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Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



Tony McWalter

60.  Presumably, the nominators of the three good people would just find someone else to do the nomination, would they?

  (Mr Newton) Usually, they will discuss the three names with us and we will agree between us who the best two are. In most cases, we have found that it has not been difficult to identify the two that have something quite special about them. That has been the process so far.
  (Lord Puttnam) The two great attractions to us of the MacArthur Foundation were that you could control the flow and you were not going to get overwhelmed—coming back to the issue about head counts—had we had an open access application process, we would have had to automatically adjust our head count to dealing with it in a satisfactory way. First of all, you can control the flow, but much more importantly, you can control the quality of the nominator. The MacArthur people made it clear to us over and over again that the quality of what you ended up with had everything to do with the people who are nominating. As Jeremy said, we constantly review it and constantly recycle it.

Mr Dhanda

61.  Can you tell me about the quality of your monitoring process and how many of those nominees are women, how many are black, how many are from working class backgrounds, how many went to red-brick universities and all that kind of stuff?

  (Mr Newton) We can tell you almost all of that data. Again, we are happy to respond in writing.

62.  Can you tell me roughly, off the top of your head?

  (Mr Newton) I think men and women are roughly equal, something like 55:45. There is a reasonably good geographical spread, although in the fellowship programme as opposed to the other two programmes there is quite a heavy number in London and the south-east We tend to find, particularly in the arts disciplines, that there is a very heavy concentration of the strong nominees in London and the south. We have a bit of a geographical imbalance in the fellowship programme, where we have not in the other two programmes. I cannot tell you offhand the proportion from minority communities and so on, but there is quite a substantial representation of all the communities you could imagine across the fellowship programme.
  (Lord Puttnam) There is a dismal figure, which is worth mentioning, for invention and innovation, where less than 20 per cent are women.
  (Mr Tomlinson) In fellowships there are 30 male and 26 female.

Tony McWalter

63.  The process sounds to be a bit on the hoof compared to the peer review process that obtains in the research councils. You are dealing with some quite significant, high-quality submissions; are you not going to have to get more professional about it?

  (Mr Newton) There is a whole independent assessment process that all of the proposals go through. We do not simply rely on the nominators. The nominations come to our fellowship committee, the committee that Dame Bridget has been chairing for the last three years. They identify those which we want to invite to make a proposal for fellowship, so there is a degree of whittling down at that stage. Equally, once the proposals come in, they are independently refereed. We appoint an expert assessor from the field who is not a nominator and is completely independent—or sometimes it is two people—with a real depth of expertise in the field that the person is working in, who writes a full report. Again, that comes back to the fellowship committee, which assesses the officer's views, the views of the independent assessor and the views of the original nominator. There is quite a degree of peer review in terms of the assessment of the potential of the individual. That is where I put the stress. It is not about identifying the quality of their track record as much as trying to give some measure of their potential. That is a much less exact science, I am afraid. We do take something of a leap of faith in the fellows that we appoint, but in many cases they are repaying us in spades.
  (Lord Puttnam) I have enormous faith in our processes. I am very lucky in that my Deputy Chair and the Chair of the fellowship committee, since its inception, has been Dame Bridget. Without doubt she is the most experienced grant-giver in Britain. She was Director for many years of the Wellcome Trust. There are many views of Dame Bridget, but I have never heard it suggested that she is not rigorous.


64.  We have come across Dame Bridget in our relationship with the Royal Society.

  (Lord Puttnam) Then I am sure you concur with my view!

Tony McWalter

65.  For all of that in the end, it just feels to me still as though this is moving gently towards an open process, and I do understand why you could not do that initially. It still sounds as if the resulting process is still not going to seem very open. My own background is in mathematics and philosophy, and you often find that notoriously the people who make these sorts of decisions know precious little about these things and are unable to make any sense of some of the suggestions made in that regard. People outside of your normal system will still get pretty short shrift.

  (Lord Puttnam) The only thing that I can honestly suggest—and you would be more than welcome—would be for you to come down to NESTA and take a good, long detailed look at what we are doing, and talk to the director of the fellowship programme and talk to Dame Bridget. If you feel, having done that, that there is anything that is either insufficiently rigorous or that indicates we are not casting our net wide enough, we are not set in stone and would love to have a second view.

Dr Murrison

66.  Richard Morrison, in his article, again disobligingly said: "NESTA seemed intent on bank-rolling Islington dinner-party darlings, politically-correct sociologists . . ." which was unkind.

  (Lord Puttnam) It is also untrue, absolutely untrue, for the record.

67.  The Committee needs to be clear that the very wide-ranging powers that you have to disperse this money are being used in a correct way. What checks and balances exist to ensure that particularly when you are looking at grants on the arts side, the money is given without regard to any political persuasion or bias that a potential grantee has? I can give you an example of where that could happen—not where it did happen but where it could. I refer to Tom Paulin's publication The Invasion Handbook funded by NESTA. What checks and balances do you put in place to ensure that any grant is impartial?

  (Lord Puttnam) The assessment that is made is certainly not based on any political positions. It is quite interesting. Can I go back to the very first question about publicity, Chairman? We have made 60 fellowship awards now. Only one of them ever received any negative publicity whatsoever, and that was Tom Paulin; he was the only person that anyone ever heard of. I would suggest that tells you one of two things: either we should only give fellowships to very famous people so that no engineering council or anyone else in Britain could suggest that they had not heard of NESTA, or possibly they should not give it to anyone well known—as it happened, Tom's application was specifically to enable him to stop doing what he was doing in broadcasting to concentrate for a period of his life on writing an epic poem. The application was extremely well supported by, among others, his own university, and we went with it. We have no regrets at all. The fact that subsequently, and nothing to do with the book or the poem, he got embroiled in a mediafest over some other remarks he had made regarding the Arab/Israeli conflict, was not part and parcel of our process. Nothing of that was in his book and nothing of that was in his application or in our decision to fund him. I believe very sincerely that we are politically agnostic and neutral. I have certainly tried to keep it that way, and if anyone has some evidence otherwise, I would love to hear it and be given the chance to defend it. We live in a difficult media climate. It is the cheapest shot in the world to suggest that myself, or any other Labour or, for that matter, Conservative peer chairing an organisation is in some way or other politically motivated. It is never a charge I have had to deal with, but if I do I hope I have the chance to rebut the evidence on which it is made. I am not suggesting you are saying that, but I am suggesting that possibly you are over influenced by the theatricality of Richard Morrison, Brian Sewell or anyone else. They are entertainers and not trying for one moment to supply accurate information to a committee like yours.

68.  Lord Puttnam, I am not suggesting anything of the sort, but you will understand the concerns that this Committee rightly has that public money is dispersed in an equitable and non-political fashion. Thank you for giving that reassurance.

Mr Dhanda

69.  The 3 million to 4 million spent on education programmes. What kind of programmes are they?

  (Mr Tomlinson) I have only recently joined the committee, so am relatively new to it, but a particular thrust has been to find new, often cross-discipline ways of approaching teaching and learning in schools. ICT is an obvious point where we have looked at ways of developing access to information, teaching resources and the like. Equally, there is an acknowledgement that very often some of the things that we want to get across, for example literacy, numeracy and scientific understanding, can often be achieved through use of the arts. That can be a very rich area for motivating young people who want to move on in their language, their number work, and their science and technology work and the like. We have wanted to support cross-curricular projects that have been helping the development of young people's skills in other areas, sometimes indirectly as well as directly.

70.  The Royal Academy of Engineering would rather that you did not get involved in educational projects/programmes at all. What do you say to that?

  (Mr Tomlinson) I do not accept that we should not. There may be a reason why they would like us not to of course.
  (Lord Puttnam) Can I answer that question fully? I would say that of all the relationships we have created in the last two years, the most dramatically successful and productive has been that with the Qualifications Agency over the re-design or support for the design technology curriculum. If the Royal Acadamy of Engineering has any pride whatsoever in what it has achieved in design technology over the last year or so, I would be delighted to hear it. We walked into a situation that was on its knees. We worked extremely hard to pull it around.

Bob Spink

71.  Would your help of the Qualifications Council in this extend to the new vocational qualifications at about AS level for the new engineering course?

  (Lord Puttnam) I hope they eventually might. We have a series of programmes up and running that I am particularly proud of, helping young people to engage with design technology. In some ways it is rather unusual. We have actively pursued a robot competition for young people. We discovered, unsurprisingly, that young people are enormously influenced by what they see on television. We took Robot Wars, a pretty violent and relatively unpleasant programme, and turned it into Technogames, which is an Olympic competition among schools, designing and creating robots. It has had incredible success and taken off like a rocket. It is certainly something that frankly any of the engineering organisations and councils over the last few years could have done, and I'd say should have done. We have a terrific programme that we have worked on with Lego, the QCA and others, again engaging young people, particularly girls, in design technology by creating lessons where they are able to evaluate different power sources—wave power against wind power, against battery power. It has proved to be a tremendous success and already the results indicate that young girls are leaping two years ahead in terms of interest and activity in design technology. I spend half my life being lectured by all sorts of people over all sorts of things, but I do think that the engineering organisations have very little to accrue to their credit in the last few years in terms of their engagement with, enthusiasm for driving design technology as an interesting, exciting and innovative subject for young people. There were many things that I liked a lot about my years on the Engineering Council. But as I looked around the Council I think I remember seeing one non-white face and I never ever once saw a woman. I think that the engineering world has a lot to answer for and there is a lot of room for improvement.
  (Mr Newton) We took the view that we should start at key stages 3 and 4 so almost all of our projects in design and technology have been in the 11-16 age range. They are not yet involved at AS level.

72.  So you would not consider more funding through the BA rather than the smaller projects that you are involved in?

  (Mr Tomlinson) Science Year has worked very closely with BA and the Association of Science Education, and we are looking, when Science Year comes to an end, at having a legacy that would be passed on to those bodies that would continue to be permanent parts of the landscape, of which the BA and ASE are two. I am meeting soon with both of them to discuss the next stage of our collaboration with Science Year. We do work very closely with them already. They do not have large sums of money to support the sorts of projects and ideas that we have; therefore there is a synergy between the bodies which is very helpful and productive.
  (Lord Puttnam) Chairman, could I make one point, because you could help us here? We are at the moment actively engaged in discussing a joint venture with the Engineering and Technology Board, a new body, which we would very much like to pursue as partners. I would like to think that eventually we will get a response, but it has been slow coming.

Dr Murrison

73.  Lord Puttnam, you said in July 2001, "we will count what we have done as worthwhile if within five years we see three outstanding business successes from the entrepreneurs NESTA is backing". Does that remain your benchmark?

  (Lord Puttnam) One of my benchmarks. I have only two more years to serve and I will have regarded my tenure, as the initial chairman of NESTA as being successful if within those years we have three genuine successes in terms of the outcomes of our inventions and innovations programme. Two to five of our fellows are clearly emerging as leaders in their fields, and we have begun the process of transforming education technology in the UK. These would be the three things I would seek as a legacy.

74.  One year on from making those remarks, are you more or less confident that that will be fulfilled or exceeded?

  (Lord Puttnam) I am exactly as confident as I was a year ago.

Mr Harris

75.  Do you see Science Year as a success?

  (Mr Tomlinson) Very much so, and so does the Government and so do our partners, so much so that in principle we may be asked to extend the Science Year for a further period. There are areas where we should in the next phase do a little more, particularly with parents, to attract them to the excitement of science so that can influence their children, but also support parents who are often taxed because of their lack of science education, in terms of their children doing science homework and the like. We have plans ahead with the National Body of Parent/Teacher Association to work closely with them on that. The other area where we certainly do want to focus, along with many other organisations as well, is the challenge of getting more young people to do the physical sciences at A level and proceed through to degrees, because we are in a somewhat serious position with regard to the supply of scientists and engineers.

76.  Apart from NESTA itself, which obviously co-ordinates Science Year, has anyone else made an assessment of the success of Science Year? Can you point to other bodies? How do they evaluate that success?

  (Mr Tomlinson) We do not have it yet but we are in the process of trying to get it from our partners, for example the ASE and BA. We also have a number of industrial so-called "friends" that are particular supporters of us, and we shall be asking them very soon for their evaluation of their involvement, given that the year will be coming to an end in September. We will be looking at that. We already feel that on a number of quantitative measures, for example the numbers of schools, teachers and pupils involved in different activities, that there have been signs of considerable success. It has attracted the attention of these people towards the activities of Science Year. There is a long way to go. I would not pretend that we have by any means cracked the problem.

77.  You made reference to extending Science Year. I do not want to appear flippant, but it is not very scientific having a science year for only 365 days. Is there a danger that you might devalue Science Year by extending it for however long?

  (Mr Tomlinson) No, and that is a decision yet to be made. There is a problem of having called it Science Year, to then extend it. It is illogical apart from anything else. It raises an issue for the Government in this regard, that in future it may not be pertinent to call it a year, because there is a continuing need for support in some areas, not necessarily through the same organisation. Once you have a successful initiative, such as this, which has generated a great deal of comment from schools and teachers and others, who say, "please do not let this end"—then inevitably you want it to go on. I am worried at the moment how one is going to say to schools in September that we are not finished and we are starting again with a second year. We could call it Science Year Plus. We are faced with a challenge.
  (Lord Puttnam) We will be delivering to the Department an evaluation of the year this autumn, but we are also preparing a document that the Department has asked for, which is a critique of the whole concept of "the year of", and we do not think that it is the answer; we think that themed efforts where the time period relates to the depth or breadth of the problem is a much better way to go. We are rather critical of the concept of "the year of".


78.  Substance, not spin.

  (Lord Puttnam) Not spin.
  (Mr Tomlinson) One or two other countries are very interested in the idea. Canada has agreed to launch one, and we said, "Do not label it 'a year'."

Mr Harris

79.  Nigel Payne left in April and went off to the BBC. Has that adversely affected Science Year and its activities?

  (Lord Puttnam) I do not think so. Nigel got an offer that we could not possibly stand in his way from accepting and he was released from his contract early. Jeremy and Mike between them stepped in and so far we do not feel there has been any lack of energy—in fact quite the opposite: Mike has picked up at exactly the moment at which it may have benefited from a fresh vision.


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