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-builtconference
centre does not really do it justicefacility 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.
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
(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
(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
(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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
(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.
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 questionand
I appreciate Dr Taylor may answer these questionswhat 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 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.
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
57. Are we going to be able to fund all the
departments who have received these much higher grades than in
(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 researchand Harry Kroto springs to mindthat 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 exerciseand it has gone out of my
mind but it will come back in a moment.
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 spectrumbetween
the most basic and pure science right through to very near market
R&Dyou 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.