Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008
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
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.
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
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
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
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 youI am not saying they
havethat 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
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 allperhaps you could send
itthe 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 thisfour very long meetings
because of the gravity of the issues we were dealing withand
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 Centrethis 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.