Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)|
MP, SIR BRIAN
24 APRIL 2006
Q120 Chairman: I am not saying the
previous role was right either. I am just saying that there seems
to be a contradiction but you are fairly confident that there
Alan Johnson: I am confident because
I think that is where also David King's role comes in here. David
is a long stop. His independence and the fact that he reports
directly to the Prime Minister and is the Government Chief Scientific
Adviser allow him to see issues like this in context. If he needs
to have words with me about how it is going, I have absolutely
no doubt that David would be no shrinking violet.
Q121 Chairman: Would it not be better
for David King to be embedded in the Cabinet Office directly responsible
to the Prime Minister so he could really hold you and your colleagues
Sir Brian Bender: I would like
to endorse this from my own personal experience. I do not see
David King as a shrinking violet who will hide from any challenging
interventions when necessary. Coming back to your more direct
question about the role in the Department of Chief Scientific
Adviser, I would like to reinforce the points Keith made a few
minutes ago. One of the principal roles of the Department's Chief
Scientific Adviser is to provide assurance essentially to the
Secretary of State and to me of the evidence and quality of the
science base policy advice going up. That ought to happen almost
without blinking in the pure science area that Keith has dealt
with up to now. The bigger challenge is whether it is and can
be said in the future to be happening in relation to other parts
of the DTI, especially the energy area and the biosciences areas
and in any other areas. What assurance can that person give? I
do not see any conflict there. It is a question of having the
access and the challenge role into other parts of the Department.
Q122 Chairman: In the old organisation
Sir David King and Professor O'Nions seemed to be on a par with
each other in terms of the structure. Now, Sir David King has
been elevated and Sir Keith O'Nions reports to him?
Sir Brian Bender: No. It was always
a slightly odd, two headed structure with David King having this
double role, being the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and
a member of the peculiar organisation of Wednesday morning meetings
with permanent secretaries. David had that role and continues
to have it. As Sir Keith said earlier, his predecessor Director
General for Research Councils and he were part of this two headed
organisation and reported to the permanent secretary of the DTI.
That is continuing but with a larger remit that Keith now has.
Q123 Chairman: Would it be possible
to have a flow chart or schematic diagram of who does what within
the new organisation with a clear understanding of their responsibilities?
Sir Brian Bender: Yes.
Q124 Mr Devine: There have been suggestions
that these proposals are Treasury led. The editor of Research
Fortnight notes that Gordon Brown has put his foot on the
accelerator. Sir Keith, you said that within the Ten Year Framework
the Treasury have obviously quite a strong lead. We are interested
in why the science and innovation paper Next Steps was
published with the Budget. Is that a science white paper in all
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: That
was a Treasury decision as to what is included in a Budget. You
will know about the way in which Budget statements and documentation
are prepared. I greatly welcome that this has happened. It is
a year of a Comprehensive Spending Review when a very large part
of the Government's Budget is being zero based and reviewed. In
terms of the science budget within the DTI, this has not been
subject to zero based review. It is perhaps unsurprising that
the Treasury take a close interest in looking at it in another
way. I greatly welcome it because it has highlighted a number
of areas for some decisions and for consultation that the Secretary
of State has endorsed, in a year when budgets are up for consideration
and so on. The timeliness is right on. Had it been left another
year or three years to have quite such a hard look, we would have
missed the boat somewhat.
Q125 Mr Devine: Where was Next
Steps drafted? The Treasury?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It
was a Treasury produced document but some of the drafting was
done in the Department of Health, some in DfES and some in the
DTI. It was considered by ministers and our Secretary of State
and I presume the Secretaries of State in the other departments.
Q126 Mr Devine: Were you all consulted?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
certainly kept my Secretary of State fully informed.
Alan Johnson: There are four government
departments involved. We were consulted on this. There is nothing
wrong with this. I am absolutely delighted that the Treasury are
leading and are so interested in the science base but I thought
you started off by mentioning the change to the Office of Science
and Innovation. That was nothing to do with the Treasury at all,
as a matter of fact. If it was to do with the Treasury, fine,
but the Treasury were not involved in that. In this, all four
government departments were fully consulted and it would not work
in relation to producing a document like this if we were not fully
involved, particularly as it is such a major aspect of our work.
Q127 Mr Devine: You had a significant
Alan Johnson: Yes.
Q128 Mr Devine: Who owns the science
and innovation investment framework?
Alan Johnson: It is owned by the
four departments. I am not sure whether the Department of Health
were part of the original 10 year programme. I think that was
three departments but now, because of this very welcome change
in relation to health research, they are involved in this.
Q129 Mr Devine: To what extent is
science policy driven by the Treasury?
Alan Johnson: Without the help
and involvement of the Treasury and without the passion of the
Treasury for this, we would have a great deal of difficulty in
doubling the science base as we have done since 1997. It is crucial
that they are involved. I would not look at it in any way as a
negative feature that the Treasury are so closely involved. There
might be other areas where the Treasury's necessary work is not
so welcome but on this it is very welcome.
Mr Devine: This Committee has always
had a concern that the Treasury does not have a chief scientific
adviser and I wondered if that concerned yourselves.
Q130 Chairman: Yet it is making significant
decisions about this key area.
Alan Johnson: I am quite happy
about that. David may tell me I should not be.
Q131 Chairman: This could be an interesting
Professor Sir David King: You
do not go into a department demanding something such as I, as
Chief Scientific Adviser, have been doing, going into the other
departments, unless there is very good reason for it. I agree
entirely with the previous comments from the Secretary of State.
In other words, science has done exceptionally well out of the
Treasury and our interaction, for example, with Harry Bush and
John Kingman in the Office of Science and Technology and now the
Office of Science and Innovation has been exceptionally strong.
I still know that if I need to I can pick up the phone to John
Kingman and he and I can be talking in a very short period of
time. Our interaction has been very good and I have not been pressing
for such a post.
Q132 Mr Devine: It is okay that Gordon's
foot is on the accelerator but he does not have a chief scientific
Professor Sir David King: As soon
as he gets near the brake I will be in there.
Q133 Chairman: Secretary of State,
putting aside the fact that the Treasury does not have a chief
scientific adviser which may or may not be a good thing, do you
think, given the prominence of science, technology and innovation
within the government's agenda, that there ought to be a Cabinet
post specifically for that and there ought to be somebody sat
round the Cabinet table who leads that whole agenda?
Alan Johnson: No, I do not.
Q134 Chairman: That is not a criticism
of your work and it is not intended to be.
Alan Johnson: I had the same thing
when I was at DfES dealing with higher education from some quarters.
I have been reading Geoffrey Goodman's biography of Frank Cousins
which shows that in 1964 they set up this Office of Technology,
but it was not associated with industry and it was not associated
with science. All the people that Goodman talks tothis
is 20 years afterwardsall the senior civil servants and
everyone involved said, "That was the problem with the Office
of Technology". Indeed, Frank Cousins himself said what he
wanted was to see it merged with industry and with science. We
have got that now, we have got this connection. I think if you
plucked science outit was with education, was it not, at
one stage and then it was on its ownI think it is in the
right place. I would say that, would I not, but I genuinely feel
this. Part of the change to the Office of Science and Innovation
is keeping up with what is happening in British business and at
the cutting edge of what is happening in terms of the challenges
of globalisation, I think you would lose a lot of that. Because
we have an eminent scientist like David who is responsible for
giving advice to government, not just to the Prime Minister, in
a sense, that is your Treasury post there because David does it
across the patch, I would not like to see this dismantled. This
Committee plays an important role, but I think if you did a thorough
examination of thatmaybe you have at some stageI
do not think you would start pulling the pieces apart again, that
would be a big mistake.
Chairman: I made the point in response
to Jim's line of questioning that I think it took many people
by surprise that this was very much the lead in the Budget, and
it was very much a Treasury-led science agenda, whereas, perhaps,
we might have expected it to be a DTI-led agenda, that is the
reason behind that.
Q135 Dr Turner: The other interesting
surprise in the Budget was the announcement of the amalgamation
of the MRC budget and the Department of Health research and development
budget along with other changes in Research Councils. Sir Keith,
what do you think prompted the creation of the single health research
fund? Was it an indication that perhaps the NHS R&D budget
was not as effective at generating research as it might have been?
I know many cynics who would say that in fact most of it went
to propping up trust deficits, but I will not pursue that line.
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I
can only relate the sort of tenor of conversations that I had
with Treasury officials and, indeed, officials in the Department
of Health. I think the background to this is that there is a big
prize to be had if you can effectively join together the truly
outstanding biomedical research in the UK; 12 Nobel laureates
in LMB alone. Through translational research, clinical trials
and bedside care. A seamless transition with the effective use
of money is a big prize to be had. We are not there, and everybody
who has looked at it has declared we are not there. We have got
outstandingly good research, but we have had difficulty in finding
structures that have given a real seamless meshing of Department
of Health and NHS facilities and so on. Things are always difficult
when you have got two departments involved, but this is an extremely
welcome attempt. It is welcomed both by clinicians and it is welcomed
by people doing very basic biomedical research. There is a huge
prize to be had by having two budgets which are ring-fenced nowthe
science budget was already, the R&D budget in the Department
of Health now isand to see if we can find a way of using
those in the most effective way to have a seamless connection
from research to the hospital bedside. And particularly to promote
clinical research which will support our biotechnology and pharmaceutical
industries enormously. It is not trivial and that is why there
are some months of work to be done, looking at the best way to
deliver that with two Secretaries of State, Alan Johnson owning
one budget and Patricia Hewitt owning the other. The background
is, there is a prize here.
Q136 Dr Turner: Presumably since
the budget has been amalgamated, the organisation
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: The
budgets have not really been amalgamated, there are two budgets.
As you read the Budget document, or as I read it, the Secretary
of State has the budget for the Medical Research Council and the
other Research Councils in DTI, and the Secretary of State for
Health has an R&D budget. It is a matter of how those two
budgets are going to be used as a single pot. It is not quite
a pot which has been taken out of DTI and taken out of Health
to be managed independently of those departmentals.
Q137 Dr Turner: The Department of
Health R&D budget will continue to be administered by the
Department of Health, it will not be a united health budget?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: All
of this is to be understood. We are so close to the beginning
on this and there are some months of work to be done to see how
delivery of basic medical and clinical research can best be delivered
from those two budgets, both of which are ring-fenced. The key
thing is ring-fencing the R&D budget in health.
Q138 Dr Turner: It struck me that
there was a potential new window of opportunity in what sounded
like, firstly, a straight amalgamation of these budgets because
the current structure in medical research and development leaves,
if you like, orphaned diseases, ME is the one which absolutely
springs to mind. The Chief Medical Officer has recommended that
there should be a specific research effort on that but nothing
has happened since his recommendations. There are clear reasons
why that might not have happened because the MRC, apart from its
research institutes, operates solely in response mode. Since that
is dominated by the Research Assessment Exercise it is quite clear
that no ambitious basic researcher in their right mind is going
to touch something as difficult and unpromising as ME, whereas
if you are going to invoke the Health Department's R&D budget,
is there room for filing those sorts of lacunae with directive
research against difficult disease areas?
Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: There
has to be. You have picked a particularly difficult one. Spotting
Dr Harris out of the corner of my eye here, he probably has much
stronger opinions on it, so getting him off the ME hook, he probably
has strong opinions on. You have picked on an area where not all
clinicians will identify it as a real disease, but, yes, you have
to be right.
Q139 Dr Harris: Strong views notwithstanding,
I have got some arithmetic. The MRC budget is going to be £550
million and the NHS R&D budget is going to be about £750
million, about 2006-07, 2007-08, that is £1.3 billion. Secretary
of State, is that going to be the minimum pot in this new merged
Alan Johnson: It is a minimum
of at least £1 billion.