Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

RT HON ALAN JOHNSON MP, SIR BRIAN BENDER, PROFESSOR SIR DAVID KING AND PROFESSOR SIR KEITH O'NIONS

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 is not?

  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 to account?

  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 but name?

  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 input?

  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 answer.

  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 adviser?

  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 to—this is 20 years afterwards—all 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 out—it was with education, was it not, at one stage and then it was on its own—I 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 that—maybe you have at some stage—I 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 now—the science budget was already, the R&D budget in the Department of Health now is—and 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 budget?

  Alan Johnson: It is a minimum of at least £1 billion.


 
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