Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


1.  Continuing the first hand observation of how RDAs interacted with their regional partners, members of the Sub-Committee visited NWDA on 11 February 2003. The visit was not to the NWDA's headquarters in Warrington but, to simplify travelling arrangements and by kind invitation of AstraZeneca[71], to the latter's premises at Alderley Park near Macclesfield.

2.  The visiting party consisted of Lord Patel (Chairman of the Inquiry), Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord Freeman, Lord Methuen, Lord Mitchell, Lord Oxburgh, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield[72], Lord Turnberg and Lord Wade of Chorlton. They were supported by the Specialist Adviser to the Inquiry (Dr Marilyn Wedgwood), the Clerk (Mr Roger Morgan) and Assistant Clerk (Mr Gordon Baker).

3.  The party was welcomed by Mr John Burrows[73], the NWDA's Director of Business Development, and Dr John Stageman[74], a member of the NorthWest Science Council and Vice-President and Head of Enabling Science and Technology at AstraZeneca.

Introductory briefing

4.  In an introductory briefing[75], Mr Burrows made the following main points.

a.  Before RDAs were set up, the national research agenda lacked a regional dimension and the scientific and economic bases of the English regions had no structured inter-relationship. As a result, research-based universities had not been linked to regional economic priorities, and Government-funded research had been over-concentrated in the South East of England. With the advent of RDAs and their Regional Economic Strategies, the economic role of science and HE was clearly recognised.

b.  The NWDA's strategy identified 16 target sectors or clusters for economic development. 12 of these (namely: aerospace; chemicals; environmental; renewable and nuclear energy; textiles; biotechnology; digital industries; food and drink; automotive; construction; maritime; and health care) had clear links to science, building on the region's strong academic and industrial research bases. Government-funded scientific research (not least through Daresbury — see paragraph 13 below) was also important in the region.

c.  Major science-based projects in which NWDA was involved included: the National Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Facility; the NW Genetics Knowledge Park; InfoLab 21 (Lancaster University's combined research and new business incubator for computing and IT); the National Microsystems Packaging Centre; the National Centre of Excellence in Science & Teaching; an Aerospace Innovation Centre; and a Centre for Environmental Excellence Research and Teaching. NWDA was also providing £2.5 million towards upgrading of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, and was supporting the merger of Manchester University and UMIST as well as the development of another science park linked to Liverpool University.

d.  NWDA had good working relationships with neighbouring RDAs and was ready to collaborate with them on soundly-based joint ventures and joint promotion exercises. Many projects depended on capital or expertise from outside the region.

e.  Financial assistance schemes promoted by NWDA included the North West Equity Fund (which had so far raised £35 million in venture capital) and the Rising Stars Growth Fund (which offered £9.5 million in seed capital for early-stage technology businesses). NWDA also offered advisory and support services, especially for start-up companies in incubator centres.

f.  The current investment climate made it more difficult to finance developments with long-lead times. If the regional economy continued to improve, EU funds seemed likely to become harder to obtain and would, in any case, be stretched by EU enlargement pressures. NWDA was in discussion with DTI about proposals for joint DTI/RDA funding to expand Third Leg commercialisation of research by HEIs.

The NorthWest Science Council

5.  Dr Stageman noted that the NorthWest Science Council[76], established in 2001, was the first regional science council in England. Membership was drawn from regional leaders of industry, universities and public sector scientific institutions (Daresbury and the NHS), as well as the NWDA. There were close links to the business clusters and to the North West Universities Association.

6.  The Council was committed to expanding the regional science base and to advocating science and technology as the cornerstone of future regional economic success. It had launched its Science Strategy in December 2002. It had informal, as well as formal, structures for offering independent professional advice to the NWDA on science strategy and tactics. This helped NWDA to produce robust and well-informed action plans. The Council could also stimulate peer review of projects and give added weight and direction to funding proposals.

7.  Dr David Brown[77] of Arthur D Little Ltd, consultants to the NWDA, said that the Science Council provided vital underpinning for NWDA's initiatives and the Agency's efforts to promote not only closer working by the regional business and academic communities but also general scientific awareness throughout the region.

8.  A similar model had been adopted by One NorthEast (NWDA's counterpart in the North East), and other RDAs were also considering forming similar scientific advisory bodies. But Science Councils did not remove the need for RDAs to have a core of professional scientific staff with good links to the regional scientific community and a good understanding of the latest scientific developments.

9.  Dr Brown also made the following general observations.

a.  While university research was important, it accounted for only about a third of national R&D spending. R&D spending by the NHS was significant, although over-concentrated in the London area.

b.  There was not a simple division between SET-related activities that were of either regional or national (and international) significance. World-renowned centres of scientific excellence nevertheless had strong local roots and economic impact.

c.  Prioritisation was vital: regions, like companies and universities, could not excel at everything. RDAs should avoid spreading resources too thinly. Difficult as it may be, they might have to say "no" more often.

d.  Successful knowledge transfer depended on better understanding and networking between researchers, business and finance. RDAs should help to build bridges and stimulate interaction between them.

HE perspectives

10.  Over lunch (hosted by NWDA's Chairman, Mr Bryan Gray) the party met representatives of regional universities, members of the NorthWest Science Council and NWDA staff.

11.  Professor Michael Harloe, Vice Chancellor of Salford University, made the following main points on behalf of the North West Universities Association[78], of which he was Chairman.

a.  The cluster concept was valid, but needed to be flexible in pursuit of long-term winners.

b.  R&D needed the sustained support of public funding.

c.  The recent HE White Paper[79] tended to concentrate too much on too few big universities. It had too static a view of the relationship between business and academic research.

d.  RDAs needed high calibre staff to appraise projects and mediate between business and academic interests.

General discussion

12.  The discussion over lunch then turned to more general matters, when the following main points were made.

a.  Government policy was far too London-centric. Important decisions were still being taken without sufficient thought for or consultation with the regions.

b.  Whitehall tended to micro-manage the RDAs with over-concentration on short-term targets of questionable relevance. RDAs needed more freedom to pursue longer-term goals and might usefully assist Whitehall in devising more relevant measures for evaluating success.

c.  RDAs had an important role in turning rhetoric about Third Leg commercialisation of the science based into reality. Part of this would be by bringing together people, ideas and resources to create an enabling environment in which commercially-exploitable scientific research could flourish.

d.  The exploitation of the science base was too often hampered by complications in managing IPR. RDAs could usefully help universities draw best practice and provide much-needed advice to researchers and entrepreneurs.

e.  RDAs could do more to promote public awareness and debate about scientific issues and regional capabilities. At the same time, industry leaders should actively promote technological excellence throughout their supply chains.

f.  Despite advances in IT, physical proximity was still an asset for R&D. However, regional clusters also generally benefited from the stimulus of good external links.

g.  Substantial sums were available from the EU, but it was time-consuming, complex and costly to pursue them. NWDA's engagement of a specialist to stimulate more EU funding was welcome.

Daresbury Laboratory

13.  Dr Hywel Price, Director of the Daresbury Laboratory gave an overview presentation of the Laboratory's work. Operating under the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC), the Laboratory's major facility was the UK's synchrotron source. While it also provided a number of other resources and services of strategic importance for the research community, it — and the region — would be impoverished when the centre of UK synchrotron research transferred to the CCLRC's Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory near Oxford when the successor Diamond Project came on stream in 2008.

14.  Because of Daresbury's significance for the region, the NWDA was actively supporting the Laboratory's pursuit of successor facilities and, in conjunction with North West Universities, the development of a Science Park to provide spin-off facilities related to Daresbury projects. 4GLS (the Fourth Generation Light Source) — to which NWDA had pledged a capital contribution of some £4.5 million and had brokered lease-back facilities for the building to house it — was seen as the key project. As described by Professor Peter Weightman of Liverpool University and Professor Wendy Flavell of UMIST, 4GLS was designed to take very fast imaging and spectroscopy beyond the Diamond Project, offering unparalleled advances in biological dynamics, nanoscience and kinetics[80].

15.  Other new projects being pursued at Daresbury were:

a.  HPCx (a High Performance Computer) — a joint venture with Edinburgh University — described by Dr Martyn Guest as the best large-scale scientific computation facilities in Europe with a wide range of advanced applications; and

b.  the SuperSTEM project, described by Professor Peter Goodhew as two super-stable high performance scanning transmission electron microscopes providing an invaluable research tool at nanoscale levels.


16.  Dr Richard Dodds, NWDA's Regional Foresight Director, said that the strong knowledge base of its universities and industries put the region in a strong position to take a lead in developing valuable new technologies in other areas such as waste management, construction industry automation and laser deposition. It could also make an important national contribution to enhancing independent living for the elderly and disabled.

17.  NWDA could provide vital seed corn for these developments, through its own budget and by brokering financial packages. It could help to overcome barriers to development, such as lack of affordable premises, patenting expertise and administrative support. Helping with the continued development of the regional skills base was another important task for the NWDA.


18.  Members endorsed the Chairman's thanks to the NWDA, the NorthWest Science Council and the participants in the various sessions for an informative and useful day, and also to AstraZeneca for generously hosting the visit.

71   Whose Chief Executive, Sir Tom McKillop, chaired the NorthWest Science Council. Back

72   As noted in Appendix 1, Lord Thomas was the Chairman of NWDA from 1998 to 2002. Back

73   Who conveyed apologies from the NWDA Chief Executive, Mr Mike Shields, that he was unable to be present as planned.  Back

74   Who conveyed Sir Tom McKillop's apologies for absence. Back

75   The NWDA subsequently submitted written material to the Inquiry and, on 21 March 2003, also gave oral evidence (see pages 159 and 191 of Volume II). Back

76   The NorthWest Science Council subsequently submitted written material to the Inquiry and, on 21 March 2003, also gave oral evidence (see pages 146 and 152 of Volume II). Back

77   Dr Brown subsequently submitted written evidence to the Inquiry (see page 268 of Volume II). Back

78   The North West Universities Association subsequently submitted written evidence to the Inquiry (see page 295 of Volume II). Back

79   The Future of Higher Education, Cm 5735, January 2003. Back

80   On 2 April 2003, NWDA confirmed its investment of £25.7 million to develop Daresbury's Science Park. On the same date, DTI announced the go-ahead for the research, development and design phases of the 4GLS project. Back

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