Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 214-219)




  214. Welcome to the last session this afternoon. Thank you for coming from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and thank you for coming from Copus. We have Dame Bridget Ogilvie, Peter Briggs, Roland Jackson and Ian Halliday, of course. Some of you, of course, are great friends of Parliament and participate in many ways in fighting for science in this nation of ours. Thank you for taking the time to come. Let me start off by asking you a question about Copus, which we know the history of and so on. We were astonished to see, as reported, that you have resigned and there is a letter which seems to be floating about everywhere. I wonder if you could put us in a position where we can ask about Copus by telling us what the situation is there. You are very welcome to make any statement you like here in front of us.

  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I first say I am very delighted that Ian Halliday came here with me because he is a great supporter of the planned redevelopment of Copus. I understand your principal concern is whether we are using Government money well and the money for Copus comes directly or indirectly from OST and of course it provides a lot of monies for the Research Councils for similar and related activities. Ian is very supportive of this. Copus has a very distinguished history and is highly regarded nationally and internationally. Of course, I knew a lot about it from the days when I was at the Wellcome Trust developing the Wellcome Trust programme in public engagement around themes related to medical research in that case. Copus was very effective, I would say, from the time it was founded in about 1985 until, in fact, the Research Councils were mandated to engage in science communication activities in the reorganisation in 1993. I think that was the time when the real explosion of interest in engaging in this science communication activity began to become all pervasive in the scientific community: the Research Councils and the medical research charities, a huge change in the museums, the science museums, who have professionalised their activity to a stronger degree in the last ten years, and I have seen that as a Trustee of the Science Museum and then, of course, this massive explosion in science centres. This has all meant, together with the courses that are now running in many universities to train people in science communication, there has been an absolute explosion that has gone on in these activities, Copus did not change very much in reflecting that. I think most people who were not engaged with Copus recognised that from about 1993/94 on Copus had become swamped really by the proliferation of activities elsewhere and the vastly greater sums of money that are now spent in this area from a variety of different sources. Of course, industry itself through its various activities has become very much more professional about dealing with the public, which they have to do because their bottom line is affected by it. I think the three industrial groups, I would suggest, that have become very expert on this are Unilever, BP and I saw it at first hand at Zeneca. There is an enormous amount of expertise now in this. When I was invited nearly four years ago to chair Copus I recognised that Copus had lost its way. I do not know if the three owners of Copus have ever really realised that. After two years I persuaded them that it would be a good idea to try and find a new niche for Copus to become a kind of umbrella body, a body which would not do but would try and identify gaps, try and get people to work together, to try to get this enormous, increasingly expert group of people to work together, to share experiences and to generally provide a purpose. This intention was endorsed by David Sainsbury, Lord Sainsbury, when he came to the Copus Council meeting in autumn 1998 and then, of course, the House of Lords Committee under Lord Patrick Jenkin recommended that the Office of Science and Technology should look favourably at the new Copus and provide it with more resource if it should ask for it, but nothing much has happened. We set up the new council nearly two years ago and the staff we have is the same number of staff that has always been in Copus and they have been doing a very good job, an excellent job, in maintaining and developing the old agenda: the grant schemes which are funded by, your money, OST money, the Science Book Prize, which is an excellent and very satisfactory scheme, is now being funded by Aventis and we have had to reorganise that, and the science communication annual get together which we do jointly with the British Association, has been remodelled and the last meeting held just a couple of weeks ago was a great success because it brought together many of these players who are now increasingly professional and good at developing a dialogue with the public. The Royal Society runs Copus and it has not responded to the invitation to apply to the OST for core funding for Copus's new form. After much discussion we had a report as to how we should relate to the Royal Society in the future as its home institution and that has not been instituted. I have many demands on my time, I am passionately interested in this endeavour, but I decided there was nothing much more I could do, I had done what I could, so I decided I would resign at the end of June after the Annual Science Prize because I do not wish to be discourteous to our major funders, Aventis.

  215. Thank you very much indeed for that explanation. I wonder if we could ask you one or two follow-up questions. One would be why did the Royal Society not take up this programme which seems eminently sensible and make sure that you have not got ten bodies doing what one could effectively do I guess? After all, if the Cancer Research Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund can merge when they told this Committee once that Omo and Daz did not mix, but they got together and did it and they both came to this Committee and said it is the best thing that had happened for years, why would the Royal Society not take up that model which you proposed?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I simply do not know.

  216. Did you ask?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Yes. I have been having quite a lot of rather interesting discussions with them and I do not think they felt there was any urgency about the matter. In fact, there are two committees that have run Copus. There is the Grants Committee, which is chaired by a fellow of the Royal Society, which is quite separate from the Copus Council. Its activities are reported to the Copus Council and I know that is the activity which the Royal Society regards as the major activity of Copus, to give away the grants. It is an important activity but in the current scene Copus grants are not a major activity in my view.

  217. Do you think Copus will degenerate and disappear because they will not play ball with the other organisations?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Copus does not belong to me or anybody else so I do not know. What I would like to emphasise is that I feel very strongly that we need a strategic body and what it is called I do not really mind. Many people are very concerned about names. Copus is a very distinguished name and it would be very nice if the new umbrella body was called Copus but I do not think it really matters what it is called. I think you should judge organisations by what they do rather than what they are called. If the people who own the brand name Copus do not want to engage in this new activity well so be it, let us start something else and call it something else.

  218. You and I have been at many meetings together over the last few years when we have seen the debates over GM and MMR and all these issues fall about and there is a lack of focus. Do you think the failure of Copus to be that umbrella organisation has had any impact at all on the public perception of science or anti-science feelings that have been generated we have been told?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I do not think Copus is a brand name in the community that you are talking about, the public. It is a brand name, and a very distinguished brand name, in the core inner group of people who are really interested in this. I think what has really changed is society itself. We do not live any more in a deferential society, the public is extremely sceptical of anybody in authority. No matter how we were organised I do not think we would find it very easy to deal with some of these key issues. As a matter of fact, I think the most positive thing I have done while I have been chairing Copus is to engage the industry representatives in the activities of Copus and they are very good at it. For example, Unilever works very well with the NGOs, they realise that a lot of things the public are saying are latent fears, they do not really want more information, they want to know if they can trust scientists. It is a question of trust and we all need to work to show ourselves as trustworthy. In the recent meeting that we had with the BA we got together a number of people who are increasingly good at this dialogue, whether they are the Research Defence Society, which is constantly dealing with the matter of animal research, a very sensitive issue as we all know, or the medical research charities who are very good at dealing with this because they have patient power and the patients can explain to people very well why they think medical research should be continued in various sensitive areas and so on and so forth. There are plenty of bodies now who are becoming very, very expert at dialogue with the public in particular fields of science and this is why I think it is very useful if you can get these bodies to get together, to talk together, to share expertise. What the umbrella body is called I do not think matters in the slightest.

Dr Iddon

  219. I would just like to carry on this vein of questioning for a little while, Dame Bridget. I think you have already answered this in a way but I would like to ask you who carried out the review of Copus in 2001 that recommended that it be "reconfigured"? I think you said that was yourself, is that correct?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) We had an expert outside organisation who do this sort of thing as a matter of course. I cannot remember the name of it, I can let you know.


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