Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 120)

WEDNESDAY 29 JULY 1998

THE BARONESS BLACKSTONE AND MRS IMOGEN WILDE

  100. I would like to ask whether you will be taking any steps to make sure that at least some of the extra £300 million is earmarked specifically for blue skies research?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I would be amazed if the universities did not want to use some of this extra money for blue skies research because this is the main source of additional funding for such research. Sometimes research councils also fund blue skies projects and I would hope that the extra money that is going through OST would be used for that purpose as well as for more applied kinds of programmes or projects. But, no, I cannot believe that either vice chancellors or the heads of big science departments would want to do other than allocate a substantial part of that funding, not all of it.

  101. But you will be leaving that to the vice chancellors?
  (Baroness Blackstone) We will leave it to them.

Mrs Lait

  102. Can you tell us whether some of the new money will be available to encourage interdisciplinary research and even inter-institutional collaboration?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I would personally hope very much that institutional collaboration will be encouraged and that the additional funding might be allocated in that way, but as I said right at the outset, we have not yet started on our discussions with the Higher Education Funding Council on this. I also believe that inter-disciplinary research is important, but I think it is up to the Funding Council, along with the universities, to signal encouragement for that kind of work. I think collaboration is particularly important because there are not only benefits in terms of economies of scale and value for money, but also larger groups can sometimes produce the kind of critical mass that will have as its outcome very high quality research.

  103. Other than your comments today, which you would probably hope various bodies would read, will you be encouraging them to go along in this particular direction?
  (Baroness Blackstone) Of collaboration?

  104. Yes.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Yes, I think we are likely to want to encourage that.

Mr Atkinson

  105. Minister, as you will know, in the Committee's report we concluded that infrastructure funding should primarily be the responsibility for the funding councils and therefore for the departments. Why has the Research Council arm of the Dual Support System been given the responsibility for administering the fund rather than the funding councils?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I do not really think it matters very much which government department or which body administers a fund of this sort as long as it is well spent and sensibly spent. I really think that there is rather too much turf war infighting going on. I personally believe that OST will do a very good job in allocating the extra infrastructure funding that is needed. I know that they will consult the Higher Education Funding Council about it.

  106. Will this mean that the funding councils will reduce their current funding for capital projects and infrastructure support? Is this the best arrangement?
  (Baroness Blackstone) No, because we have already announced an additional £300 million for research in universities, a substantial part of which is likely to be spent on capital funding.

Chairman

  107. Does your Department support the Dual Support System? Is it in favour of the Dual Support System?
  (Baroness Blackstone) It is.

Dr Williams

  108. Is there not a danger that with £600 million of the infrastructure fund coming from the OST some leakage could take place in this research and teaching freedom that vice chancellors are given? The very fact that infrastructure is being catered for better than from another source means that infrastructure needs the money less. So rather than the rest of the money going to research, as it were, it could be diverted to teaching?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think that is highly unlikely. I do not see why that should be an outcome. I think that leading researchers in our universities (and I have some experience of this as a former head of a higher education institution) are pretty determined to ensure that money that has been allocated for research is spent on research. So vice chancellors are subjected to quite a lot of pressure to allocate money in the way for which it was intended.

Chairman

  109. Minister, does the creation of the new infrastructure fund in any way affect current schemes such as the Joint Research Equipment Initiative or any other such schemes?
  (Baroness Blackstone) The intention is that that initiative should continue so I do not believe that it will in any way be affected, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Mr Beard

  110. What role will your Department be playing in the review of the Dual Support System being conducted by the Director General of the Research Councils?
  (Baroness Blackstone) The Higher Education Funding Councils are not just for England but also for Scotland and Wales, who will be represented on that review. We will have indirect involvement by HEFCE.

  111. Are they happy with the fact that it will be chaired by someone who represents one limb of the Dual Support System?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I have not heard that anybody is unhappy. I have not heard a criticism on that count.

  112. Do you have views as to the key features of the present Dual Support System that ought to be retained at all costs?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I think that it is valuable to universities to have a dual system for funding research partly because of the importance of blue skies research and also because I think it is difficult for universities to sustain the kind of continuity of staffing that they need. Let us take technicians as an example. If everything is done on the basis of programme and project funding, when your programme or your project comes to an end and if you have not yet managed to secure additional programme or project funding via the research councils you are often left with a very difficult situation where you have good staff who you do not want to lose, who are employed on a contract and it is also very hard on those staff. Dual support funding helps with that.

  113. How can either the Funding Council or your Department ensure that when the universities get an increment in funds they do not just spend it on revenue projects and we end up with the infrastructure in the universities going downhill and downhill again having pulled it up with this exceptional funding?
  (Baroness Blackstone) It is perfectly easy to earmark funding for infrastructure spending and I believe that is what we will want to do with a substantial part of the additional £300 million.

  114. So the Department will monitor where the money is going and not just let it be sent out into more and more projects?
  (Baroness Blackstone) The Higher Education Funding Council will do that monitoring rather than the Department directly.

Dr Gibson

  115. How do you feel about the tables in the papers rating universities? Do you think that is destructive or instructive? In the papers today there is first league, second league, third league, fourth league. Do you think the media is helpful in that in what we are trying to achieve here?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I am really sorry, I have not seen today's papers and therefore I have not seen the tables. Have you seen them?

Chairman

  116. What about the principle?
  (Mrs Wilde) I have not seen these particular ones but the principle of league tables is not one that is very popular with universities although they entirely accept the idea that there should be performance indicators and that universities should benchmark themselves against each other. What is less acceptable to universities is they should be compared as if they are all the same. Clearly there are differences in tradition and it is not helpful for a traditional research oriented university to be compared with one of the new universities that is predominantly teaching. That is why there is concern about league tables. We are working with the universities, with the funding councils and the CVCP to develop performance indicators and to take forward the idea of benchmarking amongst families of like institutions.

  117. If you wish to continue that is fine but I think Dr Gibson has taken us slightly off course.
  (Baroness Blackstone) I will drop it.

  Chairman: I am sure Dr Turner is going to bring us back on course.

Dr Turner

  118. Coming back to the Comprehensive Spending Review, it refers to "new arrangements to ensure that the HEFCE and the research councils work together to deliver better value, transparency and targeting in the use of science research funding" etc. Will the new arrangements you envisage ensure that the HEFCE and the research councils do work together more effectively and do you think that similar arrangements will apply to the Welsh and Scottish Funding Councils?
  (Baroness Blackstone) I really cannot speak for the Welsh and Scottish Councils, I think you would have to ask the appropriate Welsh and Scottish Ministers who relate to those Councils. As far as England is concerned, we are going to set up consideration of that particular recommendation that comes out of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and again I do apologise but it is a little early for me to give you a properly thought through answer as to what the best particular mechanisms are for encouraging (a) greater transparency and (b) greater collaboration and co-operation between the various different parties that you have mentioned. I would be very happy to come back at a later date when we have actually completed the work that needs to be done. I think it would be a bit premature for me to stick my neck out now and say how we ought to be doing this.

  119. Looking for indications of your thinking, presumably it relates back to your earlier answer and the concern about what would happen at the end of the contract funding and if there is a little more collaboration some of those situations could be eased somewhat.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Yes. I think that is exactly the sort of area where we might see sensible arrangements made between HEFCE on the one hand and the research councils on the other to ensure that we do not get those sorts of discontinuities leading to sometimes very unfortunate situations for contracted researchers.

  Dr Turner: I know, I have been there. It is obviously not fair to push you further on that point, Minister.

Chairman

  120. I think, Minister, that means we have come to the end of our questions which you have answered very succinctly and very clearly, as always. We are most grateful to you and we are very grateful to you as well for finding the time from what must be a busyperiod following a Government reshuffle to come and see us. We appreciate your help. We hope you have time to read the papers in due course and when you do perhaps you will notice that one of the new universities, at which you presented my daughter with a degree 15 years ago, is currently second.
  (Baroness Blackstone) Very good. I am delighted to hear that and I shall go straight to the newspapers and try to find out which one it is.8

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.





 
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