Submission by the Royal Aeronautical Society
Science and especially scientific
methodology should be at the heart of evidence-based policy-making.
However, scientific propositions, particularly when they inform
commitments of large amounts of public money must be subject to
rigorous peer review. This must also extend to private
agencies in receipt of public funding or investment. The
confidential nature of some areas of public policy may still preclude
extensive reference to external bodies, but the assumptions and
rationale of science-based programmes must be subject to adequate
Given the subtle but important differences
between scientific and engineering disciplines, the government
should have direct access to engineering-based advice.
The Society recommends a dialogue
between the government and the engineering community to establish
how applied technological and engineering issues might be afforded
more emphasis in the work of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser
and his Departmental colleagues
The development of scientific and
technological capabilities in the UK regions is an important factor
in the promotion of regional economic activity; but given the
limitations on national resources, such investments must also
make sense nationally.
1. The Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS)
is the Learned Society for the Aerospace community. Based in London,
it has a world-wide membership of over 17,000, with over 13,000 in
the UK. Its Fellows and Members represent all levels of the aeronautical
community both active and retired. Through its various Divisions,
Branches, Boards and Committees, it can draw upon considerable
experience and expertise in aerospace matters. In addition, the
Society has over 120 organisations who are members of its
Corporate Partners scheme. The Society is responsible for the
accreditation of aeronautical engineering courses in the UK.
Open decision-making in national science policy
2. Science and especially scientific methodology
should be at the heart of evidence-based policy-making. However,
scientific propositions, particularly when they inform commitments
of large amounts of public money must be subject to rigorous peer
3. Science and scientists are not value free;
the history of science and technology policy is not untainted
by examples of scientific decision-making seemingly driven by
personal or institutional lobbying. In the UK, arguably the decisions
to develop the jet engine and the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor
were cases in point. In both examples, the closed nature of decision-making
was dominated by small groups of government scientists and engineers
committed in principle to the specific lines of exploration. In
the case of the former, the resistance of a small group of establishment
scientists who opposed a concept from outside their community
delayed the development of Whittle's design. In the case of the
latter, government scientists were wedded to an innovation they
had pioneered whose practical flaws might have been exposed by
external experts. While a more open system might have produced
the same outcomes, fundamental errors of omission and commission
in the evaluation of these programmes may have been avoided.
4. Over the last decade, a more insidious
issue may be associated with the progressive transfer of Government's
own scientific resources to the private sector, where scientific
judgements may be subject to vested commercial interests. It is
equally important that these activities remain accountable and
subject to external scrutiny and independent peer review. This
is linked to the idea that government should have the competence
of an "intelligent customer"; but it has a wider set
of implications in that those agencies in receipt of public money
or investment should not be allowed to act as both advocate and
evaluator of scientific propositions and programmes.
Public scrutiny and dissemination
5. The confidential nature of some areas
of public policy may still preclude extensive reference to external
bodies, but the assumptions and rationale of science-based programmes
must be subject to adequate scrutiny. This might be achieved through
routine application of "red teaming" approaches whereby
major scientific and engineering programmes must be defended against
a deliberately hostile evaluation. Equally, confidentiality should
be not automatically raised as a barrier to Parliamentary accountability.
But more important in this part of the process, Parliament must
be equipped with high quality of expert assistance to evaluate
the more complex and technical policy issues. Advice must be expert
and independentnot always easy to ensure. In this respect,
the process of appointment should also be open to external scrutiny.
6. The Society shares the concern of many learned
societies at the widespread paucity of general public scientific
understanding. This in part reflects some decline in the teaching
of science in schools, but also the tendency of popular media
to exaggerate and to sensationalise scientific events and issues.
There is no quick or easy counter to the spread of "bad science"
and "quasi science", but it would be timely for the
government and engineering community to partner in reviewing how
effectively investment to date in efforts by qualified bodies
to develop programmes designed to raise popular understanding
of science and technological concepts has been exploited, and
what more can be done..
The importance of applied science
7. A distinction does need to be made between
pure and applied science. In particular, the Society feels that
the engineering disciplines are not well represented in government
decision-making. Although clearly science-based, engineering and
other more applied technological approaches have a different methodologies
and innovation trajectories. The continuing failure to appreciate
this may reflect a long-standing criticism of the Haldane principle
that it neglects applied science and elevates pure science.
Scientific advice to government
8. To manage applied technological and engineering
issues more effectively, the Society suggests a dialogue between
the government and the engineering community to establish how
such issues might be afforded more emphasis in the work of the
Government Chief Scientific Adviser and his Departmental colleagues.
While science-based, Engineering does have a different methodological
bias, predominantly founded on application and testing.
9. The Society is most specifically concerned
to see Chief Scientists tasked to provide key advice on current
major issues such as future energy or aviation policy balancing
both the scientific and engineering viewpoints in order to create
effective and actionable policy. Equally they would be tasked
to ensure that public funds for research not only meet scientific
objectives but also the potential for exploitation and wealth
creation. The powerful signal to society that the Government needs
and takes account of Engineering considerations would undoubtedly
raise the profile and status of the CSAs and it should be a part
of their role that it is required to improve public understanding
of Engineering and advise on relevant educational process' and
resources needed for a 21st century economy.
10. Scientific and engineering advice needs
to be tempered by economic and commercial judgement and should
be clearly integrated into mainstream policy evaluation. Given
the complexity and long term nature of many modern scientific
and technological investments, an essential element of this advice
process should be the provision of a systems engineering perspective.
Regional investment and national strategies
11. The development of scientific and technological
capabilities in the UK regions is an important factor in the promotion
of regional economic activity. It is especially vital creating
new sources of wealth creation in hitherto depressed areas. However,
given the limitations on national resources, such investments
must also make sense nationally. This is particularly important
for science and technology based industries such as aerospace
that compete in global markets. Regional centres of excellence
should be set against national strategies and priorities.
12. This view also contains some implicit criticism
of the Haldane principle that requires Research Councils to set
their own agenda. While this should continue to be respected in
principle, industrial end-user interests should perhaps have greater
influence in determining the balance of resources allocated between
individual areas of research.