, whatever the system maybe, does not really know how to handle yet cross-disciplinary programmes. So part of the STP programme is relevant to STP's core programme including the planetary programme, the potential new planetary programme coming up, but STP is also relevant and increasingly relevant for space weather and climate change, to the NERC Agenda, and it is relevant in some ways even more importantly for operational reasons to the Ministry of Defence and for industry which operates sat nav systems, telecoms satellites. So there is that whole programme there that is truly cross-disciplinary. At the moment, STFC is, to be frank, lumbered with paying the whole cost of that.

  Q303  Dr Harris: But it is going to stop all investment in ground-based solar-terrestrial physics, is it not?

  Professor Holdaway: That is the current plan—

  Q304  Dr Harris: That is right. We have had lots of letters from people both within your vicinity, your department, and outside saying that is a bad idea in terms of what the policy aims should be of UK science—as you mentioned yourself, climate change, satellites and communications, space weather which relates to both of those. Do you share that view?

  Professor Holdaway: I certainly share the view that it does not make sense for UK plc and the national capability to stop the whole of that programme. There are parts of that programme actually which it would not be unreasonable for STFC to continue to fund but it certainly should not be funding the majority of the programme, it needs to find other people to do that and maybe act as a co-ordinating point.

  Q305  Dr Harris: But they have not done that, have they? So there are two questions. Should they be funded? Yes. Need they be funded by STFC? You are saying no. The STFC said, before it said it was going to withdraw funding, people were going to start leaving—I put it to you that we have heard people will start leaving because they will grab what they can get—are you aware of STFC seeking other funding or giving a lead time to enable these programmes, undamaged, to be taken over by relevant funders?

  Professor Holdaway: I think one or two dialogues have taken place. I know Phil has talked to Alan Thorpe—

  Q306  Dr Harris: That was not my question. Sorry, I am clearly not being clear and I will try a third time. Are you aware whether STFC has instigated any dialogues with alternative funders early enough to prevent people leaving whether it had planned to or not?

  Professor Holdaway: And I have just started saying, the answer to your question is yes. Whether it is early enough, I suspect it is just about in time. There is just time to put together a package and a solution which will satisfy the majority of the needs of the community.

  Q307  Dr Harris: Right, but that is happening now, not when they originally announced—

  Professor Holdaway: That is correct.

  Dr Harris: Thank you.

  Q308  Graham Stringer: Swapan, you said earlier there was a possibility that Daresbury would end up being a business park. Do you believe that is the policy of the STFC to move everything out of Daresbury and leave it as a science business park?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I can tell you what the perception is both within the Laboratory and in the international community, and I tend to agree with that perception, it is that STFC still does not really know exactly what it wants to do in terms of the future portfolio. The two organisations, the CCLRC and PPARC, which came into being are still not integrated in one. The primary function of the senior management will be to make STFC first of all an organisation, a functional unit, and then to determine the future, and that has not taken place. They do not have an adequate understanding of their business needs, and the vision espoused for the two campuses and international science is considered to be incomplete and a reflection of the fact they are coming to grips with the future. Sir Keith actually admitted that STFC management is coming to grips with it, which is reflected in the restructuring of STFC management and staff. Given what I have heard, that it is going to be three centres of technology—computational science, further detector science and technology and possibly science instrumentation—and nothing else, I would think that if that is by design by STFC then there is a flawed vision there. It is not for me to tell you whether that is really intended by STFC or not, but since I am getting mixed messages from the Government which expects me to deliver on science and knowledge exchange I think there should be scrutiny of the vision put forward by STFC for the two sites.

  Q309  Graham Stringer: So you are really saying it is a sin of omission rather than commission; it is ignorance rather than a direct objective of turning it into a science park?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I think it is a flawed vision. I came into this situation as the two agencies were merging. I had a meeting with the most recently appointed CEO in the first week of my appointment and I had a hint of this vision coming from him. I was dismayed by that and I registered my concern with him at the end of April last year.

  Q310  Graham Stringer: I have just read back through the evidence of the predecessor committee of this Committee, the Science & Technology Committee, about the original decision to move the radiation source from Daresbury. Although it is confusing, one of the complaints of Wellcome, which was one of the funders, was that the management of the park at Daresbury overall was poor. Is that your view at the moment? What are your views of the current management of the park?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I do not think the STFC has a proper understanding of its managerial role and flow of control of its people and line management at the two sites. Daresbury Laboratory is not a laboratory, it does not have a leader of its own, it does not have a director, by choice by STFC which wants to look at the two sites. The person who claims to be the chief of the Daresbury site also is supposed to develop the Harwell campus, so there are internal conflicts of interest in that position and he cannot be the champion of one site or the other. The vision put forward by the local chief of Daresbury Laboratory clearly is put forward without consultancy with the scientific constituency of the entire region. I have not been party to that vision, the Cockcroft Institute Director, despite my repeated requests to be at the table to at least outline a vision of what Cockcroft could bring for the nation through being on that site, and I think that is a flawed process. It is a flawed process which has been employed, not the outcome necessarily but the process is flawed.

  Q311  Graham Stringer: You have obviously made a personal commitment to Daresbury but do you think it is important that there are national facilities at Daresbury? Would it make any difference to science as a whole if they were amalgamated on the Appleton site?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I did not make a personal commitment to Daresbury, I made a personal commitment to the Cockcroft Institute as an iconic symbol of the delivery of science and technology to the nation which is for the UK's benefit. It happens to be at the gates of Daresbury National Lab but Cockcroft is not the Daresbury Lab. Cockcroft happens to be on the north west but we have people working at the Rutherford Lab, people working at Oxford and I am not telling you that it should be in one place or another. I think it should be consulted upon, there should be wisdom sought in the process, the stakeholders should be consulted, and whatever comes out of such consultation and transparency and proper review should be the goal of UK science and technology. If it is decided it should be at Rutherford, it should be at Rutherford.

  Q312  Graham Stringer: Thank you. If I can just ask Professor Holdaway, this refers really to the evidence you gave at the beginning about peer review. The Government has a policy they want centres of national excellence outside the south east, they have national policies that they are in favour of space research and particle physics research and inspiring young people into physics and science. Is there a point at which peer review undermines or conflicts with those policies, because peer review if it is done in isolation can actually come to quite different decisions than that national policy indicates it should do?

  Professor Holdaway: I think that is a very good point. There can be a clash because it may be that, based purely on the quality of the science, programmes could be approved and funded that do not necessarily meet with some other strategic target, whether it is science leading on to technology leading on to wealth creation or quality of life. But I think the way round that, and I think it happens reasonably successfully now, is that the peer review panels have the overall strategic remit and work within that framework. So it is not a framework which should not be able to work.

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I am used to presidential initiatives which come down from high up, from the US President, and the fact of the matter is you have to let that initiative be known to the people and then you can move on. You cannot just have an initiative which is coming down. That is why I think if it is the policy of the Government of the UK, people should know urgently that is the case, that strategic decisions are always taken and you do not need peer review for everything.

  Q313  Graham Stringer: So there is a point where the Government has to say that the Haldane principle might indicate we should not interfere, but this is of such national importance that we should on these priorities?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Yes.

  Professor Holdaway: Yes.

  Dr Iddon: Just as recently as last evening at a meeting of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee in the House, Colin Whitehouse gave a very glowing picture of the future of Daresbury with its bipolar structure, interrelationship between RAL and Daresbury, scientists moving backwards and forwards, the attraction of very large companies on to the Daresbury site because there was basic science on that site; he painted a glowing picture of the future of Daresbury. Why are we getting both that kind of picture from an important person like Professor Whitehouse and the picture you have been painting this morning? It is very confusing for us politicians; we do not know where to stand in this discussion.

  Ian Stewart: Yes.

  Q314  Chairman: It was usually the Liberals who were bipolar!

  Professor Chattopadhyay: The bipolar model is not my model. You should ask Colin Whitehouse and his role in this. I can simply report that as a scientist and a scientific director of an institute whether I have contributed to that model, and I have not. The evolution has been historical and in the last ten months I have not had a daily input from Cockcroft into that vision. From my perspective, I consider the vision and the scientific leadership to be flawed and I have brought it to the attention of the CEO. If you talk to the scientists on the site at Daresbury you can witness their reaction yourselves.

  Q315  Ian Stewart: In your representations earlier, Professor Chattopadhyay, you gave a negative indication for Daresbury with the lack of a new facility, but you also mentioned the staff and I think both of you implied the staff felt as though they had not been fully consulted on this. Would the setting up of a site director for each of the sites have assisted the flow of concerns from the staff to the STFC? Would that have been helpful?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: I must say that the management of STFC as an agency distributed over two sites, the way it is managed and administered and the information flow which happens, even the senior management at STFC do not appreciate. I am not used to such management, I am used to national laboratories with their own facilities and with their own directors who all work together to deliver the product for the Government. I personally would feel that Daresbury and the Rutherford Lab would have benefited tremendously from having a local scientific director championing their cases together working hand in hand.

  Q316  Ian Stewart: The last point I would like to ask you about is redundancies. They appear to be happening in a very short period of time.

  Professor Chattopadhyay: Yes.

  Q317  Ian Stewart: The impression I have personally got from discussions, open and private, with the Minister for Science and the Secretary of State is that the redundancies should not be happening as fast. There are certain reviews going on and the Government is committed to bringing new innovative facilities to Daresbury. Have you got the same impression or is there such a pressure to have the redundancies quickly?

  Professor Chattopadhyay: First of all, I question that urgency, basically because I do not understand the need for it just to save pounds in Daresbury's budget over a short period of time. I have written to the Council and I have written to STFC that if you do not do it properly you throw out the baby with the bath water; those same skills you will need for future facilities in the UK you will find you do not have. Right now I would say there are less than 100 bodies of trained skills in this area, in this site, not only in Cockcroft but in John Adams, in the universities, the Rutherford Lab and Daresbury Lab, and they are so good and internationally placed that the UK has a front row seat in this field, and we really run the risk of losing a valuable bunch of people from this small group of people in the nation. It is not just redundancies from the two labs, you also have the grants being reduced, the ILC has been stopped, and we are looking into employment laws and regulations in real time for people. This is not just a fiction. We are looking at losing a few dozen people from this field and that will leave us with a very weak workforce to work with.

  Q318  Chairman: Richard, you did not get a chance to answer Ian's question about a scientific director at RAL. Would you support that principle?

  Professor Holdaway: It as a solution. I think there are other solutions. It comes back to communications all the time. Remember there are four sites within STFC—RAL, Daresbury, ATC in Edinburgh and there is Chilbolton. ATC has a director and communications there I think work very, very well. If there was a director at RAL and a director at Daresbury I think communications would improve but there are other ways of doing it. Having a director is just one of those ways. But whatever the organisation does, it has to improve its communications and it has to do it by having somebody on each side who actually knows how to operate and run operational departments and facilities with the right sort of experience. That is the key, rather than whether it is specifically a director.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much indeed, Professor Richard Holdaway and Professor Chattopadhyay, for being so frank with us this morning.

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