Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. You may not have this figure to hand but do you know how much of your grant-in-aid is used for public communication of science? Perhaps not so much public relations promoting your own Society but in general science terms.
  (Mr Cox) The answer directly is 810,000 and that includes the grants that are made to other organisations which are detailed in the submission. It includes some of the work that Copus does. It includes some of our public programme and it includes our educational programme which is a major element of our work.
  (Lord May of Oxford) You might argue why give it to us to give to somebody else, as some of it is, and the answer again is just cost efficiencies, you have the one accounting officer rather than having to duplicate bureaucracy.


  41. How much of the money you have just talked about is work in-house, as it were, rather than giving it to other groups to do that work?
  (Mr Cox) I cannot tell you that figure offhand.

  42. Perhaps you can provide it.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Given that it is 810 and 400 is in the small grant and others are given away, it is essentially all out of house.

  43. Let us confirm that.
  (Mr Cox) I will. Could I just pick up a little point that was made there. Our own PR and press activities are not funded from this source, they are funded privately. I just want to make that clear.

Mr McWalter

  44. How much effort do you put in to trying to convince the wider public that science is actually engaged in an honourable even an ethical activity? How much expertise in ethics do you have available to you in order to be able to make that case with ease?
  (Lord May of Oxford) Let me give you a for example rather than an abstraction. In the debate on stem cell research—

  45. I was after an abstraction actually.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Good. I will give you an abstraction.

  46. Thank you.
  (Lord May of Oxford) The answer is quite a bit and we do it through organised activities, we do it through the setting up and functioning of the science in the Science in Society Committee and we do it through ad hoc activities such as the one we have put together in connection with embryonic stem cell research. It would be touched upon also, of course, in some of our specific inquiries into a particular subject. We are very conscious of it.

  47. In looking at the list of people who are involved in this, we have got the Science in Society Committee, I do not see, for instance, any moral philosophers in that list.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Is Ian Kennedy not on it?

  48. Ian Kennedy is on it, yes I suppose him.
  (Lord May of Oxford) I think he would take exception to your characterisation.

  49. He would not be regarded as a moral philosopher but as a bio-ethicist.
  (Lord May of Oxford) A professional ethicist.

Dr Murrison

  50. Can I return to a bit of benchmarking. Government gives grants to Research Councils, it gives grants to organisations like your own also. I wondered if you had ever thought to compare how cost effective your research fellowships are compared with, say, the cost effectiveness of the Medical Research Council or other Research Councils? Can you comment on that?
  (Lord May of Oxford) Certainly we could. How you calculate indirect costs—and this is a subject which anybody who has spent most of their life in America knows much more about than the typical person who has spent their life doing these things in Britain—there is a lot of arbitrariness in it. If you calculate our total administrative costs for all programmes we administer they are six per cent and that is a low figure, particularly low when it is honestly the total administrative cost without fudging stuff. I believe that is comparable with and if anything slightly lower than the MRC figure, for example, but that is also, by international comparisons itself a low figure. Under the workings of successive director-generals of the Research Councils, straying outside our remit, a good deal of efficiency scrutiny has gone into these things.
  (Mr Cox) Could I add to that? We carry out regular reviews of our programmes and we try to assess how successful they have been. We gave you deliberately in the appendices two examples of reviews we have carried out so you have an idea of the sort of review we are undertaking to make sure that the programmes are fulfilling the objectives we set for them. By any measure they are being remarkably successful. If you look at the URF programme, which is designed to ensure that the UK remains fully competitive in the supply of personnel to the science base, the URF programme is having a very dramatic effect in doing so and the Dorothy Hodgkin programme, where we are trying to ensure that we do not lose the best women for science, again all the indications are that programme is extremely successful. If you take the industrial fellowship programme, which is a nice one to look at because it is much smaller, the numbers of patents, the numbers of new products, the numbers of successful collaborations are really very substantial indeed.

  51. Can I ask you whether Government has asked you the question that I have just put to you or not? I would expect Government to be focused very heavily upon where they can get the best value for money for the money they put into research organisations and I would expect Government to have asked the question that I have just asked you. Have you had contact from ministers on this or not?
  (Mr Cox) We have not had from ministers but from officials, yes, we have regular contact with officials about the nature of our programmes, the cost effectiveness of our programmes and the outputs of our programmes. That is a regular discussion between us.
  (Lord May of Oxford) In this sense we have exactly the same relationship with the Office of Science and Technology as—
  (Mr Cox)—as the other Research Councils.
  (Lord May of Oxford) I do think it is an Office that is run well.

Mr Heath

  52. I have been mulling over a reply given earlier by Professor Higgins that the Society could extend its mentoring or pastoral roles to Research Councils?
  (Professor Higgins) I did not say we could, personally I would like to see us do so.

  53. That is not official policy, as it were?
  (Professor Higgins) Not at the moment, no. I am very interested, we all are, in the next generation of scientists and as Foreign Secretary—I have only just taken over—one of the things I am particularly interested in is furthering exchanges and interactions between cohorts of our young scientists and cohorts of scientists overseas. It would seem to me a natural to include within those sorts of exchanges the research council fellows as well as our own fellows. I am answering something that I have not designed yet.

  54. No-one would see that as a dilution.
  (Professor Higgins) No.
  (Lord May of Oxford) No.
  (Professor Higgins) We see those fellows as comparable intellectually as ours. In fact very often I have seen people who often, because of the timing, have got one from each and then they have to decide which one they are going to take.

  55. Can I move on from that to something we were beginning to touch on, the Dorothy Hodgkin scholarships. You know the criticism that there are not enough women involved in science at the highest level but also within the Society and the fact that the proportion of female fellows, even from your own figures you have given us, compares badly perhaps with comparable societies overseas. I think it is India and France are the only ones which come out worse.
  (Professor Higgins) I am not sure that France has more than us.

  56. No, they are worse.
  (Professor Higgins) Oh, I am sorry.

  57. India and France if possible are even worse.
  (Professor Higgins) Can I answer on about three different levels on this.

  58. Okay.
  (Professor Higgins) I think it is a mistake to simply look at the top level of any group because you have to ask what is the pool from which you are drawing the people you are electing. The people who are being elected as fellows by the Royal Society are people who have successful careers in science already so you are reflecting, in a sense, what has happened over the last couple of decades and therefore differences between countries. One of the things also you have to be very careful about is academies in different countries include different groups of scientists, I am becoming very aware of that as Foreign Secretary. They may or may not include the social sciences and that distinctly changes the balance of whether you get women or not. The comparability is tricky. In fact there are relatively few glaring examples on that list of people who do a great deal better than us, except Turkey is one of the ones which does a great deal better. Looking at the top level and asking where are the fellows coming from, you have to say what is the pool like. Then it is difficult to measure something like that so you say "Well I have to look at some surrogate measures. How many professors are there in those subjects in English and British universities?" It is a comparable number to our percentage so the pool from which we are drawing in the universities looks comparable. The people we would elect would probably be at a senior level in the other learned societies, although they do not have to be elected. I was horrified to note that the Institute of Physics only has 1.5 per cent women and the Royal Society of Chemistry has 3 per cent. That is not because they are excluding them, it is just that women are not there to be fellows.

  59. Let us accept for a moment that you are electing a proportionate number. Are you getting the nominations in proportionate numbers from the base from the number of women who hold senior science positions?
  (Professor Higgins) We are, yes, as far as we can tell we are.


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