Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


24 APRIL 2006

  Q100  Chairman: Who has ministerial responsibility for it? Is it the Secretary of State? Do you have direct responsibility for that strategy board?

  Alan Johnson: Yes.

  Q101  Chairman: Is it one of your ministers?

  Alan Johnson: Lord Sainsbury deals with that.

  Q102  Bob Spink: Could I please probe the organisational changes? I wondered first of all how the management of the OST had changed as a result of the creation of the OSI.

  Sir Brian Bender: As far as I am concerned, Keith reports to me. David is the head of the office and has this peculiar position that he both reports into the Secretary of State and to the Prime Minister. If you are asking, as I think you are, about how the OSI itself is managed, it may be right that Keith and David answer.

  Q103  Bob Spink: I wanted to know what the impact of the OSI creation had on the OST.

  Professor Sir David King: The Office of Science and Technology had two key parts to it, the Transdepartmental Science and Technology Group and the Science and Engineering Base Group. Essentially, the transdepartmental science and technology team provides the capability that we have in foresight activities and international activities and also in reviewing other government departments' work and assisting in dealing with crises. The SEB team deals with the finances coming in and passing out to the Research Councils as a key part of its activity. Then we have a science and society team. Now we also have an Innovation Group, so there is a third group added to the Office of Science and Innovation. Within those two first structures, the change is minimal.

  Q104  Chairman: The science and technology group directly reported to you before. The science and engineering base group reported directly to you before, Sir Keith?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Yes.

  Q105  Chairman: Who did the overseas innovation group, this third group, report to before?

  Professor Sir David King: The Innovation Group reported to David Hughes.

  Q106  Chairman: That now comes to Sir Keith?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes, so you have three pieces instead of two.

  Q107  Chairman: You have two of them and you have one of them?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I have two which are now called one piece.

  Q108  Bob Spink: Did you want to make a further comment?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: For many years, probably back to somewhere in the mid-nineties, the Office of Science and Technology has had this relationship with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser at its head and a Director General of Research Councils so-called reporting to the permanent secretary and advising the Secretary of State on the budget. It is a construct that has worked well. You may look at it and say why does it work so well but it has worked well and it continues to do so.

  Q109  Bob Spink: This Committee is a very caring, laid back, uncynical group of guys but even we were a little bit surprised at the speed at which these changes took place and the lack of public consultation. We had a letter on 28 February and then, bang, it was all done. Was there any particular reason for this urgency?

  Alan Johnson: That was down to me, with Brian, who decided that we needed to implement this change. Once we had an idea of what we wanted to do, there was no point in hanging around. We just needed to get on and do it, particularly with a Budget coming up. All the representations we were making were for a Budget for science. We were confident there would be a lot of changes coming through from the Budget so there was no point in dragging it out. We needed to do it and do it quickly.

  Q110  Chairman: Was the Chancellor driving this?

  Alan Johnson: Not at all. This is an area that the Chancellor was not involved in until we had made the decision.

  Q111  Bob Spink: Sir David, was there any discussion at all about your particular post and whether the post of CSA might be split from the headship under the OSI during these changes? Was that discussed?

  Professor Sir David King: It would be fair to say that in the soundings that took place initially it was discussed. It would also be fair to say that it was rather instantly dismissed by most people who discussed it. In other words, there was a general feeling—and I perhaps should not be the one to say this—that the added value in having the chief scientific adviser as head of the Office of Science and Innovation was well worth maintaining in the new structure.

  Q112  Bob Spink: Was it ever thought that, even though there is some added value and there are always cons as well as benefits, your role as being truly independent across government might be challenged by your position as head of the OSI?

  Alan Johnson: No.

  Sir Brian Bender: Emphatically not. I witnessed in my last department the challenge of David King's role and I would still expect under the new structure that there will be times when, as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, he may well want to assert that challenging role in relation to the DTI.

  Q113  Bob Spink: Was it ever considered that the administration should be left to the Director General of Science and Innovation during these changes?

  Professor Sir David King: No. Once the decision had been made in the early discussions that I should continue as head of the Office of Science and Innovation, I do not think that discussion was propagated.

  Q114  Bob Spink: Sir Keith, it seems that you have taken on three jobs now. Are you able to perform all of those jobs well?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: You had better ask me next October.

  Q115  Bob Spink: Do you feel that some of those jobs may now be part-time?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: The responsibility for what is now the Science and Innovation Group is entirely manageable, he says confidently, only to be tripped up later. The new role for me of Chief Scientific Adviser in the DTI is worth pursuing. Although I was Chief Scientific Adviser in defence for five years, which was an enormous job, I have to create that role in the DTI. I am going to need quite a lot of help to create it, although I do have some experience. I already have very considerable help and advice from Dave. I have to get buy-in across the DTI. It is nothing like a full time job but to be effective there has to be a culture within the DTI that seeks out the view of the Chief Scientific Adviser, as is commonplace in a number of other departments. We are not there yet but I believe with Brian's very strong support we will get there. This third hat, if you like, is one that is going to develop, frankly, over some months. It is not going to be instant and sudden but I greatly welcome it.

  Q116  Bob Spink: I am sure you do. You are a man for challenges and you always have been. Has there been any consideration of whether there will be any conflict within your three roles and, if so, how that will be managed, or is that not going to arise?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I have not thought of any. I immediately pass that to Brian because it will be Brian's job to resolve any.

  Sir Brian Bender: There is a potential area of conflict which the Secretary of State's early comments have already addressed. In so far as the same Director General is going to be responsible for a lot of the action in government to promote science push and to get the innovation pull, one of the questions might be: is there a risk that the allocation of the Research Council money will be skewed, not on the basis of Haldane principles but on the basis of some business pull? There first of all the ring fencing will remain and, secondly, if there were such a risk David King's role, as Chief Scientific Adviser could come into play at his discretion to operate as a challenge. I do not believe the conflicts are there but they could be there and we have set up safeguards to minimise that risk ever occurring.

  Q117  Chairman: I am staggered, Sir Keith, that you say that being the chief scientific adviser to the DTI, which arguably is the most powerful vehicle for delivering science, technology and innovation in the country, is just a minor, part-time job.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I already have a day job. At the moment I spend five days a week involved in science and innovation. What I am saying is that in addition to the time I am involved in scientific matters, my involvement in other areas of the DTI will add to that. There are two obvious candidate areas where any chief scientific adviser to the DTI should be looking in addition. One is obviously energy. The other is probably in some of the biosciences areas of Business Group, what is known as EBG. What I cannot say at the moment with great precision is how much extra effort that is going to be. I completely accept your point that most of my life is involved in scientific matters and advising the Secretary of State on the most wise use of his budget.

  Professor Sir David King: Could I come back to the previous question because it seems to me that the Committee has touched on a very important point. The funding of the Research Councils not only covers innovation and wealth creation opportunities. For example, there are many different government departments with different demands on the research base and the skills generated by that research base. Outside the country we have many demands also met by that research base. Quite clearly my function as head of the Office of Science and Innovation within this structure that we are describing is to see that I can provide the challenge that maintains that process. I can only provide that challenge if the Office of Science and Innovation operates as a true entity.

  Q118  Chairman: It is an issue that we were very conscious of. One of the reasons we did the current review of the Research Councils in terms of knowledge transfer was to tease out where is the split between basic research and maintaining high quality basic research and having the function to pull or push that through in terms of applied research. It was a concern to our Committee that this reorganisation might re-emphasise the work of the Research Councils very much towards the wealth creation side, perhaps at the expense of the basic research which, I think speaking for the Committee, we felt would be a mistake. That is obviously for others to decide. Secretary of State, would the Director General of Science and Innovation always be expected to fulfil the role of chief scientific adviser within the DTI? Do you think that is a necessity?

  Alan Johnson: We will see how it goes. That is the role that David Hughes had. I do not think I can, hand on heart, say yes, I think that will always be the role. I think it is the right place to put that job at the moment. In relation to Adam's earlier question, are there any other changes going to come up over the next six months, we will see how all this works. We have the basic principles right here and I tend to think it is Sir Keith's position that should be chief scientific adviser.

  Q119  Chairman: We find it a little difficult to understand how the DTI chief scientific adviser can provide very independent advice when he is also Director General of Science and Innovation. There seems to be a conflict in those two roles.

  Alan Johnson: The previous role was as Director General of Innovation.

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