Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report


Innovation Support Programmes

48. Realising Our Potential set out the Government's commitment to make it easier for small and medium-sized firms to access innovation support programmes. Such programmes include:

  • Small Firms Merit Award for Research and Technology (SMART) - which aims to stimulate small businesses to develop and market new science and technology based products, and to encourage the formation of new businesses and encourage investment in highly innovative technology;

  • LINK; and

  • the Teaching Company Scheme.[114]

49. Our evidence suggests that, as with technology transfer, there are too many schemes and that these present a confusing picture to users.[115] SMEs do not have the resources to investigate what each scheme may be able to offer them. In the longer term Government should look to rationalise the network of innovation support schemes. But as with technology transfer, new and existing schemes should be given time to bed down. We recommend that the Government publish a guide outlining the schemes available to SMEs and actively promote these schemes, for example through the Regional Development Agencies and trade associations.

50. Schemes such as SMART are considered important sources of pre-product funds for start-up and small companies and our witnesses suggest they should be extended in scale and scope.[116] It was also suggested that Government consider best practice from abroad, and the US Small Business Research Innovation Program, which provides funds to support innovative research conducted by small businesses was cited.[117] Excellence and Opportunity announced that the Government would be adopting a similar scheme, the Small Business Research Initiative.[118] Excellence and Opportunity also introduced a new Regional Innovation Fund, which is to support the formation of clusters and incubators and new clubs of scientists, entrepreneurs, managers and financiers. We welcome the Government's introduction of measures to support innovative small businesses.

51. In our Report on Engineering and Physical Science Based Innovation, published in February 2000, we concluded that the UK was strong in terms of scientific production but weaker in terms of its application and exploitation.[119] In this inquiry, several witnesses have commented that, while universities are becoming better at supplying technology and innovation, the UK business base is still not taking this up.[120] It has been shown that business expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP dropped from 1.44% in 1988 to 1.19% in 1998.[121] Mr Byers suggested that this was due to the fact that R&D was a long term investment and many UK companies still took a short-term approach.[122] In the March 2001 Budget, the Government introduced a number of measures to encourage innovation in business. These included extension of a number of initiatives aimed specifically at SMEs (for example, extension of both the Enterprise Management Incentives and All-Employee Share Ownership scheme).[123] It also announced consultation on proposals to extend the R&D tax credits currently available to SMEs to large firms, as we recommended in 2000.[124] We welcome the fiscal measures introduced in the Budget to encourage research and development and recommend that uptake be carefully monitored. Government should also conduct a proactive campaign to promote innovation among those parts of industry which are not traditionally strong in R&D.

Engaging the Public

52. Realising Our Potential recognised that there was a broad social and economic need to raise the general public's level of understanding and awareness of scientific and technological issues and the role of science, engineering and technology in the economy.[125] It applauded the efforts already underway, by organisations such as the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and undertook to work together with key players in the field - including the Wellcome Trust and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation - to promote a campaign throughout the country: co-sponsoring exhibitions, encouraging project work in schools, promoting careers opportunities and working to improve scientists' understanding of communicating with the public.[126]

53. Realising Our Potential gave government support and added credibility to the activities already being undertaken to promote science to the public, and authorised real expenditure on these activities from the science budget.[127] Some of these activities - Science Week, for example - have had enduring success; but overall this has been one of the least successful aspects of the 1993 White Paper.[128] Issues such as the BSE crisis and rapid developments in areas such as biotechnology, which were leading to public unease, have had far greater an impact on the public perception of science and science advice. In our recent Report on the Scientific Advisory System, we highlighted the loss of public confidence in scientific advice to Government.[129] The 2000 Report of the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology on Science and Society examined in depth public attitudes to, and understanding of, science.[130] The evidence we have received in this inquiry supports the view that there needs to be better dialogue between scientists and the public.[131]

54. Excellence and Opportunity acknowledges the need for effective dialogue with the public, and outlines a number of new initiatives. The OST, with the Wellcome Trust, is conducting a review of scientific communication. The Government undertakes to work with the Royal Society, Research Councils, Science Centres and others to ensure that they operate as centres of dialogue and debate, as well as of information. And 2001/02 has been designated "Science Year".[132]

55. Realising Our Potential did not consider it sensible to attempt any central direction of the diverse activities in the public understanding of science.[133] Excellence and Opportunity has taken a similar approach, introducing new activities but not outlining a clear strategy. In the evidence we have received, public understanding of science activities are criticised for being generally too small or inadequately co-ordinated or characterised by "professional amateurism".[134] Learned Societies felt that their activities in this area had been overlooked and that they should be involved to a greater extent.[135] Responsibility for promotion of science is spread over a number of bodies: the Royal Society, the British Association, and the Royal Institution, for example. COPUS (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science) was set up to co-ordinate these activities, but it has not been very effective to date. We welcome the steps that are currently being taken to remodel COPUS. COPUS should also be retitled.[136] "The Public Understanding of Science" is an outmoded and patronising term, suggesting ignorance on the part of the public. The imperative is not so much to improve the public's understanding but to ensure that science responds to what people want, and meets public concerns. We welcome the increasing use of the term "Science and Society" or, even better, "Science for Society", to describe activities to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between the scientific community and the public.

56. Government has a clear interest in supporting activities which promote science to the public, and a responsibility to ensure that they are properly funded. We recommend that the Government work with the scientific community to build a new strategy for promoting science and technology, building upon the work already being done but reaching out to a broader range of participants and a wider audience.

Science Teaching in Schools

57. Realising Our Potential recognised the critical importance to our future prosperity of high quality science education, including science teaching in schools.[137] It expressed confidence that the Government's educational system would lead to more young people having the grounding in mathematics, science and technology needed to pursue these subjects in higher education. The number of young people taking mathematics and science A levels has gone up by 18.4% since 1994, against an overall increase of 5.7%; though there has been a recent fall in some individual science subjects.[138] We regret the move towards generalist science courses, which we fear will dilute the knowledge base and result in inadequate preparation for higher education in the sciences.

58. The quality of science teaching in schools has become a major concern. In recent months we have held meetings with a number of industrial bodies. Without exception, they have highlighted science teaching in schools as one of their urgent concerns. Representatives of the management of Corus plc, for example, identified the state of physics teaching in schools in the UK, and the shortage of physics teachers, as an extremely serious concern for their company.[139] The Chemical Industries Association, on the other hand, placed particular emphasis on science teaching in primary schools, on the ground that it was at that age that children could be fired with enthusiasm for science. There is an increasingly acute shortage of well qualified science teachers, particularly in mathematics and the physical sciences; and their age profile means that the problem will become progressively worse as well qualified teachers retire.[140] As Excellence and Opportunity acknowledges, too many teachers do not have degrees in the science subjects they teach.[141] If science teachers are not properly trained in the subject they teach, they may find it very hard to communicate a real enthusiasm for the subject. They may also be ill-equipped to teach the practical applications of the science which are often most attractive to children. The problem is compounded by over-stringent application of Health and Safety regulations, which inhibit the conduct of practical experiments. We note that the House of Lords Committee highlights the decline in the amount of practical work in its recent Report on Science in Schools, and recommends that continuing professional development for teachers should be specifically targeted at the problem of declining practical work.[142] We wholeheartedly endorse these views.

59. The Government has introduced a number of welcome measures to improve science teaching in schools. £60 million has been provided to upgrade science laboratories in schools.[143] Some curriculum changes have been introduced, though there remains a widespread view that the national curriculum inhibits imaginative science teaching. Perhaps most importantly, the Government is trying to tackle the shortage of science teachers by recently introducing a £10,000 training and recruitment package for teachers in specialist subjects. We note that the Education and Employment Committee has recommended that consideration should be given to paying higher than ordinary salaries to teachers in shortage subjects, including science.[144] We support this proposal, though, whatever the premia, teaching salaries are unlikely to compete with those paid in industry. How to attract high quality science and technology graduates into teaching is a real problem, to which there is no ready answer. Nevertheless, it is a matter which has to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Given the importance to industry of ensuring good quality S&T teaching in schools, we would argue that industry could reasonably be expected to contribute, perhaps by allowing day-release or sabbatical release of staff for teaching in schools, though they would have to be appropriately trained. There is also scope for encouraging post-doctoral research scientists into teaching.

60. Steps have been taken to improve the professional development of science teachers, by increasing contact between teachers and scientists in Higher Education and in industry. The Council for Science and Technology reported on this in February 2000.[145] The recent Report from the House of Lords Committee on Science in Schools also focuses on the Continuing Professional Development of teachers.[146] There are a number of new schemes to link school pupils, too, with scientists in industry and universities. Excellence and Opportunity announced a new Science Ambassadors programme to link top science students with their old schools and colleges; and the Young Foresight programme - modelled on the work of the Foresight Panels - is challenging young people in around 100 schools, with the aid of mentors from business, to identify and solve problems associated with the development of innovative new products for the year 2020. We welcome these initiatives and commend those companies which are contributing to them. However, schemes such as these, valuable as they are, reach only a small minority of children. It is essential that the Government develop a clear strategy for improving the quality of science teaching in all schools, providing for both teachers and students to gain experience of science and technology in "the real world".

The Quality of Science, Engineering and Technology Graduates

61. In our Report on Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation, published in February 2000, we reported the problems experienced by many companies in meeting their requirement for science graduates.[147] The problem was not so much the quantity of science graduates but the number of high quality graduates available. There is reported to be a serious decline in the practical competence of SET graduates. We called on the Government to recognise the need to increase the quality and levels of competence of SET graduates.[148] We reaffirmed that conclusion in our Report on Government Research on R&D.[149] Some companies are having to recruit graduates from abroad.

62. Realising Our Potential raised some concerns about the nature of PhD training, suggesting that it did not always match up to the needs of a career outside research in academia or an industrial research laboratory.[150] It endorsed the view of the Royal Society that PhD training should be modified to include some non science-specific training, including communication and management skills. And it called on the research and funding councils to develop plans to change the balance of support in favour of more Master's level training.

63. Realising Our Potential proposed the development of a new post-graduate degree - the MRes. This degree was intended to provide graduates with an opportunity to gain further experience within their discipline, particularly in the laboratory, or to broaden their knowledge base. They would also be given training in the core skills - numeracy, literacy, communications skills - and gain some understanding of business processes. The Research Councils funded a number of pilot courses for a period of five years in selected university departments. In many case these MRes courses have been successful and the experience and qualification valued by the students in determining the direction of their future careers. A review of the MRes was undertaken by the Research Councils and they have continued to provide funding for these courses. It is as yet too early to gain any estimate of the value of this degree to employers.

The PhD Stipend

64. In July 2000, the Government announced a very significant increase in the PhD stipend.[151] The minimum stipend for students outside London will increase, by 2003-4, from £6,620 to £9,000 a year. (The increase will be gradual, rising to £6,800 in 2000-01, £7,500 in 2001/02 and £9,000 by academic year 2003/4.[152]) This is a 23% increase in real terms, and will cost £20 million per year by 2003-4 if student numbers remain the same.

65. This is a change to the minimum student stipend. Research Councils are free to increase the stipend if they consider it necessary. In the current year, the MRC pays £7,900 on average, the BBSRC £7,380 (or £15,460 for veterinary graduates) and EPSRC, ESRC, NERC, and PPARC all pay £6,800.[153] Medical charities generally pay significantly higher stipends to research students. The Wellcome Trust, for example, pays its research students approximately the equivalent to a Research Council postdoctoral research assistant starting salary. Industry too provides for enhanced stipends in studentship schemes they support, such as CASE. The inconsistency in the PhD stipend paid by different Research Councils and by independent agencies is unfair and is likely to be distorting, given the current levels of post-doctoral research salaries.

66. £9,000, though tax free, is still not a very attractive salary, when compared to the initial salaries offered to young graduates in industry, or even within the public sector. Excellence and Opportunity stated that the Government's aim was not to compete with starting salaries in business, but to provide a better basis for students to pursue their studies.[154] Lord Sainsbury told us that he "would not want to defend this as being princely earnings for people to do this kind of research", and that he would personally like to pay more, but that there were other priorities for funds, notably the position of junior researchers.[155] Mr Byers, too, accepted that "we need to get to a situation where we are providing adequate rewards".[156] We welcome the very significant increase in the minimum PhD student stipend, but we believe that it is still not enough to ensure that the best graduates stay on to do doctoral research. The Government should work towards a further significant increase in the PhD student stipend.

Career Paths for Scientists

67. While the increase to the PhD stipend is welcome, a more serious problem lies with the pay and conditions for post-doctoral scientists. Many of our witnesses have highlighted this problem.[157] Pay is very low. For example, post-doctoral research staff at Imperial College are currently paid less than office receptionists in Central London. More damaging still is the fact that many scientists are perpetually on short-term contracts. This insecurity is bad for morale, and it also creates mortgage difficulties and may affect pension entitlement. Not surprisingly, many people opt for more secure, and better paid, jobs in industry and commerce, or go abroad, leading to recruitment and retention problems in the UK science base. We note that the Education and Employment Committee has highlighted the casualisation of higher education staff contracts in its recent Report on student retention, and has recommended that the Higher Education Funding Council for England should investigate the reasons why higher education institutions are employing more part-time and fixed-term staff.[158] We share the Committee's concern. The 1999 Bett Report (the independent review of Higher Education pay and conditions) emphasised the risk of significant recruitment and retention problems in the "not too distant future" and called for extra investment by Government to fund pay increases.[159] Excellence and Opportunity acknowledged that the career development prospects for young researchers were a cause for concern; and stated that the Government was encouraging the universities and the Funding and Research Councils to promote good practice in career development.[160] This is welcome, but not enough. The Government can no longer afford to ignore the problem of low pay and poor job security for post-doctoral researchers and support staff. A shortage of skilled personnel threatens to undermine its commitment to strengthening the science base.

68. We are also concerned that scientists who do succeed in securing a permanent position, perhaps as a lecturer, are often diverted away from research into broader teaching and administrative duties. We do not wish to divorce research from teaching. The very best scientists can often be brilliant at both teaching and research. But others, though excellent in research, are poor in communicating their learning to students; and some are inspired teachers while unproductive in research. What is important is to build on the strengths of the individual and to accord equal value, and rewards, to both teaching and research.

69. We are aware that the Royal Society supports some research professorships, which have no teaching commitments. There may be a case too for creating career research posts for younger scientists and engineers who demonstrate particular promise in research. We are encouraged by Mr Byers's willingness to consider the possibility of funding such posts.[161] We must identify promising researchers and fund them properly. Funding should not be limited to projects, but should be available for speculative, pre-project, exploratory research. Fellowships should be available to support, and encourage, excellent researchers through the difficult early years of their careers. We note that Sir Gareth Roberts, President of Wolfson College Oxford, has been asked to conduct an independent review of the supply of skilled scientists and engineers in the UK, reporting by February 2002.[162] We welcome this review, and hope that it will address the need to provide a proper career path for young scientists and engineers. We must do more to support excellent scientists and engineers.

70. Excellence and Opportunity states the Government's commitment to encouraging more scientists and engineers to come to the UK, to study and then to stay on to work.[163] We welcome the measures taken to remove barriers imposed by immigration and work permit rules. We also need to attract people who have gone to work abroad back to the UK. We welcome the scheme, announced in the recent Enterprise, Skills and Innovation White Paper, to attract experienced British entrepreneurs back from abroad.[164] The need to attract skilled managers into the country has been highlighted in recent meetings we have held with industrialists, for example by the BioIndustry Association. The Government must ensure that schemes to encourage experienced entrepreneurs from abroad to come to the UK are not undermined by tax disincentives.

114   For an explanation of LINK and the Teaching Company Scheme, see paragraph 41. Back

115   Evidence, p 92, paragraph 11; p 115, paragraph 5; p 192, paragraph 5.  Back

116   Evidence, p 142. Back

117   Evidence, p 137, paragraph 9. Back

118   Cm 4814, chapter 1, paragraph 35. Back

119   HC 195-I, paragraph 22. Back

120   Evidence, p 132-133, paragraph 7; p 172, paragraph 44. Back

121   SET Statistics 2000, Table 7.1. Back

122   HC 274-i, Q 16. Back

123   Budget 2001, HC 279, p 42, paragraph 3.27, and p 43, paragraph 3.29. Back

124   HC 195-I, paragraph 60. See too HC 274-i, Qq 9-10, 18. Back

125   Cm 2250, paragraph 7.32. Back

126   Cm 2250, paragraphs 7.34 - 7.37. Back

127   Evidence, p 126, paragraph 8. Back

128   Evidence, p 138, paragraph 21.  Back

129   HC 257, paragraphs 55, 59. Back

130   Third Report of House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 1999-2000, Science and Society, HL Paper 38. Back

131   HC 466-iv, Q 215. Evidence, p 87, paragraph 27; p 156, paragraph 21; p 170, paragraph 26. Back

132   Cm 4814, chapter 1, paragraph 32, and chapter 4, paragraphs 31 - 34. Back

133   Cm 2250, paragraph 7.35. Back

134   Evidence, p 128, paragraph 2; p 171, paragraph 32. Back

135   Evidence, p 115, paragraph 8; p 238. Back

136   See HL Paper 38, paragraph 3.18. Back

137   Cm 2250, paragraph 7.1. Back

138   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 6, and Table 1. These figures show the percentage increase from 1994/95

to 1998/99 in A level achievement of 17 year old candidates in schools and FE colleges in England. Back

139   Second Report, Session 2000-01, Corus plc - Research and Development, HC 110, Qq 16, 40; and paragraph 16. Back

140   See Chapman, Steven: The State of the Physics Teaching Population, to be published in Science Teacher Education, May 2001. Back

141   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 11. Back

142   First Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 2000-01, Science in Schools, HL Paper 49, paragraphs 37-42. Back

143   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 14. Back

144   Sixth Report of the Education and Employment Committee, The Professional Status, Recruitment and Training of Teachers, Session 1996-97, HC 131, paragraph 76. Back

145   Science Teachers: A report on supporting and developing the profession of science teaching in primary and secondary schools, CST, February 2000.  Back

146   HL Paper 49. Back

147   HC 195-I, paragraphs 88-89. See also Projections of Occupations and Qualifications, 2000.

Available at Back

148   HC 195-I, paragraph 89. Back

149   HC 196-I, paragraph 55. Back

150   Cm 2250, paragraphs 7.14-7.25. Back

151   Treasury Press Notice, 85/00, 5 July 2000.  Back

152   The numbers for students in London are slightly greater. Back

153   Standard awards outside London. Back

154   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 33. Back

155   HC 898-i, Q 56. Back

156   HC 274-i, Q 24. Back

157   Evidence, p 224, paragraph 4; p 225; p 227; p 242, paragraph 15; pp 243-244; p 236. Back

158   Sixth Report of the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, Higher Education: Student Retention, HC 124. Back

159   Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, Report of a Committee chaired by Sir Michael Bett, May 1999, eg paragraphs 64, 352. See too HC 124, paragraphs 50, 52, 63-66. Back

160   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 34. Back

161   HC 274-i, Q 27. Back

162   HC 274-i, Q 17. Back

163   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 39. Back

164   Cm 5052, paragraph 6.13. Back

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