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 (SOCa joint venture with the University
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
to focus NERC science on priority
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
their impact on the management and
performance of science and technology; and
whether the structures it specified
are still appropriate.
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.
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
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
WealthRealising 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
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
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
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
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
(iii) a new culture of dialogue is needed
between scientists and the public;
(iv) there must be a presumption of openness
(v) scientists must learn to live with a
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
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
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
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
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;
publication of an integrated science
strategy that outlines key challenges over a five to ten year
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.nerc.ac.uk.