Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Save British Science Society (SBS)


1.  SBS is pleased to respond to this consultation on developments in science policy since the last Science White Paper in 1993. SBS is a voluntary organisation campaigning for the health of science and technology throughout UK society, and is supported by 1,500 individual members, and some 70 institutional members, including universities, learned societies, venture capitalists, financiers, industrial companies and publishers.

  2.  This response follows the format of questions in the call for evidence. SBS regrets that the unavoidably wide ranging and general nature of the inquiry mean that our response cannot be short. Many of the issues have been dealt with in previous SBS documents, and where this is the case, we have appended the relevant document rather than reiterate the same information.


  3.  The 1993 White Paper does not in fact explicitly set out a list of objectives, although it does set out 13 "specific policies", each of which is dealt with in turn below.

Policy 1—Openness

  4.  In general, SBS believes that significant progress has been made in this area, although the lack of openness surrounding the siting of the new synchrotron was a retrograde step. Our views on the Forward Look are set out in our response to the Committee's previous inquiry into overall levels of government investment in science. Our views on openness in the use of scientific advice are set out in our response to the Chief Scientific Adviser's consultation on the implementation of his Guidelines[4]. Copies of these responses are appended.

Policy 2—Technology Foresight

  5.  SBS's view on Foresight were summed up in our response to the consultation on the second round of Foresight, a copy of which is appended[5]. Our principal concerns remain (i) that Foresight must not become too prescriptive in determining which projects should be funded in the science base, and (ii) that the level of personnel involved in interactions between different communities remains too high—it is researchers at the laboratory bench, not always their Heads of Department, who might make valuable suggestions.

Policy 3-The Council for Science & Technology

  6.  The Council for Science & Technology has seen interesting developments in the past three years. Its work programme is realistic and interesting. We note, however, that apart from a DTI press release, no new press release has been posted on the CST's website since December 1998, although, of course, two interesting reports have been posted.

Policy 4-Technology Transfer

  7.  The process of technology transfer has changed dramatically in the past seven years. The changes have come about largely through cultural shifts in universities and elsewhere, and these changes are discussed in answer to question 4 below.

Policy 5-Innovation Support

  8.  It is difficult to see how it can be true that it is easier for firms to access innovation support from the DTI and what were until recently the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices, when the level of relevant investment has fallen.

  9.  In the DTI in the current financial year, annual investment in science, engineering and technology is £168 million lower in real terms than it was when the White Paper was published in 1993, using published figures excluding launch aid. Using the figures that include launch aid, the overall level of annual investment has fallen by £113 million4.

  10.  The fact that the Government's recent consultation5 proposes the development of a Small Business Service suggests that it recognises the failure of this policy since 1993. SBS has welcomed the new service.

  11.  It is impossible now to comment on the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices, since their functions in this area have been taken over by new bodies. SBS detects very positive indications on science and innovation, particularly from the Welsh Assembly.

Policy 6-The Research Councils

  12.  The creation of full-time Chief Executives of the Research Councils has been a positive step, bringing high-quality scientists into the science policy arena. The distribution of subjects among Research Councils is effectively a neutral decision, since interdisciplinary work is increasingly important, as was evident in the award of new money for research at the interface of biology and the physical sciences, invested in the Engineering and Physical Sciences in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review.

  13.  Focusing Research Council missions on wealth creation and quality of life has only worked because these objectives are seen by many on grant committees as secondary considerations to the quality of the science. In those instances where this is not the case, such focus is inappropriate for Research Council funding. Any attempts to increase the degree of focus would be unwelcome.

Policy 7-Director-General of the Research Councils

  14.  Few people doubt that the post of Director-General of the Research Councils was an asset in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review, when the then incumbent played a significant role in making the case for science.

Policy 8-Dual support funding mechanism

  15.  The dual funding mechanism remains crucial. It is not true, however, to say that it has been properly "maintained" as the 1993 White Paper set out. The proportion of funding for the science base that comes through the Funding Council side of the mechanism has continued to fall since 1993, following a trend that has been established since at least 19814.

  16.  The 1993 White Paper explicitly allowed that Funding Council money should be available for use "at the institutions' discretion". Most Vice-Chancellors and Heads of Department no longer feel that they can exercise this discretion fully, within current levels of Funding Council investment in research, and with the blurring of the boundaries between accountability to Government and control by Government.

  17.  The erosion of the Funding Council side of the dual support system is the root of the now well-known problem of poor salaries and poor career structures for researchers.

Policy 9-The customer-contractor principle

  18.  Privatisation of the Government laboratories cannot claim to have been an unqualified success, and, for example, the Government's current plans for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency do no appear to have been formulated in the best interests of science policy. A briefing paper outlining SBS's views on this particular privatisation is appended[6].

  19.  More generally, the constant series of reviews, such as "Prior Options", "Efficiency Scrutiny," "Next Steps Agencies" etc., has made scientific advice to Government increasingly dependent on non-public, and hence somewhat partial sources of funding.

  20.  Good scientific advice to government must not only be impartial but be seen to be impartial, and SBS agrees with the Committee's recent report7 that the cuts in research budgets of civil departments that have happened since 1993 have been deplorable.

Policy 10-Departmental co-ordination

  21.  Departmental co-ordination of scientific matters remains unacceptably poor. The Chief Scientific Adviser told the Committee in a recent evidence session that he has "relatively little impact" in some departments, and that in any case he has no "authority," merely an advisory capacity. At the same evidence session, the Science Minister was unable to deny the veracity of SBS's belief that "the Office of Science & Technology is powerless in the face of government departments that are under pressure" from elsewhere8.

Policy 11-European and international science programmes

  22.  The fact that many researchers choose to apply for European funding only if they cannot obtain grants from other sources suggest that the EU's handling of scientific matters remains far from perfect.

Policy 12-Postgraduate training

  23.  Although there have been some welcome developments in post-graduate training (such as the growth of the MChem degree), the policy of proper underpinning has not in general been achieved. In many subjects, it remains the norm for students are expected to complete both a first degree and a PhD within a total of six years.

  24.  The draconian measures taken against departments whose doctoral students do not complete their PhDs within a short timescale are forcing universities to adopt practices that will further devalue the British PhD relative to those of competitor countries.

  25.  In most cases, it should be normal for an extra year to be included to bridge the gap between bachelor's degrees and doctoral degrees. In some cases, this may be best achieved by having a Master's level undergraduate course, in others it may be more appropriate to have a longer PhD. Either way, changes are needed to bring about the "proper underpinning" of PhD training that the 1993 White Paper expected. The Wellcome Trust's four year PhD, in which students spend a year working on small projects in different laboratories before making a final choice, is a model that is working well and is attracting many of the best students.

Policy 13-Public Understanding of Science

  26.  The current OST website says that the first round of public understanding of science grants is complete, and a second round will begin in the spring of 2000. This is welcome, but if the "campaign" alluded to in the 1993 White Paper had been taken as seriously as it should have, the grants scheme would not have taken six years to come into effect.

  27.  The concept of the "public understanding of science" is becoming outdated, with people beginning to recognise that "scientists' understanding of the public" and "public understanding of scientists" are equally as important. More properly, what is needed is an approach based on discussion and dialogue between scientists, a wider public, government and industry etc. The recent House of Lords report on Science and Society deals with this and many related points, and we append a copy of our evidence to that inquiry(10)[7].

  28.  Perhaps the most important issue is for governments to be more open about admitting scientific uncertainty. Untrue platitudes about the safety of BSE-infected meat came from politicians, not from scientists, who warned in 1989 that there might be a risk to human health.


  29.  The assumption in the 1993 White Paper was that the UK science base was excellent, and that it would, almost by default, remain so. Such problems as existed were said to be concerned with the application of the results generated within that science base.

  30.  This assumption is dangerous, because the quality of the science base is the fundamental policy on which everything else rests. Without an excellent science base, the thirteen policies outlined in the 1993 White Paper, and the "key principles" or "areas for action" in the current Government's science strategy consultation(5), are pointless.

  31.  The most appropriate objective for the White Paper that is currently being prepared is to reinvigorate the UK science base, with increased investment, better career structures and more scope for creativity and innovation. This would be the best way of delivering the fundamental aim of the 1993 White Paper—improved wealth creation and quality of life.


  32.  There is no doubt that the cultural change created by the 1993 reforms has been substantial.

  SBS believes that, in current circumstances, the university sector has made as great a change in its approach as can be expected. As we set out in our response to the Government's consultation document on a science and innovation strategy(12), we believe that encouraging "industry pull" is now equally as important as "university push" in striving to ensure the economic benefits of UK science.

3.1  SBS's survey of recent grantholders

  33.  The fact that universities now focus on the economic and social benefits of their research are clear from SBS's survey of researchers who have been awarded grants under schemes created or developed following the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review(13).

  34.  The survey covered the lead applicants on successful bids to the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), as well as the Vice-Chancellors of all universities awarded grants by the JIF, University Challenge Fund, Higher Education Reach Out to Business and the Community Fund, and the Joint Research Equipment Initiative.

  35.  The 45 per cent of JIF grantees and 22 per cent of Vice-Chancellors who responded were unequivocal in their emphasis on the wealth creating and quality of life benefits of the work that is being funded. A substantial majority believed their projects would create wealth, and slightly more than half saw improved quality of life as a feature of their work.

3.2  Independent advice

  36.  Another shift in culture is very unwelcome. Universities used to be seen as independent, disinterested sources of advice on scientific issues, but there seems little doubt that this view is shifting. This might be inferred from the fact that people trust "Professors" more than they trust "Scientists"(14).

  37.  Continued pressure for private sources of funding of research is seriously damaging the perception of independence in some areas.


  38.  SBS's views on the Government's consultation document are more fully set out in our response to the consultation, Maintaining an excellent science base for the benefit of the UK's citizens, a copy of which is appended to this response.(12)[8]

Q5.  What should be the main features of a modern strategy for science?

5.1  Human resources

  39.  The single most important feature of any science strategy should be to ensure an excellent science base. Without this, no other policy is worth having.

  40.  An excellent science base can be created only with the right people, so the single most important indicator of the success of any science strategy is the quality of its people. This applies strongly not just to those currently holding senior positions, but also at lower levels, from which the future science base must be regenerated.

  41.  The evidence for the strength of the UK's science base is varied, and a great deal of it has been analysed and presented by the Chief Scientific Adviser15. Parts of the evidence are somewhat anecdotal, or based on statistics that are difficult to interpret, taken together, the body of evidence suggests that the UK remains among the stronger scientific nations for the time being.

5.1.1  Evidence of a Brain Drain

  42.  However, the evidence of problems for the future potential of the science base is also considerable. The recruitment and retention of high quality students, postgraduates, postdoctoral researchers and academic staff is proving increasingly difficult in many universities, with inevitable variation among subject disciplines.

  43.  The simplest demonstration of difficulties in recruiting and retaining top-quality researchers is the testimony of the university Vice-Chancellors, Deans, and Head of Department whose job it is to appoint researchers.

  44.  The Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions16, carried out in 1999, surveyed universities and found that 98 per cent had experienced difficulties in recruiting academic staff. Moreover, for more than three quarters of the institutions surveyed, such difficulties were not rare. Almost 6 per cent experienced difficulties more often than not. The figures for the retention of staff were no less encouraging. More than 95 per cent of institutions had experienced problems in retaining staff, and such difficulties were not rare in more than 50 per cent of institutions. Although these figures apply across all disciplines, there is no reason to suppose that patterns of recruitment and retention in the natural and social sciences are atypical.

  45.  SBS is currently surveying Deans of Science in UK universities, and the preliminary results demonstrate that recruiting high-quality postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and academic staff is a significant problem in science departments.

  46.  Further evidence of a recruiting problem comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which believes that the gap in remuneration between postgraduates studentships and the salaries the same young people could earn elsewhere is "making a significant impact"(17).

  47.  Anecdotal evidence collated for the Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science demonstrates that "the lack of an attractive career structure threatens [the] future [of research]".

  48.  A report by the Office of Manpower Economics found that recruitment was "becoming more difficult" in universities, prompting one newspaper to state that there was "a crisis over finding the professors of the future"(18).

  49.  In the industrial sector, the testimony of senior figures serves to show that difficulties in recruitment and retention of top-quality researchers are becoming greater. A single, clear example comes from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which employs 4,500 people in the UK. Its Director of Science Policy says that to compete in the global marketplace, "you need the best quality scientists, and we are increasingly finding that we're recruiting from mainland Europe"(20).

  50.  It is because the weight of evidence point unambiguously to a crisis in recruiting and retaining the best people in British science that SBS believes that the UK is wasting its potential.

5.1.2  Causes of the brain drain

  51.  The reasons for a haemorrhaging of the best brains from UK science are varied, but there can be little doubt that the salaries of researchers in British universities are no longer even remotely competitive.

  52.  Some European scientists say they look at the salaries offered in academic job advertisements in Britain "when they want a laugh," and a university in Canada is deliberately "targeting" UK universities in an effort to poach high-quality people in the knowledge that UK salaries are deeply uncompetitive(21).

  53.  Thus, a modern science strategy should aim to pay its researchers stipends and salaries that are commensurate with their abilities, and commensurate with their market value. In the words of the Chief Scientific Adviser during a radio discussion with the Director of SBS: "Could I just agree with Peter, we ought to pay people more"(22).

5.2  Investment

  54.  A modern science strategy should understand the value of investment. As the current Science Minister himself has said: "The more you put in, as a whole, the better." He further acknowledged that "Government investment in science is . . . not brilliant".

5.2.1  Building on past investment

  55.  A problem with a simple assertion that the science base is currently excellent is that it fails to acknowledge that current excellence is largely a measure of past investment. As the Chief Scientific Adviser has said, his own demonstration that UK science delivers more outputs per pound sterling investments than any other country is based on " a lot of building on past investment".

5.3  Exploiting knowledge

5.3.1  Economic exploitation

56.  A modern science strategy should aim to exploit knowledge for the economic benefit of the UK's population. Many of SBS's ideas in this area are set out in our document From the Laboratory Bench to the Boardroom: Creating Wealth from the Academic Science Base(23), which followed a successful symposium in the City of London. A copy of that report, based on the views of academics, industrialists, financiers, government officials, entrepreneurs and others, is appended.[9]

5.3.2  Better government

  57.  Better government would come through a more effective use of impartial scientific advice by Government.

  58.  Such impartial advice can only come via proper investment in government science. We do not expand on this point, because the Committee inquired into this area in great detail in its recent report on government Expenditure on Research and Development.

  59.  This report quite properly stressed the lunacy of continually cutting departmental research budgets, as science and technology become increasingly important in policy making. It also made the eminently sensible recommendation that the Minister for Science should sit in the Cabinet.

  60.  In this context, we find it disturbing that the Science Minister recently used the word "marginal" to describe the cut of £40million per annum in civil science, engineering and technology that has occurred since the 1997 General Election. It is difficult to square the description of this three per cent cut as "marginal" in the same interview as an eight per cent increase in another parameter as "very substantial".

  61.  We disagree with one conclusion of the report. The Committee felt that SBS had not made a persuasive case for a Ministry of Science, on the grounds that "any attempt to create a central R&D budget would throw up more problems than it would solve". But our proposal specifically ruled out the creation of such a central budget, arguing that while the proposed Ministry would have "oversight of all government R&D" to avoid political interference in interpreting results, the individual ministries would "retain their own R&D budgets" and the "right to define the scientific questions that might be asked".

  62.  SBS persists in its belief that to avoid the kind of political interference that exacerbated the problems of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathies (BSE), a central Ministry of Science is essential.

5.4  Scientific education and appreciation of science

5.4.1  Formal Education

63.  At an SBS symposium on Holding on to Excellence in British Science, a report of which will be published shortly, a varied group of UK scientists identified major changes in the education system as a crucial part of the changes required to ensure UK excellence in science during the coming years.

  64.  For example, schoolteachers would benefit from the opportunity for sabbaticals, to allow them time and opportunities to keep up to date with rapidly moving developments.

  65.  Moreover, university-level teaching requires the same kind of kudos as attached to research.

  66.  An outline of SBS's position on changes required to PhD training is given in paragraphs 23 to 25.

5.4.2  Involving the public

  67.  The public mood matters. The disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform was an example of public opinion triumphing when it disagreed with the best scientific advice.

  68.  When the press and public appear to be turning against a new technology, a modern strategy for science would see the Government facilitating a proper dialogue. In this regard, for example, it was unhelpful when the Health Minister Lady Hayman was reported as saying that it was "not a safety issue" when 20,000 acres of crops with some genetically-modified content were planted by accident(24). The public remembers only too clearly being told by politicians that BSE was not a safety issue, only to find out that this was wrong. Thus, a policy of openness and honesty is essential, and in this regard SBS welcomes the Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines on the use of scientific advice in planning public policy.

  69.  The Government's role in involving the public in scientific debate should be considerable, although in fairness, this area ought also to be the concern of all scientific organisations.


  1.  World class investment in world class science, SBS, 1999 [SBS 00/23]

  2.  Better government through the highest quality scientific advice, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/03]

  3.  Response to the consultation document on the next round of Foresight, SBS, 1998.

  4.  The Forward Look 1999: Government-funded science, engineering & technology, OST, 1999 [Cm 4363]

  5.  Science and innovation strategy: consultation paper, DTI, 2000.

  6.  The future of the Defence Evaluation & Research Agency, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/13]

  7.  Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look, Fifth Report of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Session 1999—2000 [HC 196-1]

  8.  Oral evidence to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee, 25 May 2000.

  9.  Science and Society, Third Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology, Session 1999—2000 [HL Paper 38]

  10.  The isolation of the scientist, SBS, 1999 [SBS 99/15]

  11.  see the BSE website

  12.  Maintaining an excellent scientific base for the benefit of the UK's citizens, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/07]

  13.  The benefits of recent investment in scientific research, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/15]

  14.  Seeking Consensus on Contentious Issues: Science and Society, talk by Robert M Worcester, Foundation for Science & Technology 12 July 1999.

  15.  The Quality of the UK Science Base, DTI, 1997.

  16.  Independent Review of Higher Education Pay & Conditions, Stationary Office, 1999, appendix E, tables 1 and 2

  17.  Talk at Heads of Biochemistry Departments Meeting, 4 May 2000.

  18.  ARMS Newsletter, January 2000, p.3.

  19.  The Times, 25 February 2000, p.10.

  20.  The Westminster Hour, BBC Radio 4, 4 June 2000.

  21.  SBS Newsletter, Number 26, July 2000.

  22.  The Learning Curve, BBC Radio 4, 21 March 2000.

  23.  From the Laboratory Bench to the Board Room: Creating Wealth from the Academic Science Base, SBS, 1999 [SBS 99/17]

  24.  Guardian, 18 May 2000.

June 2000

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