Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-268)
DR PETER BRIGGS, DR ROLAND JACKSON, DAME BRIDGET OGILVIE AND PROFESSOR IAN HALLIDAY
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
260. I have got an 11 year old boy who would be very interested in that.
(Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I do not think it is just science that has had this trouble. If you had listened to the Reith Lectures this year and Onora O'Neill, we are in difficulties with science but we are in difficulties generally because of the amount of scepticism. I think we could argue that if we had not all got much more active in trying to engage with the public we would be in an even worse situation.
Mr Heath: My worry is not scepticism actually it is the rise of superstition.
Chairman: I do not really want to get into a discussion about the philosophy of public understanding, we are examining learned societies and we should probe how they work.
261. That is why I want to ask now, if I may, given that you have obviously considered this issue and how you best approach it, would it not have been better to have increased funding and put it into an organisation such as your own, which is well established, and widen the scope of what you are able to do rather than have it dissipated amongst a lot of bodies all doing their own thing in their own little way and speaking to their own little audiences?
(Dr Briggs) I think there is a balance to be made in that. I do think critical mass is quite important. If I may go back to the earlier question to Ian about that, it seems to me that the BA and Copus, as it were, stand alongside each other. We are an activity led organisation. Copus wants to be a strategy led organisation. I think we deserve the six million and not Copus because I do not think you need the six million to do the strategy. I do think there is a point of generating some critical mass. Also I think variety is a good thing. You can get too many small initiatives but a range of ways of tackling this problem is not to be spurned.
262. And the learned societies fit into your framework how?
(Dr Briggs) In the BA framework at the moment, we have 120 institutional affiliates, universities, learned societies, museums, science centres and so on, so we see ourselves potentially as a body which in an activity way can sit at the heart of the science communication community.
263. Just going back to Dr Murrison's line of questioning. Quite a few of the organisations that have sat round this table today have talked about their independence and not having any Government money at all. Is that not something that you would benefit from yourselves?
(Dr Jackson) Can I answer that since I take over in September and the BA is currently in receipt of substantial Government funding, and it is actually critical to us at the present time. I would say an organisation like the BA, because it is totally cross-disciplinary, science, engineering, social sciences, it is national in the sense that it has regional local branches, needs as many stakeholders as it can get, if you like, and as far as I am concerned the more stakeholders we have the better. We have lots of institutional affiliates, we have lots of corporate members, we have lots of individual members. I think the Government as a stakeholder for us, and through that, if you like, the wider public taxpayer, is something that will make us really think about what the country as a whole actually needs in terms of its engagement with science. I am delighted in that respect.
264. How independent does that make you?
(Dr Jackson) That depends on the terms on which the grant is given and we are ready to refuse a grant if we do not agree with the terms.
265. You have refused grants?
(Dr Briggs) No, we have never refused. We have said what we want to do, what we think our milestones ought to be and we have been given grants on that basis. So far we have got no sense that our independence is in any way compromised. In any case, I do not think it is any more compromised by getting Government money than it is by getting anybody else's money. We depend for 85 per cent of our income on grants. It is more compromised by a Research Council giving money when you can only spend it on particle physics in a way than it is by Government which says "here you are, you get on with the general job and we will support you".
Mr Dhanda: Thank you for your comments.
266. I make no apologies that we have gone well over time because I think, Dame Bridget, your resignation knocks British science back somewhat. I think taking time to examine that for the organisation of public understanding of British science in this country was very important. Can I really press you. You did say that they at the Royal Society had obstructed your plans for change. Why and who?
(Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I am very sorry if you really think it has set back the course of British science. I do not think it has because I think the sort of thing we are talking about is very much an inner thing with those of us who have a particularly close concern with this aspect of science. I do not think the rest of the world thinks that Copus matters. In fact, many of my colleagues in science said "why are you troubling with Copus, it is only a peanut?" They could not understand why I was bothering. I just simply do not understand why the Royal Society did not want Copus to evolve, I really do not know. I have no hidden agenda, I just do not know.
267. Do you think they are slower to see the world changing or do you think they are control freaks?
(Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I would rather you ask them directly rather than speculating. I have no idea. There is no hidden agenda, we just did not evolve. We set up a council and they had nothing to do.
268. Thank you very much. Is there anything else that anybody would like to say? Thank you very much indeed for taking the time, it has been very interesting. Our report will come out and hopefully it will be very positive for British science.
(Dr Briggs) We shall read it with interest.
Chairman: Thank you.