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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  Q100  Graham Stringer: Professor Delpy, Europe in terms of the Framework 7 Programme has got an energy theme now. How valuable are those funds that British scientists can bid for to promoting renewable energy research in the UK?

  Professor Delpy: I would say that most of the SUPERGEN consortia, where there has been an appropriate EU programme, have in fact both applied to it and in many instances been successful in doing that. What the Research Council is trying to do to encourage that is also provide some additional small amounts of funding for travel and subsistence enabling the academics in those groups to identify the partners in the rest of Europe that they wish to partner with in these schemes. I would say the EU funding is certainly something that all the Research Councils would support their academics in bidding for. There is a question, of course, of it being slightly less attractive financially to the universities because the overhead component that is returned on EU funding is less than we are now paying at 80% of full economic cost.

  Q101  Dr Iddon: So there is some co-ordination in making those bids against the energy theme?

  Professor Delpy: There is and it is through the consortia, it is not an attempt at a top-down level to identify a particular European programme and say, "As UK plc we should be bidding for this". In the end these programmes work by identifying the best people in Europe and the best people in the UK to work together, so it has really got to be driven from the bottom up but we have got to provide that lubrication which enables these consortia to pull together and obviously put in the most attractive bid.

  Q102  Chairman: Can I just continue on this theme with you, Professor Delpy. The Research Councils decided as one of their main themes they are going to have an energy programme. What made you decide on that?

  Professor Delpy: Apart from the obvious one that energy, and sustainable energy in particular, has risen up the agenda and has been on the roadmap of most of the Research Councils for probably the last ten to 20 years in one guise or another. This is an area that has been obvious to the researchers in universities, it has come up in all of the international programmes that other countries have identified for the future. It is a case of being an obvious problem that we have to tackle in a more coherent way than we were previously.

  Q103  Dr Gibson: What was the tipping point in that then? There was a time when wave power and tidal power meant damn all and there were cuts, cuts, cuts, I remember it well in my time. What made it happen? Was it a political gesture, decision?

  Professor Delpy: It is difficult to identify a single point and I suspect you all have your own views on it. I think there was a point at which it became obvious that our consumption of oil and coal resources was exceeding our supply.

  Q104  Dr Gibson: It was not that the miners were stuffed, was it?

  Professor Delpy: No, I do not think it was. I am not going to get into an argument about the miners.

  Q105  Dr Gibson: I know that, I am just asking.

  Professor Delpy: I do not think it was that because it was a combination both of awareness of resource limitation plus the environmental effects of the use of carbon based energy sources. It was a combination of the two. Most politicians would have become aware when it became something that their constituents started to raise with them.

  Q106  Chairman: The Research Councils now have a joint Energy Programme but individual Research Councils are continuing to have all the other programmes they had before. How do you decide whether money comes from the combined Research Councils' Energy Programme to individual research bids or whether it comes from your own Research Council? How does that work?

  Professor Delpy: First of all, the Cross-Council Energy Programme is one that has been arrived at by careful consultation between the individuals within the Research Councils to discover what elements of their research they would like to form part of that Cross-Council Programme. EPSRC have taken on the responsibility for managing that programme, so the programme is co-ordinated through one Research Council, and the same is true of the other Cross-Council Programmes. To avoid having a distributed control we have a single Research Council taking responsibility for that. I would say the vast majority of the research in energy is being channelled through these Cross-Council Programmes. There is always work which will be funded through the responsive mode blue skies activities that all the Research Councils do because where do you define the boundary between a piece of research that relates to energy or a piece of research that in my area would be classified as materials based activity. There is a blurring of boundaries between materials and nanotechnology. Where does solar PV or photovoltaics become an energy problem as opposed to a narrow science problem or a problem of crystalline versus amorphous materials. There is not a sharp boundary so we are happy to take responsive mode projects, look at them and if they fit into the Cross-Council Energy Programme we will fund them via that mechanism, the academic does not have to worry where the problem they are actually tackling lies.

  Q107  Chairman: So it is just another layer of bureaucracy really?

  Professor Delpy: It is not a level of bureaucracy.

  Q108  Chairman: It makes you feel better that it has all been pulled together?

  Professor Delpy: Not just feel better, but I hope we are actually doing it better and in a more co-ordinated way than previously—

  Q109  Chairman: What shred of evidence is there to say that is happening compared with our European rivals? We are talking about being pretty near the bottom of the league in renewable electricity generation technologies. Why is this going to make a difference?

  Professor Delpy: First of all, the very fact that it has been identified as a major Cross-Council Programme has raised its visibility within the academic sector anyhow. We have put in place investments to increase the number of staff that are working in those areas through our S&I Awards and through using targeted doctoral training funding. By pulling it together and identifying it as a stream of activity that all the Research Councils are buying into, it has raised its visibility within the academic community and, therefore, I would say it has had a significant effect on the way that all researchers in universities view the energy research spectrum.

  Q110  Chairman: My colleague, Ian Cawsey, earlier made a very, very pertinent point to the first panel which was about planning, that the capacity, if you like, is there but we cannot actually get it built because of planning. As part of this Research Councils' Energy Programme, how much effort is going in, for instance, through the social sciences to look at changing the behaviours of what are the problems in terms of behaviours of local people which, in fact, are significantly affecting our ability probably more than, with respect, your own Research Council?

  Professor Delpy: Yes. Certainly in terms of short-term take-up I would agree. ESRC are a major partner in this and in terms of the SUPERGEN consortia there are those who are looking at this whole question of the public acceptance of renewable energy. I seem to remember ESRC recently produced a report on Beyond Nimbyism. ESRC and as the social aspect of acceptance of renewable technologies, is certainly a key component in the Cross-Council Energy Programme. It is not just engineering and physics.

  Chairman: I am glad to hear that.

  Q111  Mr Cawsey: Obviously it goes without saying that skills is an important issue for this Committee, so what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the UK skills base can support the needs of the renewable energy sector?

  Mrs Rhodes: Clearly there are skills throughout the chain, if you like, all the way from research skills through to installation skills, building the equipment, a complete range of skills. Skills in this sector are very significantly an issue. We have done some work particularly around what the skills base is looking like, particularly in terms of production capacity. We have very much an ageing workforce. We have a new set of industries being developed here and we do not see the throughput in terms of the people coming through the education system and the training system in order to deliver those jobs and capabilities. I know that the Sector Skills Council is looking at a national skills academy in the environmental industries area and we are part of discussing that with them. We feel that pushes are needed to ensure that we have the skills to develop a 20% energy target and all those other targets.

  Professor Delpy: Obviously from the research point of view it does take time to build up a base of high quality researchers in an area where perhaps there were not as many people working as before. What EPSRC have done is use their Science and Innovation Awards to fund certainly two programmes I am aware of, one in Cardiff and one in Strathclyde, which will add both new permanent academic staff and kick-start the research with researchers and PhD students. We have put in place a series of training programmes, an engineering doctorate programme, some doctoral training centres, to try to build up the supply of researchers and of highly trained both masters and doctoral level students who can then go out into the industry as the need for them increases, and I think will continue to increase dramatically. We are aware that there is a supply problem and we are trying to address that first because you cannot get high quality research unless you have got high quality researchers there first.

  Q112  Mr Cawsey: The Institute of Physics raised concerns regarding the provision of MSc courses and PhD opportunities in renewable energy technologies and suggested that the shortage of opportunities could be "partly due to the difficulty of obtaining funding for interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research topics" and called for "a more flexible approach from funding bodies". How would you respond to their concerns?

  Professor Delpy: The way that we are doing it, if you look at the EPSRC's delivery plan, and I think it would be fair to say most of this falls into the EPSRC area, is first of all we have identified strategic themes, and obviously energy is one of them. To a much greater extent during the next period we will be targeting some of our training specifically into those strategically important areas. We will be using signposting to a much greater degree to ask the universities to give the flexibility we give them through their doctoral training accounts and collaborative training accounts which fund masters and post-doctorate student activities to target those in a much greater way. We are going to be linking our doctoral training centres and we have been putting more funding through doctoral training centres where we will bring a critical mass of students together around the major thematic areas of support, and energy is one of them. We are trying to link training and the strategic areas together in a much more coherent way than in the past. In the past, I think it would be true to say that areas of research importance have not necessarily been linked to training in those areas.

  Q113  Mr Cawsey: Given the timescales in which we are required to improve our renewable output and technologies and the time you have pleaded for to develop the training and skills base, are we inevitably heading towards some sort of black hole between those two inconsistent timetables that you are working to?

  Professor Delpy: In certain areas it could happen. One of the problems is we are covering a very broad range of technologies and you are never quite sure which one, because it is basic research, is going to be a winner. If one does take off to a greater degree than we had expected, there could be a shortage. One of the ways of getting around that is we are working very closely with both the ETI and TSB, so for areas which do appear to hold real promise we can in fact combine the funding from ETI and TSB, together with ourselves, to really pump-prime those activities. I am hoping that by working closely with those other funding agencies that you mentioned right at the start we can fill what potentially could be gaps. Obviously we have a fixed budget and we have largely decided on our allocations and there is often very little free money if in a year or so's time something suddenly appears on the horizon.

  Q114  Chairman: Just as an aside to Ian's question, are you worried in terms of your own Research Council about the cuts that STFC are making to the physics grant budget? Do you think that will impact on the capacity of university departments to be able to not only develop good teaching programmes but actually have the academics there to attract the groups of students that Ian Cawsey has identified that you need?

  Professor Delpy: Obviously STFC have made decisions over where they will make their cuts.

  Q115  Chairman: Where are they?

  Professor Delpy: They are largely cutting some funding in two areas which I mentioned earlier, particle physics and astronomy. Physics departments as a whole get an enormous amount of funding from other areas and from ourselves. I think our figure is somewhere around about £180 million per year going into physics departments or physics related research. My concern over this whole problem has been the message has gone out that physics departments are going to be drastically cut and if you look at the level of funding we are talking about an 80 million shortfall in probably over £2 billion. That is not true. Certain areas of physics are being hit.

  Q116  Chairman: It will not affect the capacity?

  Professor Delpy: It will not alter our capacity but it may turn school kids off wanting to do physics because I think the message has incorrectly gone out that physics as a whole is being affected whereas I would say it is only a very small component of physics.

  Chairman: I just wanted to get that in while you were here.

  Q117  Dr Turner: Can I first of all ask you about your capital grants, Sarah. Now that we have got the Energy Technology Institute obviously there are going to be differences in the way things happen. I want to establish first of all the actual place in the process of your capital grants programme. Am I right in understanding that it will in future be targeted on, if you like, proof of concept demonstrators, pre-commercial scale demonstrators, but after the basic research, so it is fitting there?

  Mrs Rhodes: Yes.

  Q118  Dr Turner: Am I correct?

  Mrs Rhodes: Yes. In fact, it always has been. Broadly, there are different areas of innovation and we have always been focusing our capital grants on pre-commercial demonstration.

  Q119  Dr Turner: Do you propose to make the administration and application process a little simpler and a little easier for applicants?

  Mrs Rhodes: Let me talk—

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