Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2001
BROOK, OBE, AND
180. There are two different meanings to the
word, the one word is bringing them together, and that is the
(Professor Brook) That is the risk but I think the
NERC courageously is aiming to bring a single programme from it
and we shall regard that with sympathy.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Dr Kumar?
181. Professor Brook, in your memorandum you
say that you anticipated funding £6 million of research into
sustainable energy in the year 2001-02. Has that allocation now
(Professor Brook) That is fair. We estimate on an
annual basis what monies we can give out to the different programme
areas and there are details of that to be refined, but certainly
within the approximation about £6 million would be a fair
182. Can you tell us how the division of funds
between different programmes within the EPSRC is decided and what
factors affect the allocation of resources?
(Professor Brook) We work on an annual cycle. Advice
is given to the Council by two panels. There is a Technical Opportunities
Panel, so-called, which is largely academic in its representation.
The task of that group is to indicate to the Council subjects
which are particularly ripe for research scrutiny because the
yield will be high. We also have a User Panel which is predominantly
industrial colleagues who advise us of anticipated needs that
they have identified. The two panels review business plans for
the eight programme areas. They consider alternatives for the
use of the money and they give advice to the Council which then
allocates the finance. The criteria which are used (there used
to be six broadly, they grew then to about 18 with subheadings)
include such things as the intellectual excitement of the area,
the relevance of it for national goals, the question, is there
a research community in the country capable of performing this
work, the question, is there an industrial community in the United
Kingdom that would be capable of benefiting from the research
were it done, the question if the EPSRC is unable to fund this
will there be other agencies such as the European Union that will
be able to step in? A range of criteria of that kind are considered
by the two panels as they advise the Council how to allocate its
monies. The decisions are made on an annual basis and the programme
managers then commit monies to the universities for student training
and for research grants in line with those allocations.
183. How does the allocation of money which
you allocate, the £6 million in this case, compare with America,
France and Germany, your equivalent counterparts in those countries,
and do you consider £6 million to be adequate?
(Professor Brook) Whether £6 million is adequate
I do repeat that the EPSRC is concerned with fundamental research,
testing of concepts and identifying the existence of promise in
particular renewable categories. You will be alert to the fact
that it is often considered that research may require so much
money but then development will require ten times more than that
and then setting something into place will require 100 times more
than that. I do not like to phrase it that way but the EPSRC is
working at the lower cost end of the spectrum.
184. Let me put it another way: would you like
more money from the Government for that?
(Professor Brook) It has never been known that a research
council chief executive would sit here and say we are content
with the finance. Successive Governments have shown genuine support
for science and its place in the scheme of things and I think
we have to be grateful for that. The concern we would have is
whether there are brilliant researchers with splendid ideas who
are unable to win support from us as a consequence of the finance
which we have. If you look at the success rates which we are able
to bring to energy support, which tend to be round about 50 per
cent or even a little higher, then I have to say that in comparison
with American, French and German success rates that is not at
all a disadvantageous position.
185. You say you are very happy to have more
money but have you tried to increase your spending by levering
funds from other bodies or collaborating with research councils,
the European Union or any other government departments?
(Professor Brook) Advantage is taken of opportunities
to collaborate where they arise, very often by the academics concerned.
I have to say that colleagues in universities are now extremely
alive to the opportunities for support from different agencies
both within the United Kingdom Government and more widely. I must
emphasis again that the EPSRC has this role of supporting fundamental
research into these subject areas in a way which allows beginnings
to be made and promise to be confirmed but then, perhaps with
colleagues in the DTI or other departments within government,
you have to call on wider sums of money, larger sums of money
to put things to the test and see whether that promise can actually
be realised. Again Peter Hedges could comment on the links that
arise with other departments.
(Dr Hedges) We have had some very constructive discussions
recently with the DTI in particular because they obviously have
their own renewables programme and there is excellent opportunity
for improving the synergy between the two programmes. We certainly
have discussed with the DTI the prospect of having some joint
funding arrangements. It is very early stages at present. Echoing
what Richard has just said, there is a concern that it is very
difficult to turn up the amount of funding you put into any particular
area very quickly because there is a risk that you fund lower
quality research which is not necessarily a good buy for the nation,
and I think again because of the way we are looking to restructure
the programme and fund these large consortia, part of the reason
for doing that is to try and build a critical mass of researchers
which can usefully use additional funding into the future in a
broader programme given the strong political need for further
research in renewable energy in the context of global warming.
186. Any at European level?
(Dr Hedges) I think there are always good prospects
of developing better links between United Kingdom researchers
and those particularly in the EU. Certainly I have discussed with
members of the academic community research that they are carrying
out, for example in collaboration with groups in the US as well.
We have discussed with a number of other funding agencies in Europe
the possibility of doing things in a more collaborative way and
with the advent of the next Framework Programme, Framework VI,
I suspect that kind of dual funding or co-operative funding arrangement
is likely to grow.
187. Professor Brook, you slightly hinted that
you see your role as an organisation as providing research funding
for basic research but would you broaden that and say it is to
see good ideas being taken off the drawing board towards testing
the feasibility of all possible energy sources, or do you see
it as a basic funding body and let everything else follow after
(Professor Brook) I think we would be in error were
we to see our task as completing the initial steps in a process
then closing the door and refusing to talk with the world beyond
that. It is an essential part of it to report on what has been
achieved with the finance we have provided and to make sure, where
possible, that that research finds its way through into the next
stage in the process. It is true that in renewable energy issues
a number of the opportunities have existed for a very long time.
The fuel cell is perhaps the one with the longest tradition and
therefore the rate of progress which you can make is less dramatic
than in fresh subjects such as the post genome. So I think it
is fair to say that in energy we look for breakthroughs where
they can arise but we recognise that the crucial steps between
the present and ensuring that one or other of these schemes can
come to commercial reality will involve things like costs, in
particular, and the competition between the expense of this particular
energy generation scheme and another one. Very many variables
come into it beyond that of the basic research that lay at the
outset. We try to draw everything through of course. We try to
find friends that will help us in the next stage of that process
but it is a very complex one.
188. Professor, your memorandum supplies us
with details of the proportion of research grants given to each
of the currently available reviewable technologieswind,
solar, and so on. How do you determine how much each technology
(Professor Brook) A large factor there will be the
enthusiasm of those advocating the research, there is no doubt.
Within the research council we allocate some two-thirds of the
money in the responsive modethat is where the principal
investigator for the research is a product champion for that researchwho
comes to the council and says: "I believe in this development.
I believe I have a particularly attractive way of going about
the next stage. Can I have support for that?" We put that
proposal out to peer review and if the peer reviewers are persuaded
that is correct then money can be allocated. One of the largest
factors in the shape of our programme is the shape of the interests
of those making applications to us.
189. Do you take into account the availability
of alternative funding or the environmental impact of technology?
(Professor Brook) I am sure that the peer reviewers
take into account special factors such as the environmental impact
of the technology because that impacts on its feasibility. Their
concern always is, is this work original? Is it relevant to national
needs interpreted in the widest range? And therefore they will
do some balance of its advantages and disadvantages and try to
reach a conclusion.
190. Of all the range of technologies which
you are currently supporting which do you think will be able to
supply the most significant part of our energy requirements in
the future? If you have a view on that, how do you form it?
(Professor Brook) I try to keep my personal views
out of the council's operations, I suspect correctly, but I have
been struck by the fact that those who have been concerned with
energy developments both in the industrial and public sector find
it very difficult to make choices between these alternatives.
If you are saying should we abandon fuel cells and move into photovoltaics
completely with commitment, it is very difficult to get people
to make that choice because energy is particularly effective in
producing champions for given branches of the technology. You
get passionate belief that this way is the correct way to do things.
As a research council I think we have to respect passion in research
where that does arise. My own inclination isno, I do not
think it is business for here.
(Dr Hedges) There are practicalities concerned with
the application of renewables of any form and that, I suspect,
is going to be a key driver as to which will reach prominence.
There are only so many wind turbines you can put across this country
even using offshore. Likewise, there are only so many solar panels
you can install bearing in mind the inclement weather. There are
a lot of other challenges, for example concerning nuclear power,
which is a very big issue and one which is raised with us very
regularly. People do argue that nuclear is the ultimate renewable
energy generator of course. It is very difficult to say from a
research point of view which is most likely to be useful.
191. Do you have any view about the potential
contribution from wind and wave?
(Dr Hedges) There are a number of challenges which
are outwith the technology. If you talk to, say, the regional
electricity companies, the regulatory procedures are challenged
because wind and wave generation stations are likely to be small
and likely to be distributed. They would argue that the existing
regulatory regime does not encourage them to install those kinds
of generators on the network. So there are challenges in that
192. I am a little confused. Are you saying
it is not your job to try to pick winners and determine what is
likely to have the best future, but you should finance everything
and it will get sorted out at a different level which is outside
(Professor Brook) That puts it in disparaging terms
but there is an element of truth in that. For a basic research
council there are dangers in deciding too early that this one
is going to win over the others, particularly where there are
research questions still to be answered. The argument that the
Council has often followed is that one reason it exists is to
help the country to be ready to deal with the next period of change
and the next period of change will involve modifications in the
way we generate and store energy, and therefore somewhere within
the national knowledge system you want people who are informed
about the alternatives. I have noted even in the industrial sector
with energy companies that they back horses much longer than I
would have thought necessary. There is still a tendency within
the energy sector to back every horse within the race. I can understand
completely the spirit of your question but I do not feel guilty
that we for the moment suspend our decision.
Chairman: I meant to put it bluntly, I did not
mean to put it disparagingly, and if I did I apologise.
193. How many projects does your council currently
support in the United Kingdom?
(Dr Hedges) It is ten grants involving eight institutions.
The total value is just over £1.1 million.
194. And are those all for wave energy projects?
(Dr Hedges) Those are all for wave energy.
The total number of renewable energy projects is in the brief.
195. Did you have any difficulty in finding
sufficient projects to support? Were they all of high quality?
(Dr Hedges) We were content with the quality of the
projects that we funded through the renewable energy programmes
certainly over the last couple of years, and I think it is a fair
assessment that we could have funded more. I think in all of the
managed and responsive projects we fund we could finance more
196. Why is it that there are fewer wave and
tidal projects, in fact no tidal projects at all, than, say, fuel
cells or photovoltaics?
(Dr Hedges) It is a combination of two factors. Firstly,
historically we had two specific managed programmes that just
addressed photovoltaics and fuel cells. A certain number of the
existing portfolio are projects that dated from those programmes.
Since we have run the single renewables programme (which covers
all of the new technologies) wave has been reasonably successful
and the success rate for funding is broadly comparable with the
other areas. As Richard has said, to a certain extent the projects
we fund are determined by the applications we receive. Because
we have not at this stage had a specific earmark funding just
for wave or tidal we have not specifically said we must fund X
projects in that area. They have competed reasonably well. The
community in photovoltaics and fuel cells is perhaps larger. It
is perhaps more multi-disciplinary because chemists and material
scientists are interested in that area so there is a large group
of people to call on. Wave power just calls on engineers and as
such we receive fewer projects. The success rates are reasonable.
197. Have you received no tidal applications?
(Dr Hedges) As far as I am aware. I will have to check
to see whether we have received any.
(Professor Brook) We have a document relating to an
evaluation of the overall energy programme which I am pleased
to leave with you which does give details about the number of
applications we have got in the different sectors and their response
rates. May I point to a dynamic amongst academic colleagues. If
you set in place a managed programme and indicate to the university
community that finance will be available for that you then draw
people into that subject area very rapidly. You have then called
a community into being which expects to be supported for the foreseeable
future, so you have to be very careful about picking one branch
of renewables and saying we really believe that fuel cells, as
we did a few years ago, are very attractive because then everybody
comes and promises to do fuel cell work and you feel happy about
that. That means that some years later you have, as implied by
your question I think, a balance between these different renewables
which looks to be a little more favourable to one sector rather
198. The Government has told us that the UK
is one of the leaders in the field of wave energy. Do you agree
with that statement and, if so, how secure do you think our position
is or are others likely to catch up and overtake us?
(Professor Brook) There is absolutely no doubt that
the United Kingdom has been responsible for major, ingenious advances
within wave energy. I do not call that into question at all. We
have national advantage also in that our waves are often quite
large ones and tides rise more than they do in the Baltic, for
example. If ingenuity and national climate were all that were
needed I think we would be in a very good position. The difficulty
of course lies in the fact that the energy field is extremely
competitive. It is competitive in a fluctuating way because of
the dominance of carbon fuels and their price, and therefore it
is very difficult to move from the research level, where I think
we are in promising condition, to the point where you can say
this is now ready to be introduced.
199. How much part do you think political factors
can play in this?
(Professor Brook) Political factors always play an
important role but my impression here is that an industrial champion
is needed who believes that this particular risk to introduce
this form of renewable energy generation is now worth taking.
1 Note by Witness: EPSRC supports eight wave
energy and two tidal energy projects. Back