Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Order, order. Professor King, Dr Taylor, thank you very much for finding time to come to see us. You are probably aware of some of our excursions into the scientific undergrowth in this country and we have lots of information we should like to try to get out of you to find out what is going on in science. Thank you again. As you know, comprehensive spending reviews are coming up, cross-cutting reviews and so on. I am very mindful of a great man who sat in front of this Committee once called Sir John Cadogan, who single-handedly, he told us, had saved British science by getting the budget right. Are you up for getting the budget increased in comprehensive spending reviews and what are the results of the cross-cutting review.

  (Professor King) May I say how I think it would be better for us to divide ourselves in answering you? The cross-cutting review which Lord Sainsbury has now sent to the Chief Secretary for his consideration was prepared as a piece of divided labour. So that part of the cross-cutting review which refers to the spending of the Research Councils not unnaturally fell to John Taylor. Questions on that part of the cross-cutting review which refers to the work of Government Departments in Science would properly be directed to me. I would suggest that John should start and then I will take over.
  (Dr Taylor) There is a lot of coupling between the cross-cutting review and the Spending Review and the Roberts review and the transparency review and so on. I think there are three main segmentations which we are trying to characterise and clarify for people. The first has to do with the extent to which the research we do in UK universities is underfunded to the extent that the full costs are not apparently being met by the money being sent. The second area has to do with salaries and stipends and the international competition for talent and that is relevant to Roberts. The third area has to do with the fact that notwithstanding the other two, we still need to increase the real volume of first class science research which we are doing in the UK, to keep up with the international competition and to go for the wonderful set of research opportunities which are out there and are out there with a fairly critical time fuse on them in many cases. The cross-cutting review is aiming to characterise that whole funding package set of issues. It has taken us into the dual support system, which is really a quintuple support system and to trying to understand whether one or other stream of funding needs to be increased and in what kind of way: should we be sending more money through the research assessment exercise, should we be sending more money through overheads on Research Council grants, how do we cope with the fact that the original research assessment exercise funding, the so-called QR money, was originally part of the dual support system and the other part of that system was the Research Councils? Since those days, charities, other Government Departments, EU, companies and so on have all tended to increase the funding radically and this underpinning has been stretched thinner and thinner. The cross-cutting review is really aiming to characterise that problem and inviting people to think about how to solve it. The Spending Review is really aimed at saying we need to do that, but we really also need to increase the amount of real resource and real volume of research we are doing properly funded. We also need to make sure that as the competition for international talent gets tougher and tougher, we are in a position to continue to win it.

  2. Thank you very much. I thought I heard Professor King say that it had been sent to the Treasury.
  (Professor King) Yes.

  3. So it is published somewhere.
  (Professor King) No.

  4. Come on. You are tempting us now. Why is it not out there in the public domain at the minute? Why can it not be seen? Who has seen it?
  (Professor King) You are the politicians so I am sure you understand.

  5. You are not too bad yourself.
  (Professor King) The cross-cutting review itself is the property of the Treasury and it is the Treasury which is considering, for its own matters in terms of funding, exactly what they will do. What Lord Sainsbury did, was to instigate the process, but it was assisted by the Treasury and I do believe the correct answer is that it is the Treasury's property.

  6. Will it ever be published, as far as you know?
  (Professor King) Yes.
  (Dr Taylor) My understanding is that it will be published in some form as part of the process of the Spending Review. It is entirely up to the Treasury I guess as to what it decides to publish, but I believe the intention is that a version of that will become public.

  7. Could you further tell us what the major factors were to emerge without ending up in the Tower of London overnight? Perhaps you could indicate to us how it fits in with some of the things we are all passionate about achieving. Can you say anything at all on that front?
  (Professor King) In terms of the general tenor of it, we are very positive about the benefits of investment in science for the nation as a whole, whether it is for the wealth, or health, or whatever the benefits. I am sure you would not be surprised to hear that we are very keen to see that what has been a successful period of increasing funding in science, something like 7 per cent per annum in real terms, is continued into the next round. We are seeing a very significant return on that investment in terms of spin-out companies, in terms of interaction with industry and there is a strong case to be made.

  8. I know you were very keen on having a charm offensive amongst all the different Government Departments and trying to get them to operate together. Can you say how successful you have been on that front and whether that will be a plus for us in terms of the Comprehensive Spending Review? The Government likes partnerships and interaction and does not like some of the mess-ups we have seen in the past. How is it looking?
  (Professor King) I certainly see one of my functions as Chief Scientific Adviser to be to deal with trans-departmental issues. This is really why for Lord Sainsbury I have been participating very heavily in the review not only of the level of funding for research in different Government Departments, but perhaps more importantly the quality of the research and science which is conducted in those Departments and the quality of policy advice that is emerging from each Government Department. We have undertaken quite a detailed review and that has been fed into the Spending Review. We are looking at areas of overlap. We are looking at gaps in research areas where different Departments expect other Departments to have done it. The issue of quality has been very much at the top of our minds. What has already emerged from this is the appointment of a Chief Scientific Adviser in DEFRA.

  9. Is that Professor Dalton?
  (Professor King) Professor Howard Dalton. For the first time that Department now has a Chief Scientific Adviser who is directly responsible to the Secretary of State in that Department for all science aspects of the Department. I am keeping an eye on these Chief Scientific Advisers in terms of a group which I have been meeting, so that I can carry out my responsibility to the Prime Minister in that way.

  10. This is novel really and quite radical in a way. You have been able to achieve that and we shall be moving forward. We can never say we will never see some of the calamities again but are you confident that you have broken the back of the problem?
  (Professor King) Perhaps I could come back in two years' time. In the short period we have had, one could not anticipate breaking the back. If you are asking whether we are moving strongly in the right direction, I would very confidently say yes.

Mr Harris

  11. May I ask about European funding? In your own opinion, do you think Britain has had a reasonably good deal out of Framework 5?
  (Professor King) Framework 5 rather than Framework 6?

  12. My understanding is that Framework 6 has not been finalised yet. The current one is Framework 5.
  (Dr Taylor) The general answer to that is yes. If you measure it crudely in terms of how much money came back from the programme as opposed to how much went into the programme, the balance is positive. There have been many useful collaborations and fairly applied research activities going on through Framework 5.

  13. What has OST done to encourage involvement by the UK scientific community? Has the OST done anything specifically positive to encourage that involvement?
  (Dr Taylor) Over the last two years or so we have been developing the ability to encourage and co-ordinate that process quite seriously and it is one of the items on the agenda of Research Councils UK (RCUK), which started operation this month. That of course is being focused primarily on Framework 6. Framework 5 is a fairly responsive mode kind of activity where people join consortia and apply to the centre. The rules in Framework 6 and the processes in Framework 6 are going to be seriously different. We are taking quite a lot of steps to become much more proactive from the Research Councils and OST in helping UK participants get involved in forming consortia and so on which might play key roles in implementing Framework 6 when it starts next year.
  (Professor King) We did hold a very big and well-attended conference which Lord Sainsbury launched and which Commissioner Busquin attended and spoke at here in London on Framework 6. Almost every university sent delegates to that. We are giving information out as to what route should be followed in order to get the best benefit from that.

  14. There is obviously quite a lot of thought going into Framework 6 at OST. Have you decided what your priorities should be for Framework 6?
  (Professor King) Yes. The state of negotiations is such that the British set of priorities has already been discussed and agreed on. We have reason to feel rather pleased with the outcome. Certainly Lord Sainsbury got much of what he wanted in terms of priorities in the first round of negotiations and then in the second round was persistent about those he did not get in the first round. The agreement which is now under discussion in the European Parliament—it has been through the Commission—has been very strongly influenced by the British position.

  15. Can you tell us exactly what those are?
  (Professor King) Yes, I could if you give me a moment.


  16. While you are looking, could John Taylor answer a question from me? Have you had any feedback from the Treasury whatsoever? Are they on board? Is it at the top of the pile, the bottom of the pile? Do you have any indication at all?
  (Dr Taylor) It is very difficult for us to give you any kind of reliable information on that. At this stage, we are at the point in the process where things have gone in and a whole load of deliberations are going on. We really do not know at this stage how things are going.

  17. I did read in a Sunday newspaper—they were trying to usurp you—that you were supposedly mad or something. Was that just idle gossip in the Sunday newspapers?
  (Dr Taylor) I read that as well and I found it fascinating. I have had no participation in any such discussions. I have no idea where that story came from.

  18. There is no truth in it as far as you are aware.
  (Dr Taylor) We are working very well with the Treasury. The whole question of developing that package of things which I told you about earlier on is going very well.

Mr McWalter

  19. Are you of the opinion that this whole way of doing things actually cuts out a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge, because you have this secret business going on, then somebody comes down with tablets of stone and announces the result? Are you of the view that the process itself is flawed, particularly in the case of science, where the expertise is so widely distributed and where so many people have a very valuable contribution to make?
  (Dr Taylor) I cannot comment on any other parts of Government and the process they have with the Treasury, but I will speak on science. I am very pleased with the progress we have made over the last two years in the run-up to launching Research Councils UK. We have run the process for Spending Review 2002 in the kind of way that we want to move towards. We have used the expertise of the councils and their communities very extensively in putting together the proposals. We have debated those around the table of the Chief Executives and myself. I am very pleased with the improved quality of advice that I am getting from the Research Councils about the programmes we should propose and the reasons why they are important and the reasons why we are managing our affairs efficiently, effectively, tightly, to justify additional funds in addition to the changes we can make from our current resources. We have said as part of the quinquennial review and the launch of RCUK that we will progressively put out the combined view of our strategy, the landscape, the whole portfolio that we are currently funding and that we in the Research Councils are looking at in our five-year forward look. That will be progressively visible as a single thing right across the patch rather than the six or seven separate things. So that has come from the Councils and their communities. It is visible and discussed across the Councils and their communities. It forms the basis of the advice to me and that in turn forms the basis of my advice to the Secretary of State and Treasury on what we should actually ask for.
  (Professor King) The total budget for the next four-year period is 17.5 billion and the budget is focused on seven thematic priority areas. I can give you the figures under each one, if you would like, or should I just tell you?


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