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


Memorandum submitted by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)


  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence into the Committee's inquiry: Are we realising our potential?

  2.  NERC is the UK's leading organisation for basic, strategic and applied research and training across the spectrum of the environmental sciences. NERC's purpose is to support high quality scientific research, survey, monitoring and postgraduate training with the objective of enhancing knowledge, understanding and prediction of the environment and its resources. NERC achieves this through its support of scientists at universities and through its own Centres and Surveys: the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC—a joint venture with the University of Southampton).

  3.  This memorandum includes input from NERC Council members, CEH and BGS.

  4.  NERC's current structure and operations have been very much influenced by the 1993 White Paper: Realising our Potential and its impact is still in evidence today. The three major themes of Realising our Potential are: scientific excellence to underpin wealth creation and quality of life; partnership; and exploitation of science. NERC's three main objectives outlined in our 1999 Strategic Plan build on these:

    —  to enhance the excellence of the Science Base;

    —  to focus NERC science on priority issues;

    —  to put NERC science to work.

  5.  Realising our Potential emphasised the importance of creating partnerships to benefit UK wealth creation and quality of life. It promoted a change in culture within the science community, increasing collaboration, dialogue and instigating the formation of partnerships. However, the initiatives that resulted from Realising our Potential tended to centre on wealth creation themes. Whereas this is perfectly acceptable the important contributions that research can make to the public good should not be forgotten.

  6.  Our evidence is structured around the questions posed by the Select Committee:

    —  the extent to which the measures and objectives outlined in the White Paper have been successfully delivered;

    —  their impact on the management and performance of science and technology; and

    —  whether the structures it specified are still appropriate.


Forward Look

7.  Since Realising our Potential we note that the annual Forward Look has become more focused and concise, targeted at a wider readership. It sets out science priorities and provides an analysis of expenditure. However, we have received little feedback from readers on NERC's input to the Forward Look.

Technology Foresight/Foresight

  8.  The initial round of the Foresight process was extremely valuable to NERC. It achieved its aims, which were to facilitate collaboration, forge useful relationships between different stakeholders and help place science in a broader context. NERC was fully engaged in the process; the Foresight Panels' findings contributed to NERC strategy and led to new initiatives such as TSUNAMI, a partnership between scientists and the insurance industry. Foresight enabled the identification of national priorities.

  9.  NERC has been involved in the Foresight 2000 consultation exercise and has produced a formal response. The present round of Foresight, which is still under development, is likely to be as, if not more, productive than the first. Through Foresight we are building a consensus view between researchers and users on future needs, opportunities and threats. NERC's view is that Foresight 2000 should focus on a small number of high level long-term strategic issues of national and global importance. Through a number of initiatives, NERC is supporting moves to encourage Foresight Panels to address the overarching theme of sustainable development, although it is too early to assess the importance which Foresight Panels attach to this theme.

Council for Science and Technology (CST)

  10.  NERC has had no direct involvement with the Council for Science and Technology. The CST has been less open and transparent than NERC's advisory and decision making bodies, although we welcome the information that is now available on the CST website. There appears to be little connection between the business of the CST and the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee (SEBCC).

Technology transfer/interchange initiatives

  11.  Strengthening links with industry is a key requirement of Realising our Potential. Since the White Paper the existing NERC grant schemes designed to increase collaboration with users have strengthened and new schemes introduced. Relevant current award schemes are listed in Annex 1. We have also increased the emphasis of our thematic programmes (which involve basic, strategic and applied science, within themes selected by Council), on user involvement and on enhancing the prospects for exploitation of results.

  12.  Another important mechanism for knowledge transfer is research commissioned by external organisations such as the European Commission, Industry and particularly government departments. In the period 1998-99 NERC's Centres and Surveys received £18.4 million external funding from the public sector. This compares less favourably with each of the previous three financial years where external funding from the public sector was around £23 million.

  13.  The 1998 Competitiveness White Paper: "Our competitive Future: Building the Knowledge Driven Economy", reiterated and reinforced the Government's commitment to the exploitation of research. It included a commitment to increase the commercial potential of the research outputs of Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs). The Paper led to the 1998 Baker Report entitled "Creating Knowledge, Creating Wealth—Realising the potential of PSREs". The Government's response to this report made knowledge transfer an explicit mission of Research Councils and their Chief Executives. In addition it outlined a number of measures to "level the playing field" by opening up schemes such as University Challenge to provide seedcorn funds for new business ventures, removing a considerable barrier to exploitation. NERC welcomes the report and the Government's response, and looks forward to the implementation of the report's recommendations.

  14.  NERC continues to develop paths for increased knowledge transfer. We have recently launched a business plan competition to promote commercial exploitation of NERC funded research. The competition is open to all publicly funded scientists investigating the natural environment who wish to see their research developed into a commercial business proposition. NERC has also established an Exploitation Best Practice Network and an Innovation Fund to promote commercialisation of its science. NERC has established its first spin out company and expects more to follow.

Innovation support programmes for small and medium sized enterprises

  15.  The LINK initiative operated by the Office of Science and Technology (OST) offers a mechanism for collaboration between the public and private sectors in areas of strategic importance to the national economy as identified by Foresight. NERC is currently involved in six LINK schemes, including Earth Observation, Aquaculture and Seasense, all of which involve collaboration between NERC scientists and small or medium sized UK companies. This has been an extremely successful scheme.

  16.  NERC is also one of the 11 government bodies and Research Councils which provides grants for supporting the Teaching Company Schemes (TCS). TCS is dedicated to helping industry innovate through collaboration with research and education. The scheme supports partnerships between universities and companies for technology transfer and training. Typical aims include introducing new or improved products, services and processes; introducing or improving systems; and entering new markets or improving penetration of existing ones. Only a few of the programmes that NERC has been involved in have reached completion, but early indications are of projects successfully achieving their goals.

  17.  Many different schemes have been introduced since Realising our Potential and while most are working effectively, there are probably too many schemes and the research community understandably finds this landscape confusing and difficult to navigate. The Government should bear this in mind when considering the context of any new science strategy.

Public understanding of science

  18.  Realising our Potential raised the issue of the need for greater efforts to improve public understanding of science and technology. It added to NERC's mission the responsibility to provide advice, disseminate knowledge and promote public understanding of science.

  19.  In response to the White Paper, NERC re-organised its staff working on public relations, publications and public understanding of science into a single group and identified target audiences. Today we are involved in a wide range of activities aimed at communicating our science to wide audiences. Examples include plays and conferences for school children, talks and displays for adults, a range of publications on key environmental issues, a consensus conference on radioactive waste disposal, and briefings for opinion-formers and decision-makers, such as Parliamentarians.

  20.  A number of specific initiatives to promote science, technology and engineering were suggested within Realising our Potential. These included: the Creativity in Science and Technology Award Scheme (CREST); careers initiatives; communication training; and a high profile National Science Exhibition to be held in 2001. NERC has been involved in CREST as a sponsor of the Environment Research Challenge and has found it to be an excellent way of raising the profile of environmental science within schools. We also produce a careers leaflet and organise courses in science communication skills for our researchers; feedback from participants has been excellent.

  21.  Despite the achievements of Realising our Potential, events in the news recently, such as BSE and GM crops, have led to a crisis of confidence in science and scientific advice. The recent House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report; Science and Society identified shortcomings in the current relationship between scientists and the public. The report contained five major messages:

    (i)  there is a crisis of public trust in scientific advice to government;

    (ii)  public values and attitudes must be heeded;

    (iii)  a new culture of dialogue is needed between scientists and the public;

    (iv)  there must be a presumption of openness and transparency;

    (v)  scientists must learn to live with a free press.

  NERC accepts the five main messages of the report. Despite the progress that has been made since 1993, the growing public profile of science demands new approaches. NERC intends to strengthen its own policy and actions in science communication, in particular to promote dialogue between science and society. NERC Council is currently reviewing NERC's activities in these areas.

  22.  We have already made significant progress toward greater openness including:

    —  posting agendas and a record of decisions made at Council on our website;

    —  holding (jointly with BBSRC) a web-based consultation on research into gene flow in plants and micro-organisms;

    —  providing the UTLS-OZONE Thematic Programme Expert Panel as a web-based service to the community;

    —  making the NERC Operating Plan update and the NERC Operating Report public; and

    —  appointing a full-time press officer to increase proactive communication of science achievements and NERC business.

Wealth creation and quality of life

  23.  While NERC welcomes the influence of Realising our Potential in focusing on the impact of science on wealth creation and quality of life, an imbalance has developed in the emphasis. In particular insufficient emphasis has been placed on the exploitation of science for public good. In addition to funding excellent science, NERC plays a significant role in supplying policy advice to government and plays an important role in communicating science to the public. Both of these roles can contribute, directly or indirectly, to quality of life.


The reorganisation of the Research Councils

24.  Realising our Potential has provided the impetus to analyse operations and improve efficiency within the Research Councils, allowing a greater proportion of the Science Budget to be freed to fund science. Much has been achieved since 1993 through rationalisation, restructuring and funding more efficient ways of working, often through joint initiatives.

  25.  Since Realising our Potential NERC has made a number of changes aimed at increasing efficiency and effectiveness:

    —  streamlining of the Council;

    —  restructuring of NERC Institutes and laboratories to form five Centres and Surveys;

    —  the introduction of the NERC funding model to open up competition and develop a level playing field between universities, Centres/Surveys and other sections of the scientific community;

    —  a greater emphasis on the exploitation of research and the need to work in partnership with the user community to maximise the benefits of NERC science to the UK; and

    —  publication of an integrated science strategy that outlines key challenges over a five to ten year period.

  26.  Over the last five years NERC's share of the Science Budget spent on central administration has decreased from 5 per cent to 4 per cent. We believe that to further reduce our administration costs would result in a transfer of functions and costs to scientists in universities and Research Council Institutes. Increasingly the Research Councils are asked to administer new schemes (eg JIF) without additional resources being made available and at a time when we are under pressure to reduce further our administrative costs.

  27.  NERC is in regular discussion with the other Research Councils about ways in which collaboration can be increased further to improve efficiency and strengthen working relationships. We are constantly reviewing practices to ensure no money is wasted. Payroll, purchasing and IT support at Swindon Office are all being scrutinised for further savings. NERC is now using the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) system to deliver research grants and is evaluating the implementation of a single grants administration system, to determine if further cost savings can be made.

  28.  There has been a growing number of joint research programmes using a multi-disciplinary approach to tackle complex scientific issues. An excellent example of such collaboration is the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change. This new national £10 million centre has been delivered following the last comprehensive spending review. Jointly funded by NERC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the centre will undertake research to seek the views of the public, brief politicians and the media, and engage industry through its business liaison programme.

  29.  The 1995 "Prior Options" reviews concluded that CEH, CCMS and BGS were performing necessary functions and should not be transferred from the public sector. NERC and its Centres and Surveys are about to be subjected to further scrutiny in the shape of the Government's Quinquennial Reviews (QR) and Better Quality Services reviews (BQS). Whilst NERC recognises the importance of reviewing its operations and structures, there is a danger of over-review. Working with OST, we plan to avoid review duplication by bringing together our own review mechanisms with those of government, notably, QRs and BQSs.

  5.  A significant development since Realising our Potential has been Devolution. The full impact of this shift still remains unclear. NERC will continue its discussions on issues of shared interest with the Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly.

The creation of the post of the Director General of the Research Councils

  31.  The new Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC) was charged "to ensure that the Councils work together to achieve a common approach and take advantage of the possibilities for improved efficiency through joint working". The creation of this post has increased both collaborative working (in the form of joint programmes and studentships) and competition (for example when bidding for extra funding, between the Research Councils).

  32.  The DGRC advises ministers on: the resources needed for the Science Base; on the detail of the case to be made; and, subsequently, on the allocations to the seven Research Councils, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The impact of the DGRC's post can, in part, be measured by the successful outcome of the 1997 Comprehensive Spending Review. The move towards a three-year funding profile has enabled NERC to plan its investments in science over the longer term.

  33.  In 1997 the House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology investigated the operation of the Research Councils' system and the role of the DGRC in relation to scientific advice. It concluded:

    "There may be temptation for government to reconsider the system for managing, reviewing and allocating funds for public research; the evidence we have received leads us to believe that the present system is working well and there is accordingly no requirement for major change, with all the disruption that it would bring."

  We welcome this clear endorsement of the role of the Research Councils and DGRC.

The absorption of the functions of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils into the Office of Science and Technology

  34.  NERC has close working links with the OST. There is contact between officials on a daily basis. A senior OST official attends NERC Council meetings and there are regular meetings of Research Council Chief Executives chaired by the DGRC.

  35.  One of the reforms listed in Realising our Potential was a commitment to maintain and strengthen the Rothschild customer-contractor principle in relation to departmental applied research and development. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's Fifth Report: Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look (March 2000) identified the issue of departments withdrawing funding from the Science Base, often at short notice. Where this affects Research Council Institutes this may result in staff redundancies, site closures and, at worst, loss of national research capability in particular areas. The financial consequences are frequently borne by the Science Budget. For example when DTI reduced its contract with BGS in 1996, without forward advice, several BGS employees had to be made redundant. More than half the cost had to be found from within the NERC Science Budget.

  36.  Realising our Potential encouraged the development of concordats between NERC and cognate government departments. Such agreements provide only a framework; real co-operation depends on the mechanisms and working relationships between the staff involved.

  37.  NERC is committed to the Haldane principle of an arms length relationship between government and the decision-making processes of the Research Councils. We acknowledge that some funding occasionally needs to be held by OST to support major cross council initiatives, but we would not expect this to be a rising trend. There is significant evidence of Research Councils already managing and supporting cross-council initiatives.


  38.  The emphasis of Realising our Potential, creating partnerships to benefit UK wealth creation and quality of life, is as relevant now as it was in 1993. Its greatest impact has been to promote a change in culture within the science community, encouraging greater dialogue, partnership and collaboration.

  39.  One of the impacts of Realising our Potential for the Research Councils has been new activities such as liaison under the User Community, familiarisation with Intellectual Property Rights issues, exploitation mechanisms and commercialisation issues. Not only does the expansion of activities, without explicit additional resources, require new management skills but it also exposes Research Councils to the new commercial risks and may alter the public's perception of our independence and impartiality.

  40.  The Research Councils, including NERC, are heavily reliant on the UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) for delivery of government research policies and objectives. Whilst the HEI sector has demonstrated innovation in respect to responding to new challenges such as the Research Masters initiative (MRes), this was primarily an additional income stream rather than a new approach to postgraduate education and training. Increased co-ordination of the delivery of research objectives at governmental level is required. The only opportunity for these two elements to come together is via SEBCC, which has been a useful forum for information flow and exchange but has delivered little agreement or policy.

Strategy for science engineering and technology

  41.  NERC published its first integrated science strategy Looking Forward in May 1998. This, together with seven more detailed sectoral strategies, is available on NERC's website

June 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 3 April 2001