Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-71)


Wednesday 19 December 2001

Dr Iddon

  60. I have got my thought back again. Do you think we are strengthening the arm of those people who argue we should make the break and have research universities and the rest?
  (Ms Hewitt) It is not a matter on which I really feel qualified to speak. I am enjoying hugely building up a much closer relationship with the science departments in the universities, and it is extremely exciting to see what is going on, both at the basic science end and in terms of the work that is being done in the science parks, the commercialisation, the knowledge transfer and so on. But I am not responsible for the universities, the higher education sector as a whole, and I really think that that is an issue you need to take up with Estelle Morris and Margaret Hodge.

  61. Very tactful, if I may say so.
  (Ms Hewitt) As always.

Geraldine Smith

  62. Secretary of State, you are in a very fortunate position that you are the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science but also with responsibility for women. Women are very under-represented in science, particularly in senior positions. What can you do to improve the representation of women in both science and also in engineering?
  (Ms Hewitt) This is a source of real concern and some frustration. Indeed, as the E-Commerce Minister it was very, very striking to note that we have fewer women engaged in the information technology industry than we had 20 years ago and we have gone backwards. Across government we are making a real effort to engage girls and young women, as well as older women, in the whole field of science, engineering and technology. Within the schools, for instance, we have already embarked on some very exciting pilot projects around girls IT club, for instance, seeking to get them interested. We are now producing a magazine once a term called Spark. If you have not seen it, perhaps I can make some copies available to the Committee. That is very exciting. It is not a one-off exercise, it is a regular publication that is seeking to make science, engineering and technology really attractive and interesting to young girls and young women in particular. A great deal of work has been done in the Department of Education in terms of seeking to improve the quality of science teaching within the schools, and part of the focus of that is on making science more attractive to girls because we know if we do not get them young and if they do not pursue science subjects at A-levels they will not have the basic education to go into science or engineering subjects at university. So we need to do all of that. We are then looking at what more we can do, having increased the number of girls doing scientific subjects at A-levels—and we are seeing some real progress on that, particularly in chemistry—to get them into universities and technical vocational courses and then using those qualifications in their subsequent careers. I have been working, for instance, with the e-skills training organisation on what more we can do using the women who are already working within industry who have got science and engineering and technology qualifications to act as role models for other women who might be contemplating those careers. We are making some progress on that. We have got a good collaboration between the NTO and industry to work around that. There is a lot more, I think, that we need to do and part of it involves pulling together what has separately been done on science and on engineering. The more we can pull that together and make this a single strategy and a single effort, the more likely we are to get the results we want.

  63. Where do you think the biggest problem arises? Is it in the education system? Is that where young girls do not get encouraged into engineering—it is not seen as the done thing for young girls to get involved in engineering and science-type subjects? Is it not about changing attitudes as well?
  (Ms Hewitt) I completely agree. The fundamental problem we have here is one of culture and attitudes. There is a general perception that engineering, in particular, is old fashioned and rather grubby. One business leader was quoting to me what I think had been said by one of the teachers at his school which was "If you are not very good at school you can go and work in a factory," and that attitude towards engineering and manufacturing is immensely damaging and of course a travesty of what modern high tech manufacturing and industry is all about. There is a particular subset, if you like, of that general cultural problem which affects girls, where engineering, science, computing, and technology generally, these things are seen as male dominated, which they are. If you ask girls about their perception of boys in computing particularly, and science more generally, they will say it is for nerds, it is not seen as attractive, it is not seen as interesting, and it is seen as being about machines not about people. So in all kinds of ways it particularly turns off girls and young women. Since that does not match the reality of what is actually going on in science and technology careers, we need to find all these ways, as I have described, of actually bringing the image much more into line with the reality. Part of what we need to do there—and we are working on it—is actually getting more teachers to understand the reality of what is going on in modern science-based industries and scientific and engineering-based careers because quite often you have teachers who have themselves a very, very out-of-date perception of what is going on. So closer links between schools and business, which is something that Howard Davies is looking at for us at the moment, is a very important part of the strategy here.

  64. What sort of targets do you set yourself to achieve more women going into science and technology and achieving senior positions, not just holding the junior posts? How can you measure the success? It has got to run right through, start at the schools, it has got to be universities, the number of women who take science-based degrees, then through to industry?
  (Ms Hewitt) What I think we need to do—and this is possibly something that should come out of the cross-cutting review on science—is we really need between ourselves and the Department for Education to be setting targets and then putting an effective strategy and the resources in place behind those targets. As you say, those targets need to be at every level because we need to get more girls doing the appropriate subject at GCSE and A-level and on into further and higher education and then into the jobs they do so they use those qualifications, and I do not think we have got that right.

  65. At this moment in time we do not have any targets, it is just aspiration?
  (Ms Hewitt) Yes.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) We have a target for representation on the SET-related bodies. We want to get that up to 40 per cent. It is not as bad as one might think. It is 35 per cent now and we want to get 40 per cent, but it is quite variable across different Research Councils. That is a case where we have got quite a precise target.

  66. It is quite interesting that we make a big fuss about not enough women being in Parliament, and indeed you have only got to look at this Select Committee, I am the token women here but having said that, science and technology is really important.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) One of the other things is we have got this new scheme of Science and Engineering Ambassadors which is getting young people working in universities and industry who will go back into schools to act as role models and do some teaching and mentoring and talking to parents about science and technology, and we have got big companies to buy into this, which is very encouraging. I am very keen we should get that in all schools across the country and that they should have that scheme. That is an area where we can pick some of the very good young women who are in university, science and industry and give them a very prominent part in this scheme because it is role models which I think are quite important here to girls, so that they can see people where they can aspire to be in their position within 10 years. That is quite a good way to encourage this whole movement and the role of women within that programme is something I have very much a focus on.

  67. I think that will be very useful. Secretary of State, I am sure you will share the Equal Opportunities Commission's concern about the number of female fellows of the Royal Society, indeed the lack of female fellows.
  (Ms Hewitt) I do share that concern and I think it is just part of this broad issue that we have been discussing. We can certainly help with that. As David has rightly said, we have set a target for representation on the bodies that we ourselves appoint. We have got, as John indicated earlier in relation to the Research Councils, some excellent women scientists coming through. We need to do more on that and we need to work with all the bodies, including the Royal Society, on that.

Mr Harris

  68. Secretary of State, the Royal Society figures in my own question. The Office of Science and Technology funds some research through the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering rather than through the Research Councils. What is the rationale behind that? Is it historical, intentional or a bit of both?
  (Ms Hewitt) I am not sure that John and I really understand that question.
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) There are two bits. Firstly, there are the research fellows appointed by the Royal Society and some of that money comes from government. I think that is a rather good scheme. It is a good way of making certain that the very bright young scientists selected by the Royal Society do get a boost and I think that works as a whole very well. They do also do some work which is on international relationships between scientists and, again, I think that is quite effective in terms of there are some cases where these things are much better done scientist to scientist or Academy to Royal Society rather than government getting into that particular loop. So it is really doing a job for us which I think they do rather effectively.

  69. Does the Department carry out any kind of audit? How does the Department monitor the money that is spent in this area?
  (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think we are very involved in those two processes. Obviously you get a lot of feedback on the international relationships. We take rather an interest in the appointment of the fellows.
  (Ms Hewitt) I think more broadly what we are seeking to do is ensure that we keep in the United Kingdom more of our brilliant young scientists and we attract more of the international community of brilliant scientists into the United Kingdom. We are showing rather good progress on that.
  (Dr Taylor) We maintain a very careful level of scrutiny of the way in which those two institutions spend the money, and they make proposals to us in exactly the same way Research Councils do for future proposals and they are part of the spending review cycle.


  70. The Royal Society gets something like £26 million from OST and the Royal Academy gets £4.6 million. Could you give us a simple memorandum explaining that it does not all go to the fellows in the Royal Society because we are rather interested in the Royal Society and these organisations, how they function and whether we get value for money. It is not always scrutinised by parliamentary committees, so we are interested.
  (Dr Taylor) I would be very happy to send you a memorandum with the details. [1]

  71. Thank you very much. We have got to the end of our questioning. I am sure everybody who has been here is very grateful to you for being here. I think we can see lot of common ground, a shared passion and enthusiasm and determination to move things on. I am sure we will all be working together in all the parts to make sure that does happen. We are doing the Research Assessment Exercise, we are also interested in science education from the ages of 14 to 19 which will bring in many of the issues which have been raised today. It has been an exciting session for us because you have shared your enthusiasm, ideas and thinking with us and it will help us focus down on some of the questions where we can penetrate into the portals and the areas of the British establishment in science where others have not dared! So I am looking forward to that very much. Thank you very much for your time today. All the issues, I am sure, will be addressed by this Committee.
  (Ms Hewitt) Thank you Chairman.

1   See Ev. pp 22-28 Back

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