Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


Wednesday 19 December 2001

  40. One final question on this. This is perhaps a more positive question. One of the benefits of Foresight has been the ability to bring people together from different backgrounds, different communities, and the networking opportunity that brings. Is it possible to enhance that by coming up with a particular mechanism to bring those people together rather than to do it as a byproduct to tackling the Government issue?
  (Ms Hewitt) Very often when you bring people together to tackle a particular problem the even greater value you get out of it is precisely that networking that goes on. There are ways in which we can enhance that although that is part of the purpose of the Foresight Programme. For instance, within the DTI we now have a new facility called Future Focus which is a purpose-built—conference centre does not really do it justice—facility and venue created by a consortium between DTI and the business community where teams of people from the business community, from Government and from the academic community can come together to work on longer-term issues. It is designed in such a way that there is a huge amount of stimulus, much of which draws upon the Foresight Programme, so that people can really step into Future Focus and start thinking outside the box. That is a very useful way of structuring a set of relationships and getting people thinking very constructively and imaginatively about where we need to go in the future.

Mr Heath

  41. Secretary of State, thank you very much for the memorandum which I think was very helpful to the Committee. I am now going to deal with an omission, if I may, from the memorandum. I can find no reference in it to the words "international" or "collaboration". We can do it all on our own, can we?
  (Ms Hewitt) No, but the purpose of the memorandum was really to describe the review of the DTI and the structure that we need to put in place. We work collaboratively with a very wide range of partners: the business community, employees and the trade unions, consumers, the science and research and technology community that we have been talking about. Of course we do that on an international as well as a national basis, but it was not something that I thought needed drawing out in that memorandum.

  42. Let us draw it out now, if I may, because we talk a lot about the British science base, I think perhaps we need to talk more about the continental science base. I use the word "continental" rather than "European" in the sense of the European Union. Clearly we do need to see ways in which we can both develop centres of excellence and take our scientific capacity beyond that which individual nations can sensibly resource. I would be interested to know how you see that developing over the next few years.
  (Ms Hewitt) I am going to ask David to come to that in a minute. I am very clear that a great deal of this work has to be done at a multinational level because the sheer scale of investment and brain power that is required for modern science is beyond the reach certainly of the United Kingdom, despite the outstanding quality, the world class quality, of our existing science base. We have a very long history of collaboration, for instance, in the CERN project. We work very effectively with our European partners to create an R&D European Union framework that will be good for Europe but will also be beneficial to the United Kingdom. One of the issues that I think our new Science, Technology and Innovation Group has to look at is not simply how we get more effective cross-over from the UK science base into business and industry within the United Kingdom but also how we ensure that leading edge technologies that have been developed outside the United Kingdom, and possibly even outside the European Union, are also harnessed for the benefit of our business and industrial base. There is a lot of work going on on this and, David, perhaps you could elaborate?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think there are at least three or four dimensions to this. John Taylor and I spend a lot of time on the international dimension here. First of all, obviously, there is the question of facilities, international facilities. I think we have very clearly now defined that John's and my job is to give access to world class facilities to our scientists rather than to take the view that we should try and have every kind of facility in this country because it is simply not possible to do. That is why, for example, we have put a lot of extra money into PPARC to enable them to go into the European Southern Observatory because it was quite clear that for the next generation of astronomy we had to be part of the European coalition rather than trying to do it ourselves. There are a lot of other examples on facilities which range from neutron sources, synchrotrons, vessels for oceanic research where, again, we need to co-operate to do it most effectively. The second area is research itself and that is why we have spent a lot of time trying to influence the Sixth Framework Programme very much to focus on fewer areas rather than spreading money very widely and to focus particularly on those areas where we really can only compete as part of Europe, for example nanotechnology or aerospace research. If we are to compete against America or Japan we can only do that as part of the Framework Programme. For example, there is a large programme in the Sixth Framework which is on nanotechnology which means that across Europe we will be spending something like £200 to £300 million a year on research. That puts us in roughly the same league as the amount of money going in America. That is also an important part of this mix. The third area is our international relationships on science with other countries where, again, we have done a number of things related to this. In the DTI we now have an excellent scheme called the International Technology Promoters whose aim is putting together companies, British companies and foreign companies, on joint projects and also taking missions abroad to look at areas of science and technology where we think we are not up to speed in world class terms. That is proving very successful. Linked into that we have doubled the number of scientific attachés across the world and made certain they are really focused in places where the interesting science and technology is taking place, both in terms of putting our scientists together on joint research projects and also in terms of importing science and technology for British companies. There is a lot of work in this area.
  (Dr Taylor) A couple of operational additions. You will see that one of the key axes on which RC-UK provides a single interface is about international collaboration so that we can speak to them right across the science base in those areas. You will see as the new Science, Technology and Innovation Group develops that one of its key interfaces will be with British Trade International and that part of the DTI because what it is all about is giving help to innovative industry in the UK in global markets, so the global outreach part of that is absolutely key.

  43. I am grateful for those replies and I find it quite encouraging, I have to say, in many ways but we cannot avoid the big science here and I will readily admit that I am not an expert in particle physics or astronomy for that matter. Budgetary control is obviously a key issue. We have seen what happened with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that was massively over budget. Is that a concern for the British Government as well? If so, how can we avoid, or perhaps prepare for, similar problems in the future?
  (Ms Hewitt) Of course it is a concern and, indeed, we have ensured that there is a proper review of CERN to understand where that large cost overrun comes from and what can be done to try to prevent unpleasant surprises of that kind in the future. David, do you want to add to that?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think it is a problem. We have probably a reputation in international circles as being the hard man on this in terms of demanding much tighter cost controls of these areas and much more accountability. I think we were the people who, in fact, made certain there was a proper outside financial review of the Large Hadron Collider, which I think is now taking place. So it is, of course, a worry because you do not have quite as tight a control on an international basis as you do on a national basis and we just have to fight our corner to insist that these things are done properly.

  44. You will be aware that PPARC, to put it crudely, have a shopping list of things that they see as the necessary next steps in this area, the Hadron Collider, the free electron laser, the high power proton accelerator, all valuable programmes, and all ones in which Britain might have a role to play. Do you, first of all, see large-scale British participation in all or any of those projects? Secondly, would you actually be pitching to see one of them sited in Britain?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) What we are doing differently now, and John has led this, is we actually have a programme, a road map of what we see coming up over the next 10 years, and the point of that is to be clear what our priorities are and then, within that, to look at where we should make links with other countries and do it on an international basis and where we might ourselves take the lead and be the lead player in it. Perhaps John can explain more. What we are doing now is we are trying to plan ahead so that we do not suddenly come up with a particular project and again this is a case where working together on the Research Councils means we can set clear priorities.

  45. Before Dr Taylor answers, does that mean then that once a project has been identified for UK lead participation, that the funding flows from that before the event, as it were, in establishing the research and development base which will enable us to credibly bid for a particular project?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think the point is it works the other way round in that we have the plan and obviously that underpins any bid we make to the Treasury and at the spending review we will need a certain amount of money in order to play our part in a collaboration or in a situation where we are a host which will cost a certain amount of money.

  46. A certain amount of money? It is a heck of a lot of money.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) In most cases it is a heck of a lot of money. That is why I think it is important a) that you plan it and b) that you are realistic about where we should co-operate and where we could do it ourselves.

  Chairman: When does a road map become a strategy?

  Bob Spink: When you roll it out.


  47. When you put a 30-mile-an-hour speed limit sign up.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) There is not a real distinction between a road map and a strategy. This is effectively a strategy which we have as to where we want to do it ourselves and where we think we need to co-operate. It is still early days but it is better compared with what we had, which was just every so often saying what about doing something here or there, and it would come up from one Research Council. That seemed to me a nonsense. We must look at this on a UK basis and we need to look very hard at what is coming up over the next 10 years so we play to our strengths in particular areas where we have the best world class science and take a lead there, but in other areas, where we are not necessarily the best placed in the world to put this or where we are not the biggest funders, we should work with other countries. John spends a lot of time on this.
  (Dr Taylor) For the first time this year we published our first shot at a road map which, after some massaging and argument, could well turn into a set of strategies. There are a lot of variables in this game, not least that models for co-operation in these very large projects are themselves changing quite radically, so the notion of do we contemplate another major treaty organisation is set alongside some of the proposals coming from the variable geometry ideas around European research thinking by the Commission. So the way in which people propose different ways of collaborating is going to change and we have to track that. But you are quite right, if we decide certain areas are really strategically important for the science base then we have to face the question of how do we maintain enough R&D in the core technologies and core expertise to allow us to take any kind of part in the international debates that will eventually come with putting a process together.

Mr Heath

  48. With the potential of big science displacing the rest if you are not careful?
  (Dr Taylor) There is always tension between various different kinds of science, even of big science. Big science is by no means uniform, as you see from big biology starting to emerge. There is always that tension. That is what our job around the RC-UK table is going to be, to say what kind of capabilities there are, what can slip and go into the future, what is an opportunity now and only now? There is a set of different issues. But, sure, it is always going to be tough because there is never enough money.

Bob Spink

  49. Lord Sainsbury touched on the application of science a few moments ago. I wonder if I could ask a very specific question about international collaboration on technological development and, in particular, what is happening at the moment with regard to developing nuclear power plant like pebble bed reactors. Is there any collaboration between this country and other countries on that at the moment and on nuclear waste management systems and sustainable energy? What specific projects are you either thinking about or considering at the moment?
  (Ms Hewitt) As you will be aware, we have a Government review of energy policy going on at the moment within the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office. Like the Prime Minister, I have not seen the report from the PIU. I look forward to seeing it with great interest. I expect to receive that shortly and no doubt that will be published early in the New Year. We will want to look at issues like nuclear waste management and particularly renewable energy in the context of that overall review. We are already of course investing very substantially in renewable energy. Indeed, I had a meeting earlier today with the head of BP's Solar Energy Directorate to look at what more we should be doing on the photovoltaic side so we are putting a lot of money into that, we are building up some international collaboration on that. We are also looking into the nuclear waste management issue. As you will be aware, I recently made a statement about the creation of a Liabilities Management Authority and a restructuring of the way in which we manage those historic nuclear waste liabilities, part of which is about ensuring we maintain and effectively use the excellent engineering and technical skills we have got within BNFL.

  50. With all due respect, Secretary of State, the great bulk of nuclear waste is already there and whether we have the energy review or not, it needs managing and a policy decision (above ground or underground) needs to be taken so the industry can get on and do the job and do it properly. Even if we replaced nuclear with nuclear, it would only add to the waste by about ten per cent, so how can the energy review influence your decision on that particular one, for instance?
  (Ms Hewitt) I was making a broader point about all these energy policy issues needing to be looked at within the context of that broader strategy. Of course, the historic waste is there and those liabilities have got to be better managed and that is where we are creating the Liabilities Management Authority. In terms of the technical solutions to that historic waste, that of course is now the subject of consultation following the announcement from Margaret Beckett and DEFRA recently. So there will be a specific consultation on the whole issue of do you bury the stuff and how do you treat it and so on and so forth. We have got considerable scientific and technical expertise available in the United Kingdom on that subject and we are mobilising that in that consultation.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) To go back to your original question, there is very considerable international co-operation. As part of the Framework 6 there is considerable research both in terms of the main Framework programme on renewable energy and the different kinds of energy and also then under the EURATOM programme there is also substantial joint research which covers areas like nuclear waste and obviously nuclear fusion as well.

Dr Turner

  51. CERN has grown up because no one single country can afford the massive cost of the machines involved. Even if the Hadron Collider comes in anywhere near on budget, it is still a huge slice out of the PPARC budget. Does this give you any concern about the financial ability of PPARC to get involved in some of the other collaborative projects that are being mooted across Europe outside CERN? And what is your feeling about the scope for European-wide collaboration and research outside the obvious big ticket items like particle physics?
  (Ms Hewitt) Let me turn to David on this again.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) Obviously PPARC is a particular situation because a lot of the science it does is, by definition, large-scale science, so it does take up a large part of the budget. I think the answer is we are always looking for the opportunities to work with other countries on that and PPARC is very effective at making alliances, so that, for example, most of the telescopes we use are in fact in one form or another international collaborations. As I said at the beginning, I think John's job and my job is to give to British scientists access to world-class facilities not necessarily to say we will have each one in this country. So wherever we can see opportunities to do this, we look and see whether it makes sense.

Mr McWalter

  52. Just to try and nail things down a bit, on that road map, is there a site that says "Billion dollar international particle physics facility" of whatever sort located in Britain, or is there no such outline diagram in place for that? If there is such a place —
  (Ms Hewitt) Where is it?

  Mr McWalter: Are the negotiations going on with other nations, and if there is not, why not?


  53. It will not be in the Dome, that is for sure!
  (Dr Taylor) As you will appreciate, I am sure, this is complex. It is in many cases quite delicate and there are all kinds of things going on in different fields. PPARC does not have, by any means, the majority of the large facility problems. If you look at neutrons, if you look at photons, whether it is synchrotrons or lasers or whatever, there are a number of major parts of the scene that need to go to big facilities. I do not think the UK is alone either in feeling this pressure on an overall science budget from the people who want bigger and bigger and better and better facilities, so we are all sort of in the same boat. We are in some areas very well placed, so for example we are generally regarded as the world's best neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and that has a healthy looking road map for its future capability. If one wanted to go in that direction, it is certainly very capable and there are corresponding activities being talked about around Europe. There are facilities that we are part of in Europe like the ILL neutron source. The Germans have recently unveiled a major set of proposals for the successor to the Large Hadron Collider and, again, a huge amount of debate on a 10 to 20-year timescale is going on around the Community about what that means, where it might be built and might it be built in country X, Y or Z. The ITER fusion programme is likewise looking at major global collaborations to get things done. So I think the UK is very well positioned in some of these areas to say, yes indeed, one route would be for the developments to take place in the UK. It is also very well positioned in terms of its seat at the international science table to make major contributions to facilities that would get built elsewhere by various different collaborations, so I think we are doing quite well.

Dr Iddon

  54. I want to turn to the Research Assessment Exercise which has always been controversial, perhaps more so this time round. The results were published and, as you know, this Committee has announced already that we are going to conduct a short inquiry into the RAE. Can I ask you a very basic question—and I appreciate Dr Taylor may answer these questions—what now are we trying to measure by this exercise?
  (Ms Hewitt) We are trying to measure the excellence by world standards of the research that goes on within our universities. It seems to me very encouraging that over half of UK researchers are now operating within research establishments that are graded five or five star.

  Chairman: We will have a ten-minute break for the division.

  The Committee suspended from 5.33 pm to 5.41 pm for a division in the House.

  Chairman: I think we might start. Thank you for coming back. We were in the middle of some treason from you about research assessment. Carry on.

Dr Iddon

  55. Secretary of State, I think we have just agreed the original intentions of the RAE are still intact, at least that is the way I understood your answer. If that is the case, how can we measure the real quality across any department, including some of the best, when clearly this year departments have been so selective in submitting smaller numbers of their research staff for the exercise?
  (Ms Hewitt) I do not pretend to be an expert on the Research Assessment Exercise and indeed it has got substantial involvement from the Department for Education and Skills, but perhaps I could ask John to comment further on it.
  (Dr Taylor) I think the underlying reason for having the Research Assessment Exercise is to enable the Funding Councils to make their formula allocations of block grants to the universities and that is what it is about, and so this is a way of deciding how to be reasonably selective by departmental achievement in research. There will be considerable debate about what the RAE is measuring. Indeed I think the Funding Councils have already indicated that that is something they will be turning their attention to next year. The important thing not to forget is that its only real purpose is to help allocate the block grants for the next few years to universities. I do not think it would claim to be too much more than that.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) Can I just add a point. If you look back over the history of the RAE, there is no doubt it has helped to drive up the quality of research. If you talk to most vice chancellors they will say it has enormously helped them in terms of driving up the quality of research. It gives them an objective measure in which they can go to departments and say, "Against the review of your peers you are not doing as well as you should." Like all measurement systems, it needs to be constantly kept under review because over time people can get round it and have particular manoeuvres to get round the measurement side of it. I think it has to be kept constantly under review. Up to date it has done not a bad job in enabling vice chancellors to drive up the quality of research.

  56. Is there any mileage in the argument put about by many academics that the better departments ought to be left alone to get on with the job, rather like the argument taking place in another arena, the OFSTED arena?
  (Ms Hewitt) I think that is very much a matter for the Department for Education and Skills, and certainly Margaret Hodge is looking at the results of the Research Assessment Exercise and what that means for future funding and relationships with the departments.

  57. Are we going to be able to fund all the departments who have received these much higher grades than in past exercises?
  (Ms Hewitt) That is a difficult issue which also confronts my colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills.

  58. And what would you say, Secretary of State, if I made the criticism that some academics say that you are ignoring blue sky research, you are driving people into research areas and thereby causing real innovation to go by the wayside by default.
  (Ms Hewitt) I do not believe that is true and very clearly a large part of the investment that we are making is going into blue skies research. Indeed, one of the reasons why we created the structure that we have done in the DTI was to ensure that there was not a perception that we were seeking to take over the science base and destroy blue skies research in the interests of more immediate commercialisation. We are very clear we do need to do more commercialisation, we need to get more transfer and so on, but not by destroying that blue skies research. John, do you want to add something because you are funding a lot of the blue skies research.
  (Dr Taylor) I would make two points, I think. The whole ethos behind the RAE and QR money is to send selectively highly discretionary money in the direction of the very best research groups precisely for them to be able to indulge in blue skies research in whatever directions they feel appropriate. Correspondingly, on the Research Council side, you will see moves in quite a number of areas and larger and longer grants aimed at providing a particular group with rather more freedom to pursue their own particular blue skies avenues without having to try and get a particular grant to do so. We care very much about the ability of people to do blue skies research.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I am very encouraged to hear you say that because normally we get it the other way, that the RAE discriminates against applied research and it all goes to the basic people. So if you are getting complaints from the basic people I am greatly encouraged because it shows we have almost certainly got it exactly right.

  Dr Iddon: I was thinking mainly of the kind of research—and Harry Kroto springs to mind—that goes on over a long period of time and does not result in many research publications. It is that basic blue skies research I was referring to. If I could ask one final question on this because we will be coming back to this exercise—and it has gone out of my mind but it will come back in a moment.

Mr McWalter

  59. I was going to say I do agree with Brian that that long-distance type of research, 10-year projects, is marginalised in this process. I also think the other criticism is true as well of the RAE, and the only one I know quite a lot about was the computer science review and there there was the very strong emphasis on recursive theory, which is very theoretical, rather than database structures which could be quite applied but were regarded as lower grade stuff. I do think that we would like to feed into you the thought that we might want to look at this and maybe just get a reaction from you as to whether you think this is a general area where it would be appropriate for this Committee to get involved.
  (Ms Hewitt) I think it would be very helpful if you did. This debate around at what point of the spectrum—between the most basic and pure science right through to very near market R&D—you put the money has been with us for a very long time, and I have no doubt will continue to be so, and it is very difficult to get those judgments right and you are never going to satisfy everybody. I welcome the fact that the Committee is suggesting that it would do a review of the Research Assessment Exercise and some of these related questions. Obviously we would be delighted to contribute to that but it would be very helpful to us to have your thoughts on it.

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