Examination of witness (Questions 40-59)
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
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
(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.
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.
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 enhancedwe had been worried, for example, about
cuts in budgetswith 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.
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?
47. Unless the Treasury are prepared to acknowledge
(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.
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,
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.
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
(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
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 Departmentsthe 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
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.
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.