Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


Wednesday 19 December 2001

  20. Secretary of State, my friend Dr Iddon has already referred to past anxieties about research budgets in government department, notably MAFF as was. Can you tell us what specific steps you will be taking to ensure that such deficiencies do not occur again?
  (Ms Hewitt) What we are doing with the strengthening of the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser and the relationship he will have with the chief scientists in all departments and the creation of this new Cabinet Sub Committee on Science will mean we are raising visibility of science right across government. I think all of us are acutely aware of the difficulties that have arisen in recent years, for instance in relation to BSE and there is, therefore, a political willingness and commitment to ensure that we do have proper scientific expertise, that the investment is being made, that the right people are being called upon from outside government as well as within government to advise us and we are acutely aware of the need to communicate scientific issues rather better to the public. All of those things are now being looked at more carefully on a cross-departmental basis. As David was indicating earlier, I think that means we are much more likely to spot the gaps and ensure that if one department is falling short actually that situation is remedied.

  Dr Turner: Thank you.

Dr Iddon

  21. Secretary of State, will we be top slicing departmental budgets or arguing for extra money to do that? It is important that we do the latter rather than top slicing existing budgets?
  (Ms Hewitt) I have not heard of any proposal for top slicing budgets.

Dr Murrison

  22. Secretary of State, it is very easy to look back, we can all do that. It is more difficult to look forward, that is why it is so important. The Government told the committee in the previous Parliament that the Forward Look would be published in the year following the Spending Review. If its purpose was to present the plan following the Spending Review to the public, why was it only published on Monday?
  (Ms Hewitt) We would have liked to publish it earlier but of course after the General Election we had a reorganisation of government departments, which was disruptive but nonetheless desirable, so some of the science strategies had to be reformulated, programmes had to be reviewed to see whether they were consistent with the new priorities of new secretaries of state and departments and I am afraid that that just held up the preparation of the Forward Look. It is, as you will have seen, a very, very substantial piece of work. I think it was better to get it right and get it up to date than to rush out with something that although it was called a forward look it might have been out of date even before we published it.

  23. We are promised some SET tables, when can we expect to see those?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think the idea is we will keep these constantly up to date because the SET tables come from different areas two or three times a year, so what we want to do is update them on the website, we will not publish them, we will keep them up to date so that (a) we save some money, (b) we save some trees and (c) it is done in real time, so you do not have to wait until some period in the year to update, it is updated on a regular basis.

  24. When you say "regular" can you be more specific?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think the answer is, as we get the figures in from the departments we will put them up on to the website.

Bob Spink

  25. The quinquennial review of the Research Councils has now been published and we are interested in that it recommends a Research Council United Kingdom Strategy Group. At the moment, of course, we have an arrangement where the CEOs of Research Councils meet with the Director General, yourself, Dr Taylor. How would this new group differ from the current arrangements? Do you think it is a good idea?
  (Dr Taylor) I think it a very good idea and a lot of work has gone into working through how it might work and what is necessary. The way in which it will be different, I think, will be threefold. First of all it will provide a single voice for the Research Councils in the United Kingdom, for science in the United Kingdom, if you will, where people will know that the issues have been debated and that this is a cross-council view on those issues. Another way of talking about that is a single portal into Research Councils and where we need to have dialogue with universities, with Funding Councils, with regions and jurisdictions, with international bodies, and so on, the existence of a single place with which to have that dialogue will be a big improvement. Secondly, it will formalise and make quite a lot more explicit and visible the whole process of our Spending Review cycle, how we pull proposals together for what the programme should be in the future and what kind of strategies we have in the longer term, for example for major facilities and major programmes, so that is a much more visibly cross-council, properly debated set of issues. Thirdly, we will be able to look, again, right across the Councils to see where we can do our business more efficiently and effectively and present a cleaner interface to the people we interact with overall, to chase the underlying objective which came from this review, which is that science requires flexibility. There are lots of boundaries between different parts of science and those boundaries are moving all of the time, so what we will really derive from RC-UK is about the ability to move and manage across the interfaces as science changes. This is what science needs, and this new group will maintain a serious overview of how well we are able to do that.

  26. What are the models you looked at when you decided to go the RC-UK route; did you look at what was happening round the rest of the world?
  (Dr Taylor) We looked at lots of options and there is a lot of material in the report about how you might go. At one extreme there is status quo, everything is fine nothing needs to change, at the other extreme there is the question of why not have one Research Council, a sort of NSF, plus NIH. Again the independent people involved in both levels of this review debated long and hard, we did a lot of consultation with a lot of other people and basically there was not much support at all for either of those two extremes.

  27. Were you not just a little seduced by the unified model that has been applied elsewhere in the world? After all, what you want really is a single voice, clear focus, clear message, maximum clout with government, with the rest of the world, with industry and with science education. If you really want major clout surely it would be better to put it all together under one unified package; would that not be more cost effective, instead of keeping six organisations going?
  (Dr Taylor) I think in walking through that set of possibilities, we imagined doing it, we imagined wiping away all of the Councils and appointing a single supremo, and then going through the process of immediately setting up a set of sub-divisions (because the overall group is much too wide for any one group to manage). We imagined losing all of our current independent members of the seven Councils, which are working effectively, and trying to re-build all of that and we pictured essentially a two-year planning blight during which time many people's eyes would have been taken off the real issues at a time when science is extremely fertile and moving very fast, so we went with the majority recommendation which was to do this and focus on it and measure it quite soon.

  28. Just moving on to a slightly different angle of the Quinquennial Review, we want in this Committee to make sure the Government meets its objective of encouraging more R&D and science spending, not just from the public sector but from industry and commerce as well. The suggestion of a Funders Forum was made. Would you include industry in that forum? It has got higher education funding councils, government departments; would industry be there?
  (Dr Taylor) This is something we will now debate quite carefully as we go into that recommendation. The notion of getting together initially a public Funders Forum is quite powerful and we would be very interested to understand how to make that effective with private industry funders as well. There is the usual set of representational issues and so on, but that would be a very important part of what we would want to talk about.

Mr McWalter

  29. Good afternoon. There is one area of research activity which is completely outside of the Research Councils' ambit and that is the general area of arts and humanities. Do you favour the Dearing Committee's recommendation that there be an Arts and Humanities Research Council to replace the current Arts and Humanities Research Board and, if so, why?
  (Ms Hewitt) This is really an issue for Margaret Hodge over at the Department for Education and Skills and, of course, she announced in September a review of how arts and humanities' research should be funded, so all of that is being looked at at the moment, including that particular issue of whether the Research Board should become one of the Research Councils.

  Mr McWalter: I would quite like your alliance on this because I am an interloper in this Committee really in that I am a philosopher.

  Chairman: We all are.

  Mr Heath: He thinks too much!

Mr McWalter

  30. In a sense, it partly flags up what you think about what we sometimes call the most blue sky of blue sky research, in that, for instance, the work done by George Boole and the laws of thought was followed up by Frege, Russell, Turing and Gödel who gave us the theoretical basis for computers and which was worked out by Immanuel Kant on geometry and its foundations, and led to arguments that eventually generated the geometry called Riemannian geometry which was an essential mathematical tool for working out the relativity theory. I am asking whether, in a sense, there is a recognition of that work which is done away from the immediate pressure of the scientific research that has got very important potential in terms, eventually, of generating worthwhile scientific research programmes which will over the medium and longer term be of lasting and significant value for the development of the science base?
  (Ms Hewitt) I think that is very well recognised. There has been a debate going back several decades in Britain about the two cultures and the danger of this divide between the humanities—and I am an English literature graduate myself—and the scientific world. Some of the work that is being done around the nature of intelligence and the creativity process again crosses that divide between humanities and science. That is specifically one of the issues that this review is going to look at. Once we have had an outcome of that review we can consult on how we go forward. John, you are involved in that review already.

  31. I saw you nodding, which is good news.
  (Dr Taylor) We have had some very fruitful debates and discussions with a lot of people involved in the communities and this set of issues. Certainly from the Research Council side, there is a lot of openness to debating and discussing how best we should go forward on this. There are a lot of different areas. You have illustrated one but there are many others, where there is the potential overlap, co-operation and mutuality of interest. I think as the AHRB, which has just been set up in its present form, explores its base, we are very keen to explore with them where those areas of shared interest might lie. I guess the real issue is whether they want to move towards research grant kind of modalities, which is what they are starting to do now, instead of individual funding for scholarships and individual research. Understanding what that means for research in the arts and creative media is another thing that needs to be explored quite carefully.


  32. Lord Sainsbury, you and I have shared arguments before about the arts/science divide; would you like to contribute?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I was just going to make the point that in fact part of the thing that sparked off this review was an excellent report by the Council of Science and Technology suggesting that the Arts and Humanities Research Board should become a Research Council. I thought that was very encouraging. There is certainly a real desire for the Research Councils and the Arts and Humanities Research Board, in whatever form, to work together on areas where there is a commonalty of interest.

Mr McWalter

  33. One other area is history. One quite often gets a history in which the history of science or the history of technology has been evaporated out of being of any historical significance whatsoever. Those of us who do take an interest in the science owe it to the wider world to try and promote a picture of what the science and technology is like and the fact that it has got historical depth, and that can only be done if you get this profitable co-operation. If it were to become a Research Council—and you mentioned earlier that it is currently in the purview of the DfES—would you like to see it become in the end a departmental responsibility so that at least all Research Councils are clearly under the umbrella of your Department?
  (Ms Hewitt) That is one of the issues that I think has to be considered within that review. One of the implications of becoming a Research Council is that you then become part of the Research Councils UK and are supported by our excellent DG of Research Councils. I have certainly not begun to look at what the implications of that might be and I think that does need to be looked at within the context of the review Margaret Hodge has commissioned. Obviously there will be a lot of people in the arts and humanities' field who will have a view on that and will see advantages and be concerned about the possible disadvantages of that model. That needs to be thought through rather carefully.

  34. Dr Taylor, do you have a view?
  (Dr Taylor) I echo that very much. I think one of the dimensions that is quite important for a lot of the community is that the Research Council role is a UK-wide role and so we fund the best research anywhere it is, whether it is in England, Scotland or whatever, and there are some funding complications flowing from the way that the AHRB is set up at the moment which need to be looked at, but I think the notion of all of the machinery of doing grants and awarding grants and peer review and all of that kind of thing, and having uniform interfaces with universities that want to be involved with that kind of process mean there would be a lot of positive sides to bringing them into the family. Some of them might worry about titles and names like "science and technology" but I am sure those kind of things are very easily dealt with.

  Chairman: Mark Hoban?

Mr Hoban

  35. You have now completed the first phase of the review of the UK Foresight programme. In the last Parliament one of the messages that this Committee heard frequently from contributors is that Foresight initiatives had very little impact on government departments. How do you think you can change that?
  (Ms Hewitt) I certainly agree with that conclusion. I felt as a Minister, once I discovered Foresight, that it was one of the best kept secrets within government. It is a wonderful programme and there is really exciting work going on in Foresight. It engages at a very high level with the business and scientific community, and I have no doubt at all that the business community benefits hugely from that engagement, but it is not well used or understood across government. We have recently, as you know, had a review of Foresight and in the light of that review's conclusions we are developing a new Foresight programme that I think will be better focused and will look at investing in exploiting the results of Foresight, not simply doing the Foresight work. Part of that is ensuring that other government departments and other Ministers are engaged in the Foresight process and use the fruits of it. It is an issue we may well come back to in the new Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) We are looking at it in a different way. I rather agree with you—I think it was becoming too diffuse and not as effective as it should be. There was also a problem about the way that we managed it which was to start off and have all the programmes start and then they all came to a halt at the same time, and the new way we are looking at managing it is that we will have on-going programmes but fewer at a time because it is much better use of staff in this, and we will also be much clearer about two kinds of Foresight, one which is more science and technology based, and one which is more dealing with particular challenges in particular areas of government, particularly other government departments, so I think we are changing it because it was becoming too diffuse and it was not doing enough science and technology forecasting. We are pulling it back into a more effective mode again.

  36. Going back to the point the Secretary of State made; how are you going to engage your colleagues in this process? What mechanism are you going to produce to get them to engage?
  (Ms Hewitt) One mechanism is the design of the individual Foresight programmes themselves, for instance work that was being done between the DTI and the old DETR on the vehicle of the future which came under the Foresight programme. That was an excellent example of collaboration between two departments and the business and technology community. It worked very effectively indeed. Both my ministerial counterpart and I—this was in my last role within the DTI—were engaged in that programme and were talking to business about it, publicising the fruits of it and so on. In that case I think it worked very well. Similarly, I think some of the work that Foresight has done on how you can use science and technology to reduce crime and catch criminals more effectively, those sorts of issues, I know the Home Office were engaged in and I would expect Home Office Ministers to have been as well. I also think that using the mechanism of this new Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science we can probably engender a wider understanding of what it is that Foresight can do so that other Ministers are not simply being involved in things that are coming up to them, as it were, from officials but can actually think about how they might themselves want to use Foresight to help them tackle some of the difficult issues they are confronting within their portfolios.

  37. It sounds to me from what you have said that the leg of Foresight which is to do with particular policy challenges is also going to engage your colleagues, but the other leg, science and technology, it is harder to understand how that will engage your colleagues. Have you any particular thoughts on that?
  (Ms Hewitt) Not at this stage. You will understand I have only been Secretary of State for six months and it is not possible to have thought everything through in the space of six months. I know I keep coming back to this Cabinet Sub-Committee but we did have a very, very interesting and good discussion at the first meeting of that Committee, which was only a week or so ago. I am now beginning to think about what the forward programme for that Committee might be. Your question, particularly your reference to the more blue skies science-based, rather than policy problem-based use of Foresight, I think that is an issue we could come back to in the Committee and see if we can engage Ministers at that level because a lot of ministerial colleagues are increasingly interested and concerned about these issues, about the way in which science is actually changing our world and creating very real uncertainties that we need to understand as politicians and we need to engage with the public in.

  38. Can I ask you one follow-up question from that. Who is on the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science?
  (Ms Hewitt) I have not got this all in my head. The Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for DEFRA, Stephen Byers, Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Education, Barbara Roche as Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, Paul Boateng, Financial Secretary, obviously Lord Sainsbury. I chair it. We also have in attendance the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer and, where appropriate, the Chief Veterinary Adviser and the Chair of the Food Standards Agency.

  39. And how often do you intend to meet?
  (Ms Hewitt) We met for the first time, as I say, just a week or so ago. I think we will have quarterly meetings. I think trying to do anything more often is actually not very practical and I would rather have really good substantive discussions quarterly than poorly attended meetings more often. We are now setting a date for a second meeting in the spring.

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