Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 240-251)


18 OCTOBER 2006

  Q240  Margaret Moran: Framework 7 recognises, as we all do, that the involvement of SMEs in European research programmes is lamentable. Obviously, 15% of the budget and measures towards simplification are welcome, but do you really think that will make a substantial difference? What do you want to see out of that element in the programme?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think we have a slightly different view on this issue from other people. I do not think that it makes a lot of sense to try and push SMEs into huge European partnerships. If you have a huge European partnership which has 15 big companies in them—like, say, Siemens—doing an international project, it is not at all clear to me that we want to encourage small companies with 100 people to participate in it. They simply do not have the people or the resources to do that.

  Q241  Margaret Moran: They might have the innovation and the ideas.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: They might, but it is probably not going to be the most successful thing. If they want to, they can. I am much keener to have programmes which actually do what SMEs want to do and are more aimed at helping SMEs. I think that we can set all sorts of targets for participation of SMEs in big projects, but (a) it probably will not work and (b) I am not even certain that it is the right thing to do. However, there are programmes like Eureka and so on, which small companies find enormously attractive, and we should do much more to support those programmes and push them forward.

  Q242  Chairman: Our final section, Lord Sainsbury, is the funding of science centres. We want to know what arrangements have the DTI and the DfES made for the future funding of science centres?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Officials from the DTI and the DfES have been having discussions about the future funding and the role of the science centres with ECSITE-UK, the umbrella body that represents the Science and Discovery Centre network. We are close to agreeing three-quarters of a million pounds funding over the period 2006-08 for a proposal from ECSITE-UK which will lead to the science centres pursuing innovative ways of becoming financially viable without continuing government support, and working together more collaboratively.

  Q243  Dr Harris: The Scottish Parliament has just given £3.8 million to support five science centres, to make them sustainable over the next two years. What you have just talked about is welcome, but is only three-quarters of a million to be spread over 30 science centres in the non-Scottish parts of the UK. Many of us are used to Scots getting a good deal, but that seems to be a disproportionately poor treatment by the UK Government of English and Welsh science centres compared to the Scots, does it not?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think that you have to understand the history of this. Quite a few of these, the main ones, came out of the Millennium Commission. They were funded simply with capital by the Millennium Commission, without any revenue streams being provided and on some projections for future revenues which were extremely optimistic, bordering on fantasy, I think, in many cases. As a result of that, there have been a number which simply could not survive. There are others which are on the borderline. Because we think that it would be a huge waste of public money if these centres were allowed to disappear, we have taken action to try and provide them with funding on a transitional basis to get them to a properly funded basis; but it is hard work, while they find other sources of finance.

  Q244  Dr Harris: Let us talk about medium to long-term public funding. Museums—those arty things—do get public funding, because they could never be felt to be self-sustaining by charging fees. It would go against government policy for museums to be charging entry fees and hope to cope that way. Why is it that science centres which, if anything, have for the UK economy arguably an even greater virtue in terms of what they deliver to the public in terms of engagement, educational activities, exciting young people in particular—why are they less deserving, much less deserving, infinitely less deserving of long-term public funding in the Government's view so far than arty things?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I do not think that it is a question of arty versus science subjects.

  Q245  Dr Harris: It is.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: It is a question of, given limited resources for work on promoting science and engineering, which are the best ways to do it? We have a whole series of programmes which I think are extremely important in this area. We have science and engineering ambassadors; we have 13,000 young people now going round to schools; we have the nine Regional Science Learning Centres, which are extremely important in this whole field of CPD for teachers—which is another key part of this. As you know, we announced in March Next Steps that we would have 250 science clubs. My own judgment is that these ways of spending government money are a better way and more targeted on what we want to achieve than the Science Learning Centres; and I say that as someone who for 20 years has supported Science Learning Centres. However, you have to make choices.

  Q246  Dr Harris: When they were set up, did the Government say to the Millennium Commission, "These are fantasy projections of viability you are doing. Don't do it" or "Don't rely on us. This is not sustainable"? Or are you being—you are wise—but are you being wise after the event? It is rather depressing news for the science centres, who feel they have done a good job, and in the absence of any independent evaluation of whether they are doing as good a job as all the things you have just listed.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Part of the money we are giving them will be used for an independent assessment of what job they are doing. As far as what the Government said at the time they were set up, I cannot be certain about this. I think that the Government did not say anything, because they regarded this as being the responsibility of the Millennium Commission and the people it was setting up. I am sure that they did not say, "This is a good thing. We should go ahead with it". It was simply left to the Millennium Commission, on this and other, arty subjects as well.

  Q247  Dr Harris: Finally, would you consider discussing with your Scottish colleagues what virtues they saw in the support they are giving, to see if they have some insights that might be applicable south of the border?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Can I suggest that, from my having looked at this, there are two issues here? One is the effectiveness of them; the other is the extent to which the basis on which they were set up was more or less optimistic than the English ones.

  Q248  Chairman: We will take that as a "No".

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Probably that is right!

  Q249  Dr Iddon: I am a patron of the Catalyst Museum, which you kindly visited the other day. I am also chairman of the Bolton Technical Innovation Centre. So this question is pertinent to one of my areas of operation. I can tell you, Lord Sainsbury, the money is there but the people who run these centres have to go scurrying all over the place to get it. It is all short-term money and it makes running the centres extremely difficult. The money comes from the DCMS, the DfES, the DTI, the Regional Development Agency, the Millennium Commission, and so on. My question to you this morning is this. Would you consider in future—because you have mentioned some transitional arrangements, which are very welcome, particularly to me—doing a whole review of this area of activity, measuring the effectiveness of these centres and bringing all this money together to fund them in a proper manner, if we feel that they are worth running into the future?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think that it probably is an area that at some point we should have a look at and see whether it can all be brought together in one place; but I think you should realise how difficult it is, with our system of government, to get money out of all the individual departments and put them into one place. This is not the only place where we have the situation where you can only fund things by getting money from different pockets. You may find that difficult, but I have to say to you that I find it equally difficult as a minister: that when I want to do something I often have to go to three or four different places to get the money.

  Q250  Dr Iddon: Can I leave you with this thought? That it would be an excellent example of joined-up government if that were possible.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I will take that point on board.

  Q251  Chairman: And we have your assurance that you will do it. You say yes to this question?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We will certainly look at whether there is a case for doing this, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

  Chairman: On that very optimistic note, may we thank you again, Minister, for giving us your time? Thank you very much indeed.

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