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


Memorandum submitted by the Confederation of British Industry

  1.  We would like to make the following brief comments on the current inquiry by the Select Committee. We also draw the Committee's attention to the attached document, which the CBI submitted to the Minister for Science earlier this year. The attached paper was the CBI's contribution to the consultation on the much anticipated Science and Innovation White Paper[14].


  2.  The annual publication of Forward Look to provide a clear and up-to-date statement of the Government's Strategy for science, engineering and technology (replacing the more limited annual review).

  3.  The Forward Look has developed significantly since its inception and is a useful resume of Government policy, covering Departments, Research Councils and a few other bodies. The most valuable aspect is the statistical review (of finances and other data). The long time series of data on most tables is welcome as is the attempt to show real term changes over time by back calculating the effects of inflation. This is a useful document for policy work and its continuance should be supported.


  4.  The creation of Technology Foresight (now Foresight), designed to "achieve a key culture change: better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the scientific community, industry and Government Departments".

  5.  The CBI has expressed support for the continuation of this exercise. It serves a valuable role in getting interested parties together to think constructively and imaginatively about future challenges, opportunities and research requirements. The challenge is to ensure the outcomes of the current exercise can be translated into actionable points and priorities. In particular the findings must be made more accessible to more than just the "usual club" of research intensive companies if the full potential of the exercise is to be realised.


  6.  A shifting of emphasis for technology transfer initiatives to place more importance on "the interchange of ideas, skills, know-how and knowledge between the science and engineering base and industry".

  7.  Greater effort still needs to be put into ensuring that research, skills and ideas locked up in the UK science base are turned into innovative products and services by UK companies. We have commented extensively on this in our submission to the Office of Science and Technology consultation on the new White Paper (see Annex).


  8.  Programmes to improve access for small and medium-sized enterprises to innovation support programmes.

  9.  The CBI has welcomed the recent changes in tax incentives for SMEs to encourage research and development. Other changes providing better business support and encouragement for innovation have also been somewhat successful. However, we do have concerns about the number of initiatives that seem to get introduced and whether they are as successful as might have been hoped. A partial solution to this is to consider best practice and successful ideas from other countries and whether they might be applied here to similar or greater effect. For instance, we note the success of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme in the USA which gives valuable government contracts to smaller innovative companies. We have expressed support for considering a UK-version of SBIR in our White Paper submission to the OST.


  10.  The abolition of the Advisory Council on Science and Technology and its replacement with the Council for Science and Technology "to help ensure that the Government benefits from outside independent and expert advice when deciding on its own research spending priorities".

  11.  The CST appears to have been largely invisible since its creation. Only recently have we been made aware of its activities and publications. We do see a role for a group that can take a national strategic overview of science base and innovation issues, but the CST may not be the right model. Again, we comment on this in the attached paper[15].


  12.  The reorganisation of the Research Councils with modified management structures and new mission statements which made more explicit their commitments to wealth creation and the quality of life.

  13.  The new Research Councils took a while to settle down and there were concerns that a silo approach to research funding would be the end result. However, in general, this has not been the case. Structures are now slowly coming into place to manage multi-discipline and multi-research council applications and recent moves towards making this easier (eg with an individual research council taking the lead if most of the proposal falls within its remit) are welcome. Of course, improvements could still be made on how initiatives that are common to more than one Research Council are delivered.

  14.  We welcome the moves towards more responsive mode funding, the creation of peer review pools and initiatives to invite industry and other research users to take an active part in review and direction setting.

  15.  So far, the balance between wealth creation and quality of life activities has been about right. We note that the boundaries between these two aims are becoming increasingly blurred as the UK seeks to exploit research and new technologies that will bring profits and, for example, improve health or the environment.

  16.  We do not see any requirement for major changes in the Research Councils so long as they continue to develop their close working relationships with each other, with the research community, and with research users. Our main concern is to ensure that the Research Councils fully cover the cost of overheads relating to the research projects that they fund.


  17.  The creation of the post of the Director-General of the Research Councils and the absorption of the functions of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils into the Office of Science and Technology.

  18.  This post has been essential in co-ordinating the activities of the Research Councils, ensuring that they work together and maintain an approach that is both strategic and cost effective. The post benefits from being occupied by an industrialist who can think about long-term innovation and research while also thinking about shorter-term priorities and applicability.


  19.  The launch of a new campaign to spread understanding of science among school children and the public.

  20.  It is important that science remains a core part of the national curriculum at both Primary and Secondary levels and that all school leavers have a good understanding of science if they are to make effective and informed decisions in the modern world. Progress at Primary level has been encouraging and the UK scores relatively well in international comparisons of school-level science. However, we do have concerns about whether double award science at GCSE is an effective preparation for later learning. Greater encouragement needs to be given to students to study science, maths and engineering at higher levels and to consider such subjects as potential career choices.

  21.  In terms of the wider public understanding of science this has perhaps been the least successful aspect of the 1993 White Paper. Despite efforts with "Science Week" and greater publicity for the work of the British Association, confidence in science has been hit by a range of "news worthy" issues that have damaged public trust. This is not something that can be solved overnight, but instead requires renewed and co-ordinated efforts involving industry, government, the professional bodies, teachers, the media and a range of other opinion formers.

15 February 2000

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15   Not printed. Back

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