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Select Committee on Science and Technology Ninth Report


Report


Introduction

1. At the beginning of the Parliament we undertook, as one of our core tasks, "To scrutinise major appointments made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry" within our remit. This is in accordance with one of the Liaison Committee's core tasks for Select Committees.[1] We envisaged that this would take the form of a single evidence session with new incumbents to be held within their first few months of office. The sessions are intended to be analogous to the Congressional confirmation hearings in the United States, although we have no power to ratify or veto any appointment. Our purpose is to satisfy Parliament that the post has been filled with someone of sufficient calibre, establish the views and principles that he or she brings to the job, alert the incumbent to our interests and concerns, and heighten awareness of our role in scrutinising each individual's performance and that of their divisions or organisations.

2. So far we have held five such sessions, with Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council; Mr David Hughes, Director General of Innovation at the Department of Trade and Industry; Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council[2]; and Professor Sir Alan Wilson, Director General for Higher Education at the Department for Education and Skills[3]. On 12 May 2004, the Committee held an introductory hearing with Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC). The transcript of the session is published with this report, together with a written statement submitted by Sir Keith in advance of the session.

Suitability

3. Sir Keith took up the post of DGRC at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in January 2004. Prior to this, he spent four years as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). In contrast to his predecessors, who were both industrialists, Sir Keith has a background in academia, having previously held the position of Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge as well as posts at the Universities of Oxford and Columbia. Sir Keith explained to us that for the first approximately six months of his appointment he is dividing his time between the MoD and DTI, with only one day each week officially allocated to his DGRC role. We believe that Sir Keith's experience, both in academia and at the MoD, should equip him well for his duties as DGRC and note that his appointment has been favourably received by many in the science community. However, we are disappointed that Sir Keith has not yet been able to fully commit to his new post. It is essential that the DGRC plays a full role in the development of the ten-year framework for science and investment and negotiations for the spending review. We are concerned that this is not possible whilst the DGRC is only in post for one day each week. We hope that in future the OST will ensure that appointments for major posts are ready to assume their positions as soon as the post becomes vacant.

Relationship with the Research Councils

4. It is clear from the memorandum submitted by Sir Keith that he sees a need to review the relationship of the DGRC with the Research Councils. Sir Keith stated that he was "in discussions with the Chief Executives of the Research Councils about how to ensure that [the] DGRC is fully engaged in strategic matters in a way that is consistent with RCUK being able to offer independent advice to the Government and where, as Executive Non Departmental Public Bodies, responsibility for the day-to-day management of the Councils rests with the Chief Executives".[4]

5. On 5 May 2004, the DGRC was invited to give evidence to the Committee as part of its inquiry into scientific publications, with the intention that he should speak on behalf of the Research Councils. However, neither he nor RCUK were content with this arrangement and RCUK consequently sent a separate representative to the session. This denotes a significant departure from Sir Keith's predecessors' interpretation of the job. Indeed, Sir John Taylor, his immediate predecessor, regularly appeared before the Committee on behalf of the Research Councils. Sir Keith described this deviation from past procedure as a "shift that becomes logical as RCUK matures and finds its feet in an effective way".[5]

6. Sir Keith also explained that he believed that he "must not get involved in what is the rightful responsibility and proper accountability of the heads of the Research Councils, in the day-to-day running of their business and looking at cross-council issues".[6] We welcome Sir Keith's recognition of the need to respect the independence of the Research Councils granted by their Royal Charters. We also endorse his view that RCUK strategy group meetings should not become mired in discussions over detail. However, Sir Keith's unwillingness to appear before the Committee on behalf of RCUK and to address cross-council issues signifies a notable departure from his predecessors' interpretation of the role. If the DGRC cannot speak on behalf of the Research Councils, there is an obvious need to clarify the nature of his job, as well as to establish who should speak on behalf of RCUK. It is vital that the relationship between the DGRC and RCUK is clearly defined. We welcome the fact that Sir Keith appears to recognise this and look forward to exploring this issue further during our forthcoming scrutiny of RCUK.

Job Title

7. Sir Keith stated in written evidence that his primary role was "advising the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the UK Science Budget".[7] This differs quite substantially from the role that his title, Director General of the Research Councils, implies. When questioned on whether he saw himself as an advocate of the science community or an implementer of Government strategy, Sir Keith told us "It has to be both. Clearly, I am an advocate of strategy. My job description is that I am responsible to the Secretary of State for the strategy for the science budget, and on that basis I view it as my job to be collating, feeding in and representing the views of RCUK - that is a very large part of the community - but also, more widely reflecting the views of the community through the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and elsewhere".[8]

8. In responding to the suggestion that this description of his role did not tally with his job title, Sir Keith remarked : "I did not invent the name myself. I absolutely respect your view. If you have recommendations to make I think that is all to the good […] I look forward to your view".[9] We believe that the title DGRC is misleading and are pleased that Sir Keith is receptive to finding an alternative title that more accurately reflects his role. We suggest that 'Director General of the Research Base' better indicates the scope of his responsibilities.

Remit of the DGRC

9. At present, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government (CSA), fulfils a dual role combining a coordination and advisory function with the post of Head of the OST. The current CSA, Professor Sir David King, has been active in promoting cross-Government coordination, and providing advice to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, on matters relating to science and technology. We have been impressed by Sir David's achievements in these areas but are not convinced that this important advisory role is complemented by the CSA's responsibilities as Head of the OST. We are, moreover, concerned that the latter obligation could impede the CSA's ability to operate as an independent and high-level advocate of science across Government.

10. Furthermore, the current organisational structure in the OST does not clearly convey the seniority of the DGRC's position. We understand that in practice the DGRC and CSA both represent the OST within DTI, depending on whether the subject matter concerns international and cross-Government, or UK science base, issues. It is therefore misleading to apply the title 'Head of the OST' to the CSA: in effect, this function is fulfilled by the CSA and the DGRC.

11. In addition, with the emergence of RCUK the role of the DGRC has evolved significantly from its initial incarnation and, as noted above, Sir Keith has already signalled his intention to take a more 'hands-off' approach to interaction with the Research Councils. We therefore recommend that Government revisit the responsibilities allocated to the DGRC and CSA to reflect better the priorities now associated with these posts. In particular, the designation of the CSA as Head of the OST is confusing and underplays the significance of the DGRC's role. At present, it is difficult for an observer to understand the reporting lines and responsibilities of the senior management in the OST. We believe that the OST should clarify these relationships, and announce the resulting organisational structure.

Science in Society

12. In its Departmental Report 2004, DTI notes that it "must encourage greater public engagement with science and a dialogue that leads to an improved mutual understanding between scientists, policy makers and the public. This is an area that has assumed an increasing importance as a result of issues such as BSE, Genetically Modified (GM) food and MMR".[10] The Research Councils currently carry out separate public engagement activities, with spend on these activities representing only a small proportion of their total budgets.

13. We were encouraged to hear Sir Keith raise the question of whether the various activities concerning public engagement with science and technology are "joined up in a coherent way such that all these people that have a role to play are focused on the same issue, or are we playing a whole load of parallel games, most of which are having rather limited effect?".[11] We consider this to be an apposite question that has not yet been answered. Sir Keith told us "This is an area where I have to give some effort, and I hope, if we meet in twelve months' time, there is a better story to tell".[12] We believe that public engagement with science and technology is an issue of the utmost importance and are disappointed that the OST has taken so long to implement the recommendations of the British Association report on Science in Society[13]. We hope that Sir Keith's involvement will give fresh impetus to efforts in this area and look forward to Sir Keith's return in a year's time to report on the progress he has made.

Interdisciplinary Research

14. The Committee's 2003 OST scrutiny report notes that "some differences in policies and grant schemes [between the Research Councils] are completely unnecessary. These make comparisons between Councils difficult and, more seriously, could create obstacles to interdisciplinary research".[14] The Committee has also heard evidence in its inquiry into the use of science in UK international development policy that disparities in the policies of the various Research Councils are hindering research in this area.

15. Sir Keith commented that he thought that the Research Councils already had "both the machinery and the incentive"[15] to support interdisciplinary research but conceded that "it will always be one of these things that you will always have to work quite hard at".[16] He also expressed the view that the Research Councils "must have a part to play"[17] in funding research for international development. We are pleased that Sir Keith intends to work hard at improving funding arrangements for interdisciplinary research. We believe that despite the progress already made towards this end by the Research Councils, further attention needs to be given to the ability of the Research Councils to handle proposals for interdisciplinary research. We also welcome Sir Keith's recognition of the Research Councils' role in supporting research for international development and hope that this will translate into greater consistency between the policies of the various Research Councils.

Ten -Year Investment Framework for Science and Innovation

16. In a speech on 26 January 2004 the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that a ten-year investment framework for science and innovation would be a central feature of the 2004 spending review. A consultation on the investment framework was launched on 16 March and concluded on 30 April 2004. Sir Keith indicated that he was heavily involved with the development of this strategy and commented that the Treasury had "reached out in quite an impressive way".[18] Sir Keith also accepted that despite the fact that there had been "a very healthy response"[19] to the consultation, the short consultation period could have disadvantaged contributors who lacked the capacity to generate rapid responses. We are encouraged by Sir Keith's conviction that the Treasury has successfully engaged with the scientific community in developing this framework and are pleased that he acknowledges the potential difficulties arising from the short consultation period. We intend to undertake a detailed examination of the ten-year framework in a forthcoming inquiry.

Conclusion

17. We welcome the appointment of Sir Keith to the post of DGRC and are confident that he possesses the requisite skills and experience to enable him to fulfil this role effectively. It is, however, clear that the duties undertaken by Sir Keith are significantly different to those that his title, Director General of the Research Councils, suggests and therefore propose that an alternative job title be identified. Furthermore, we believe that it would be timely to revisit the distribution of responsibilities between the CSA and the DGRC in view of the evolution of the priorities associated with these positions over recent years. We look forward to further meetings with Sir Keith in the coming months.


1   First Report of the Liaison Committee, Session 2002-03, Annual Report for 2002, HC 558, para 13 Back

2   Second Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2003-04, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council: Introductory Hearing (HC 55) Back

3   Seventh Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2003-04, Director General for Higher Education: Introductory Hearing (HC 461) Back

4   Ev 10 Back

5   Q 8 Back

6   Q 8 Back

7   Ev 10 Back

8   Q 19 Back

9   Q 15 Back

10   Department of Trade and Industry, Departmental Report 2004, Cm 6216, p 82 Back

11   Q 40 Back

12   Q 44 Back

13   Science in Society, British Association, November 2002 Back

14   Fourth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2003-04, The Office of Science and Technology: Scrutiny Report 2003 (HC 316), para 36 Back

15   Q 33 Back

16   Q 33 Back

17   Q 50 Back

18   Q 25 Back

19   Q 27 Back


 
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Prepared 5 July 2004