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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)


21 APRIL 2008

  Q340  Dr Harris: Looking forward, clearly the redevelopment is going to cost more than the original sum. Have Defra and DIUS agreed to pay their share of that increase in order to implement the Pirbright redevelopment programme or is that still an ongoing discussion?

  Ian Pearson: As a result of the review of biosecurity that has been taking place the project which was originally costed at 121 million will now cost more than that. Work is still going on to scope the additional cost that is going to be involved in this. As far as the BBSRC is concerned, as you will have seen in their response to the Beringer Report, they are prepared to commit long term funding for the redevelopment of the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright.

  Q341  Dr Harris: Somewhere I have read that they are prepared to fund 50 per cent of the increased cost. Where is the other 50 per cent going to come from for the redevelopment?

  Ian Pearson: We will have to have discussions in government to make sure that the project will deliver value for money.

  Q342  Chairman: I thought it was urgent that this was done?

  Ian Pearson: The project is continuing at the moment. There is a project board. As Lord Rooker has said, resources have already been committed to it. We do see this as being an urgent priority for us. Exactly what pockets some of the additional money comes out of will have to be decided between us but the project will go ahead. It will be a mixture of funding from Defra, the BBSRC and its own capital resources and it will be a mixture of funding from the large facilities capital fund. We are not in a position to say exactly what those levels will be at the moment.

  Q343  Chairman: When will it be decided?

  Ian Pearson: We hope to be able to make some decisions in principle on the Large Facilities Capital Fund project which has already had money earmarked to it back in 2005. It has gone through the road map process again, as you will be aware. We hope to be able to make decisions on that by probably the end of May. Obviously it will be up to the BBSRC as well to decide what capital it wants to provide for it and some decisions will need to be taken by Defra. I do not think there is any doubt from all those who were involved in this project that we see this as being an important priority.

  Q344  Dr Harris: That is good to hear. In the Anderson Report, he made a suggestion that the IAH be transformed into what he named informally I suppose as the National Institute of Infectious Diseases to give the Institute of Animal Health a national name to reflect its importance nationally. Is that something you are attracted to and is any attraction you have to that associated with a merger between the VLA and the IAH? Does the government have a position on that proposition?

  Ian Pearson: I know the Anderson Report made that recommendation and also the Beringer Report talked about an Animal Health and Welfare Agency. My view on that is that it might be a bit premature at this stage, before we look at the overall costs of the project, to come to a firm conclusion about whether that will be the right, long term direction.

  Q345  Dr Harris: Do you mean the merger of the VLA and the IAH? Is that what you are talking about there?

  Ian Pearson: I think we are still considering some of the recommendations of the Anderson Report and a lot of this will be a matter for Defra.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: It is early days. We are happy to discuss this recommendation with colleagues but it might look administratively and managerially convenient. You have to accept that there is a variety of laboratories in the country and it is a good thing that we as government use laboratories that we do not always own and control ourselves. There are universities and the private sector laboratories as well. A lot of contracts are let. A simple merger with the IAH and the VLA, where the VLA is a wholly owned government laboratory, IAH is not. It is a fairly unique structure, as I mentioned earlier on, compared with a number of other laboratories in the UK. We are happy to discuss the Anderson recommendation with colleagues but it is not something we have drawn any firm conclusions on at the present time.

  Q346  Dr Harris: The Beringer Report made I think a very important proposal that does require a response and that was that you could not really have whatever you call this new entity, whether it had a national label or not—it did such important work and was so important to government, being responsible in answer to the Chairman's first question and as a customer—that it needed to have sustainable, core funding in a simple way. I see the term "single owner" used as well, but long term, sustainable core funding rather than relying on being successful in winning contracts for its core function. What is your reaction to that particular recommendation from Beringer?

  Ian Pearson: I agree with that and the BBSRC has already accepted that as a recommendation. There does need to be long term, sustainable funding. As the Beringer Report says as well, there are also government issues which need to be addressed, both in the short term and in the medium term. I am very keen as well that we respond to those.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: Obviously in the context of responding to Professor Anderson's report, we will give a view on that later in the year. On the other hand, I cannot recall which select committee I appeared before with the late Howard Dalton—I think it may have been this one or a modified version of it—when it was put to us that, because we were a customer and as a customer we provided more than 15 per cent of the funds of an institution, we should therefore be committing to long term, seed corn funding. That is an untenable proposition if that is the proposition that is still floating around. We do not accept that simply because we have to have the capacity to let contracts to a variety of institutions. Obviously it is in Defra's interest as well as in the country's, I might add, that Pirbright succeeds and grows and maintains its world class reference for the particular diseases. Our commitment of course is given as a huge chunk of our capital budget in there, but the question that underlines your question, if I can put it that way, is what we will seek to address when we address the Anderson Report. We will respond to it later in the year.

  Q347  Dr Harris: Beringer was very clear and I am going to read exactly what he said on this recommendation: "BBSRC and Defra must jointly provide long term, core funding to ensure the sustainability of the new national centre at Pirbright. We do not believe it appropriate to fund a national facility with statutory responsibilities primarily through the award of research grants and contracts." I understand that you—and partly Defra—award research grants and contracts. I do not blame you for doing that. It is the way some of these things work, but this is a clear line under that and a recommendation for the future. In a sense, history is history and, because of the sensitivity of this to the economy and the rural economy in particular, there is a specific recommendation. I got the impression you were relatively negative about that because you are a customer.

  Ian Pearson: Can we be very clear on this? Beringer talks about long term, core funding and core funding is the right distinction. It does not mean long term, total funding to the organisation. In any organisation like this, it will want to compete competitively for research funds and Defra will maybe want to make different decisions about the volumes of overall contracts that it wants to put this direction. The principle that long term, core funding needs to be provided to the organisation is one that is in Beringer, is one that I would support and certainly I know the BBSRC does.

  Q348  Chairman: There is a fundamental difference though between core funding of other organisations—we have obviously been talking recently about STFC's work in astronomy and particle physics—and animal health or human and animal pathogens which in fact can have the most devastating effects, as we have seen with foot and mouth, which we could also see in terms of human pathogens. What you are saying is that because you cannot agree with each other we are not likely to have the core funding issue sorted out for these important, national institutions, or am I misreading you?

  Ian Pearson: I am not saying that at all. You are misreading me. I am not sure how you can construe that from what I have said. I have said that it is important—

  Q349  Chairman: You seem to be committed but Defra do not. They do not seem to have any role in this at all.

  Ian Pearson: I am sure Jeff is as committed as I am to making sure that Pirbright has the funding that is required to maintain its strategic capability to conduct the world class work that it does.

  Q350  Dr Harris: It is not just the funding, is it? The specific recommendation was sustainable, long term, core funding which cannot be obtained through collecting up grants, awards and contracts.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: You may say I am being negative. My line is exactly the same as I gave when I came to the select committee before. We will respond to the Beringer recommendation, when we are discussing the response to Chris Anderson's report, later in the year. Let us get it clear. Defra have spent an enormous sum of money at Pirbright. This is not just the capital that we are spending on the laboratories on a site that we do not own and that we do not manage. It is done because it is vital. On exotic diseases in the last five years we have spent over £27 million. Half of that has been at Pirbright. £10 million has been spent in the last five years at Pirbright on foot and mouth research alone and yet it is a world reference laboratory for some ten diseases. I would not want to give the impression that we are not a funder. If the implication is that therefore we fund without an outcome, as someone that does not own or control the site, when we have other funding requirements, that is a major, major policy change.

  Q351  Chairman: The fundamental issue which I started this discussion with is about who pulls all this together as far as government is concerned. Whilst you are able to trade off amongst different departments, you will not get a resolution to those basic questions as to how we provide world class animal health and human health facilities. Do you accept that?

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I do accept that but, although you have a narrow remit on this particular inquiry, I ask you then to look at the consequences of that for science and other laboratories in the country where the same kind of contract relationship applies. In recent months, I have visited HRI, John Innes, IGER and Rothampstead, all of which we fund and are vital. We do not fund core funding. We have the Central Science Laboratory, where I will be later in the week, a Defra wholly owned laboratory inherited from the previous government to their undying credit, a major, international resource at York that cries out for more core funding in my view, and the VLA and CEFAS. You cannot separate this out just for the animal and human pathogens. You go for a policy change to say we have a set of laboratories that it is in our interests we keep. The implication is we keep them for ever, whatever they do, because of this core funding arrangement. Whatever innovation comes up in other areas, which may intervene and say, "Oh no, that money has gone for the core funding to protect this laboratory; we cannot help fund this area", this is an area where I am not qualified at all at the present time and nor do I have any authority whatsoever.

  Q352  Chairman: Do you have an opinion though?

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I have just given one.

  Q353  Dr Harris: I wanted to ask when you think this will be sorted out by government. I accept that it is not straightforward for Defra because it would be redefining its relationship with one particular organisation that it funds. People will argue it is important that it does so but what about the timescale for sorting this out?

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: We are not going to pass the buck. We are not going to leave it to the chief scientist to sort out. In our previous incarnation when I came with Howard, everyone has their own agenda. This has to be sorted out by ministers and government. The buck stops with us quite clearly. On the narrow issue of the recommendation that you have asked the question about, when we have a response to Professor Anderson's recommendation and his report later in the year, we will have to give an answer that any minister can legitimately come and defend to this Committee.

  Q354  Dr Harris: When will we know?

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I do not know what the timescale is. It says, "In the near future." We will be discussing these issues. We have only just had the review in March. We had several reports following the outbreak last year and we are learning the lessons. We have gone back to look at what happened in bovine TB as well but certainly with this outbreak it is fairly unique. We now have five or six reports. We have to take an overview of all these to make sure there is no conflict, that we get the right decisions on the finance and the accountability of that finance to Parliament.

  Q355  Dr Harris: Beringer went as far as saying if there is no prospect of agreeing by April 2009 the matter should be referred by referral through DIUS and Defra to the Cabinet Office. The BBSRC say it should be by December 2008.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I would not argue about a couple of months but the fact is if ministers cannot agree this would go to Cabinet.

  Ian Pearson: The Beringer Report only came out last week so it is not unreasonable for us to take some time in looking at the detail of the recommendations.

  Q356  Chairman: We will give you another week.

  Ian Pearson: I hope you are going to be talking about the governance of Pirbright as well.

  Q357  Dr Iddon: Is it generally considered that we have enough capacity in this country for research on dangerous pathogens?

  Ian Pearson: As I think Sir Leszek said to you when he appeared before the Committee, he felt that there was sufficient capacity for research that is presently envisaged by the Medical Research Council. One of the reasons why he has commissioned this report and research for the future is that we want to look at what the future requirement might be for containment level facilities. We mentioned that earlier and it is George Griffin who will be leading this work. I think he will be reporting within six months.

  Q358  Dr Iddon: The evidence that we have seen suggests that some of the category four laboratories at, for example, Pirbright itself and HPA Porton Down need quite a bit of money spending on maintenance, if not wholesale refurbishment. Are you aware of that and will funding be made available for that in the future?

  Ian Pearson: We are certainly aware that Pirbright needs money spending on it which is why, for a number of years, we have had plans for its redevelopment. As I said earlier, we are looking again at the costing of those plans in the light of the information that has been made available on biosecurity as a result of the reviews that have taken place. With regard to Porton Down, I would defer to Dawn.

  Dawn Primarolo: The Department funds the HPA by agreeing a core budget and grant in aid, although, to reinforce the point that was being made by Jeff, notwithstanding our ability also to contract with other laboratories' research. On the investments, the HPA have prepared a strategic plan for themselves about the future, 2008 to 2013. Part of that includes a strategic capital investment plan for Porton. The outline case has been submitted. It would come here to the Department of Health and those discussions are now taking place. Whilst of course facilities like Porton class four have very high maintenance costs—and so they should because it is about what they are containing and the work they are doing—the Department is moving on, going back to the review which the HPA is contributing to, about capacity of class four, what might be necessary in the future, whilst there is not a shortage at the moment, it is important to see that in the wider plans. I too have seen the facilities at Porton. They are still up to standard but we have to try and look forward here as your Committee is obviously encouraging us to do as well. That was already in train.

  Q359  Dr Iddon: Are you aware that there may not be any facilities in this country for carrying out a post mortem on a body which has been infected by a dangerous pathogen? Do you believe that to be true? If it is true, do you think we need such facilities?

  Dawn Primarolo: Certainly the discussions that I have been having with the HPA and their advice to me is to try as best we can to look forward and say, "What facilities might we need in terms of public health provisions?" That is what the strategic plan and the outline case is looking at. Whilst I have to admit I cannot immediately say on this point that the whole point of what they are doing is to address these issues about trying their best to look for the challenges that may occur, the capacities we have now and the important public health role, the transformation role that a facility like Porton can play in the development of important vaccines, that is all very much part of the discussion. That will have to be part of what is looked at in this wider, independent review which has been commissioned by MRC. Some of the other points that you are raising though we will need to take note of as we get to the point of receiving that independent review. As I understand it, it may be in the autumn.

  Ian Pearson: Can I make a broader point about what we do as a government to ensure the sustainability of the research base? As the Committee will be very well aware, the movement towards full economic costing that is taking place throughout the university sector is something that has been very much welcomed and has helped to upgrade and make more sustainable a number of university based research institutes. Also through the government we conduct a Research Council Institute and Public Sector Research Establishment sustainability study. That is conducted I think every couple of years. It looks right across the research institutes to ensure the long term sustainability of research, including the recovery of full economic costs. I think another study is due shortly. The evidence from the last one has been that overall improvements have been made when it comes to public sector research establishments and their sustainability, so the buildings are in better condition than they were previously. Have we got more to do? Yes, clearly we have got more to do and there are clearly priority areas where more needs to be done but we are certainly taking action in a number of those areas.

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