House of Commons - Science and Technology - Minutes of Evidence


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Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-454) PROFESSOR SIR KEITH O'N IONS AND M R J OHN N EILSON 13 D ECEMBER 2006 Q440 Dr Iddon: If you look at the current reorganisations, some people would say that there seems to be a deliberate policy of embedding Research Council Institutes now into universities; for example, by the restructuring of Roslin Institute on the University of Edinburgh site. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: These are policies that are determined by the Councils. It is very important that the Councils are the best equipped to make these judgments. I have generally concurred, I think, with the conclusions they come to. Not in all cases but in some cases there are very strong arguments for putting these alongside university research and there is probably no better example, frankly, than in medical research. We are very supportive of the vision. MRC have been and gone, so I do not know what they said, but I am very supportive of their vision of co-locating medical research activity with clinical practice in universities and the Cooksey Report supports that. It is very evident from my trip to the United States—and I was recently at the Texas Medical Centre—that there is immense value to be added by that, but, not as a general prescription, as there are other institutes that probably do not need that. There is no policy that emanates from us but I have been rather supportive of those policies that are coming from the Research Councils in those areas. I think they have come to the right conclusions. Q441 Dr Iddon: Of course that restructuring is putting them in a more competitive environment and one of the things that some members of this Committee are worried about, if not all, is the loss of long-term research which is producing some very valuable data sets. That kind of long-term research requires scientists with a dedication over a long period of time and we are concerned that Britain, which has been good at that sort of research in the past, might be losing those skills. Are you also concerned about that? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I am always concerned about these things because we do have to find a balance between the absolute cutting-edge, Blue Skies research and those things which are, if you like rather longer term, and produce datasets that maybe enable the next level of cutting-edge. But at the same time our research councils from every quarter are compelled to prioritise excellent research. Where we have seen these significant restructurings, they have been based primarily on the view of quality and excellence and I think that has to be right. There are examples where this long-term view is extremely important. Let me take one which I know quite well. The British Geological Survey is the national repository for onshore and offshore data which underpins the oil and gas industry and the environment. To our peril would we undercut that. That is an institutional arrangement where it earns quite a lot of its money from external contracts. I do not disagree with you at all. I think we have to find the right sort of structure to meet those requirements and it is rather a general statement to your question rather than dealing with specifics. Q442 Chairman: Has OSI considered the issue of ring-fencing those activities which are long-term datasets and taking them out, therefore, of the mainstream of funding? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I have thought about it but I have not done it. Let me add: I am thinking about it. Q443 Chairman: You are thinking about it. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: And have yet to do it. Q444 Dr Iddon: I thought one of the reasons for setting up Research Councils UK, Sir Keith, was to promote interdisciplinary research and bring the Research Councils, the seven of them, closer together and make them interact across the boundaries. But yesterday we had two representatives, one from the Tyndall Centre and one from CEH, who said that was still quite difficult. For example, the Tyndall Centre, I think it was, said they were barred from applying for grants to some of the Research Councils, yet they were doing research in both areas. Do you feel the promotion of the interdisciplinary work has worked? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: With apology I cannot comment on the specifics because I do not have the detail on those specifics. Let me make two brief comments about interdisciplinary research. Whatever structure you have, whether you have one Research Council or eight Research Councils or a national science foundation and a national institute of health, you really have to keep working hard at interdisciplinary research. There is always a tendency to relax into silos but I believe things have changed enormously in the last years. I am sure there will be examples where it has worked imperfectly but interdisciplinary working has changed enormously. The Research Councils no longer feel in competition with one another just for a slice of the cake. I am engaged with them at the present time about their priorities for the present comprehensive spending review. We have started this one round of dialogue with all the Research Councils. I am able to tell you—I will tell you—that each of the Research Councils has as its highest priorities for CSR issues that are interdisciplinary. That would not have happened even three or four years ago. If you were to write down what you think are the most important things for the nation to do interdisciplinary research on, I could guarantee those would be what are picked up in their priorities. I think things have improved enormously and will continue to improve, as, indeed, they have in the universities. Ultimately, that is where a lot of the research is done and if universities are not working in an interdisciplinary way, it is . . . But I think things have changed a great deal. I am disappointed that I cannot comment on the specifics of the one you mentioned. Q445 Dr Iddon: Why will some Research Councils not accept freely grant applications from wherever they come? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I know where you are coming from but there are quite good reasons for that. There are eight of them and you could sprinkle your proposal to eight different Research Councils. Some Research Councils have a very clear agreed lead. In some of the interdisciplinary areas there is an agreed lead in certain Research Councils. The e-science programme had a Research Council lead; we have a research council lead in energy research through EPSRC. So there are some natural ways of doing that. All I can say is I would be very surprised if a rational discussion between really high calibre researchers who had high calibre research to get funded and a Research Council just got a thumbs down, "Sorry, the laws don't fit you" but I cannot comment. It is certainly not the mood of the organisation. Q446 Dr Turner: You said that you broadly supported the MRC's co-location vision for NIMR. Do you think the current proposals truly fulfil the co-location argument? What role has OSI had in the NIMR renewal project? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Could I repeat my point, to make sure it is recorded properly. The Department is supportive of the view of co-locating some of those or all of those research activities alongside clinical research and universities because there is a good evidence base, in general, as to the benefits you will get from that. That does not mean to say we have approved that but we have supported that view. We are also sympathetic with the view with NIMR that moving a large body of scientists very far from London would be difficult. There are an awful lot of jobs on the way to some other distant place, so we are very sympathetic with that notion. That is my starting point. All of the rest of it, from my point of view, really comes down to approving business cases that demonstrate value for money for a series of options in the normal way. Q447 Dr Turner: So far that has not happened. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: So far that that has not happened. Q448 Dr Turner: In your role as DGRC, as it used to be called, to what extent do you regard the Research Councils as being totally autonomous and under what circumstances would you feel the need to intervene? Let us take the NIMR case: there has been similar controversy, there has been bitterness on all sides. Do you think OSI has a brokerage role to play to help sort this out? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It is the art of running an arm's length body or the art of the Secretary of State running a body at arm's length and the degree to which you intervene. At first call, a fairly high degree of autonomy is very important. Coming to the specifics of NIMR, which has probably gone beyond the point of being a bit of grit in the oyster, the way I see my role is that I make it clear to MRC and its new chair John Chisholm that this is for the Council to work a business case and make their recommendations as to what is the best way forward; insist on a variety of options being worked out in the conventional way that government does this; and to give every encouragement and impetus, verging on the cattle prod, to get a proper professional business case on the table. When we are able to do that and look at value for money, not second-judging the scientific or medical judgment, then we have a decision and that should be the end of what has been going on. That is how I see my role. Do I see brokering a deal between factious parties? I think in this case every encouragement of a professional business case will make a decision. Q449 Dr Harris: Are you not, to a certain extent, a midwife in this rather than a cattle prodder?—and I do not think the two can be brought together in any place. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I do not think we should go there. Q450 Dr Harris: Even in Harrogate! OSI have been very clear. The minister said we must have more translation and he was very keen on the idea, supportive of the idea of co-location; of everything that the Chancellor has said. Cooksey goes on and on about the need for translation. Are you really going to leave the MRC at the altar for the lack of a few million pounds on a value-for-money relatively subjective judgment, at the end of the day? Because that would send a terrible signal about how serious OSI was about seeing translational opportunities as worth chasing. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: We are deadly serious. We are strongly supportive of the Cooksey Report. We think it is absolutely right. We have, as I have said, given our support to the view of MRC Council. It is still the view of MRC Council that this should be co-located with clinical research and academic work. We have supported that. There is no shift in position there at all. In terms of how much money is spent on this, that is absolutely a straightforward, business case, value-for-money of options. Q451 Dr Harris: Accountants have the last word. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: On any expenditure of that magnitude accounting officers have the last word and the Treasury will have the last word. We are not in a position on the time scale of this project to be utterly inflexible in terms of what the cost of this project will be over the longer term. Q452 Dr Harris: This is my last question and I want to bring you back to the first thing. Everything you said in our first exchange was predicated on departments, including Defra, understanding the effect that their policies and funding policies have on Research Councils and Research Council Institutes. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I agree. Q453 Dr Harris: Can you explain why Professor Dalton said—in response to the Chairman saying that "200 scientists have left or are going to leave those three Institutes" IGR, IAH and Rothamsted—"That is nothing to do with Defra's organisation of its funding to those institutions at all, nothing at all"? Professor Dalton continued: "Can I ask you how you have managed to establish that BBSRC losing 200 posts is down to Defra. Could you tell me because I do not understand that." We just delayed a few grants by 90 days, he said to me: How is that anything to do with people's jobs? Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I would never be presumptuous enough to offer an explanation of somebody else's words, but I think the situation is that we do need from Defra a view on the three- to five-year period as to what capacity, capability and requirements will be in order to have a proper planning situation. It may well be that on those time scales there will be job losses. I think it is difficult to live with if on a year-by-year basis there are significant shifts in funding inconsistent with the recommendation of RIPSS. BBSRC who are accountable for all those jobs—BBSRC employers have to pick up the tab—I will leave it to you to decide whether— Dr Harris: For right or wrong, departments have to understand— Q454 Chairman: We would very much like to sum up the Committee's view, that, particularly in your role, you have a closer relationship with the departments in terms of their medium to long-term funding in order that Institutes are not places, as BBSRC was, in the position where suddenly they are having to make in-year cuts. I do not think that is that acceptable. That is the point we are making. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I am saying that is a situation that is extremely difficult for us to deal with and it is contrary to the spirit of RIPSS. Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, Professor Keith O'Nions. In the last question we moved you from having a cattle prod, to being a midwife, to being a vicar at the altar—an extension to your current role quite significantly. Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: We may have to find a new title for me. Chairman: Thank you very much indeed and thank you John Neilson.

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House of Commons - Science and Technology - Minutes of Evidence

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