Astronomy and Particle Physics: Government and Science and Technology Facilities Council Responses to the Committee's Fourth Report of - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Appendix 1: Government response

The Government welcomes the Select Committee's report on these two important disciplines, and its continued interest in the work of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Our world class science and research base is inherently valuable, as well as critical to promoting economic growth. Despite enormous pressure on public spending, the £4.6bn per annum funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms and ring-fenced against future pressures during the Spending Review period. This strong settlement for science and research was a demonstration of the Government's commitment to rebalancing the economy and promoting economic growth. The ring-fence around science and research funding, including for the first time HEFCE research funding, provides stability and certainty to the research base.

Engaging people with science and engineering, together with developing and maintaining a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce, has never been more important. The Government's Science and Society Programme provides a framework of support to help us to achieve this and there is a £13 million commitment in the science budget this year alone for outreach in schools and public engagement. As well as key national programmes such as STEMNET, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and individual Councils have their own outreach programmes and are committed to working with researchers to encourage them to engage the public with their work.

Detailed responses to specific recommendations from the Committee are provided below in relation to matters for which Government is responsible. This Government Response should be read in conjunction with the separate response submitted by STFC, an independent, non-Departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. STFC is one of the UK's seven Research Councils and its remit includes astronomy and particle physics.

Existing infrastructure

13. While in the short-term the impact of capital reductions on existing facilities may be manageable, the STFC must ensure that, if opportunities for increased capital investment arise during the next four years and beyond, it prioritises maintaining the cutting-edge capabilities of the UK's existing scientific infrastructure. To enable the STFC to plan properly for the next four years, we urge the Government to make clear its allocations to Research Councils for capital spending beyond 2011/12 as soon as possible. (Paragraph 83)

The Government agrees that it is very important that STFC protects its past capital investments in science infrastructure, through a programme that includes capital maintenance expenditure. This should be sufficient to ensure the availability of its facilities in a proper state that allows world class research programmes to continue. The Government has already published indicative capital budgets for the Research Councils for the whole of the SR10 Spending Review. This should allow STFC to make forward plans with reasonable confidence. STFC is encouraged to share its plans for future years with the Government and to seek agreements for commitments as required.

The UK's international reputation

15. We are concerned that past and future decisions to withdraw the UK from internationally collaborative projects and the subsequent impact on the UK's international reputation may affect the potential future gains from such collaboration that the STFC, and other research councils, expect to achieve. Indeed, there appears to us to be a danger that the UK's track-record may hinder its ability to join, and be seen as a leader in, future collaborations. The assessment by Sir Adrian Smith, Director General for Knowledge and Innovation at BIS, is that the UK is not seen as an unreliable international partner. We conclude, however, that this does not fit with the assessment of the Institute of Physics and Professor Stephen Hawking who, in our view, are in a better position to make a judgement on this important matter. (Paragraph 89)

Whilst the Government understands the Committee's concerns, the recent decision by nine national governmental and research organisations to base the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project Office at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester is evidence of the continued high reputation of Britain's management of international science projects. The Government will protect the vital components of research infrastructure and maintain membership of international facilities, providing researchers with access to key large scale research infrastructure, both here and abroad.

The UK has shown considerable leadership in securing savings from the international operational budgets for CERN, the Institut Laue-Langevin (ILL) neutron source and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF). The UK has received praise for formally stating its position and for confronting the issues.

STFC engagement with researchers

17. We conclude that one simple step towards winning back the trust of researchers would be to ensure that researchers and academia are sufficiently involved in the high-level decision making in the STFC on a consistent basis. We recommend that the STFC make a permanent commitment to ensure that at least 50% of STFC Council members are practicing academics and include at least one individual from each of the core scientific fields for which the STFC is responsible—astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics. (Paragraph 95)

The composition of STFC Council is set out in STFC's Royal Charter. On the recommendation of the 2008 Wakeham Review of UK Physics, two additional scientists were appointed as non-executive members of Council (the maximum permitted by the Royal Charter) to broaden the Council's membership.

STFC Council has agreed to carry out a skills audit of Council members to inform future Council recruitment exercises. The Government welcomes in principle the Committee's suggestion concerning the composition of the STFC Council and has suggested that the STFC Council skills audit takes this into account.

Future communication and the next STFC Chief Executive

18. The next STFC Chief Executive must make it clear from the outset his or her commitment to work with researchers and academics, and act as an advocate for all of the science disciplines covered by the STFC. We will continue to scrutinise the actions of the STFC throughout this Parliament, and will invite the next STFC Chief Executive to appear before us at the earliest available opportunity. (Paragraph 99)

The Government agrees with the Committee that the next STFC Chief Executive must have a background that enables him/her to effectively address the challenges facing the STFC and to be able to demonstrate the skills, competencies and track record required.

Recruitment of a new Chief Executive from 1 April 2012 is currently underway. A number of mandatory requirements were set out in the personal specification accompanying the advertisement.

The National Schools Observatory

23. It is unacceptable that senior civil servants have passed the buck on the future of the NSO. This 'silo mentality' which pervades government and is a clear barrier to any notion that Whitehall is becoming more 'joined-up' means relatively cost-effective educational research projects, such as the NSO, which are so important to inspiring the next generation of scientists, risk being lost. Clear mechanisms must be put in place to stop issues like this falling between ministerial, departmental, and research council responsibility. (Paragraph 121)

The Government agrees with the Committee. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will work with the Department for Education (DfE) and its agencies to agree responsibility for the exploitation of research facilities through projects such as the National Schools Observatory (NSO). A dialogue between Liverpool John Moores University, STFC, DfE and BIS will be initiated to discuss the particular issue of the future of the NSO.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 19 July 2011