Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents



189. There are guidelines on the use of science, a Government Office for Science, several Chief Scientific Advisers, and hundreds of scientists and engineers throughout the civil service, and yet—inevitably—mistakes happen. The former Science and Technology Committee's inquiry on evidence-based policy and our own inquiry on engineering each highlighted several examples where science and engineering were not at the heart of Government policy.

190. In the absence of a perfect system, when guidelines and good intentions are not enough, scrutiny becomes a key player. Our starting point for this chapter is that good scrutiny of science and engineering issues across Government is important. We consider two broad types of scrutiny: internal and external.

Internal scrutiny

191. Internal scrutiny is that provided by the Government looking in on itself. Following a recommendation made in Investing in Innovation: A strategy for science, engineering and technology,[176] Sir David King, the then Government Chief Scientific Adviser, set up a Science Review Team in what is now the Government Office for Science. The reviews were "to independently scrutinise and benchmark the quality and use of science in government departments".[177] Since 2005, six departments have been reviewed: the Food Standards Agency; the Department of Health; the Home Office/Ministry of Justice; the Department for Culture Media and Sport; Communities and Local Government; the Health and Safety Executive and Defra. Each review took about a year, although some took longer.

192. We asked Professor Beddington about the Science Reviews. He told us that the time the reviews took was "ludicrous",[178] and that when he was involved in the Defra review "it seemed to be going on forever"[179] (18 months, to be precise). Therefore, soon after taking up his post as GCSA, he commissioned "a review of reviews",[180] which led to a decision that:

    The new reviews will be significantly shorter, maximum three months; they will be conducted in a completely different way from other reviews. They will be jointly owned by the Permanent Secretary of the department concerned and myself, and they will be driven at a very high level. There will be an immediate going in to look and see what are the key issue and if some things worry us, then we would start to look at those in more detail. […] The pattern of reviews which we would then plan to start early in 2009 should mean that we will be able to get a lot more done; we will be using consultants to help us and we will be using a much higher level of professional input into these reviews.[181]

193. This new programme is called 'Science and Engineering Assurance'. The objectives of the new assurance exercise are to: "Provide departments with assurance that their policy and practice properly reflects the [natural and physical] scientific evidence [… and] Ensure that departments have in place the capability, systems and culture to access, quality assure and use science effectively".[182] We have since been updated on the progress of Science and Engineering Assurance by Professor Beddington:

    [W]e reached agreement about two weeks ago that these would be mandatory for any department or institution that has not actually already had a review. For those that have […] we are in the process of ongoing assessment of how they are performing against a particular review […]. The aim is to complete this exercise of having done a science and engineering review of all departments by March 2011, so it is a relatively quick timescale to get them, and this includes things of very different sizes, it includes the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury.[183]

194. Changes to the science and engineering scrutiny programme to make reviews shorter and mandatory are welcome. We recommend that there should be regular and constructive liaison between the newly formed Science and Technology Committee and the Science and Engineering Assurance team.

External scrutiny

195. We turn now to external science and engineering scrutiny. External scrutiny comes in many forms. The media provides a key role, both the mainstream media and increasingly through the work of bloggers. The professional and learned societies, industry, unions and charities also provide scrutiny on science and engineering issues in a variety of ways. Enough could be said about external science and engineering scrutiny to fill several reports, but we shall take up here only one aspect: the scrutiny role played by Parliament through the work of select committees.

196. Science and engineering issues transcend departmental boundaries and therefore have been covered in one way or another by many different select committees in dozens of reports. For example, the Environmental Audit Committee often considers scientific issues associated with climate change and engineering issues associated with reducing carbon emissions (this will similarly be a challenge for the relatively new Energy and Climate Change Committee). Scientific and engineering challenges are pertinent to much of the work of the Transport Committee, the International Development Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Health Committee and the Defence Committee, to name a few. However, in terms of focus on science and engineering issues, the most relevant Committees are the former House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, this Committee and the future reinstated Science and Technology Committee.


197. The House of Commons first established a Science and Technology (S&T) Select Committee in 1966. It existed for the duration of the 1966-1971 Parliament and was re-appointed in 1971 and 1974. The Committee was abolished in 1979 when the departmental select committee structure was established. In 1992, a new S&T Committee was established to scrutinise the newly formed Office for Science and Technology (OST). Since the OST (later the Office for Science and Innovation) had a cross-departmental remit, so in practice did the S&T Committee.[184]

198. The Committee came to an end in November 2007 following the Prime Minister's announced changes to the machinery of Government in July of that year. DTI and DfES were divided into three departments: BERR, DCSF and DIUS. The responsibilities of the Office for Science and Innovation were taken over by the DIUS Science and Innovation Group and the Government Office for Science, which sat within DIUS.

199. The S&T Committee existed under Standing Order No 152 to scrutinise the work of the OSI. The abolition of the OSI meant that the Standing Order had to be amended. On 25 July 2007, the House agreed a motion to amend the Standing Order to replace the Science and Technology Committee with a departmental select committee, which would scrutinise the work of DIUS. Originally the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee, the later addition of 'science' into its title—which ran contrary to the normal practice of committee names reflecting the name of the department that they scrutinised—reflected the particular importance we attached to scrutinising the work of the Government Office for Science.

200. As well as our duty to scrutinise all of the work of DIUS, across the important and broad universities and skills agendas, we have also conducted some science and engineering scrutiny. In the 2007-08 session, we had the third busiest schedule of all the departmental select committees:

    During the 2007-08 Session we held 50 Committee meetings and 12 Sub-Committee meetings and took oral evidence on 46 occasions. We published seven Reports and over and above the evidence for these inquiries also held 11 separate oral evidence hearings.[185]

201. We have conducted several inquiries on science and engineering issues. In reverse order these were: two pre-appointment hearings with the Chair-elects of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council; a major inquiry into engineering; biosecurity in UK research laboratories; renewable electricity-generation technologies; and the Science Budget Allocations. We also reinstated Science Question Time with the Science Minister.

202. Our work has been appreciated by a wide range of individuals and organisations.[186] Lord Drayson told us that "scrutiny of science and engineering and technology within Government is incredibly important and becoming only more important in the future",[187] and that our focus on "putting science and engineering more at the heart of government policy" has been "helpful".[188]

203. However, we received evidence of frustration at the Committee's wide remit and the implications for science scrutiny. Professor Ian Haines, from the UK Deans of Science, told us:

    In our evidence we suggested there should be [a science and technology committee re-established]; it is not the suggestion that the Chairman is not doing his job, nor is it the suggestion that the members are not doing their job, it is just that we feel that the Committee is too broad. From innovation—and that is economic innovation—on the one hand, right the way through to skills of all kinds of an undescribed nature, it is too big.[189]

204. The Royal Society expressed its concern about "the extent to which the current (IUSS) Committee can scrutinise policies that fall at the boundaries of, or cut across, Departments".[190] This view was also expressed by the Institute of Physics,[191] the Biosciences Federation,[192] the Science Council,[193] the Royal Academy of Engineering[194] and the Royal Society of Chemistry.[195]

205. Recent changes to the machinery of Government added urgency to the debate: DIUS and BERR were dissolved and all their responsibilities passed to a new department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. This affects select committees that have been established under Standing Order No 152, as ours is, because they mirror government departments. That means that both the IUSS and Business and Enterprise Committees were set to be replaced by a single Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. In our report on The future of science scrutiny following the merger of DIUS and BERR, we argued strongly that the BIS Committee would be in a worse position than the IUSS Committee to scrutinise science and engineering given all the other areas it will have to cover.[196] We therefore recommended the re-forming of a Science and Technology Committee.[197]

206. On 25 June 2009 the House agreed with us and the many other voices from the science and engineering community who felt that science and technology needed dedicated Parliamentary scrutiny. Standing Order No 152 was duly amended and on 1 October 2009 the IUSS Committee will cease to exist and the Science and Technology Committee will come to life.

207. We would like to thank all those who made strong representation to the Leader of the House on our behalf. We also recognise the responsibility that derives from a consensus in Parliament and the science and engineering community that science and technology scrutiny matters. We will strive to make the work of the new Committee—which is essential for the democratic scrutiny of science, engineering and technology—relevant, rigorous and transparent.


208. The decision to create a Science and Technology Committee was right, but the way in which the Committee was formed was related to machinery of Government changes and the speed with which the changes had to be made. In this final section of the chapter we make three suggestions for the future committee.

209. Our first suggestion is related to our engineering report. We concluded, among other things, that engineering advice differs from science advice, that engineering advice is lacking in many policy areas across Government and that cross-departmental co-ordination of engineering programmes is weak. We also suggested that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who is already Head of Profession for Science and Engineering, should be re-titled Government Chief Scientific and Engineering Adviser and that he should be supported by the Government Office for Science and Engineering. It is therefore logical that the Committee that is responsible for this policy area should have 'engineering' in its title.

210. The current arrangement for the future Science and Technology Committee is the best that could be achieved following the machinery of Government changes. We suggest that following the general election the committee responsible for science, engineering and technology policy should be called the Science, Engineering and Technology Committee.

211. Our second suggestion has to do with membership. This Committee was, unusually for a departmental committee, set up with a membership of 14, rather than 11. The rationale for the larger membership was that this would allow us to run a main committee on higher education, further education and skills, with a quorum of four, and a permanent sub-committee on science and technology, with a quorum of three, although we did not choose this arrangement. We had an effective membership of nine, but still with a quorum of four. We recognise that all select committees have been under tremendous pressures in terms of membership; over the years an increase in the number of government departments has increased the number of departmental select committees, and the establishment of the regional committees has exacerbated the problem further. However, it is essential that for effective scrutiny all political parties fill their places on select committees.

212. We suggest that the Science, Engineering and Technology Committee should revert to its original 11 members with a quorum of three.

213. Our final suggestion is to do with our remit, namely, to scrutinise the Government Office for Science. This means that the Committee remains a departmental committee. It also means that the science budget, Research Councils and publicly funded science-related bodies, such as the academies, NESTA, TSB and so on, fall within the remit of the future BIS Committee. These concerns were raised with the Deputy Leader of the House on 25 June 2009. She replied:

    Let me re-emphasise that it is up to Committees to take a wide-ranging approach to their remit, and to examine the full scope of science policy and related matters across government. Earlier this week, a Hansard Society conference considered the role of departmental Select Committees. We have now moved beyond Departments turning around and saying to Select Committees, "We don't want to answer that," or, "You can't look at that." That should no longer occur in Select Committees. In the new spirit of reform, if a Select Committee decides that it wants to scrutinise research budgets, for example, it should be able to do so.[198]

214. We welcome her acknowledgement that select committees should be free to conduct inquiries that extend beyond their official remit. However, that is different from saying that the future Science, Engineering and Technology Committee should have responsibility for the science budget. To avoid complications related to the lines of departmental responsibility and future machinery of Government changes, we suggest that following the next general election the Science, Engineering and Technology Committee should be installed as a free-standing committee with a cross-departmental remit for science and engineering including research budgets across Government.

176   HM Treasury, July 2002 Back

177   www.dius.gov.uk/partner_organisations/office_for_science/science_in_government/science_and_engineering_assurance/background Back

178   IUSS Committee, Third Report of Session 2008-09, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, HC 51-II, Q 243 Back

179   IUSS Committee, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, Q 243 Back

180   IUSS Committee, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, Q 243 Back

181   IUSS Committee, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, Q 243 Back

182   www.dius.gov.uk/partner_organisations/office_for_science/science_in_government/science_and_engineering_assurance Back

183   Q 324 Back

184   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2006-07, The Last Report, HC 1108, p 5 Back

185   IUSS Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of the Committee in 2007-08, HC 49, para 7 Back

186   Ev 83 (Natural History Museum); Ev 87 (UK Computing Research Committee); Ev 138 (Research Strategy Office, Imperial College London); Ev 148 (Arts and Humanities Research Council); Ev 158 (SSC Science Cluster); Ev 168 (Research Councils UK); Ev 224 (Sense About Science) Back

187   Q 392 Back

188   Q 319 Back

189   Q 215 Back

190   Ev 155 Back

191   Ev 113 Back

192   Ev 183 Back

193   Ev 199 Back

194   Ev 203 Back

195   Ev 219 Back

196   IUSS Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2008-09, The future of science scrutiny following the merger of DIUS and BERR, HC 662, para 7 Back

197   IUSS Committee, The future of science scrutiny following the merger of DIUS and BERR, para 10 Back

198   HC Deb, 25 June 2009, col 1016 Back

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Prepared 23 July 2009