Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



Mr Gibb

  100. Professor Lawton, do you have any views of the British education system?
  (Professor Lawton) I do but they are private views and I do not think my research council formally has views. I can tell you where my research councils issues are. We have a pool of about 1,000 PhD students, the biggest difficulty we have, and this does help to answer your question, is not in recruiting biologists and environmental scientists, that is relatively straightforward, we have considerable difficulties in recruiting sufficient numbers of adequately trained mathematicians, physicist and engineers into the environmental sciences and I suspect that is partly a reflection of the number of young people wishing to go into maths and physics at school and then into undergraduate degree courses.

  101. It is a pity the three of you are not being a bit more explicit with your views because these things matter and this is an opportunity to change things. This Committee has quite a lot of influence, it is a pity you have not taken the opportunity.
  (Professor Lawton) We could give you anecdotes, but that is not evidence-based.

  102. You have been in this business of research councils for donkey's years, I would have thought you would have a well-formed and quite an informed opinion of the British state education system as a result of your work?
  (Professor Lawton) We recruit very high quality graduates into our graduate programmes. We are not finding it difficult to recruit high quality United Kingdom graduates in general. We are finding it difficult to recruit adequate numbers of mathematicians, physicists and engineers and I said that I thought that was as a consequence of the shortage of young people we know nationally going into those as under-graduates.
  (Professor Goodfellow) I would agree fully on this, it is the whole area of informatics what we call bio-informatics, because of the amount of data we are getting in, this is an area where we want to see more people and we do need to have more people trained in mathematics and the sciences. It is very important that there are robust structures for examination at A-level that people are taking maths at A-level.

  Chairman: You are gradually warming up, Mr Gibb!

  103. Do you believe there is no point in teaching knowledge to children and what matters is teaching them how to learn because knowledge is always changing. Is that your view of how your potential future research scientists should be taught and you should not teach knowledge at secondary and junior level?
  (Professor Sir George Radda) I think you need a combination of knowledge and the ability of how to handle it. The real issue is now. I think that science is changing so rapidly that we need to get to the schools and say to them, you now need to teach science in a way that is more consistent with the modern approach, that is we are looking for people who can bring quantitative knowledge and quantitative thinking to science that was previously thought to be qualitative. We want mathematicians in biology. The system of education in this country and elsewhere in the world is not really ideal to generate this new sort of scientist. I think in our case, in the bio-medical field, we are going to need a lot more people who would have gone to pure physics also being able to think about biology. We need to look at the universities and at the schools level of how you can teach science that makes people excited about it and also able to look at it in a flexible way from different angles. That is my view about the sort of way that I would like if I had an influence on education, which I do not, I can express an opinion, and you asked for it, that would be my view.

  104. That is very helpful indeed.
  (Professor Goodfellow) This whole idea of enthusiasm for science, which I think people in biology are really feeling at the moment because of the whole change in technology that is coming through the sequencing and genomics programmes I am not sure we are getting through to school children. I am sure all of us at this table have given lectures in schools and we do promote these activities.

  105. Do you believe that philosophy of teaching our children is not about teaching knowledge, because knowledge is always changing?
  (Professor Goodfellow) They have to have some knowledge but they have to learn techniques. Learning how to do experiments I think that is very important for scientists, it does not matter what experiment they are doing but they can learn the way of testing hypothesis through experiments and that is taught in secondary school.
  (Professor Lawton) I would echo those comments and simply add that the other extremely important thing to try and teach young scientists is for them to be able to say, I do not know, I do not understand that but I know how to find out.

  106. Do you agree with the comment, you should not be teaching knowledge you should be teaching them how to learn?
  (Professor Lawton) No, I do not. You can have beautiful thoughts if you do not know anything, many youngsters do. On the other hand you can be so bogged down by stuff in your head that you have not learned to think. Like all of these things, it is a question of teaching both.

  Chairman: Those are very interesting answers. It is always the out of order questions and answers that are the most interesting!

  107. Can I ask one final question. Do you think that when the state is engaged in research it should be confined solely to pure research and never to applied research?
  (Professor Sir George Radda) I do not make a very strong distinction between pure research and applied research. The boundaries are not as defined as people think. Much of the research that the Medical Research Council does eventually is going to be applied; it is a question of what stage you do it. I think it is very important and the current government rightly recognises the importance of pure research, as you put it.
  (Professor Goodfellow) We fund pure research across the applied side and we work in partnership with DEFRA on the applied side in agriculture.

  108. You think it is right for the state to engage in applied research and not confine itself to pure research, which is the area of research that is least likely to be carried out by the private sector?
  (Professor Goodfellow) I think we have to do both. The greatest success is when we see it going across from pure and applied, especially in the strategic areas and then taken up by industry.
  (Professor Lawton) It also depends how you define "applied". A huge amount of the science that NERC and BBSRC and MRC does is science for the public good. It is science that as a nation we need to know. Try running a sensible economy without geological maps or tide tables, for example. The fact that people need to know that information does not mean to say it is second-class science that delivers the answer.

  Mr Gibb: Thank you very much.

  Chairman: Thank you, Mr Gibb, for that. David Rendel?

Mr Rendel

  109. I would like to say, first of all, to Professor Lawton I was delighted to hear about the high quality of graduates going into NERC because 30 years ago NERC gave me a grant to go into research.
  (Professor Lawton) Things have got distinctly better since then!

  110. I think you have just turned me from one of the nice members of the Committee into one of the nasty members of the Committee! What I was going to ask just as an aside to begin with, which leads me into a different subject, is we used at that time to do quite a lot of research that was then used by the Met Office. When you are commercialising it, is it work that is necessarily done for a private company which is going to make private sector profit or could it be work done for other government agencies? Is that common?
  (Professor Lawton) Absolutely. If we go back to the little Table 5 and look at line 3, NERC receives as commissioned research, predominantly from government departments, £26 million a year in money from government departments where they wish to know something about the environment that they cannot procure in any other way. That would include very substantial pieces of research on the atmosphere in terms of building into climate change models, but a whole gamut of other things that government departments wish to know. From our point of view it is one of the most important mechanisms that we have of turning basic science into (in this case) science for the public good, albeit somebody pays to have that research done—predominantly government departments.

  111. Mr Young, on a more general basis it is true that the government research councils are selling their products to other government agencies? To what extent can that be really commercial? To what extent can you get the right price for that research?
  (Mr Young) It is a difficult matter of judgment and negotiation is the general answer. It is a haggle. I do not know if John can help you further.
  (Dr Taylor) As you may be aware, there is a major review going on with Treasury at the moment called the Cross-Cutting Review of Science and Research. Over the last three years we have installed in the university research sector a comprehensive system of tracking the costs of doing research and the results of that are in the public domain now. It has been very instructive to get universities to a situation where they can for the first time know what it costs them, for example, to accept a contract from a government department to do a piece of applied research. As part of this major review which is on-going right now, we are looking very fundamentally at the structures for funding research in the universities, the so-called dual support system where part of the money for doing research in universities comes from funding councils, and the other parts come from the research councils that I am responsible for but also, increasingly, from the EU, from charities, from other government departments, from industry. It is becoming fairly clear following the Dearing Report and so on that certainly in universities there are fairly major funding gaps. There is a low price culture. There is an under-funding of the real full economic costs of accepting a research contract. I think you will find a lot of very active debate and discussion about this set of issues as we go through the summer and the cross-cutting review about what we really should be saying about the real costs of performing one of these research contracts. It is not a perfect market-place at the moment, I think it is fair to say.

  112. I am glad to hear that you will look into it. It does sound like a bit of weakness in terms of how you do this commercialisation as a whole. I understand it in the private sector but this side of it seems to be weaker. Can I come back to Mr Young. Following on from something Mr Davies was asking, I do not quite understand some of the figures. You said there is £500 million being spent on scientific research with the various research councils, 83 establishments, of which 59 are in seven research councils—paragraph 1.
  (Professor Goodfellow) In our institutes, not in the university sector.

  113. Sentence two of the very first paragraph of the Report states: "Over £500 million of this in 1999-2000 funded research and research facilities in 83 public research establishments ... 59 of which are grouped together under seven research councils." That sounds as if the £500 million covers more than just the three research councils.
  (Dr Taylor) Other government departments have other research institutes.

  114. So how much of the £500 million is just the three here?
  (Dr Taylor) It is about £450 million for the three research councils.
  (Professor Goodfellow) We put £70 million recurrent into our eight institutes per annum.

  115. My colleague has found the figure in paragraph 6—£443 million.
  (Dr Taylor) It is about £450 million for these three.

  116. So we must be getting fairly close to five per cent in some of them. I make the amount of money coming in—£15 million—five per cent of £340 million.
  (Dr Taylor) Be careful because we are talking about various different numbers here. Sometimes they are talking about net profits from commercialisation activities and sometimes they are talking about the gross income from all forms of contract research. Some of these numbers include all of the money that for example government departments might have paid the Institute for Animal Health or the British Geological Survey for a piece of contract research and we do not count that as profit from commercialisation; it is gross income from commercial contracts.

  117. So the figures given in 1.9 where we were talking up to £15 million altogether, that is just income not profit; is that what you are saying? Paragraph 1.9, if you total up the three figures between the three research councils it comes to £17 million.
  (Professor Goodfellow) That is just from licensing and spin-outs. For instance, if you take the BBSRC figures, you have got £2.7 million, we have another £14 million which is coming in in direct industrial contracts, and then we have another £30 million coming in from government contracts under DEFRA.

  118. I am getting more and more confused. The five per cent figure is profit not income? You are supposed to be under five per cent in terms of profit rather than income?
  (Mr Young) The Treasury rule is set out on page 34 in paragraph 4.6. The Treasury would consider it consistent ... to have flexibility in spending between years, including the ability to carry forward surplus where there is good business justification. The Government has disavowed any intention to reduce funding support to commercially successful establishments ... It should generally be possible, therefore, to plough additional income from commercialisation back into research funding ...

  119. I do not know if Treasury colleagues would like to give me the ruling
  (Mr Glicksman) The Treasury guidance comes from a document called Selling Government Services into Wider Markets and it is a wider policy than just commercialisation of science. It is about the general wider market policy of government of which this is one part. The policy is that where annual receipts from wider market activities exceed five per cent of the relevant gross expenditure, departments should consult the Treasury.

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