Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 40-59)

  40. Before I turn to Dr Jones, let me ask you just one final question, that is not so much quantitative as qualitative. We have had evidence, in the past, when people have said to us that we should have the Chief Scientific Adviser in the Cabinet Office and the Director-General of the Research Council within the DTI. This would lead to sort of constructive friction that would make the whole science process go better, but, of course, it would split the OST virtually into two. Do you have any views on that?
  (Professor King) Yes, I do.

  41. Good; would you share them with us?
  (Professor King) Yes. I think you are asking a very important question. First of all, you asked me should the OST be, in effect, in the Cabinet Office or in the DTI, or should we split it between the two. I think, of those options, the one I would reject outright is the splitting of the Office of Science and Technology. I think it would give a very bad message to the academic community to have the door in, if you like, to the centre of Government shut on them. If they were placed so firmly within the Department of Trade and Industry, I think there would be a suspicion that we would lose what is currently understood, that fundamental research is what gives rise to the most important technological, and hence industrial, breakthroughs, that, because of short-termism, we might see applied science become the major effort. Now I think that is the way it would be perceived. I am not suggesting that is the way it would actually happen, but, clearly, Chairman, that is a danger.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Lynne Jones

  42. As you may know, recently we produced a report on the scientific advisory system, and it is interesting that one of our recommendations was similar to what you have just expressed, about the importance of expertise being in-house. Would you get involved in responding to this report; are you happy you got involved in responding, because it was a few weeks ago now?
  (Professor King) I have read your report, and I enjoyed reading it very much, and I am not saying that to flatter you, but it informed me; as somebody coming in new to the job, as it were, it was a very good way of learning what the range of the activities was, and, of course, I was very interested in a number of the opinions being expressed there. So, yes, I would like to respond to it.

  43. But, formally, are you involved in the formal Government response; who is writing the response and how are you involved in the response?
  (Professor King) The answer is, yes.

  44. And the response is imminent? Perhaps I had better move on and just ask you, on a day-to-day basis, could you tell us what is your relationship with the Chief Scientists in other Departments, and tell us a bit about the operation of your Adviser's committee?
  (Professor King) The important thing is that, through the Chief Scientific Adviser's committee, I do get to know who all the Chief Scientific Advisers are, or the Chief Scientists, and to meet them, and I have attempted to meet them informally as well. Now, at the same time, I do not think that is enough, the mere meeting of the committee is probably not enough. But the real answer to your question is that I have been so taken over in the last six weeks that this really has been set aside. The access on a daily basis, I did read in your report that the Chief Scientists should have a day-to-day access to the Chief Scientific Adviser. The Chief Scientific Adviser is one person, and I am sure you did not mean, by that, that I should have daily meetings with all the Chief Scientists. If what was meant by that was that there should be an open door then I am behind that totally, I think that is very important; and I do think that the Chief Scientific Adviser's committee helps to create that open door.

  Chairman: Just on a point of order there, as it were, we tend to suspect that our report might have said a day-to-day meeting with the Chief Scientific Advisers of other Departments; that would not mean daily, that would mean as and when. Instead of it being structured once a month, or once every three months, access on a day-to-day basis; we would not have meant a daily basis, as you rightly infer.

Lynne Jones

  45. For example, if the Chief Scientist in MAFF needed extra help, he would have no worry about getting in touch with you and talking to you about it. But, also, in another report on Government expenditure on research and development, we recommended that the transdepartmental co-ordination role of OST and the CSA should be enhanced—we had been worried, for example, about cuts in budgets—with the opportunity to intervene, if necessary, if you felt that the scientific expertise within Departments, or the work that they were doing, was suffering. Do you agree, and, if so, I think you do agree, from what you were just saying, what more needs to be done to assist you in this role?
  (Professor King) A major objective of my term of office is going to be to deal with, as I had been indicating before, the level of scientific support from within Departments; and, within that, I will want to keep an eye on the science spend in those key Departments. I think that the difficulties the Departments are experiencing in getting money out of the Treasury may be a symptom of the problem rather than a lack of a proper grip on value for money. And I do want to see that Departments do get good value for money, and once they do I think the demand for what they are giving will increase and so the spend will improve.

Mr McWalter

  46. So do you think that the Treasury has got the expertise to assess your requests?
  (Professor King) I did not mean to suggest that. I would like to say that my office has the expertise.

  Mr McWalter: But unless that expertise is in the Treasury you are not going to get anywhere, are you?

Lynne Jones

  47. Unless the Treasury are prepared to acknowledge your influence?
  (Professor King) Yes. I think the answer, again, is what I said before, that if it becomes widely apparent that Departments benefit from scientific advice then the Treasury is going to be much more likely to yield the money.

Mr McWalter

  48. Yes, but we had a situation in which we were all delighted that there was a substantial improvement in the science budget, in theory, but then it looked as if, actually, Departments were having significant amounts of their R&D money taken away with the left hand, as it were. Is that not the case, in fact, that there has been a decline in departmental expenditure on R&D, and surely that has a significant detrimental effect upon the R&D that then Departments are able to do?
  (Professor King) I think, to be frank, that is one of the things that worries me.

  49. So are you going to reverse that?
  (Professor King) I would like to see that reversed, yes.

Dr Iddon

  50. What role do you think you can play in advising on the Science Budget, Professor King, particularly the allocations individually to the Government Departments?
  (Professor King) I have strong views on the science budget and the role of science in the United Kingdom, and I have plenty of opportunities to express those views; but, at the same time, the Director-General of the Research Council is the person who runs that budget and puts forward the arguments for increasing that budget. I am not one to sit by and not say anything about it, and so my voice will be heard on this issue, and I can give you, if you would like, my views on the science budget, but certainly I will express my views.

  51. One of the concerns this Committee has had, over the last few years, is that as the external science budget has expanded, external to Government, I mean, it is apparent that the internal budget, for example, in MAFF, has declined, and we are very concerned about that, in view of what has happened with MAFF particularly. Do you think you can help, or influence the Director-General of the Research Councils to reverse that trend?
  (Professor King) In a sense, your question comes back to the point I was making about outsourcing, a little while ago, that if you outsource the research work that you want for a Department, eventually you run into a problem when you no longer know what work you need to outsource, because you have not got the expertise in-house. That is the point I am most worried about, and that is why I want to move in and make my inquiries.

Dr Gibson

  52. You will have noticed that Mike Dexter has made some statements recently about charity money and the funding of research infrastructure in universities, and, from a position which was, you know, a nice arrangement with the Government, almost 50/50 in terms of JIF bits, and so on, he seems to be saying now that the Government is not really playing its full part in restoring the research infrastructures in the buildings and labs in universities. Do you agree with his position; and how would you go about restoring what is a problem in the British universities, in terms of the labs and decaying buildings, in fact?
  (Professor King) There was a massive cutback in funds going into the science infrastructure of this country, from the mid eighties to the nineties. The percentage funding dropped 0.9 per cent of GDP to 0.56 per cent of GDP, over that period of time, and the price paid for that was deteriorating infrastructure on a massive scale, to the point where it really did harm the capabilities of universities to train scientists in best practice. Now I think that we are beginning to turn that corner, and that corner was turned, I am coming back to the Wellcome Trust, through, first of all, the Joint Infrastructure Fund, and secondly the SRIF fund that followed that. And this was partly through Wellcome putting in a significant proportion of the funding to both JIF and SRIF. Now I do believe that the Government understands the need to fund infrastructure on a continuing basis; we are beginning to tackle the problem, but the problem will take quite some time to deal with totally. And I see this as a statement that the Wellcome Trust is drawing a line and saying, "We have now made our contribution to the infrastructure and we expect the Government to do the rest." I do not know if Dr Gibson would agree with that?

  53. Yes.
  (Professor King) But, certainly, I think the Wellcome Trust is saying, "We would like to fund top-up funds into our university system to do research; we don't expect to have to fund the infrastructure, which should be Government-funded."

  54. Yes, and it has to be sustainable, I hope you would agree, too?
  (Professor King) Absolutely.

  55. Now do you think the Government should just take it all on; do you think that should be the position?
  (Professor King) I think the Government should be taking it all on, but perhaps I should also give my view that this period of loss of funds to our research system within universities, which has caused a significant lowering of capability and of morale in universities, nevertheless, also has a positive side to it. I think we now have an extremely efficient research set of organisations in the universities; this pruning-back and now funding again is producing a much more efficient and effective teaching and research set of machines, in terms of our modern universities. That requires though continued funding to maintain the further growth of that plant. Now the funding may come from industry, occasionally, such as the Unilever funding of a molecular science informatics laboratory in Cambridge, £13 million; that does not always have to come from the Government, and I think it is very good if we engage industries in this funding as well. But the large part of it has to be, I think, in the end, the responsibility of Government.

  56. And it is not the role of charities, you think; what is the role of charities, in your opinion?
  (Professor King) If we look at the strengths in science in the United Kingdom, we practically invented molecular biology in this country and we are extremely well placed to play a big role in the developing biotechnology industries. I think the Wellcome Trust has played a vital role in that strength. On the other hand, our strength in physics, over the same period, has declined. So where Wellcome Trust money does not go we have had problems; physics and engineering, Chairman, I would see as areas where we do need to see a further growth of our research capabilities to meet the demands of modern industry, and the Wellcome Trust will not fund that. A long answer to your question, Ian, but what I am coming round to saying is, I think it is right and proper that the Wellcome Trust should fund the way it is doing, and it is doing it very well.

  Dr Gibson: Hopefully, you will be in discussions with Michael Dexter shortly.


  57. Professor King, at this stage, Mr McWalter had another question, but I know he has an appointment at 5.30 and has had to leave us, so perhaps I could put his question for him, and then we will come to our final question, with Dr Iddon. Mr McWalter wanted to ask you about the departmental Science and Innovation Strategies that we are awaiting, and they still have to be published. First of all, we would like to know, have the departments drawn up these strategies entirely on their own, or has OST had a role in doing this; and will they be scrutinised by Ministers in such a way that they are largely a Ministers' wish-list rather than the scientists' wish-list?
  (Professor King) As regards the Science and Innovation Strategies being developed by Departments—the Office of Science and Technology is playing, I think, a very important role in that process. We had, in January, a joint meeting in which good practice was shown through a series of talks from those departments where good innovation strategies were being produced, as a means of illustrating how other departments should proceed. The meeting was extremely well attended, very good discussion, and we had the benefit of several senior industrialists present who contributed to the discussion. So the answer is, no, we are not leaving departments to work out their Science and Innovation Strategies on their own, the Office of Science and Technology is heavily involved in that process.

  58. Would you be optimistic that if this is done properly and is well received it would assist Departments to submit for larger budgets for research and development?
  (Professor King) The object is to get Departments to produce good Strategies that will appeal to those Departments and then I am hoping that the net result will be an increased budget. Certainly, at the end of the day, I do not think simply increasing the budget is the answer, I have tried to stress this a few times.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

Dr Iddon

  59. The final question, Professor King, really takes us back to something we dealt with a while ago. A number of our Committee reports, the Phillips Report and the CST's Review of Science and Technology have flagged up concerns about the scientific abilities within Government, and it sounds as if you have got concerns, because you have mentioned outsourcing twice in this meeting. In response to the CST Review, the Government stated that Departments would conduct a review of their scientific staffing needs; can you tell us what the outcome of that review has been, please, and, indeed, when we can expect any results?
  (Professor King) The answer is that we have carried out an exploratory review and we are looking at the results, and we have not yet produced the written report.

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