Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report


Women in Science, Engineering and Technology

71. Realising Our Potential emphasised the urgent need to attract more women into science and engineering.[165] In March 1993, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster established a Committee on Women in SET, under the overall chairmanship of the Chief Scientific Adviser, to advise on ways in which the potential, skills and expertise of women could best be secured for SET. The report of the Committee, and its Working Group, The Rising Tide, was published in 1994.[166] Sir Robert May told us that most of the 14 recommendations made in The Rising Tide had been implemented. The representation of women on SET advisory bodies had increased to 25% a year before target, for example. In two significant respects, however, Sir Robert May acknowledged that they had failed: the Treasury had not been persuaded to allow childcare costs to be claimable against income tax; and the post-16 curriculum had not been broadened to encourage young people, and girls in particular, to carry on with science.[167]

72. The OST considers that "significant progress" has been made in this area.[168] A special unit has been set up in the OST to co-ordinate activity. Through the Athena project, the OST is working with other bodies to encourage women to take up SET in Higher Education. There is an encouraging increase in the number of girls studying science to A level and in the number of women science graduates.[169] Yet, women remain under-represented within the SET community, particularly in the mathematically-based sciences and engineering. And women who are working in SET appear to be less successful than their male colleagues. The proportion of grant applications from women academics, for example, is significantly lower than the proportion of women in each discipline; though there is no evidence of bias in the grant application process.[170] Few women reach the top positions: Excellence and Opportunity points out that fewer than 10% of biological sciences professors are women, though women are now over 60% of graduates in the biosciences.[171]

73. Excellence and Opportunity acknowledged that we need to do more to help women to progress in scientific careers, and to help those who leave scientific careers, perhaps to have a family, to return.[172] It announced that the Government was carrying out a study to identify the barriers faced by women returners and to evaluate ways of overcoming these barriers; and that in 2001 it would act on the results of this study. It also extended the target of women on SET-related bodies to 40% by 2005. This is welcome, though achievement of this target will necessarily add to the many demands on the relatively few women in senior positions in SET.

74. We welcome the Government's commitment to improving opportunities for women in science, engineering and technology. It is essential that we should be encouraging girls to take up science at school - physical sciences as well as life sciences - and to continue with it post-16, and into higher education. We must ensure that women scientists and engineers have equal job opportunities (for example, by requiring that there be at least one woman on every interview panel) and we must offer proper career pathways to women, with better arrangements for women returners. It is clear that there are still barriers to women realising their potential in science, engineering and technology.

Location of the Office of Science and Technology

75. The OST was established within the Cabinet Office in 1992. It was moved to the Department of Trade and Industry in 1995. Lord Waldegrave regarded the move as "a serious mistake" and argued that the OST should be put back "at the centre" with a Minister in Cabinet.[173] Other witnesses have suggested that the DGRC should remain with the DTI but that the Chief Scientific Adviser should be in an independent location, perhaps the Cabinet Office.[174] In our 2000 Report on Government Expenditure on R&D we considered whether there was a case for moving the OST out of the DTI. We concluded that it should remain within the DTI, though we recommended that the Minister for Science should be raised to Cabinet rank.[175] We see no reason to change this view. The OST's separation from the Department of Education risked distancing science policy from higher education policy and from management of the Universities; but in practice this seems to have caused little difficulty. Locating the OST within the DTI almost certainly increases the emphasis which is put on SET's role in wealth creation, perhaps at the expense of its role in furthering human knowledge and the quality of life; but it has led to a significant increase in funding. In practice, the OST's move to the DTI seems to have worked well. We stand by our view that the Office of Science and Technology should remain with the Department of Trade and Industry, and that the Minister for Science should be raised to Cabinet rank.

Research and Development in Government Departments

76. While the significant increase in the science budget has been widely welcomed, there remains concern that the increase in Research Council spending is being parallelled by a reduction in departmental expenditure on R&D. In our 2000 Report on Government Expenditure on R&D, we examined this question in detail. We reported that "the suspicion persists that the increased Science Budget is being asked to bear the brunt of cuts in departmental allocations" and called on the Government, in the 2000 Spending Review, to halt and reverse the long-term decline in civil departments' R&D spending.[176] Mr Byers assured us the Spending Review had stopped this decline, and that a number of major departments would increase their spending on R&D over the next three years.[177] We hope that the departmental science strategies, which are expected to be published in the Summer of 2001, will demonstrate that departments are committing additional funding to research and development. The publication of Forward Look 2001 also provides an opportunity for Government to show the impact of the 2000 Spending Review on overall government expenditure on R&D.

Scientific Expertise in Government

77. There is also continuing concern about the reduction in the number of scientific staff in Government Departments. Figures supplied in evidence from the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS) show that personnel engaged in R&D in UK Government civil departments decreased by 24.2%, from 8.232 to 6,237, in the ten years from 1988 to 1998.[178] We have underlined our concern about this loss of expertise on several occasions before - most recently in our Report on the Scientific Advisory System.[179] The current foot and mouth crisis demonstrates all to clearly how important it is for Departments to have scientific expertise in-house. Access to external scientific advice is not enough: Departments must be able to ask the right questions and interpret the advice received. And scientists within Government must have more clout: policymakers must listen to what they say. If public confidence in science is to be restored, it is essential that Government Departments have sufficient well-qualified scientific staff in-house to advise on scientific matters and to ensure that Government is able to make full use of science and technology; and there must be mechanisms to ensure that their advice is taken into account by policymakers.


78. Excellence and Opportunity is the first Science White Paper to be published since devolution of the management of many aspects of science and innovation policy to the new administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Funding of higher education in those parts of the UK is now devolved, as is support for industry and economic development, but Research Council spending across the UK remains the responsibility of UK Government. This has implications for the dual support system for higher education institutions. The White Paper makes clear that it presents a science and innovation strategy for the UK as a whole, and states that the UK Government and the devolved administrations are committed to working together.[180] The Royal Society and Royal Society of Edinburgh joint report on Devolution and Science, published in April 1999, concluded that the SET base should remain well integrated at UK level with as few internal barriers as possible.[181] Devolution must not be allowed to weaken the UK science base. The Government must ensure that the devolved administrations are fully involved in the development of science policy in order to avoid inconsistency of purpose in the different parts of the UK.

Measuring Success

79. The UK performs well in science. With only 1% of the world's population, the UK has, on a continuing basis carried out 5.5% of the world's research effort and has been a major force in research with an 8% share of world scientific publications and a 9.1% share of world citations. In absolute terms, this has placed the UK a clear second to the US and significantly ahead of countries such as Japan, Germany and France.[182] In terms of citations per million pounds invested the UK has been the most cost-effective producer of scientific research. The UK has also been second only to the US in winning major international science prizes. However, this data is historical (based on figures for 1981-94, produced in the OST's 1997 report, 'The Quality of the UK Science Base') and so speaks to past performance. We believe that UK science is still excellent and cost-effective, but this needs to be demonstrated in order to provide a firm base for further investment. We recommend that the Office of Science and Technology update its report measuring the quality of the UK Science Base on a regular basis. With the increasing globalisation of research and increased public investment in science in a number of countries including the US and Australia, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.[183] Sustained and substantial funding of the science base will be required to ensure that the UK can continue to 'punch above its weight'.

   80. Worryingly, the overall UK spend on R&D since 1993, expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product, has decreased from 2.09% to 1.8%.[184] International comparisons show that the R&D spend in both the US and Japan increased (US: 1993 - 2.62%, 1998 - 2.77%. Japan:1993 - 2.68%, 1997 - 2.89%), and while the spend in France and Germany decreased (France: 1993 - 2.45%, 1998 -2.20%. Germany: 1993 - 2.42%, 1998 - 2.32%), both remained higher than in the UK. Expenditure for higher education R&D has remained fairly constant since 1993, with the figure, expressed as a percentage of GDP, for 1998, of 0.35%. Business R&D expenditure has followed a consistent downward trend since 1993, but industry funding of R&D in universities over the 1993 to 1998 period increased from £130 million to £207 million.[185] This apart, we are yet to see hard evidence that the policies introduced by Realising Our Potential have had a significant impact on investment in science and innovation.


81. The policies introduced by Realising Our Potential and enhanced by Excellence and Opportunity have been widely welcomed. It is generally held that there has been a culture change in UK science, drawing scientists closer to industry. There appears to have been less of a culture change in industry, which - outside a few key sectors - is still slow to innovate. R&D expenditure by industry is still far too low in comparison to our competitors. The significant increase in the Science Budget in the 1997 and 2000 Spending Reviews have been widely applauded; though there is concern that the gain is to some extent offset by the decline in Departmental spending on R&D. There is no doubt that achievement of the two White Papers' aims will depend on the Government sustaining the increase in the Science Budget and increasing it still further over the longer term. It is because Government - and the Treasury in particular - appreciates that science is vital to our prosperity that science has done well in the two Spending Reviews. Yet there is some concern that the emphasis on wealth creation may have gone too far, leading us to neglect science's role in promoting quality of life and in the pure pursuit of knowledge. There are also real worries about the UK's ability to provide the qualified scientific personnel needed in the new knowledge economy. Action is urgently required to address the shortage of good science teachers in schools and to provide proper career development for research scientists, including women returners. It is clear that the UK has not yet realised its full potential.

Cm 2250, paragraph 7.13. Back

166   The Rising Tide, HMSO, 1994. Back

167   HC 466-iv, Q 217. Back

168   HC 466-iv, OST p 38, paragraph 1.4. Back

169   Cm 4814, p 13, table 2. Back

170   HC 466-iv, Q 218. See report 'Who Applies for Research Funding?', National Centre for Social Research, 2000. Back

171   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraph 35. Back

172   Cm 4814, Chapter 2, paragraphs 36-38. Back

173   HC 466-iii, Qq 119-123. Back

174   Evidence, p 104, paragraph 20; p 126, paragraph 7; p 172, paragraph 37. Back

175   HC 196-I, paragraphs 127, 131, 134. Back

176   HC 196-I, paragraph 32. Also paragraph 134. Back

177   HC 274-i, Q 9. Back

178   Evidence, p 273. Source: SET Statistics 2000, Table 8.4. Back

179   HC 257, paragraph 44. Back

180   Cm 4814, Chapter 1, paragraphs 27-28. Back

181   Devolution and Science: Implications of Scottish Devolution, A Joint Working Group of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, April 1999. See Evidence, p 145 RSE, paragraph 14. Back

182   HC 466-iv, page 44, issue 12, OST. Back

183   Nature, Volume 409, 11 January 2001, p 123; Nature, Vol 410, 8 March 2001, p 134. Back

184   SET Statistics 2000, table 7.1.  Back

185   HC 466-iv, p 40, issue 4. Back

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