Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2008
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
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,
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
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
Q105 Dr Gibson: I know that, I am
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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