Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 720-739)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q720 Mrs Campbell: So to what extent would you take into account? To what extent do you feel that there is a duty to lead public opinion on an issue?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am sorry a duty to? I did not hear you.

  Q721 Mrs Campbell: Lead public opinion?

  Sir Richard Mottram: In relation to this Committee?

  Q722 Mrs Campbell: In relation to making recommendations for honours.

  Sir Richard Mottram: That is not a consideration.

  Q723 Mrs Campbell: The honours system to a certain extent follows public opinion, does it not?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Some people, quite clearly, are being picked out because they have celebrity. I do not think the Science and Technology Committee particularly picks out celebrity. It is not against celebrity—because now we get into, "Oh, so you are not interested in celebrity"—it is in favour of the popularisation of science. For example—I am not allowed to do this, but I will—Susan Greenfield was honoured, and I think the citation explicitly said "for her work in popularising science". (Obviously she has since been recognised on a further occasion.) The members of my Committee would think that is a jolly good thing—without getting into other controversy somewhere else. I have never been involved in a discussion, which said, for example, if we imagine the Government is having a debate about GM crops: "Scientist A is out and about on the hustings, so to speak, in support of the Government on GM crops; scientist B has been heard to question the value of GM crops; QED we will go for scientist A." I have never heard such a discussion. Indeed, it would be rather risible if we had such a discussion when one thinks that a lot of the balanced discussion about something like GM crops has come out of something like the Royal Society, for example. We just never talk like that.

  Q724 Mrs Campbell: Do you see what I am trying to do?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I do.

  Q725 Mrs Campbell: I am trying to get at whether there is any substance in the impression that has been given by this very unfortunate leak

  Sir Richard Mottram: I do not myself think that the leaked document is a proper basis on which to reach a conclusion, either about an individual or about the system—and that is because it is a letter-box thing of just seeing this little bit.

  Q726 Mrs Campbell: I am not drawing conclusions; I am trying to get at whether there is any substance behind the impression that has been given.

  Sir Richard Mottram: My view is that there is no substance behind the impression that has been given. Perhaps, if we just leave to one side the impact on individuals—obviously, the impact on Professor Blakemore is very disagreeable but put that to one side—one of things to which Professor Blakemore quite rightly drew attention, I think in his evidence to you Chairman, was "Well, I go out and I tell my people in the Medical Research Council"—indeed, in the very distinguished laboratories, for instance, that are funded by the Medical Research Council—"that I expect them to focus on the need to explain to people who are paying for all this work why we are doing it and what value it adds. And," said Professor Blakemore, "doesn"t all of this controversy imply that is not what is expected?" The answer is: He is right; that is what is expected. The Government strongly supports that, obviously. The Science and Technology Committee would certainly support the idea that it is to the benefit of the system and should be recognised people who go out and spread the word and explain.

  Q727 Mrs Campbell: So somebody is more likely to be recognised for going out and explaining the scientific work that they are doing—

  Sir Richard Mottram: Correct.

  Q728 Mrs Campbell: —rather than being the chief executive of a research council. Is that what you are saying?

  Sir Richard Mottram: No, I am not saying that. I am saying that going out and explaining is a plus not a minus. Chief Executives of Research Councils tend to be honoured because they play a very important part in the success of the United Kingdom. So it is a slightly different point.

  Q729 Mr Heyes: It is interesting that you just mentioned Susan Greenfield in your last answer.

  Sir Richard Mottram: I realise it was a mistake.

  Q730 Mr Heyes: It was, yes. I think the Royal Society have been presented to us as a model where peer review is an essential feature of the way they make their awards.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Yes.

  Q731 Mr Heyes: It seems, if the press reports today are correct, that the Royal Society peers do not accord the same respect to Susan Greenfield which your system, which you said to us earlier was based on a strong element of peer review, accorded to her in the award that you made to her. There is a big contradiction in there, is there not?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Not really. Again, let's not get into the individual, but if we put the criteria that we use alongside the criteria that the Royal Society uses then the criteria we are using are probably broader. Therefore—and we are not talking about Susan Greenfield here—it would be entirely possible for people to be honoured in our system who were not, for instance, Fellows of the Royal Society or Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering. That would be an area that could well get discussed actually inside our Committee, where there would be debate about: "Does this person"—and again this is not related to any individual—"have a really, really, absolutely top-flight academic research record?"—which is often the thing which is crucial in relation to the Royal Society—and we would say: "Possibly not, but look at all these other things they have done which have had this amazing impact in area A, B, C, D and E." So our criteria are different.

  Q732 Mr Heyes: Wiser, perhaps.

  Sir Richard Mottram: No, I do not think so. I would not say that. I think they are different.

  Q733 Mr Heyes: Let me ask you a question based on your role as the department head and the part you play in the process of putting names forward. You talked about the sifting and evaluation process. I am interested in how that works. Does the list of names you put forward, for example, adequately reflect the gender and ethnic mix across the field in which the department works.

  Sir Richard Mottram: The answer to that is: We try. At the departmental level we will have lists of people which are generated inside our system, and we would have a committee inside the department, which I happen to chair, which would look at the names inside our department, for example. As part of that process, which is all based on merit, one of the discussions we would have would be: What is the outcome in relation to gender? What is the outcome in relation to ethnic minorities? In the case of the Science and Technology Committee, wholly within the principle of merit, we would be looking at: Are we sure we are getting a gender mix and a minority ethnic mix (in so far as we know the minority ethnic background of the people before us) which we think properly reflects merit and our society as a whole? Those would be discussions you would have, yes.

  Q734 Mr Heyes: Obviously you have clear information on the gender of the people before you.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Yes.

  Q735 Mr Heyes: How do you know about the ethnicity?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I agree, I think that is quite an issue.

  Q736 Mr Heyes: How do you do it?

  Sir Richard Mottram: At more senior levels you know the people, so . . .

  Q737 Mr Heyes: And at more junior levels?

  Sir Richard Mottram: At more junior levels it would be an issue, yes, on which you should try to focus. But sometimes the citations will tell you.

  Q738 Mr Heyes: Is there an ethnic monitoring form as part of the bureaucracy that goes with it?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I do not know the answer to that. I could find out. Shall I give you some advice on that? I do not immediately know the answer to that. I think not, you see, because one of the issues in the process is that it sort of has to be confidential—you know, people are not applying.

  Q739 Mr Heyes: So somebody's ethnicity should be confidential, should it?

  Sir Richard Mottram: No, I am saying the process is confidential. As they are not applying, the process of declaration is rather different. If you apply for a job you usually get an ethnic monitoring form that you fill in. They are not applying. But I think the point you raise is very interesting. Could I go away and think about it?

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