Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)|
MP AND PROFESSOR
17 JANUARY 2007
Q280 Adam Afriyie: Thank you for
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 sessionsand I hope occasionally I might ask the
questions and some of the Members of the Committee might tell
me some of the answersbut 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
yearno, 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
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 heavilyand this is
very important I thinkin 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 safeguardand I put
a lot of store on thiswhat 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'
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 themart and humanities, social science, engineering,
physical science and medical research; that is where we got to
last Fridayas their highest priorities has had interdisciplinary
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 concentratedand the Treasury obviously
is interested, as I am, in the work being done in OSIis
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 areI
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 STFCa
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
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
Q298 Chairman: But you knew that
when you set the target. That is not something you have learned
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.