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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 319 - 339)



  Chairman: We move on to our second panel and thank you very much indeed, Professor Mason—we meet again, Keith—and 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 opinion?

  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 it—PPAN, particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics, and the physical and life sciences committees—which 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 working well?

  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 outset—it was too flat and too unresponsive—and I had always intended to evolve that as time went on. This is a reflection of that evolution. The motivation behind the evolution—this stage of it at least and there will be more, it is not finished—is 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 that—we 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 on there?

  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 involved.

  Q329  Chairman: 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: Do you?

  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 reference to—

  Q336  Dr Gibson: Will they have black marks in them and names and things crossed out?

  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 was produced.

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