Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)



  240. It is an organisation that sought independence and had an important message and tried to move things forward for the good of British science.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I had many discussions with OST because it shared my frustration but they kept saying they had to have the accounting officer applying for the money.
  (Dr Briggs) Chairman, I think we all share some responsibility for this. All of us have sat round the Copus table and you cannot just sit round the table and not accept some responsibility. It seems to me the very important thing now is to make sure we get it right and sorted quickly, we cannot go through another two year period messing about. I think the will is there now to make that happen.

  241. Let me ask Ian Halliday about helping understand money in the Research Councils. How much is involved in all that? I once heard John Lawton say he had a million pounds and he did not know what had been done with it for public understanding in the NERC. I remember it well.
  (Professor Halliday) In PPARC at the moment we spend about 800,000 a year. It is about to go up to a million. That runs a variety of things. Let me go back to the beginning of PPARC. There was a long discussion in council about just which parts of the public understanding agenda, as it was then called, that PPARC should attempt to influence. One of them was very much the agenda that you heard the Royal Society of Chemistry talk about which is how do you interest school kids, how do you keep them involved, etc. We run a small grant scheme that is very much taken up by people in schools, interest in astronomy, particle physics, whatever, to motivate school kids. That is just over 200,000. We spend about 400,000, if you like, inside the office producing glossy material, trying to influence journalists, trying to get the material into the public domain as part of our science. We tell all our grant holders that they can use up to one per cent of their grant to motivate—

  242. It is sums of money I want. My question really is if all the Research Councils got one million each, why do we not just give it all to Copus and let them get on with it? Why do we not have one body doing it?
  (Professor Halliday) I understand the speech.

  243. You and I have been at a million dinners where the same people say the same things and it gets boring after a while.
  (Professor Halliday) Let me make some provocative statements. In the context of astronomy and particle physics I think we are better than Copus because we know more about the people, we know more about the school teachers, we are more targeted. Not that we are better as an absolute but we know the market better and so on. Across the Research Councils questions have been asked by David Sainsbury and John Taylor over the past year, 18 months. The number quoted is usually five to eight million across the Research Councils and OST, the number seems to fluctuate a bit depending on what precisely you include. The question is what is that achieving. A more provocative question would be what would you achieve if you gave that money to Saatchi and Saatchi and said "change the British attitude to X", whatever X happened to be. That is the kind of question that I believe Copus should take on board and think about, not in a prescriptive way but to stand above the fray and take a strategic view of what are the questions, what are the challenges, is the current mix of a thousand small schemes the correct mix? I do not know. The problem is if you try and measure our impact on high school teaching of physics the effect is almost unmeasurable. We have a small number of fantastically enthusiastic teachers who we help to be enthusiastic and they ask us for the material, we do not send it blind, but there are a thousand and one other school teachers who never pick it up.

  Dr Iddon: We are getting very frustrated around this table, I am sure, all of us. It is pretty obvious that something has gone wrong here. Why does this partnership not widen to include not only the three organisations which rightly funded Copus in the first place and got it off the ground but to the Science

Councils as well or anyone else that is involved in the public understanding of science.

  Chairman: That is what Dame Bridget wanted really.

Dr Iddon

  244. Why can we not put this to the top of the agenda and lift it off?
  (Professor Halliday) That is a correct question and given the frustration around the table at Copus that is what we would like to do. There is the brand name of Copus which has a certain history and one should not forget that 12, 15 years ago nobody was doing this.

  245. We have admired it. I have admired it.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Absolutely, we all did.
  (Professor Halliday) I think you should get OST to speak for themselves. They are aware of these problems, they are aware of these views and solutions, whatever, are being talked about but the solutions are not in the public domain, they are not agreed, they are not decided. They are aware of the problem.

  Chairman: Let us bring the level of frustration down and ask Andrew to relate to something else. We may come back to this question.

Dr Murrison

  246. Can I ask Dr Briggs about NESTA that funds you partly.
  (Dr Briggs) In so far as NESTA is the managing agent for Science Year, and it has funds from the DfES to manage Science Year and we have been a strategic partner in Science Year, yes, we have had money from NESTA.

  247. According to your accounts Science Year cost 186,103 last year.
  (Dr Briggs) Yes, which we got through NESTA.

  248. You got 176,000 from it but it was largely funded by NESTA, I accept that. In your evidence you say that the total you received from NESTA was 500,000.
  (Dr Briggs) That is the total that we are getting for our contribution to Science Year. It crosses more than one financial year. In the financial year for which you have got the accounts we had the 170,000-odd, the remainder will come in the next financial year.

  249. Thank you. NESTA is more or less funding in totality Science Year for a period of time, is that right?
  (Dr Briggs) NESTA has been given a major grant by the DfES as the manager, as it were, of Science Year and it is subcontracting to various organisations, of which we are one.

  250. Moving to something completely different but related, you are moving to some new accommodation I understand, is that right?
  (Dr Briggs) We are.

  251. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that.
  (Dr Briggs) Perhaps Roland Jackson, who is going to be my successor as Chief Executive, can answer that since the new accommodation is in the Science Museum and Roland is currently acting Head of the Science Museum, can answer that as he is probably better placed to answer that question than I am.
  (Dr Jackson) It is very convenient but it is not a fix, I assure you. At least I do not think it is! The Science Museum is building a new building, the Wellcome Wolfson Building, at the back of the existing estate on the museum which is funded very generously by the Wellcome Trust, by the Dana Foundation, by the Wolfson Trust and the Garfield Weston Foundation. Part of the whole package, if you like, for that funding is that the BA will occupy one floor of that building as accommodation for its offices in the middle of next year.

  252. It will be rent-free?
  (Dr Jackson) It will be.

  253. Do you think that is right?
  (Dr Jackson) I am very glad that it is. The money is not coming from the Government. In fact, you could say that the BA is effectively moving out of Government funded rent-free accommodation into accommodation that is funded by a separate body. Having said that, I do not have any problem with accepting Government money on various commissions, and you might want to press me on that in a moment.

  254. Is the accommodation guaranteed or is on a wing and a prayer?
  (Dr Briggs) Can I just answer that. There is an agreement between the BA and the Science Museum that we will have accommodation at peppercorn rent for 40 years. That is a condition of the Wellcome Trust grant towards the cost of the building.

  255. So it is really the Wellcome Trust effectively providing this benefit, would that be correct, with the intermediate Science Museum?
  (Dr Briggs) The Wellcome Trust agreed to fund the building on the condition that the BA could occupy space in it.

  256. That is jolly decent of them.
  (Dr Briggs) Yes, it is. Wellcome Trust think a lot of us.

  Mr Heath: I want to come back to the effectiveness of everything that is being done, I suppose in the first place because the Association has been in the game for longer than most. My impression is that we are in this country moving towards a sort of new medievalism in a lot of ways in our approach to science.

  Chairman: It is a new Liberal Party policy.

Mr Heath

  257. We see an objection, not just general antipathies towards science but an objection, to scientific principles and methods and embracing this populist culture within the magazine world where replacing a potted plant in one place or another is going to change the world or whatever. Obviously it is not working, all the efforts are perhaps aimed at the wrong audience, so what can be done better?
  (Dr Briggs) Can I just challenge your assumption in the first place. If you go back to the House of Lords' report and you look at all public opinion surveys about science there is massive public interest in science. I agree that there is some sort of dichotomy but if you go look at the MORI polls and other polls, all you get are very positive responses to science. There is some evidence maybe that people's trust in scientists and in various branches of science, especially perhaps if it is related to industry and to Government, is not what it once was. I think it is not obvious that what you say is true. I also think there is a dichotomy between asking questions about science in general and the ways in which these things manifest themselves in people's everyday lives which tend to be not science but GM or BSE or whatever it is.

  258. I want to challenge that because there is a proper scientific basis for questioning authorities, whether they are scientific authorities or industrial concerns with their own agendas, and that is quite proper and that is what I would like people in this country to be able to do, to understand risk assessment, to be able to challenge the assumptions, but there is also a prevailing mood it seems to me which is based on nothing to do with the various bodies which are charged with the understanding of science which is rejecting medicine, rejecting biotechnology, rejecting all that and saying instead "there is something else which is more attractive to us because it says so and here is the Sunday supplement I have read" and it is not being challenged.
  (Dr Briggs) It seems to me that a scientific approach is to ask what public opinion is and it does not necessarily support the view you are taking there. Nonetheless, I agree and it seems to me that one of the lessons that we have all learned, in part because of the Science in Society Report, is that the way in which we interact with the public has to change and pontification, as it were, which has probably been the characteristic method in the past, has to give way to two-way communication which means listening as well as talking. I think we have all got a lot to learn in how to do that effectively. The Dana Centre in the new Wellcome Wolfson Building, is going to be dedicated to exploring what dialogue, two-way communication might mean in practice for a range of audiences. I do not think you can change all that overnight. I think we are all beginning to look at different ways in which we interface with the public but at the same time you also have to recognise the impact of the media. If you take, for example, one of the activities that the BA co-ordinates nationally, the National Science Week, we get about one and a half million people directly engaged in activities that week. The Science Museum, until it got free admission, had about one and a half million visitors, now it is more. That many people read the Daily Telegraph every day or a third of that number watch a television programme. We always need to think about what enormous sized impact the media has. It is not just our efforts, it is whether the other means in which the public are communicated to and with are playing the game or not.

  259. It is self-selecting groups, is it not, that are going to go to the museum or are going to be involved in Science Week?
  (Dr Jackson) That is absolutely true but you can change the self-selection criteria and that is what we need to do to engage a much wider variety of people in things that actually matter to them because you have to start from where they are. Perhaps a trivial example in the context of this is our current exhibition in the museum which is called Grossology which is the science of the gross bits of your body and we are absolutely packing people in, and the sort of people who would not normally come to the museum and do not normally come. If you can find those hooks that engage with where people actually are then you have got a route in.


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