Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice

BIG SCIENCE: PUBLIC INVESTMENT IN LARGE SCIENTIFIC FACILITIES

60th Report 2006-07

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
“Exciting new large scientific facilities are now coming on stream and I do not doubt their work will help to keep Britain among the leading centres of research and discovery. But the teams who plan and take forward these projects must have the project management expertise and commercial skills to deliver them to time and budget. The Research Councils have to get a better handle from the outset on the likely through-life costs of projects. It is alarming that the running costs of two of the six most advanced projects are likely to top initial estimates by a whopping 80 per cent.

“Scientists are the best people to do science - but, when it comes to which large new facilities should be chosen above others and where they should be located in the country, the wider scientific community and industry should contribute to the decision-making process.

“The principal purpose of these large scientific facilities is, of course, science. But that’s not to say more shouldn’t be done to determine the wider economic impact of hosting them. And the Research Councils are missing an important trick in not making more use of their potential to inspire a greater number of young people to study scientific subjects.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 60th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the then Department of Trade and Industry and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, examined how large scientific facilities are delivered and the how their value is assessed.

Since the hearing, the Government has transferred responsibility for these activities to the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. The Committee’s conclusions and recommendations are therefore directed to the new Department.

Since 2000, the Department of Trade and Industry (the Department) and the Research Councils have allocated over £860 million to constructing 10 new large scientific facilities and have earmarked £270 million for five more projects. These facilities range from the construction of a new Antarctic Research Station (budget £26.2 million) for monitoring climate, ozone and space weather, to the erection of a new Diamond Synchrotron (£383.2 million), which will produce intense X-rays and shorter wavelength emissions for examining structures at molecular and atomic level.

The first two projects, the Diamond Synchrotron (Phase I) and the Royal Research Ship James Cook, were operational by Spring 2007. Performance against the approved capital budgets has been mixed with, for example, the first two projects being delivered broadly to time and budget but with some of the other projects forecast to exceed their initial budgets. In addition, project teams have significantly underestimated the likely costs of operating the new facilities once they are up and running.

Research Councils have encountered difficulty in recruiting people with the necessary project management expertise to manage projects. The Research Councils need to improve the way they share lessons learned and project management.

Every two years the Research Councils publish a road map of facilities which they consider UK scientists may need and, with the Department, select which projects should receive funding. The road map approach adopted in the UK has been commended in evaluative reviews by the United States National Science Foundation as well as reviews commissioned by the Australian and Canadian governments. But the wider scientific and industrial communities do not have an opportunity to scrutinise, challenge or contribute to the prioritisation before the earmarking of funds.

The value of large facilities, in terms of expanding the scientific knowledge and economic benefits generated for the United Kingdom, will depend on selecting the best bids from research teams wishing to use the facilities, and on the effective exploitation of that knowledge by public policy makers and industry. Project teams have identified potential success factors for their facilities but, in most instances, these have not been specified in a way that would readily facilitate measurement.

If the UK is to maximise the value of these facilities it needs to attract more young people into science to make good use of the research capacity now being built and exploit the results.