The work of the UK research councils - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (RCUK 01)


  Following your letter of 20 October regarding our latest annual report, please find responses to your queries below.

1.   In April 2008 EPSRC created a Business Innovation Directorate to improve our awareness and connectivity with user organisations and other key stakeholders. What arrangements have been put in place to establish the needs of business and what views has business conveyed to EPSRC about the effectiveness of the arrangements and what changes has EPSRC made as a result?

Businesses engaged with us are very positive about us and the advantages of our approach: our flexibility; the quality of our processes and staff; and our knowledge of the academic community are the most commonly cited benefits.

As part of the 2008 organisational restructuring our user-facing sector teams were changed, as a result of feedback from our key business contacts and other business sponsors. They are now focused on eight priority sectors and on cross-cutting themes of interest to more than one sector. We concentrate our efforts on understanding users' research, training and other needs; feeding these needs into EPSRC strategy and decision making; and facilitating engagement between user organisations and academia.

  Key to delivering these objectives is our Strategic Partnership strategy, which focuses our engagement with around 45 user organisations. In 2008 we introduced an annual Strategic Partners meeting to engage in dialogue with them on major issues of mutual interest. As a result of the first event we developed best practice regarding strategic partnerships and we are currently carrying out an evaluation to ensure that these relationships are delivering what users need. The findings and our response will be presented at the second event in November.

  The number of users in peer review has been increased and we will be seeking to maintain this level of involvement in our new "College" of peers from January 2010. We have made our key business contacts more aware of forthcoming collaborative activities by publishing a forward plan of Calls for proposals and have recently started to send a copy of our grant announcement letter to named collaborators on successful proposals. These initiatives have received positive feedback.

  As part of our Doctoral Training Awards, we have set targets from October 2009 for 10% of the DTAs to be converted to Industrial CASE Awards to encourage a higher level of collaboration between the research base and business. In December 2008, we made an investment of over £250 million to establish 44 new Centres for Doctoral Training—including 19 new Industrial Centres for Doctoral Training—which will provide over 2,000 new PhD places over the next five years. We have also awarded some 280 Industrial CASE awards to business during 2009.

  We also have our long standing User Panel (UP) which provides high level strategic advice on research needs and the value of our research and training programmes. UP members are prominent individuals drawn from our user sectors, including industry, commerce, government and education.

2.   When will the operation of Knowledge Skills Accounts be reviewed and evaluated?

  Twelve EPSRC Knowledge Transfer (rather than Skills) Accounts (KTA) and 13 EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Secondments (KTS) grants started 1 October 2009. The KTAs will receive £44 million of funding over the next three years. The KTSs will receive £11 million over the same period. EPSRC funding of these will help to ensure that, where it produces results which might benefit the UK economy and society, the research we fund is fully exploited in a timely manner.

We will monitor the operation of the KTAs to ensure that they maintain a clear focus on the scheme's aims. This will be carried out within a framework which reflects the wide scope of the KTAs' potential activities. While the difficulties of "measuring" the impact of basic research are well-recorded, the KTAs will be expected to monitor their performance against specific targets where appropriate. Given the broad aims of the scheme we will also be looking for deeper evidence of culture change in HEls as well as a step-change in research exploitation.

  As well as our regular attendance at management or steering-group level meetings we will require reports containing evidence of the KTA benefits. We expect the reports to emphasise the outcomes of their funding, rather than just record the activities or outputs.

  As KTS grants will be used solely to support secondments of researchers between user organisations and HEIs, their reporting arrangements are simpler than those for the KTAs. The grant holders will be expected to return a record of the secondments they have supported. We will also be actively monitoring the outcomes of the secondments, looking, for example, for case studies or narratives which can demonstrate the value that UK businesses place on their collaborations with UK HEIs.

3.   The table on page 45 of the Annual Report shows research grant proposals considered and funded. The success rate shows a wide disparity in the success rates of fields of research. The top three were healthcare, nanoscience and energy. Why were these areas more successful than others? To what extent did statements by ministers placing emphasis on areas such as healthcare influence the Council's deliberations and assessments?

  The figures in the table on page 45 of the Annual report for energy, towards next generation healthcare and nanoscience refer to highly managed programmes which usually have an outline, expression of interest or other review stage before final proposals are assessed. The earlier assessment stages are not included in this data; this gives the impression of higher overall success rates than for other programmes which generally fund grant proposals through routes that do not involve initial review stages.

EPSRC, in common with all Research Councils, has a Delivery Plan which incorporates strategic objectives and which are agreed with Ministers after each spending review.

4.   Why did the number of students supported by Collaborative Schemes fall in 2009?

  The numbers of students funded via Collaborative Training Accounts (CTA)/CASE for New Academics are decreasing as these schemes are ramping down with a consequent redistribution of resources into KTAs, KTSs and the portfolio of new Centres for Doctoral Training.

The portfolio of existing EngD Centres has been refreshed and renewed during the course of 2009. Once these Centres are fully up and running some 800 or so Research Engineers will be supported.

  The funding for Industrial CASE was flat in the period 2006-08 which caused a slight dip in the numbers of students in post each year due to the increase in the actual cost of each studentship every year. However, additional funding was made available in 2009-10 (approx. 18 more studentships made available in 2009 than in 2008) so the numbers will rise again in subsequent years.

  The Industrial CASE data for 2009 was also incomplete at the time of publication. Due to the flexible nature of the funding, students can be appointed over an extended period. A reanalysis of the data shows that 612 industrial CASE students were being supported as of 31 March 2009. In addition, a substantial fraction of the Industrial CASE funding is allocated to larger companies over a three year timeframe. Hence, there are year on year variations in the precise number of students in post by 31 March each year.

The figures in question [from page 51 of the Annual Report] are:

20072008 20092009 (adjusted)
Collaborative Research Student (CTA)164 208174174
CASE for New Academics (CNA)228 246186186
Engineering Doctorate—Research Engineer 525542520 520
Industrial CASE Student666 592507612
Total1,583 1,5881,387 1,492

The figures in italics take into account the reanalysis of the Industrial CASE student data for 2009.

5.  (a)   At what percentage of its full capacity is the HECToR being used? (b)  If it were operating at full capacity, what would be its revenue budget? (c)  How much revenue support does EPSRC provide to HECToR?

  (a)  The HECToR system, over the period January 2009 to September 2009, has operated at a time averaged system utilization of 60%. HECToR's Critical Success Factors (CSFs) is set between 60-75% of system usage, reflecting a need to effect an appropriate level of utilization to produce a positive return on investment (over other options explored) whilst ensuring acceptable turnaround times for a varying and non-uniform workload (in number of jobs and complexity respectively).

(b)  Taking into account agreed changes in the staffing profile over the contract duration, staffing levels are independent of utilisation. The cost of the service staffing is approximately £4 million per annum (excluding VAT) which supports 20 FTE nationally.

  The only variable service cost related to utilisation is the electricity which is approximately £1.2 million per annum (excluding VAT) when operating at full capacity. Even so, this has been shown to vary marginally with respect to percentage utility even outside of the CSF levels given above. This item is affected more by how individual jobs stress the system and seasonal variation effecting system cooling overheads.

  The overall annual operational cost is approximately £5.2 million (excluding VAT).

  (c)  EPSRC provides 73% of all operating costs for HECToR, NERC supports 22% and BBSRC supports 5%. Capital funding is provided by the Councils alongside a contribution from the Large Facilities Capital Fund.

6.   What problems have Programme Assurance Visits identified in 2008-09 and 2009-10?

  Programme Assurance Visits are a cross-council activity. In order not to duplicate information, BBSRC will provide a response to this question on behalf of all the research councils.

7.   Why did the number of staff increase between 2007-08 and 2008-09?

There was an increase of 11 in the average number of staff employed by EPSRC between 2008 and 2009. The increases were principally in the RCUK Strategy Unit, hosted by EPSRC, where responsibility for the Science in Society team (approximately six people) transferred from ESRC during the year, in Research Council staff working in the project team implementing the Shared Services Centre (an increase of two) where EPSRC is also the host on behalf of all Councils, and the creation of an RCUK Office in Washington (two people).

8.   What proportion of invoices in September was paid within 10 days?

The total number of commercial invoices paid in September 2009 was 579. The proportion of invoices in this month paid within 10 days is 50.9%.

9.   The Committee requests a note setting out the level of End Year Flexibility the Council could call upon at the start of the year 2008-09, the amount drawn down during the year and the balance carried forward at the end of the year.
Total DEL
Revised EYF 1 April 2008-0.661
2008-09 adjusted published allocations 792.057
2008-09 provisional outturn770.444
2008-09 under/(over)spend21.613
EYF 1 April 200920.952

10.   The Committee requests a note on EPSRC's public engagement activities in synthetic biology (jointly carried out with BBSRC) (page 11).

Please find a note attached.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

October 2009



  Doug Kell (CEO of BBSRC) and I both agreed that while the area of synthetic biology has great potential to influence, shape and dominate a wide range of research areas in the future it also has the potential to raise some major ethical and societal issues. We also recognised that, at present, synthetic biology is not yet clearly understood or accepted in the public consciousness. Indeed the science is still very much in its infancy (certainly in the UK). This therefore provided a unique opportunity to begin a dialogue process with the public in parallel as a new and exciting area of science emerges. It is hoped that by engaging the public early in this way we can avoid some of the problems and issues encountered by the GM debate where the public entered into the debate too late. We therefore concluded that the timing was right for both of our research councils to work together, in conjunction with other interested parties, in taking forward a substantive public dialogue exercise.

EPSRC and BBSRC, with joint funding from Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre, have now commissioned the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) to conduct such a public dialogue. This dialogue will help frame the issues and promote discussion. This will help the Research Councils and others to ensure that future policies better reflect the views, concerns and aspirations of the public. We regard this as being the start and the basis for an ongoing public engagement process involving not just the research councils.

The dialogue will begin shortly and is expected to report its outcomes during the summer 2010.

  The aims and objectives of the dialogue are as follows:


  To allow the diverse perspectives of a range of UK residents to be articulated clearly and in public in order that future policies can better reflect these views, concerns and aspirations.


    — Facilitate discussions from diverse perspectives, which are undertaken by people who are inclusive of a range of people in society. — Support a diversity of key stakeholders and people with relevant knowledge (eg industrial, regulatory, NGOs, civil society) to oversee the dialogue to ensure its fairness, competence and impact.

    — Draw on and seek participation of a diversity of knowledges by working with a wide range of groups, including researchers, research council staff, social scientists and NGOs with an interest in issues related to technology options and/or synthetic biology.

    — Ensure that the content and format of the dialogues are open to influence by all of the participants.

    — Allow institutional learning about dialogue processes, including the diversity of views, aspirations and attitudes that exist with reference to scientific, economic and social policy and economic aspects of new technologies.

    — Develop a capacity amongst all of the participants for further dialogues in the future and seek views about priority areas/issues which would merit further substantive dialogue, debate and information.

    — Improve on what is seen as good practice and thus provide a foundation on which:

    — broader future engagement can build and inform the development of a longer term project of engagement.

    — Raise awareness and capacity within the Research Councils, policy makers and the scientific community of aspirations, concerns and views in relation to synthetic biology and the importance of dialogue.

    — Ensure that participants in the dialogue have a meaningful route to potentially influence policy makers and thus feel their involvement has been worthwhile.

    — Devise novel ways of dealing with an area of technological development in which very few specific details are known.

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