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


Memorandum submitted by the UK Life Sciences Committee

  The UK Life Sciences Committee comprises 16 leading learned societies and represents some 35,000 cell, molecular and physiological life scientists working in academia and in industry. The UKLSC is pleased to provide additional evidence to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry.

  1.  UKLSC was pleased overall with the White Paper, which showed clear evidence that the Government had listened to the views of people and organisations working to sustain and improve the excellence of Britain's science. For example, in a special pre-White Paper edition of Science and Public Affairs a member of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, and senior people in science policy at SmithKline Beecham, the Wellcome Trust, and the Royal Society listed as their priority issues:

    —  the need to maintain a strong science base;

    —  the need to strengthen links of the science base with wealth creation, including the need to simplify the technology transfer initiatives;

    —  the need for an improved academic career structure to aid recruitment and retention of the best young scientists;

    —  the need for diversity of mission among universities;

    —  and the need to improve the public perception of new scientific developments.

  These were all identified in the White Paper, but not always addressed adequately.

  2.  The most notable deficiency of a Paper that claimed to be a strategy document for science and innovation was the failure to address the issue of pay and conditions for the overwhelming majority of academic scientists. The move to improve PhD stipends recognised the growing problem of attracting the best students to start out in research, although it has to be recognised that the increase was from a very low and uncompetitive baseline. The pool of funding intended to reverse the brain drain and attract a limited number of top researchers to the UK was useful. Such innovators can be an impact disproportionate to their number. But the White Paper did not address the fundamental problem that some of the brightest young scientists choose not to pursue careers in academic research because of the lack of prospects.

  3.  The continued funding after the JIF to improve infrastructure was welcome. It will need to be monitored, so that the requirement for universities to obtain sponsors for 25 per cent of the costs of any projects funded does not result in undue bias towards a small number of research-intensive institutions.

  4.  Following the Comprehensive Spending Review of 1998 the Government was criticised for balancing increased investment in the Science Base with decreased on R&D by government departments. It is still not clear whether the money announced for the Science Base represents new funding or largely a reshuffling of existing money. The fact that the OST still has little influence on the setting of R&D budgets by other government departments militates against a joined-up Government science policy.

  5.  The White Paper's acknowledgement of the responsibility of the government for funding basic research and maintaining an excellent science base, whilst at the same time clearly wanting to exploit any discoveries made, is welcome. UKLSC agrees the need for selectivity of funding for basic research, and for universities to have a diversity of missions. The increased size of the HEROBC pool as a permanent third leg of funding should encourage more universities to expand their work with business and the community.

  6.  The initiatives for technology transfer were largely extensions of existing schemes and whilst welcome, do not appear to have simplified procedures. Funds to strengthen regional science and to create networks, to be made available through regional development agencies, will be welcomed although UKLSC pointed out in an earlier consultation that much collaboration is carried out on a national or international scale rather than at a regional level.

  7.  The section on public confidence contained many fine words but few definite actions. The emphasis on the updated guidelines on the use of scientific advice by government departments and agencies, and a new code of practice encouraging openness for advisory committees, may be of limited value. Similar guidelines and advisory committees were in place in the last two years when the public mistrust over genetically modified foods grew. Little was said about encouraging scientists to engage more effectively with the public other than that the Government would build on existing research council initiatives in training scientists to communicate their work. Furthermore, focus needs to be placed on mechanisms to enable the public to have more input into science decision-making.

11 January 2001

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