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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 9 March 2011
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Anna Barth, Camden School for Girls, London, Jack Bliss, Allerton Grange School, Leeds, Jessica Grainger, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic College, Widnes, Hilary Lamb, Stroud High School, Gloucestershire, James May, Castell Alun High School, Hope (near Wrexham), and Charlie Palin, Neston High School, Merseyside, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Welcome everyone. Can I, first of all, thank the six witnesses for coming along this morning? Some of you, I know, had some fairly early travel plans to get here. Those of us in the north-west understand what that means. So welcome to all of you.
What we are trying to do this morning is to find out what really switches people on to science. The common theme among all of you is links to physics and astronomy. We are trying to delve into what worked for you and at what age that started to gel. Also, when we meet some of the experienced scientists later on in our other witness sessions, we want to know what they can do to help meet some of the gaps that you and we see that may exist.
Charlie, I am going to start with you because you go to school in my constituency. This is a very rare occasion because, usually, it is the other way round, that constituents get the opportunity to quiz their MPs. Let us have it the other way round. I am going to start with you and then I am going to ask all of you in turn to comment quickly on this question. What originally got you interested in astronomy and physics?
Charlie Palin: The first thing was being interested in science at school. The key thing was having a teacher who engaged well and had a real passion for the subject. Also, I was intrigued by the way things worked. Then I found that that led naturally to physics. But I think it is key that a teacher engages well and shows you what the subject has to offer.
James May: From an early age I always wanted to find out how different things work. Even very early on, I was very interested in the intricacies of things. When I went to high school, I found that there were some teachers who shared that passion and they took courses in physics and astronomy to find out more. Through their enthusiasm, I followed on from that.
Hilary Lamb: I have never not been interested in astronomy and physics because it is the science of everything. I don’t understand how you can’t be. Since a very early age I’ve just been rained down with books and TV programmes about astronomy. That has really helped. As well as that, being able to do science rather than just have the textbook approach really got me interested.
Jessica Grainger: I am not from a particular scientific background, so when I started secondary school I had such an opportunity from visiting speakers and so many other interactive workshops. The Science and Technology Facilities Council brought in lunar samples when I was in year 7 and it got me really interested. In year 9, that followed up when I was able to see a laboratory-a working environment.
Jack Bliss: I can only echo the other guys here. It was a desire to understand the way things worked-what made thinks click together. I was also fairly lucky in that I had a teacher who had spent a lot of time in the field. She discovered a few new species of fish and that kind of thing. If you get lucky and you get somebody who is really able to articulate what is good about it, you get it a bit yourself as well.
Anna Barth: I was slightly less lucky in that I had physics teachers who didn’t do physics or hadn’t done a physics degree. So I never really liked physics until my dad got me a New Scientist subscription. Then I just couldn’t stop reading it. Then I did an extra GCSE in astronomy, which my school supported, with two other friends, so that helped.
Chair: That answer might please some of the journalists listening in. I will hand over to David Morris.
Q2 David Morris: Most of what I was going to ask in the first part of the question has been answered with what you have said, but have you visited or used any scientific facilities which have furthered your motivation to study astronomy or physics? How important have your teachers and experiences been in pushing you into studying science? I will start with Anna and move all the way along.
Anna Barth: I visited CERN on my first school trip and I found it really inspiring to see the different scientists from around the world collaborating. That was really important. Also, over the summer I was lucky enough to do work experience at UCL and Harvard. In the A-Level course I didn’t really get a picture of what a scientist actually does, but from those work experiences that was made clearer, I found it really inspiring and it made me want to continue my studies.
Jack Bliss: Have you ever been to Magna in Sheffield?
David Morris: I haven’t, no.
Jack Bliss: It’s great. I can really recommend it. If you’ve got kids, take them there. It is primary school level science but completely reinvented. It’s fantastic. I would say it was probably one of the things that got me interested. I would love to go to CERN but Magna is the next best thing.
Jessica Grainger: My teacher was in a physics teachers’ network so, for my work experience, she was able to get me a placement with the NSO at the Astrophysics Research Institute. It was brilliant to see the working environment and how it is a viable career because I had never really experienced it from where I was.
Hilary Lamb: In years 11 and 12, I used the Faulkes Telescope in Hawaii over the internet, which any students in any school can use. In year 11, I discovered some Be stars and made some Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams, and in year 12 I joined in with the search for NEOs. It was really brilliant to be able to take the project in my own direction rather than just follow the instructions in a textbook. That was really great.
James May: I can definitely echo what the other witnesses have said here. In years 10 and 11, I was doing the GCSE physics course, which was a very good course, but the GCSE astronomy course allows you to push yourself that little bit more. Again, by using the Faulkes Telescope and also the NSO, we have used different aspects from them that allow us to expand our knowledge but not in a way that keeps you narrow-minded. It opens your mind and it allows you to push yourself much further than you could have thought. It is very, very good for that.
Charlie Palin: Later on this year, partly funded by the Institute of Physics, we are going to CERN for a tour, which I am really looking forward to because I am interested in that specific area of physics. You can do the course in the classroom as much as you want, but what really inspires and catches young people’s eyes into physics is getting hands on with the subject and actually going and seeing what it can lead to, not just learning about it.
Q3 Stephen Metcalfe: Good morning, everyone. How important do you believe the media is in promoting science, whether it is on television or through the papers, in promoting astronomy and physics? Can you each name who is your most inspirational figure perhaps from television or other media?
Anna Barth: I am probably not the best person to ask because I don’t watch science programmes on TV. I find reading about it in publications and in the New Scientist more interesting, but for a role model, it is probably the woman I worked with at Harvard, because she is a woman in science. She was just great. She was so enthusiastic about everything and just really great.
Stephen Metcalfe: That’s interesting. Jack?
Jack Bliss: I don’t watch much television either. I have been very disappointed with the few "science-y" television programmes I have watched. They are very dumbed down and they repeat a lot of shots of balloons exploding and stuff. It’s all analogy and there’s no actual educational value beyond concepts. But I do read New Scientist a lot and I try and read publications of things that I am interested in as much as I can.
Q4 Stephen Metcalfe: So you don’t think the programmes inspire people to take the same level of interest that you have?
Jack Bliss: No. It is bite-sized little chunks that you can have and then forget about. It is all shot and written to make the person watching feel cleverer than the show is, if you get me. As for a scientist that you can see as a role model, probably da Vinci would have to be one of the best ones because he was not just a scientist.
Q5 Chair: He is not producing television programmes, is he?
Jack Bliss: No, he’s not. He’s not really around any more.
Q6 Chair: What about current ones?
Jack Bliss: Current ones, okay. Probably none of them. Brian Cox would be the closest because he was in a rock band, but not really.
Q7 Stephen Metcalfe: Jessica?
Jessica Grainger: I think the media is quite important in terms of educating the older generation, who, in turn, enthuse the same enthusiasm within the children. Personally, from the media, I saw Jocelyn Bell-Burnell in a programme last year, I think it was, on the BBC. I have respect for her being so successful as a female in physics at a time when it is so difficult to be so.
Hilary Lamb: I think the media is really, really important when it comes to inspiring young people. I am a fan of Horizon, which is one of my favourites. It is important to be able to show physics at work rather than just in a classroom. There is a problem because a lot of people, who, perhaps, might not be educated in physics, can look at sensationalist or pseudo-scientific programmes-"The LHC is going to eat the world", that kind of thing-and they will take it seriously, which is dangerous and you have got to try to separate that.
My personal inspiration is Carl Sagan. He is not around any more. I think he was brilliant not just because of his work in astronomy but also because he broke the stereotype that science was inaccessible and not poetic. I have to admit, quite embarrassingly, that perhaps the scientist on TV who has inspired most people I know is Dr Who, because it is one of the only positive interpretations of a scientist you get on TV.
Stephen Metcalfe: Interesting. James?
James May: I am of the belief as well that the media is hugely important. It is all around us at the moment, both in the form of television and newspapers. One way or another, it surrounds us. It is also a lot of what young scientists look for. If they look for information, they tend to use the internet, again surrounded by media.
Although the television programmes give you an insight into the different aspects of astronomy and physics, it takes the more specialised publications like the New Scientist to push you that little bit further. That is what some of the TV programmes are lacking. They could do with being able to show us a little bit more and to teach us slightly more as well, rather than just giving us an insight.
Stephen Metcalfe: Thank you. Charlie?
Charlie Palin: I agree with James. TV shows do a very good job at what they are trying to do, which is to appeal to the wider audience and engage with most people. What is essential is for people to read current publications, such as Physics World and Focus magazines from the BBC, so that they can not just see it on TV and get a little insight but engage deeply with current affairs as to what is happening. I think that is essential.
Stephen Metcalfe: Thank you.
Gavin Barwell: Good morning. I studied theoretical physics at university, but aside from my membership of this Committee I hav e not used it since I graduated.
Q8 Gavin Barwell: What are all your plans in terms of future study and what do you see yourself doing career-wise in the future ? To give someone else a chance of going first, Jessica, do you want to say something?
Jessica Grainger: I was really focused on a career in physics, but I wanted something that had a more humanitarian aspect to it. So I decided to do medicine and I am really interested in the applications of physics. I am looking to do medicine and then, hopefully, to specialise in radiology and be able to work with physics in that way.
Hilary Lamb: I am starting my MScience in physics this autumn. The idea of a career in research does appeal to me, but there is an issue in that if I want to have a career in research I will have to stay in a university rather than work for a company. There are some physics students who might end up moving to the Netherlands, where there is the ESA, to Switzerland, where there is CERN, or America with NASA, because there is a certain lack of jobs that use these skills in theoretical physics and astronomy.
James May: I have always had an interest in aviation. I have always wanted to follow that up. Again, it is very closely related to physics and to astrophysics. So I would probably be more interested in finding a degree subject that gives general access but you can also specialise in aviation engineering. I think it is very closely linked to most areas of physics. After that, I would probably go into astrophysics purely because it is more mathematically based and I find I do enjoy it more.
Charlie Palin: I have known for a very long time that physics was the route I wanted to take and that is what I wanted to do when I went to university. I also think that, after that, I would love to go into research. That is why it is essential that we continue pushing and funding programmes like CERN so that young people from the country who have just graduated from university and want to follow a research path have somewhere they can go and look to if that is what they want to do.
Anna Barth: I am planning on doing physics and natural sciences at university, and a career in research would be really exciting, especially after the work experience that I did, but I am not sure. A month ago I thought, maybe, I was going to be a cello maker because I play the cello. So I am not sure about the career, and my desire to do it at university isn’t motivated by the career.
Jack Bliss: I was considering doing maths for a long time at university, but it’s not practical. You don’t do a lot. You just sit round thinking, so I’m applying to do electronic engineering, specifically robotics, which is probably what I am going to end up doing, hopefully. Either somebody in the military or a toy company will give me a job, because those are only the two real things you can do with it.
Q9 Pamela Nash: First of all, may I apologise for being late? This is, probably, the session that I have been most looking forward to since I became a member of this Committee. I was really disappointed that I could not come earlier this morning. From what I have heard so far, I am really impressed by the level of thought that you have put into your future careers. I have to say that when I went to university, which was only a few years ago, I just did what I fancied out of the prospectus and hoped it would lead me somewhere I would like to go to, which has happened. So I think that both methods of choosing your course work.
Do any of you feel that there are any barriers you perceive at the moment to continuing your studies, specifically the girls, and that being female may provide a barrier to your continuing towards your chosen career path? I also ask this question of the boys if yo u have any insight. I don’t know who has not been first yet.
Anna Barth: For females, at the moment it seems pretty good because we are so rare. Because of positive discrimination we have it easier, maybe. There is definitely a lack of female role models. I question why that is. It seems that, since it is such a male-dominated field, it could be a bit intimidating, so I am not sure.
Jack Bliss: I don’t think I have any barriers, really; no, nothing. I don’t see any barriers I could face in getting into physics at all.
Jessica Grainger: I have always had female physics teachers so I never even thought of it as being a barrier, to be honest. I think it is lucky that we are studying science at a time which is so accepting of women.
Hilary Lamb: I haven’t come across any barriers myself, but I think a lot of people give up physics after GCSE because they think it is not going to lead to anything. I have to admit that the GCSE course is quite dry. For girls, unfortunately, it is seen as unglamorous. I think that does need to change. That might be what is holding a lot of people back, even though it is self-imposed, I am sorry to say.
James May: There are not a huge amount of barriers. If you have the determination to do something, it is quite easy that you can do it. If you are willing to put up with the challenges you may face along the way, it’s still perfectly capable of doing. Unfortunately, as some people at the moment may find, one of the main problems is the cost. Further education does come with its own fees. I am not hugely versed in them at the moment, but I know that big changes are coming with university tuition fees. I think that may put some people off, which would be a huge shame; it really would.
Charlie Palin: I would like to echo what Hilary and James said about the fees. I also think it is crucial that people taking physics and people who want to do physics don’t just see the short term in going to university. It is really good if they can see where they are heading and where they want to be placed after university. So they don’t just have a short-term plan; they know that it will lead to something. I think that is important.
Q10 Pamela Nash: Can I just follow up on that? Do you have any ideas, then, how we can show young people what careers they could have and not just the courses?
Charlie Palin: Work placements, pushing summer schools and stuff like that. We need to get companies to contact students, talk to them and show them what they have on offer after they have done their university course.
Jack Bliss: It is partly to do with the syllabus. When you sit in a science lesson and you do some of the experiments, they seem completely irrelevant and there is no connection to any real world application. You need to try and have a syllabus that has a more practical focus. I do not mean actual experiments, sitting in a lab, but things that are relevant to the way we work as human beings.
For example, I’ve got no idea how a computer works. I use one every day and I am fairly familiar with a few programming languages, but I have no idea of where things are pushing things. We even do electronics. We are doing electronics in science at the moment, and I still don’t know. It is all theory. It is all ground work. There is no solid application.
Hilary Lamb: I know you have to learn from the textbooks the names of the planets over and over again in your earlier years, but it’s not useful just knowing that. It is so much more motivating to be actually doing some research yourself. If young people saw that they could do things that were useful that pushed the frontiers of research rather than making notes on Moments from a book, I think that would be a lot better for young people.
Anna Barth: I agree with that. I think that course work is a good opportunity to do those kinds of things. In my experience, the course work is just memorising lists of things that you have to say and then carrying out an experiment that you have already done five times. So there is no element of discovery in any of the physics course.
Jack Bliss: You watch a ruler twang backwards and forwards.
Q11 Chair: Jessica mentioned the STFC bringing in lunar samples to your school. I have to say I can never forget the thrill I had the first time that I handled a lunar sample. It was from the very first Moon landing, which was phenomenal. It is just a buzz, isn’t it? It really makes you think.
Jessica Grainger: Yes.
Q12 Chair: Have any of you others had experiences like that driven by the STFC or any other organisation?
Jessica Grainger: I had a letter from the STFC. I won a science prize in year 9 and it was funded by the STFC. It was based at the Daresbury Laboratory, which they were funded through. It was really good for looking at careers in science. Afterwards, they realised that we were people who were interested in science and they took us on a tour. We were able to ask questions to see what they did.
Chair: Anybody else?
Jack Bliss: The only experience that I have had of anything similar to what you had was the first time I realised the implication of what was happening. I was in a car and I saw the glare bouncing off the back of a car in front of me. It was the first time I really understood what that glare was, like photons travelling all the way from the Sun, a straight shot, eight minutes’ old light, bouncing off the car and into my eye. It is humbling to think that it had come all that way and it was just not going to do anything useful from then on.
Q13 Chair: T hat was something you saw but nobody else introduced it to you.
Jack Bliss: Yes. Nobody has ever really done anything like that, no.
Hilary Lamb: I think that everybody needs to watch Cosmos. That really does put a different spin on things.
Q14 Stephen Metcalfe: How do you think your peers view your interest in science-physics and astronomy? Have you ever experienced any pressure not to do that? Hilary talked about it not being very glamorous. Are there more negative connotations to your experiences?
Hilary Lamb: Yes. People think I’m weird, to put it bluntly. There are not many people at all doing physics. It is the least popular subject in my 6th form. I don’t know why they think I’m weird. It is probably because they think it’s just spending a lifetime doing differentiation. Then, again, going back to the media, when they see programmes by Brian Cox, they can see why I am interested in it. There is an overwhelming attitude, which is that physics is boring. I don’t think that is fair.
James May: It is quite closely linked as well to the teachers you have for that particular subject. I find that I can self-motivate myself into research at certain times, whereas some of my peers can’t do that. I think it is the teachers’ lack of motivation and they are not being able to push, rather than just sitting with a textbook and telling us things out of the textbook. They don’t push us, whereas some people can push themselves. The people who can’t do that tend to struggle more.
Charlie Palin: There is definitely a stereotype apparent about people taking physics. It is all about being locked up in a really hot stuffy classroom with books and working things out. I think this can be addressed by showing what it can lead to in work and showing that it is not just books in a classroom. It is a matter of addressing the stereotype.
Q15 Stephen Metcalfe: Does anyone else want to comment?
Anna Barth: It is actually really positive at my school, and I think, definitely because of the two really good physics teachers I had, not very many people dropped it from AS. I know that there is a stereotype out there, but I have not really experienced it personally.
Jack Bliss: I have never ever been pressured into not doing physics. People think it is lame but nobody has ever said to me, "You shouldn’t do physics." In fact, you have to find the right moments to bring it up, but nobody ever tells you that it is stupid. It is one of those stereotypes that I am aware of, that doing science and being interested in science is not cool, but I have never had any proof or evidence of it.
Jessica Grainger: People seem just to accept it. I have done science and maths since I started at the school. My friends have just accepted that that is what I do. If anything, people are interested as to why I am interested in it, rather than trying to stop me from doing it in the first place.
Hilary Lamb: There are times, sometimes, when I am sitting in a physics lesson watching water boil and a thermometer, and I think, "What am I doing?" When I tell a friend, "I found a Be star", they say, "That’s interesting. What’s that?" I think a lot of it is about the syllabus. They have had bad experiences with the syllabus at GCSE standard.
Charlie Palin: I think that is a key for the teacher to also ignite the passion and show that there is no stereotype lower down the school, at the GCSE and before that. There is definitely a stereotype. They can get rid of that.
Stephen Metcalfe: Thank you.
Q16 Roger Williams: Thank you very much. Without building your egos up too much, I guess that everyone around this table would think that enthusiastic young scientists like you are the most precious asset that we have, and much more precious than facilities. Some of us do scientist pairing schemes where we have young scientists who have just done their doctorate, for instance. Although they are still enthusiastic, they are perhaps not quite so enthusiastic as you are. Do you know anything about the career structure in science? If you do, what could we do as a Committee to ensure that we lay out a path for you that would encourage you to keep up your enthusiasm and keep you working in science?
Jack Bliss: Keep being scientists, really. Science is self-propagating because it begets itself. The more you know, the more you can learn. The only thing that is going to stop more scientists from emerging is for science itself to stop. Beyond that, nothing.
Q17 Roger Williams: Have you talked to people who are having a career in science or are a bit further on?
James May: I have not looked into it too much, but that is primarily because we have not been told very much about it. Maybe at a younger age, maybe as far as GCSE level and definitely A Level, to be able to be offered a position, like a work experience placement, if you like, and to be able to push a little bit more to learn what you want to learn by shadowing somebody, for instance, could give you the extra help you need to follow the course and, again, further on, maybe at degree level, to shadow somebody slightly higher up, just to keep your path where you want to go, really.
Charlie Palin: I definitely think the closest I ever came to understanding what careers there were was a work experience in year 10. It is definitely key that there are more schemes like that that happen so that there are more students going out into the field and seeing what it can lead to and not just the syllabus itself.
Hilary Lamb: I did my work shadowing with British Energy. I found it was really positive. There were lots of graduates who were working with British Energy and they were hoping to get jobs with them afterwards. Something I would say is that I think it is pretty easy to get a job in science because you will always need scientists, but something that is a bit harder, and this is an inquiry into astronomy and particle physics, is getting a career out of something a bit more theoretical. I think that is harder in Britain. You might have to go over to Europe to do that.
Jessica Grainger: Any experience that I have of the structure of scientific careers has come from speakers we have had in the school or from work experience, again. I think those were the most important things for me, really.
Anna Barth: My work experience, again, was very important. One thing that made me a little bit nervous, and I don’t know what could be done about it, is that, at Harvard, UCL and even with the science teachers I have now, a lot of their time is spent trying to work out where they are going to get funding from for different projects and getting grants and less time actually doing science. That doesn’t seem too appealing.
Q18 Stephen McPartland: I have a couple of quick questions. Are any of you aware that the UK Space Agency was created last year? Secondly, have any of you had the opportunity to go into a company and see them use science at the cutting edge to push forward the barriers? For example, in my constituency we have a couple of thousand people who produce 25% of the world’s telecommunication satellites and a huge variety of physicists, and people are involved in a whole variety of different earth observation techniques and everything else. Have you had an opportunity to go into companies like that, to meet people, to see that there is a career structure and that there is a real opportunity to push forward as individuals in your own field? No.
Jack Bliss: Is the UK Space Agency like NASA?
Stephen McPartland: It is a very small version.
Jack Bliss: A very small NASA. No, I did not know that.
Q19 Stephen McPartland: Does anybody else want to say anything?
Jessica Grainger: I went to the NSO-the National Space Observatory-and the Astrophysics Research Institute and I saw the PhD students working alongside science. I was able to see the research they were doing and take part in it.
Hilary Lamb: I was aware that there was a British Space Centre, but all I know about them is that they rejected a lot of people from my school for work experience.
James May: I had not heard about it, but I think it is exactly what we are looking for, to encourage younger scientists to go into such a field. Something like that can stimulate you and show what can be done with space in the UK and astrophysics. Something like that is what we need.
Charlie Palin: I have actually heard of that. It is vital that organisations such as those that you have mentioned engage with students of today and show them that there are paths to take and things to go on to.
Hilary Lamb: It is very small, though. It has only got about 700 employees, as far as I know.
Q20 Stephen McPartland: The UK Space Agency has, yes. The Chair was speaking earlier about the gratification he felt when he held a piece of lunar rock. If you were student s in my constituency, the company Astrium would allow you to come in and look at the Mars Y ard , see the Mars Rover, look at the Beagle satellite and see the inside of it. It would allow you to look at how a satellite is designed and manufactured. Is that something a student should be interested in doing and actually seeing the practical application of science going forward?
Jack Bliss: Yes. A lot of people aren’t aware that there are careers in-I don’t know what the word would be-space beyond being an astronaut. People assume that that is all there is to it, really. People need to know that there is so much more with people working behind it.
Charlie Palin: That is exactly what we need. We need trips like that to see the real application. It just takes one trip to change and inspire someone who is undecided about taking a different science, physics or biology, just to go on that trip. If that happens to only one student, then the trip is worthwhile. That is what is needed.
James May: The syllabus does a very good job of putting the foundation down for this sort of thing, but to be able to be pushed more and to want to spend the rest of your life in a certain field you do need that ignition of the fire at the very beginning, through either a field trip or something very similar, because that is what pushes you that little bit more and then you start thinking outside the classroom of the different applications of what you have learnt in class. I think that is what pushes you further.
Anna Barth: Yes. If there could be some link between the course that you are studying and things you get to see with their practical applications, like going to a company or seeing someone doing research so you can make that link and, even though what you are studying at the moment might not be so interesting, you can see how it would be if you just understood more about it.
Jessica Grainger: I think it needs to be done from an earlier age as well. From my own experience, a lot of my friends, by the time they had reached high school, had already decided that science wasn’t for them. So, with any speakers that we did have in, they just switched off to it. They weren’t bothered as to what they had to say, anyway.
Q21 Chair: That takes me on to a question that I want particularly to put. I have no doubt, Jessica, you went to the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Widnes.
Jessica Grainger: Yes.
Q22 Chair: It is great fun, where you see real live chemistry. The great advantage in my day was that we were allowed to do it ourselves and cause explosions and things, which is perhaps not a good advert, but it was good fun. When you were all at primary school, what was the missing link there? Several of you have referred to inspiring teachers. Did you have that at primary school? Do you see that as a gap in the system-that there are not sufficient teachers with physics experience in the primary sector?
Jack Bliss: I don’t think it is a lack of experience as such. A primary school teacher has to be able to teach everything. They have to be able to teach history, English, maths, science and all of it to the same standard. A person who is good at everything will never have a real passion for any of those individual subjects, or, if they do, it is less likely to come through. If you want to get young primary school kids really interested in science or any subject, you have to have somebody who is interested in it and who will pass it on to them. It is not that the teachers are not good enough, that they don’t know enough or that they are not interested enough. It is that they don’t spend all of their time doing it. They are too broad.
Charlie Palin: I think the key turning point is at the beginning of secondary school where you have just joined secondary school, you are settling down and it is then that you are getting a feel of where you want to go to and where you want to head to. It is between the primary school and the GCSE period that you cannot see where you want to go. The process from choosing your GCSEs, choosing your A Levels and choosing your university to a job has to be streamlined, and you need help, definitely, at the last stage, about seeking a placement and a job.
Hilary Lamb: Young people-young children-are naturally, very, very inquisitive, and you can tell that from the way they are always asking questions, such as "Why is the sky blue?", "Why is the earth round?", etcetera. I don’t think they necessarily make that link between answering those questions and the science they do in primary school. I remember in primary school I had one science lesson a week, and between the three sciences that is one physics lesson every three weeks. I was very curious, but I definitely didn’t make the link between the science in manufacturing and astronomy and the science we did in school. It was only really a dribble of science.
Anna Barth: It was definitely less important than English and maths in primary school. We only had one lesson every week and it wasn’t taught by someone who really liked science. We never really did experiments. So I wasn’t interested in it at all. Even in secondary school, I did not enjoy it, I think, because my teacher did not do physics. I think the main thing is having a teacher, especially at secondary school, who does physics and can inspire the kids.
Jessica Grainger: I had a slightly different experience. Similarly, my teacher was just a general teacher who taught us for everything, but at the time we were one of the last year groups to do the SATS. The SATS was a big focus. It was getting students up to standard in English, maths and science, so we did have frequent science lessons, but they supplemented it really well. At the school I went to, SetPoint came in a lot and they just did experiments. It was more fun-based rather than learning but you knew that you were doing science at the same time.
Q23 Chair: Have any of you something that is burning you up that you want to tell us about this subject before we finish?
Charlie Palin: It is critical at high school level, specifically at A Level, that the physics teachers we have actually have a degree in physics and are passionate about physics, and are not, say, biology teachers teaching physics. I think that is crucial.
James May: At the moment, the young scientists are the physics and other science teachers of the future. So engaging the young scientists at the moment and making them interested in science, making them find their own passion, is what is going to secure the future, and making sure that future generations can find their passion for physics as well. At the same time as what we need, it is also what the future needs as well.
Hilary Lamb: It is enormously important to get rid of what I call the textbook approach to physics because, if students just learn physics out of a textbook all their lives, that is all they think it is. It is more important to get them doing science and get them actively involved in the things they find interesting and inspiring.
Jack Bliss: It is this whole idea that physics and science is very set. "You have to know this", "These are the facts", but it is not. Throughout history, scientists have constantly been persecuted for coming up with new ideas that they found out were right. Galileo was imprisoned and had to surrender himself on his death bed. If you teach kids like that, they are naturally going to resent it. Young people hate authority. They hate being told what’s right and what’s good for them. I know I am giving you problems rather than solutions and I have no idea how to fix it, but that is the problem.
Chair: That’s our job.
Charlie Palin: Less rote learning and a more practical base to catch their eye by experiments.
Anna Barth: As we have said, we need more ways to do work experience. I know that the teacher who got me my work experience tried to get lots of kids work experience but could not find that many places. If there was more of a system that allowed kids to do that themselves, that would be good.
Jack Bliss: A friend of mine was really interested in chemistry and she wanted to go into a chemistry career, but she could not find anywhere to do a work placement. She had no idea of what to do or where to go.
C hair: Thank you all very much. That has been a really helpful session. Can I also thank the teachers who have travelled with you and all of you who have had to get up at some ungodly hour to get here on time?
We are now moving on to our second panel. Just before you go, I do n’t know but there may be a couple of journalists in the room . I f anyone wants to speak to any of the young people here, Becky, our press officer , will try and co - ordinate that outside of the room, but you are, of course, welcome to sit in and listen to the rest of the session as well. Thank you very much indeed for coming.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Space Scientist, Astrium Ltd and Science Innovation Ltd, and Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics, Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Surrey, gave evidence.
Q24 Chair: Can we welcome all three of you as witnesses? I look forward to the answers from the third one.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: She can be quite vocal, by the way.
Q25 Chair: I will start with a very simple question, which follows on from what we have just been discussing with the young students. What inspired you to follow your chosen careers?
Professor Al-Khalili: I would have been about 13, so well into secondary school, when I fell in love with physics. My mother came from an arts and music background. She was very musical so I was very interested in art and music. I was pretty much happy with all of my subjects, but round about the age of 13 or so I did particularly well on a physics test, and I thought, "Oh, I’m quite good at this. I think this is the subject for me." From then on, I never looked back, but I was never one of those kids who had a telescope or dismantled radios, at least not until I was about 13.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: For me, it was much younger but slightly older than my daughter. I used to watch a television programme called The Clangers when I was about two or three, and they lived in space. Also, when I was growing up I heard about people like Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong, so I thought that space was the natural thing to do. When I was growing up, I was held back and I was put into remedial classes, because I suffered from dyslexia, my parents broke up when I was quite young and I went to lots of different schools. The idea of getting into space seemed a long way away. But I had that inspiration of The Clangers and the idea of space. Also pictures came along of amazing galaxies and things like that and they totally inspired me, so I was able to overcome the difficulties with the dyslexia and have a dream of space and become a space scientist.
Q26 Chair: During your studies, how important was the funding you received, the people who taught you, and the access you had to up-to-date facilities?
Professor Al-Khalili: Do you mean university studies or back at school?
Q27 Chair: Would you cover both if you feel it is relevant?
Professor Al-Khalili: It was slightly different for me because I spent most of my schooling years in Iraq. I did not come to the UK until I started my A Levels. So I only spent two years of schooling in the UK at a comprehensive in Portsmouth. I wasn’t particularly aware of whether the facilities and the laboratory were very good, how they compared with other schools and how they compared with other friends of mine at different schools. I do not think I would be able to judge how I felt at the time. Certainly, university laboratory equipment and funding was very different from the school and that was a new world for me. I never felt as though there were any constraints or anything missing that I would have liked to have seen. This was the early to mid-1980s.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware particularly of funding going into our schools or anything like that. By the time I got into university, I went to Imperial College, they were well funded and we had very good equipment and laboratories. They were fairly old but very good. The real distinguishing feature was the teaching. We had unbelievable teaching and we had access to all the professors in the university, and that made all the difference.
Q28 Chair: If you were picking the priorities in the near future, you are, presumably, arguing that investment in teaching and researchers is more important than facilities.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I don’t know about that. That is a little sweeping from what I said. Especially in terms of a subject like physics, the facilities are very important and we learn by doing. I am an experimentalist. The hands-on part, especially for me, was very important. If the facilities go on a back burner, you can suffer. That is one of the problems that schools are facing now. They are not doing so much hands-on experimental work. They are talking about it. They are looking it up in textbooks, but they are not doing the hands-on physical. That makes a whole world of difference. I don’t think you can ignore facilities, but at the same time you do need the inspiration of good teaching. They go hand in hand. I don’t think you can put a particular emphasis on one and not the other.
Q29 Chair: So you would be reluctant if one budget was cut in preference to the other.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: Yes, I would be very worried.
Professor Al-Khalili: I am a theorist, but I agree entirely with Maggie. Over the years, the time that students spend in laboratories, and certainly in experimental classes, has gone down. Regardless of what area of science you go in, it is vitally important that you have enough time to do the hands-on stuff. We would have done things with ticker tape, batteries, springs and ripple tanks. School curricula have moved on in terms of the science, bringing it up to date, making it more relevant and making it more exciting. To some extent, in relation to laboratory equipment, the infrastructure hasn’t moved with it. There is, probably, a lot of virtual simulations on computers, which I guess is necessary, and it is also getting very good, but time spent in laboratories doing, echoing what the students were saying were earlier, is vital.
Q30 Chair: Given your background, Dr Aderin-Pocock, and the difficulties you described in the early stages of your career, are we seeing changes now in the mix of students coming through and the opportunities for a better cross-section of society? Is that happening?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: Not as much as I would like. Science is still seen as a subject for an elite work force. I spend a lot of my time trying to broaden people’s horizons. I spend quite a bit of time in inner-city schools, and kids there would never consider a career in science. They think that scientists are white, middle-aged men wearing dickie bows. That is just not them at all. We need to do more inclusion because a barrier still exists. People think, "Oh, science just isn’t a career for me", and it is a matter of trying to work out ways of overcoming that barrier and making science much more accessible. I’m sure my daughter would agree.
Professor Al-Khalili: Things have changed somewhat in trying to broaden access to science, but I find very often that the invitations I get from schools to go and give talks invariably come from the independent schools. They are better resourced, they have more time and there is less pressure on their teachers. To some extent, when you visit those schools and you see that some of their laboratories are equipped as well or better than a university laboratory. You are preaching to the converted.
It is the state schools where they have never even seen this sort of thing and you go along with liquid nitrogen and dunk bananas in it. They go away and that has blown their minds. Whether the teachers don’t have the time, whether it is the pressure or they don’t know how to approach professional scientists and invite them over, I don’t know, but that is a far more worthy thing to do than going to some of the bigger and better funded independent schools.
Q31 Roger Williams: What are the future dangers as far as outreach of science is concerned and inspiring the next generation?
Professor Al-Khalili: At the moment, we are at a very good place in terms of outreach. The UK undoubtedly leads the world when it comes to engaging the public in science. We have moved on from the idea of a public understanding of science, what we call the "deficit model", where the expert stands up, delivers a lecture and the audience are the empty vessels to be filled with their knowledge. Now, there is a much more two-way process in engagement. The UK does better in that than any other country in the world. We have very good media coverage of science now. The science correspondents on the major papers are themselves well-trained scientists. Of course, there is a danger that this situation won’t last. Part of what we are talking about today, I guess, is how negatively funding for scientific research will impact on our ability to inspire and to engage. There is that danger on the horizon that we are aware of.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: Science engagement in the UK is at an all time high, as Jim said, but we can’t rest on our laurels. I also have a fear that sometimes, through science communication, we are reaching the people who are already interested in science. Sometimes we are trying to find alternatives, in trying to get to the people who are not interested in science and show them how wonderful it is. I have a fear with funding cuts that funding may, in the future, may become very focused on solving problems, be it climate change, ageing and things like that, and that we will lose some of the blue sky wonder of science. What got me into science was looking out "there"; it is the wonder of the universe. If we start reining in and only focusing on current problems, we will lose that long-term potential and we lose that sense of wonder. That is one of my biggest fears at the moment.
Q32 Roger Williams: Do you think there is a role perhaps to embed outreach in grant applications, for instance? As well as doing the work, there should be some obligation to disseminate it to a wider audience?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I think that is a very good idea, but it is a double-edged sword. I have been to some schools to give a physics talk, and they said, "Yes, we had a physicist in last year", but fewer kids wanted to do physics after they came in than before. Making it compulsory for everybody to go out and do outreach isn’t a good idea. Some people have an ability to communicate and some people have an ability to do research. Some people have both and that’s the ideal. When people get Government funding, with the taxpayer paying for it, it would be nice if the taxpayer is aware of what is going on and how useful that funding is, but to make it compulsory you need to be careful how that is done because you don’t really want to let some people out into a school as the consequences may be grave.
Professor Al-Khalili: What has also happened is that PPARC, the predecessor of STFC, had as part of their grant applications a provision that they had to spend a certain fraction, be it 1% or whatever it was, on outreach and public engagement. In practice, what tended to happen, particularly for large departments, was that the grant money for public engagement was pooled into one pot and then the department had someone who was good at outreach and public engagement, and they were doing it on their behalf. That is certainly a good way of doing it.
Far more scientists should be involved in outreach, but not everyone. The barrier there is that many-particularly young scientists in their early careers as post-docs or young lecturers-feel that there is a pressure to focus only on the next grant application, the next paper to publish and the next conference to go to. So going and talking to school kids is a distraction and a waste of time. That situation, thankfully, is changing dramatically. Since I have been involved in outreach and science communication in the last 10 or 15 years, it has moved from something that was very much frowned upon to something that is perceived within most higher education institutions now as a valuable part of what a practising scientist should do.
Q33 Roger Williams: The next suggestion I was going to make to you is that, with the way funding is going at the moment, there will probably be less opportunity for scientists to do this outreach work and they will be more concentrated on their core work.
Professor Al-Khalili: That is a worry that I certainly have. Although my research is funded by STFC, I hold what is called a media fellowship by EPSRC, so they pay parts of my salary to the university to buy out my time to do outreach. While there are still discussions as to how EPSRC spend their money on outreach, there is this move into embedding it within the research grants. I find that situation very worrying because it can then get swallowed up and fall into holes where it is not used as efficiently and effectively as it probably could be.
Q34 Roger Williams: Professor Steve Jones is doing some work, as I understand it, on science in the media. Have you given any evidence to his work? Have you talked to him about that, or what are your thoughts about the work that he has done?
Professor Al-Khalili: This is what he has been commissioned by the BBC to do about science.
Roger Williams: Yes.
Professor Al-Khalili: I responded to him, talking about my own personal experiences of the production of science programmes on TV, particularly on the BBC. Of course, last year in the BBC it was their Year of Science. As a result, there was a lot of science on TV. What is really nice is that they seem to be continuing that. It just may well be that science is currently sexy and it is vying with history as to what most of the money for documentary-making is going on.
But there are dangers. The worry exists that the programme makers and controllers of TV programmes don’t quite appreciate what the public can cope with when it comes to science. We are seeing a change in attitude when we see programmes like Bang Goes The Theory on prime time BBC1, covering really good solid science and not just girls in bikinis blowing up caravans. They are doing real science and that is aimed at a wide demographic audience.
Chair: We wanted to follow that with a couple of specific questions.
Q35 Stephen Metcalfe: As you know, we are trying to establish what inspires young people to get into science. How important do you think that programmes like that are, have been in the past , and where do you see the direction of travel with those in the future in inspiring particularly young people?
Professor Al-Khalili: I think they are hugely inspiring. The students who were talking earlier said that science is not perceived as cool. That is changing very rapidly. The science programming that is being made now, particularly on the terrestrial channels, is very accessible. It is tackling solid science, but it is not aimed at the geeks, or, if it is, geekiness is now becoming the new cool. It must be hugely important that students at secondary school and even younger are exposed to some of these inspiring ideas, whether it is astronomy or particle physics, which their teachers might not be able to allow them access to otherwise.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I totally agree. Programming has big potential. One of the things I heard recently at the BBC is that science is the new cookery. There was a plethora of cookery programmes a little while ago. They want to do the same with science, so we’ll see how that works out. We have Horizon and Bang Goes the Theory, so we have some good solid science programmes, but we also need to have programmes where scientists appear incidentally. So we could have a space scientist in EastEnders or something like that. At the moment, scientists are still seen as this rarefied breed that doesn’t really interact with the rest of society. We need to be seeing science in everyday life. We have a good set of programmes which are showing science and people doing science, but we need to show science as part of society as well. That is remiss at the moment.
Q36 Stephen Metcalfe: If we then focus down on astronomy and physics, how can we improve the way that particularly is shown or raised in the national consciousness? There has been coverage of the Large Hadron Collider and there are some great programmes like Stargazing Live and The Wonders of the Solar System . What more can the media do and what about the factual media, the way that these subjects are covered in the news? Particularly w ith the Large Hadron Collider, the world was about to end when it was switched on, but we are still here.
Professor Al-Khalili: That is where we still have some way to go. For me, that was a good thing. It was great that we were talking about whether the Large Hadron Collider was going to cause a black hole that was going to suck up the universe. It got everyone talking. Guys down the pub who would only read tabloid papers were engaged with it. If you can get them hooked on thinking about science, that is a great start.
In relation to things like astronomy and particle physics, particularly where at the moment it is perceived as blue-sky research and we don’t have the application, such as the non-stick frying pan that is going to develop out of it next week, it should be regarded as part of our culture, embedded in the same way that art is embedded in our culture. There is still the Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight approach, that, finally, the boffins have come up with something. It is seen as an aside. "Get your thinking caps on now. This is going to be difficult. Here comes the science bit." That hasn’t changed yet. So it is embedding science, and particularly the inspiring blue - sky science that engages and fascinates, to be part of our cultural dialogue.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: It is even worse than you say. It is not just, "Here comes the science bit" at the end, but many public figures are quite proud to say, "I know nothing about science." If they said that about history, art or literature, people would be horrified, but they will stand up quite proudly, and say, "Science. Oh, I know nothing about that." To me, that seems very unfortunate. If they know nothing about it, we should be able to give them the ability to learn more. There is still the perception that, "Science is that strange thing which we don’t want to interact with and we don’t have to interact with." One of the things I try and get across when I give talks, especially to younger kids, is that science is so much part of our everyday lives. Look at the MMR vaccine. All these things impact on our lives and that is science. It is a matter of trying to show the relevance of science.
There is a very scary video, which was done by WiSE-Women in Science and Engineering-and it was asking school girls why they won’t consider taking physics A Level. They were saying, "We can’t see the relevance of physics. If you study physics, the only thing you can do is become a physics teacher." This is the perception of what you can do with physics. Again, it is widening it out, showing what physicists do, showing what chemists do and showing how it is integrated into society.
At the moment, we still have the wow agenda, that "Scientists are doing this and looking deep into space", but they don’t show the relevance of everyday science, and I think we need some of that. It is not inspirational stuff, but it is the stuff that can make a real impact. It is nice to get that across as well. Quite a few people or quite a few children, these days, when they get into a career-some of them-still want to make a difference. If they want to make a difference, if it is all just out "there", they can’t see the relevance down here. That is an important thing to get across. We can do it through TV programming as well.
Q37 Stephen Mosley: Can I talk about money for a minute? We have a situation that stem courses are very expensive to run at undergraduate level at university . This is a two-pronged problem. One is that they are more expensive for universities to run, so they might be discouraged from running those courses. Secondly, with the introduction of higher tuition fees, it might result in higher tuition fees for undergraduates. What do you think can be done? Do you think it will have an impact on the number of undergraduates studying scientific subjects and what do you think can be done about it to encourage more people to go and study at university?
Professor Al-Khalili: It is certainly a worry. Of course, we don’t know yet which universities are going to distinguish, maybe, between a more expensive medicine, engineering or physics degree and those in arts and humanities, where you don’t need the big laboratories and the equipment. Universities have always, long before fees, acknowledged that to teach science and engineering is much more expensive than to teach other subjects. They balanced their books fairly because they acknowledged that there is this range of academic subjects that a proper university should make available. I don’t see why that situation should change with the fees coming in. A personal view is that I would not like to see higher fees to study a subject that costs more to teach than another at university. If we must have fees to make up the shortfall in teaching budgets, of course universities may well be charging different fees, but, within a university, I don’t think that some subjects should be more expensive than others.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I would find that pretty terrifying if that were the case. There are a number of stumbling blocks for people to go into a science career. They have got to have the interest in the first place. Science is perceived as quite hard to do. You could do, perhaps, an easier degree and get a higher outcome. Also, there is the long term. When you get your degree in science, what is your salary going to come from? All these things are working against science. If you have to pay more for a science degree on top of that, I think the numbers will plummet.
The other alternative is that people will take a science degree but then they will go into banking when they come out. You can lose people from the pipeline all the way down. Again, that would be a very scary thought if we were going to go down that route.
Q38 Stephen Mosley: I was going to move on to that subject. I did a degree in chemistry and when I left university, I went into IT. It is a halfway house. It is not quite banking, but I didn’t stay and do scientific research. What do you think we can do to try and encourage more science graduates to stay and do proper scientific research afterwards?
Professor Al-Khalili: Career structures are an issue, but I should say, first of all, of course, there is nothing wrong with people having a science background and science training and going into other areas. It would be great if there were more MPs with science backgrounds. I am sure you would agree. Broadly, throughout society, having a better, informed society that understands the issue about science, whether it is MMR, climate change and so on, is a good thing. So it is great that people with a science training then go out and enter all other careers.
In terms of encouraging young scientists to stay in science, that is difficult. That is entirely based on what funding is available. If, at the moment, they are hearing the stories that research grants are squeezed, there aren’t the post-doc positions at universities in particular areas, and, "If you want to do this, you are going to have to go abroad", of course, it is going to turn them away, even if they are well aware of a possible career path in science.
Young kids, maybe, won’t go into physics because they don’t see it as a vocation. It is not like engineering, where they know that an engineer does this, but what does a physicist do? Even once you graduate from university with a physics or chemistry degree and you know what path you would like to take in academia, very often I see a lot of my PhD students getting a PhD in a highly specialist subject, like theoretical nuclear physics, and then going off to work in IT, outreach or whatever, not because they want to but because they are forced to because there aren’t the research positions. That is just part of the general worry we have about funding of certain areas of science today.
Q39 Chair: What can Government do about that?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I think that is the challenge.
Professor Al-Khalili: I am sure that many people have said before, as a criticism of the funding cuts, that we look at other developed countries that are pulling themselves out of recession by increasing funding in science because they are seeing that that is important as a long-term solution. Cuts in the science budget could have been a lot worse. We acknowledge that and we acknowledge that particular areas that we were probably very concerned about are surviving, albeit with belt-tightening involved. There is no way other than to understand that the health of society depends on the health of the economy, which depends on healthy science funding.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: There are two points I would like to make but I can only remember one of them at the moment. When people think of scientists, they think of scientists as academics. I am hybrid because I work in academia and industry as well. We should perhaps promote more science in industry. People don’t really see industrial scientists, but as a space scientist I work for the third largest space company in the world, part of which is based here in the UK. By putting an emphasis on that, people can see more career development paths and, as funding gets tighter in universities, there is a plethora of things to do.
The space industry is a growing industry. It supports 70,000 jobs in the UK and it is growing very rapidly. It is also seen as a redundancy-proof area. We should be promoting these areas and showing that science is not just in universities. Science can carry a multiplicity of different disciplines. Also, scientists can go into IT, working for the Government and a range of different things. The more we do that, the better.
We must show science as a springboard for many things. I would like many people to stay in science, but, if we get more people going through one end of the tunnel, it means that we will get people going through it into a diversity of jobs at the other end. We must show how you could use science as a springboard for many different things. The very fact of getting scientists in other different disciplines would help a lot as well.
Q40 Stephen Mosley: I agree entirely with that. I always recommend to young people that they do science because it does allow them to do anything. With a chemistry degree, I could have followed any career I wanted to eventually. If I had done media studies or something, you are a lot more limited.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: Yes, that is right.
Q41 Stephen Mosley: This inquiry is looking at getting people moving through a scientific career. We focus and concentrate on scientific research, but do you think we should be looking at the wider picture as well, and saying, "Science is good to study because it does open those doors and it does give you the skills to do other things later on"?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I think so, because one of the challenges is that we need to get more people through the pipeline. At the moment, if you think, "I’m just going to be an academic and I don’t want to be an academic", then you are going to miss out on some of those people. But, by opening it up, you will get more people going through the pipeline. Some of them will stay in science, but some of them will go into other disciplines, and that can’t be a bad thing. My challenge in the area I work in is trying to get people into that pipeline, and anything we can do to help that must help in the long term.
Professor Al-Khalili: Industry also needs to incentivise those who work as practising scientists in the private sector to be involved more in engaging with the public. At the moment, if you think of those scientists who are prominent in the media, they are pretty much all from an academic background. They are all coming from universities or research labs, but the vast majority of scientists and engineers are not working in universities. They are working out there in companies around the country. They find it very difficult to have the time or the encouragement from their superiors to go out and inspire, to talk to the school kids. That is missing. These are the exemplars of what most people would do with a science degree.
Q42 Chair: You would see that as the corporate sector’s social responsibility to reach out.
Professor Al-Khalili: I think so; indeed. What Government can do about it, I don’t know.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: In terms of industry, they do have a difficulty with the media, because, if you have an industrial scientist going into the media, there is an assumed bias. I don’t think you can get round that. These academics are seen as pure and fairly unbiased, but, when you get an industrial scientist, they work for a company and, therefore, whatever they say is seen as influenced by that company. That is one of the challenges, but that does not stop us from encouraging companies to send people out into schools and other places. It is not just schools but supermarkets or whatever. We must get science out there and get science really integrated into society.
Q43 Chair: In your experience, is there a sufficiently strong relationship between the research councils and the Department for Education?
Professor Al-Khalili: Obviously, they will meet at the top, but I am not sure to what extent, beyond chief executive level, for whatever reasons, they have to come together. I don’t think there has been enough dialogue. The research councils have a very clear remit. They look after the funding of research in universities. They pour some money into a pot.
Q44 Chair: So much of what you have been saying is an overlap between the two functions-the science that you are funded to undertake and your passion for outreach. I am wondering how we can strengthen that. Wouldn’t one way of doing it be to encourage a stronger link between research councils and the education departments?
Professor Al-Khalili: For me, that would mean HEFCE, the higher education funding body.
Chair: Lower down.
Professor Al-Khalili: Lower down, yes.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: When I decided that I would start doing science communication, I wrote to a number of educational institutes, saying, "I want to come into your school." They looked at me as if I was mad. If there was more synergy, "We have a scientist who might be very interested in visiting your schools", then that transfer of knowledge would, possibly, be easier to implement. Even at the moment, when I go and do science communication, it is on a fairly ad hoc basis. Someone hears about my work and so I get invited to a school. It would be nice to have a more formal arrangement where an education authority works with a research council, and they send specific people out to specific schools and have an ongoing relationship so it is not just a one-off. You would have a continued relationship and, therefore, establish the link better.
Professor Al-Khalili: It sounds like a good synergy. I agree. I have not probably explored it myself enough, but it sounds like a good way to go.
Q45 Chair: A final question relates to the fact that we are not perhaps in the strongest position in terms of our support for women in science and technology, although there are some very fine activities going on. What could be done to improve the encouragement of women in science and engineering?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I was speaking about this yesterday. It works on a number of different bases. First, we can talk about role models. At the moment many women don’t see women scientists, so they assume that women just don’t do science. If you go to places like the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the pictures you see on the walls are all of men, so there is a barrier there. We need to demonstrate that women work in science, in academia and industry across the board.
This is a slight generalisation, but I am talking about the relevance, again. Quite a few women, as I mentioned in this video, think, "What can you do with science?" This is not gender specific, but we need to show people how a career in science can work, the fact that you can get a degree in physics and go into a plethora of different careers, and that those careers can be relevant. Some of my work is on climate change. Quite a few young girls are worried about climate change and showing that their career can lead to helping understand that is of great benefit.
Another factor is inspiration, again. All of these things are not gender specific, but you can make them gender specific and encourage more girls to take up the subject.
Q46 Pamela Nash: I know you have pointed out the problems and what we could do to solve them, but in the span of your career do you think the situation has improved? I was pleased to hear from the younger people earlier, who all seemed quite positive about the role of women in science subjects. Is it your experience that it has improved?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: Yes. There is a very nice example of this. Over the years, people have gone into schools and said, "Draw a picture of a scientist." In the old days, it would automatically be a man, wearing a white coat with pens in his pocket, but these days more and more kids are drawing men and women. So the perception is changing. The challenge is, is it changing fast enough?
Another challenge is child care, as is aptly demonstrated today by me. Especially in an academic career, having a child and putting that boost into your career coincide. One of the reasons why we don’t have as many female professors and people high up in industry is because of that clash. Of course, it is a problem in every career, but it is specifically very challenging for scientists. Finding ways of augmenting or helping women during that period so that they can maintain their scientific presence while having a child, or just having a better division in child care for men and women so that it is a joint activity rather than just falling on the woman, would make a big difference. We are seeing more women coming through, but we are still losing them in the pipeline and they are not getting to the higher jobs.
Q47 Graham Stringer: I was very taken by your comment that, if you have a classics or an arts background, you can boast that you don’t know anything at all about science. We have not moved on, have we, at all in the 60 years since C.P. Snow had a debate with leavers, when he said that you can’t be educated if you don’t know the Second Law of Thermodynamics? I am not sure if that is actually true, but you take the point.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: Yes.
Q48 Graham Stringer: What can we do to address that long- established point? Nothing has happened, has it? What would be your remedy?
Dr Aderin-Pocock: People have a fear of science, and that partly comes from school. You know, "Oh, I hated my physics teacher. He didn’t make any sense to me", and that sticks. It is an ongoing scenario. One of the most powerful things to do is to do it through the media so that people watch science programmes and think, "Hey, I understood that." We have to make it more accessible. We must also improve teaching so that people haven’t got that fear of science; science is accessible and science is an enjoyable thing, like poetry, arts and history.
Science had its heyday when everybody wanted to talk about science, such as in the time of Faraday, with people going into lectures and hearing about it. It would be nice to create that environment again. Perhaps we are on the cusp of that. The BBC having a Year of Science and trying to get science out there engages more people and draws more people in. But we need to do a lot more of it and on a wider basis, because, sometimes, even though we are publicising science, we are only speaking to a very small percentage of the population. We need to get science, as I say, into EastEnders, not in a scary way where they are blowing up the world or something but in a more accessible way so that people know that science is part of everyday life.
Q49 Stephen Metcalfe: I have one question very briefly. Going back to the public perception of science, do you think it is important that either there is consensus when science is being presented on television, or is it important that both sides of the argument are put? Which do you think the public is more reassured by and can engage more with?
Professor Al-Khalili: What scientists have to get across is the idea that science is not about certainties. It is not about facts. On the other hand, the programme makers and those in the media also have to understand that, just because something is not certain, it does not mean 50:50. It doesn’t mean that you give equal voice to the 95% plus climate scientists who are saying that something is changing in our climate to the few who are sceptical of it. We saw it, of course, with MMR a few years ago. In fact it was the complete opposite because the NHS and scientists were saying, "It’s a load of nonsense" and stood back rather than engaging with the public on the subject. So, yes, of course, if you don’t have the two sides of the argument about a particular issue, the perception will be that it is a conspiracy, it is a done deal and they are trying to brainwash us.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I totally agree. We need a better understanding of the scientific method. It is a classic here. In newspapers you can read, "Caffeine causes cancer" or "Caffeine stops cancer", because people pick up on tiny bits of research and they publicise them. People need to understand how science works. People’s ideas of science are evolving, because in the past it was, "Science says this." So it was, "Oh, right, science says this", but now we are saying, "We are not sure. We are exploring. We are discovering", and that is the process of science. It is not, "This is the case." We need to take people along in that evolution because they don’t quite understand what is going on. They just think, "Well, scientists don’t know what they are talking about because sometimes caffeine causes cancer and sometimes it does not."
Q50 Stephen Metcalfe: But who should arbitrate? Who should the public trust to say, "Actually, it is 95% of scientists who believe that there is climate change and it is only 5% who are sceptical of this"? My concern is that the popular printed media doesn’t want to portray that balance. They are not a good arbiter because they want to sell newspapers.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: No, they are not. They are not a good arbiter, but they are the voice that the public hear. Perhaps we should have more scientists working in newspapers, which is this pipeline idea. Then you could make it quite exciting but yet keep the balance, because at the moment the balance is totally not there. As a result, the public have a very odd perception of science because it just seems to be all over the place. People who are interested will dig deeper and get a better picture, but how many people have the time to dig deeper? So it is trying to get it out there to a wide audience but keep the balance. That is a very hard thing to do without infiltrating the newspapers and trying to get the balance right from the start.
Chair: Thank you very much for your evidence. It has been extremely useful. We are going to move on to our third panel. We hope our child care facilities have worked out.
Dr Aderin-Pocock: I will go and find my baby.
Chair: Thank you very much.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, President, Institute of Physics, and Professor Roger Davies, Professor, Royal Astronomical Society, gave evidence.
Q51 Chair: We now move on to the people who are in charge of some of the issues that we have dealt with today. I am pleased that both of you sat through the evidence sessions because it might inform some of the exchanges. I want to start on a broader issue, if I may. In the written evidence that we have had for the inquiry, there appears to be a lot of ongoing baggage from the troubled times of the STFC. Has the research community put all that behind it?
Professor Bell-Burnell: The relationships between STFC and the academic research communities have been atrocious in the past but are considerably better now. STFC has made considerable efforts to involve and inform people. The situation is an awful lot better now than it was.
Professor Davies: I would concur with that. At its formation in 2007 there were a lot of challenges that that organisation faced and it did not handle them particularly well. In particular, it did not consult with its community very well. Therefore, it did not use the resource available. That has changed. There is a much wider structure now for consultation. It has to be said that that is good. However, it also has to be said that the consultation isn’t always listened to.
Q52 Chair: During the 2009 prioritisation programme around the recent allocation process, did the STFC properly engage, in your view, with the learned societies?
Professor Bell-Burnell: The Institute of Physics has had several useful meetings with senior members of STFC, particularly recently. It is a lot better than it used to be, but there has been a real history of suspicion and bad feeling that they have had to overcome.
Professor Davies: Specifically, with respect to the 2009 prioritisation, at least the Royal Astronomical Society did not have a direct role to play in that. However, we do sponsor a group called the Astronomy Forum, which is a mechanism through which heads of astronomy, groups and departments in the country can meet with senior STFC staff, and that works very well. That has become a really useful conduit backwards and forwards between the research councils and the community. That is nothing to do with the 2009 priority exercise but it is, nevertheless, a very good conduit. Those things have improved substantially.
Professor Bell-Burnell: A related issue is the membership of the council of STFC. Initially, there were very, very few scientists on it. There were huge protests from the community. A few more were added. It is fair to say that the community, probably, feels it is still too light on scientists.
Professor Davies: I would agree with that and add one thing. As a result of the Wakeham report, a couple of science members were added to the council, but the most recent members who are being sought, again, are not scientists. There is a minority of scientists on the council which does compare, in a confusing way, with all the other research council memberships.
Q53 Chair: We understand that sometime in the not-too-distant future there will be a new chief executive appointment. What would you have on your wish list of changes in terms of his or her relationship directly with researchers and particularly with learned societies?
Professor Davies: The job of the chief executive of the STFC is a very difficult one. It is an extraordinarily broad portfolio of interests, covering essentially the whole of science. It is a tough call for anybody. There are some aspects of the structure that are always going to be difficult to manage because you have a large standing army of laboratory people who are employees of the STFC, while holding the stewardship of a big area of UK physical science. For me, it would be good to have a chief executive who probably is based in physical science, because that is where the facilities are. Although they are used by a range of scientists, they use the expertise of physical scientists. So it would be a physical scientist who can be effective in advocating the programme of the STFC upwards to the Government, within BIS and so on, and also who is effective at communicating what needs to be communicated down to the community.
Professor Bell-Burnell: I don’t think I have anything to add to that.
Q54 Stephen McPartland: Professor Davies, what do you think of Professor Mason’s assertion in the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee in January that there has been a deliberate over-investment in astronomy during the last decade?
Professor Davies: As the Royal Astronomical Society said in its written evidence, we don’t recognise this as reality at all. It is a complicated question, of course. About a decade ago the UK joined the European Southern Observatory. That does require an up-front payment to get in, as it were. We had access to the facilities of that observatory immediately, so the back investment that the other partners had made requires that you pay an up-front fee. That is spread out over about 10 years. However, unless you interpret that as an over-investment, which I don’t think you really can, there is no evidence at all anywhere, in any paperwork that I can find, that there has been a deliberate plan to expand and, therefore, now contract the subject.
Q55 Stephen McPartland: Do either of you believe that, with the publication of the STFC delivery plan and the Budget settlement, there will be any vulnerabilities in astronomy or physics?
Professor Bell-Burnell: Yes, probably rather too many. The biggest ones are our reputation both abroad and with our young people. We are finding a lot of our recently graduating grad students are heading to Australia because Australia is putting a lot of money into science at the moment. In Britain, it is doom and gloom. That is probably partly the way we are describing these cuts, and I don’t know that we are doing ourselves a service. There is a problem for the reputation of science with our own young people and there is clearly a major problem with our standing internationally. We are not reliable, we pull out with no notice, we do this and we do that. We really need to take a lot of care there. Those are areas that I see as particularly significant and ones that, perhaps, we overlook if we start delving into the figures of who is getting how much.
Professor Davies: I would certainly concur with that. I would add that there are some threats to major future programmes that people have been building towards. The two I would highlight are the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope. In many ways the UK community has built a strong base from which to participate in these programmes, and the current situation means that many of the teams working in preparing for those projects and establishing our strong base are funded only for a few months or a year at a time. Of course, this makes us hugely vulnerable. We have a strong position, but we have a strong position because we have excellent staff who are doing very good work that the other partners in these enterprises would like to do themselves. If we cannot retain our excellent staff because of short-term funding, this is going to mean that we will lose that advantage.
Professor Bell-Burnell: Research staff are extremely mobile internationally and they will go where the money is, and they can go very readily. I would also want to highlight that the narrowing of the programme in particle physics that is going to happen, or is planned to happen, as a consequence of the cuts means that we have only a single focus. It is very dangerous to have all your eggs in one basket, and that is effectively what we are going to be doing. It does not, I think, provide a healthy diversity that will allow for future developments.
Q56 Stephen McPartland: Do you think that the STFC is doing all it can to mitigate the impact of this Budget settlement?
Professor Bell-Burnell: There is some craziness that they still haven’t worked through. They have had to do a hell of a lot of rethinking in a very short time. I don’t think all of it is thought through yet. In fact, although they have tried to and intended to, and gone about it in quite a sensible way, they are suffering cuts in staff at the same time.
Professor Davies: Yes. I would pick that point up. They are trying very hard to get this right. In particular, the staff on the ground are really struggling to cope with what needs to be done in terms of cutting back in administration, for example. I would not wish to suggest that they are not doing other than the very best job. There are some areas I mentioned where scientific advice has been sought and groups have been empanelled to give advice. Sometimes panels have been advising on process, for example, rather than on scientific direction. Somehow, some of these things tend to get altered after the advice has been given. So a panel is put in to advise on a particular issue, it gives its advice, priorities 1, 2, 3, but then, at the end, it comes out 2, 1, 3 or some other priority list. That, clearly, is not the best way to go about things, in my view. Of course, that further undermines confidence in the community in both the process and the institution.
Q57 Graham Stringer: Atrocious but improving in terms of the relationship. If atrocious is zero and perfect relationships are 10, where is the relationship at now?
Professor Bell-Burnell: Six or seven.
Q58 Graham Stringer: So t here is still quite a way to go.
Professor Bell-Burnell: There is a legacy, you see. There is memory.
Q59 Graham Stringer: The STFC have improved their consultation. The university of Manchester, certainly in their written submission, told us that they did not consult about focusing their investment on their own facilities. Is that right?
Professor Bell-Burnell: I don’t know the answer to that one.
Professor Davies: I could not speak definitively on that one either. I did point out, however, that it is a natural conflict of interest in the way the organisation is structured.
Q60 Graham Stringer: Yes. That was in your evidence, is it not?
Professor Davies: Yes.
Professor Bell-Burnell: Yes. I suspect, as a decision, it is not good for science. You need the instrument building close to the people who are doing the research. The two interlock so intimately.
Professor Davies: Could I add one thing to that? I probably slightly missed your point. If we are on the subject of technical innovation and instrumentation and that being focused in the labs, that came as a bit of a surprise, I think it is true to say. There was a very negative reaction in the community. That negative reaction is rational in that one of the reasons why we are at the forefront in many of the areas where we are at the forefront is because we have developed skills and expertise that others don’t have. That is the nature of doing research. That is what enables you to do research. The way you sustain that is by training students. If you cannot train students in instrumentation because that is all done in the national labs, that activity will ossify. The academic community is very alarmed by the prospect that that now might happen.
Q61 Graham Stringer: That has answered one of my next questions. You think it is going to have a very negative impact on research within university departments.
Looking at the other side of it, what is it going to do for the future of accelerator beam technology within the STFC facilities themselves? Are they going to really benefit from this or will they lose?
Professor Bell-Burnell: It is the university departments that have the people who are really skilled at building the equipment to go with accelerators, on accelerators and attached to accelerators. The really skilled people are there. If that doesn’t happen, if those people leave and go to Australia or whatever, Britain is the loser.
Q62 Graham Stringer: Let me see if I really understand what you are saying. You are saying that, by focusing money within the STFC facilities, those facilities themselves are not going to benefit because the supporting or collaborating staff within the universities may disappear and, therefore, nobody benefits from it. Is that a fair interpretation?
Professor Bell-Burnell: No. I think we may be talking at cross-purposes. I am talking about the instrument development to be done in STFC establishments, not in universities, to be done in-house.
Q63 Graham Stringer: Yes, that is right. I am trying to work out what the implication of that is, both for the university research facilities themselves and for the STFC’s facilities. What I understood you to be saying was that it would be bad for the universities, but because they may evaporate-disappear-that investment might be wasted in the STFC facility. Is that right or have I misunderstood it?
Professor Bell-Burnell: Yes. I am sorry. We are now on the same wavelength.
Professor Davies: I would add to that that almost everything we do in these spheres is international. If you are going to innovate and lead, you need to gain the confidence and partnerships of your international collaborators. Generally speaking, this is done through university groups but not exclusively. The laboratory staff have a very important part to play in the development of this area, but, without the role played, essentially, by scientific entrepreneurs in the universities, then their future will also be in jeopardy because the new projects, the new opportunities, which are all international, will not come along.
Q64 Graham Stringer: You keep answering my questions just before I have asked them, which is very clever. My next question was going to be, after LHC, what impact are these proposals likely to have on our future involvement in that area of particle accelerators? You have sort of answered that question by saying it is bleak.
Professor Davies: I think so. We have covered that, haven’t we?
Q65 David Morris: Professor Davies, the UK currently has a leading role in priority astronomical projects such as the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Square Kilometre Array. Would you say that this is under threat?
Professor Davies: It is under threat in the way I described, in the sense that we have not committed to either of these projects yet. We have not been asked to quite, but the international arrangements are getting very close to that stage. If we are not able to commit at the time that we are asked, then that will be a major setback. We have leading teams. We have the opportunity to take the lead in some areas. Obviously, if we are tardy in committing, that lead will evaporate. It won’t evaporate instantly but it will go. Our staff will move. Other countries will say, "We could do that bit." We will suddenly find that, instead of having a leadership role and doing the interesting things that, maybe, lead on to the next thing, we are back doing something less interesting and not in the lead. So the ability to commit to these projects in a timely manner is fundamental to the health of the subject.
Q66 David Morris: What would you say the benefit of these projects has been to the UK so far?
Professor Davies: These particular projects?
David Morris: Yes.
Professor Davies: The SKA is a very interesting one. Being radio astronomy technology, there are many connections with communications, telecoms and so on. There are possible developments in Cornwall to do with the Goonhilly site and so on that are directly related to advances in that area. In the area of optical infrared astronomy for the E-ELT, the UK has major activities in sensor design and production. Also, many of the types of technologies that are produced in that area have been used in medical applications, for example, breast cancer screening. There are topics going back to the radio area in security such as terahertz imaging where you can see a plastic gun as you go through a scanner. There are large areas of pretty advanced technology, usually, where spin-offs from the kind of work that is done for these technological areas have real world applications.
Q67 Roger Williams: It has been said that astronomers are trying to have their cake and eat it. I expect they are like most other people in that. Would you accept that, when it was decided 10 years ago that the UK joined the European Southern Observatory, that meant that other projects would have to go? Should we not accept that ESO membership has to be paid for by withdrawing from other projects?
Professor Bell-Burnell: Other projects did go. They have gone. The snag is that we are now getting more rounds of cuts. In a sense, we have paid for ESO through closing things.
Professor Davies: There was a plan, in fact, made at the time. It required us to withdraw from the Anglo-Australian Observatory, which we have now done, also to reduce our share of the William Herschel Telescope, which we have now done, and also to cut down on the operations cost of the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, which we have now done. It is not true to say that that plan included, for example, the closing of all northern hemisphere observatories, which is what we are threatened with.
Q68 Roger Williams: Professor Mason argued that if we are going to s tay in front of the pack we have to concentrate our resources. Do you agree that we should, for instance, look at the Gemini project and the Isaac Newton Telescopes as facilities that might have to stand aside while we concentrate on the ESO?
Professor Bell-Burnell: I think you can be too concentrated. Since we have joined Gemini, the effort put into running both the UKIRT and the Isaac Newton Telescopes have drastically reduced. What has been really inspiring to me is how ingeniously those telescopes have been used by UK astronomers at minimal cost. The way that they have saved a lot of money up till now is by having a suite of instruments that you don’t change basically. You have a standard piece of kit on the telescope and, therefore, you reduce the staffing, changes and everything. Fantastic science has come out of that. While it is important that you have a goal, a destination, somewhere to aim for, it is bad policy to focus only on that. You need to keep a bit of diversity, a bit of hairiness on your string that leads you out of the maze.
Professor Davies: Your question was, should we look at these things? The answer is that we look at them all the time. Immediately before joining the European Southern Observatory, we closed the Royal Greenwich Observatory. We look at our programme all the time and think, "This is the amount of resource we have. Where is the best way to get the best astrophysics done?" That involves tough decisions, but it is done in a way that the community has built for itself. Some people are disappointed but we don’t shoot each other.
There are other aspects here. The withdrawal from Gemini was one of the things that seriously damaged our international reputation in the way it was done. However, it’s done. We are pulling out from 2012. If we further close the other northern hemisphere observatories, there are a number of serious consequences for our competitiveness internationally. This is a very international subject, and UK people are going abroad and people from abroad are coming to the UK to work all the time. That is a very healthy thing. It means that the people teaching in UK universities have a very broad experience, for example. If we only have the ability to look at half the sky, we will be much less attractive at drawing people in internationally because they will see that they cannot make their careers successfully here.
Furthermore, there are real astrophysical issues to be looked at. There are unique objects in the northern hemisphere. The nearest galaxy to our own, the Andromeda Nebula, which the young people behind probably have seen with their naked eye in the sky-it is the most distant object you can see with the naked eye-is 2 million light years away. That object is only available in the northern hemisphere.
There are other unique objects in the northern hemisphere. If you want to follow up radio observations that you might do at Jodrell Bank or satellite observations that we get through our membership of the European Space Agency, these all require access to the whole celestial sphere. So only having access to one hemisphere is a serious disadvantage. Retaining access to the northern hemisphere, through the La Palma telescopes, is a very high priority and was identified as such by the advisory bodies that I mentioned earlier.
My final remark on this point is that, in relation to the other members of the European Southern Observatory who are comparable to us, the UK is, by some margin, still the most productive European astronomical community, but the other big countries, such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, all retain access to northern hemisphere facilities for the very reasons that I have given you. Therefore, again, if we don’t have that, we will lose our competitive position.
Q69 Roger Williams: You are arguing very strongly to negotiate some access to the northern observatories.
Professor Bell-Burnell: Yes.
Q70 Roger Williams: Even though we are still participating in the ESO.
Professor Davies: Yes.
Q71 Roger Williams: What is the case for the STFC to continue funding other smaller ground-based facilities such as the Liverpool Telescope?
Professor Bell-Burnell: That one is used a lot by schools as well as its own programme. It is also used for some very exciting work on gamma ray bursts, for example. There are things that you don’t need an enormous telescope for and it is actually a waste of time on an enormous telescope. You also have an issue of how you feed the big telescope. Quite often, when countries do a big telescope, they have a suite of little ones saying, "Oh, that’s a curious thing. We should get the big telescope to look at it."
Professor Davies: It is a mistake to see the Liverpool Telescope in isolation from the other research facilities on La Palma. They all work synergistically together. There is a property of optics which means that bigger telescopes only look at a tiny patch of sky, whereas a smaller telescope can look at a much larger patch of sky. If you want to do a survey, you are often better off not using the very biggest telescope.
Q72 Gavin Barwell: You have covered some of what I was going to ask about already, which is in relation to access to optical infrared facilities in the northern hemisphere. I want to probe a little bit more on that. Can you clarify exactly what the position is? Several times you have used the phrase "if we lose that access". Is the decision taken on that? What is your understanding of the factual position about whether UK-based researchers will still have access to observations, outputs and data from these facilities?
Professor Davies: My understanding of the default plan, if nothing changes, is that the UK’s access to these facilities will be withdrawn in a period between 2012 and 2014, depending on which one you are talking about.
Q73 Gavin Barwell: What impact will that have on astronomical instrumentation R and D beyond the observational data that you have already talked about?
Professor Davies: That is an interesting question. If you take, for example, the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma, one of the aspirations for using that telescope in the future is to follow up a satellite in which the UK has played a major role called Gaia. It is a European Space Agency satellite. That satellite is designed to map out the structure of our Milky Way in order to understand how it formed.
In order to get to the scientific answers that we are trying to achieve using that satellite, we need to do a spectroscopic survey of many of the objects that it will look at. An instrument that could do that would be ideally suited for the future use of the William Herschel Telescope. This is something, again, where the UK has a history of being in the lead. If this were allowed to go forward and be funded, this would retain that leadership.
Q74 Gavin Barwell: Since you have covered most of what I was going to ask before, I want to pick up on Roger’s question, if I can, in terms of what the taxpayer is getting for its money. Looking at the figures that we have been provided with, the STFC resource and capital spending on astronomy and particle physics, the resource spending is going up on particle physics from about £117 million in the current year to just under £150 million at the end of the spending review period. That is quite a significant increase there. On astronomy, it is going down from just over £75 million to about £69 million. So there is a cut there.
Professor Bell-Burnell: Are you including capital or just resource spending?
Q75 Gavin Barwell: No. That is resource spending. The capital cuts are quite significant. Can you just explain this to my constituents? The picture I have from you today is that, even on particle physics, despite those resource increases, you have used the phrase, "We are putting all our eggs in one basket and that is not necessarily a sensible thing to do." On the astronomy side, not only are we losing the northern hemisphere optical and infrared capacity, but you were also saying that there are doubts about UK participation in some of the key ESO projects, the E-ELT and the SKA. It is still quite a significant sum of public money that has been put into this project. What are we getting for that money? How is it that there is such a contraction given that the spending reductions, while they exist, are not huge?
Professor Davies: Maybe I should start. Let me take the E-ELT and the last bit of your question. We need to recognise that the spending review that we have just gone through did produce an outcome for our areas which is as healthy, perhaps, as we could have hoped for. However, the capital contraction, even though it is as healthy as we could hope for, is a flat cash settlement. This has an effect in the range of 10% to 20% reductions over four years. This is compounded by the fall-out from 2009.
Going into this spending review, these subjects have been cut by about 35%. On an average of 10% to 20%, you are talking about a factor of 2 cut between 2007 and 2012. We specifically mentioned that factor of 2 is in the number of researchers who would be funded on grants. So there will be a very significant cut.
You asked, what are we getting? What we are getting is a research endeavour in this area that is world leading, second only to the United States, in citations and so on. We are very well regarded and established and we are getting the range of things that come along with that. Notably, we have talked a lot this morning about outreach, about inspiring school students and so on. Furthermore, there are a lot of technical developments. I would say that the economic value in the technical developments is potentially very high and it is the kind of high value work that the UK, probably, will aspire to in the future for its economic future.
Professor Bell-Burnell: One of the interesting statistics we have is that, of undergraduate physics students in Britain, 90% say they have come in because they are interested in particle physics or astrophysics. It is a tremendous pull for the general public as well. You can run astronomy evening classes even without advertising them. I know because we have done it. There is a tremendous interest in the subject. It is perceived as, and I think actually is, a good way into science for those who are scared of science.
To pick up on some conversations that took place in the previous section, I have an interest in poetry with a space or astronomy basis. Doing talks on this, I get audiences that are 60% female and 40% male. Doing a straight astronomy talk, I am lucky if I’ve got four females in the audience. It is reaching a different public. That is one of the great strengths of astronomy. Both astronomy and particle physics, these big ideas, are incredibly attractive to people. When they come into science, if they are students, they don’t necessarily stay in astronomy and particle physics. They go into other areas well. It has an enormous draw.
There are also many spin-outs from particle physics. Clearly, the radiation treatments for tumours and things, particularly, for instance, the proton and heavy ion stuff that you can get on the continent that we haven’t got here yet, is really a much better treatment for tumours than the electrons.
Q76 Gavin Barwell: On Professor Davies’ point, I want to get to the bottom on the numbers. Is the thing that is driving this contraction in the range of areas that the UK will be able to participate in the resource reductions or the capital side? What is it that is driving, for example, the removal from the northern hemisphere?
Professor Davies: That is the resource, I think.
Q77 Gavin Barwell: In terms of sums of money that is causing this situation, they are not very large sums of money.
Professor Davies: It is not.
Professor Bell-Burnell: No.
Q78 Gavin Barwell: If you look at this budget on resource on astronomy, the figures I have in front of me show we are at £75 million and we are going down to £69 million. What sort of level would it have to be at to not lose this capacity?
Professor Davies: It is £2 million to £3 million more.
Professor Bell-Burnell: It is a banker’s bonus.
Q79 Graham Stringer: In relation to that £2 million or £3 million that has gone, are you saying that that is a hangover from the original underfunding by, from memory, about £80 million?
Professor Davies: Yes.
Q80 Graham Stringer: That £2 million or £3 million hangover is not really the structural part of the latest settlement, is it?
Professor Davies: That is a fair point. A lot of this is left over from 2007 and 2009.
Q81 Stephen Mosley: We started off this morning talking to the sixth formers who explained to us what drew them into physics and science. A couple of times the National Schools Observatory was mentioned. You have mentioned the Liverpool Telescope as well in your submission since then. How important do you think those telescopes are in developing the links between the research community and the education community?
Professor Bell-Burnell: Value for money. They are not wildly expensive to run and they are a fantastic link.
Professor Davies: Yes.
Q82 Stephen Mosley: Within your written evidence you also talk about the STFC reducing funding to produce other material, for instance, posters and leaflets, etcetera.
Professor Bell-Burnell: Yes.
Q83 Stephen Mosley: How much of an impact do you think that will have on schools and on encouraging people into science?
Professor Bell-Burnell: The IOP will do what it can but it doesn’t have the same resources. STFC used to have a very good science in society programme. It is still there but at a considerably reduced level.
Professor Davies: If you look at what other research councils have done in order to accommodate to finances, STFC have tried hard to retain as much of this as they can because they know it is an important area for them. I would not be quite so negative. Obviously it would be good to have more and do more, but they have tried to prioritise this area.
Q84 Stephen Mosley: In your written evidence, Professor Bell-Burnell, you do mention about establishing a Virtual Institute.
Professor Bell-Burnell: Yes.
Q85 Stephen Mosley: Could you explain a bit more about that and whether you have had any discussions with the STFC or how is that proceeding?
Professor Bell-Burnell: It is not up to the Institute of Physics to do that. It is up to the individual researchers. I believe a submission has gone in but I haven’t heard the outcome.
Q86 Stephen Mosley: As a bit of background information, how will this Virtual Institute operate and work?
Professor Bell-Burnell: It is in the area of overlap of astronomy and particle physics, so it is concerned with things like the very early universe, the nature of dark matter, neutrino astrophysics and areas like that. That is a very strong area in Britain. We are particularly good at that. As I understand it, the Virtual Institute would try and gel and cohere the work in that area. That is about as much as I know about it.
Chair: Thank you very much, Dame Jocelyn and Professor Davies, for wrapping up what has been a fascinating morning. Several people were critical of people with interests in broader issues than just science. I notice that you, Dame Jocelyn, referred to your interest in poetry. My late father taught me a wonderful little ditty, which I am not going to recite today, but it starts, "Scintillate, Scintillate, Globule Vivific." You can imagine what the rest of it is. It is hugely important that we get the right messages across from this inquiry and we are extremely grateful for your evidence. Thank you very much.
Professor Bell-Burnell: May I say on behalf of both our professional bodies how very grateful we are for this Committee? We feared, come the election, that this Committee might cease to exist. It is so encouraging that all of you have stepped up to the plate and, clearly, are working very, very hard on these important issues. Our thanks to this Committee for your work.
Chair: Thank you.
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