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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)



  Q340  Chairman: On the issue of the grants to the university physics community, when figures of cuts of 25% were being mooted, you pooh-poohed that and said that was not realistic, and yet it was you at the town meeting on 13 December who actually made that comment that there would be a 25% cut in the grants. As briefly as you can, can you tell us first you were right, then you were wrong, then you were right again?

  Professor Mason: I do not think I pooh-poohed it, that is not my style. Both statements are correct and I think—

  Q341  Chairman: They both cannot be correct.

  Professor Mason: Of course they can. It depends what question you are asking. It is a 25% cut against a rising profile, so it is a real 25% cut in what we had aspired to fund. Incidentally, the reason that we had planned to increase the number of grants, post docs and grants, is that the community is expanding and this is something which needs to be looked at by the Wakeham Review in particular. We have seen an increase of 40% in the number of researchers doing astronomy in universities in the last two years, which is a huge increase. So against that planned profile, we were making a 25% cut, which essentially brings us back to a zero increase. So having announced we would be making this 25% reduction, people then concluded that there would be a 25% hit on physics departments and that is what I tried to clarify at my last appearance, that because this is on a rising profile actually it is not a 25% cut on physics departments, it actually brings us down to more or less level funding rather than at the increased funding.

  Q342  Chairman: I am just a humble politician, unlike my colleagues, but when the Institute of Physics informs me that we are about to see very serious cuts in physics departments across the country, particularly those in major universities which have very serious physics departments, then I have to take notice of that. But you are saying that is just nonsense? There will not be any cuts at all?

  Professor Mason: We have provided the figures for you but in this first year of the Spending Review there will be no cuts in exploitation grants. As we go forward we are making a 25% cut on the original plan for new commitments so there will be cuts which come in in later years, but we will still end up in a position where over the next Comprehensive Spending Review we have the same number of post docs in universities as we had in the last Spending Review. So it is clawing back on the planned increase and flattening it out.

  Mr Warry: On the ILC, on the people involved in the programme, there will be cuts there.

  Professor Mason: This is exploitation grants.

  Mr Warry: Exploitation grants.

  Q343  Dr Gibson: So it is a lot of fuss about nothing really, is it not? Is that what you think?

  Professor Mason: It depends where you are coming from. As I said, the astronomy community in particular has grown by 40% in the last two years, so by holding the number of grants steady, level, the success rate will go down. But what is not clear to me, and I hope that Bill Wakeham's panel actually looks into it, is why there has been a 40% increase in astronomy. I can think of some reasons but I think somebody needs to do some research there.

  Q344  Dr Harris: What is the right metric for working out what the health of the grants to these parts of physics is? Is it the total spend or is it the number of grant allocations?

  Professor Mason: One measure is the ratio of academic staff to grant-supported staff.

  Q345  Dr Harris: What about the total number of grant applications provided? Is that a good measure or does that depend on whether there are lots of small ones instead of a few big ones?

  Professor Mason: It is a complex issue.

  Q346  Dr Harris: So you would not rely on the total number of grant allocations?

  Professor Mason: No. To illustrate that, in particle physics there are 15 large grants and that is it, there are lots of small ones but 15 large grants, whereas in astronomy there is a multitude of much smaller grants.

  Q347  Dr Harris: So it is not meaningful to use the total number of grants?

  Professor Mason: No.

  Q348  Dr Harris: Just a couple of quick questions and hopefully quick answers from Mr Warry, does the Council take the advice generally of your Science Board on science issues?

  Mr Warry: Yes, we have so far.

  Q349  Dr Harris: When it comes to issues to do with the Haldane principle, if the Government were to seek to tell you—I am not saying they have—that you must spend a certain amount of money in a certain geographical place, let alone on the actual project, would you say that is your decision rather than theirs to make?

  Mr Warry: I think the Government is in a position where it can ring fence money, so—

  Q350  Dr Harris: Okay, but if it does not? Short of ring fencing, if it says to you, "Out of your overall budget we think, we would like, we require you ... .", any of those, " ... to spend a certain amount of money in this certain geographical location", would you say that is something you were bound to follow, would you say it was inappropriate, would you say, "We are going to go by our other priorities, including science but not only"?

  Mr Warry: I would actually be at the far end of that spectrum, which is that if they have not ring fenced the money then the job of the Council is to use that money in the wisest way it can. Clearly there is a lot of competition for these funds, as we know, so I would be reluctant to be swayed by the Government saying—

  Q351  Dr Harris: I would ask the same thing to any research council chairman. So it would be inconsistent with the Haldane principle for you to be directed to spend money which you are free to spend in a certain geographical area at the behest of the Government?

  Mr Warry: I am not an expert on Haldane, but what I would say is that there is probably a difference between them saying, "You must invest in this project", which is then taking a scientific decision so to speak, and "You should invest this sum of money in the science you choose". That may be different but I am not an expert in this field.

  Q352  Dr Harris: So what you are saying is that it would not be acceptable to say, "This project", unless the Government ring fenced it, but it might be appropriate for them to say, "Whatever you decide to fund, we want you to spend it in Newcastle"?

  Mr Warry: I would want them to ring fence that if they did that.

  Q353  Dr Harris: I think we are agreeing. In respect of the investment in Daresbury, your Science Board in a note to your Council meeting on 21 November said that its view was, "to minimise overheads and maximise synergies, Science Board felt that there is no alternative to closing the Daresbury Laboratory in the current budgetary climate." That is pretty clear actually. Yet your decision does not appear to be that, I think, because—

  Mr Warry: Our decision is absolutely not that.

  Q354  Dr Harris: That is a bit strange, is it not?

  Mr Warry: No, it is not. That is the Science Board giving the Council some advice about how it should manage its overall budget. The Council has responsibilities which go beyond science. We have a responsibility to provide facilities to make economic impact and so on. So I can well understand that if you look at this purely from maximising science, then let us focus everything on to a single point, but we have wider responsibilities.

  Q355  Dr Harris: I am grateful to you for the brief and very clear answers. So the job of your executive officers is to take on board the science but to take into account in their advice to Council some of these other issues you have mentioned. You would rely on your chief executive to do that?

  Mr Warry: Or the Council.

  Q356  Dr Harris: Or indeed the Council. The chief executive said in his note, before the Science Board put in their view, that his proposal was to " ... concentrate most if not all core in-house capability on the Harwell campus and plan for all future national large facilities to be located there. This would mean ... .", second bullet point, " ... working with the private sector and the NWDA to develop the Daresbury campus primarily as a private sector venture with some core scientific and/or technology expertise retained either within the STFC or transferred into a university or private sector company." Your press release of 21 January and perhaps other notifications do not even seem to back the advice of your chief executive either.

  Mr Warry: No, they will not. What you are seeing there is the on-going Council discussion. Because we have had to pare back the programme, it is absolutely appropriate that we should look long and hard at doing some of the drastic things and you have mentioned one, we looked also at getting out of a major subscription such as CERN, we looked at all these extremely unimaginable options before we actually came down and said, "That is wrong." You are just picking on a point in the debate.

  Q357  Dr Harris: We are interested in scrutinising your decisions. I cannot see, and maybe we have not got it all—perhaps you could send it—the documentation, the advice you got, which was so convincing that it persuaded your Council to ignore the advice of the Science Board and indeed to reject the recommendation, as you describe it, of the chief executive. I have not seen that and we have been seen a lot of stuff. Was there something or did it just emerge in discussions? Was there perhaps a phone call from the Government?

  Mr Warry: There was not a phone call from the Government, let me tell you that.

  Q358  Dr Harris: A fax, email?

  Mr Warry: No, not even that. We had four meetings, as I said, on this—four very long meetings because of the gravity of the issues we were dealing with—and we looked at all of the uncontemplatible things, and Keith produced several notes in the process of this and you have one, and we looked at the variety of options we could do and then sub-options of those. We did take on board the Science Board's scientific advice, we did not take on the Science Board's suggestion about—

  Q359  Dr Harris: That is fine, you are repeating now. I understand that. It would be useful if you could send us the advice you got, if there was any, other than something which emerged in discussion, which led you to take the decision you took. Is it a sensible decision? This is what we were told by the Cockcroft Centre—this is in the document they gave us which they have allowed us to quote from—"Are the plans to make Daresbury a Science and Innovation Campus `viable'? We fear the answer is `NO'. Lack of support of the STFC leadership for scientific `flagship' facilities on the DL campus by design renders such a plan incredulous!! The Cockcroft Institute, by itself, without a thriving Daresbury Laboratory, will have no reason to be on site and will retreat to the universities, failing the lofty DIUS goals." I think the founding director of the Cockcroft Institute confirmed that view just this morning.

  Mr Warry: Yes, indeed.

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