Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
INDUSTRY & SCIENCE
WEDNESDAY 9 MAY
Q60 Derek Wyatt: I am really keen
to understand what it is they are doing that we are not doing
and better understand whether in their science centresours
seem to be independent of university but sort of attachedthere
is something going on beyond the American, Australian, British
model that somehow makes science so attractive and the commitment
of the state of India and China so phenomenal. We have done well
as a government and I applaud what the Chancellor of the Exchequer
is doing, although you are saying it is very difficult to understand
the economic impact of some of these things. You said we are second
and I just want to understand we are definitely second and India
and China are not threatening us in this area.
Sir Brian Bender: We are definitely
second at the moment on areas like citations and so on, on objective
measures that other scientists would accept. Secondly, this Report
self-evidently only concerns a particular type of large facility
and quite a lot, in fact a large part of the Government's investment
in science over the last few years has gone into the facilities
at universities including facilities in infrastructure. Thirdly,
as you will have seen in India and possibly also in China, those
governments are putting massive resources into scientific facilities
in those countries and we are not at all complacent about the
speed with which they are catching up.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Just
to take that point. In terms of international competitivenessand
let me stick with scientific excellence because it is even more
difficult to look at economic impact internationallyand
scientific excellence, the UK is second only to the US. Germany
is performing quite strongly and keeping track of us. China is
actually coming up quite rapidly and if 1.3 billion people achieve
the level of per capita income that we have, we must expect
them to be a very strong player. India is now off the runway.
France is limping a little bit in terms of that league table.
Just to give you a picture.
Q61 Derek Wyatt: The impact of some
of these things that we are creating here is 10 and 15 and 20
years away, but I suppose my real concern is that in that time
the number of people who will study science may decline further.
Despite your optimism about this particular year, that is not
the case at A level currently and if you go to 2010 when we review
how much we should charge students, the top 20 are already lobbying
us to let them charge what they like and they are talking about
£6,000 or £8,000 or £10,000 a student. You can
see that a decision would have to be made on science, that we
have four chemistry departments, Exeter University and Sussex
University were two of them, but I cannot remember the other two.
The state would have to say: "Hold on, the future wealth
of the country is based on Public Accounts and we cannot
allow a free expression of an open system, we will somehow have
to do something to the science". What I am interested in
is that India has already got there in that area.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: You
are into a very big area of government policy and obviously it
extends massively beyond the remit we have here.
Q62 Derek Wyatt: I know, but are
you confident we have enough scientists coming through the system
who will make good use of these facilities?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: No,
I am not. I am confident that all of the evidence that we have
suggests that we will be well enough staffed for the facilities
that we are building at the moment. Realism says that when you
ask whether we are totally confident on present trends that our
supply in 20 or 30 years time from indigenous sources of those
who are seven years old or eight years old today and in 20 years
time will be the scientists of the future will be adequate, the
answer has to be no. If you go to the US, they will make exactly
the same comment.
Sir Brian Bender: Looking back
to one of Dr Pugh's questions, another player in all of this are
the Regional Development Agencies which are working with the universities
to help boost science and innovation in different regions of the
country. So, for example the Manchester region, coming back to
the North West, now has world-class university facilities and
scientists in certain disciplines. Driving further at that and
also partnering India and China and other countries has to be
part of the answer. The Civil Service and ministers are not complacent
about the area that you are asking about.
Q63 Derek Wyatt: If I were Pfizer
or Abbott's Laboratories, which are two American companies which
have big bases here, in fact Abbott's are in my constituency and
Pfizer is just down the road in Sandwich, why would I want to
Sir Brian Bender: Last year, Amgen,
a big American biotech company, made a significant inward investment
here and I happened to see the UK Managing Director the next day
and I asked him why. He said it was because of the brains, because
of the quality of bioscience in British universities. So in the
case of the pharma industry and the biotech industry, we are right
up there and indeed in some respects ahead of America. The issue
is how to ensure that we have the quality of science, particularly
in the universities, which will continue to act as a magnet for
investment, and part of the policy of UK Trade and Investment
now is to try to link in much more with the science base of the
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: There
has actually been a large growth in trained scientists in the
UK over the last decade, both at the undergraduate, the graduate
and the post-graduate level. The growth however has been almost
totally in the biosciences and the biological sciences and, rather
interestingly and welcome, much of that growth has been with women
entering the biosciences. It is unsurprising that a Pfizer or
an Amgen is seeing a very high quality output and is responding
to it by investing here. Where we have not seen growth in output,
despite the number of undergraduates that has increased remarkably,
is in mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, computing
science. That is where we are flat in output numbers but there
has been a big growth overall in scientists and in the biological
Q64 Mr Mitchell: Forgive me for taking
the populist line, even if it comes naturally to me. I find it
extraordinary that paragraph 1.17 of the Report says: "Such
analysis of economic impacts as is currently undertaken relies
heavily on assertions of potential for direct industrial use,
industrial use through industry-university collaborations or knowledge
transfer". Surely, practical applications and the spin-off
for the economy should be paramount in deciding on these projects?
Sir Brian Bender: I was with you
until your last sentence Mr Mitchell. The spin-off to the economy
should not be paramount. In making the investment decision in
science, the paramount aspect should be the quality of the science,
but taking account of what the spin-off will be. As we said in
response to earlier questions, there is much more we need to do
to harden up the analysis of the economic impacts and some of
the broader impacts, particularly of having trained scientists
using these facilities and that is the sort of area where the
National Audit Office were justifiably criticising us.
Q65 Mr Mitchell: When it comes to
the evaluation of one project against another, both of them costing
a lot of money, surely the economic impact and the economic benefit
for the economy should be the paramount in choosing.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Yes
and no. It needs to be properly considered and balanced against
other outputs of that investment. Let me take the absurd comparison.
Let us take Diamond, which is the type of facility that we know
the pharmaceutical industry will use and have used and let us
look at building the Halley base in Antarctica. In terms of economic
output, "diddly-squat" from Halley base floating on
the ice; Diamond, yes, pharma wants to use it. Actually the justification
is strong in both cases because measurements of the physics of
the atmosphere from Halley base discovered the ozone hole; physics
of the upper atmosphere there will be a very key part of climate
Q66 Mr Mitchell: But there is no
return for the British taxpayer.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Are
you interested in climate change or the ozone layer? I am sure
Q67 Mr Mitchell: I am sure there
is a lot of information about climate change; it is coming out
of my ears.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: What
I am saying is that perfectly good investment on key issues like
that is recognised as an appropriate part of the investment, as
would be the synchrotron. Yes, economic impact is extremely important
but not to preclude investments in things that may have enormous
public good benefits.
Q68 Mr Mitchell: Even some of the
benefits from Diamond look somewhat hypothetical to me. Here is
a document the expedition captured this morning: 10 things we
could not have done without synchrotrons. Number one is the development
of the anti-flu drug, Relenza, but when we come down to number
seven it says that following the crystallisation of pure cocoa
butter in real time the results showed the optimum conditions
for chocolate manufacture. This is stretching things incredibly
Sir Brian Bender: It was an industrial
benefit that the chocolate manufacturer paid for.
Professor Mason: The important
point there is that for the particular chocolate manufacturer
in question, it was of huge economic benefit because otherwise
they would have had to produce something totally different.
Q69 Mr Mitchell: You have the project
so you are going to have to produce some benefit from it even
it is minimal in terms of solidifying chocolate.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: That
list there is to indicate the breadth not necessarily the priorities.
In terms of things that impressed me most, it is much more around
drug discovery, health benefits and things that aerospace have
done on composites and so on, but chocolate and how well it melts
in your mouth is an unexpected benefit.
Q70 Mr Mitchell: So you would not
accept the point that economic spin-offs should have a higher
weighting in consideration of these projects.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Quite.
Professor Mason: May I put another
gloss on this? You have to consider the timescale of the economic
benefit and we were talking a few minutes ago about the investment
that China and India are making in these areas and the importance
for our economy of maintaining our position at the forefront in
the knowledge stakes. China and India have no better idea of the
quantitative economic spin-off from their facilities than we do,
because nobody has solved that problem yet, but they still invest
because they understand
Q71 Mr Mitchell: Why I am asking
is because of Sir Brian's point that the starting point should
be what the right science is. Why should that be the starting
point? The starting point should surely be the benefits to the
British economy. Our problem has always been that we have been
very good at pure research, at winning Nobel prizes, at developing
this and that and we have not been any good at the practical applications
Sir Brian Bender: The primary
purpose of the investment in science is basically the scientific
infrastructure of this country, whether it is for the public good,
whether it is defence, whether it is environmental or whatever,
and then we need to get other tools that will maximise the wealth
creation and technological
Q72 Mr Mitchell: My point is that
it becomes a self-perpetuating thing. We are good at pure science,
therefore we invest money in these kinds of projects encouraging
pure science, therefore we encourage more people into pure science,
and the practical applications lag behind. We never see the benefits.
Professor Mason: That is an incorrect
analysis because what we actually are investing in is not necessarily
pure science: we are investing in the intellectual capacity of
our country, attracting the best brains to our country and from
that flows economic benefit. A wise man once said: "If you
think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance".
Q73 Mr Mitchell: When I was a university
teacher I was giving exactly the same sermon as you are giving
me now, but it is a matter of practice surely, talking about intellectual
benefit, that the Germans and the Japanese have been much more
cunning in the applications of science and that is our main problem.
Professor Mason: That is a charge
you could level at the UK in the past and I agree with you. What
we are saying here is that we are changing that and it is not
a matter of pure science or economic benefit: economic benefit
comes from pure science. What we have to do is maximise the benefits
that we get from that, rather than only looking at the economic
benefit because the economic benefit always accrues.
Sir Brian Bender: A lot of work
has been done in the last few years, spearheaded by some work
that Richard Lambert did, to make it easier to have patent applications;
the number of patent applications filed by universities has increased
significantly over the last few years. Secondly, almost every
university has a kind of commercial officer to go round, look
at the research being done and look at where it could be commercialised.
Thirdly, the DTI does provide some funding for knowledge transfer
partnerships to try to get various economic players, businesses
and universities together, again to get the knowledge out there
into business areas. It is not an either/or, but the primary purpose
of the investment in science is actually for the science base.
The challenge is how to make sure we get enough wealth creation
Q74 Mr Mitchell: You made the point
about Halley VI, because Halley V is about to sink beneath the
waters with all those polar bears and penguins dragged down with
it. What is the economic benefit? I can see the benefit for science
but somebody else is going to finance that, a country with more
money than we have.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Let
me offer you a statistic. On the initial point that you made as
to whether in the past we were good at pulling world-class science
through to economic benefit, there is rather good evidence that
we were lagging. Things have improved a great deal in the last
half a dozen years. Let me just give you one measure and there
are many measures: university spin-outs over the last three years.
The top 25 university spin-outs that have reached IPO have a market
capitalisation of £1.5 billion, which is now getting to be
serious money. If you normalise that to the United States, population
size, money going in, it starts to bear pretty good comparison
with the United States and university performance, but it is deeper
than that. I just give you one example. The Medical Research Council
licensed a drug called Humira that it discovered and that was
£120 million income. If you look at the trend, it is getting
respectable and going in the right direction. I just hope that
most of what you have heard is convincing you that economic impact
is actually a very high priority.
Q75 Mr Mitchell: I am interested
in the argument over location. Why not get the regional development
agencies bidding for location? You put a gloss Sir Brian on the
location of the Diamond by saying it was an argument between Cheshire,
which Dr Pugh was representing, and Oxfordshire. Is not the truth
of the matter that Wellcome said they would pull out unless it
went to Oxford?
Sir Brian Bender: At a certain
point they were very much in favour of Oxford, there is no doubt,
but of the five reasons I gave, that was the fifth and there were
four others also in Lord Sainsbury's letter. Certainly the RDAs
do have an important role in the investment in science and innovation
in the English regions and that is a key part of their role.
Q76 Mr Mitchell: Why should they
not finance these organisations to attract them to their area?
Sir Brian Bender: If you are talking
about these really big facilities, then most of them are not that
mobile: clearly the computer is; Halley obviously is not; for
the synchrotron it was only really a choice between two locations.
The RDAs undoubtedly do have a role in the scientific infrastructure
and innovation capability in each region and part of the aim of
the department and the Government is to get them even better at
Q77 Mr Mitchell: Why is the scientific
community not more involved in prioritising? The Report says there
is a gap there and surely if we are talking about pure science,
the best people to evaluate priorities are the scientific community.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: We
would accept that the NAO and you do have a point there. I do
not have difficulty with the research councils themselves making
those priorities, but there is an argument that we fully accept
that this should be more transparent at the time and probably
more consultative in terms of reaching those priorities. We accept
that. This is not making too many excuses, but remember the roadmap
is a relatively new exercise, something which was pioneered in
the UK, we are still finding our way, it is clearly the right
way to do it and that is a tuning we accept we should make.
Q78 Mr Dunne: A question on Mr Mitchell's
and Dr Pugh's point about the location. Can you confirm that,
based on the scientific evidence that you gave us earlier, a decision
was held up to start that project by approximately a year by the
Secretary of State seeking to make a political decision about
the location rather than one based on scientific evidence?
Sir Brian Bender: I have no knowledge
of exactly what happened at the time beyond the criteria I described.
There was a delay before the decision was made and then the reasons
given were the ones that I outlined earlier that were in Lord
Sainsbury's letter to the Public Accounts Committee. I
do not know whether there is anything you can add to that.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
can add nothing.
Q79 Chairman: Who was Secretary of
State at the time?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Stephen