Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


21 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q40  Dr Turner: One very much hopes so. Say an emerging energy technology company who has done its proof of concept then needs capital grant funding towards its first commercial demonstrator, there are obvious link-ups there and if they go wrong, then things may not happen which should happen.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: That is as much about process as about structure.

  Q41  Dr Turner: You have recommended an annual innovation report from DIUS which I think everyone would agree is very sensible. Can you say a little more about what sort of performance indicators might be built into that report to give some realistic idea of progress? The simple setting of targets, which is a popular activity in Whitehall, may not be the whole answer.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: You get enormous sway by reporting what has happened. For example, we now have very good statistics on university performance. We know how much licensing, how much industrial consultancy they do, how many spin-off companies, how many patents granted and so on. Putting all that together in one place, together with what support for science innovation each RDA is giving and against what particular projects, would be hugely helpful in terms of government departments. What has actually happened on their R&D spending? Have they raided this year the R&D budget to help with immediate operational problems? Are they doing SBRI? Have they produced their science and innovation report? There is a lot of material which needs to be put on public record so that one can monitor their performance. I think over time out of that you might then develop some metrics of performance but you get a huge way by finding out what is happening and exposing that to public scrutiny.

  Q42  Dr Turner: I was going to ask you about government departments R&D budgets and you have already referred to the fact that they regrettably get raided from time to time when something else goes on in the department which is not ideal in a country which is trying to proceed by scientific and technological advance. Do you think that the current system of having individual departmental R&D budgets is entirely sensible, especially as often R&D work is cross cutting? More than one department, more than one area, will benefit from the work. Do you think we might look at a different way of financing government research, a different budgetary structure?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The original concept, which as a whole is right, is that the research that government departments do to support their policy and operations should be run by them. Someone sitting somewhere else trying to guess what they need is not a good way to do that. I think the system could be vastly improved. We need to be much clearer about producing science and innovation strategies. We have put in a system whereby chief scientific advisers advise government departments. If the budget is being raided, they can go to the chief scientific adviser and he can go to the Treasury to have this stopped, it just has not been operated very well. Secondly, there is a real issue about coordination across departments, because something like climate change or energy involves a whole series of departments. Again, as we have said in the report, this is kind of basic management stuff and it is really about the chief scientific adviser getting his chief scientist in each department working together. There is nothing more complicated than them getting together and saying "I am doing some work in this area, what are you doing?" and where there is cross-departmental themes working together. That is what they should do because that is what chief scientific advisers are supposed to do. They do not require vast amounts of money or structures to do it, they should just do it.

  Q43  Dr Turner: There is nothing in the structure to stop them.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, they should just sit down every so often and say "This is what I am doing, what are you doing?" We set it out in the report and when you read it you think really I should not have to spell out that what you have to do is sit down together and see where you are doing the same thing then appoint one of you to look at it across government and get on and do it.

  Q44  Dr Turner: Obviously you have some inside knowledge from your experience but are you sure you do not get occasions when departmental bean counters say "You cannot do that, it is not been spent exclusively on the work of this department."

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, but the chief scientific adviser has to stand up and say "Get real. We are trying to run a competent outfit and we need to work together."

  Q45  Dr Iddon: I want to turn now to science education. Like you, I am concerned about careers advice given to young people with regard to STEM subjects. It used to be done by a specialist advisory service in local authorities and then we set up Connexions and I think things went horribly wrong when we set up Connexions. You have recommended that STEM careers advice should be introduced into the curriculum in this report. Should that be done by STEM teachers or by specialist careers advisors re-introduced into the school? Could you elaborate on that?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: You are quite right, the careers advice we are giving kids at the moment is really appalling. It stems, in my view, from two things: one is the setting up of Connexions. I think it should be an integral part of what goes on in the school. Someone coming from the outside on occasions and doing it is not the right way of doing it. It should be an integral part of school life. Equally, it should not be done at 16 and 18. The evidence shows kids make up their minds about these things not at the moment which is convenient for the educational system but in many cases quite early. There is some work the Royal Society has done which shows that a lot of kids have made up their minds by 14 and beginning to think about which way they want to go and whether they want to do science or not. I am afraid the second thing was there was a heavy emphasis then put on that it was not just careers advice that the kids could get from Connexions but should more generally be about their life in all its aspects and that has meant the careers advice has been focused on the less able pupils rather than the more able pupils who are getting very little careers advice. I think you have to do careers advice to both lots of people and not try to do everything with the careers advice service. This issue has now been tackled but DCSF and they are going to appoint someone to co-ordinate the careers advice. There should be guidance. Without telling a school you have got to do two hours or three hours at this point, we should be giving indications at what point in their careers and what kind of advice should be given to them. We are suggesting that there should be CPD for teachers so that they can give careers advice and also that it should be part of classroom work as well as interviews or different points. There is huge scope to improve that and to improve the careers literature and so on. It is really what the problem is because if you look at the supply of young people doing science and technology at universities actually the numbers are very good. The numbers are going steadily up as the number of young people go into university goes up. It has even increased as a percentage of the student population but there are real issues about the subjects they are doing. There is a serious mismatch between the subjects they are doing and what you might think are the needs of the economy. There is a lack of people doing chemistry I suspect because they think the chemical industry is what it is about all about which does not look a winner, whereas there are lots of opportunities in pharmaceuticals and chemical engineering and so on. Engineering technology, the numbers have declined although now stabilised. You have huge growth in three areas: forensic science, sports science and psychology. For sure in the case of forensic science we do not need that number of forensic scientists. We have talked to the forensic scientists and they would say we do not want people who have done forensic science at undergraduate level, we want people who have done chemistry at undergraduate level and an MSC in forensic science. I think it is debatable how many psychologists and sports scientists you need. This is all about careers advice. We have a real responsibility to give them really good advice because if you are doing physics at a research university maybe it does not matter which subject you do so much because what you are getting is fantastic training in science and analytical science but if you are doing vocational courses there is a responsibility on the system to give kids good advice about what kind of courses are really needed by the economy. That is why we both suggested more on careers advice and also that the strategic and vulnerable subjects committee which HEFCE has should be turned into a much broader committee which would advise on supply and demand for graduate skills. They would pull together (a) what is happening in the system, because that is not well understood, (b) what industry says it thinks the needs and where the shortages are coming up, and (c) the very good destination data which could be much improved if it was done not six months after the end of the year but much later, pull that together in an annual report which then gives good information to both young people, Vice Chancellors and everyone else, as to what the needs are and what is happening. We could do a huge amount to improve that.

  Q46  Dr Iddon: When you have been in front of the Select Committees previously, including the S&T Select Committee, you have been quite excited by the rising numbers of people studying science in university. You have just put your finger on it. You have mentioned three subjects: sports science, forensic science and even psychology. The problem is that in some universities when they have been returning figures to you about the number of people studying science in their university they have included those three subjects. When we have been looking at figures coming in from different universities, and indeed from schools as well, it has not been easy to pick out who is studying chemistry and who is studying physics, the core subjects. In a speech you made to the Foundation for Science and Technology recently you said there should be a standardised reporting system. Are you back-tracking on your previous excitement in terms of the rising number of science graduates now?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: It originated probably appearing before this Committee. Everyone said there is a complete disaster, young people are not doing science and technology and the end of the world has come. As a result of that, I said can I please see what actually the figures are but on a consistent 10 year basis, not switching between how many people have graduated or how many people have applied to university but a consistent basis. It took an enormous amount of time and effort to get those figures, which tells you something anyway. Then when we got them it was clear there were rising numbers in spite of what everyone thought. I have to say I thought this was rather interesting because we were all proceeding on the wrong basis. I did always say there were problems in chemistry, engineering and technology but the whole rising numbers you had to take that into account. The Royal Society rightly pointed out that it was coming in these particular subjects. They did more digging on this and they are quite right. That is why in this report we do say there is more of a serious mismatch even though the numbers are rising.

  Q47  Dr Iddon: I have been a great advocate of the new syllabuses and recently I have been looking at visiting schools where children have been studying 21st century science and I have been quite impressed. In talking to the children they clearly would like more practical work and the problem with these new syllabuses is they have watered down the amount of practical work children are doing in school now. This week I was lobbied by the Field Studies Council who similarly regret that children are not going out of the school now into the field to study biology, zoology, mineralogy and all the other subjects. What can we do to bring back the excitement that these lines of teaching bring to students and encourage them to study the STEM subjects?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: This is a problem and it is not absolutely clear what is the cause of this. Everyone seems to agree that actually more practical experiments are what excites kids. My own view has become that probably the most important issue is actually the qualifications of the teachers. There are one or two health and safety issues but I suspect the real issue is about qualification of the teachers. If you have not got people properly qualified in the subject they are teaching, what happens is the bits that go are the bits which make it exciting. If you do not know the subject very well what you do is you get them to learn by rote the text book. What you cut out is any kind of interactive dialogue with the kids because that may reveal that you do not know the answers yourself and you are only five pages ahead of them. You are a bit nervous about experiments and things because you do not understand what is going on. That is part of the problem. There is now some work going on by various science teaching bodies to see what the problem is and if it can be improved, if you can get some ideas from them and use the CPD through the science learning centres to give people more confidence in doing experiments. There is an idea of having one place where you can have all the experimental material on line so teachers can go and get it easily. I think you can improve this quite dramatically but you have to have the qualified people do it.

  Q48  Dr Iddon: Is it not part of the problem that the school laboratories are completely out of date and unattractive compared to say the language laboratories which have, on the whole, been kept up to date? We are short of technical support for teachers in schools as well. Is that not part of the problem?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The whole building programme in schools is tackling this issue and probably, at the end of the day, that is the right way to tackle it. Almost certainly you could do more on those areas, yes.

  Q49  Mr Marsden: As someone who sat on the Standing Committee of the Bill that set up Connexions, and one of those people who said precisely what you have now said, it is music to my ears. I wish it had been listened to a few years earlier. Can I pick up the thrust of what my colleague is saying? You have, quite rightly, placed emphasis on careers advice as a very important element of keeping students in science and going onto science orientated careers. Is there not something that we need to look at in terms of the syllabuses? Maybe one of the reasons why fewer people are either doing science in the first place or then subsequently taking it into a science career is there is not enough connection in the syllabuses sometimes between pure science and applied science. By that I do not mean I want to see the pure science elements watered down but perhaps we should be making more connections. Also in the context of what Brian was also saying, is there not a role for bringing in some of the excitement of people who are entrepreneurs in science and technology and in business actually into the schools to talk to some of the students at the formative ages you are mentioning?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We do have a scheme to do that, the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Scheme, which is proving hugely successful. The last count I saw we have 13,000 young people going into schools. I am very keen that that is the level you should do it because that is the level kids can relate to. Retired people going in is not necessarily the obvious way to do this. We have got that. In this area, the overwhelmingly important thing is we have three or four hundred schemes to encourage people to do science and technology but this is very disorganised, very poor value for money, and the real challenge is to get 10 streamlined good schemes which everyone unites around. The DCSF are now doing that. They have a very good person called John Holman working on this. You will see we have set down the 10 schemes we think should be done. Rather encouragingly, industry is also saying we are getting poor value from all the things we do, can we all work together to support the science learning centres, CPD for teachers, a single big competition with three or four prizes for all schools to go in for, the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Scheme, just 10 schemes. The last thing we need is any new schemes; we just need to focus on those and get everyone working together.

  Q50  Mr Marsden: I was very interested in a section of your report, section 7.46, where you talk about better awareness of the wide range of worthwhile careers opened up by school STEM subjects leading students in. You said "Improved awareness of the range of careers and the contribution they can make to enhancing human well being into addressing major global challenges would also help to stem the imbalance of participation in STEM subjects by under-representative groups" and you mentioned particularly girls and ethic minority groups. Does that have some syllabus implications, whether at school level or university level? Do we do enough in the context of our syllabuses about the moral ethical dimension of scientific and technological activity? Do we do enough on risk benefit analysis, for example, which, it seems to me, every time you open a paper there is some scare story. There seems to be very little sense of risk benefit analysis either by the writers or by the commentators subsequently. Without wanting to get the science syllabuses woolly, is there not more we need to put in those areas?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Having done this for a number of years I come out with a couple of prejudices about it and one is probably less alterations in the curriculum is a good starting point. We change them too often. I am never certain it is the curriculum that is the issue but the teaching of the curriculum that is the issue. Secondly, I think there is a real dilemma here, which is why you get different views about whether 21st century science is right. You have to get a balance between teaching the structure and rigour of scientific knowledge versus relating it all the time to its relevance. If the structure of classes and teaching is around the relevance, then you may lose the understanding of the disciplines of the subject. If you keep teaching bits of chemistry under different relevant subjects, you may lose and make it more difficult for kids to get a basic knowledge of what chemistry is about. You have to get the balance of that right. I think overwhelmingly it is about how it is taught and not about endlessly changing the curriculum.

  Q51  Dr Iddon: 21st century science allows teachers to do both because there are specific modules for the depth, and for students who do not want to go into the depth there is the syllabus you mentioned.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: This is why there is 21st century science is right, with both sides probably feeling that their way of doing it is not being treated as seriously as it should. This is the problem and you have to get the balance right. You may make it more difficult for the kids to understand even though it appears to be more relevant.

  Dr Iddon: I should point out that there is even a module on applied science in the 21st century science series of booklets which teachers can select.

  Chairman: We are enthusiasts of 21st century science unlike Professor Sykes.

  Q52  Dr Blackman-Woods: In the Review you recommend that Research Councils UK streamline its presence into single points of contact in key countries. What would you define as a key country?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There are two areas: one is America, which clearly comes out as an absolute key area because we have strong relations with America but we can make them more productive and valuable. Having one point where the research councils are present in the United states would be hugely helpful as well as what we are suggesting, which is research councils together reach agreement with the funding bodies, the National Institute of Health and Science Foundation, so that there is one agreement about how co-operative projects between the two countries are evaluated and you do not have to evaluate them and have double jeopardy. China and India are other places where having one presence from the research councils would be helpful. It is also very helpful in terms of actually the other country understanding that we are doing a lot of things. If you spread it over all research councils acting differently and other bodies acting differently, often you find we are do a lot of research with the country which is not appreciated.

  Q53  Dr Blackman-Woods: Are there any drawbacks to that approach? Take America, for example, there might be a lot of research taking place in Silicon Valley but the policy is in Washington. Can you see any drawbacks?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No. It is only about research councils working together so that you do not have five or six representatives of different research councils covering the same ground.

  Q54  Dr Blackman-Woods: After the USA, the UK research community does a great deal of work with Japan but there is not a recommendation to have a UK office in Japan. Why is that?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In terms of research, it actually does not come up as one of the major collaborative partnerships. The point about Japan is it has enormously good skills and incremental innovation but its record of university knowledge transfer and radical innovation is quite poor. We do have projects with them but I would not put it in the same category as America or probably, as a long-term bet, India and China.

  Q55  Dr Blackman-Woods: The Review recommended that the Science Bridges scheme be extended to India and China. Why do you see this as so important given there are specific schemes for those particular countries already in existence such as Science Networks and UKIERI?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: There are two views on this: one is that it should always be done on the basis of individual scientist to individual scientist, and the other, which was the traditional way, is you should put together a fund between the two countries. Usually these funds are rather small sums of money. Politicians love them because they go and visit India and they sign a research fund project. Both sides love this but actually it is very inefficient. You have the whole thing of competition, special evaluation goes on and then of the £100,000, £50,000 goes back to one country and £50,000 goes to the other. If you have really high level science collaboration, both lots of scientists can get the money from their own countries to do it. What you need is the networks between the countries and I think the best networks are, in fact, university to university. We have done enormously well. For example, one of the first was we got links between SET Squared, which is four universities here, with San Diego in America. That is proving hugely successful in getting both science and innovation collaboration between the two universities. That is a very successful way to do it and we should build on it.

  Q56  Dr Blackman-Woods: Is it not working against the streamlining process you are arguing elsewhere in this section?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, it probably works for streamlining because you focus on the links between the major players in the two countries and that is where the effort goes and that is much easier to do than lots and lots and small schemes with different universities playing. It is the nature of the world we live in today that there are, in all these countries, hi-tech clusters and what is happening is clusters talk to clusters. You have a cluster at Imperial College which will have big links with Bangalore and the Institute of Science there. That is where you get the creativity and it is probably much more efficient.

  Q57  Chairman: Can I finally finish with a couple of very brief questions. DIUS is going to lead on the implementation of your Review. The Prime Minister has accepted it in full. For the Secretary of State to have succeeded in a year's time when we meet him, what would be two things that the department would had to have achieved, or just one thing?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: It is one thing, which is to implement my report effectively and well.

  Q58  Chairman: How do you know if he will have done that? You said they will have an annual report.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: They have produced an implementation plan and they will probably be published in the spring together with some further policy recommendations. That will be visible for people to see. The back stop is the innovation report which will come out probably in the autumn. That will say to the extent that things are working well and whether the report is being implemented. My real fall-back position is I, from the House of Lords, will ask grumpy questions about whether they have done it or not.

  Q59  Chairman: So will we.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I should say, because this is where we started from, what I think is enormously encouraging is because we have involved all the different players in the policy process there is a huge amount of momentum and enthusiasm for this in the different areas. The RDAs are very enthusiastic about moving in this direction. The TSB is getting on already and doing lots of things. I do not think there will be much resistance to the recommendations because there is a lot of buy-in.

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