Examination of Witnesses (Questions 319
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008
Chairman: We move on to our second panel
and thank you very much indeed, Professor Masonwe meet
again, Keithand Mr Peter Warry for joining us this morning.
We will go straight to my colleague, Roberta.
Q319 Dr Blackman-Woods:
Professor Mason, the last time you were in front of the Committee
you said, "I think we do consultation extremely well in STFC;
I am very proud of the peer review system that we have set up,
it is very effective ... ". I have to say from our visits
and evidence we have gathered so far not everyone shares that
opinion. We have spoken to people who have immense international
standing in the physics community who simply do not agree there
was proper consultation about these cuts or that the system is
working effectively. How do you account for that divergence of
Professor Mason: I think we are
talking about several different things actually. I was speaking
about our Science Strategy Board and the sub-committees we have
underneath itPPAN, particle physics, astronomy and nuclear
physics, and the physical and life sciences committeeswhich
are new structures we have set up under STFC which actually do
the peer review and which actually conduct things like the programmatic
review. These are very difficult exercises to go through, particularly
over such a wide remit as STFC has, and I am genuinely proud of
how these committees and how the people on these committees have
actually responded to this huge challenge. You heard earlier some
discussion about the challenges of peer review. Peer review is
not easy, peer review over such a broad range as we have is doubly,
trebly, difficult, and the fact we have within ten months been
able to arrive at a system which can integrate physics and physical
and life sciences and the particle physics, astronomy and nuclear
physics requirements into a single set of recommendations to the
Science Board and then onwards to Council I think is something
to be proud of. There was some, I think, confusion in the discussion
earlier about the various peer review bodies and the issue of
consultation is one which I take very, very seriously, and it
is an area which we are actively working on in order to improve
things for the future.
Q320 Dr Blackman-Woods:
Would you accept that parts of the science community, in particular
the physics community, have been really affected by the decisions
which have been made by STFC? Do you feel they have not been adequately
consulted and that something has to be learned from this process?
Professor Mason: Yes, indeed,
and we are actively learning that lesson. Again there is a misunderstanding
of the process and what the effect of consultation would have
been. If we are talking about the PPAN area now, which derived
from the old PPARC, we had consultative panels in that structure
which reported on strategy only a few months before the programmatic
review. So the reality is, had we had such a structure in STFC
from the beginning, it would not have made any difference to the
delivery plan output because we were not missing that element
because it is carried over from PPARC. One of the tasks that the
PPAN committee was set at its inception was to derive and devise
a better system of community consultation which is an exercise
which is not yet completed because, for one reason, its business
has been dominated by the delivery plan and the programmatic review
so it just has not had the time to put the thought in. But this
has always been on our agenda and it will be put in place in the
future. In terms of the current programmatic review, this is an
exercise we went through two years ago in PPARC and following
the programmatic review the next stage was an unofficial consultation
with the community. We intend to do exactly the same thing but
this is now an official consultation period just to make it absolutely
clear that we are seeking people's views on the outcome, we do
not just take the outcome of the programme as reviewed and say,
"It is cast in concrete", we want to hear what people
think about it simply to optimise the science we get out. We have
a certain amount of money that we can spend, we want to get the
maximum amount of science from that, we rightly always have and
always will involve the community in doing that, and it is really
just a question of time.
Q321 Dr Blackman-Woods:
I think the community would accept that peer review is difficult,
what we are not seeing is confidence in the peer review system
across the sector. Are you clear the changes you are bringing
in are going to lead to a greater confidence in peer review?
Professor Mason: Well, if they
do not, we will change them again. It is absolutely clear that
we need to have this confidence. I have to say we are living in
a situation where two research councils have been merged, there
were many people who had doubts about that merger and are waiting
to see the proof of the pudding, and are rightly putting us under
very close scrutiny. But actually, if you look objectively at
what we have done in the ten months we have been in existence,
I think we have done pretty well actually in getting these structures
together, in conducting a very comprehensive exercise, and we
have to see what the outcome of that will be.
Q322 Dr Blackman-Woods:
You have just announced changes to the structure of STFC's senior
management, what is the rationale behind that if everything is
Professor Mason: STFC is a very
complex organisation which has come together. It is much more
complex than any of the other predecessor councils and I think
it is right we be evolving structures to deal with the challenge
that we have. We started off with a management structure which
I frankly was not particularly happy with from the outsetit
was too flat and too unresponsiveand I had always intended
to evolve that as time went on. This is a reflection of that evolution.
The motivation behind the evolutionthis stage of it at
least and there will be more, it is not finishedis to provide
greater responsiveness in terms of dealing with the challenges
we have, to really tackle the issue of culture change within the
organisation, to ensure that STFC becomes that that vision that
we have and not a relic vision from the old research councils,
and to ensure that vision is enshrined in the staff and in the
community that we are serving. We have also made changes to the
focus on the campus development, which is really important, and
the KE agenda. With the campus developments both at Daresbury
and Harwell we clearly need to up our game because we are now
getting into very serious territory with joint venture partners,
et cetera, and we need to manage that much more proactively, and
we have made the changes to put that in place. I see these as
the correct response to the challenges we have and, as I say,
I am very determined that as we move forward we will continue
to make changes to adapt to the situation we are in.
Q323 Dr Blackman-Woods:
Do you intend to widen the Council? As you know, you have ten
people, three are senior members of STFC, that is smaller than
other councils, do you intend to make it more representative because
that seems to be the charge that is levelled against you, that
it is not fully representative of the community?
Professor Mason: No, but we are
piloting a new model for research councils here and this was something
done in discussion with DIUS. I think the structure we have is
a Council which concentrates on governance and we have a Science
Board which deals with the science strategy, and we also have
advisory systems which deal with knowledge exchange and other
aspects of the Council. So I think the new slim look Council is
actually working very well. It meets more often than typical councils
do, it is much more responsive, it is much more engaged. Peter
could comment on this but I think it is working much more effectively
than certainly the predecessor councils did.
Mr Warry: I absolutely agree with
that. I do not think, because our community is so large, we could
actually get representatives of the whole community on to a council
and get it sensibly to function; it would be very large to get
in all the different aspects of it. Indeed I think it is an advantage
that people are not there as representatives but they are there
actually to look at the big picture and try and make those decisions.
It is a much more effective council in the sense we have had some
very difficult decisions to take which I think would have been
extremely difficult with a very large council. Because we have
had to do these things which affect people's jobs and their careers,
the Council has needed to spend a lot of time looking at thatwe
actually met four times in two months which is probably unique
for a council and we stared long and hard at those things because
we actually really regret having to make those sort of decisions.
We believe we made the right decisions, there is only one pot
of money, we cannot spend it twice over. It would be difficult
to make it without the sort of council we had, so I think it was
very helpful. If I could finish by saying that there is real pain
in what we are doing but there are also some big science we are
still going to be able to do it. Our scientists actually have
£1½ billion-worth of new facilities which are coming
on line in this CSR that they are going to be able to address,
so there is a lot of grief which we feel, and I feel personally,
but there is also some science as well.
Q324 Dr Blackman-Woods:
However, the accusation which is often levelled against you is
that you do not have the full breadth of knowledge you should
be drawing on in your strategic advice and your peer review panels.
Are you taking that on board and are you going to do something
about it or are you going to continue to say that everything is
fine and this is a bit of pain that we are managing quite well?
Mr Warry: Keith has already said
that the proposal is that we are going to introduce advisory committees
which are effectively sub-committees of the Council to pick up
that point. So, yes, we recognise that and it is an important
point to take on board and we will be doing that.
Professor Mason: To finish off,
one should not forget that even with the top level committees
we have, not to mention grants panels and all the other structure
we have below, we are talking about 30 people or so, so it is
not a handful of people in a room, it is a lot of people and they
are spread across the whole range of expertise that we cover.
Q325 Mr Boswell:
Thank you, Professor Mason, you have explained the background
to the changes you have had to make and the underlying rationality,
as it were, from the management viewpoint. On the other hand,
you both acknowledged, could have hardly failed to do so, there
is a good deal of concern at the staff end and may I perhaps concentrate
on that area particularly in relation to the process. You will
have heard also the exchanges about Daresbury. You commissioned
the views of the various departments at Daresbury but, as I understand
it, you have not discussed either their methodologies or their
conclusions with the staff there, and we have been told by your
lawyers that these reviews are confidential. It does seem an odd
way of conducting peer review. Why so confidential? What is going
Professor Mason: There is a huge
amount of misunderstanding about what these reviews are and what
they were intended to do.
Q326 Mr Boswell:
Could I interpose a moment. Are they peer reviews as you know
them and I may broadly understand them to be?
Professor Mason: Let me understand
what they are because there is a danger of putting labels on things
and misrepresenting them. The subject matter of these reviews
is the in-house research effort, so we are not talking about the
bulk of the programmes which are undertaken by the Daresbury,
ATC, RAL Laboratories, but we are talking about that fraction
of the research effort which is equivalent to the research effort
in university staff, and generally that is conducted by a handful
of people in each group rather than the staff as a whole. It is
their own personal research as opposed to the research programme
of the council. So when I took over as CEO of STFC I was aware
that there had been a lot of discussion, even criticism, of the
in-house research effort and whether it was competitive with the
research going on in university groups, because they are competing
for the same resources. So I wanted to have an independent view
of whether we were doing the right research and whether this research
was at world level or whether it was second rate, basically to
guide me in future planning as to how much research ought to be
done in-house and what the subject areas were. One of the criticisms
which had been levelled in the past is that such reviews had involved
internal staff and internal managers who had a vested interest
to maintain the research of their group. So I deliberately set
this up with completely independent panels, with international
representation, and we had I think 11 panels covering the whole
of the research council, so quite a major exercise, so they are
peer review panels in the sense they are independent experts who
are not related to the research council. I told them, "You
can be as honest with me as you like because this report is coming
to me to advise me, it is not going to be shared with my managers
or staff, so you can tell me what you really think." I said
to them at the outset, "Please tell me exactly what you think
so I am informed, so I know how to take this forward, and be honest."
So that is the reason for the so-called confidentiality around
these reports, they are reports to me and not shared with my managers,
so that I can get a really bona fide gold-standard opinion as
to whether the research going on in these groups is truly world
class which we should continue or whether it is just sucking resources
away from things that universities might be able to do better.
Q327 Mr Boswell:
You would accept then that these conclusions of these reviews,
whether labelled as peer reviews or otherwise but certainly independent
of the organisers, those conclusions, the advice tendered to you,
are not contestable? It is not, for example, possible for the
participants who have been reviewed to say, "It is not so"?
Professor Mason: That is right
but it depends on how they are used. As I said, my purpose in
setting up these reviews was to inform me long-term as to which
areas to invest in in the research council and which areas not
to invest in and perhaps to move outside. It is a process which
has not got any further than that because it is not related to
the delivery plan, it is not related to the other strategic decisions
we are taking. In effect, it has been put on hold because we are
dealing with a different set of problems.
Q328 Mr Boswell:
If that is the case, how can you reassure staff, for example,
that you have not merely cooked up or selected a group of persons
to give you the advice you were predisposed to wish to accept?
Professor Mason: You are caught
between a rock and a hard place with that one, because in order
to get the independent advice there has to be some level of confidentiality
Are you not also indicating that standard review panels do not
say what they think?
Professor Mason: There is a danger
in a peer review situation where the information is made public
that people are reticent about criticising their peers naturally.
Q330 Dr Gibson:
Do you trust your managers?
Professor Mason: Do I trust them?
Q331 Dr Gibson:
Did you trust them?
Professor Mason: Yes.
Q332 Dr Gibson:
So why did you not incorporate them and show them the stuff as
it went along and took their views alongside? That would have
been the smart thing to do, would it not, in retrospect?
Professor Mason: As I said, one
of the criticisms which has been levelled is that the managers
have a vested interest in the outcome.
Q333 Dr Gibson:
Professor Mason: Well, indeed,
I have a
Q334 Dr Gibson:
Anybody has a vested interest.
Professor Mason: --- I have a
vested interest in making the research council as competitive
as possible and making sure there is a level playing field. As
I say, the problem is that this exercise, which was started in
all innocence and for a background level purpose, is taking on
a significance that it never was intended to have and does not
deserve. In the light of that we will be making the reviews public
and people will be able to see what they say, and I can tell you
that by and large they are very supportive of what is going on
and I was very encouraged to read them.
Q335 Dr Gibson:
Will they be unabridged versions?
Professor Mason: They will remove
Q336 Dr Gibson:
Will they have black marks in them and names and things crossed
Professor Mason: As I understand
it, they will remove references to individual people.
Chairman: It does not sound to be a very
healthy organisation where you do not trust the peer review which
exists, you have secret reviews. Sorry, I am getting carried away.
Q337 Mr Boswell:
Can you just say for the record, in terms of self-assessment by
those who are conducting the science themselves, is that something
you would want to aim rather heavily off, to discount, in your
decision making process? That is separate from the peer review
or independent review process, but do you think your managers
are capable of telling you what they think?
Professor Mason: Of course they
are, and how you take an organisation like this forward is by
using a multitude of tools. I would never act literally on the
outcome of these reviews, these were to inform me as to where
the problem areas might be, mostly where the areas which had not
got any problems were because then you can just leave those alone
and not worry about them.
Q338 Mr Boswell:
Finally on the communications, do you hope your new structure
will itself smooth, ease, the communication process with staff
which is obviously a concern?
Professor Mason: Absolutely. One
of the areas I have been concerned about since the organisation
started is the communication area because essentially STFC is
a much more complex organisation by an order of magnitude, I would
say, than its predecessor councils in terms of its capacity, and
we really need to tackle communications in a much more thorough
and broader manner, both internal communications and external
communications. That is something we are actively working on and
it is something we have recognised for a while, but these things
are not fixed overnight.
Q339 Mr Marsden:
On that specific point, you seem to be saying that what you will
do is release information about these boards on what we might
call a Chatham House basis, in the sense they will not refer to
individuals. If you are so concerned about not telling your own
staff what particular individuals have said about them, do you
accept the Chatham House principle in all your doings in the future,
that when you have these reports you do actually share them with
your staff which would be a good way of proceeding?
Professor Mason: This is generally
what we do. This would be my guiding principle. As I said, the
reason for making an exception at this time was to make it absolutely
clear that this was an external view of the organisation and one
which gave it a legitimate gold stamp, if you like, in terms of
probity that there were no internal conflicts of interest in what