Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008
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
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 agoactually
it was made before I took over as CEOI 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
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
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!
This is very strange science to us!
Professor Mason: Welcome to my
world, is all I can say.
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
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
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
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
alongSubaru and GranTeCan in La Palmaso 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 gameif we take
money from one, we cannot give it to anotherand 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 instrumentationlarge
hadron colliderat 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.
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 understandand perhaps you would confirm thisthe
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 commentand I think Ian Diamond
made the same pointwas 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.
In terms of ATC, are discussions actively being carried out with
Edinburgh University about an approach to that?
Professor Mason: Yes.
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:
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
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
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.