Examination of Witnesses (Questions 171-179)
DR RITA GARDNER AND MR ELLIOT ROBERTSON
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
171. Dr Gardner and Mr Robertson, thank you very much for coming. You have been sitting in I take it and you have seen the format.
(Dr Gardner) Yes, we have.
Chairman: I hope you do not feel we savage you too much. We are trying to gain information about how the societies work and as you saw we learnt quite a bit there. The first question will be asked by Geraldine.
172. I understand you believe there should be a more equitable distribution of government funding to learned societies. Can you tell me how you think the Government can make those decisions over which societies to fund?
(Dr Gardner) I think the purpose of your investigation here is very much in terms of those that contribute to wider public understanding, to encourage the electorate in a sense to be more responsible in their understanding of issues and perhaps in their voting on such issues. The second is in terms of the area of providing advice to Government. I think that there is much expertise in the learned societies, some are much more active than others. That expertise they have amongst their professional members, those of them with very up-to-date research knowledge and balanced expertise and increasingly they have an ability to engage with the wider public, we are all in that business. There is a great pool of discipline-based resources and we feel that this activity and expertise should be more widely used, perhaps, by Government, acknowledged and recognised by Government, than sometimes it is. The Society, for example, is widely used and associates through events with DTI, DLTR and so on. Your question was should there be a more equitable distribution.
173. I understand you favour a more equitable distribution but how do you think the decision should be made apart from inquiries like this?
(Dr Gardner) I think because the learned societies are variable in the extent to which they are active in the areas you are talking about then that distribution would have to look at the outputs from those societies in those areas as against the objectives of those societies in terms of their strategic aims.
174. Is there not a danger that if there is a more equal distribution of funds that you just end up spreading it more thinly and the funding then becomes inadequate for everybody?
(Dr Gardner) There is a danger always when you distribute funds in that way but I think all of the learned societies and bodies act to a strategic plan, act to implementation objectives on an annual basis and those would need to be monitored against their delivery.
175. So how much money would your Society want?
(Dr Gardner) Gosh. I would not want you to misinterpret in a sense an equitable distribution. What I am saying is the expertise is there and many societies are funding that expertise in those areas from wider fundraising activities. In many cases it is not large sums of money which are involved. We spend, for example, between £300,000 and £350,000 a year supporting our activity in those two broad areas, which is advising Government and the wider public understanding area. A lot can be done with a relatively little amount.
176. Do you think Government should pay for that advice if they do not fund you directly in the first place?
(Dr Gardner) I think there are different types of advice. There is very much direct advice and then there is a form of networking and engagement in events where advice can be shared. At the moment Government funds are sometimes for the latter through sponsoring, individual departments do sponsor some of our events. That is very time consuming and I think there is a case to be made for a more sustained funding at a relatively low level for organisations that are known to be active and known to provide in this case events and activities which are widely supported and used by a variety of Government departments. For example, if I can just quote, this is just one of the examples, a quote from Paul MacIntyre from the DTI in a letter following a meeting that we organised in May. "I would like to think that the Department and the Society can work closely together in future whether through participation in events like the Regional Development Agency's conference or in other ways. As a general matter we are trying to improve the evidence base for our policies and also to listen more to experts outside the Department, including academics, so that our policies are better informed."
177. Can I just ask about your independence. Do you not think if you receive government funding that maybe that could be compromised somewhat?
(Dr Gardner) I think it depends what you are receiving government funding for. The learned societies stand for expertise and balance, they are not lobbying organisations in a sense. If we felt as an organisation that money came with expectations that would lead us to question our management and our impartiality, in a sense, if the money came with those strings attached then I think the Society's Council would be worried and would be concerned about accepting it. I do not necessarily think that government money does come with strings attached. After all we accept sponsorship from a wide variety of departments at the moment for events and that does not imply that in any way we take other than an impartial view and never have we been asked in any way to do that. Indeed the Society received an award from DCMS from 1859 until 2000, £54,000 a year, to open its Map Room with a million maps, the largest private collection in the world, to the wider public. It started at the time of the Crimean War when in fact it was felt that the public should have access to mapping information. As part of the Spending Review in 2000, sadly, the resources in that area were redistributed and our government funding was stopped.
178. So no-one will ever see the maps now?
(Dr Gardner) Because we feel that it is important that our resources are publicly available, we are a charity, we then set about applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Lottery Fund has supported us with a £5 million grant for public access to our resources. That leaves us still with the problem of the current expenditure in maintaining access to those resources.
179. Finally, if you think that the funds are evenly distributed, can I ask you who you think gets too much?
(Dr Gardner) I think that is a really impossible question to ask and to answer. We are a community that is a supportive community. It is a community of academic expertise and inter-disciplinarity. For example, the Royal Geographical Society has engaged recently, for the last two or three years, in a joint research programme with the Royal Society on the Capricorn shoals, in the Indian Ocean. I think you are asking an impossible question. I would like to say that there is much expertise, much willingness and increasingly an ability to engage with the wider public understanding of issues in the learned societies. I would like to see the pot a little bit bigger. Everybody always says that but the sums to bring about quite a lot of change in a bigger pot would be relatively small.