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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  Q360  Dr Harris: So were you aware that was their view when you rejected the option of doing what they think is inevitable? Was it a shock to hear this view?

  Mr Warry: I was aware of their view. I do not agree with their view because the plans we have for Daresbury mean we believe—and Colin Whitehouse's presentation last night was referred to earlier—we have a very viable future for that campus.

  Q361  Chairman: Nobody believes that. Nobody on the campus believes that.

  Mr Warry: The reason why they do not believe it at the moment is because we have not physically got it on the ground. We are moving forward on that. In our delivery plan we mention one of the things we want to do is to set up a Hartree Centre for world class computer modelling and simulation, and we have now got the first leg of that signed off, because that is now part of the RCUK proposals on capital. It still has to be signed off by Sir Keith but I am pretty confident he will tick that. That is one very major tick in the box. The centre follows on from that. We also—and we cannot announce this yet because it is not fully signed off—are in very serious discussions for two world class science based businesses to come on to the campus.

  Q362  Dr Harris: Science based business, we understand that and we are aware of that because we were up there. My final approach here is to say that you cited, in aid of your view you can retain world class science on this site to make it more than just simply a private sector or innovation centre, the Cockcroft Centre, but you cannot force them to stay. It is not in your gift. You can say you disagree with their view, you clearly do, but it is their view and their right. Given that the fourth generation light source project has been put off for two years, we are told the funding for ALICE is uncertain, which means the prospects of EMMA getting off the ground are highly questionable, surely it is a logical view, and indeed that taken by your Science Board whom one expects are logical people, that this is not going to be viable as a world class science and innovation centre, and is it not fairer to the staff there for you to accept that and tell the Government that you cannot deliver what they want you to deliver, it is inappropriate for them to ask you to do that and unfair on the staff there?

  Mr Warry: No, is my short answer, I do not agree with that. I do believe we can make it viable and I do believe the Council has a duty to try and do its best by the staff there, and that I think is securing as much employment as we sensibly can on that. That does not mean to say we can avoid the redundancies which are already in train, we cannot reverse a decision which was taken long before the STFC came into being.

  Professor Mason: On the Daresbury issue, because I think this is a very important one, I think it is worth emphasising here that the problems of Daresbury are deep-seated and long-term and they stem from the decision to close the SRS and put Diamond at Harwell. That of course pre-dates STFC by many, many years, so we come into existence and we inherit a situation where the SRS is closing and we need to understand how to take Daresbury forward. I think we have been very energetic over the past ten months in trying to find a new way forward for Daresbury. One of the things which struck me when I took over as CEO is a lot of hope is pinned on 4GLS and hopefully that will still come to pass in a bigger and better form and without much delay, but the fact of the matter was that 4GLS would not have started construction until 2012 and therefore however you looked at Daresbury there was going to be this big hole in terms of facility provision. So we have been actively working on how to fill that hole with things like the Hartree Centre, with things like a detector centre, which as Peter says has now passed the first stages of approval, and we are really pushing that agenda forward. We do have a commitment to having science on that campus because we share the vision that the campuses are a good way forward and they are on behalf of UK plc and not regional centres. The fact we operate Daresbury and Harwell as a single unit is a reflection of that and that comes back to the discussion you were having with Swapan earlier about site directors. We do not have a director at Daresbury, we do not have a director at RAL, because we do not want to be in a situation where Daresbury and RAL are competing with one another which is what has happened in the past. This is a system we inherited from CCLRC and it makes sense to take these forward as a unit. We have marvellous new facilities at Harwell, those can support the Daresbury campus as well as the rest because they are supposed to be national, and what we need to ensure is that we retain the scientific expertise at Daresbury and we are working the problem, as they say, as to how we can do that.

  Q363  Chairman: It is hard to take that seriously though, is it not, when we find your own advice to the STFC board is to close the Daresbury site?

  Professor Mason: That advice was made at a time when the financial situation, believe it or not, actually looked worse than it currently is. This was in a situation immediately after we received our allocations, in the intervening time what we did was to work with DIUS to essentially change the profile of that allocation so we can actually deal with what was originally a big problem in year one, which means we do not have to take the drastic action we had originally envisaged. To take another example, that drastic action included a 50% cut in grants, not 25%.

  Chairman: Okay, I will leave that there.

  Q364  Ian Stewart: Keith, you have been well aware, and you too, Peter, that the Government's intention is to keep a world class science facility at Daresbury. You have mentioned keeping a science facility at Daresbury. Why the discrepancy?

  Professor Mason: There is no discrepancy, we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

  Q365  Ian Stewart: If that is the case, the Government—

  Professor Mason: My point earlier was that if there is a new facility to be done at Daresbury, it will not be there for eight, ten years at the soonest. What I am concerned to ensure is that we bridge that gap. I believe that Daresbury has an exciting future in other ways and we are exploring new models in order to ensure that.

  Q366  Ian Stewart: There is a difference between having a science park and having a world class science facility. Understanding the SRS redundancies and that there was concern whether there would be enforced redundancies for those who are working on 4GLA, the Government has put out a press release that there should be no rush to redundancies and that it is committed to doing everything in its powers to keeping Daresbury as a world class facility. Why are you pressing for the redundancies to take place so fast?

  Professor Mason: We are not.

  Q367  Ian Stewart: That is not the impression the staff have.

  Professor Mason: It is not correct. We are pushing forward with the SRS redundancies, and that is a fact. We have a voluntary redundancy scheme across the whole of the research council, including Daresbury.

  Q368  Ian Stewart: How do you maintain the skill levels with a voluntary system like that?

  Professor Mason: That is the whole point of the voluntary system. You do not have to accept the volunteers. What you do have to have is a level playing field across the whole of the organisation, you cannot protect one part at the expense of somewhere else. Every body has to have the same opportunity to take voluntary redundancy but we do not have to accept those.

  Q369  Dr Turner: Peter and Keith, it seems to me that you have in the form of STFC inherited an extremely poisoned chalice. Most of these problems are endemic in the very structure of putting together responsibilities like the CCLRC's for very large communal facilities essentially and responsibility for funding universities all in one council, and then in the Comprehensive Spending Review allocation you end up with a flat cash increase over the next three years while everybody else is climbing steadily up, and you of course are servicing their activities through the large facilities, so the pressure on your budgets is clearly enormous and there is clearly only one place where it is going to come out and that is your smaller, response-moded grants, hence the pain. When did you realise you would be put in the position of fall guys?

  Professor Mason: I think I have to clarify some of the things you said first of all, just to be correct. First of all, we are not the only research council in the position of having to deal with an effective flat cash settlement, every other research council apart from MRC does.

  Q370  Dr Turner: I have the figures in front of me. It does not look like that, unless I cannot read a graph.

  Professor Mason: I think the figures there are slightly misleading and include FEC and a lot of other things. If you take FEC out, every research council is dealing with a flat cash situation, so we are not unique in that respect. The other point you make is that the pain has been disproportionately felt by small grants, that again is not correct. We have a solution to this problem which essentially spreads the pain. It did not have to be that way but it turns out it is essentially spread between the ex-PPARC community and the ex-CCLRC community. Had we had a similar settlement in PPARC, had it still been in existence, we would still have been making the same sort of reductions to our aspirations because flat cash means we are suffering the effects of inflation and the volume has to go down, and that was a recognised feature of funding full economic costings, which I think we have all agreed is a good thing to do and we have done it.

  Q371  Dr Turner: I think my point is still valid because although you are correct to say that taking out FEC makes everyone else flat cash, they have been given a bigger allocation in the first instance?

  Professor Mason: No, that is not true.

  Q372  Dr Turner: The MRC have.

  Professor Mason: The MRC have, yes.

  Q373  Dr Turner: Spectacularly bigger.

  Professor Mason: Yes, but MRC is the exception, the others have not.

  Q374  Dr Turner: And you are of course underpinning their activities.

  Professor Mason: Yes.

  Q375  Dr Turner: But you have not been given concomitant resources with which to do that. If you had been given a slightly higher percentage of the CSR allocation, you would not be in quite such a difficult situation, would you?

  Professor Mason: That is clearly true and we have been given a hard job to do and we are doing it. We are not ducking it. It is not an impossible job, I think we have a way forward which does cause pain, which I regret, Peter regrets. I would much rather be sitting here—well, not sitting here in fact!—talking about a situation where I can give everybody exactly what they want. Whenever you have to say no to somebody, it is painful. It is painful for them, it is painful for us, and we do not like to be in that situation, but we have to live within the allocation we have been given, both for the science vote and for our independent councils. We are in a very fortunate situation in having aspirations which far exceed what we can actually fund and it would be terrible if we were in the opposite situation. I could usefully use twice as much money as I have without a reduction in quality.

  Q376  Dr Turner: It is not made easier by the split in facilities between Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton, is there not a case—well, the case has been made—for unifying the science facilities on one site which would clearly have great immediate cost savings? How do you justify trying to maintain Daresbury at a competitive level in terms of science facilities when in fact there is serious doubt as to whether you have the resources to do so?

  Professor Mason: STFC is a national organisation. We need to make decisions which benefit UK plc in the best possible way. Some of the discussion that Evan was reading out earlier refers to exactly your point, in other words, how do you reduce the overheads and operate multiple sites to get the maximum out of them. The discussion did not come across in the way it should in the sense what we were doing initially in our discussions was saying, "Does STFC need to have its own facilities at all at Daresbury", or should we adopt the Cockcroft model where there is STFC investment directly but we do not own Cockcroft, the universities do. That is a new model for developing sites. As I have explained, the accommodations we were able to reach in terms of the profile of the settlement mean we do not have to go that far, but there is an element of new model both at Harwell and at Daresbury and we want to propagate the same thing to ATC where instead of having national laboratories with direct vote money going to maintain facilities they become partnerships with local authorities, with local authorities, with industry, the net result being you get more science out than you otherwise would. I think that is an exciting new model to pursue, one we are pursuing and one where I think, when we come back in five years' time, you will see Daresbury as a shining success story; I firmly believe that. There will be thousands of new jobs on the site, much more science going on.

  Chairman: Okay, Keith, we have got that message.

  Q377  Dr Turner: What is your rationale for the cost savings targets you set for various sites, Daresbury £6 million-odd, RAL £12 million, ATC nearly £4 million? What is the rationale behind those? Has there been a lot of expensive over-administration going on on those sites?

  Professor Mason: Not at all. This reflects a prioritisation of the programme elements we need to deliver. The question has been raised, so I will get to it, why the proportion of cuts is higher at Daresbury than it is at RAL. The answer is again very simple, we have Diamond and ISIS target station two and central laser facility and we have a lot of investment at RAL which we need to support, and clearly it would not make any sense to not to run ISIS or not to run Diamond. Therefore you have to maintain a certain cadre of people just to be able to do that. The structural imbalance between Daresbury and RAL in terms of facilities is, as I have said, something we inherited and I cannot re-write history, I have to deal with it as it is. My focus has been to move forward and clearly we are going to develop Harwell, it will be an exciting place, but Daresbury also has an exciting future and we are getting to grips with how to actually deliver that. As Peter says, we now have commitments to put the detector centre at Daresbury, and the Hartree computational centre at Daresbury, and we will continue to invest in Cockcroft. Those are an exciting scientific nucleus around which we can build. It is not sufficient but it is a good start.

  Mr Warry: Could I just say on these cut-backs, it is definitely wrong to say that we think there is a big lump of administration fat in these things. This is simply that we have to pare back our budget right across the piece and the facilities have to bear their share of it. So it is painful everywhere and it is not a statement, "This is good, that is bad."

  Q378  Dr Iddon: The message we got when we visited Daresbury a few days ago was that it was the critical mass of scientists, engineers, the fact there is a world class library open at Daresbury which we understand is in danger of closing also, and it was that critical mass which existed on that site which attracted so many world class scientists, including the director of the Cockcroft Institute who we heard earlier, and that in turn has pulled in companies to interact with that critical mass. I cannot believe that that critical mass is going to remain from what I have heard from both sides of the discussion, yourselves and the people on the Daresbury site. What assurances can you give to the director of the Cockcroft Institute that there will be enough critical mass left on the site for him to remain on the site with the Cockcroft Institute?

  Professor Mason: In terms of Cockcroft, I believe it is true that the funding of Cockcroft will continue at broadly the same level as it has been in the past. We will not be able to ramp it up as we had hoped with some programmes but it will continue as we have in the past. I think inevitably, with the loss of SRS, there will be a period where the mass, whether it is critical or not, actually goes down. That is inevitable. What we are focusing on is how to ramp that back up as quickly as possible in order to make sure that I can say in five years' time we do have the vision which I have for Daresbury, which is thousands more jobs, much more excitement, much more activity going on, both in science and technology and in translational activities. I think they all go together and we are working towards that end. As I said, we have already announced the first set of—

  Q379  Chairman: Yes, you have said that.

  Professor Mason: There will be more.

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