Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council


  1.  The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is one of the six Research Councils established or re-established by the 1993 White Paper. We therefore welcome this timely opportunity for the Committee to examine the impact of that White Paper. As a broad generalisation we believe that its impact has been positive.

  2.  The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council was itself the subject of a detailed enquiry by the Select Committee, the report of which was published as the Fourth Report of the 1995-96 Session (HC 249-1). The findings of that inquiry were in general very favourable to PPARC.


  1.  PPARC believes that overall the creation of a separate Research Council for astronomy and particle physics has been a success.

  2.  It has put a clearer focus on the issues involved in supporting these subjects, in particular the need to work in large international collaborations, and to plan strategically on timescales of five to fifteen years.

  3.  It has thus allowed the Council to develop long range strategic planning, to develop strategic international alliances; and to conduct long term "Foresight" activities such as the Long Term Science Review and Long Term Technology Review (in collaboration with all the other Research Councils)—see below.

  4.  It has allowed the Council to implement the White Paper priorities through policies and practices closely geared to the needs of its user communities; in education and training; in industrial collaboration; and in public understanding of science.


  5.  The White Paper acknowledged the importance of basic research, and recognised the essential role of government in funding it. However the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review led to an outcome in which the only Research Council entirely dedicated to basic research (ie PPARC) was the only Council not to receive a significant increase in funding in real terms. That pattern should now be changed—see below.


  6.  The White Paper was based on the implicit assumption that basic research leads to applied research which leads, in turn, to industrial or other applications, the so-called "linear model". The White Paper was published in 1993, which happened to be the year in which the World Wide Web (conceived in CERN) started to take off. We would argue that this is the output with the biggest financial and social impact of the entire science base in the last 10 years. It has also demonstrated the deficiency of the linear model, and illustrates the much more complex interaction that exists between basic research and exploitation. Any future science White Paper should recognise those more complex interactions.

  7.  There are two returns from investment in basic research. In the long term, fundamental science has shown large capital returns. The discovery of the electron 100 years ago is a classic example. Deep understanding leads to long term economic return such as the current electronic revolution. But to achieve our basic science we need new technology, such as software for the World Wide Web—invented as a tool for physicists. These two types of advances are closely tied. Basic science has been and will be a crucial technology driver for all of science and society. There is also a strong need in our brightest and best young people to attack the deepest problems. This is what attracts them to study and research in physics and has been a British strength from Newton onwards.

  8.  All PPARC research requires technology stretched to its limits often in collaboration with industry. This requires long range planning. PPARC has led the way in developing its own technology foresight activity, and subsequently an interdisciplinary review of the technological needs of the whole science base (referred to above). (Copies of the summary report "Technology for the Future" are enclosed for the Committee).

  9.  The report shows the extent of commonality of technological interest across different research sectors, and hence the potential for collaborative technology R&D programmes between Research Councils and with industry. PPARC is developing proposals in this area, in collaboration with other Research Councils. We recommend that Government should recognise the importance of such basic technology R&D by providing additional funding to stimulate this area.


  10.  The 1993 White Paper identified university/industry collaboration as a solution to the UK's relatively poor performance in innovation. The later 1998 White Paper on competitiveness "Building the Knowledge Driven Economy" recognised explicitly the primary role of business and industry in addressing this and put forward a number of measures in support, including the additional funding for the science base announced earlier as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and measures to encourage more university/industry collaboration.

  11.  The "Baker" Report to Treasury and DTI Ministers on the exploitation of Public Sector Research Establishments (PSRE) research ("Creating Knowledge, creating Wealth: Realising the Economic potential of PSREs"), stated explicitly (para 1.12) that "The strength of demand from industry is probably the single biggest determinant of the commercialisation opportunity. An industry dominated by large successful companies, for example pharmaceuticals, has the resources to seek out and exploit PSRE research effectively. Small, fragmented, or low margin industries like sections of the UK engineering sector provide little "industry pull". If the Government wants to address PSRE commercialisation in the round, it will need to consider how to maximise industry pull, as well as "PSRE" push". Although that study applied to PSREs, the same applies at least as strongly to university—industry collaboration.

  12.  At the same time, the UK R&D scoreboard 1999 (published by DTI) shows that while the physical sciences and engineering-based sectors (ie chemistry, maths etc) of Aerospace and Defence, Automobiles, Electronic and Electrical, Engineering and Machinery, IT Hardware, Software and Telecoms have combined sales some five times greater than the combined sales of the Pharmaceutical and Health sectors; their combined total spend on R&D at around £3.8bn was only just greater than that for Pharmaceuticals and Health at £3.6bn. The average intensity (defined as R&D/Sales per cent) was 3.1 per cent for those physical sciences and engineering sectors compared to fifteen per cent for pharmaceuticals and six per cent for Health; and only in Pharmaceuticals did it exceed the international average. These figures demonstrate not only the relative importance to the economy of the physics and engineering based sectors, but also the comparatively low "pull through" which they exert from their own R&D efforts compared to the pharmaceutical sector alone. Any future White Paper on science and innovation needs to be built on these analyses of the UK economy and pattern of industrial R&D spend.


  13.  The 1993 White Paper in general addressed only one sector of the national R&D endeavour, namely the Science Budget. It did little to recognise that nationally the UK invests in R&D at a lower level pro rata than most of its competitors. UK gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP stood at 1.9 per cent in 1997 compared to USA 2.7 per cent, Japan 2.9 per cent, Germany 2.3 per cent, France 2.2 per cent (OECD statistics). One component of this is the relatively low level of industrial investment in R&D (outside the pharmaceutical and fine chemical sector see above). Any future White Paper on science and innovation must address this.

  14.  The other main component is the low and declining level of R&D investment by government departments other than OST. The Select Committee's own Report on "Government Expenditure on R&D : The Forward Look" (HC 196-I) set out their concerns on this issue, and recommended that "the long term decline in funding Departmental SET must be halted and reversed in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review". We would concur.


  15.  The 1993 White Paper introduced the Foresight (then called Technology Foresight) process. We acknowledge the substantial effort, and achievement since then in terms of consultation and the preparation of (many) panel reports, and in the beneficial networking of individuals from different sectors that this inevitably entailed. We have yet however to see evidence of any overall benefit from the process to UK industry, the national economy or to the size, distribution, or nature of the UK's scientific or technical portfolio. There is no equivalent of the US DARPA visible to us driving visionary plans. Any future White Paper should examine, and act upon the lessons to be learnt here.


  16.  The Committee invited views on issues to be addressed in any future Government White Paper on science and technology. The following are further recommendations in addition to points made above.

  17.  PPARC believes that the Government should demonstrate its commitment to basic research by giving adequate funding to our areas of fundamental science ie astronomy and particle physics. The scientific community's assessment of the future requirements needed to keep UK research internationally competitive has been published in the booklet "Unveiling the Universe". (The full report is on the PPARC Website). Overall PPARC judges that an additional approximately £30 million per annum is needed to meet these requirements.

  18.  Amongst these, a key requirement for the UK's future in world astronomy is to participate at a significant level in the next global ground-based projects; the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) and the planned 30-50M telescope, known for now as OWL (the Over Whelmingly Large) telescope. The UK will be able to participate in these most effectively if it is a member of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). This would also enable the UK to improve its share of 8 metre telescope time, without which we will be relegated in the world league. But even cutting back on existing commitments eg to current telescopes, will not provide enough funding, and only if the Government provide new resources will the UK safeguard its position in this key area of science.

  19.  A recent review "International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy" initiated by the OST, and conducted by a panel of eminent overseas physicists has concluded that UK particle physics and astronomy is of internationally very high standing, and that a healthy base of physics as a whole was critical to the national economy. It did however "suffer from a low level of funding", and the Panel said "substantial increases are now required in order to bring UK physics research up to international levels". PPARC draws the Committee's attention to this important report, and recommends that Government should act on its findings.


  20.  The World Wide Web is transforming the economy in ways undreamed of even five years ago. And we are on the verge of the next generation Web—the massively more powerful computational Grid. The US is developing this fast. Particle physicists at CERN will need this computing infrastructure to analyse data from the next generation accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that will start to operate in 2005. Other areas of science—from genomics, to climate modelling, to astronomy and remote sensing will need similar resources. Action is being co-ordinated at a European level. UK industry must be involved if it is not to be left behind by its competitors. The UK Government must give both the organisational lead, and the funding required to ensure that the UK plays its full part, and thereby reap the full benefits.

European Collaboration

  21.  Europe has, collectively, a research enterprise on a scale similar to that of the USA. Yet in many areas the USA is still, or is still regarded, as the leading scientific power. Certainly many more young Europeans go to the States for research experience than vice versa. Professor Sir Martin Rees FRS (in Science and Parliament, Vol 57. No 2) has pointed out that "In the big sciences where international collaboration is absolutely essential, the European scene is increasingly healthy", and cites CERN and the ESA science programme as examples of where European science is now able to compete on a par with the States.

  22.  A future White Paper needs to address the new ideas being put forward by EU Commissioner Philippe Busquin for making European science more coherent and cost-effective; and for using EU funding to catalyse change.

A national strategy for research infrastructure and major facilities

  23.  The recent issues surrounding the Government's decision on the new Synchrotron source to be sited at the CLRC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory have highlighted the need for the development of a long-term strategy for major national (and international) research facilities.

Science, particularly physics, education

  24.  The 1993 White Paper recognised the need to increase the nation's scientific literacy and numeracy. There is a national shortage of good science, particularly physics teachers. The Research Councils including PPARC have made efforts to improve the teaching of their subjects in schools. But these efforts seem not to be matched by action from the DfEE. The Council for Science and Technology has recently received a report on teachers' needs in science. The next science White Paper should address how government will mount an integrated programme including both DfEE and OST to improve school science teaching and the recruitment of science teachers.

June 2000

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