Examination of Witnesses (Questions 151
WEDNESDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2008
MP AND PROFESSOR
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 Committeegreat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the fundamental concerns of this Committeeand this
is my last point before I bring my colleagues inis of course
the preservation of basic science. There is a strong belief amongst
the Committeeand I am sure that it is shared by Sir Keiththat,
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.
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.