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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 16 May 2006. A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Lord Wilson of Tillyorn was presiding, with the Senior Proctor, the Junior Proctor, the Registrary's deputy, and four other persons present. The following Reports were discussed:

Report of the General Board on the establishment of a Royal Society Research Professorship of Chemical Biology (p. 526).

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Mr. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Royal Society now appoints Professors of the University of Cambridge, as I and others have remarked on previous occasions. I take it that there is a reciprocal arrangement under which the University can appoint Fellows of the Royal Society? We look forward to this year's list.

First-stage Report of the Council on the construction of a new building for the Institute for Manufacturing at West Cambridge (p. 557).

Professor G. R. EVANS:

I am amused to see that it is going to be considered appropriate for the Unified Administrative Service to be 'contained in a basement', although that is thought 'unsuitable' for an Institute for Manufacturing.

I just want to draw attention to the second recommendation. I have remarked on a number of occasions on the gracing in the old days of an apparently unfettered permission for the Treasurer to accept tenders. This is a stage-one Report and the Grace will merely allow a Director in the Unified Administrative Service to apply for 'detailed Planning Approval in due course'. There are constitutional questions here and I would be grateful if the Council would spell out its policy on delegation of such powers in its reply. What exactly does this authorization allow this Director to do on behalf of the University? The saga of the lighting on the athletics track, just entering another round of planning battles, suggests the need for a degree of accountability and continuing supervision even at stage one of a project.

Professor A. MYCROFT:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, is it really over a year since I stood here and said 'Here we are again, more building is proposed at West Cambridge, but there is none of the promised infrastructure which Master Plans make so much of but which gets conveniently forgotten when another building is proposed' (Reporter, 2004-05, p. 568)? And did Council respond 'The Council accept the need for the provision of basic shopping facilities and a cash dispenser at West Cambridge. Plans are in hand which they expect to lead to such facilities being in place early in the next academical [2005-06] year' (Reporter, 2004-05, p. 615)? And did this cheerful image of scarlet-robed generosity forget us when Christmas came?

I am told, informally, that no Department was willing to host a cash dispenser (perhaps unsurprisingly if asked 'would you like to host an ATM inside your Department for the whole of West Cambridge (and can your internal security cope)?'). But, come on, our site is full of security cameras, and we have three empty shop units, one of which could have a dispenser fitted tomorrow - if there was money in it for the University rather than it being infrastructure! Similarly I am told that there is no commercial interest in running any of our shop units - no commercial interest perhaps at financially determined rates to show us making a profit from year one. But projects take time to make a profit, as business builds up. Has anyone asked the local Chinese restaurant trade whether they would like a rent-free shop unit for five years? (After all, we're not getting much rent for it at the moment are we?) Or, as I said last year, seeing what our entrepreneurial students could do with it?

The tide of infrastructure development appears not only to be failing to flow, but actually starting to ebb. Has anyone noticed that the map showing the 'Institute of Manufacturing' also shows the Cavendish car park being completely replaced by a 'Physics of Medicine' building and the East Forum. Perhaps it is now considered policy that physicists and medics should live in Cambridge rather than distant villages (perhaps exploiting huge salary increases from top-up fees?) and to take the number 4 bus to and from Addenbrooke's when doing physics of medicine? But isn't this bit of vital and well-used infrastructure just about to be cut because the University is no longer willing to support it? And are not car parks just as much infrastructure as buses?

Finally, the most serious issue for the Computer Laboratory also concerns buildings and infrastructure, and perhaps sadly suggests that helping out the University as a whole is likely to be problematic. In 2001 we moved into our new building, built using a generous grant of US$20m (then £12.5m) donated by the William H. Gates Foundation. Council's Notice 'Report of the Council on the construction of a new building for the Computer Laboratory at West Cambridge' (Reporter, 1998-99, p. 462) states that 'Council … note that the tenancy of embedded space for use by Microsoft [in the event Intel Research replaced Microsoft as tenants] for up to ten years has enabled the University to finance a materially larger building for ultimate full use by the Computer Laboratory than would otherwise have been possible'. Initially we only occupied two floors of this building and, relying on phased and carefully planned expansion, agreed to the University renting out parts of it (divided into four not-quite-equal areas) for five to ten years on a case-by-case basis to suitable causes. One quarter was used to expand by welcoming Professor Hopper's 'Laboratory for Communication Engineering' which later merged with our Department, and another temporarily to house Professor White's Optical Communications team which also has significant academic overlap with us. Two other quarters were rented to Intel Research (up to ten years) and Cambridge Enterprise (up to five years for 'business incubator units'). Intel Research have significant intellectual collaboration with our Department, and are looking forward to eventually relocating to the East Forum. Cambridge Enterprise's occupancy was planned to end this summer, but various informal promises appear to have been made to extend this which are now blighting our expansion.

Let me note that the Computer Laboratory is an academically and financially great success for the University. We make significant cash contributions to the rest of the University, and our case for the next RAE submission is sufficiently strong that we do not even need to consider proleptic appointments - or perhaps we should be weaker so that proleptic appointments would give us the space we need! Students and staff from the Computer Laboratory have also led to the formation of 140 companies, largely independent of the University. In any other university we would be being approached by the powers that be asking 'how can you double in size so we can double the University tax-take from you?'. Instead, I am told that Ph.D. student admission is once again restricted by our limited space instead of being our academic decision.

To continue to benefit the University (and we believe that our Department does this better than Cambridge Enterprise, both academically and in cash terms), we need space soon - rather than mere uncertain hope that the East Forum will eventually be built - and our building used for the purposes which the Gates Foundation intended.

I will finish by quoting my remarks of 2005: 'I would find it much easier to vote placet when I knew the answer to these issues'. So, this time let me ask for precise answers: (i) when will the cash dispenser and shops open?; (ii) where will physicists park, and how will they get from the new Physics of Medicine building to Addenbrooke's when the number 4 bus is discontinued?; and (iii) when can we have our building back?

Report of the General Board on the establishment of certain Readerships in the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences (p. 559).

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Mr. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, £2m was set aside by Grace 'to facilitate staff restructuring, including positioning for the next Research Assessment Exercise' as recorded in this Report. It is proposed that a notional amount taking the interesting constitutional form of an 'assumption' should now also be spent. 'An assumption was also included in the Report that an additional amount would be allocated in 2006-07 in respect of steps that the University might wish to take in preparation for the RAE'. Is the Regent House to approve the spending of assumptions before proposed allocations embodying those assumptions are set before it for approval? If there were an awful lot of 'assumptions' to be graced in a given year, the Registrary might need more than seventeen locks to ensure that there was anything left in the Chest for the Allocations Report to allocate that year. (And may I take the opportunity of congratulating him on making it into the Times colour supplement on 13 May for his 500th birthday?)

May I suggest that a new Annual Report be prepared, perhaps to be entitled the 'Assumptions' Report?

Now to the reasons given for spending this particular assumption. It seems that a Department may claim 'assumption funding' because it needs to strengthen its position (Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics); or because it already has strengthened its position (Veterinary Science 'has risen from a 3 rating in 1989 to 5 in 2001'); or because it is already in the strongest possible position ('The Department of Physics, jointly with the Institute of Astronomy, has achieved the highest possible rating in all previous RAEs.'). To the innocent reader it seems as though one may claim an assumption for oneself whatever one's 'position' with reference to the RAE.

Perhaps it does not matter, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer making his own assumptions about the future of research funding in universities without consultation. But it may be worth getting these brief remarks on record. Experience suggests that there may come a moment to refer back to them, sagely shaking one's head.

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Cambridge University Reporter 24 May 2006
Copyright © 2006 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.