Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)

9 JUNE 2004


  Q480 Chairman: Who was responsible for that?

  Professor Maudlin: There were governance problems. Whose problem was it? Was it a Ugandan problem? Was it a Kenyan problem? Then, of course, they would each have different solutions to the problem although they were using a common source. Then there was a lot of competition and bidding for who was going to solve the problem. It turned out to be solved very effectively in the end by an introduced beetle which dealt with it. In fact it was a cheap solution which worked in the end. The big machines which were introduced to munch it up just caused a problem with snakes for the people who were involved with it.

  Chairman: I must meet you outside this place!

  Q481 Dr Turner: My colleague has already referred to DFID's new research strategy. What are your views on the choice of four central themes? Do you think they are the right themes—agricultural productivity in Africa, diseases, states working in the interests of the poor and climate change? Are these the right priorities? More importantly, do you think that the research strategy is going to approach those priorities in the right way?

  Professor Maudlin: First of all I would ask, what are we doing here? We are talking about British research, and then we have to ask ourselves what can British research contribute that other countries cannot? As I said in my submission, there are five areas where we are better than the rest of the world. These are pharmacology, agriculture, veterinary science, pure maths, mineral and mining engineering. All the rest of them the Americans do better than we do, much better in fact. We have to ask ourselves are we going to be just generally throwing small amounts of money into a pond and having no effect or are we going to play to our strengths? I suggest we do the latter and add something significant to the international research effort rather than blundering about in the dark putting in a little bit of money here, a little bit of money there. We should focus.

  Professor Haines: From the health perspective I think that many of the topics are along the right lines. I would say that the UK is also very strong in a range of health research areas, including clinical trials, for example, including in low income countries. In health systems research I would say we are very strong, and if you look at the US there is not the same reputation, if I can say that, for health systems researchers in North America. We are very strong in epidemiology. In communicable disease epidemiology, for example, there have been very important contributions from UK researchers. I would say that there are a number of important areas in which UK research is certainly amongst the best in the world and is very widely respected. Some of the details need fleshing out. I come back again to the issue of capacity building as an important area because if we want to ensure that there is an indigenous research capacity in the next 20 years then investment will have to be long term. Some of these institutions in low income countries are barely functioning at all and they have been starved of resources for many years. Some international agencies have taken a much longer term view than DFID in terms of research capacity strengthening and if we want to create an autonomous research capacity in low income countries that is one of the things that needs to be addressed in the research strategy. Many UK institutions are prepared and committed to help but at the moment, as I said previously, there is very little incentive for us to do that, both in terms of the research assessment exercise and in terms of our own research programme. I would hope that we can integrate within some of these important research areas a strong capacity building component.

  Q482 Dr Turner: Your memorandum called for a UK policy research forum involving both government and non-governmental members to conduct a dialogue about research efforts and obviously promote co-ordination of those efforts. Do you think that the proposed Funders' Forum announced in DFID's research strategy could fulfil that function? Do you know whether DFID intends to ensure that developing countries' views are adequately represented in that forum?

  Professor Haines: I do not know precisely what they have in mind but as I understand it the Funders' Forum that they are proposing could cover many of the functions that we have proposed in our submission so we were quite glad to see that specifically referred to. Certainly there is a need to draw together expertise and strategic insights across the UK in terms of research funding. On a global scale WHO clearly has an important role in terms of co-ordinating health research and one which, as a member of the WHO's Advisory Committee on Health Research, I hope to see strengthened in the coming years. There is a need for global co-ordination around health research but also, because the UK is such an important player in development research, this UK Funders' Forum seems to me to have some of the essential characteristics of the body we propose.

  Q483 Dr Turner: Have any of you been invited to join?

  Mr Winterton: There is a specifically health related Funders' Forum being formed between the Wellcome Trust, the MRC and DFID focusing on health issues to try and ensure improved co-ordination in relation to UK research funders, so that is, if you like, already being launched at the moment and we are actively involved in getting that off the ground.

  Q484 Dr Turner: Professor Maudlin, you memorandum seems quite positive about the virtues of PPP arrangements. You may have heard in the previous evidence session that there were somewhat different views from engineers on that. Do you think that DFID is well placed to judge when a PPP is in the interests of the people in developing countries? What advice has DFID sought from you on this? Do you think they have enough commercial nous, if you like, to be able to make them work properly anyway?

  Professor Maudlin: DFID have consulted with me about wanting to set up a PPP for animal vaccines. They have trawled the knowledge base now quite widely for advice both with professional consultants interested and experienced in setting up PPPs and with the private sector. The private sector in animal health is very small so it is very easy to get advice from them. There are about five big players. Of course, consultations with the developing world are the next important step. This is in its infancy, of course. It has not been set up yet. My enthusiasm for it stems from the fact that it should provide a boost to the funding given to the overall problems of animal health in the tropics which, I have to say, are mainly in Africa. Again, we come back to the problem of Africa and sustainability. The animal health research institutes in Africa which exist are basically falling apart at the seams because of lack of funding. Ondesdepoort in South Africa, which is a very high level institution, is haemorrhaging staff.

  Q485 Chairman: Which ones are falling apart?

  Professor Maudlin: Ondesdepoort in South Africa, which was a major institution, is haemorrhaging staff, for obvious political reasons.

  Q486 Chairman: There are others?

  Professor Maudlin: Yes. The ITC (International tolerance Centre) in The Gambia is struggling because of lack of funding.

  Q487 Mr McWalter: We have had evidence from Professor David Bradley from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who says " . . . there is a need for the UK to fully accept responsibility for maintaining its own expertise and so its ability to help effectively". I do not quite know what you think the expertise is, Professor Maudlin, but do you agree with that?

  Professor Maudlin: Yes. I think I said earlier that it is in our own interests to do that in the sphere of animal health. We would be foolish not to.

  Q488 Mr McWalter: But you have only laid out five areas that we are any good at and let the Americans do the rest.

  Professor Maudlin: I was quoting from an article in Nature.

  Q489 Mr McWalter: It is much easier, is it not, to keep the expertise in a very small number of areas than to keep the expertise for dealing with the problem in the round?

  Professor Maudlin: Yes.

  Q490 Mr McWalter: Whose responsibility is it to maintain the UK capacity for research in international development?

  Professor Maudlin: It is the responsibility of those with the money.

  Q491 Mr McWalter: So about 50 players, all of whom have five bits of tiny pots who will not be able—you are spending your whole life trying to get the money and you never actually get to deal with the problems? Is that right?

  Professor Maudlin: I would not put it as dismally as that.

  Q492 Mr McWalter: It is very cosy sitting round in meetings rather than going out and trying to solve the problems, is it not? Is that how people end up?

  Professor Haines: I would like to see DFID taking more responsibility for this area.

  Q493 Mr McWalter: Thank you. That is what I was after.

  Professor Haines: If we do not have a robust and resilient research infrastructure in the UK that will support development research then inevitably our policies will suffer as a result. Just to buy in consultants in the very short term to advise you on a specific issue is not the answer. You need long term strategic relationships with people who understand research and how to use research findings. There needs to be a receptor capacity at DFID level and we need to have long term strategic engagement.

  Q494 Mr McWalter: So whenever we need co-ordination DFID goes missing; is that right?

  Professor Haines: I would like to see stronger co-ordination. I also think that the Funders' Forum that Nick referred to could play an important role in this.

  Chairman: Why do we not just have an Overseas Development Research Council where the political situation is addressed in a serious way rather than providing it in a very unco-ordinated way? Would that not be a very simplistic answer? You put the money in, people bid, you have a strategy, you have a programme. It happens in another arena.

  Mr McWalter: And they work with MRC and all the other agencies to co-ordinate engineering and medicine together?

  Q495 Chairman: And we put it in the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine on the top floor in a broom cupboard.

  Professor Maudlin: I think they would be delighted.

  Q496 Chairman: What do you think, Ian Maudlin? Too radical for Great Britain?

  Professor Maudlin: It is a good idea. I think some co-ordination of the overall effort is necessary.

  Q497 Chairman: Is this the only way to get it, do you think, or will we be here in 10 years' time?

  Professor Maudlin: It would depend how that was set up and how it was funded, and it would depend on the money stream. Would it be sustainable? Would they give you three years to do this in and then say, "That is the end of that. Forget about it and all go home"?

  Mr McWalter: It might give you a five star on a research and assessment exercise because they would know what they were assessing. That would be a start.

  Q498 Dr Iddon: How much guidance do you get from the World Health Organisation on your input into diseases in overseas countries?

  Professor Haines: Our staff do a great deal of work with the WHO. As mentioned previously, I am a member of the Advisory Committee on Health Research. At the moment WHO is reviewing its whole strategy around health research. It has had a slightly unclear position up to now. In part it has been doing research, in part it has seen itself as a user of research findings, in part it has seen itself as a translator and disseminator of research findings. My own view is that WHO should largely be focusing on trying to find out what the global research priorities are in health, ensuring that health findings are properly utilised and ensuring that the findings are disseminated out to ministries and to the countries where they can be effectively used.

  Q499 Chairman: I put it to you that without a Development Research Council you are floating in the wind.

  Professor Haines: I think the proposal for a Development Research Council is a very interesting one. My concern, I suppose, would be that it is a multi-disciplinary area. Could one really encompass within one research council expertise across engineering, health, social sciences and so on?

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