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Decision to move XPS service to Newcastle ‘flawed’, says Prospect

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s decision to move the UK’s X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy service from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Daresbury Laboratory to Newcastle was flawed and may not offer the best value for money, a parliamentary committee heard on 11 July.

Graham Bushnell-Wye, a Prospect union representative at the Cheshire-based Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus, told the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee that the decision to move the XPS to Newcastle did not reflect the views of the research community.

He claimed there was a lack of transparency in the decision-making process and potential conflicts of interest within the group that made the decision.

In particular, he added, the names of the group’s members have not yet been published, even though the decision to move the service was announced in January.

However, David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, told the committee the group is currently undertaking reviews for the council and that the names of its members will be published when their work is completed in October.

It is not uncommon, he added, that panel memberships are not published while a panel is still working, since there is a risk that interested parties could lobby the members.

“This is not an unusual occurrence,” said Delpy. “I think what’s unusual is the fact that this is being challenged in this particular way… getting referred to the S&T committee.”

The committee investigated a series of events, starting in 2009, when the EPSRC announced it would carry out a review of its mid-range facilities—including the XPS service. The academic community was asked to submit statements specifying what they needed from each service.

The review was followed by a tendering exercise in 2010 and four bids were submitted to host the XPS service, including from Newcastle and its existing host, Daresbury.

However, the committee pointed out that the tender document gave just two months for interested parties to submit their bids. This gave “little room for [consortia] to establish themselves and there was then insufficient time to discuss this…with manufacturers.”

But Delpy argued that the fact that there would be a tendering process should not have come as a surprise, since the initial announcement was made in 2009.

“The actual deadline that we gave in the end was adequate,” he said.

The committee also quizzed Delpy on redundancies at Daresbury following the XPS service move. Delpy said he had received legal advice that a transfer of undertakings protection of employment agreement, or TUPE, would not apply in this case.

Such an agreement would mean that Daresbury staff would have the opportunity to transfer to Newcastle University under the same terms and conditions as they had at Daresbury.

Both Colin Whitehouse, head of the Daresbury Laboratory, and Bushnell-Wye, on the other hand, said they think a TUPE should apply.

The committee argued that since the councils disagree on whether the agreement applies, there is a risk that members of staff will take the matter to court, meaning that the “science budget will be used to pay for legal action”.

Andrew Miller, chairman of the committee, asked Delpy to share his legal advice with Daresbury and Prospect, but Delpy said that wouldn’t be required. After being pressured further by Miller, however, he agreed to “double check” if it would be possible.

The committee also questioned whether the ‘state of the art’ experimental set up at Newcastle is really better than that at Daresbury.

“It must be right to have a machine that is new and state-of-the art that is used in a whole range of other XPS facilities around the world, as opposed to a machine that is almost now 25 years old,” replied Delpy, adding that he, however, is not an expert.

But Bushnell-Wye pointed out that Daresbury had also proposed a new facility in its bid.

“To turn down our bid on the basis that our current instrument doesn’t provide that is flawed,” he said.