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

Memorandum 4

Submission from the Natural History Museum

  1.  The Natural History Museum (NHM) maintains and develops its collections and uses them to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world. Our science explores the diversity of the natural world and the processes that generate such diversity. NHM is one of the world's leading institutions for systematics and taxonomy: these are areas of science that are intrinsic to the scientific understanding, monitoring and conservation of biodiversity.

2.  The expertise of 350 NHM scientists and its natural history collection of 70 million items are the basis for international integrated research on the natural world; provision of collections access to many scientists; development; provision of information resources; and education and public engagement. Its broad role as a museum is inseparable from its science: it enables the NHM to take innovative approaches to public engagement in science and the natural world. It combines skills and pursues collaboration to meet constantly changing needs in many countries.

  3.  NHM research is centred on taxonomy and related disciplines. It describes what organisms exist and how they interact; where they are; and how diversity changes and develops. This work integrates taxonomy with other areas of research. Our research framework[21] summarises the wider scientific questions to which taxonomy contributes in the Museum and through collaboration: these include biodiversity conservation and loss.

  4.  The Museum's work enables natural diversity to be described and understood. Research and monitoring for biodiversity, ecosystem services and climate change relies on taxonomy in investigating diversity, monitoring changes, and modelling vulnerability; policy-makers need information that is underpinned by taxonomy; capacity building and training involve taxonomic expertise; public initiatives and engagement routinely involve taxonomy.

  5.  The Museum has recently made a submission to the inquiry of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on the state of systematics and taxonomy research: the subject of the House of Lords inquiry is relevant to some of the concerns of the present inquiry.

  6.  We welcome the opportunity to provide this submission to this inquiry and endorse the need for a wider discussion on the issues it raises.

1.  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?

  7.  We support the government's ambitions for embedding evidence-based policy-making and raising scientific considerations across the policy spectrum through the Chief Scientific Advisers network. The Cabinet Sub-Committee and the CST provide potential for appropriate involvement of Ministers and senior scientists from outside government.

8.  CST appears to have a relatively low level of activity, albeit on important topics and there would be benefit in defining its role as part of a spectrum of bodies offering analysis and advice both inside government and beyond.

  9.  Science is not isolated from society or government policy, so it is vital that it is embedded across all departments. However, there is value in a specialist enabling focus for science policy.

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

  10.  We support the government's ambitions for wider consultation in policy-making, especially with the public.

11.  The need to demonstrate public value by publicly-funded organisations is critical in order to build trust and ownership of the public realm. Engaging the public in science policy-making should make policy more successful. We would encourage policy makers to recognise the value of the public's knowledge and value the process, as well as the results of engagement. Support for longitudinal research to explore the actual outcomes of prolonged public engagement in individuals and sectors of society would be of use.

  12.  We would encourage the creation of citizen panels for consultation and measurement purposes, as well as to make individual science research institutions more transparent in order to build public confidence in science.

3.  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?

  13.  We believe that the science and engineering community is in fact an overarching grouping consisting of a number of communities and that this reference is does not acknowledge this. Some operate coherently as networks of expertise and interest while others do not: their capacity to engage on policy differs accordingly. This coherence is not necessarily aligned with the importance of policy development. Policy-makers must acknowledge this in their thinking.

14.  We believe that the science and engineering community should contribute to the formulation of government policy and be explicitly involved, but not necessarily as the only stakeholder.

  15.  Science should be an element in all government policy-making and there should be greater awareness across government of how policy impacts the science and engineering community.

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

  16.  We recognise the importance of the Haldane principle and this should remain an essential element in maintaining the international competitiveness of the UK in science. The partial shift of research funds to direct government administration since 1971 is important in tying research to policy, but constant efforts must be made to ensure that government is able to make good decisions on policy-related funding. This can only be achieved by involvement of scientists as civil servants or expert advisers.

17.  Science is an international activity and therefore requires national policy to ensure the UK remains competitive and develops critical mass. However, we do believe that a regional focus would be useful for technology transfer and public understanding of science.

5.  Engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy?

  18.  We believe that increasing public participation in science and raising scientific literacy levels is vital to society and to ensure the UK economy remains competitive.

19.  The Natural History Museum is uniquely placed as a world-class science research institute and cultural visitor attraction where we engage our visitors with our scientists to create a better understanding of scientific issues, how science works and to encourage more students to study science and view science as an attractive career option. The Museum acts as a catalyst for a wider network of public engagement with science.

  20.  There is a wealth of expertise in science communication in a number of established venues and a wider recognition of the value of public engagement with science. The Museum aims to attract more large and diverse audiences, and free admission has assisted in increasing our visitor numbers. We offer creative and innovative galleries and science education programmes that aim to stimulate interest in how science works and recognition of the value of science. We have experience of engaging with difficult to reach groups by making science accessible through specific cultural contexts.

  21.  The need to work with the media is obviously important to combat the public's and media's mistrust of science and in order to generate a greater interest and understanding in scientific issues.

  22.  There is a need for greater cross-sector working to achieve national and European science and society objectives. We endorse the Government's support for national public engagement campaigns, like Darwin200.

  23.  We would encourage policy makers to use trusted intermediaries, like the Natural History Museum, for facilitating greater dialogue between policy-makers, scientists and society. People already visit places like the Museum and we are equipped with specialised skills and spaces for this type of engagement.

6.  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?

  24.  All the stakeholders mentioned should be able to explicitly contribute to science and engineering policy. Policy-making needs to recognise the diversity of these stakeholders who are funders or consumers of science, or a mixture of both.

7.  How government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised?

25.  We believe that both the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee play a crucial role in scrutinising the government's science and engineering policy.

26.  Scientific advice to government and the government's total expenditure on research should be more transparent and open, to a certain degree to wider public scrutiny, both directly and through the aforementioned Parliamentary Committees.

December 2008

21   http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/science-directorate/science-policies-strategy/assets/researchframework.pdf Back

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