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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 397)



  Q380  Mr Cawsey: Professor Mason, when you appeared in front of this Committee earlier in this inquiry you told us that the decision to withdraw funding from ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities was a decision taken by PPARC and that the STFC was simply implementing it now. In fact we understand the decision was to close the facilities but to maintain a capacity for ground-based STP. Would you accept that with the benefit of hindsight your earlier comments were perhaps misleading?

  Professor Mason: I think they were spot on. PPARC two years ago made the decision to withdraw from ground-based STP facilities, but as in all cases that does not mean we will not accept grant applications in those areas and they will be judged on their merits. The point was made earlier, I think by Evan, did we suddenly pull the plug on these people or did we consult with them and give them time to find a new way forward? Given the decision was made two years ago—actually it was made before I took over as CEO—I can nevertheless remember going to a community meeting of that community and telling them exactly why that decision had been made, because they were not being competitive in peer review and advising that they needed to seek a broader base.

  Q381  Mr Cawsey: Are you saying therefore that you agree with the original PPARC decision but you want to maintain a capacity for ground-based STP?

  Professor Mason: Personally I think that would be a very welcome thing to do because ground-based STP has a role to play, but in a much broader arena than just STFC science. I think the way forward for STP, and I will say it quite clearly, is that they need to be developing a broader base, so we have mechanisms for dealing with broad cases but they need to come forward with that case, and that will receive a sympathetic hearing.

  Q382  Dr Harris: I did not understand your answer to Ian Cawsey because the decision and the outcome of the programmatic review paper published in April 2006 was, "Although PPARC wishes to maintain a capacity in ground-based STP, it has become necessary to close some of the facilities", and your latest plan says you are going to withdraw from all. There is a difference between "some" and "all", is there not?

  Professor Mason: There certainly is but the two are not incompatible.

  Dr Harris: This will be interesting!

  Q383  Chairman: This is very strange science to us!

  Professor Mason: Welcome to my world, is all I can say.

  Q384  Chairman: Right.

  Professor Mason: The thing is, we could not withdraw from EISCAT because we had just recently entered into a five-year commitment, as has been indicated earlier. So essentially the PPARC statement was meant to reflect the fact we would withdraw when we could without breaking international agreements. We remain in EISCAT for another three years.

  Q385  Dr Harris: You are just reading in words. It does not say that.

  Professor Mason: I am telling you what the situation is, which is that the plan was to roll down at these facilities but maintaining our international agreements, and we have done, and we continue to do that because we are still in EISCAT.

  Q386  Mr Cawsey: There have been some criticisms anyway about the way in which PPARC decisions have moved across to STFC because you work under very different remits, as I understand it. What have you done since you set up as your organisation to actually review those decisions as they are going to apply in the future but under the remit you now have?

  Professor Mason: In the specific case of STP, the remit has not changed and, as I said, my advice to that community is that they should be making applications against a broader remit than either PPARC or STFC, but the remit in terms of STP is the same as it was under PPARC. The general point is that one of the main jobs of our Science Strategy Board, the Science Board, is to do exactly that and to be continually reviewing the rationale and the case for the decisions which have been made and will be made in the future, and that is what they did in the context of the ground-based STP. Basically their conclusion was that the situation is the same as it was two years ago and in the financial circumstances they could not see a case for reversing those decisions.

  Q387  Mr Cawsey: You no doubt saw the comments of the director of EISCAT who said, "It is not at all clear that any changes have been made to the STFC interpretation of the programmatic review to ensure that the economic impact of projects like EISCAT are genuinely given more weight than they were in the PPARC regime."

  Professor Mason: That is correct because our remit has not changed and my message—

  Q388  Mr Cawsey: So you think his understanding of what your remit is is probably wrong?

  Professor Mason: It might well be. I cannot obviously vouch for his understanding. What I am saying, and I want to say quite clearly, is that I believe the remit for ground-based STP is broader than STFC and that the community should take note of that and formulate its applications accordingly. If they did that, it would have a much better impact and much more likelihood they would be funded.

  Q389  Dr Turner: We understand that ATC is likely to lose a contract to build an instrument for Gemini. Would you accept that the uncertainty surrounding our participation in Gemini has led to more consequences than simply for astronomers directly using the instrument?

  Professor Mason: Gemini, as all these things are, is a complex situation. I think there is a lot of misinformation going around about Gemini which I can explain to you if you wish but it probably is not relevant. The issue that we were dealing with in Gemini is that when we originally signed up to the Gemini partnership the intention was that both the operation, the current facilities, and the development of new facilities would be paid for out of that subscription budget. Subsequently, it has been decided by the Gemini Board that they cannot afford to do that within that subscription so they are looking for extra contributions to build the next generation of instrumentation. Our current agreement is to remain in Gemini until 2012 but the new instrumentation will not come on-line until 2014-2015, so there is an urgent need for us in the UK in particular to decide what our long-term future in Gemini is so we are not building instruments we will never use. This whole Gemini discussion really revolves around the need to have a clear understanding with the Gemini Board about what our long-term engagement with Gemini will be. Yes, there has been a lot of hoo-ha about what our intention was, there was a misinterpretation by the Gemini Board who thought we were withdrawing immediately, which was not our intention, that has created a lot of uncertainty, but we have been working behind the scenes to rectify that and I think we are getting back on track. I think we have to have a serious discussion as to whether this particular instrument forms a future part of Gemini and, if it does, then maybe there will be work for the ATC which will be very welcome and we will certainly be pushing for that. But it is part of a longer term strategic decision about how the future of ground-based astronomy evolves, recognising we do have access in particular to other northern telescopes coming along—Subaru and GranTeCan in La Palma—so we need to have a joined-up picture of what provision we need and how we should invest in it. It is a zero sum game—if we take money from one, we cannot give it to another—and it is very important we have a long-term plan to inform our strategy going forward, and that is what we are doing.

  Q390  Dr Turner: Finally, can you clarify your fairly abrupt decision to withdraw funding from the International Linear Collider, when that had been funded on the basis of peer review but the decision to withdraw was not? How do you justify this? Was it in fact a response to the American withdrawal of funding?

  Professor Mason: No, we made our announcement two weeks before the American decision and it was completely independent. It is not true to say that was an abrupt decision. We had been having discussions within the old PPARC science committee about the balance of funding which was required for ILC compared to the second generation of LHC instrumentation—large hadron collider—at CERN. We had started the ILC programme, and even though it was labelled ILC actually it was generic accelerator and detector development, so generic developments. We were now at a point where the ILC project was wanting to move forward to specific ILC instrumentation and to ramp up those costs, and it was clear to us for a long time and to our peer review bodies that under a flat cash regime we could not afford to do both that and to invest in LHC. So the decision was not made overnight, it was not made rapidly, but it was informed by considerable discussion over many months, even years, about the direction of this programme and whether it was sustainable. As you know, one of the issues which concerned us greatly was the fact that the cost of the ILC was rising, the timescale was stretching, we were in danger of threatening the future of particle physics essentially by putting all our eggs into a basket which might never deliver chicks.

  Q391  Chairman: That is an interesting metaphor. You told us previous, Keith, that delaying the implementation of the delivery plan was not an option. We now seem to have had a slight change in terms of Gemini. The Wakeham Review you said you could not wait for, but we now understand—and perhaps you would confirm this—the Wakeham Review is not going to report in the autumn but probably June or July. Given the fact also that you have something like a £27 million under-spend on your budget this year, surely simply waiting for the Wakeham Review to come in will send out a very strong signal that you are seriously looking at the future of STFC and its programmes in the light of the future of the physics and particle physics community? Surely that is the least perhaps we could get out of this morning's session?

  Professor Mason: We are waiting for Wakeham, in the sense that, as I have indicated, we are not doing damage to physics in the first year; what we have decided to do is not to fund the increase that we had previously planned. So I stand by what I have said earlier, we had to take that decision because had we funded that increase we were committed to that for five years, so that would have made any further adjustments downstream much more painful than they will be. In terms of waiting for Wakeham, we are not going to be doing irrevocable damage to physics departments in the time between now and when Wakeham reports, and we will certainly look at the outcome of Wakeham to inform how we take this process forward. The comment I made earlier was reflecting the fact that we will not get any more money in the Spending Review, is my understanding, so what we have is what we have got. All we can do is re-profile and play with it and that is what we are doing in order to maximise the amount of science we get in this period. The comment—and I think Ian Diamond made the same point—was that Wakeham is going to inform really the next Spending Review and we do not expect to receive manna from heaven to help us out in the short-term. We have to deal with that.

  Q392  Chairman: In terms of ATC, are discussions actively being carried out with Edinburgh University about an approach to that?

  Professor Mason: Yes.

  Q393  Chairman: Secondly, in terms of ground-based solar-terrestrial physics, are you in discussions with NERC about a possible solution long-term for that community?

  Professor Mason: We have had discussions with Alan Thorpe but, as I think I said in my letter to you, the mechanisms for dealing with the joint STFC-NERC applications are already in place, they have been in place for a number of years. The onus is on the community to come forward with a proposal.

  Chairman: I think that is a good message there. One very final point.

  Q394  Dr Harris: I thought Professor Holdaway had said you were on the case in negotiations with NERC. My question is about access charges for facilities, which is an option you have considered or at least floated. That would mean, particularly the MRC, or MRC-funded users, would pay a contribution. That would require a change of policy, and if it was applied to Diamond they would have to change their policy, but presumably the Government would agree, but that would be a way of sharing your pain. Have you asked for that or do you think it is a non-starter?

  Professor Mason: There are difficulties with the proposal. It has been tried, we had what was called the ticket system, where users, when they got time on a facility like Diamond, were given essentially a voucher that they gave to the operator of Diamond or ISIS, which was cashed into pound notes to run the facility. What was found when that system was tried was the problem is that running something like ISIS is a fixed cost, it is £X, and if you have £X minus £1 you cannot run it, or 10% less than £X you cannot run it, so you have to collect £X to run it. In order to collect £X basically you have to adjust the price of the ticket so it adds up to £X, so the number of tickets times the ticket price adds up to £X.

  Q395  Dr Harris: I understand.

  Professor Mason: So basically this is a very expensive administrative way of getting the number you first thought of. In other words, you have to track all these tickets all the way through different research councils just to come back with the number you knew from the outset.

  Q396  Dr Harris: But it would be new money in.

  Professor Mason: That is a good question, is it not? I predict that if we were to go to that system the first thing which would happen is it would be a transfer of money out of STFC to the other research councils so they could pay for STFC—

  Q397  Dr Harris: That would be sensible but if that did not happen, that would be an option. If RCUK or whoever makes these decisions says, "We think that is fair because you have these big facilities, they are being used a lot, other people have grants to increase their use of them, you are not seeing any benefit from that", that would be possible with political will.

  Professor Mason: That would be a dream solution as far as I am concerned, but I am sure the other research councils would say they do not have the money to pay that.

  Chairman: It is a dream solution but one we hope you will seriously look at. Could you send us a timetable for decision making and implementing cuts from now on, so the Committee can be kept accurately informed about what is happening as a result of the decisions you make? I think that would be useful.

  Ian Stewart: And a timetable for redundancies please.

  Chairman: Thank you. Finally, could I thank you very much indeed, Professor Mason and Mr Warry, we understand these are not easy decisions and we are grateful to you for your frankness this morning.

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