Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Natural Environment Research Council (PAP 27)

  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this inquiry.

  2.  NERC's response focuses on questions posed in the Public Administration Select Committee document and our comments are given under the Committee's headings. The questions listed under "political influence on appointments" have been answered as a general comment, rather then answering each question individually.

  3.  Attached are several documents submitted as evidence[15]. These are:

    —  Annex A—Example of a canvassing letter sent to organisations.

    —  Annex B—Code of Practice for Council Members.

    —  Annex C—Application form for membership of Research Council.

    —  Annex D—Table: female representation on decision making boards.

    —  Annex E—NERC membership template.

  4.  NERC's comments draw on inputs from NERC Council, NERC Executive Board and Swindon Office Directors.

BACKGROUND

  5.  NERC is one of the UK's seven Research Councils and is a Non-Departmental Public Body of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). It funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. Its priority research areas are: Earth's life-support systems, climate change and sustainable economies.

  6.  NERC uses a budget of about £220 million a year to fund scientific research in universities and in its own Research Centres. About 2,700 people are employed in NERC Research Centres and a further 1,800 are funded annually through a variety of research and training awards in university departments and other bodies. More than 3,000 postgraduate students have also been funded by NERC over the last five years.

  7.  In addition to NERC's wholly owned Research Centres, NERC funds a number of Collaborative Centres based at universities or elsewhere. A list of NERC's Research and Collaborative Centres is appended.

  8.  The Council is NERC's top-level decision-making body. Council consists of the Chairman, the Chief Executive (and Deputy Chairman) and between 10 and 18[16] other members, two of which must be drawn from Government departments and the remainder from both academic and industrial communities. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry appoints the Chairman, Chief Executive and members. This template for membership is drawn-up and overseen by the Office of Science and Technology (OST). A list of NERC Council members is published on the NERC website together with Members' register of interests (please see http://www.nerc.ac.uk/aboutus/council/members.shtml).

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS

General

Question 2.   What problems might arise if elections were held for membership of some public bodies, instead of the current system of appointments?

  9.  It is unlikely that a process of election could guarantee that the individuals elected possessed the specific knowledge and skills required to effectively contribute and assist in NERC's decision-making process. NERC's 1993 Supplemental Charter to the 1965 Science and Technology Act requires at least half of the NERC Council members to be appointed by reason of their qualifications in science or engineering (see Annex E).

POLITICAL INFLUENCE ON APPOINTMENTS

  10.  Applications for membership are overseen by the Office of Science and Technology (OST) following the Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Bodies, produced by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Under this code, NERC is classified as an "upper tier body".

  11.  Applications to NERC's Council can either be by self-nomination (responding to advertisements placed in the scientific and popular press including: Nature, The Times, The Sunday Times, and The Times Higher Education Supplement), by being approached by NERC, or enquiring through the Cabinet Office. All applicants must then complete an application form and the Director General of the Research Council's Office draws up a short-list with the assistance and guidance of NERC.

  12.  Applicants are rated according to the criteria set out for each vacant post. Each post has both a job specification and person specification. These criteria are drawn up by NERC and agreed by OST and appear on OST's website (please see OST website for examples http://www.dti.gov.uk/ost/ostbusiness/index.htm). Applicants are rated as one of the following:

    (a)  Probable

    (b)  Possible

    (c)  Unsuitable

  13.  Each applicant's rating is agreed by NERC senior management, and then forwarded to the Appointments Panel. The Appointments Panel is appointed by OST and current OST guidelines state it should include the Director General of the Research Councils, one to two independents (eg people with a knowledge of NERC but not current or recent NERC Council members), and the NERC Chairman and/or NERC Chief Executive.

  14.  Interviews are carried-out by the Appointments Panel. Recommendations are then made to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who makes the final choice.

  15.  Two Council members are appointed from Government departments. The appointment process differs in that these positions are not advertised and NERC proposes preferred candidates. Recommendations together with justification are sent by OST to the Appointments Panel for its consideration, who then forward recommendations to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The appointment process and terms are the same as for other Council members. We are conscious of potential complications in the process for appointments from the devolved administrations.

  16.  Council members are appointed for a period of three to four years (see Annex E). Council members can be reappointed for a second term but this is not automatic. Recommendations for the possible reappointment of current Council members are made by the NERC Chairman and Chief Executive and are then forwarded to the Appointments Panel along with their justification (based on effectiveness of the member's performance). All Council members work to the Code of Practice for Council Members (Annex B).

  17.  The most important issue for NERC is that the applicant with the required knowledge and skills is appointed, be it by ministerial appointment or an independent appointment commission. It is vital that the people making the appointments are well informed about the skills and knowledge necessary. Government departments assisted by the recruiting organisation have this knowledge but if an independent appointments commission could guarantee to assess applications effectively, then this may be more acceptable in the eyes of the general public.

DIVERSITY IN PUBLIC APPOINTMENTS

Question 13.   Is there evidence to suggest that the current system is not attracting applications from the widest pool of candidates? And 14. How can greater diversity best be combined with reassurance that the principle of merit in public appointments is being upheld?

  18.  In NERC's 2001 Operating Plan one of the equal opportunities targets is:

    —  To improve female representation on key-decision making bodies, including those at Centres, Surveys and Laboratories, in line with 2000 Science and Innovation White Paper Excellence and Opportunity target of 40% by 2005.

  19.  NERC currently has five female Council members out of sixteen (31.25%). Overall the total figure shows that the level of female representation is increasing. To meet the target percentages stated in the Science and Innovation White Paper, NERC would require at least six female Council members.

  20.  In 1998 NERC carried-out research on why ethnic minorities appear to be underrepresented in NERC. The main conclusion was that in the main degree subjects that NERC looks for when recruiting to the Science Group (both first degrees and PhDs), only small percentages of graduates in these subjects were from ethnic minorities. The implication from these finding is that the pool from which candidates with suitable scientific skills required for public appointments within NERC will be predominately white.

PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING

Question 16.   Is the public appointments' process understood by members of the public and seen to be fair, open, transparent and easy to travel through? And question 17. What improvements, if any, should be made in the way in which advertising or publicising public appointments are made?

  21.  NERC's appointment process is in line with standard Government rule. The most recent advertisement was placed in The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Times, The Sunday Times and Nature. We have not received complaints about the appointment process to NERC Council.

  22.  NERC is committed to being open and transparent. A register of private, professional and commercial interests that may conflict with NERC business is held by the Clerk to Council, and members of Council would be expected to declare these should they arise as part of Council discussion. Details of Council members' register of interests can be found on NERC's website at: http://www.nerc.ac.uk/aboutus/council/register-code.shtml.

OTHER ISSUES

Question 25.   Should every candidate, even important people for high level appointments, be asked to complete application forms and attend interviews in the normal way?

  23.  It is NERC's policy that all candidates complete an application form (Annex D) and attend an interview regardless of their status. Both are essential to judge the candidate is of sufficient merit and has the required skills. We see no reason why this should change.

Natural Environment Research Council

May 2002

NERC RESEARCH CENTRES AND COLLABORATIVE CENTRES

NERC Research Centres

  British Antarctic Survey (BAS)

  British Geological Survey (BGS)

  Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH)

  Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL)

NERC Collaborative Centres

  Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes and Tectonics (COMET)

  Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM)

  Centre for Population Biology (CPB)

  Centre for Terrestrial Carbon Dynamics

  Data Assimilation Research Centre (DARC)

  Environmental Systems Science Centre (ESSC)

  NERC Centres for Atmospheric Science (NCAS)

  Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML)

  Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS)

  Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU)

  Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC)

  Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

  Further information on all these centres can be found on the NERC web site www.nerc.ac.uk


15   Ev. not printed Back

16   NERC's 1993 Supplemental Charter to 1965 Science and Technology Act Back


 
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