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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 151 - 159)

WEDNESDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2008

IAN PEARSON MP AND PROFESSOR SIR KEITH O'NIONS

  Q151  Chairman: I welcome this morning Ian Pearson MP, the Minister of State for Science and Innovation at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, Director General of Science and Innovation at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in this evidence session about the science budget allocations. Sir Keith, we have met you on many occasions during our previous incarnation as the Science and Technology Select Committee and this may well be your last appearance before this Committee—great sadness is expressed all round; the shorthand writer writes "sighs and cries in the gallery"—and we would like to thank you very, very much indeed for the work that you have done within the old OSI and DTI and the work you have done in terms of DIUS. Thank you very much indeed for the contributions you have made to our Select Committee over the time that you have been Director General. Thank you very, very much indeed.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Thank you. That is very kind.

  Q152  Chairman: I will begin with a very simple question to you, Minister. You announced in Church House a 17.4% increase in the science budgets. Why has it turned into such a PR disaster?

  Ian Pearson: Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to come to this Committee and to give evidence. What I want to say to begin with is that I think that 17.4% overall is a good settlement for science; it builds on significant investments that we have seen since 1997 when the science budget has doubled and it will have tripled by 2010-11. If you look at the international comparisons as well, the UK does well. The US has had below inflation increases in its science budget for four years in a row.

  Q153  Chairman: May we talk about this settlement.

  Ian Pearson: Our settlement is higher than Germany. Denmark and Norway have had settlements below the level with inflation as well. So, overall the 17.4% increase is a good one for science. Of course, in any increase, by the law of averages, there will be some that do better than average and some that do less well than average and I suspect that we are going to focus this morning on those that have got less than the average 17.4% settlement, but I would like to point out that the Medical Research Council, for instance, is seeing a 30.1% increase over the next three years. We have been pumping £2 billion into medical research through the Medical Research Council. The overall budget for medical research will be £1.7 billion a year by 2010-11. We have also seen significant above average increases for the BBSRC where we have potential great advances in biomedical science at the moment and it is right, I think, that we make decisions on what we think are the right priorities overall for us as a government.

  Q154  Chairman: We will come back to MRC and I do not think that we would disagree with much of what you have said. When Professor Ian Diamond came before us, he basically admitted that each council has got a broadly flat cash settlement once full economic costs have been taken into consideration and that in fact the success rate of grants across the board in all research councils is likely to decrease over the next three years. Surely that was not a source for fanfares in terms of your announcement, was it? Was this not a bit of glossing that you did on it?

  Ian Pearson: Well, 17.4% as an increase over the CSR period is better than most Government Departments have received. It is a good settlement for science. I do not pretend that there are not some difficult decisions that some research councils have had to take as a result of the overall settlement, but that is the nature of things. Nothing stands still in this world and it is right that research councils rigorously look at what their priorities are in a changing world and it is right that Government looks at that strategic level at what their priorities are as well and that is what we have tried to do in this overall science budget settlement. May I say something on the full economic costing because this is not just a flat cash settlement. Full economic costing is helping to ensure that our universities are put on a sustainable footing when it comes to research. That has been widely welcomed by the research community and, when we have spoken with the research community about this, they have always said to keep full economic costing and that was one of the key principles behind the decisions that we took as part of the CSR.

  Q155  Chairman: We will not disagree with you. I think this Committee and indeed the former Committee is very, very supportive of the whole principle of full economic costing, that must be right. The point I am making to you is that you knew that once the full economic costing was actually put into the budget, what really was happening in all the research councils other than in MRC was a flat cash settlement when in fact there was going to be a reduction in grants. My question to you is, did you foresee that because you looked a little shell-shocked at Church House when you received such a battering that day particularly from the particle physicists, the astronomers and others who basically said that this was the sell-out of our science.

  Ian Pearson: Firstly, I can assure you that I was not shell-shocked about this.

  Q156  Chairman: You expected it?

  Ian Pearson: Secondly, I do not think you are being entirely accurate in saying that, apart from MRC, everybody else has just got flat cash plus full economic costing. That is not the true position. I do accept that some research councils' volumes will go down overall. We should not forget the significance of full economic costing and I hope that the Committee, when it comes to write its report, will recognise the importance of full economic costing and the additional resource that is going into university research departments as a result of it which is very significant indeed.

  Q157  Chairman: We can assure you that that will be the case because I think that we are incredibly supportive of that proposal. The Royal Society made a suggestion that, in terms of actually, if you like, overseeing and scrutinising the allocation of resource to the research councils, there ought to be a panel of independent experts and you rejected that. Would you tell us why.

  Ian Pearson: What I do want to say on this is that I know that there is this suggestion from the Royal Society about improvements to the process and we will consider carefully what the Royal Society have to say on this matter, but we are in a situation where, once the overall science budget is decided upon, we reach a stage of negotiations with the individual research councils and there are lots of vested interests out there. I suppose the question I put back to you is, if we did have a committee of the great and the good advising the Government, would it produce a different decision overall or would it just produce a decision where the people who were not inside the room giving advice to Government were critical of those who were inside the room giving advice to Government? I think that we really need to think through whether there is strong merit in a proposal to have an advisory committee. This is something that was once recommended 20 years ago. It is not something that I would want to dismiss out of hand but I think that we need to look carefully as to whether you could construct a committee that would really significantly add value in addition to the rigorous process that I believe was gone through as part of the CSR07 settlement.

  Q158  Chairman: One of the fundamental concerns of this Committee—and this is my last point before I bring my colleagues in—is of course the preservation of basic science. There is a strong belief amongst the Committee—and I am sure that it is shared by Sir Keith—that, unless we maintain the highest quality blue skies research, there is very little to translate in the future, and there is a suspicion that this CSR in fact is moving in the direction of greater emphasis on translational research in terms of wealth creation and best guessing basic research and that that is being downgraded. What is your response to that?

  Ian Pearson: I think that that suspicion is misplaced and, as a government, we have always believed that you have to do both: you have to have world-class basic research and you have to have research that does translate some of that basic research into potential new discoveries and inventions that are going to benefit humankind in the future. What any government will have to do is to strike the right sort of balance between those two elements of research. In many ways, these all come together.

  Q159  Chairman: Are you aware of that criticism?

  Ian Pearson: I am aware that there are people out there who say, "You are moving too far in the translational direction". There are others who say, "You are not moving far enough in the translational direction" as well and, when I listen to a variety of views, as I do as Science Minister, I actually think that the balance is about right. We have seen big increases in both basic research and in more translational research over the last ten years and again I hope that the Committee, when it comes to write its report, will reflect the fact that we have put huge amounts of additional resource into basic research as well as putting more money into translational research and wanting to focus more on economic impact as well.

  Chairman: In terms of economic impact, I would like to bring in Graham Stringer.


 
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