Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report



17. Realising Our Potential laid out the framework for Technology Foresight, a programme which aimed to achieve a 'cultural change' of better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the scientific community and Government Departments.[43] It also aimed to act as a means for gaining early notice of key emerging technologies and to improve understanding of the trends and uncertainties involved in future technological developments.[44] It was broadly based on similar methods used in Japan, Germany and the US.[45]

18. Technology Foresight was overseen by a Steering Group, chaired by the Chief Scientific Adviser, and operated through 15 sector based panels covering areas such as manufacturing, healthcare and chemicals. It was initially launched in 1994. In 1995 the first set of reports were published, outlining visions and recommendations for action. The first round led to a range of collaborative research programmes including Foresight Challenge, which was incorporated into Foresight LINK in 1997. Both programmes aimed to stimulate collaborative projects between the science base and industry to address Foresight priorities.

19. Technology Foresight was re-launched as Foresight on 1st April 1999. The second round was intended to have a broader focus, be more inclusive and balance the previous emphasis on competitiveness with increased emphasis on improved quality of life in the context of sustainable development.[46] The second round has 10 sector panels and three thematic panels (Crime Prevention, the Ageing Population and Manufacturing 2020). The latter address broader social and /or economic issues which might drive wealth creation or affect quality of life in the future. The future of Foresight is currently being reviewed by the Minister for Science and the Chief Scientific Adviser.[47]

20. Foresight is considered to be of more use in some sectors than others. Witnesses suggest Foresight has had a "moderate" effect in the biomedical sciences and has been of "little benefit" in the life sciences.[48] On the other hand, it has been enthusiastically supported by the chemicals sector.[49]

21. Foresight appears to have had variable success in identifying emerging technologies and the associated threats and opportunities. The first round was thought to focus too much on existing horizons rather than beyond them.[50] Professor Wilson, of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK), believed that, with the speed of technological development, it was difficult for Foresight to stay ahead of the game. Mr Byers felt that the second round reports, published in December 2000, were "rather variable in their quality".[51]

22. Foresight appears to have had only limited success in bringing about better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the science base, industry and Government Departments. Witnesses recognised that since 1993 there has been a 'culture change' in academia.[52] The Foresight process has provided a networking opportunity, but the extent to which it has been responsible for driving the observed culture change is doubtful.[53] Other factors such as the diminishing availability of public funding for research, success of start-up companies, and the increasing pace of research are thought to have been more influential.[54]

23. Foresight has not been very effective in engaging industry, particularly the small to medium sized enterprise (SME) sector. Witnesses suggest that Foresight should be more inclusive, extending well beyond the 'usual club' of research intensive companies, if the full potential of the exercise is to be realised.[55] We raised the need for increased involvement of SMEs in Foresight in our report on Government funding of research and development, recommending the development of a strategy to promote greater involvement in the process by SMEs.[56] In response, the Government outlined the activities used to draw in SMEs and stated that it would continue to make Foresight more accessible to SMEs throughout the UK, by constant monitoring, evaluation and refinement of its strategy.[57] Government must actively promote Foresight to a broad range of industrial sectors, and in particular to SMEs. The learned societies, trade associations and the regional development agencies would provide useful focal points for this activity.

24. Witnesses suggested that Foresight influences the research and funding councils' priorities, though in some cases these organisations already had, or were developing, their own methods for determining future priorities when Foresight was introduced.[58] The lack of impact of Foresight on Government Departments was raised by a number of our witnesses.[59] In the Government's response to our 2000 Report on R&D expenditure, it said that more needed to be done to ensure the flow through of Foresight information and ideas into departmental decisions on R&D priorities.[60] We recommend that Government make further use of Foresight in developing a coherent science, engineering and technology policy within and between Departments.

25. On balance, Foresight has fallen short of its aims. It has the potential to be a valuable exercise but to date it has been disappointing. The quality of the second round reports is said to be variable. We look forward to the outcome of the review of Foresight being undertaken by the Minister for Science. In our view, Foresight needs to be refocussed and revitalised.

The Director General of the Research Councils

26. Prior to Realising Our Potential, responsibility for policy on the science budget lay with the Department for Education and Science, Science Branch, and the Advisory Board of the Research Councils (ABRC) Secretariat.[61] The 1993 White Paper created the new role of Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC) and the functions of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils were absorbed into the Office for Science and Technology.[62] The post of DGRC was created to enable the Chief Scientific Adviser to concentrate upon his responsibilities for transdepartmental science and technology issues across Government.[63] The DGRC is responsible for securing the successful and high-quality operation of the Research Councils and in advising the Departmental Minister (the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster until 1995, and now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Minister for Science) on the allocation of the funds to the Research Councils, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.[64] The post was held by Sir John Cadogan until 1998. The current DGRC is Dr John Taylor.

27. The creation of the post of DGRC is widely considered to have been beneficial. A range of witnesses highlight the important role that the DGRC played in securing a favourable settlement for science in the 1997 Comprehensive Spending Review.[65] The DGRC provides a focal point for the Research Councils, and has responsibility to ensure their joint working and to review their boundaries. Witnesses suggest that the creation of the DGRC has led to improved cross council collaboration, but also to some competition.[66] The creation of the post of the Director General of the Research Councils appears to have been very successful. We regret, however, that the DGRC has become less visible of late: the post would benefit from a higher profile.

28. Realising Our Potential proposed that the DGRC should be assisted by a small standing group of independent experts, the "Expert Advisory Group" but this was never established. It seems that the then Minister saw a danger of reconstituting the ABRC, in parallel with having the DGRC; and both Sir John Cadogan and Dr John Taylor favoured having a range of bodies and institutions from which they could draw advice.[67] On the other hand, the Royal Society thought that an independent group of experts would assist the DGRC in developing a national strategy for science.[68] We see no need at present for an "Expert Advisory Group" to advise the DGRC.

Re-structuring of the Research Councils

29. Realising Our Potential proposed that the Research Councils be re-structured. The proposed re-structuring led from the recognition that the existing system had a number of outdated boundaries.[69] In addition, it was felt that there should be a separate 'big science' council - covering areas, such as astronomy, where resources are shared globally - in order to limit to one council the budgetary impact of currency fluctuations.[70] Only minor changes were made to the remits of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Natural and Environmental Research Council (NERC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). The functions of the Science and Engineering Research Council were divided amongst three new Research Councils: an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which also absorbed the functions of the Agricultural and Food Research Council.[71] The Research Councils were given reformulated mission statements which made explicit their commitment to wealth creation and quality of life. The customer base for each council was clearly defined. Their management structures were modified: each was to have a part time Chairman, drawn from the user community, and a full time Chief Executive.[72] The revised structure was introduced in 1994.

30. The OST considers that the new Research Council structure is optimal, bringing together curiosity driven research and mission orientated research.[73] The evidence we have received provides positive support for the changes made.[74] Concerns are raised that the structure may have a negative impact on 'blue skies' research but no evidence of this has been cited.[75] There is some criticism of the Research Councils for focussing on short term priorities set by Government at the expensive of more long term aims.[76] In broad terms the re-organisation of the Research Councils has proved a success.

31. Dividing the responsibility for funding between a number of Research Councils may create problems for interdisciplinary science which crosses council boundaries. Lord Waldegrave told us that they had considered a single funding agency for science but that this was thought to be too unwieldy and bureaucratic.[77] Sir John Cadogan thought that it was not realistic to have one Research Council and that in practice you would still need to put in scientific divisions.[78] Our witnesses report that a number of mechanisms have been constructed to ensure that cross council interdisciplinary science is not neglected, but that more needs to be done.[79] It is suggested that commonality of approach would improve effectiveness and sharing of best practice should be emphasised.[80] We recommend that the Director General of the Research Councils monitor closely interdisciplinary areas which cross council boundaries. The Research Councils should exchange best practice, looking where appropriate to remove unnecessary variations in working methods.

32. Some witnesses raised the explicit commitment to wealth creation and quality of life in the Research Councils' mission statements. This does not appear yet to have had a great impact.[81] The Research Councils seem to have got the balance about right, treating wealth creation and quality of life as secondary criteria to scientific excellence.

33. In 1995, the Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton Laboratories and a number of associated large facilities, which had originally been placed within the EPSRC, were made into a separate Research Council, the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC). This was chiefly undertaken to clarify the customer-contractor relationship between the CCLRC and its principal customers, the other councils.[82] Witnesses express concern about this arrangement.[83] The OST acknowledges that the 'ticketing system' used to manage access impacted on demand for the services.[84] The OST has recently conducted the first stage of a quinquennial review of CCRLC. This has concluded that it should be brought under joint ownership of the grant awarding Research Councils.[85] The second stage of the review will now examine how this might be implemented. We welcome the proposed change to the status of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, to bring it under the joint ownership of the grant awarding Research Councils.

34. In addition to the review of CCLRC, the OST is currently conducting quinquennial reviews of the six grant awarding Research Councils. This will include analysis of their role, organisation, form of governance, performance and efficiency. We look forward with interest to the outcome of the quinquennial review of the Research Councils.

The Council for Science and Technology

35. Realising Our Potential proposed the replacement of the Government's Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACOST) by the Council for Science and Technology (CST).[86] The White Paper envisaged that the new Council would draw on the findings of the Foresight programme and help to ensure that the Government benefited from outside, independent advice when deciding its research spending priorities. It was also stated that information generated by the Council would normally be made openly available. The CST reports formally to the Prime Minister and since 1995 it has been nominally chaired by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

36. In its first few years, the CST does not appear to have operated very effectively.[87] In March 1998, the Council was re-established with clearer, more comprehensive terms of reference, increased independent membership and commitments to publish an annual report, its advice and information about its work.[88] Despite these changes, we still received evidence that ACOST was more influential and active.[89]

37. In our Report on the implications of the Dearing Report in 1998, we recommended that the changes to the CST be widely disseminated so that the Council's work carried the confidence of the wider research community.[90] Although, since this time, the CST has launched a website which includes information about its membership, work and meetings, several of our witnesses were unaware of its activities.[91] Although we realise that its primary role is to advise Government, we consider that further efforts should be made to disseminate the Council for Science and Technology's work more widely.

38. Since its re-launch the CST has produced three substantive advisory reports: a Review of Science and Technology Activity Across Government, July 1999; Technology Matters, February 2000; and Science Teachers, February 2000. Our evidence suggests that these reports were highly regarded.[92] We examined the work of the CST- which is described by OST as the "Government's premier advisory body"- in our recent Report on the Scientific Advisory System.[93] In that Report we questioned the influence the CST's reports had on Government policy. The Government has published an implementation plan in response to the CST's S&T Review and an initial response to the Science Teachers Report.[94] Each of these responses took almost a year to produce and we still await a published response to the Technology Matters report. As we recommended in our Scientific Advisory System Report, the Government should give more prominence to the activities of the Council for Science and Technology and respond to its recommendations.[95]

Technology Transfer

39. At the time of Realising Our Potential, the Government had in place a number of activities for promoting the transfer of technology and knowledge between the science and engineering base and industry. These included:

  • the Teaching Company Scheme - which facilitates the transfer of knowledge from universities to industry though the employment of an Associate who works in collaboration with industry and academic staff;[97] and

  • Co-operative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) studentships - where the student is funded in part by industry and also conducts some research there.

40. Many of the policies outlined in Realising Our Potential were designed to encourage closer contact and exchange between the science and engineering base and industry. The Government undertook to develop its schemes for technology transfer "to re-emphasise the importance of the interchange of ideas, skills, know-how and knowledge".[98] A number of new technology transfer schemes were introduced, including:

  • ·  Faraday Partnerships - which bring together networks of organisations that share a common sector or technology interest to promote improved interactions between the UK science and engineering base and industry;

  • the Higher Education Reach Out to Business and the Community Fund (HEROBC) - which provides incentive funding for institutions to build a sustainable and broadly based capability to respond to the needs of industry and the community;

  • the Science Enterprise Challenge - which aims to raise awareness of the importance of business enterprise at all levels within universities and foster understanding and co-operation between academics and the business world to ensure the commercial exploitation of technological innovation; and

  • the University Challenge - which contributes towards seedcorn funding for the development of new commercial initiatives.

41. Excellence and Opportunity built on these schemes, and included:

  • the Higher Education Innovation Fund - (incorporating HEROBC) to increase universities' capability to work with industry, particularly small firms;

  • Business Fellows - to lead their academic colleagues in working with industry; and

  • a further round of University Challenge and additional Faraday Partnerships.[99]

42. Our evidence suggests that, since Realising Our Potential, universities have improved their technology transfer capabilities and links with industry.[100] There are some notable centres of expertise but the full benefit of technology transfer activities have yet to materialise across the board; indeed perhaps it is too early to see clear returns.[101] It is suggested that there are a number of barriers to effective technology transfer. In some universities technology transfer is not recognised as a high enough priority or is perceived to be against the institution's culture. There is a shortage of relevant expertise in some universities and little awareness of best practice.[102] It is suggested that some of these barriers could be overcome by stimulating greater collaboration and joint working between academic technology transfer units.[103] We recommend that the Government encourage greater collaboration and joint working to develop best practice on technology transfer across universities and to enhance the commercial exploitation of research.

43. Many of our witnesses have argued that the number of schemes to foster technology transfer is excessive, that they need rationalisation and the bureaucracy of the application processes is cumbersome.[104] In the longer term Government should look to rationalise the plethora of technology transfer schemes aiming to develop a simplified, flexible unbureaucratic approach. However, new schemes should be allowed to bed down: there is a long absorption period before people get to know of their existence. All too often a scheme is abolished or redesigned just as it is becoming well established. Mr Byers candidly admitted the tendency for Secretaries of State to announce bright new initiatives, and accepted that there was a need to simplify, and focus, the schemes available.[105] Ministers should resist the temptation to launch new schemes when it would be better to strengthen existing ones.

44. The Wellcome Trust suggests that a clear strategy or framework be developed which would set the variety of funding schemes in context.[106] This would also assist in comparative evaluation of technology transfer schemes and show where gaps exist. We recommend that the Government develop an overarching strategy for technology transfer activities and publish a framework to be actively promoted to all interested parties.

45. People are key in transferring knowledge between academia and industry and vice versa. A number of schemes exist to facilitate secondments, but it has been suggested that they are not well used.[107] One specific proposal is that there should be a route to transfer senior scientists between academia and SMEs, in the life sciences.[108] We recommend that Government promote secondment schemes more actively and consider expanding those already in existence.

46. Intellectual property (IP) is a major area of concern. On the one hand there is concern that academics lack appreciation of IP and, on the other, that higher education institutionsS focus too strongly on short term gain, seeing IP as an immediate third source of income.[109] In the US, by contrast, universities are said to perceive their work in technology transfer as primarily a contribution to the universities' public or civic role, though of course they are much better funded.[110] As we said in our January 2000 Report on innovation in engineering and the physical sciences,[111] universities must protect their intellectual property appropriately, in the long term interest of both the university and the United Kingdom as a whole. The funding regime may need to be changed to allow the universities to take a longer term perspective.

47. Excellence and Opportunity outlined a number of key measures to improve handling of IP. These include:

  • changing the rules for Government funded research, so that research bodies own their own IPR;

  • issuing new guidelines on incentives and risk-taking for staff in public sector research establishments; and

  • a new fund (£10 million) for commercialising research done in the public sector.[112]

The introduction of these new initiatives is timely. The DTI's Competitiveness Indicators have shown that UK underperforms nearly all its major competitors in terms of patents and needs to improve commercial exploitation of university research.[113] The management of Intellectual Property is critical if the UK is to be competitive in the global knowledge driven economy.

43   Cm 2250, paragraph 1.18. Back

44   Cm 2250, paragraph 2.27. Back

45   HC 466-iii, Session 1999-2000, Q 106. Back

46   HC 466-iv, Session 1999-2000, p 44, issue 11 OST. Back

47   HC 274-i, Q 37. Back

48   Evidence, p 148, paragraph 2.10; p 182, paragraph 2. Back

49   Evidence, p 190, paragraph 2. Back

50   Evidence, p 102, paragraph 11. Back

51   HC 274-i, Q 37. Back

52   Evidence, p 101, paragraph 3; p 91, paragraph 3; p 135, paragraph 1; p 113, paragraph 2. Back

53   Evidence, p 91, paragraph 3; p 102, paragraph 10; p 113, paragraph 2. Back

54   Evidence, p 113, paragraph 2. Back

55   Evidence, p 137, paragraph 5. Back

56   HC 196-I, paragraph 50. Back

57   HC 723, Appendix, recommendation (g). Back

58   Evidence, p 102, paragraph 10; p 147, paragraph 2.9; p 155, paragraph 8; p 175, paragraph 7. Back

59   Evidence, p 164; p 168, paragraph 8; p 190, paragraph 2. Back

60   HC 723, Appendix, recommendation (g).  Back

61   HC 466-iv, p 44, issue 13. Back

62   Cm 2250, paragraph 1.18. Back

63   Cm 2250, paragraph 3.26. Back

64   Cm 2250, paragraphs 3.26, 3.27. Back

65   Evidence, p 85, paragraph 14; p 133, paragraph 11; p 158, paragraph 32. Back

66   Evidence, p 157, paragraph 31.  Back

67   HC 466-iv, p 40, issue 3. Back

68   Evidence, p 141. Back

69   HC 466-iii, Q 112. Back

70   HC 466-iv, Q 168. Back

71   HC 466-iv, p 42, issue 8. Back

72   Cm 2250, paragraph 1.18. Back

73   HC 466-iv, p 42, issue 8. Back

74   Evidence, p 85, paragraph 12; p 115, paragraphs 6-7; p 166; p 170, paragraph 22; p 192, paragraph 6; p 213. Back

75   Evidence, p 72, paragraph 6; p 92, paragraph 15; p 182, paragraph 2. Back

76   HC 466-ii, Q 96; Evidence, p 92, paragraph 15. Back

77   HC 466-iii, Q 114. Back

78   HC 466-iv, Q 175. Back

79   Evidence, p 93, paragraph 17; p 138, paragraph 13. Back

80   Evidence, p 166; p 192, paragraph 6. Back

81   Evidence, p 85, paragraph 13; pp 125-126, paragraph 6; p 138, paragraph 13; p 157, paragraph 23. Back

82   HC 466-iv, p 40, issue 10. Back

83   Evidence, p 126, paragraph 6. Back

84   HC 466-iv, p 40, issue 10. Back

85   See . Back

86   Cm 2250, paragraph 1.18. Back

87   HC 466-iv, Q 214. Back

88   HC 466-iv, p 45, issue 14. Back

89   HC 466-iii, Q 131. Also Evidence, p 125, paragraph 3.  Back

90   First Report, Session 1997-98, The Implications of the Dearing Report for the Structure and Funding of University Research, HC 303-I, paragraph 110. Back

91   Evidence, p 92, paragraph 5; p 98, paragraph 2.3; p 102, paragraph 12; p 138, paragraph 11. Back

92   Evidence, p 75, paragraph 6; p 169, paragraph 21; p 125, paragraph 3. Back

93   Fourth Report, Session 2000-01, The Scientific Advisory System, HC 257, paragraph 14. See also paragraph 44. Back

94   See . Back

95   HC 257, paragraph 14. Back

96   Cm 2250, paragraph 3.35. Back

97   Cm 2250, paragraph 7.18. Back

98   Cm 2250, paragraph 1.18. Back

99   Cm 4814, chapter 1, paragraph 35. Back

100   HC 466-ii, p 12, paragraph 16. HC 466-v, page 53, paragraph 4. Evidence, p 206. Back

101   Evidence, p 191, paragraph 4. HC 466-ii, p 13, paragraph 17. Back

102   Evidence, p 206. Back

103   Evidence, p 118, paragraph 18. Back

104   Evidence, p 73, paragraph 4.3; p 115, paragraph 4; p 118, paragraph 18; p 192, paragraph 5. Back

105   HC 274-i, Q 17. Back

106   Evidence, p 118, paragraph 18. Back

107   HC 466-v, page 53, paragraph 4.  Back

108   Evidence, p 92, paragraph 13. Back

109   Evidence, p 191, paragraph 4; p 206. Back

110   Professor Alan Windle, Foundation for Science and Engineering (27 February 2001). Back

111   Second Report, Session 1999-2000, Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation, HC 195-I,

paragraph 72. Back

112   Cm 4814, chapter 3, paragraph 40. Back

113   UK Competitiveness Indicators: Second Edition, DTI, February 2001, pp 56, 59. Back

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