PLG draft response the BIS consultation on Proposals for Long-Term Capital Investment in Science & Research

We have prepared the following response from the PLG to be submitted to the BIS consultation on Proposals for Long-Term Capital Investment in Science & Research. Your suggestions for improvement before submission on 3 July are most welcome.

If you have strong opinions you should of course also submit your own response directly at https://bisgovuk.citizenspace.com/digital/consultation-on-proposals-for-long-term-capital-in/consultation/intro/view and may find the PLG summary of the consulattaion useful.

This response has been prepared very much from the industrial perspective and hope that the academics contributors to the PLG will be tolerant of this, and trust their home organisations will be submitting responses from the academic perspective.

  1. What balance should we strike between meeting capital requirements at the individual research project and institution level, relative to the need for large-scale investments at national and international levels
    1. A balance between the three areas is clearly required with freedom to invest at the individual research projects, via HE funding bodies and in major capital projects in UK and internationally. Extremes in the split between these three areas should be discouraged as all have merit. Different science sectors are better at presenting cases for support and thus more successful in accessing funding from some of these sources than others, thus providing potential for unintentional bias is one capital funding route is favoured over another. Thus, of the three scenarios presented in the consultation, scenario 2 provides the best balance.
  2. How can we maximise collaboration, equipment sharing, and access to industry to ensure we make the most of this investment?
    1. For industry, especially SMEs cost of access, especially full economic cost can be a hurdle to the use of science and research infrastructure, especially larger facilities. Such facilities are not designed to operate on commercial rates of capital utilisation or speed of output. This can make the expensive for industry to access, yet they often have unique capability that cannot be accessed commercially. Thus where significant capital investment are made in unique capability, support should be offered to help support the cost of accessing such facilities particularly for SMEs. For example by assigning innovation vouchers, specifically for use with significant new capital investment projects
    2. Increased rates of capital utilisation would help to gain increase both efficiency and collaborative access. In industry capital utilisation is a key metric achieved through multiple shifts, and work flowing planning and managed maintenance. The flexibility and variability in science discovery will mean industrial rates of utilisation will in many cases be unachievable, but substantial improvements are possible and are used at major central facilities e.g, Diamond, CLF etc, with multi-shift access etc. Consideration should be given to using similar models at other facilities.
    3. It is increasingly possible to use science and research capital to fabricate devices for integration into commercial products. Whilst not the principle aim for such facilities it can be a viable source of revenue, facilitator of collaboration and drive of increased utilisation. It also provides an early route to market for innovative products in order to grow volumes to levels required to support direct investment in commercial fabrication facilities. This is especially important where specialist high cost capital equipment is required for manufacture of new technology &/or highly innovative products for whom the uncertainties are a substantial barrier to commercial investment. One must first prove the market and technology before investment will be forthcoming. Utilisation of science and research capital equipment should provide a solution, but Universities are often very reluctant, or forbidden to supply on a commercial basis to a defined specification. Recipients of capital investment should be encourage to use spare capacity to provide commercial devices to specification where this does not interfere with the core remit of scientific discovery and where such devices are not otherwise commercially available.
  3. What factors should we consider when determining the research capital requirement of the higher education estate?
    1. Factors are similar to those for major capital projects i.e. excellence first and foremost, impact (economic, social, environmental and knowledge), affordability, skills and efficiency. However excellence can be interpreted to mean not just excellence in science but also in engaging with industry and in commercialisation. It is unclear if the current REF provides an accurate view on excellence as described by this broader definition. For example more weight could be given to number and range of industrial collaborations, patents and industrially targeted publications, which can come at the cost of tier one scientific publications.
  4. Should – subject to state aids and other considerations – science and research capital be extended to Research and Technology Organisations and Independent Research Organisations when there are wider benefits for doing so?
    1. Yes, but with close attention to the detail of:-
      1. Should such organisation be limited to not-for-profit or also include for- profit organisations.
      2. Analysis of who the potential beneficiaries are within those organisations and there overlap with the UK economy.
      3. Consideration of the long term (20year+) future of such capital investments. Large scale capital investments should have long lifetime and impact e.g Vulcan laser has been operational for >30 years. Such independent organisations could change drastically in their focus and viability over such time periods and contingency plans will be required if such organisation are no longer willing, or able, to operate such equipment
  5. What should be the UK’s priorities for large scale capital investments in the national interest, including where appropriate collaborating in international projects?
    1. Over 40% of the defined major projects relate to large scale data when combining identified big data projects with data projects in ‘Understanding the Universe’ and other areas. However, there appears to be little to no consideration of investment in research, development and testing of the required hardware for handling such data. With the potential for significant social and economic impact the development of next generation datacentre hardware including networking, processing and storage would appear as essential to capturing the future benefit of the big data with potential impact across all of the data related projects.
  6. What should the criteria for prioritising projects look like?
    1. The 5 criteria given in Annex B2 of the consultation document of Affordability, Excellence, Impact, Skills, Efficiency and Leverage are an excellent starting point but need clear definitions For example, impact should balance the potential impacts on the economy, society and indeed human knowledge. The selection of major projects cited varying significant between those with high economic impact e.g campus development, those with high societal impact e.g. in healthcare and those with high knowledge impact e.g. telescopes, illustrating that not all projects will impact equally in all areas. However, it is perhaps the residual impact outside the main objectives of a major project that should be analysed most closely with a balance achieve first across the portfolio of projects but also within projects.
    2. Impact should be assessed by those who are intended to be impacted. If the primary impact is intended to be economic, this should be assessed and review by experienced industrialists, where the primary impact is social it should be assessed by those communities e.g. healthcare providers, where the focus is on knowledge generation this should be assessed by academic peer review.
    3. Risk and Environmental impact are also notable lacking in prioritisation criteria. A balance across the portfolio of high and lower risk projects is desirable rather only selecting lowest, or highest, risk options.
    4. With tight budgets, overlap with other projects should be considered. Where possible major projects that support multiple sectors with common technology are preferential. Thus there would appear to be potential for defining big data projects that can be combined to be relevant to area ranging from creative economy to space and life sciences
  7. Are there new potential high priority projects which are not identified in this document?
    1. Investment in centralised data centre(s) could provide efficient hosting of multiple data orientated projects, providing economies of scale and support pilot facilities for next generation data centres building on the UK lead in data architectures, optical networking and data storage in a similar way to the current high performance computing facility.
  8. Should we maintain a proportion of unallocated capital funding to respond to emerging priorities in the second half of this decade?
    1. The future is unpredictable, certainly of advanced technology. There will be further opportunities to collaborate in both UK and major international projects before 2021. Thus at least 20% of the capital budget should be kept in reserve for the future projects to be defined beyond 2018. It would also be beneficial to assign a small budget to for in-depth feasibility studies of potential future large scale capital investments,that focus on quantifying the key prioritisation parameters.
  9. Are the major international projects identified in the consultation the right priorities for this scale of investment at the international level? Are there other opportunities for UK involvement in major global collaborations?
    1. Fusion power offers significant potential for significant social and economic impact. The document correctly identifies the UK has been an early developer of Fusion technology and highlight support for some key fusion infrastructure. However, there are many technologies that offer potential solutions with to viable Fusion with no clear leading winning technology at present. It keep a lead in this field it will essential to be able to back multiple technology options and move scale-up pilot fusion plants quickly. A more strategic approach to supporting Fusion power generation is therefore recommended including maintain a proportion of the capital budget to support the most promising fusion technologies often in context of international collaboration which emerge in the second half of the decade.

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