Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
MONDAY 16 MARCH 2009
Q180 Chairman: Just before we finish
this and I pass you on to Graham Stringer, in terms of the grant
letters to the research councils why do you think they are not
Professor Smith: I know that a
request has been put and is being considered at the moment by
the secretary of state so we will wait and see what comes from
the secretary of state.
Q181 Chairman: Do you have a view
on any of these things?
Professor Smith: Part of the view
is what I have just said. I have only been in the job for a period
which meant that I did not take part in the nitty-gritty of the
lead-up to the previous spending review. But I know that there
is a period in the process of discussion, bids, iterations around
bids, where a lot of the content you be regarded as commercial
in confidence in the sense that it affects various kinds of interactions
with all sorts of bodies.
Q182 Chairman: We understand that.
Professor Smith: In my view as
soon as that process is over the equivalent of, for example, the
letter that goes from HEFCE to the universities is the allocations
Q183 Chairman: That is the allocations
Professor Smith: Yes.
Chairman: Okay, thank you.
Q184 Graham Stringer: Professor Charles,
the Regional Studies Association told us that there should be
a regional science policy; what would it look like?
Professor Charles: The question
of what a regional science policy would look like depends on what
institutions the UK decided were needed in order to develop such
a thing. At the moment we have got a fairly ad hoc system whereby
the RDAs try to dabble around the edges in order to support investment
in certain areas of science which they think are relevant to their
particular needs. We have a very different situation in Scotland
where there is actually a science strategy for Scotland and the
Scottish Government has identified areas in which it wishes to
invest, which would complement that investment which might come
from a UK level. By and large there are not the institutions in
the regions of England that are effectively placed to identify
areas of strategic investment that might complement and strengthen
that which is coming through the competitive process, either through
the HEFCE QR system or from research councils. In many of these
regions there is no departmental government investment in science
so there is not a regional science policy, yet we see a number
of countries around the world, both federal countries and non-federal
countries, where there is significant investment in developing
the research base for the regions and in many cases there are
institutions which have developed either through devolution or
through other means in order to foster that. We do not have that
in this country.
Q185 Graham Stringer: That is very
interesting and it is not the answer I was expecting at all. What
you are saying is it is really a matter of government structure
and institutional structure and not a matter of resource allocation
on a spatial basis. Usually when people talk about regional policies
it is because there is this huge imbalance in investment in science
in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London and a much
sparser allocation of resources in the regions; are you not concerned
Professor Charles: In order to
address the issues of resource allocation you need to have mechanisms
that can allocate those resources effectively, and my argument
at the moment is that in order to have that effective allocation
you have to look at the institutions that would decide what that
should be. That could be central governmentif you take
the example of Finland, Finland has invested in centres of excellence
and centres of expertise across the regions in Finland, they have
a more decentralised approach, but it is done from central government
in consultation with stakeholders within those regions. In other
countries where there is a regional government that has its own
policy, its own strategy and makes its own investment and seeks
there to complement what might come from central government you
have a different kind of mechanism, but unless you get the mechanisms
right, unless you get institutions that can make sensible decisions
you just get a kind of ad hoc system which may not lead through
to effective resource allocation.
Q186 Graham Stringer: Is that an
implied criticism of the regional development agencies?
Professor Charles: I do not think
the regional development agencies have the history, the established
expertise or the resources to be really effective at this. Typically
an RDA will have maybe two or three people who have some knowledge
of science and innovation, broadly speaking. That is not a successful
base on which you can really look at a very significant support
for science. What we are talking about in other countries where
you have got a regional government or a state government, you
have a department for industry, science and innovation where you
have a team of people who are working in that area. Also, in a
federal system, typically those regional or state-level bodies
have their own departments with their own internal science investment,
they have their own R&D centres, they have their own scientific
advisers who can help them make those sorts of decisions. Without
that kind of base in the RDAs I cannot see how they can do the
same kind of job that, say, an Australian state, an American state,
Catalonia or a German land can do.
Q187 Graham Stringer: Professor Smith,
why have we found it so difficult to establish why there is a
scarcity of investment in science in the regions outside of the
big universities? Is it because there is an application of the
Haldane Principle as understood in the department that says we
do not interfere, or is it because you do interfere but you do
not like telling us about it?
Professor Smith: I have a picture
in front of me which looks across regions at research funding
normalised by population and, clearly, London and Cambridge act
as quite big magnets but I do not think actually that there is
this kind of famine level across the regions that you speak of.
The distribution is not as extreme.
Q188 Graham Stringer: Can I just
interrupt you. The genesis of this part of this inquiry came partly
from our visit to Daresbury which was limiting funds, and we were
told there that outside of the universities and national institutions
over 90% of government funding was going into the golden triangle,
which rather dissolves those figuresthough obviously if
you put Manchester and Newcastle Universities in you get different
figures. That is part of the concern and the Committee has been
told different things: one, that ministers will not interfere
with regional policy because it is in conflict with the Haldane
Principle, and at other times we have been told by ministers that
they will protect investment at places like Daresbury. Can you
explain it to us?
Professor Smith: The version of
the Haldane Principle that I think you quoted John Denham as referring
to earlier drew this separation between government having a role
in really major strategic decisionsfor example, if we are
going to build the world-beating medical research centre in St
Pancras that puts together a huge number of partners and massive
levels of investment that only government can negotiate in the
current situation. That is not the sameat the other end
of the scaleas interfering at a micro-level with decisions.
Looking in front of me, if you look at the rhetoric in and around
the golden triangle there are an enormous number of large facilities
located outside that golden trianglein Edinburgh, in Manchester,
in Durham, in Liverpool, in Nottingham. There is a slight exaggeration
of the picture, and if you look at the research investmentas
I say, I have a graph where there is a peak in London and some
in the East of England but there are considerable resources going
from the research councils across the regions.
Q189 Chairman: Could I interrupt
you there, Professor Smith, to say would it be possible for the
Committee to have this information because we do not have access
Professor Smith: If it would be
Q190 Graham Stringer: Could you also
give us that information in the way it was given to us at Daresbury,
that disaggregates the research carried on in universities from
that carried on in other centres?
Professor Smith: You might have
to communicate to me more precisely what you were given and I
will try and replicate it.
Q191 Chairman: Yes, we will. I am
desperately trying to move on. Nick, very quickly.
Mr Dusic: What Graham Stringer
said about Daresbury where there are different signals given from
ministers about the guidance given to research councils regarding
it, that is why we put in the request under the freedom of information
to get the science budget allocation letters to the research councils
so there is a bit more guidance about what ministers are telling
Q192 Chairman: But you are being
told the allocation booklet gives you all that information.
Mr Dusic: I would be interested
to see the letters to see if that is the case.
Q193 Chairman: You do not feel that
that is sufficient.
Mr Dusic: The science budget allocation
booklet gives us the high-level commitments for the different
Q194 Chairman: But not the rationale.
Mr Dusic: Not the rationale. I
think the letters would provide some more information which would
Q195 Chairman: Can you understand
why this Committee has been denied that information?
Mr Dusic: We have been denied
it too; I do not understand it.
Q196 Dr Harris: Professor Smith,
do you accept the distinction between the allocations booklet
and the letter?
Professor Smith: I thought I had
tried earlier to explain that the interchanges of letters that
lead up to that involve matters which are toosensitive to be in
the public domain.
Q197 Dr Harris: Do not repeat that,
but some months later there is the final allocation letter a la
HEFCE, do you accept that that is different from the allocations
booklet as Mr Dusic has just said? If you do, why is it that months
later that is not available like it is for HEFCE?
Professor Smith: I think I said
it earlier: the allocations booklet would be the equivalent of
the final letter that is sent out to HEFCE, which is the final
picture once all the dust has settled in and around the discussions
Chairman: All right, we are not going
to get anything more from you on that.
Q198 Mr Boswell: Professor Smith,
just a final question and then perhaps something to the panel
in the light of what you say. The Government's debate on strategic
science policy is now under way; is this specifically and explicitly
going to consider regional factors?
Professor Smith: That debate could
well have a regional dimension. Take a specific example: if we
up the ante on something which has already been launched through
the ETI of offshore power generation of various kindsmarine
technology for exampleif we are going into that in a big
way it inevitably has a geographic location element to it.
Q199 Mr Boswell: It is a derived
consequence rather than a conscious allocation.
Professor Smith: It is a derived
consequence. You do not start saying "can we put something
around the coast?"