Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-118)

23 FEBRUARY 2004


  Q100 Chairman: Between cities and townships, or what?

  Mr Maxwell: Between institutions. One of the risks, however, in doing all this is that people think about research and science as being like making sausages—that you can set a problem and put three people on to it and six months later to a very specific timetable out will come the sausage which is the solution. Actually we know that research does not work like that. Research is very often serendipitous—a good idea comes when you are lying in the bath about something you are not really thinking about at all—so a really key part of good research is creating good networks. IDRC has been very strong on this and this is something we need to be working more on; professional associations, conferences, linking people up together, using the internet in interesting ways, creating a culture of research innovation and not simply a set of research projects.

  Dr Smith: Briefly adding to that, I was the chair when IDRC set up the international network for Bamboo and Rattan, and the researchers all have access through the IDRC website to 20,000 different journals I believe, that deal with the problem of out-of-date journals. These researchers are on line and increasingly they have broadband access. This is a fantastic resource because as well as being able to communicate with each other you can go in and pull material out on the internet.

  Professor Leach: I was going to add the experience from the Institute of Development Studies where we had a two-year MPhil programme which has run since the 1960s where one sees exactly the benefits you are talking about. Often our alumni, who operate through an alumnus network but nevertheless are in diverse positions of developing countries, have a knowledge of the British system which makes it much easier for them to get engaged in a productive way for development corporation research in the future, so those networks established through training, whether PhDs or Masters programmes, continue in one way or another but often in a way that is somewhat informal. It is about creating those networks which are variable.

  Q101 Chairman: Just probing that a little more, and I have some experience from the University of East Anglia, there are lots of problems about bringing students from other countries. There are the positive points you made but one of the first issues is the cost; another might be the whole arena now of terrorism and the vetting that is going on—this Committee is about to debate in Parliament with the Home Office their attitude to terrorism and restriction of students and so on—so would you like to say something about the changing environment for students from other places whom we should welcome? What is happening in that field in this country?

  Professor Leach: One of the biggest problems is funding. We have seen over the last fifteen years a big shift in our MPhil programme which used to be about 70% students from developing countries and about 25% from Europe and North America. We have seen more or less a shift exactly in those proportions and we are now getting a much higher proportion from Europe and America and much lower proportions from developing countries simply because the opportunities for studentships from the British Council or from their own governments and organisations have diminished. So that is clearly one major blockage; it costs a great deal for people to come here. A second problem is that, having been trained or gained a new critical edge on development issues through an international training people often feel very depressed about going back to countries where there are political and academic environments which are quite repressive of free thinking. I have just finished supervising a Gambian PhD student who is one of six Gambian PhD students in Britain at the moment; she is the only one who is going to go back to Gambia and she laments this. She says she is going to go back and start a forum for intellectual freedom, but everybody else is going to look out for jobs at the World Bank. Now, that is not only because it is easier to get financial benefits and one can live a better life working for the World Bank; it is also about the context and it is the lack of research culture in some of the countries that people are going back to. So I think there is a dual responsibility. Training opportunities abroad are important but need to go along with helping to build the type of environments that those people can then go back in to thrive and to go into those international developments, which will encourage them to return home.

  Q102 Chairman: So what is restricting the numbers coming? What has changed the proportions in your institutions? Is it cost? Is it the vetting that is the threat now and so on?

  Professor Leach: Largely cost. I am not aware of vetting having increased as a problem. I am not aware that that has become a factor. It is largely a funding constraint, from my perception.

  Q103 Chairman: Has Canada had any experience of that?

  Dr Smith: Yes. Above all in the United States we are getting a flood of foreign students coming in because they feel they either cannot get into or do not want to go into the United States where they will be profiled and all the rest of it, so it is quite marked. It is something we all have to think about, if I may, because if these students cannot get into the United States where are they going to go, or are they just not going to go nowhere? I do not know, but there is a real issue in terms of the door being closed, or at least their perception that the door is closed, in the United States.

  Professor Diamond: If you look at UK higher education as a whole there has been a major increase in the number of overseas students in the last two or three years particularly from China going into business schools, and that has been the result of the increasing difficulty of entering the United States of America. However, the points that Professor Leach has made regarding funding are incredibly important when we come to the poorer countries, and for those countries access to funding to pursue any kind of course is extremely difficult. There are some funds available, for example, through the scholarships of the Association of Commonwealth Universities but relatively few, and it does seem to me that there is the potential to think laterally about some exciting new ways of doing, for example, PhDs that might involve partnerships with certain universities with people spending part of their time at the university and part of their time in their own country, just lowering the costs and maximising the technology transfer that goes through this.

  Mr Maxwell: We do have to be a little bit careful not to start this conversation from the perspective of what was the old colonial model where there was no capacity to train in developing countries. Wherever it is possible to train people in the south it will be much cheaper, more cost effective and more appropriate culturally to do so. There is a sense in which the main beneficiaries of bringing foreign students to the United Kingdom are the United Kingdom institutions and the United Kingdom debate, and there is good reason to fund students. We learn as much as they do.

  Dr Iddon: You make a very good point because I have trained quite a number of students from a wide variety countries including some of the developing countries, and I guess if I did a count less than 50% returned to their country of origin, and I found that rather sad. Coming back to the original point I made quite a while ago, perhaps we are just overtraining people for the tasks they are expected to do when they go home. Teaching them how to handle fancy chemicals that are just unavailable in the under-developed countries is possibly wrong, and I agree with you and ask the witnesses, has anyone done a score of how many foreign students we train in the developed countries go back to their countries of origin?

  Professor Diamond: I do not have that score and I do not know where it exists. Firstly, though, you say we train people to use fancy chemicals which they cannot use when they go back to their country. Well, I would just like to say that that is why I have been talking about long-term capacity building in a country. Secondly, a smaller point, some of the people who do stay in, for example, this country do profoundly important academic research relevant to their own country, and I can give three or four examples of that.

  Q104 Mr McWalter: Could we have those examples in correspondence?

  Professor Diamond: I would be delighted.

  Q105 Mr McWalter: Some time ago the United Kingdom Government chose massively to reduce its support to train people from developing countries and cut down support to the tertiary sector in developing countries, and witnesses have said they are very concerned about that. What has been the impact of this change of approach both for developing science and technology capacity in developing countries and for our standing in the international development community? If it has had no consequence or if, for instance, the consequence is six people in The Gambia and one is going back, that is a fat lot of good for international development with the States, and maybe that Government that did that took that point of view and decided it was justified to slash these budgets. Are you not angry about it? Do you not want it changed?

  Professor Leach: I am trying to think of a general response. There is a sense in some of the countries which had had a lot of British support that Britain has somehow sold out and abandoned them, for instance, British Council support which was once much higher and has been retracted and there was a time when people could go and get scholarships—

  Q106 Mr McWalter: So should we recommend a massive increase in the British Council system, or did that not deliver?

  Professor Leach: I think there are new models that one should look to which are not so top down, which are not about giving grants to bring people to be trained on our terms in this country. We should be looking to much more innovative ways of linking cutting edge with partnered research which involves partnerships between the UK and developing country institutions which might have an element of PhD training within them, some of the most successful examples of capacity building that I have been involved in have involved partnership research programmes where we have taken relatively junior people perhaps with a first degree and not much more and they have become involved in a project as researchers which has involved some south exchange, some time in the United Kingdom with access to new literature and a lot of field work in their own countries, and at the end they have sometimes produced PhDs and sometimes they have just produced reports, and a sense of confidence that they can now engage with the policy networks in their own countries and with the international scientific community, and relate the issues that are important in their own countries to those international research debates, and that is what I see is real capacity building. There is an element there of research, of training and of partnership in which the learning flows both ways. Also, on capacity building, I am often quite uncomfortable with the term because it implies a one-way flow of capacity from us to developing countries. In my experience, good partnership arrangements involve just as much learning the other way. There are things that United Kingdom institutions have an advantage in in terms of access to literature and access to international debates, and there are many kinds of knowledge that can only be gained on the ground—knowledge of local issues and policy networks—and building capacity is really about encouraging those two-way, multi-way flows of information.

  Q107 Mr McWalter: So we need a structure, do we? I like the idea that if you are going to do a doctorate you should not just bring them over here so they do their doctorate and are then miserable about going back, but that it is a doctorate done half in Uganda and half here and it recognises, for instance, that understanding flood plains in Uganda is something they will learn about more than we will. But would that recommendation that you have both made mean that the brain drain problem which capacity building historically has generated would be solved, or largely solved?

  Mr Maxwell: A good model that you might want to look at in more detail is something called the African Economics Research Consortium, which was founded by IDRC and whose donor funders include DFID, and which is a way to strengthen research across a range of African countries by putting money into research locally with a certain amount of external input where appropriate. That is the bottom-up model that we have all been talking about.

  Q108 Chairman: Is that published somewhere?

  Dr Smith: Yes. We can certainly get you that website and indeed Dr Spence, who is on the board of the AERC, is with me here. It has been very successful and we have twenty other funders that are with us in the AERC, and it certainly contributes significantly to having people stay where they have come from. It enables them to be part of a global environment but at the same time to stay local?

  Q109 Paul Farrelly: Are there any national scale models or initiatives? We have heard something of Canada's already that are worth exploring further as far as the United Kingdom is concerned.

  Mr Maxwell: By other developed countries?

  Q110 Paul Farrelly: Yes.

  Mr Maxwell: The Dutch are good, the Danes are good, the Swedes are good, the French are probably okay in a fairly traditional way, the Americans as I said earlier, have had long-term relationships between land grant universities and others. Many of the countries I have listed have institutions which are specifically responsible for doing this, and IDRC is one, where there is a clear mandate and a ring-fenced fund in order to build science and technology capacity overseas.

  Q111 Mr McWalter: We are looking for some sort of integrated approach on the part of the United Kingdom and we have identified, I think, that that does not exist—perhaps rather sharply. What we are worried about now is can the different objectives of different government departments be made to support a single strategy, or are they really complementary at all? The DTI pursues trade but is not that interested in the conditions of trade for developing countries; the DFID is interested in poverty reduction but is not that interested in how you get out of poverty once you have taken the first few steps, and all the scientific staff from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seem to be very interested in telling the Japanese how wonderful we are and cribbing what they can from other developed countries but not doing much about developing countries. In all this mess, is there a model we could use which would give us an integrated approach to a scientific and technology capacity building system?

  Mr Maxwell: I came into this meeting with three issues on my piece of paper for the Committee, the first being to turn over the carpet in our own house and see what we can find underneath.

  Q112 Mr McWalter: You can hear we have been doing that!

  Mr Maxwell: But it would be very helpful to look at other sectors than development and ask whether or not we have cracked this problem. In food policy, for example, where a number of different ministries and agencies are involved, we now have a Food Standards Agency as a way of focusing. Are we doing something similar in the defence industry? I do not know the answer to that question but I hope you may be able to help us.

  Q113 Chairman: We are seeing Defra.

  Mr Scott: Supplementing what Simon has said on that, if we are going to be thinking in those kinds of terms we also need to be thinking about the extent to which the interests, particularly of poorer developing countries, are taken into account in all of United Kingdom policy ranking across science and technology and other departments. If that thinking is there then we will see a much closer integration of the kind of subjects we are talking about.

  Q114 Chairman: But it will not be there. Part of education is that universities are going to carry on offering doctoral programmes to people saying, "Come here, stay here three years, go back with a bit of paper—oh, you do not want to go back? That is a bit of a shame—never mind". Nothing much is going to change unless somehow or other the Chinese walls are broken down. I am not at all convinced we have heard from you a really sufficient sense of urgency about how we might do that, or even any real suggestions about whether this problem is solvable at all.

  Mr Maxwell: Chairman, may I ask whether you have considered in other inquiries the funding forum model? That is something that those of us who work on development research have been keen on. Are witnesses allowed to ask questions? Probably not!

  Chairman: Of course they are.

  Q115 Mr McWalter: We want to solve the problem. Anything you say.

  Professor Diamond: It does seem to me that if this is seen to be an important issue then it is solvable but it requires something like a funders forum where people are prepared to sit down and say what the issues are and how we get around them. It is not rocket science to do this but it does require an absolute commitment that this is important.

  Q116 Chairman: I tell you what I am thinking really, which is that we want to shake DFID around a bit. We know they are beginning to think of new ways of tackling these problems so I think they have come to terms with the problem, and it is our job really to raise it up the agenda, with the help you have given us today. You may not be angry enough for some of my colleagues but I know some of you individually and know you are quite angry and a lot of people working in this field are pretty angry too, so the information you are giving us will be very helpful for us when we come up with a report which I hope will be as sharp as our MRC report was which I am going to now say really turned the MRC around. We are going to Malawi, by the way; we have been advised that would be an interesting place to visit. We could spend the rest of our lives visiting the developing world but we are going to Malawi to see how it operates there on the ground and to talk to people there and how they feel about it, so I am looking forward to that and I know the advice you have given us today will help in asking the right kind of questions. So do not feel despondent: we pick things up and hear what you are saying. Would anybody like to finish on a high note?

  Professor Diamond: Could I just say one of the written pieces of evidence that I would give to Tony would be of a woman called Dr Nyovani Madise from the University of Southampton, who is Malawian and if you are going to Malawi I would advise you very strongly to meet her. She came to this country on a scholarship, has since stayed and has undertaken excellent research on Malawi and the sub Saharan African area. She is a fine example of the sort of person you must meet.

  Q117 Chairman: We will certainly do that and if you have colleagues or friends who will have a view about this please encourage them to write in, because our MRC report came from the grass roots of MRC researchers who told us what was going on on the ground and how they felt, and I think they inspired us to get stuck in, as it were.

  Mr Maxwell: I would not like you to think we have gone native, Chairman, but I would also urge you to have the OST and HEFCE on your hit list.

  Q118 Chairman: They are on our hit list! We are the Committee from hell!

  Mr Maxwell: A final point, just picking up on what Dr Iddon said earlier, DFID went through an exercise in the second half of last year to try and identify what were the big problems that needed research input over the next decade or 20 years and they had over 600 replies. I have my own little list of 12 and I want to emphasise that these are huge problems facing not just the world but particularly developing countries. Just to take one example, by 2020 more than 50% of all people in developing countries will be living in towns. The pace of urbanisation is absolutely astonishing and changes everything from food delivery through health and education, sanitation and public service delivery. Those problems are not going to be solved and managed without a very serious research input which combines science and technology and social science. That is something that needs to be very high on the agenda not only in DFID but also the OST.

  Professor Diamond: To give you another example, agricultural economists would say that if we are going to feed nine to 10 billion people in the world—and there are going to be nine to 10 billion people on this planet—then we need an increase in the rate of food production which is equivalent to that we have seen in the last 20 years during the second agricultural revolution. That will only happen, given the fact that much of the land which remains to plant such food on is marginal land, if there is research to enable that to happen, and that research has to happen now, not in 20 years. If it does not happen then we have a problem sustaining a population of nine to 10 billion people on this planet.

  Professor Leach: I would like to echo that and to argue that if the livelihood needs of poor people in rural areas and increasingly in urban areas are going to be met it is really crucial that the rapid advances in science and technology which are proceeding and which will proceed in the private sector as much as the public sector are harnessed to the needs of those poor people, and that requires a political effort to galvanise research and the interests across a number of government departments into tackling those problems. There is perhaps a political opportunity in Britain's role in the G8 next year and in the role that Britain is taking in the NEPAD process to use this as a chance to galvanise and to say science and technology must contribute to decreasing this global gap rather than widening it which, frankly, it threatens to do at times given the pace of technological change. If it is captured by the private sector towards creating pockets of high tech advance, perhaps in particular bits of developing culture, then we will fail. Harnessing technology to meet the needs of the poor is a very important agenda, and one which I think we would all support.

  Chairman: That is a great note to inspire us to finish on. Can I say thank you very much, particularly to Gordon Smith for coming all the way from Canada. Thank you for sharing your experience and erudition in this field, and I think you will find the Committee have picked up many of the messages you have sent to us today. Keep your eye on our website, see who else we are meeting, and just watch for fireworks. Thank you very much.

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