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

Memorandum 3

Submission from Prospect


  1.  Prospect is a trade union representing 102,000 scientific, technical, managerial and specialist staff in the Civil Service and related bodies and major companies. Our members are professionals, managers and specialists across a diverse range of areas, including agriculture, defence, energy, environment, heritage, justice and transport. Prospect represents more professional engineers than any other UK union. Across government we represent 18,000 engineers, scientists and technical staff.

2.  We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry because, despite strong investment by the Government in the science budget and the high profile given to science and engineering through the Treasury's ten-year investment framework, we are concerned that science for the national good is under threat. In recent years, world-leading UK programmes including research into breast cancer, agri-engineering and animal diseases have been closed. Research on the impacts of climate change, pollution and biodiversity all struggle for funding. The UK's industrial research base has been decimated. Ninety-seven sites have been closed, sold or contracted out over the last 20 years. In Prospect's view there needs to be diversity in the organizations that perform such work—government laboratories, universities, charity and business—so that no discipline is only supported by one type of organization. The "contract research" model is not likely to be sustainable because the contractors are not driven to identify and pursue winning ideas.

  3.  Whilst Prospect accepts that priorities can and do change, we object to the fact that such devastating decisions have been taken with no central knowledge by government of the location, functions or specialist expertise it employs—and hence no clarity of what capability is being lost or whether retained capability will be sufficient to cope with future demands. A significant example of failure to maintain national technical capacity is in the nuclear industry. For example, UKAEA used to run a number of internationally recognised centres of expertise, but this was curtailed at the time of the 1996 privatisation. Expertise and documentary records have been irrevocably lost and the current position is that no UK organisation has the capacity to offer a candidate design for the next generation of nuclear power stations.

  4.  This submission builds on our earlier evidence to the Select Committee's inquiry into "Engineering".[15] It also draws on Prospect's contribution to the TUC's evidence to the consultation by the Department of Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills into "A Vision for Science and Society"[16] and on Prospect's own evidence to the inquiry by the Public Administration Select Committee into "Good Government".[17] Our response to the specific issues identified by the Select Committee is set out in the following paragraphs.

Whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council for Science and Technology put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making and whether there should be a Department for Science

  5.  In 2006 Prospect published a Charter for Public Science identifying, among other objectives, the need for a clear strategic vision for UK science and a Cabinet Minister with authority and accountability for public sector science—with a similar Ministerial role in the devolved administrations. We therefore very much welcome the Government's decision to establish a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and we welcome the fact that the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, attends Cabinet meetings. However, more could be done immediately to make sure that Lord Drayson's Cabinet level role includes cross-cutting accountability for public science and is not simply to act as an exponent of science in Cabinet, important though that is.

6.  Prospect believes that science and technology have a crucial role to play in identifying high quality and sustainable investment opportunities that would help to lead the economy out of recession. However, the same commitment must extend to funding for blue-skies work and pure research and development, which must come from an adequately funded and motivated public sector science base. Public science must provide a measure of stability to preserve the UK's technical capacity through short-term fluctuations in demand. As yet we are unable to judge—because we have not seen the evidence—whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee has succeeded in putting science and engineering at the heart of policy-making. We hope that it will do so. We certainly believe that, short of establishing a separate Department for Science, this is the best opportunity to make science and engineering integral to high-level policy-making.

  7.  Prospect does accept that the Government is trying to improve coherence and coordination between the centre and individual departments. However there is a deeply embedded culture in the civil service of departments, headed by competitive Permanent Secretaries, guarding their own territory. There is no doubt that this creates real difficulties for effective implementation of policy areas with cross-government application, such as science and innovation. There are dangers either of lack of effective stewardship or policy paralysis, where Departmental Ministers with differing priorities effectively veto decision-making. There are also challenges in resolving tensions between the desire for central co-ordination on some issues whilst delegating responsibility on others.

How Government formulates science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)

  8.  In Prospect's view, and in line with the Fulton principles, good policy-making should also be based on objectivity and impartiality and on Ministerial accountability through Parliament. It is also crucial in relation to science and engineering policy to have "intelligent" or informed customers within government to undertake a range of roles including identifying whether research needs to be carried out, having knowledge of capabilities to undertake necessary work, assessing the merits of alternative contractors, and evaluating the end results. This range of expertise is unlikely to be found in one person and the function needs to be properly resourced. Furthermore it can only be achieved if a close relationship is retained between those responsible for policy and its execution.

9.  Yet Prospect members directly involved are concerned that, in part due to recruitment difficulties, government's capacity as an "intelligent customer" of engineering projects has eroded. There is insufficient technical expertise both among Senior Civil Service policy and decision makers and at levels below Chief Scientific Adviser, resulting in increased use of external consultants without either contextual knowledge or "corporate memory".

  10.  Members do report examples where engineering advice feeds effectively through to policy makers, though often this is through informal means and dependent upon personal relationships with colleagues in policy teams. In effect, engineering advice is "loaned out" through the goodwill of individual engineers and their managers. Whilst this can work well, the informality of such arrangements means that consultation does not occur as a matter of course and so there are likely to be many instances where policy decisions are made without engineering input. Too often engineering and scientific advice are called on simply in times of crisis and, on occasion, to rectify poor quality work done by external consultants.

  11.  By contrast, there are examples of good government in operation. Examples include the Seed Potato Classification Scheme (SPCS) and the Plant Health Propagation Scheme (PHPS) run by the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate in DEFRA. In both cases European Union and international directives are put into effective operation by competent technical officials working in close collaboration with the industry and with scientists to ensure a scheme that is practical, fair and effective in the interests of industry and the public.

Whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy, and how the success of any consultation is assessed

  12.  As outlined above, Prospect would agree that the science and engineering community should have an effective voice in the formulation of government policy. Of course, ultimately it is Ministers that are accountable for decisions but Prospect believes that more could certainly be done to make the process of decision-making more open and to consult with the wider community at a sufficiently early stage to allow for the possibility of influencing outcomes. For example Prospect has painful experience of being consulted on how to deal with the consequences of research closures or transfers rather than having the opportunity to provide evidence or put forward arguments that could lead to a different decision.

13.  Many Prospect members are also members of professional scientific and engineering bodies, and Prospect seeks to work collaboratively with such bodies on projects of common interest. For example, we have worked with the Institute of Physics on research funding issues and sponsored events by the Institution of Engineering and Technology—including in support of smart metering. More broadly, Prospect is involved with initiatives such as Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE) and the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC), which provide valuable expertise and resources to enhance diversity.

  14.  However, we believe that the Government also has a cross-cutting responsibility to ensure the nation's future science and engineering capability. There are currently pressing challenges to ensure an adequate skills base for the future, as highlighted in recent work both by the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform[18] and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).[19] Sector Skills Councils are starting to address these challenges, albeit with varying degrees of success in business environments that tend to be dominated by short-term concerns. In Prospect's view, the Commission for Employment and Skills could play a valuable role in taking this work forward.

The case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs updating

  15.  Prospect accepts that the debate over regional science policy is highly charged. Our overriding objective is to ensure excellent science throughout the UK. However Prospect members outside the South East have been at the sharp end of policy-decisions that have had harsh consequences for their work despite its recognised excellence. More broadly we share the concerns expressed by the TUC and Universities UK regarding the structuring of research funds which could concentrate funding into the largest and most highly rated university units thus exacerbating existing regional differences in research capacity and performance. If that were to happen most regions have research areas at risk as would clusters in engineering, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and environment. It should also be noted that some disciplines are enhanced by having a dispersed set of research facilities, for example research into the natural environment.

16.  Although there seems to be little overt Ministerial support for a regional science policy, we are conscious that the Government is concerned about future regional economic prospects. Following on the Manchester Independent Economic Review, being led by Sir Tom McKillop, the new Regional Economic Council must surely also have keen interest in regional science and engineering capability as a basis for addressing recessionary pressures. We would therefore urge that the Government uses this mechanism to ensure that it builds on and provide support for regional science and engineering capability as a cornerstone of new industrial policy. Ensuring the future skills base will be integral to this approach.

  17.  Whilst we recognise the longevity and enduring value of the Haldane principles, we do now think that the time is right for them to be updated. For example, there is a compelling case that earlier engagement by the Director General of Research Councils in some recent decisions could have widened the criteria under consideration, promoted greater openness, and resulted in improved quality of outcomes. It no longer makes sense, in a global research environment, for government to be at arms' length from decisions that will impact on UK capability. Neither does it make sense for decisions that may be of wider consequence to be entirely devolved to individual organisations or funding bodies. In practice, decision makers generally occupy multiple roles and responsibilities. The Government should accept that this is the case and ensure that it can also exercise strategic influence without infringing Haldane.

Engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy

  18.  Prospect welcomed the Government's consultation on "A Vision for Science and Society". It is important for many reasons both to engage the public and to increase public confidence in science and engineering policy. Too often there is a disconnect between individual interaction with science and technology applications and awareness and understanding of the underlying science and engineering. Further, past attempts to engage and build confidence have not always been successful and it is important to learn from experience, for example of the GM Nation debate. Equally government must resist the temptation to treat its own scientists either as infallible oracles or scapegoats for unpopular political decisions. The most recent Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak showed that the public did have a high degree of trust in the Government's Chief Veterinary Officer at that time, but were much less confident about statements made by Ministers.

19.  As the TUC's response to the consultation on "A Vision for Science and Society" pointed out, an ongoing dialogue will also make it much easier for the public to understand and engage with changing scientific priorities. Of course, there can be no public veto over individual scientific projects. We must continue to rely on experts to advise on the science that is most beneficial, in both applied science and fundamental research. But that does not mean that the public has no interest or that both science and society cannot benefit from greater dialogue.

  20.  However, a successful process of engagement should involve more than dialogue with individual citizens. Hundreds of thousands of trade union members work in science and engineering based employment, and they should have the opportunity to have their voice heard through their union. This often does not happen at the moment. For example, the 2007 TUC Congress carried two resolutions highlighting important issues on which there has been little, if any, debate with the relevant unions.[20] The first, moved by the Society of Radiographers, addressed the need for realistic and enforceable control of genetic testing rather than employers and insurance companies relying on self-regulation, which has the potential for misuse and discrimination in the workplace and in the wider community. The second resolution, moved by the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, noted that, whilst developments in technology have improved working practices, technologies such as mobile phones, e-mails and internet sites can be used to bully and harass workers, undermining their health, well-being, confidence, self-esteem and, in some cases, their career progression.

The role of GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders in determining UK science and engineering policy

  21.  Prospect believes that the Government Office for Science has an important and significant role to play, though it is not well resourced to deal with a complex and wide-ranging engineering community. The initiative by the new Chief Scientific Adviser to establish a science and engineering community of interest is very welcome but, in practice, its impact will be limited because it depends on voluntary self-identification and is limited to core government departments and agencies. Prospect played an active role in promoting this initiative to our members, many of whom had not heard of it from their own employer. Others who wished to become involved were barred from doing so because they work outside the core civil service, despite the fact that this is where much of the government's practical engineering work is undertaken. In our view the initiative should be extended to include the whole Government science community.

22.  At departmental level Chief Scientific Advisers and Heads of Science and Engineering Profession tend to be even less well resourced, and many combine this responsibility with other professional roles. Prospect did have high hopes that Government Skills, the Sector Skills Council for central government, would provide additional support to the network of scientific advisers. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that Government Skills' priorities lie elsewhere. This is of particular concern given that many of the key challenges for government, such as climate change and defence security, depend crucially on engineering and technical expertise.

  23.  Prospect remains concerned that although the Government has consistently supported the science base through the Science Budget, this commitment is not always replicated in departments—particularly when their own budgets come under pressure. For example, the level of core funding for research institutes leaves many of them highly vulnerable to shifts and reductions in competitive funding that owe more to short-term changes in departmental priorities than to the quality of work being undertaken. Such decisions can have significant implications for regional capability, and we would certainly hope that the Government will use its new Regional Economic Council to ensure that decision-makers are better sighted on the regional dimensions of science and engineering policy.

  24.  In similar vein, the announcement in the Pre Budget Report to once again review the ownership status of key science bodies, such as the Met Office, appears to be wholly cost-driven. As well as providing the National Meteorological Service for the UK, its combined weather and climate change research and expertise is relied on by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Defra. Privatisation would denude the Government of this intelligence and impoverish the UK's contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Prospect finds it incredible that the Government is considering proceeding with privatisation given that numerous previous investigations have concluded that the Met Office should be left as a public service, and at a time when the general economic climate will fail to provide an adequate return.

How government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised

  25.  Over the past five years much effort has been devoted to various reviews of the governance of Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) in order to attempt to ensure that they remain fit for purpose in a changing world. In many cases the status quo has often been confirmed as the optimum governance model and it is far from clear whether the time, cost and effort of the reviews has delivered any tangible benefit to wider society. Indeed, in a small number of cases the governance changes that have been implemented have arguably weakened the organisation and thereby the ability of Government to access impartial, evidence-based advice on nationally important issues.

26.  Whilst Prospect recognises the need to regularly review the governance of public sector science and engineering to ensure that it meets society's needs, it is our experience that the current process actually weakens the science and engineering base rather than strengthening it. We therefore recommend that there needs to be a period of stability before conducting any future reviews, which then should be of a light touch in nature. This, we believe, would allow organisations to consolidate and plan for a sustainable future and to attract, motivate and develop science, engineering and technology professionals.

December 2008

15   "Engineering" (March 2008) and "Engineering in Government" (October 2008).  Back

16   "A Vision for Science and Society"-TUC (October 2008) Back

17   "Good Government" (October 2008). Back

18   Energy Skills-Opportunity and Challenge. Back

19   Skills for a Low Carbon Resource Efficient Economy. Back

20   Discussed in TUC policy document "Hybrid Cars and Shooting Stars" (2008). Back

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