Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. May I say that in general I am quite pleased with what you have said? It is clear that the DTI have been insufficiently aware of the enormous dependency of trade and industry on the science base. If that is now being made much more explicit, I am pleased about that. One of your old targets used to be to improve the overall international ranking of the science and engineering base in terms of its quality, relevance and cost effectiveness. How, given that Roberts says that the number of people studying all these things is falling like a stone, are we going to deliver this without the people? It would appear that you do not take as detailed an interest in that as you should. You say somebody else is looking after that and you will only deal with the top end of the people who have come through who are available. How are you going to deliver that without a much greater emphasis on education?
  (Professor King) I do not believe that we ignored that aspect at all. The Office of Science and Technology is very concerned about the skills base and Gareth Roberts' report is very much at the top of our minds, although we were very much aware of what was happening before the report was made. We do keep an eye on these factors.

  61. So you have written some Roberts-type things yourselves, have you?
  (Professor King) I have spoken about the problem and I believe so has John Taylor.

  62. Have you written about it, because I should like to look at that if you have done prior to Roberts? Can that be made available? I have some nods from your advisers, so it probably can be.
  (Dr Taylor) There is a plethora of things.

  63. It feels as though Roberts is rather disconnected from what we have seen by way of OST publications and I am pleased to hear that there has been a much closer involvement here. That is very important but I should like to see the evidence for that.
  (Professor King) Very much closer. If we look at the situation, we have been involved in trying to analyse what is causing this fall-away in registrations. As is made clear from the report, the fall is strongest in the physical sciences, is not strong in the life sciences. Interestingly registration of women in the life sciences has been increasing over the years, whereas the fall in registrations for men in both life and physical is about the same. What is keeping life sciences up is the registration of more and more women in that area.

  64. It is girls' love of pets, is it not? I speak as the father of some.
  (Professor King) No; it is the attractions of molecular biology, the genome. Biotechnology, molecular biology are very much in the news and this is a factor in attracting young people to that field. It is more difficult to see that actually developments in science across the board require support from computer technology, physics, material science, chemistry and the life sciences. I do not think one stands in isolation from the other. Yes, we are very, very concerned about what is happening and a lot of my own effort is to try to analyse and tackle the problem.
  (Dr Taylor) From the Research Councils point of view I am on the council of HEFCE, I am a member of its People Issues Sub-Group, as well as its Research Strategy Committee, where we have been debating these issues from the research point of view back into the higher education domain. In OST and the Research Councils we have run major programmes on public understanding of science, now moving to science and society dialogue and the issue about reaching out into schools and communication with young people about why it is important and exciting to do science is very much on the agenda. If you go round any of the Research Councils you will find they have very active and actually quite effective programmes for facilitating and encouraging that. Also the new Innovation Group in DTI is going to take much more coherent hold of the skills agenda in the industry part of DTI than has been the case. There are many things which have been quite thinly spread around the DTI which are now going to be pulled together much more seriously. That is something we shall be able to talk with them much more coherently about through the Knowledge Transfer Steering Group (KTSG). In terms of delivery of our agenda in the short term, the other dimension of this is that we have to face the situation we have over this year, next year, the following year, because a lot of the other things we have been talking about will take a long time to come through. It is very clear that there is going to be an increasingly tough international competition for talent. If you see what the Canadians have just done, what the Americans and the Germans and the Japanese are doing in the area of saying they have to have more international people coming to work in Germany or Japan or Canada or whatever, that is a battle we have to continue to fight and to win in the short term if we are going to keep our programmes staffed.

  65. One of your targets was to increase by 50 per cent the 1997-98 number of companies spun out from universities by the year 2001-02. It is awful the way these things come back to haunt you, is it not? Have you achieved those targets?
  (Dr Taylor) Yes.
  (Professor King) Way exceeded them.
  (Dr Taylor) Way exceeded them, but we have also said that is not an appropriate target for us to run with. The target is modified in the terms that you read out earlier on. Just increasing it by 50 per cent is not a very meaningful thing to try to do.

  66. It would be nice to get some evidence. We do not have access to that list.
  (Dr Taylor) A report was published at the end of last year called Higher Education Business Interaction Survey which for example quotes 199 new spin-outs and start-ups from university departments in 1999, compared with an average of 70 a year for the previous five years. There is pretty hard data.

Dr Iddon

  67. Do you have a survival rate?
  (Dr Taylor) The survival rate of companies started up in 1999? We need to track it.


  68. How does it compare with Californian standards?
  (Dr Taylor) There is a lot of data and statistics are thrown around about these things. One of the statistics—we can send you in correct numbers in case I read the wrong thing into the record—is that we have a much higher productivity in terms of start-up per million pounds of research spend. We are very considerably better than the United States' numbers in that area.
  (Professor King) Let me give you those figures. We spin out one company per 8.1 million investment from the Office of Science and Technology in the research base. That compares with 12.4 million in Canada and 50.2 million in the United States per spin-out company. If we just count spin-out companies we are doing very well. We are now trying to improve the metric. What we need to do is look at value of companies. If you will excuse me mentioning Cambridge again, there are now five companies valued at over 1 billion each with a sixth about to cross the barrier.

Mr McWalter

  69. Do these companies say it is because of you? Do they give you the credit for this or do you think this might have happened without you or much of it might have happened without you? There was a big emphasis in the previous Government on universities getting into enterprises.
  (Dr Taylor) Many of those companies would say that a lot of the original activity which got them started came from public funding of the science research. One example which has been fairly visible just lately is Colin Sweeting and the Surrey Satellite. He very publicly says that the fact that he now has a 60-odd million business was due to some SERC funding probably 20 years ago which actually got the whole thing rolling and started.
  (Professor King) I believe your question is correct in the sense that there has been a massive cultural change in our university system and it has taken place over a long period of time. What is now happening is that through John Taylor's work and the work of many others that process is being accelerated and assisted. The change was already happening.

Mr Dhanda

  70. I do wish you would stop going on about Cambridge.
  (Professor King) I apologise.

  71. We have had some groups of letters, we have SRIF and we have had JIF. Since the quinquennial review we have had RCUK as well as a consequence of that, the Research Councils' UK strategy group. How effective has that been, because it has only been around since 1 May? How are you going to measure its effectiveness in the coming months and years?
  (Dr Taylor) The three basic areas in which we expect Research Councils UK to add value are: first, a more coherent approach to the whole spending cycle; the process of maintaining a more coherent view of the portfolio of research that we are funding; and where we expect to see that portfolio going both in terms of making proposals for spending reviews, making allocations of money in spending reviews and making much longer-term plans for major facilities. I expect to see the whole operation behaving more coherently and more effectively and more openly, more transparently in that process. Secondly, we intend it to be the single voice for the Research Councils and the single portal into the Research Council community wherever and whenever it makes sense to have one. It will be the focus for dialogue, for example, about Roberts with Universities UK and others about how universities manage infrastructure, careers, quality of research training and so on. It will be the focus for dialogue about international policies, what we in the Research Council communities think about having a European Research Council or collective representation in China and so on. The single port of entry. If you want to find somebody in the Research Council to talk about this, it will be increasingly the one place you can go which will take you to where you want to be. If you want to know what the Research Councils think about X, Y or Z, there will be a place where it has been debated and thrashed out and articulated and made available. The third area is a more effective and more efficient operation. A more coherent interface to universities making grant applications, for example, areas where we could get more streamlining in the back office operations, more efficiency, more coherence in the way the Research Councils operate. Those are the three things we are focusing on as we implement Research Councils UK, get it up and operating and implement the recommendations of the quinquennial review.

  72. Who is going to be responsible for measuring that and ensuring that it is all actually working properly?
  (Dr Taylor) Essentially me, as the Chairman of that group and as the point where Research Councils are basically accountable and are funded.

  73. A big job.
  (Dr Taylor) It is one which we are tasked to do already, but in the previous modus operandi it was on a council by council basis. What we are really saying is that in many cases we believe the whole operation will be much more effective if we bring things together where it makes sense. We are not trying to undermine the individual councils or break up the huge value added they have as individual councils, but there is a number of areas where it would make a lot of sense, it will make a lot of sense, for us to do things together. Measuring the effectiveness of that will in essence be easier than trying to do it seven times over for seven separate councils.

  Chairman: Last week we were asking about the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. This is probably the one which has kept you awake all night. The question of the money going into fellowships and so on from OST. Why should that money go there and not to the Research Councils? Have you ever examined that question yourselves? It is big bucks in a sense: 20-odd million.

Dr Iddon

  74. What does the Royal Society do that other organisations cannot do?
  (Dr Taylor) The important historical locus of the Royal Society and more recently the Royal Academy of Engineering is that it is about individuals, it is an ad personam kind of organisation and it is about excellence. From the point of view of two key areas, they are organisations which have been quite effective for us to work with. The most important dimension from my point of view is this phrase "human capital". It is really important that we do everything we can in the UK to develop the very best talent we can. The track record of the kind of things that we fund through the Royal Society has been really very good. The important thing about the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering is that they are not discipline- based. They are not particular advocates for particular communities of chemists or physicists or other kinds of scientists. They are completely adisciplinary. That means that they are a unique kind of channel which we can use to develop human capital and human talent in a very open adisciplinary kind of way and in a way which is quite effective and quite arm's-length. Historically it has made quite a lot of sense to say that is a modest alternative channel which sits alongside the Research Councils, which are more disciplined based. Since developing the very best talent and attracting the very best talent is very high on our priority list, it seems to me to make eminently good sense to continue to channel money through them towards developing human capital and talent on a modest sort of scale. The same thing for the Royal Academy. The other part of their uniqueness has to do with their ability to pull together multi-disciplinary groups of very good people to respond to questions and look at issues. That is also a very important area.


  75. The Royal Society of Edinburgh is a similar thing but they have managed to get J K Rowling as a member for example. A second question would be: why can Research Councils not do all these things as well? We are not hearing from anybody what is so special and unique that no-one else can do it?
  (Professor King) You are raising an issue which is of importance to you, but if we look around the world, take the United States, they have an academy, take France, they have an academy, Germany has several academies. Immediately I say that I can tell you that it is much easier in Britain for us to have a single Academy/Royal Society than in Germany where they have several. When Britain needs to express a voice, for example on climate change, the Royal Society is able very quickly to assemble a group of experts in that area. Nineteen world academies wrote a document on the climate change issue and subsequently President Bush asked the National Academy in America to comment on the climate change issue and their comment eventually was in line with the comments from the other 19 academies. I think that is an invaluable function which is being performed there. I am giving you just one fairly extreme example. The Royal Society or these academies are in a sense not anything like the usual clubs, nor are they like the usual professional societies because the entrance into these is done as a kind of medal awarding process, a lifetime's work in science which is recognised through these letters which go behind your name, FRS. The charge elitist can just as equally be made of the Royal Society as it could of, not your favourite football club but one which is firmly in the Premier Division, say Birmingham. The issue is fairly clear. A Fellow of the Royal Society is not a member of a club that anyone can join. It is a kind of medal which is awarded for achievement in science. That is important. Some of what I read seems to indicate that this is like a private club which keeps people out on some other basis.

  76. There is a perception of that in the scientific and academic community. The perception is that because public money is going in we have a right to pose that question.
  (Professor King) Just let me make this point. In addition to the excellent people who become Fellows of the Royal Society, there is now a second rung of younger people who are the university Research Fellows. These are young people who are getting these fellowships which run for eight or ten years. They go equally through a highly selective process. What this means is that the Royal Society has become rejuvenated because they bring these young people into their fold so when I approach the Royal Society for advice, I do not only engage the older community who have achieved the FRS, but also university Research Fellows. I do think that is a very substantial exercise, a worthwhile exercise that they perform. I would defend it very solidly.

  77. Yes, it is quite clear you are doing that. But the GMO debate was quite different. "Instant rebuttal" there meant quite a long time for the Royal Society to instantly rebut what the green groups and others were doing. So there is a charge there that they may have sharpened their act up on climatic research but not on GMOs and we are still living with the damage which was done there across the country to British science. I still ask the question of you: why can the things which are done by the Royal Society, bright young people and so on, not be done with the Research Councils?
  (Dr Taylor) May I say that most of the Research Councils have some research fellowship schemes of one kind or another? They already do do it. It is not as though we do this through the Royal Society instead of doing it through Research Councils. It is important to understand that the Research Councils have very active post-doctoral fellowships.

  78. The question is: why do they not do it all?
  (Dr Taylor) That is an element of diversity and an element of adisciplinarity. The fact is the Royal Society does not have a flag up about a particular discipline. If you like, it is one of those things which says the trans-discipline, multi-discipline label can, particularly when you are looking at young talent, be very important. I can send you a list of the money which I send to the Royal Society, which flows through to research professors, university professors, fellows.

  79. That would be helpful.
  (Dr Taylor) It almost all goes through to young people and to researchers in fellowship schemes of one kind or another.


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