Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)


17 JANUARY 2007

  Q300  Adam Afriyie: Is it one of these silly targets that you referred to earlier, do you know?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: No, I did not refer to it as a silly target. I think it was a single measure which was put there at that time, and I think I have already said that there is a lot more thinking to be done as to what a broader range and basket of measures should be in relation to productivity and innovation performance.

  Malcolm Wicks: Chairman, can I just make a comment prompted by Chris Mole's question? This is not about trying to change the goalposts but I think it is in the interests both of this Committee and our department to look hard at whether the arithmetic that we have is, to use that phrase again, fit for purpose or whether it is principally just aggregating, if you like, traditional R&D in vital sectors for the British economy. I was pleased to hear Sir Keith saying that some of the financial services are now beginning to, as it were, report R&D, but it would be very foolish if we all beat ourselves up, or particularly tried to beat the Minister up (that would be most unfortunate), when the arithmetic is actually not capturing the things that you may want to call R&D—this is the debate—certainly innovation, certainly application of ideas and new things, in vital service sectors. It may be that in our Q and A sessions we can have this kind of dialogue.

  Chairman: And tease that out.

  Q301  Dr Turner: Looking at the reporting by companies like HSBC of R&D activities which were not in their accounts before, is this actually an accounting phenomenon because the company accountants have realised that they can get at R&D credits and therefore improve the bottom line, because it has been suggested in some quarters that approximately half of government spend on R&D tax credits is in fact going to finance activity which would have happened anyway but has been reclassified to take advantage of them?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am sure the Treasury will have an opportunity to respond to that work, which I think they commissioned. I think there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the headline figures from that, but that will be for my colleagues in the Treasury to take on. I am more interested in the point I was making about what do we mean by R&D, what is its relationship to innovation? If you take—and maybe it is invidious to mention it—what is now the success story again of Marks and Spencer, clearly a great deal of thought and I suspect a great deal of research, innovation, new ideas being implemented went into turning round that company. That is a million miles away from a piece of new engineering but is this in the same ball park of what we are discussing or not? There is a new economy in Britain and it would be wrong if we did not develop the arithmetic to see how it is behaving.

  Q302  Dr Harris: It is curious though, would you accept, either of you, that for the targets that the Government is on target to meet there is not the same worry and stress about whether it is the right target or measuring the right things or how the way it is measured in terms of counting the right things is composed, so would you accept that there is perhaps a justified degree of scepticism, you might call it cynicism, about language around, "Maybe we should be moving to a basket of measures and not the single target", whereas with targets that are met it is, "Great target, very good performance, no problem"?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I understand your point, Dr Harris. I desperately hope there will be no cynicism around the suggestion that the Minister makes, but I think it is the right approach in this area where we have only had a single target which can only capture a very small part of the performance across the landscape.

  Q303  Dr Harris: But do you think it is likely we would be having this discussion if the target was well on course—

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes, I think so.

  Q304  Dr Harris: Because there would be less political pressure, and I do not mean that in a weighted way.

  Malcolm Wicks: No, I think we would still be having the discussion, seriously, because with so much of our economy now in the service sectors the question I have raised and we have raised is relevant.

  Q305  Dr Harris: I have one quick question on the Next Steps agenda which has not come up, which is about the response that came up on the question of peer review and the role of peer review in the effective work of the research councils. This is a big issue, would you agree?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes, indeed.

  Q306  Dr Harris: Do you think there is a need for more work generally to be done on whether we can improve the peer review system, both in terms of publication, but also in terms of the RAE, which is contentious, as you know, and research council allocations in terms of making sure that it is more receptive to riskier ventures as an example of some of the stuff that came in the feedback?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: May I answer that?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes, please, and I might add to that.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I asked the research councils last year to have a look at peer review, with the caveat that peer review is sacrosanct as far as I am concerned for assessing science, but could we make this process any more effective or efficient than it is at the moment, given that the normal outcome with a research council proposal is failure. 80% of proposals fail, 20% succeed, so is there scope for efficiency? The research councils looked at that. They published some of their recommendations. They are consulting on those at the moment and within a relatively short period of time, in a few weeks, I think, they will give their recommendations. What is coming back in the consultation is massive support and confidence that the community has in peer review but there may well be some recommendations for more efficient handling of it. The other point you made about higher risk and so on is extremely important, and we have had this discussion before to some extent, that any committee considering a peer response to research will probably take a higher risk if money is not so tight. If money is very tight there is an inbuilt sense that it may become more conservative. I do not know what conclusion they will come to on that.

  Q307  Dr Harris: Having said what you said about peer review and the fact that it is a contentious issue—

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I did not say it was contentious.

  Q308  Dr Harris: Sorry. You said it is a question where there is a lot of thought going into its role.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Exactly.

  Q309  Dr Harris: —throwing the baby out with the bathwater would be of concern and are you alarmed by the response that the proposals for RAE have had, I read in Research Fortnight, to the Royal Society saying, "We are extremely concerned there is no proper role for peer review in the evaluation of set subjects", the British Academy something similar, the Institute of Physics would like to have seen in place an exercise that still had peer review at the heart of the system, the Royal Society of Chemistry as well, the Biosciences Federation thinks the Peer Review Panel should be the uniting element for all layers of the RAE. You have almost unanimity of concern about the proposals to downplay peer review in the new RAE proposals?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: The RAE is being moved into an area obviously where the DfES have the lead, not us, and it is their policy and their decisions. In terms of the conclusions published by the Treasury in response to the consultation following Next Steps, I think one has to dig beneath some of these headlines a little bit to understand where peer consideration comes into a successor to the RAE and any measure of excellence that you use. If, for example, you produced a metric on excellence, which would be based on bibliometric data, by its very nature has a vast amount of peer review in the background that led to that metric and I think you have to separate that out from saying should the final judgment on the allocations of money from HEFCE or SHEFCE or one of the other ones actually involve panel judgments and peer judgments as part of the process? I think it is a much more complex debate and now is probably not the time to have it.

  Q310  Dr Harris: It turns out that there is a place for question perhaps on this area which I had not noticed. On Cooksey, which is what I want to turn to now, clearly you are interested in protecting science and even that endangered species (or rather put-upon species, arguably) basic science, to what extent do you think that the Cooksey report took account of the need to ensure that we do not lose our position in terms of basic science by its clear promotion or even, one might almost say, without being judgmental about it, obsession with translational work because clearly to spend more on translation means that that money cannot be spent on the basic side?

  Malcolm Wicks: Let me start off by saying that in terms of medicine and our healthcare systems and all the challenges that that poses, we surely, and I hope Dr Harris would agree with this, need both things. We need to continue to be a country of excellence when it comes to some of that basic pure research, to use those terms, in a whole range of sciences but including those relating directly to medicine. We mentioned at the beginning of the session stem cell research. That is absolutely vital, but similarly there is a need to make sure that that excellence wherever possible is applied to helping the health needs of people who fund that research. I think Cooksey was very much about that. It is not about amalgamating the MRC with the NHS part of research but it is about some brigading together so there will be an oversight body that can make sure that we are trying to do both of these things in appropriate ways.

  Q311  Dr Harris: But can you force a move towards more translational, more applied research without running the risk? Do you accept there is a risk in so doing, in pushing it, of undermining the excellence of the science that would otherwise be done if you left it alone and made it purely science-led and did not push it in that direction? Do you accept there is a risk of that?

  Malcolm Wicks: There must always be a risk of not getting the balance right between the need for application and the need for pure research. There is always a risk in any of these things. I think the proposals mean that we will avoid that risk because there will still be an MRC doing its excellent work but there will be a better relationship with the need for application in the Health Service. I think that is what the British public would want. They would always be asking that question as to how this important investment in basic research, which I am sure they support, can be applied wherever possible.

  Q312  Dr Harris: Sir Keith?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I agree. It is my job to agree with the Minister.

  Q313  Dr Harris: You do it so well.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I think Cooksey did an extremely good job and I am very content at the outcomes and I am pretty confident, as usual, about the future. The point is, if you look at the research councils and say, "What is great?" "Basic research, absolutely world class." "Where is the scope for benefit?" "Knowledge transfer innovation", and we have got a big focus on getting better knowledge transfer and a bigger contribution to innovation in the research councils. I think we are quite confident we are doing that without damaging the basic science. When you come to the biomedical research and health, where is the scope for some big prizes and to get a bigger bang for our buck, as it were? It is in translation and that is what Cooksey focuses on. Picking up on the Minister's point, the machinery now being put into place through this thing called OSCHR, which will be a joint OSI/Department of Health group, John Bell is the chair, and I think John Bell is an outstanding appointment as chair of OSCHR—that is not an Oxford comment, by the way.

  Q314  Dr Harris: I used to work for him.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I still believe he is an outstanding appointment.

  Malcolm Wicks: He is not responsible for all his colleagues.

  Q315  Dr Harris: No, he is certainly not.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Clearly that machinery has the potential to pull this off. I think the risk of damaging things that are already excellent in MRC research and so on is very small. II agree with the Minister: there is always a risk, but I think it is a pretty safe structure.

  Q316  Chairman: Can I just put one thing in before Dr Harris continues? One of the concerns that we have as a Committee that I cannot understand; of course I cannot speak on behalf of my colleagues, is that there was a combined budget of some £1.3 billon between MRC research and NHS research and we are now talking about a billion. The concern is, where has that money that has been lost from the combined budget gone or where will it come from? One of our concerns as a science committee is that we are very anxious to make sure that there is no reduction in terms of the basic science research budget for medicine, for health.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: It is a sentiment I share with you. I cannot answer the question. I do not know whether the Minister can. I think we know everything there is to be known about the Medical Research Council budget. We know where that is and how big it is. I think you would have to ask the Department of Health about the size of its ring-fenced budget.

  Q317  Chairman: I think we would like the Minister to give us an assurance that he will fight hard to maintain the level of funding which is going into MRC to protect that basic research against a raid by the translational research which may well come from the Department of Health.

  Malcolm Wicks: Certainly we have got to invest heavily in medical research, including pure medical research and also in terms of the application of this. If I get advice on this I might write to you, Chairman.

  Chairman: Okay; thanks very much.

  Q318  Dr Harris: Sir Keith, you have rightly in my view argued that there were issues with targets about how they might distort behaviour and they are kind of quite clumsy, so would you agree that in terms of this particular area, that is, the balance of funding between translational research and basic research, whilst it may be wise to put in procedures to ensure that the balance is redressed, controversial though that may be, this is not an area where the imposition of targets is particularly sensible?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I am not being evasive. I just think it is too early in this new world for me to address that sensibly. We will be doing very well indeed with John Bell and OSCHR when we have got to the point where we can put a joint DH/MRC bid into the Treasury and get some coherence between them. At this point we have targets and performance measures for MRC and MRC already does a lot of translational research, but as for the utility of those in the combined organisation, I cannot answer that.

  Q319  Dr Harris: It is unlike you to be so evasive because you have said this is your area, is it not? This is research council performance and you have given a view earlier on targets.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Absolutely.

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