Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


  47. We set out to look at the use of public money in public communication of science work. Science communication aims to bring scientific issues to the attention of the wider community and promote a more scientifically literate society. The Government distributes money for public communication of science through the OST and Research Councils and gives grant-in-aid allocation to both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Office of Science and Technology

48. The Public Understanding of Science, Engineering and Technology (PUSET) Unit at OST was formed in 1994 following the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential which spelt out a need to raise public awareness of the contribution of science, technology and engineering. The PUSET Unit has a staff of two and an annual programme budget of £1.25 million, which is spent entirely on grants to organisations and initiatives.[64]

The Research Councils

49. The Research Councils also receive funds for public communication of science activities. Professor Ian Halliday of PPARC told us that his Research Council received "about £800,000 a year from OST, about to go up to a million.[65] The Research Councils alone, for whom science communication is a very limited part of their work, receive millions of pounds each year. Professor Halliday told us "the number quoted is usually five to eight million across the Research Councils and OST".[66]

The Royal Society

50. A small proportion of the Royal Society's grant-in-aid is allocated to science communication work. In 2001-02, this was £810,000. Most of this is distributed in grants to other bodies; only £180,000 was spent by the Royal Society itself.[67] Efforts are focussed on four programmes: the Summer Science Exhibition, which cost £50,000 in 2001-02; public lectures; media relations and operations through the press office; and the Science in Society programme, which is funded from private sources with £1 million over five years.

The Royal Academy of Engineering

51. The Royal Academy of Engineering holds a series of public lectures, conferences and briefings for press, engineers and the public. It also has education programmes which run in schools and universities. These are aimed at pupils from the age of 13 up to post-doctoral students.[68] "Facing Out" is a new initiative to make the organisation more outward-facing and raise its public profile. The Royal Academy of Engineering has established a database of Fellows willing to talk to the media on engineering issues; this is available on the website.[69]

The British Association for the Advancement of Science

52. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) is not a learned society. The BA was formed in 1831 " to advance science" and now focuses entirely on the public communication of science.[70] It has a small but broad membership drawn mainly from the scientific community but also including interested lay people. The BA co-ordinates National Science Week, the highest profile event in the UK, and is involved in the organisation of many other large projects, such as the BA's Festival of Science and AlphaGalileo, a Europe-wide internet access service for journalists. The BA's Young Scientists (BAYS) scheme is well-known in many schools. The First Investigators, Young Investigators and CREST schemes are aimed at pupils from five to 18. 3,000 groups take part in the first two of these; in 2001, 26,000 CREST awards were given to pupils aged 12 to 18. The British Association received £634,000 from OST's PUSET unit and £254,000 from the Royal Society's grant-in-aid in 2001-02. There is other funding made for specific projects, such as £176,000 from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts for Science Year, in which it is a partner.[71] We are not clear why some of the British Association's government funding is routed through the Royal Society. We recommend that, in the interests of clarity, the OST should give funding directly to the British Association.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain

53. The Royal Institution of Great Britain has been in existence for over 200 years. It was founded "to diffuse science for the common purposes of life". In the last three years the Royal Institution has increased the number of events, widened its membership and improved its media relations in order to counter its previous image of an elite organisation. It does not receive any government funding. It does receive £94,000 from the Royal Society for its Events for Schools programme, which comes from the Royal Society's public communication budget.[72]

Learned societies

54. Many learned societies see public communication of science as the most important part of their work. Many of the submissions we receive give details of education and media programmes -

  • The Royal Society of Chemistry spends £1 million per year supporting the teaching of chemistry in schools, runs a biennial Chemistry Week and runs a national Chemistry Landmarks programme, celebrating historical chemical events.[74]
  • The Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) tours annually with its Faraday Lecture, a multi-media presentation aimed at 14-16 year olds. It also holds a Christmas Lecture each year, and runs several competitions such as the PAWS (Public Awareness of Science) Drama Awards and the Today's Engineers Painting Competition for primary school pupils.[75]

Most of the work done by learned societies is funded out of their own budgets, with occasional one-off project grants from the Research Councils. This work often goes unrecognised by Government and the wider scientific community. Those learned societies which carry out public communication work are to be commended for what they undertake with such limited funding.



55. In 1985 a Royal Society report, Public Understanding of Science, recommended that greater efforts be made by the scientific community to increase scientific understanding in the community and stated "it is clearly a part of each scientist's professional responsibility to promote the public understanding of science".[76] A joint committee of the Royal Society, BA and Royal Institution was formed, in response to the recommendations of that Report. It was then called the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, abbreviated to COPUS. It did not at first have permanent staff but drew on the resources of the three founding organisations. It was run by a Council which met three times a year. COPUS' activities originally consisted of sharing best practice and research on public communication, and networking and consulting with interested parties.

56. In 1998, Dame Bridget Ogilvie became Chair of COPUS and Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science, invited the COPUS Council to review its role. He thought that it would be more valuable as a strategic organisation for science communication, co-ordinating the ever increasing activities carried out by other bodies. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Science and Society Report endorsed this approach and approved Dame Bridget's plans (as reported to it) for creating this "umbrella" organisation. The Lords Committee recommended that "the OST should give favourable consideration to any reasonable bid from COPUS for direct support".[77]


57. Consultation was carried out among interested bodies and an independent review was carried out. Its findings are known as the Jamieson Report. A new Council was formed in 2001 and the name of the body was changed to Copus; no longer an acronym, reflecting the move away from the slightly patronising concept of 'public understanding'. It acquired two permanent staff. Copus remains a committee of the Royal Society. The Executive Secretary of the Royal Society remains its accounting officer. Its funding comes through the Royal Society in two streams: a hypothecated sum from OST for Copus grants and a sum from the public communication allocation in the Royal Society's grant-in-aid. The hypothecated funds amount to £272,960 and the Royal Society's general grant-in-aid for 2001-02 includes £210,000 towards the Copus Grants Programme and Copus activities. Copus grants, the majority of the expenditure, are administered by the Royal Society's Copus Grants Committee which is paradoxically not controlled by Copus Council. Mr Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, described Copus Council's role as "to oversee the work of Copus and to prepare, produce and provide a new direction".[78] Copus is housed rent-free in the Royal Society's accommodation in Carlton House Terrace.


58. In April 2002 Dame Bridget Ogilvie announced her resignation as Chair of Copus with effect from the end of June. Her resignation letter was widely circulated; in it, she stated -

"Although the brand name Copus is formally "owned" by the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association, in practice it is totally controlled by the Royal Society. I as Chairman and the staff cannot make anything happen in Copus without the agreement and involvement of Royal Society staff/honorary officers. I have done everything I can to move things on and find a new niche for Copus as the national strategic focus for science communication activities. I still believe an organisation of this type would be valuable, but it is clear that it will not happen as a new role for Copus as currently controlled by the Royal Society".[79]

In evidence she told us "I think that if you have an umbrella body then it has to be a gathering of equals and has to be seen as independent of any one body".[80] We were surprised to hear the apparent lack of autonomy given to Dame Bridget as Chair of Copus. She told us that in regard to the budget, the Royal Society had "complete control. I have never seen a real budget".[81]

59. In contrast to this statement, Mr Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary of the Royal Society, told us afterwards that "in the business plan that was present at the Copus Council in May [2002], very clear financial details were provided then".[82] The minutes of that Copus Council meeting include Dame Bridget's resignation, stating her view that "the delay by the Royal Society in implementing the revised remit of Copus, including the arrival of the draft business plan only one week before this meeting, left her with little option but to step down as Chairman from the end of June".[83] When asked about the availability of financial papers to Dame Bridget, Mr Cox said "routinely she was able to see anything she wished. She rarely asked, I have to say".[84] In writing, after this session, Dame Bridget told us "the only documents I have seen are a scratch paper tabled at the Council meeting last May, and the draft budget for the so­called business plan produced by the Royal Society just before the Council meeting in May 2002".[85] Clearly there are two different interpretations of the same events.

60. The issue of Copus' independence from the Royal Society was discussed in oral evidence. Professor Ian Halliday, a member of Copus Council, told us "the Minister [Lord Sainsbury] has made, I believe, a very strong statement that he would like this independent strategic view from Copus".[86] The OST told us "we believe that Copus needs independence, a constitution and clear decision-making mechanisms".[87] We asked about the possibility of Copus receiving its funding directly from OST. Dame Bridget said "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".[88] The Jamieson Report recommended that Copus be rehoused and Copus Council minutes from January 2002 state "Copus Chairman agreed to explore the feasibility of Copus moving to South Kensington as part of the Dana Centre redevelopment", but there did not appear to be any current plans for relocation.[89]

61. There is clearly a great deal of confusion and ill will regarding the recent developments within Copus. We sympathise with Dame Bridget's frustration at the lack of progress made in carrying out reforms which she understood to have been agreed. If Copus' business plan was indeed produced only a week before the Council met to discuss it, then this demonstrates either a lack of co-operation on the part of the Royal Society or disorganisation. Copus has been active for over 15 years and its reform appeared to help it on to a new stage. We are disappointed that this has not happened as it should. We are also disturbed at the impression given that the Royal Society has not helped Copus towards independence, although we accept that the review was perhaps too ambitious to accomplish within two years. We suspect this is the result of institutional inertia rather than malevolence, though the Royal Society may not be willing to relinquish control to the necessary degree. The OST has told us of its impatience with the situation.[90] If that is the case we cannot see why it has not pressed more heavily on the Royal Society to carry out reforms.

62. The Copus episode is revealing of a gulf in perception. The Royal Society saw it as an unwarranted and unjustified attack on them, whereas outsiders saw it as a symptom of a slow-moving and somewhat old-fashioned attitude to institutional working. The Royal Institution, another of the founding bodies, told us "more extensive communication could maximise benefits not just to the science communication organisations themselves, but to the nation at large. Since it is already in place, Copus could take up this challenge but alternative ideas should also be explored".[91] A strategic body is badly needed in the field of public communication of science. Copus, if reformed as has been suggested by Lord Sainsbury, the Jamieson Report and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, would serve this purpose admirably. We call on the OST to make every effort to ensure that this happens. We believe that Copus should be made entirely independent of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association, receive its funding directly from OST and that it should find new premises as soon as possible.


63. Government grants are given out to so many organisations, it is hard to tell exactly what is spent where. We have considered whether there are too many organisations or excessive duplication, or whether centralising the funds would stifle smaller projects on a local level. Learned societies do good work but there is a marked lack of co-ordination and real investment in these projects. There is a limit to what each small group can achieve. Dr Briggs of the BA told us "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".[92] We believe that the system of grants to learned societies for their public understanding work should be formalised, in order both to monitor better the total spending on public communication projects and to ensure that each society has an opportunity to benefit from these funds. We recommend that OST create a central fund for public understanding work administered by a single organisation, to which learned societies could bid for funding for specific projects.


64. Little effort has been devoted to evaluating the effects of the public understanding work carried out across the UK. While this is clearly a difficult task, since concrete and measurable outcomes are often lacking, the millions of pounds of public money spent on these activities justify scrutiny. This is particularly true of the large grants given to the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Research Councils. We recommend that OST, or a body set up to co-ordinate public communication work, assess the work carried out by those to whom the Government gives funding, to identify the success stories and the outright failures, and to apply the lessons learned to future activities.

64   See volume II, appendix 30 Back

65   Q 241 Back

66   Q 243 Back

67   See volume II, appendix 38 Back

68   See volume II, appendix 31 Back

69 Back

70   See volume II, appendix 2 Back

71   IbidBack

72   See volume II, appendix 35 Back

73   See volume II, appendix 33 Back

74   See volume II, appendix 41 Back

75   See volume II, appendix 22 Back

76   Science and Society, Third Report of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Session 1999-2000, HL 38, para 1.17 Back

77   Ibid. Back

78   Q 275 Back

79   Unprinted Back

80   Q 221 Back

81   Q 227 Back

82   Q 284 Back

83   Minutes of Copus Council, Friday 17 May 2002: unprinted Back

84   Q 297 Back

85   See volume II, appendix 28 Back

86   Q 236 Back

87   See volume II, appendix 29 Back

88   Q 240 Back

89   Copus Council minutes 17 January 2002: unprinted Back

90   See volume II, appendix 29 Back

91   See volume II, appendix 35 Back

92   Q 261 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 August 2002