Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169-179)



  Q169 Chairman: A quick changeover and we welcome on our second panel the Rt Hon Lord Rooker and the Department's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Howard Dalton, and you are very, very welcome indeed. Thank you for listening through the first session because I think it helps to put this session into context. I wonder if I could start with you, Minister, by asking how important to Defra are the research council institutes in terms of your science strategy?

  Lord Rooker: I would just say that Defra is very much a science-based Department. All of our policies are influenced by science, whether it is the environment, food, whether it is animal welfare, disease production or animals. We are very heavily dependent on a research base, so we have a fairly large area of activity where we fund research in a variety of institutions and the research council institutions account for, in rough figures, about £20 million out of our budget of about £150 million. We have our own agencies of course, the Central Science Laboratory, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and CEFAS, and they account for some £36 million. We fund £30 million worth of research in the UK universities as well, so our base is a very, very wide base and there are other contractors as well. I personally count out £20 million to Kew as part of the research, although it does not appear in the budget as research, but essentially Kew is very much a research-based organisation and it is not just for looking at flowers or trees, but what goes on in the laboratories there is enormously important. From our point of view, our policies are influenced by research, not by the history of what we did in the past, and they are influenced by our needs and priorities as of today and of the future. If I can just make one point, as you know, I was at MAFF for just over two years in 1997 and research was part of my bailiwick there and at that time of course we had not got the Food Standards Agency, for example, so the research budget was even greater. Obviously changes have occurred and we quite clearly now look, and in the years intervening have looked, at techniques of research in terms of risk assessment in changes of the techniques and, and I make no apology for this, our budget and research for policy formation is based on, if you like, the priorities that we have to consider now, not what the history of the pattern of spending in the past was, and I cannot put that any clearer. Our three bodies that—

  Q170  Chairman: So you are saying that a lot of the work that they have been doing is not relevant to modern science?

  Lord Rooker: It is relevant to modern science, but we have to look at our policy needs, as we are at the moment. There is no question about it, there is a shift in terms of the climate and environment. We are not discounting all that we have done in animal health, it is absolutely crucial that we continue in that area, but we do not, for example, core-fund our own three research bodies, but they have to compete for funding, so they are major bodies and they are dealing with multi-million pound contracts. From our point of view, we are a customer for research to help formulate our policy.

  Q171  Chairman: But it is very difficult to reconcile that with the need to have a science facility on tap for when you, as a government, need it when there is an outbreak of foot and mouth or bird flu arrives or whatever. How do you reconcile those two things of maintaining the institute base or, if it is not going to be the institute base, what will it be—the universities?

  Lord Rooker: No, I might say the two examples you give are bird flu and foot and mouth and we make sure that our procedures are in place to account for that. We have to account—

  Q172  Chairman: But you do not know what you are going to account in the future.

  Lord Rooker: No, but that is why we spend money preparing for emergencies. That is an investment from our point of view in the Department, both in research and in the way the Department is structured so that we can switch on emergency control rooms at a second's notice, as indeed we did last week, so we are not in any way saying, "Because we are not doing the work today, we are not funding things". We are funding for the future, but the fact is, and I am not working in a silo here, so please do not misunderstand me, we do not, as Defra, see it as our role to support the core funding of other bodies because that would influence our policy priorities. We are responsible for our policy priorities and we are responsible to this House obviously, but the fact of the matter is that the spending patterns have changed and are going to change. We have made no cuts in any of our programmes to the research institutes, contrary to what you have just heard, no cuts, and none of their activities which they have told you about this morning is in any way related to the difficulties with the Rural Payments Agency. Not one penny can be transferred across and it is part of the myth now that people all over the place are saying, "Because of rural payments, all these things are happening". It is simply not true.

  Q173  Chairman: So Defra has not cut any of its budget to BBSRC?

  Lord Rooker: No, no, we have not cut a single contract that we have got out there, and Professor Dalton has got a lot more detail than I have. We have not cut a single contract and we have not cut short a single contract either with any of those research institutes.

  Q174  Chairman: Do you see Defra, Lord Rooker, as a customer or a partner with the research council institutes?

  Lord Rooker: If I was asked a black-and-white question, basically we are the customer, and I could be corrected on that and there will be a tonne of bricks on me, but essentially we are the customer. If you like, we need them there and if one of them was not there, we would find someone else to do the work we want to do, it is true.

  Q175  Chairman: But they tell us that they are the only people doing this work in Britain, if not in Europe and the world. How do you turn on that capacity?

  Lord Rooker: Well, the implication of that is that nothing changes, that if you start a programme to set up any institute and whatever your circumstances are that might change your priorities in the future, you are bound to continue with what you have been doing. I do not think that is living in the real world.

  Q176  Chairman: Professor Dalton?

  Professor Dalton: I would actually very much endorse what Lord Rooker has said. I think it is very important to recognise what the research councils do for us and what we need from the research councils. There is no doubt at all that the quality of the science which the research councils produce is first-class. Their own assessment exercise says that, we know that and we need them very much if we are to continue doing the sorts of things we are trying to do, but you have to recognise that the sort of science which is undertaken in the research councils is at a very fundamental level and does in many respects answer specific questions that we have need to answer. We also have our own agencies and of course they deal very much more with much of the more policy-relevant issues that we have, but certain research councils fulfil a very important role in doing that. We are conscious of the long-term sustainability of what the research councils are and what they stand for and we have no intention whatsoever of trying to destroy that. We try to work very closely with the research councils in order to ensure that there is a long-term stability for them, as indeed there is for our own agencies, but what they do is very much in many cases cutting-edge science, very highly important science, but not always necessarily what we want, so we do not fund them to a very great extent. We put around, I think as Lord Rooker said, just over £20 million a year into the research councils and that includes not only BBSRC, but also NERC and ESRC as we fund both of those as well, and they do important work for us which helps to address many of the issues that we have. We have got a lot of policy-relevant questions which they are not able to do and they carry on doing their own fundamental science, but, as far as we are concerned, they do a very important job in that sense.

  Q177  Chairman: But without some security of funding, what you are saying is that at the end of a particular contract, you could just simply say, "Well, we're not funding that anymore", and I do not know how we maintain the capacity of the institutes if they are important without that element of funding. Are you suggesting, as indeed others have suggested, that it would be better if you were not part of this equation at all, that all the core funding actually came from BBSRC?

  Professor Dalton: I would not say that is necessarily the right approach to have all their core funding from BBSRC. It is very important to recognise the way in which funding is done in these circumstances. BBSRC themselves fund universities, as indeed do we, and they fund universities on very many short-term contracts, as do we, and universities have learnt to adapt to that environment. They have learnt to say, "Okay, we have a three-year research contract, so we plan for that and we work towards it", as indeed do the research institutes, as indeed also do our own agencies in some cases. Very often you have to realise the vicissitudes of what is going on in the policy arena as well. Things are changing all the time, as Lord Rooker says, and we cannot keep funding things day in, day out ad infinitum. That is not possible because there are changes in the policy agenda that we have to respond to and very often there will be short-term contracts and we like to work very closely with the research councils in order to try and work with them to formulate effectively where we are trying to go in the future. As I said earlier on, we are conscious of the sustainability issue and we will work with them and we are indeed working with them. I am very closely associated with the research councils and I sit on BBSRC's council and I also sit on the NERC council and the two chief executives from NERC and BBSRC sit on my advisory council as well, as indeed do the ESRC's chief executive officers as well, so there is very close interaction between them. I chair a number of government committees on which the research councils also sit and in which we plan, and try and work towards, a long-term objective, but very often there are short-term contracts which we are all engaged with and we all have to learn to manage our research activities. I also have another job in a university and I indeed apply to research councils for money as well, so I understand the issues associated with trying to keep a research group going in a university as well as ensuring that the research activities within Defra are fit for purpose. Much of that work involves long-term planning and short-term planning as strategic issues have to be planned at a managed level within those communities.

  Q178  Chairman: If in fact the institutes disappeared, could their work be done within the universities? As far as Defra is concerned, you would still be able to get the quality of output that you need in terms of policy?

  Professor Dalton: If the research institutes were to disappear and we were to retain our own agencies, our own science agencies with whom we place quite a large amount of research contracts, it may well be possible to get some of that from the universities, but it does not have, as Chris Pollock said earlier on, the long-term stability that you need in order to be able to develop research programmes and to respond to the various problems that you have in—

  Q179  Chairman: So you have a vested interest in those long-term programmes?

  Professor Dalton: Absolutely.

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