Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)


17 JANUARY 2007

  Q280  Adam Afriyie: Thank you for that exposition.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It was not rehearsed!

  Q281  Adam Afriyie: Minister, can we have your commitment that in future, if there are going to be re-organisations, some sort of announcement would be made in advance and some sort of ministerial statement might be made, rather than it just suddenly appearing on the table?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes, and when I say "yes" that is not a comment on what happened on that occasion. I do not know the ins and outs of that but it is important to report to Parliament, to the House of Commons in particular, I think, and it is important that we establish a good dialogue here in this Committee. We are going to have these regular Q&A sessions—and I hope occasionally I might ask the questions and some of the Members of the Committee might tell me some of the answers—but I hope that will enable us to report to you carefully on developments.

  Q282  Adam Afriyie: Do you have any changes in mind that you would like to share with us? Is there anything you have observed already in your first two months that you think you might be working on, or looking at reorganising?

  Malcolm Wicks: In July of this year—no, I cannot go that far! No, I am very much going through a process of learning from colleagues on where we are and the challenges facing us.

  Q283  Adam Afriyie: Lastly I just want to question whether Sir Keith is actually up to his job, or whether anybody could be up to Sir Keith's job because as part of the re-organisation Sir Keith has kept the Research Councils and Innovation Group function that he had before and then taken on board as well the Chief Scientific Adviser role to the DTI. Do you think he is up to it? Do you think anyone would be?

  Malcolm Wicks: Who are you asking?

  Q284  Adam Afriyie: You, Minister.

  Malcolm Wicks: I have absolute confidence in our team led by Sir Keith. To use a Select Committee phrase but in a way that it is not always used, he is "fit for purpose"!

  Q285  Adam Afriyie: Finally, do you have any concerns at all over the workload being placed on Sir Keith in his new function that is being created after the review?

  Malcolm Wicks: I think we have departmental responsibility for work/life balance so it is a serious question, but no, I do not have any concerns about that.

  Chairman: So he is the special one. That has been confirmed!

  Q286  Bob Spink: The 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review was reputed to do very well for science, which got a 5.6% annual increase from that. Do you expect science to do as well in 2007 at CSI?

  Malcolm Wicks: Well, Mr Spink, you say "reputed". You are a Science Committee and the scientific evidence is absolutely clear, is it not? We will not go through the history of past regimes where there has been a terrible neglect of science, and I am terribly pleased that since approximately 1997 we have had a government that that has taken this very seriously and invested very heavily—and this is very important I think—in the universities in terms of laboratories, and also, of course, in giving proper amounts of money to research councils. It is also important that we have a 10 year strategy and we are only a few years into that, and in a sense we do not have to make important strategic decisions over every year or every financial year. In terms of the CSR, however, we are confident but it is too soon for me to comment on that.

  Q287  Bob Spink: Well, I never! Is it too soon for you to comment on what you anticipate to be the change, if any, from changes in structuring government between Prime Minister and Chancellor later this year? Will that have any impact on the size of the science budget or the focus of science between health, space, environment, transport, security and technology?

  Malcolm Wicks: I genuinely think a feature of both the Prime Minister's period in office and the Chancellor's is that they have both focused very much on science and innovation. The Prime Minister made a recent keynote speech about the sheer importance of science to our future. In the PBR statement in the House of Commons, which you and I heard, science and innovation was very much one of the ringing themes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think we are in a good place in this country in that there is a consensus, I think across party, to be honest, and across a range of sectors about the importance of science and innovation. I must not sound too complacent. I am not; there is a lot more we should do, certainly on the innovation, and we should not be complacent about science because we happen to be very good. We are, broadly speaking, second place in the world, second only to the United States. We need to maintain that position and improve in certain disciplinary areas perhaps, but we are in a good place and I am grateful for coming into office when there is such support for science and technology.

  Q288  Bob Spink: I am glad to hear such optimism. When I said that the science was reputed to do well, of course how well you do is relative to the demands and with climate change obviously there are opportunities and in stem cell research and all the rest there is a case for even more spending in science, of course. Could you tell us what the OSI is doing to promote the research councils' priorities, particularly in terms of the interdisciplinary research?

  Malcolm Wicks: Again, and I hope you will not mind, Sir Keith can probably give a more authoritative answer, I am just hiding behind my new boy status which I will not be able to do perhaps the next time I come before this Committee, but first of all let me repeat that it is right and proper that so much of our funding is at arms' length from Government through the research councils and through the universities because the best people to determine priorities in bioscience and nanotechnology and whatever it might be are the experts, and that dialogue between research councils and academia is absolutely vital to that. They are also the best people, I think, to safeguard—and I put a lot of store on this—what one might call basic or pure science. Having said that, I also welcome the fact, encouraged by Government, that the research councils are now taking perhaps more seriously than would have been the case X years ago knowledge transfer and innovation. They have funding for that and that is very important. On your question specifically, I have always been a great believer in interdisciplinary work. Many of the big scientific questions, many of them being economic and societal questions, and climate change and global warming is an obvious one, must fall across different research councils. There may be a lead council but we do need that interdisciplinary research. I was reminded earlier, Mr Willis, when I asked Sir Keith to answer a question about the NIMR that I was rather privileged as a quite young researcher, long before I thought of coming to this place, in taking part in a socio-medical study on the problem of hypothermia among elderly people. Some of our principal collaborators were researchers in what was then the Hampstead laboratories of the NIMR, part of the MRC, and I have some small experience in my own social science career of working across disciplines and I do not need to be converted to that truth. I think, Mr Spink, that I will take a particular interest when I meet the research councils in seeing how the interdisciplinary work is going because it must have always been the case that we should take a holistic approach (how could you argue against that?), but as I think about this as a lay person many of these big issues around the future of medicines, certainly climate change I have mentioned, and many others, must cut across departmental boundaries and that therefore is a challenge to research councils and, of course, is a challenge to the universities as well.

  Q289  Bob Spink: I am very grateful to you. Perhaps on the specific question Sir Keith O'Nions could tell us what the OSI are doing to promote the research councils' priorities.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I think we would be at one here in agreeing with the Minister on the importance of interdisciplinary research and an holistic approach, the link between social science, engineering and medical research and stem cells at the present time. If one goes back not very many years, maybe five years, it was still quite an issue in universities and in research councils to find ways of stimulating interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and particular initiatives have been under way in the research councils. In 2002 there were quite a lot of them with ring-fences around them. All I would add to this is that I think there has been a real sea change, and that is not a comment I make just for the Committee. But, during the last few days I would have spoken to all of our research councils about what are their first thoughts on the big priorities for the next three, four, five years which will colour the nature of the DTI submission in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Each of them—art and humanities, social science, engineering, physical science and medical research; that is where we got to last Friday—as their highest priorities has had interdisciplinary research topics.

  Q290  Bob Spink: I am aware of that and that is why I asked the question, what is OSI doing to—

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: What OSI will do in this case is respond to that fully in the allocations advice that we give to the Minister following the Comprehensive Spending Review, because I think this is absolutely right. My point is that it does not look as if one is going to need a big stick. This really has now happened. We have to watch it carefully but it really is a very impressive change. My advice would be for the Committee to go and kick the tyres and see some of this at first hand rather than just listen to my rhetoric on the subject.

  Q291  Chairman: With respect, if I can just butt in, we did kick the tyres when we were looking at, for instance, sports science, where the academics find it incredibly difficult to get grants because of the multidisciplinary nature of their activities and they come across the barriers of the research councils who are wanting quite frankly simple bids to a single research council, so there are still problems, Sir Keith.

  Malcolm Wicks: First of all, when I get that advice about future funding from Sir Keith, it is advice that I am minded to take to promote interdisciplinary research, but before Sir Keith said that I was thinking in my mind that that is one of the things I will be asking of the allocations: are there enough incentives there to promote interdisciplinary research? One of the things I have in mind to initiate in the department, and I will be talking to colleagues about this later today, is from time to time for me to take a subject area, which need not be interdisciplinary but a lot of them will be, I think, and really try to bring in some of the leading British scientists to explain to me and some other observers just what the state of the art, or I should say the state of the science, is. Exactly where are we? How can we explain to the public where we are on stem cell research? Another example is, given the ageing of our population, yes, we know about how science and medicine are making an impact in terms of the healthcare system, but in terms of issues around social care, the concern in society that many frail people in their eighties and nineties are living on their own and the worries of extended families about that, is science and technology making an impact in those territories? I just want to initiate a series of meetings on that and, although I had not really thought of doing that just to promote interdisciplinary thought, by definition that would involve a range of disciplines.

  Q292  Bob Spink: Whilst I was just on the OSI I wondered, Minister, if Sir Keith could tell us whether the Treasury is reviewing the OSI performance measures and output targets at the moment.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: The Treasury are very aware of what performance management system output targets look like and it is an ongoing discussion with the Treasury. There is not a formal review of them at the moment. The area where work is concentrated—and the Treasury obviously is interested, as I am, in the work being done in OSI—is our performance measures for the Technology Strategy Board and the technology programme. I may have mentioned to you before that in the SR07 we only really have one performance measure for the success of the investment in the Technology Strategy, and that is the percentage of R&D spend in UK business and its change. The Minister has given you his view that R&D go on much wider than is of course captured in the R&D scorecard, which is very close to manufacturing, so we are looking at a whole number of possible, sensible performance measures in close discussion with the Treasury particularly around that area whilst reviewing all of them. This will most certainly come to a head at the time of the allocations of the budget, probably next October. We are very happy to give you a full update on modifications and changes that we will have made because we will make some changes.

  Q293  Bob Spink: How would you describe the OSI performance measures and output targets at the moment? Would you describe them as fit for purpose or requiring fine-tuning or needing a major overhaul?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: On the research council investments, I have dealt with the Technology Strategy Board, in terms of performance the excellence of our science I think is a matter of steady refinement and we will do that. In terms of metrics, and how effective is our knowledge transfer and how that feeds into innovation from the research councils, there is scope for considerable improvement. I do not view this as "because we have done a bad job". It is a very difficult area and we talk to colleagues around the world and we are all at about the same place. It is quite easy to measure spin-outs, licences, start-up companies, the value of start-up companies. It is very difficult to measure the economic value of knowledge that moves in trained people and skilled people and mathematicians that go into the financial services sector, which is now a very large number now in this country. How do you capture that? This is a much more difficult area and there is great scope for improvement. The danger is setting silly targets which drive behaviour in an adverse way. I would be very happy at a future date to discuss this more.

  Q294  Chris Mole: Minister, last year the Government published the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14 subtitled Next Steps and then held a consultation on it. What has been done since the publication of the responses to the consultation document in September last year to move forward the Next Steps agenda?

  Malcolm Wicks: I think some of the discussion we have had already is relevant to this. The emphasis on technology transfer innovation is a very large part of this. The establishment of the Technology Strategy Board under the chairmanship of Graham Spittle is, I think, a step forward in making an executive body. The statutory instruments have now gone through the two Houses so we are well on the way to establishing that formally in April; is that right, Sir Keith?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Formally in April but it will probably be July before warm bodies are—I will stop.

  Malcolm Wicks: Stop there. I think that is a very large part of it. We have also, of course, put forward the plan to merge two of our leading research councils, those concerned with large facilities, which I need to know more about. Again, I wonder if Sir Keith could just bring us up to date on where we are, but in terms of statutory instruments we have got formal approval.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It went through to the Technology Strategy Board and the STFC—a merger of PPARC and CCLRC went through the two Houses at the same time. We are completely on track with STFC.

  Malcolm Wicks: Did you say "merger"? I though you said "murder".

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: No, it was definitely a "g".

  Malcolm Wicks: Oh, it was a merger, yes, which is the way to look at it, of course.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: That is on track for starting in April at the beginning of the new financial year. There is a chief executive designate, Keith Mason. We have interviewed for a chair and later this week I will be putting advice to the Minister and Secretary of State on a chair for STFC and, of course, that is a prime ministerial appointment ultimately. That is where we are.

  Q295  Chris Mole: You had 190 responses to the consultation but only 16 were classified as from industry or business, yet one of the key policy areas under discussion was the impact on the economy of public investment in research. Were you a little disappointed by that level of response from industry and do you think they have had enough input into the consultation? Is there any more that OSI can do under Next Steps to increase the economic impact of publicly funded research?

  Malcolm Wicks: It is not that we start on a blank sheet of paper, far from it because there is a lot of engagement, but I think one of my priorities is to engage with businesses, large and small, and to engage with other institutions relevant here, like the RDAs that we were discussing so I can get a better sense of the value of innovation to business and what might be the barriers at the moment. That will be one of my tasks over the next few months.

  Q296  Chris Mole: You mentioned the Technology Strategy Board just now, which will have the £200 million annual budget of the Technology Programme to oversee. What oversight will there be of that board itself?

  Malcolm Wicks: We want to do two things which sound inconsistent but I do not think they are. It will be an executive body and it will not be the job of the Minister, myself, to second-guess all the decisions from that board, but in terms of the overall strategy, in terms of some broad priorities, we want quite a lot of ministerial engagement on this, so it is not an academic research council. It is a vital part of our economic armoury. As I say, we are not going to second-guess decisions but we will be working very closely with Graham Spittle and colleagues. I was very interested, for example, in one idea which may be considered, and it will be for them to make a final judgment, which is to see how, given the importance now of producing what ultimately will be carbon neutral housing, a new generation of house build will help us combat climate change and help us meet our very difficult target, but I think we can do it, of 60% reduction in CO2 by 2050. Housing is important to that because a big chunk of CO2, a third or so, whatever it is, comes from our housing. How do we produce that kind of housing? Okay, there are some answers already, but in terms of the new materials, insulating materials and so on, there is a role for science and there is a role for technology and there is certainly a role for innovation. It will be for them to decide but that is the kind of subject where I think the TSB, the Technology Strategy Board, can help us develop in the right way.

  Q297  Chris Mole: Finally on targets, you had the headline ambition in the original investment framework document to get public and private investment in R&D to 2.5% of GDP by 2014. How are you doing?

  Malcolm Wicks: It remains a priority. Sir Keith, you probably know the actual figure.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I do, and the business R&D investment has not significantly changed since the beginning of 2004. What has changed this year in the R&D scorecard recently published is that it was interesting that for the first time some of the service sectors, from memory (I will correct this if it is wrong), HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Tesco, reported substantial R&D spends in their published accounts as captured by the scorecard, but the number has not changed significantly. I do not want to go into the long discussion we have had before as to how much that reflects the sector mix of the economy. If you divide the economy into sectors our pharmaceutical area invests as heavily in R&D as any pharmaceutical sector in the world, surprise, surprise. Ditto for aerospace and defence. The difference with the UK economy is that we have fewer sectors where R&D is captured as part of the company accounts procedures, so we do not have a very large automotive sector in the UK with R&D investment as is the case in the US, France, Germany and Japan.

  Q298  Chairman: But you knew that when you set the target. That is not something you have learned since 2004.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: That was known when the target was set, yes.

  Q299  Chairman: And is the short answer to Chris's question that you are not going to meet the target?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I do not think I can say whether we will meet the target or not. All you can say is that the first few years of progress on R&D as captured by scorecard and what is in companies' accounts is not budging very fast. I turn back to the comments that the Minister made, that really what we are interested in here is the productivity of the UK, productivity growth and innovation performance. R&D is one of the things that is an indicator of that performance. Economies that have a high investment in R&D tend to perform more strongly, but I think we ought to be moving towards a basket of measures that refer to productivity growth which has been real.

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