UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 250-i

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE

 

 

OST Scrutiny 2005

 

 

Wednesday 2 March 2005

LORD SAINSBURY OF TURVILLE

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 43

 

 

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 2 March 2005

Members present

Dr Ian Gibson, in the Chair

Dr Evan Harris

Dr Brian Iddon

Mr Robert Key

Mr Tony McWalter

Dr Desmond Turner

________________

Witness: Lord Sainsbury of Turville, a Member of the House of Lords, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Science and Innovation, Department of Trade and Industry, examined.

Q1 Chairman: Lord Sainsbury, thank you very, very much for coming again. We will try and sharpen it up to 30 minutes and the best way we can do that is that you know the questions and the areas and if you can just reply, like you do in the Chamber to questions that are written down, then somebody will reply from our side and will ask a supplementary question. I will try and restrict each question to about five minutes. Question 1?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I share the Committee's concern about the need to show that we have proper teaching facilities in key areas/strategic areas for the economy and that in fact is why, long before there was the Exeter situation, in the ten year framework, the science innovation, we set out what we would do in this area in terms of HEFCE taking an interest in the regional balance looking at the funding of teaching in chemistry departments and the whole area of encouraging more chemistry students to come forward.

Q2 Dr Iddon: One of the biggest problems appears to be the size of the cliff between five-rated departments, rated according to the RAE, and four-star departments. It is becoming rapidly clear that four departments, certainly in my subject, chemistry, are not sustainable with the size of this cliff. Once a department drops from five to four, God help it, it has great difficulty surviving. Are the Government going to address this problem?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I agree with you that that is a problem but I would put it in a slightly different way, which is that I think we have set up a system where essentially, though this is debatable on the facts, we use research money to fund the teaching side in these areas. I think we have to get this sorted out. People have come forward saying, "We run a four chemistry department and it is fine, we do not lose money on it", but I think there are cases where that is so and I think the requirement is that, if you have a teaching department, whatever the level of research, it should pay for itself. So, if there are more or less good research universities, that does not affect the amount of teaching in chemistry. So, I think there is a big issue around getting the funding right at the teaching side of chemistry.

Q3 Dr Iddon: Even on the teaching side there is a problem in that science and engineering of course is extremely expensive to put on in terms of laboratory accommodation. Fume cupboards are very expensive these days, for example. Even in the engineering workshop provision, that is very expensive. If you just want a teaching only department, the costs proportionally do rise because at least you have the opportunity of bringing research money in to refurbish your laboratories for research purposes. To keep a laboratory running for teaching only purposes would be extremely expensive and I am hearing rumours that the TRAC exercise is showing that there is not a sustainable chemistry department, including Oxford I have to say and Oxford have made that completely well known, with the current dual funding system.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think that getting the information of TRAC is the absolute key to this because, as I say, there is wide disagreement about what the costs of doing these things are. My instinct says that you are absolutely right, that this is much more expensive than we think, and that HEFCE's claim that they fund it on the basis of what information comes from the universities I am not certain is very good information or necessarily on comparable basis. I think getting the TRAC information right, in order that we know what the situation is, is the first step in trying to achieve what I said which is, how do we make certain that the teaching side of this can stand on its own?

Q4 Mr McWalter: Professor Keith O'Nions, Director General of the Research Councils, came before us and afterwards he specifically expressed to me the view that actually you probably need a new University Grants Committee, a new UGC, because they actually have within their brief the welfare of the subject at a national level and the only way of doing things like preserving mathematics at Hull, which is not a particular expensive department, nevertheless maths is perceived as difficult, students will vote with their feet to go into subjects which are perceived by them to be easier and we end up losing a critical mass of capacity on the part of young people for the future welfare of our economy. Surely we must revisit the argument as to whether the role of the UGC should be in place because clearly neither HEFCE nor the Research Councils are capable of fulfilling the function which directs students to subjects other than those to which they feel driven by some kind of market.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think there are three different issues here. One is the number of students and that, to me, in most of these instances, is the biggest area. The system is that if there are the students there, then usually the system will respond to it. I think the first thing that we have to do - and this is about the quality of the teaching, the qualifications and the pay of teachers in science subjects and indeed communicating to young people the importance of these subjects ---

Q5 Mr McWalter: Which we do not do.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Which I do not think we do nearly well enough and I think we have a lot more to do on that. So, we have to make certain that the numbers are there. There is a second issue which is the number of departments. Certainly in chemistry - and I think for most others - there is no problem in terms of the numbers of departments to cover the students who want to do the subject. The third issue is the regional balance of departments across the country and there HEFCE are now taking much more interest in that and looking at whether they should do things to make certain that there is a regional balance. I have to say that the main issue is the numbers of students. As far as departments are concerned, I think this is about incentives and I think that the system responds pretty quickly to incentives. If we say that we are really keen to have more chemistry students or that there is not enough provision for chemistry students, so we need more provision for chemistry students and we will pay at a very good rate, then I think the system is quite responsive to that.

Q6 Chairman: Question 2?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We are very supportive of the ITER project and developing fusion. The EU Competition Council has given the Commission a mandate to negotiate a six party ITER site sited in France and the Council has also given the Commission a mandate to conclude a deal with less than the six partners if necessary. I should say that we are also very keen that facilities such as IFMIF should also be included in this because, if we want to have the fast TRAC, it is important that we have IFMIF being done alongside ITER. The EU is currently negotiating with Japan which will be on the basis of the main ITER site being in France but there will be some facilities also in Japan. We are waiting a response from Japan but I think it is clearly clear that we will have to start making decisions fairly soon and we cannot prolong these negotiations indefinitely. It would be by far the best solution if we could have a negotiated settlement with ITER in Cadarache and some other facilities like IFMIF in Japan.

Q7 Dr Harris: What is the deadline for agreement and what role do you see the UK presidency of the EU play in this?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I do not think that we have a firm deadline but I think, as I said, we are coming up rapidly to decision time on this. There is a Competition Council coming up which will have a report on this and, if there is no sign of movement in the negotiations, then, before we get to the presidency, we will have to start taking action.

Q8 Dr Harris: Before?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, before our presidency.

Q9 Dr Harris: What are the cost implications of going it alone? Obviously we hope that would not apply but, if that is the intention of the EU, are there cost implications to the EU and specifically to the UK?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There are cost implications for the EU. There would be obviously very serious cost implications for France as the host country on this. Of course, it very much depends on who else comes in. If we go it alone, it is quite likely that five of the six players will still come in. We have to work through that, so that we know that, if we do have to go along with that, we can do it within the kind of sensible budgets of the EU plus higher contribution from France.

Q10 Dr Harris: Would Japan be the sixth one that would not come in?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes and even they might come in if the alternative was to do nothing.

Q11 Dr Harris: It is disappointing that the United States is not shoulder-to-shoulder with the UK on this! Do you know why that is? Are you disappointed that our American allies are not persuaded by our strong advocacy of the European alternative/European solution here?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes. It would be clearly very helpful if they were because that would make it four-two.

Q12 Dr Harris: Why do you think they are not? Is it because they do not like the French or is there a scientific reason that they cite?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: They say that they think on balance the Japanese site and proposition is a better one. We have failed to move them from that position.

Chairman: Well, they have French fries back on the menu in American, so things are looking up!

Q13 Dr Turner: There is a great concern over the time surely because the process of negotiation over ITER has been going on for years already. For years, we have all been saying or have all been told - I am listening increasingly hopefully now - that fusion is 25 years away now from commercial application. At the current rate of negotiations on ITER, it took them 25 years of negotiation before anyone actually starts building the machine and, given the increasing urgency in response to climate change and the great potential that fusion could deliver towards that, can we get some greater urgency into this whole business, please, because it seems to me that this is one of the most important things that anyone could hope to achieve.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I totally agree and that is why I said that I think we are getting to the point where certainly the UK position will be that we have to get on with this and, if we cannot do it on a totally negotiated basis, then we have to say that we will go alone and seek to bring in everyone else.

Q14 Dr Turner: When are you going to get to the point of saying, "Right, that is it"?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think we have to wait until we hear more from the Commission about how things are progressing with the Japanese.

Q15 Dr Harris: It will be a better use of money than the Millennium Dome, will it not?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Some people are divided on this issue! I support all science projects enormously enthusiastically.

Q16 Chairman: Well said! Question 3, the Asian Tsunami and no domes!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think we have done quite a lot of useful work because of our very good research in this area. We knew relatively quickly through the British geological survey work about what had happened and we supplied quite a lot of data on this, but there are a whole series of things that we are now doing in the science field to help. We sent out British Geological Service scientists who have gone out to help train Thai scientists. HMS Gott(?) is assigned to undertake a survey of the Indian Ocean earthquake disaster epicentre, that is to help a further understanding of the earthquakes and assist prediction of such events in the future. The Metrological Office is playing a role in improving the global telecommunication system to enable tsunami early warning to be distributed effectively within the area and the Met Office is assisting in the reconstruction of the Maldives and Seychelles metrological services which were particularly affected by the tsunami. We are undertaking a very interesting project between the Thai Government, Bangkok University and a British NGO, Coralcave(?) Conservation, which is looking into the damage of the reefs in the Surin Marine Park in Thailand. Coming closer to home, the Prime Minister asked Sir David King, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, to consider and advise on the mechanisms that could and should be established for the detection and early warning of global physical natural hazards. So, I think we are both helping in a very practical way to the particular short-term situation but also we are looking ahead to see whether there are other things we should do on a more long-term basis.

Q17 Dr Turner: Is it true to say that there is was not enough British expertise that will be contributed towards the development of an early warning system and, if so, what role is DfID playing in this?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In fact, as you probably know, there has been a huge rush of people offering to provide early warning systems and I think we can probably do more about the communication links and how we actually get this working practically in the countries. That is where we are more focusing our efforts in this.

Q18 Dr Turner: How have the Government responded to UNESCO's request to provide scientists to support the sea level monitoring stations in the western Indian Ocean? You clearly had discussions with Sir David King about the role of the British Geological survey in this as well. Will we be partaking in this?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I, frankly, do not know. If I may, I will write to you specifically on that particular question. We are involved in a whole series of these working parties in different areas. What is specifically happening on that I am not certain but I will come back to you.

Dr Turner: It is also true that there is a potential tsunami waiting to happen that would engulf the eastern seaboard of the United States and also affect our own shores. Are you satisfied that we will be prepared if that were to happen?

Chairman: What do you know about tectonic plates that John Prescott does not?

Q19 Dr Turner: There is a bit of the (?) islands that is about to fall into the sea!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There are some issues here and Defra are doing some rather quick studies on that to see whether we should be doing more in terms of the entire UK position on this.

Q20 Chairman: Question 4, scientific publications and access.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I have not specifically talked of Research Councils, that has been done through Keith O'Nions who has been talking to Ian Diamond, who is the Chair of Research Councils UK, on this issue. I personally saw three groups of people on this. First of all Harold Varmus, who is of course the former Head of the National Institute of Health, who was over in this country and who has of course been the biggest proponent of open access publishing in the United States. As I knew him, I arranged to see him because he seemed to be the clearest advocate on this case. I saw Elsevier Science to get the publisher's view and then I saw the Association of Learned Publishers because the learned societies are one of the people who have strong views on that. As I say, Keith O'Nions has been talking to Professor Ian Diamond on Research Councils.

Q21 Chairman: As regards the role of the RCUK in trying to bring the Research Councils together and coming up with a common policy, will the DTI interfere with their independence on this decision?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No. We of course have discussions with them but it is for them to decide what ---

Q22 Chairman: Are the discussions heated or agreeable?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think they have now come to a position and I am waiting for them to come forward with a statement of their views on this subject and that will be fairly soon, I think.

Q23 Chairman: And the rumour is ...?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We do not listen to rumours.

Q24 Chairman: The truth?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: What I can say is that we think it is not very different from our own position on this.

Q25 Dr Harris: How independent are the Research Councils in respect of their policy on this?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Of course they all are. This needs to be said. They all have their own charters; they are totally independent; they have independent chairmen. Equally, I think one should say that the money comes from the Government which fund them and so inevitably there is some influence in terms of their performance and we have a responsibility to monitor that performance. They are independent. They take that independence very seriously and, if we overstep the mark, they tell us to go away, basically.

Q26 Dr Harris: If they came up with a policy of saying that they wanted to see research they had funded made available in some form in a repository, for example, then what is there for the DTI to discuss with them if that is their view?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I suspect it would come down to the question of where the money for that came from but if they said, "This is such an important priority to us that we will provide the money for it", then I think that is probably their choice.

Q27 Chairman: Are you aware that some universities in this country are now setting up such repositories or even investigating setting them up? They are ahead of the game while you are dithering.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We are not against universities setting up repositories. If that is what they feel is in their interests to do and is valuable to their scientists, then we have no reason or desire to stop them. If it comes to a question of where money comes, we have to ask the question, "Do we think this is the best use of money we have?" but if universities want to, I think that is fine.

Q28 Dr Harris: In answer to my question, you said that it would not be an issue for you unless it involved the spending of money but then, if they decided that it was a priority, that would be okay. As I say, I thought that if they were independent in the use and the spending of money, according to their priorities, then I still do not understand what the role of the DTI and the OST is in respect of that policy.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I need to look rather carefully at what are the terms on which we give them money. I think it would be the case - and I would be sympathetic to the view - that if they said, "We have given money from this and we think this has an important priority, so we will give some of our money, as Research Councils, to universities to do that", then I am not certain that we would be in a position to say "no" to them. I would need to look at that question because I am not certain that, in giving the money, how closely we specify how it should be used. It may be that we say that this can only be used for research grants.

Q29 Dr Harris: But you can clarify that?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I will clarify that point.

Q30 Chairman: Question 5, which is about the ten year science and investment framework?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: This has been coordinated in two ways. First of all, the ministerial group on science innovation knowledge economy has a brief to look at this. I am meeting with Kim Howells, who is the Minister in charge of universities and further education in DfES, and we are having quarterly meetings to review it and of course we said that we would have a stock take and publish it in July and we will do that.

Q31 Mr Key: How are the different roles and interests of the departments involved being coordinated?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Through the ministerial group but, before we get to the ministerial group, Kim Howells and I are having these quarterly meetings to review progress on this in order that we make certain that we are working together in pushing it forward.

Q32 Mr Key: Clearly the Research Councils are going to have an important role in delivery. Will the Research Councils have a real terms budget increase to increase their research volume as well under the new settlement?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The amount of money going to them will be a substantial real term increase. It is an increase of 5.8 per cent per annum in real terms. The main part of that, or a chunk of it anyway, will go towards making certain that the projects they fund are more fully funded than they were before. That does not mean that there will be less research or the same amount of research because that will free up other money that universities were using to cover these projects and they can use that in other ways.

Q33 Mr Key: Obviously, full economic costs will have a big impact and so will salary increases have a big impact. Are there any Research Councils that really can look forward to a real terms increase to allow them to expand research?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There is no question. Salary increases in the Research Council area and universities are going up by 5.8 per cent annum in real terms. That is a very substantial increase. In real terms, it is 5.8 per cent per annum and of course that will mean there will be more research done.

Q34 Dr Iddon: How do we involve other stakeholders to ensure that we have maximum efficiency of this very welcome increased expenditure in this area?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think there are two areas. I actually think that the Research Councils do a pretty good job in terms of the way they allocate this money. This in fact goes back to the innovation report because, in the report, we said we will agree knowledge transfer objectives with Research Councils as well and that has been done, and of course we review very carefully the way that that money is allocated by the Research Councils. Finally of course, we have a project to improve the administrative efficiency of Research Councils and the way they work together and we are proceeding on that as well.

Q35 Chairman: Question 6, the last question, which is to do with the staff numbers and the Gershon review in your department?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The DTI's SR for target staff reductions is 1010 is that about 20 per cent of the baseline for the core groups including the Small Business Service but not UKTI. Within that total, the number of OST staff is planned by just four, that is from 149 on 1 April 2005 to 145 on 31 March 2006. That is a very small cut compared to the other cuts across the DTI and reflects the fact that science and engineering, along with knowledge transfer and innovation, are key DTI priorities which were clearly set out in the ten year investment framework.

Q36 Chairman: Are you saying that having the ten-year plan saved their bacon?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I also think it was a recognition of how hard people in the OST work.

Q37 Chairman: There is another way of looking at that: it could have increased as well to recognise the heightened interest in science and technology within Government.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes but even I do not have the nerve, while the rest of the department has been cut by 20 per cent, to say, "We should now have a 10 per cent increase." I think people do have to work very hard in this part of the DTI but I think that, with those numbers, we can do a first-class job.

Q38 Chairman: Are you saying that here has been some degree of ring-fencing against this?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In a situation like this where one is cutting by 20 per cent, which is really very substantial, then I think we have to ask where the priorities are and, as the DTI's five-year plan makes very clear, science and innovation is not just a priority for the OST, it is now the number one priority really for the DTI itself.

Q39 Chairman: After 5 May - and none of us know what is really going to happen including anyone sitting around here, for example - do you think that the OST will be moved? What have you picked up? I see some of your officials smiling behind you.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: As far as I know, not if the Labour Government ---

Q40 Chairman: Not even a rumour? We have picked up rumours or is it just fluff?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I do not know. Even my special adviser has not come up with a good rumour in this area and, if special advisers are not on to it ...

Q41 Chairman: Maybe they are one of the four, of course!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: That is true!

Q42 Chairman: The Chief Scientific Adviser has often spoken in different environments about the number of people he has under his control going to other departments, Government Departments, to see how they are operating and indeed has said that they have to use consultants at goodness knows what cost. I think he sent something like one person into a department amplified by such consultants. Is finding out how departments do it a good thing for the recognition of science? Is this the best way to get information? He has done a report in DCMS and you will know of the difficulties in others. Is that not caused by the fact that you do not have enough people - a team/taskforce going in?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think it is always the question of whether you need people as permanent staff or whether you need them for one-off assignments to do particular things. In this case, I think that, given the pressures, we have taken the view that it has to be one-off: this is considered as essentially one-off assignments for particular areas. I have to say that my own particular view is that we too often use consultants in these areas and we should push the balance a little further back towards permanent people, but it is a difficult thing where you have lumpy assignments, of course.

Q43 Chairman: Is it not really a permanent revolution going into these departments and finding out? It is not just a one-off thing and that is it forever. In the same way as this Committee has looked at and scrutinised Research Councils which many people have valued and some have not. It would not be something where you would do it once and that is it forever, would it? Your scrutiny of Government Departments would not be just a one-off either, would it? It would be a permanent revolution, would it not?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Of course, you would want to come back and do more scrutinies of the Research Council, but if you could give us a short break before you do the next lot, that would be appreciated! The odd moment when we were not under scrutiny might be helpful.

Chairman: Thank you very much. Can I say personally that it has been a pleasure that you have reacted to our request that you come and answer questions and you have done that very openly and in a most friendly fashion with the Committee and it has been very welcome. I hope the scientific and technology community out there value this new enterprise. Thank you very much, David. I hope to see you back on 6 May! That was not a question, David, you do not have to answer!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I was going to tell you about a meeting I had with the Japanese Science Minister when I said to him, "In the UK, we have an expression that a week is a long time in politics" and he said, "In Japan, we also have a phrase like that. We say, 'Three centimetres ahead and all is darkness.'" That is the basis I am working on at the moment!

Chairman: I am sure that your support will see you home again! Thank you very much.