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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1 871-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Committee
PRE-APPOINTMENT HEARING: CHAIR OF THE ENGINEERING
AND PHYSICAL SCIENCES RESEARCH COUNCIL
Wednesday 7 march 2012
dr paul golby
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 – 24
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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 7 March 2012
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dr Paul Golby, Chair-elect of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, gave evidence.
Q1Chair: Good morning, Dr Golby. Thank you for coming this morning. We have a series of questions that we would like to pose to you. As you are aware, we are required to publish our comments on the proposed appointment. Welcome to this hearing. Could you start off by introducing yourself to the Committee and tell us about your professional background? We are obviously interested in the fact that you have had experience of very senior managerial functions as well as hands-on experience as a researcher. When were you last directly in charge of a research programme?
Dr Golby: Let me start by saying that I am a scientist and professional engineer. Indeed, it was the EPRSC that funded my PhD, albeit quite a number of years ago. My early work was with Shell and Dunlop, where I was responsible for quite a large research department. I went on to do some work in the aerospace industry. I led a small team working on Concorde at the time, but then moved into more general management after that in Shell and BP. I then moved into general industry, if I may call it that, and worked for what nowadays might be regarded as one of the early venture capitalists, but a kind-natured venture capitalist, which bought into technology companies and tried to help them develop. I did that for a number of years. For example, one of the technologies we developed was the rivet jointing system that is now used worldwide in assembling aluminium motor vehicles, which at the time could not be welded. The technology that Jaguar uses, for example, came from some of the companies I worked with then.
In the latter years I have been involved in the energy industry. For the last 10 or 11 years I have been CEO of E.ON in the UK, which is a large and quite complex organisation very much under political and public scrutiny.
Alongside that, I have been involved in a number of pseudo-public sector-type roles. I set up and chaired the Energy Research Partnership with Sir David King when he was Government Chief Scientific Adviser. One of the outputs of that is the Energy Technologies Institute, which is now part of EPSRC’s overall portfolio.
More recently, I have been chairing Engineering UK, which is a body between Government, the professional institutions and business to encourage young people to study STEM subjects and look at careers in engineering. I hope to see many of you at the Big Bang Fair next week in Birmingham, which is the UK’s biggest celebration of young people in science and engineering with UK young scientists.
Q2Chair: We are doing our bit for the National Science Week here. We are inflicting ourselves as witnesses on a group of young scientists and engineers asking the questions, so we are all heavily involved.
Dr Golby: It is certainly a fantastic event, and it has gone from zero to in excess of 50,000 people who will be at this year’s fair, so it is quite a large celebration.
Q3Chair: There is no point in having a research council if you don’t have any researchers, so getting the next generation is mission critical. Do you think that projects like that have been focused on a wide enough spectrum of schools, or has it tended to be self-selecting among the more financially well-endowed schools?
Dr Golby: Unfortunately, there has been an element of that. People who select themselves to participate clearly do so because they are able to. One thing I found with Engineering UK-there may be some read-across into the research councils here-is that, increasingly, there was a lot of duplication and fragmentation. Lots of people were in the space of trying to encourage schools to look at STEM subjects and support them in many ways, but it was fragmented and a lot of schools are falling between the gap.
For example, last year we ran a major pilot in the west midlands. A whole series of major companies-Land Rover, Jaguar, JCB, my own company at the time, and about five or six other companies-worked together to produce, with the professional institutions, common careers, literature and so on and so forth. We were able to get a much bigger bang for our buck-I hate that terminology-as a result of that coordination and working together. I think it is an example for the future that in a time of tight resources we need to work out how we can maximise the impact by, if you like, joining up the dots.
Q4Chair: It is not helped by the fact that there are far too many learned societies in industry all spilling over and working in one another’s space.
Dr Golby: I hope one of the things we do in Engineering UK is that at last we have a forum where all the engineering professional institutions work cohesively together. That was not the case a few years ago. We need to do that increasingly also across the learned societies.
Q5Chair: Although the research councils don’t have a direct role there, tangentially they ought to be involved in that encouragement. We have discussed with young researchers how, as part of their assessments, they should be measured on the contribution they have made in going back and talking to schools, for example. Do you see that as important?
Dr Golby: I see those as very important aspects of what we are trying to do. I think that there is now a political appetite to do that. Many people have now recognised that an economy based on retail and banking may not be the strongest basis on which to build a future economy, so there is an appetite at that level. Increasingly, young people are seeing that a career in science and engineering is not only exciting from an intellectual point of view but can be quite rewarding financially. If we can bring those things together, we really have the ingredients now to expand the overall science and engineering manufacturing base.
Q6Stephen Metcalfe: I want to pick up your point about "financially rewarding", which is an important part of what motivates people to go into these subjects.
Dr Golby: Indeed.
Stephen Metcalfe: Is not the danger that the financial rewards don’t come from within the engineering and physical science field-it is because you have that kind of qualification that you are then able to move into other fields where you do reap the rewards?
Dr Golby: The evidence does not support that. Engineering and scientific careers are quite well remunerated. One of the jobs that research councils and others have to do, including my role at Engineering UK, is to promote that fact, because, as you said originally, the perception is that you get a physics or engineering degree and go off to become a banker, and that is how you make money. The reality is that engineering is in the top three or four best paid jobs in the UK.
Q7Stephen Metcalfe: Do you see it as part of your role to get that message out?
Dr Golby: I absolutely do. I am not saying that the be-all and end-all of a role in society is to make money, but it certainly features in most people’s assessment of the sort of role they want. We need to get across the message that there are some exciting, challenging and well-rewarded jobs in these sectors.
Q8Stephen Metcalfe: Excellent. You have a very impressive and comprehensive CV and a varied number of roles. Which quality or part of your experience from that do you think will be most important in your new role?
Dr Golby: I think the ability to listen and create teams. You very kindly said that my career looks impressive. It is impressive only because of the people who have worked for me and with me. Being able to engage people and persuade them that they want to work with you to create a vision going forward is what leadership is about. If you are a leader and look behind and nobody is following, that is not a very good definition of a leader. What I hope I bring are good listening skills and the ability to engage with people.
To give you an example of that, when we set up the Energy Research Partnership it was quite a challenge. It was a body of Government, academia and business. It was not obvious in the first instance that we could form a common agenda, but over the year or so from setting that up we were able to coalesce around some key themes. As I said earlier, the establishment of the Energy Technologies Institute-between Government and business we managed to find £1 billion to put behind that-was a good example of starting with diverse inputs and being able to coalesce them into a clear vision and objective.
Q9Stephen Metcalfe: Do you see that having direct parallels with your potential new role?
Dr Golby: I think so. Clearly, the remit of the EPRSC is probably the widest of all the research councils. Therefore, having tried to find a way of coalescing that around themes, as I think the research council has already done, and getting people on to that agenda, particularly in a time of constrained budget, is really important, because it is not easy to align lots of different views, and of course people want to champion their own area of excellence or research.
Q10Stephen Mosley: You said the remit was very broad. We have seen the strategic review. I don’t want to go into the details of it, because I know somebody will be questioning that later, but it has highlighted issues, with mathematicians and chemists writing to the Prime Minister and creating a huge fuss. How do you think you would convince all those different constituencies that they will receive equal treatment with you in charge?
Dr Golby: It is a difficult challenge. After 10 or 15 years of increasing budget, suddenly to get to a situation where the budget is constrained is quite a shock to the system. Inevitably, even with the best good will and communication, in reality there will be perceived winners and losers. I am afraid that is human nature and a fact of life. All one can do is put in the effort to listen, engage and communicate with people so that they can see that the appropriate amount of rigour has been gone through in reaching decisions, and then to make sure that there are feedback loops in place so that, as the output of those decisions goes forward, we have the opportunity to put a hand on the tiller, if you like. From what I see from the outside, the general direction of what the council has been doing is correct.
Does that mean there will not be a need for some course corrections as we go forward? It would be extremely unlikely that everything will be perfect from day one, but it is a matter of dialogue, engagement and demonstration, as far as we are able, to show that the decisions have been based on factual evidence rather than just opinion.
Q11Graham Stringer: Referring to the point Stephen brought up, you said that you are now happy with the strategic direction, but the criticism from the mathematicians and synthetic organic chemists was not just about direction but process. They were saying that the royal societies had not been consulted. Would you change anything-if not the strategic direction, then the process-in talking to the different scientific communities?
Dr Golby: Possibly. It would be arrogant of me to say at this stage, having looked in only from the outside, that things were not done as well as they might have been. I quite understand why the council did not engage in a kind of town hall, community-wide sector, because, with so many different interests, that would have been an extremely difficult process to follow.
There has been some perceived lack of engagement-I cannot say other than "perceived"-otherwise we would not have seen some of the letters from learned societies and so on that have been put into the public domain. To be fair to the council, they did stop, step back and start to engage more with the learned societies. That was a sensible thing to do. I was reading in that publication just recently that the recent announcement seemed to have been better accepted by academia and the learned societies. There is no shortcut to this. We have to continue to engage, listen and search for the evidence so that we can clearly demonstrate that the decisions made have been based on evidence and not opinion, as I said a few moments ago.
Q12Graham Stringer: We are asking you direct questions about what you would do as the chair. You have a chief executive and 18 other members of the council. What breadth do you see to your discretion in this area? To put the question in a different way, as chair, do you see your role as somebody who is coordinating, or somebody who is leading in a particular direction?
Dr Golby: I think it is a combination of both. It would be extremely arrogant of me today to say that I have a clear vision of where we should go and this is where I want to take the council going forward. There is a lot of listening and understanding that I need to do, but I am also the sort of person who, if I see something I disagree with, is very able to say so and test the argument and challenge why we are doing things in a particular way or going in a particular direction. I see it as a combination of making sure that there is very good governance and that we are collecting and using the evidence appropriately and making the best decisions we can on that evidence.
I also see two further roles. One is to put in a level of challenge to the executive. I think it is the role of council to be the critical friend, if you like, of the executive. A third role for the chair here is to be an essential communicator of the decisions made by council and to work with the learned societies and universities to make sure that, first, we are listening to them, and secondly, they have a better understanding of the messages we are trying to signal with the direction of travel.
Q13Graham Stringer: Stephen Metcalfe was right when he said you have had a very distinguished career, latterly mainly in the commercial sector. Can you explain to the Committee why you want this job-it is a major change of direction-and assure us, or otherwise, that you are not looking at it towards the end of your career as a sinecure?
Dr Golby: I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I have many opportunities to do an awful lot of different things. I happen to be extremely passionate about this area. As I said at the beginning, my original training and PhD came out of the research councils. The whole area of science and technology is critical to the future economy of this country. It is an illused phrase, but I want to put something back, and this is my way of trying to do so in a space where I think I can make a contribution.
Q14Stephen Mosley: You mentioned the learned societies. One of the issues that have come to the fore with the strategic review is that learned societies are membership organisations and it is their job to represent their members. I know that, when the EPSRC went to talk to them, it was not keen to say that it would support these members over others. You can understand that. The learned societies are incredibly important. Have you had any previous experience of working with the societies? How do you think you would handle them?
Dr Golby: I have had limited involvement there. I am a council member of the Royal Academy of Engineering, so I interface with some of the learned societies as a result of that. I don’t want to over-emphasise that point. The learned societies are membership organisations and support their members. Therefore, inevitably, with the wide remit of this council, one will have conflicting views. It is inevitable that that will happen. I guess I am repeating what I said earlier. It is a matter of listening, testing and then trying to ensure that the learned societies come forward with evidence to support their case. Inevitably, there is a lot of opinion in this space, but we need to search for evidence. Maybe part of the role of the chair here is to take the message forward that we are in an area of budgetary constraint, so we have to make some very tough choices on the very best evidence available to us.
Q15Stephen Metcalfe: I think you have recognised that it is a challenging role and that, perhaps in contrast to similar roles across other research councils, this will require more input and communication. Do you think the 24 days a year that is the proposed amount of time spent will be enough? Will that give you enough opportunity to be as hands on and as involved as perhaps you would like to be, and as the role of the job requires?
Dr Golby: Probably not, but I had not considered the time involvement as a limitation. When I take on roles I use whatever time is appropriate to do the role, and if that is more than 24 days it is more than 24 days. I suspect that 24 days, certainly initially, is not going to be sufficient to do this role.
Q16Chair: Going back to Graham Stringer’s question about the spat between various sections of the science community and the EPSRC recently, some of the letters addressed to me said basically, "How dare the EPSRC make judgments about my area of research, which is something they know so little about?" The reality is that you will find yourself as referee in some of these subjects, addressing disciplines which even someone with your career would struggle to evaluate. How are you going to make that work? You saw the letter in The Times signed by people like Bob May and so on. How will you give the EPSRC some credibility that will convince the broader science community that you have got it right?
Dr Golby: The first and obvious comment I would make is that one needs to follow a process that avoids getting to that point in the first place. Once letters start appearing in national newspapers it is quite difficult to retract positions, so a starting point is to try to make sure that the process of the engagement is such that it does not get to that position.
Having said that, I think it is all about having a transparent and robust process. It would be arrogant for me, or frankly any member of the EPSRC, to think that we can take decisions in areas of science in which we are not experts. It is very much about the process of using appropriate experts to review the evidence-I keep coming back to that word-to guide the council to make the right decision. If we can prove that we have listened, followed a very open and transparent process, and collected the right evidence and used the appropriate experts to judge that evidence, it is then very difficult for opinion to outweigh evidence. That is the approach I would take.
Q17Roger Williams: In addition to having to referee competition from different sectors of science and learned societies who look to the EPSRC for funding for their particular interest, there will be a fundamental decision as to how much money goes to near-market research, with obvious commercial potential, and how much goes to fundamental or blue skies research. Do you have any initial ideas of how you will deal with that?
Dr Golby: In reality, research is a spectrum or continuum. I prefer the words "pure" and "applied" to "blue sky" and "commercial", for example, because I think that is more what it is about. If you take the spectrum, there are extremes of absolute pure research and very near-term applied research. I would suggest that most research is not at those two extremes, and from what I can see most research projects funded by the council will cover an element of both pure and applied research.
The way the council has chosen to look at this, which I think I agree with, is the national capability themes of physical sciences, mathematics and so on, and the challenge themes of manufacturing for the future, digital economy and so on. I understand that as a guide it has set out a ratio of 60% for the former and 40% for the latter. Can I challenge that guide? No, I cannot at this point in time; I don’t have the knowledge. That is something we probably have to look at as we go forward, and make a judgment as to whether we have got it right.
This may be nothing to do with science at all, but I am intrigued that we appear to punch significantly above our weight in this country in research: 3% of our researchers generate 6% of the world’s academic articles, 11% of citations and 14% of most cited papers. In our research base we are punching significantly above our weight, but we seem to struggle to bring that into growing the economy. I don’t know the answer. It seems to me that we have a disconnect in that we are excellent in research but struggle to translate that into tangible economic development and growth. As part of my role here, hopefully, I want to try to understand that a little more and what the missing link is. Clearly, something is not quite right there. If we can understand that better, we might know more clearly where to focus some of the research effort that we are currently expending.
Q18Roger Williams: At a time when the Government are desperately looking for growth in the economy there may be an expectation that more money should be invested in applied research, but that will create a problem in the future where the pure knowledge is not built up. Do you expect, for instance, to have any pressure from the Government over these matters?
Dr Golby: Inevitably, the answer must be yes. From what I see, there is a balance coming from Government. Government are clearly focused on a growth agenda and saying that research needs to be reviewed in light of national importance and context. Inevitably, that is the case. Indeed, having taken the opportunity to read it, the council’s royal charter says that it ought to take national importance into account in how it funds research. One of the benefits of having a body like the council is that we can exercise a degree of independence. We are not an arm of Government and we can come to our own independent view. One of my roles as chair, potentially, is to reflect that view back to Government if we think that pressure is too strong or inappropriately applied.
Q19Roger Williams: Do you think you can take a short-term view on this matter and then rebalance it at a later stage?
Dr Golby: I would hesitate to give you a definitive answer to that. There is an obvious attraction in thinking that might be the case, but there are inherent dangers in taking a short-term approach. Research is not a short-term issue, and therefore one has to be very careful to make sure that any changes are gradual and well thought through and not a knee-jerk reaction because we are facing a particular problem at the moment.
Q20Pamela Nash: You said earlier that there had been a perceived lack of engagement by the research council with the learned societies in the past, and we have certainly seen evidence that communication of the strategy has not always been completely satisfactory. Could you tell us today what you would do as chair to rebuild trust and improve communications between the council and those people you seek to support?
Dr Golby: I would not say this was the reason for the issue, but one of the constraints on the council has been a massive cut in its administration budget. The admin budget of the council was reduced by about 25%, so it has been resource-constrained, but that in itself is not an excuse. I use the word "engagement" rather than "communication", because the latter can sound as if it is a one-way process and we are just telling people. Engagement takes a lot of continuous effort and listening, and it is a two-way process. We have had a short period when perhaps people have been throwing stones over the wall at each other as opposed to engaging and trying to find common ground and working together. This has to be a two-way process.
I see it developing with a lot of work from the council, including myself, and particularly with our partnership universities and organisations. Coming from my most immediate background, we have to get closer to our customers. That is a two-way process and it is not done overnight; it will take constant effort to improve those relationships and get a better understanding. That is the way I see how we improve the situation.
Q21Pamela Nash: Looking particularly at the engineering community, last week I had a visit from a school friend who is a mechanical engineer working in shipbuilding.
Dr Golby: I am very pleased to see that.
Pamela Nash: He expressed how frustrated he was about the lack of support for and public recognition of engineering, which is certainly a recurring theme for us on the Science and Technology Committee. Do you think there is a role for the research council in improving the image of engineers in particular? Is that something you would seek to do as chair?
Dr Golby: I am not sure it is a role for the research council. It is very clearly the role for the other body I chair-Engineering UK. You are absolutely right that there is a perception of engineering in this country that, at best, is probably rooted in the 1950s and 1960s and the sorts of things we did then, and, at worst, is more akin to the mechanic in "Coronation Street". Maybe the average person thinks that engineering is associated more with that than some of the very high-tech things that we do. As an engineering community we need to speak louder and with a common voice about the excellent things that we do. For example, 80% of the Formula 1 racing teams are based in this country. Why? Because we are excellent at composite materials, aerodynamics and all the technologies that go into those vehicles, which eventually spin through into the general vehicle manufacturing area. The engineering community as a whole, including the research council, has a job to speak up and explain in layman’s language the excitement and opportunities in this area. I don’t think we are doing a good enough job in doing that.
Q22Gareth Johnson: You have mentioned budget cuts a couple of times, and perceived winners and losers. I am thinking in particular of the capital budget. How are you going to minimise any impact from those cuts?
Dr Golby: This is a serious issue. While the resources budget was effectively flatlined-a lot of credit is due to the people who achieved that; it took some doing-the capital budget was reduced by 50% and is outside the ring fence. That is a serious issue, particularly for this research council, because we are, if you like, a capital-intensive part of the research base. Most of our capital is not in buildings and infrastructure but kit, as I would call it. We need to make sure that our researchers have state-of-the-art and up-to-date kit; otherwise, we just go backwards.
We need to do a number of things. First, part of the job of chair here is to put forward concrete economic cases to the Government and Treasury to get capital where we see the need for it. The extra £50 million for graphene, which I hope the Treasury will approve, is an example of where we can go back to them and make a strong case for some extra capital. I certainly see that as a job for the council, and particularly for the chair, to do that.
Secondly, we need to encourage greater cooperation between the different institutions. If we are to have state-of-the-art kit it needs to be used round the clock, so we need to encourage institutions to share equipment and maximise value, bang for buck, if you like.
Thirdly, given that Government are constrained, we have to forge longer-term strategic partnerships with industry so that some of the capital effectively can be replaced by relationships with industry, which might make facilities available for research that otherwise would not be there. It is a serious issue, but I think those are the three pragmatic steps we can follow to try to ease that situation.
Q23Gareth Johnson: You have identified a number of areas where you can make energy efficiency savings-I suppose that is how you put it. Are there any other areas you want to look at more closely as and when you are appointed where there is scope for saving more money?
Dr Golby: It would be arrogant for me to say I have that knowledge at the moment. Maybe if you invite me back in six months’ time I will have a clearer view. It is just too early at this point for me to have an answer to that question.
Q24Chair: You will be in a key role on which the nation’s success depends. I think you and I would agree that if we don’t have successful research we won’t have successful leading engineering companies, and there will be no point in investing in Great Britain plc. This is a huge responsibility. You will have direct impact on the careers of thousands of young researchers, and you will be responsible for acting as referee and, hopefully, avoiding future squabbles between sectors and the council. I suppose it is summed up in one sentence: you are the custodian of the council’s mission and charter objectives. Will that keep you awake?
Dr Golby: It will keep me very focused and interested. I am not sure whether it will keep me awake. I thrive on a challenge. I am enthusiastic and passionate about this sector. Yes, it will be a very challenging role and it won’t be easy, but I tend to sleep reasonably well, so I hope it won’t keep me awake.
Chair: Dr Golby, thank you very much for coming to see us.