Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Administration Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Science and engineering at the heart of Government policy?

1  We were impressed by the Science Minister and Government Chief Scientific Adviser's frank assessment of how science and engineering advice is used in Government. We were pleased to hear that they have taken up those concerns we raised in the engineering report and that they have an appetite to improve the use of evidence in policy-making. (Paragraph 24)


2  We regret that the Government failed to answer the core reasons for having Departmental Chief Engineering Advisers. We urge the Government to give fuller consideration to our recommendation that "Some departments should have Departmental Chief Engineering Advisers (DCEAs), some Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (DCSAs), and some should have both." (Paragraph 29)

3  The Government had an opportunity at the last reshuffle to move GO-Science as per our recommendation in the engineering report. That it did not, was a missed opportunity. As the Government Chief Scientific Adviser explained, location matters because it affords daily face-to-face interaction between colleagues in the same building; and as he further pointed out, he has only seen the Prime Minster four times in the past year. We therefore appeal directly to the Prime Minster, who is responsible for GO-Science, to bring it into the Cabinet Office alongside the Strategy Unit. (Paragraph 37)

4  We are reassured to hear that Professor Beddington will take steps to look at the MHRA's decision to licence homeopathic products as well as the wider issue of the purchasing of homeopathy by the NHS. We hope that he will be able to bring scientific evidence to the centre of this complex policy issue. (Paragraph 42)

5  We call on the DCSF Chief Scientific Adviser to explain what advice she provided, if any, on the Every Child literacy and numeracy programmes and report it to the House. (Paragraph 47)


6  We agree with Professor Beddington that Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers should have devolved responsibility for the quality of scientific advice in each department. On that basis, it is crucial that each DCSA has a tight grip on their departmental remits and have sufficient support so that problem policy areas can be identified and dealt with. The DCSA must challenge policy-makers to demonstrate clear evidence to support policy or to acknowledge that no such evidence exists. The GCSA needs to be advised by DCSAs of those instances where DCSAs have been overruled on such matters; and we further recommend that he publishes these in his annual report. (Paragraph 48)

7  Strong consideration should be given to increasing the number of departments that have Science Advisory Councils with a departmental remit. The Department of Health, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Transport are obvious 'top-of-the-list' candidates, with the latter two in particular needing high quality engineering advice. (Paragraph 54)

8  SAC members should not be criticised for publishing scientific papers or making statements as professionals, independent of their role as Government advisers. (Paragraph 64)

9  It is important to safeguard the independence of the advisory system. In situations where the independence of a SAC chairman or member is or might be threatened for political reasons, support should be offered by the DCSA and/or the GCSA. (Paragraph 67)

10  We welcome the steps taken by the GCSA to deal with one incident that occurred between the Chairman of the ACMD and the Home Secretary. Further steps that should have been taken are: (1) the GSCA should have written or spoken to the Chairman of the ACMD, letting him know that support was being provided; (2) the correspondence between the GCSA and the Home Secretary should have been published immediately so that other SAC Chairmen and the public (including the science community) could see that support was being offered; and (3) the GCSA should have provided public support for the Chairman of the ACMD and for his right to publish. (Paragraph 68)

11  The Government should seek specialist advice prior to making policy decisions, early in the policy-making process. Clearly the Government should be free to reject the advice of its SACs, since scientific evidence is only one factor—albeit a very important one—in policy decisions: Advisers advise, Ministers decide. However, when the Government does take a different policy decision to that recommended by a SAC, it should make clear its reasons for doing so. (Paragraph 69)

12  We conclude that there would be value in being clear in the Code of Practice as to what 'independence' means. Members of Science Advisory Committees are likely to represent the views of their constituencies; what is important is that they have no conflict of interest with Government. Therefore, in the case of Science Advisory Committees, 'independence' should mean 'independence from Government'. (Paragraph 73)

13  We agree that SACs should recruit members based on competencies. However, we are concerned that dropping the term 'lay' removes an expectation that specialist advisory councils should have non-specialist members. Additionally, we are not convinced by the argument that scientists from one subject are necessarily a 'lay' person in another scientific area. Whether or not they are called 'lay members', non-specialists do have a lot to offer specialist committees. The presumption should be that SACs have lay/non-specialist members. (Paragraph 78)

14  We support the Code of Practice's emphasis on the importance of publishing documents relating to the work of science advisory committees. We would prefer a slightly different emphasis on open meetings. Rather than recommending that SACs "should aim to hold open meetings on a regular basis", we suggest that SACs "should aim to hold the majority of their meetings in public, making use of new media wherever possible". (Paragraph 82)

15  We can see the logic and agree that it is important that SAC advice should be presented to Ministers in advance of publication, giving them sufficient time to consider a response. However, it is also clear that SAC advice should, when it is given to Ministers, be final advice, and not a launching pad for debate. On this basis, we recommend that the process of SACs providing evidence to Ministers should be as transparent as possible. SAC evidence that is presented to Ministers should subsequently be published in unaltered form, along with the date on which the evidence was presented to Ministers and the details of any requests for alterations or clarifications of the evidence. (Paragraph 84)

16  We recommend that a small press office be set up within the Government Office for Science, to serve the press needs of GO-Science and all the Science Advisory Committees across Government. (Paragraph 86)


17  Shuffling the body responsible for providing cross-departmental science and engineering advice from one department to another and then back again within the space of two years is the opposite of 'putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy'. It reduces science and engineering advice to, at best, a peripheral policy concern, and, at worst, a political bargaining chip. If science and engineering are to be successfully placed at the heart of policy, as the Government is keen to do, two things need to happen. First, the Government Office for Science (and Engineering, as we would have it) should have a stable home. We believe that this should be the Cabinet Office: the heart of Government. Second, there needs to be a Government Chief Engineer and a Government Chief Scientist, who are responsible for cross-departmental advice and coordination, freeing up the Government Chief Scientific (and Engineering) Adviser to advise the Prime Minister more closely and to act as a public figurehead for science and engineering in the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 88)

Debating strategic priorities

18  We are left wondering what this strategic priorities debate was about and whether it has led to a major shift in Government policy. We are in favour of a discussion about how best to focus research funds so that the UK gets maximum reward from its investment, but the lesson to be learned is that the Government should be clear in its own mind about the format and goals of a debate before launching it. (Paragraph 105)

19  Past experience of failing to accurately 'pick winners' has led to a risk-averse executive. The belief that 'sectors will pick themselves' is misplaced and when proactive interventions by Government are not forthcoming, potentially successful industries that germinate in the UK, blossom elsewhere. Choosing to support one sector over another will be difficult. The Government should develop clear and agreed methodologies for determining priorities and acceptability of risk. (Paragraph 109)

20  If the Government is to develop clear and agreed methodologies for identifying areas of high priority, these must also be effective in identifying areas of low priority. Further, the Government should not prevaricate on this issue: if it decides to prioritise some areas of research it should come clean about which areas of research will see reduced investment. (Paragraph 111)

21  The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should consider long-term investment returns when it considers strategic priorities in international partnerships. (Paragraph 114)

22  Curiosity-driven research is a key component of a successful knowledge-economy. We strongly endorse the view that increased focus in applied research and industrial follow-through should not be at the expense of blue-skies research, which is one of the UK's greatest strengths. (Paragraph 117)

23  It is unlikely that the Science and Society consultation will contribute substantially to "a new strategy for the UK": most of what has been said was either predictable or already government policy. However, we will watch the work of the Expert Groups with interest. (Paragraph 126)

24  We welcome the Government's commitment to consultation. It would be helpful if the Government was clearer about the reasons for each consultation and what was at stake. This would make the process more worthwhile for all concerned and would remove the feeling of 'box-ticking' that so often accompanies consultations.(Paragraph 132)

25  In the case of the strategic-priorities debate, the benefits of a fast-moving process have been countered by a lack of coherence. Launching the debate with a Green Paper or something similar would have given a focus to the debate that was sorely lacking. We acknowledge that this would have elongated the timeframe for the debate, but since the intention was always for an on-going debate, this should not have been seen as a problem. (Paragraph 133)

26  Any debate on strategic science funding should be put in the wider context of the role of science and engineering in the economic and social wellbeing of the UK. The 2004 ten-year science and innovation framework was successful in focussing attention on the importance of science and innovation. We now suggest that the UK needs a 'national science and engineering strategy'. The Government should spend the last two-years of the ten-year framework (2012 and 2013) reviewing the science and innovation framework and consulting on a new strategy that will set out the direction of travel for science and engineering within UK plc from 2014 until 2024. (Paragraph 137)

The Haldane Principle

27  The 2009 Budget Research Council savings have had an impact on the way that Research Councils allocate their funds. While this cannot be regarded as dictating 'detailed decisions', it is not 'over-arching strategy' either; it is somewhere in between. (Paragraph 155)

28  These 'savings' are in reality a strategic influencing of research funding streams. Whether or not it is the right thing to do is open to debate. But, either way, the Government should communicate clearly what it is doing and not label them as something they are not. (Paragraph 156)

29  To conclude, we are in favour of the idea that researchers are best placed to make detailed funding decisions on the one hand and, in principle, we support the Government to set the over-arching strategic direction on the other. However, it is necessary for the Government to spell out the relationship between these two notions for a broader funding principle to be of any use. (Paragraph 157)

30  Research Councils are not, and never have been, the 'guardians of the independence of science'. That responsibility has historically lain, and should remain, with the learned societies, universities and individual academics. (Paragraph 159)

31  The Government's refusal to give us confidential access to papers relevant to this inquiry is unacceptable. Without seeing the Science Budget Allocation letters, we are forced to speculate that the Government has exerted inappropriate influence over the Research Councils. However, we have been unable to confirm or deny this suspicion because of the Government's contempt for Parliamentary scrutiny. (Paragraph 165)

32  Logically, the Government cannot support both the Excellence and Haldane Principles in their current form and be responsible for promoting science and engineering as a means of economic recovery and growth in the regions. The time is ripe for an unambiguous rationalisation of the two concepts. Researchers, industry, regional and national policy makers and the public have a right to know on what basis research funding is distributed both nationally and regionally; the rationale for funding decisions should be transparent and rigorous. The Government should adjust the framework for research funding and regional development so that it does not contain internal contradictions. (Paragraph 173)

33  Science and engineering are crucial to the economic wellbeing of every region in the UK, and development strategies that have supported and made use of science and engineering have proven successful. In the consideration of UK science policy, it is essential that the regional dimension is clearly and publicly set out. It is important that the Government is able to communicate its role in regional development and in science policy, and especially the relationship between the two. It will only be able to do this if it resolves the conflict between its regional policies and the Haldane Principle. (Paragraph 176)

34  The relationships between the Government and the research bodies that it funds should be both explicit and transparent. We recommend that the different streams of research funding are mapped and the nature of the contract between Government and the research bodies described. (Paragraph 181)

35  We have already given our support for a more strategic approach to setting priorities in science funding, specifically at the applied end of the spectrum. Considering this issue in the context of the Haldane Principle highlights the need for a new approach to science funding that incorporates the good elements of Haldane in relation to basic science, but does not hinder a more mission-driven approach to get the full benefits of applied science and engineering. (Paragraph 185)

Science and engineering scrutiny

36  The time has come for a new framework to replace the Haldane Principle (however it is understood) that adds transparency and rigour to the relationship between Government and the research community. It is important that the diversity of relationships between Government and the various bodies it funds to do research are included under a broad set of principles. We recommend that the Council for Science and Technology be commissioned to carry out this work. (Paragraph 188)

37  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. (Paragraph 194)

38  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. (Paragraph 207)

39  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. (Paragraph 210)

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

41  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. (Paragraph 214)


42  We close this inquiry by urging the Government to raise its game. When it turns its attention to updating the Science Framework, we recommend that the Government consult widely with a view to producing a successor ten-year science and engineering strategy that is both tangible and ambitious. We suggest that built into this strategy—in the spirit of scientific and engineering endeavour—should be an assessment of what benefits, if any, are delivered by putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy. (Paragraph 216)

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