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


APPENDIX 12

Memorandum submitted by the UK Life Sciences Committee

  The UK Life Sciences Committee (UKLSC) comprises 15 leading learned societies in the cell, molecular, and physiological life sciences and represents about 35,000 researchers in academia and industry. This response was compiled by asking member societies to indicate their agreement or disagreement with a series of possible views on the initiatives introduced in the 1993 White Paper, as listed in the Science and Technology Committee's call for evidence. It has been endorsed by all UKLSC member societies.

ARE WE REALISING OUR POTENTIAL? GENERAL COMMENTS

  1.  Statistics can be utilised to show that Britain's science, engineering, and technology (SET) base continues to punch above its weight in international competition. But there was unanimous agreement within UKLSC that we are not fully realising our potential, in particular with respect to renewal of the science base. There is a lack of investment in the salaries, career pathways, and opportunities for young people that is discouraging many of the brightest students from considering a career in science.

THE IMPACT OF THE ANNUAL PUBLICATION OF FORWARD LOOK

  2.  There was a unanimous view that Forward Look is a useful source of statistics on government expenditure, but that its publication does not appear to have influenced government policy. For example, the Government has been criticised for allowing departmental R & D expenditure to decline whilst at the same time proclaiming its commitment to evidence-based policy making. UKLSC strongly supports the recommendation of the Commons Science and Technology Committee that Forward Look should seek to match published spending figures to previously announced policy objectives, so that it is more transparent how successful departments have been.

THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY FORESIGHT

  3.  UKLSC members agreed unanimously that there has been an increase in entrepreneurship and willingness to engage with industry among academics in the biomedical sciences in the last decade, but that this could not be ascribed to a single dominant influence such as Foresight. Indeed, it was considered that the take-up and impact of Foresight had been patchy and that, in the biosciences sector, the main participants may well have been those that already had a strategic view. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, which has always been keen to work with academia, played a major role in the first round of Foresight. UKLSC is advised that the pharmaceutical industry was disappointed that little tangible or innovative resulted from the programme.

  4.  A large majority of respondents considered that the R&D needs of SMEs in the biosciences sector would be better served by strengthening networks created by regional bioscience development agencies than by encouraging participation in the more distant Foresight programme.

THE IMPACT OF THE COUNCIL FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

  5.  It was agreed unanimously that there is little evidence that the Council for Science and Technology is being effective in providing independent and expert advice to ensure a proper place for science in government policy-making and in co-ordinating the publicly-funded SET effort. The rundown in departmental R&D spending, the withdrawal of funds from MAFF against the advice of departmental civil servants, the BSE crisis, and the handling of the GM crops issue, can be quoted as instances of the Government either not receiving, or failing to act upon, the advice of the Council.

  6.  There was a similar level of agreement that the science community has little idea of what the Council actually does. Improved communication would be beneficial.

THE IMPACT OF THE SHIFTING OF EMPHASIS FOR TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER INITIATIVES

  7.  It was agreed strongly that there has been a cultural change in the biomedical sciences so that many academics are now much more aware of the potential for exploiting their work. This is probably due to a number of influences in addition to direct government policy. The observation of national and international developments in exploitation of molecular biology by the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, pressure on universities to interact with business and the community, increased acceptance and recognition of exploitation activities by peers, greater institutional support for spin-outs and business development, and the opportunity to augment academic salaries, may all have contributed. However, awareness does not necessarily translate into action, since for many scientists exploitation of discoveries is not a major motivating factor, and so there is a growing need for effective technology transfer management in universities.

  8.  A majority of respondents considered that financial pressures on universities to obtain matching funds from industry in order to draw down government funds from a range of initiatives had led to better exchange of ideas and information with industry. But it was also thought that many academics who already interacted with industry would have brought their collaboration within the scope of matched funding schemes in order to take advantage of them. Some respondents noted that schemes such as the Joint Research Equipment Initiative are too lengthy and cumbersome. Handing the responsibility for their administration to the Research Councils might simplify procedures.

  9.  A large majority agreed that undergraduates and postgraduates should be exposed to entrepreneurship, the culture of exploiting discoveries, and industrial research. Many excellent post-docs will not be able to pursue a career in academic research, and their training should enable them to find rewarding alternative outlets for their research expertise.

  10.  It was agreed unanimously, and often stated strongly, that the Government now needs to focus on encouraging industry to undertake more R&D and to make more effective connections to academic groups, so that it can provide the pull to match university push of technology transfer.

THE IMPACT OF MEASURES TO IMPROVE ACCESS OF SMES TO INNOVATION SUPPORT PROGRAMMES

  11.  A large majority considered that there are too many bureaucratic support schemes that may confuse SMEs. The plethora of schemes should be simplified, and consolidated programmes made broader, longer-term, and communicated well in advance of their introduction.

  12.  Within UKLSC's sphere of interest the regional bioscience development agencies are considered to be playing an important and successful role in nurturing SMEs and in helping them to establish academic-industrial networks.

  13.  A large majority considered that the Government should encourage the transfer of senior scientists between academia and SMEs so that they have experience of both, as the Teaching Company Scheme does at a lower level. Support for this concept was tempered by the adverse effect that secondment of senior academics to the industrial sector could have on departmental teaching and research. If the Government wants transfer to take place from academia then it needs to provide sufficient funding to universities for a full-time and long-time post to cover for the seconded scientist.

THE IMPACT OF THE RESEARCH COUNCILS' MORE EXPLICIT COMMITMENT TO WEALTH CREATION AND THE QUALITY OF LIFE

  14.  There were divided views on the extent to which Research Council steer had influenced entrepreneurial thinking among academics, with the majority of respondents considering that it was not a major factor.

  15.  A large majority, but not all respondents, considered that Research Councils are too focused on short-term, goal-orientated research at the expense of basic research, where the major discoveries are likely to be made. In the case of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) the decline in government departmental support of MAFF-funded institutes put pressure on them to resource their applied research from the BBSRC budget, which in turn put more pressure on that Council's basic science budget. The decline in real value of Research Council funding over the period up to the 1997 Comprehensive Spending Review also made it harder to obtain funding for basic research.

  16.  A large majority considered that there are too many Research Council initiatives that are causing "initiative fatigue" among researchers. A similar majority considered that the primary measure of quality in the SET base should be scientific excellence rather than the potential for commercial exploitation.

  17.  It was agreed almost unanimously that Research Councils need to work more closely together to guarantee longer-term funding for cross-disciplinary research. One society was pessimistic about prospects for this and commented that there is no incentive among Research Council staff to make it happen, whereas others considered that there are signs of greater collaboration between the Research Councils.

IMPACT OF THE CREATION OF THE POST OF DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF THE RESEARCH COUNCILS (DGRC)

  18.  A large majority either considered that the DGRC had not played a major role in co-ordinating the activities of the different Research Councils, or felt that they did not know. In either case the conclusion is that the creation of the post was not seen by the scientific community to have had a profound effect.

  19.  Among those who were aware of the DGRC's activities the majority considered that the present holder of the post focused too heavily on short-term "output-indicators" from the Government's post-1997 investment in the SET base. There was a strong feeling that the DGRC is not sufficiently independent from government.

IMPACT OF THE NEW CAMPAIGN TO SPREAD UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN AND THE PUBLIC

  20.  The failure of Public Understanding of Science (PUS) initiatives to achieve the desired effect has been discussed extensively, most recently in the report of the Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry into Science and Society. UKLSC members agreed almost unanimously that such initiatives were worthy, but shown to have been too often wrongly targeted and poorly effective.

  21.  There was strong support for efforts to be refocused on scientists engaging more with the public on social and ethical implications of their work, as well as on trying to improve the understanding of science particularly among young people. The aim must be to restore some level of appreciation of, and trust in, the scientific community. Science needs to get its message across more effectively to counterbalance the propaganda of opposing lobbying organisations. It is instructive to note that a recent MORI poll commissioned by the Medical Research Council on public attitudes to the use of animals in research found that members of focus groups were readily able to recall negative images of animal experimentation put out by animal rights protesters. But they were unsure where to find impartial information on the reasons why animals are used, and tended to link animal experimentation with secrecy and unaccountability (Times Higher Education Supplement, 26 May 2000).

June 2000





 
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