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

Memorandum 12

Submission from the CBI


    —  The CBI believes there is no need for a regional science policy—it should be a UK national policy, centrally coordinated and championed, but a new Department for Science is not required—  Science and engineering advice should be a core input to the formulation of policy across government, not just in science and engineering-specific areas. Social science expertise must also become more prominent in policy advice—  A conscious reassessment of public Research and Development (R&D) and technology funding is required to ensure the UK is well positioned to emerge strongly from the economic downturn

    —  Science and society policy must seek to influence people from an early age about the value of science, and government must play a more active part using social marketing and other techniques.


  1.  As the UK's leading business organisation, the CBI speaks for some 240,000 businesses that together employ around a third of the private sector workforce, covering the full spectrum of business interests both by sector and by size. The CBI welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry on science and engineering policy. We also draw your attention to our more detailed submission to the committee's inquiry on engineering in May 2008—many of the issues we raised are still relevant.

2.  Our response focuses on four themes within the call for evidence: the science and engineering policy landscape, science and engineering in policy formulation, science and society issues, and the Haldane Principle.


  3.  The current science and engineering policy landscape in the UK is too fragmented across too many bodies. The fragments do not join up—or at least it is often not clear how they join up—and it is sometimes difficult to determine which organisation, group or individual has lead responsibility on different issues. The CBI believes this has to change. If the UK is to stay competitive internationally, through investment in the science and engineering skills and research base and effective use of science and engineering expertise in policy formulation, then the UK must have a strong and coherent science and engineering strategy. This strategy should be centrally coordinated and championed and the sum total must be greater than its constituent parts.

4.  We do not see the need for science and engineering policy to change across regional boundaries within the UK. The regions and devolved administrations should act together to ensure the UK can build and maintain a critical mass of science and engineering activity. Instead of duplicating effort in different regions and spreading resources too thinly, the regions and central government should work together to define and deliver a single strategy.

  5.  Similarly, other key government-funded science and engineering policy stakeholders (eg the Research and Funding Councils, professional societies, delivery bodies and agencies) should work more closely together to identify synergies, address gaps and maximize impact. A key objective should be to slim down the current proliferation of policy effort so business, universities, public and third sector users of science and engineering can have greater confidence that the system will be responsive to their needs.

  6.  Science and engineering policy should not, however, be constrained within a separate Department for Science. DIUS should continue in its overall UK leadership role on science and engineering, but, working with the Government Office for Science and other key stakeholders, should act more as a champion of science and engineering in government and across the economy and society. This is a time to consolidate and focus on delivery, rather than deflecting effort by digging up the system to create additional structures.

  7.  Science and engineering are required across all aspects of government, and leadership is required in each area. Progress has been made in recent years by developing the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser and creating chief scientific adviser positions (sometimes with independent expert advisory committees in support) in most government departments and some key agencies. This system should continue to develop so that the chief scientists have direct involvement and influence over R&D spending and policy formulation and oversight of execution—this is not yet the case for all departments. Chief Engineer or Chief Technology Officer positions should also be considered, to ensure that departments and agencies have appropriate expertise in these areas and, in particular, so they can tap effectively into state of the art developments in business and academia.

  8.  We welcome the government's commitment in the Innovation Nation white paper to produce an annual innovation review. The first report (published in December 2008) provides a benchmark against which to judge progress in future years and this reporting should become a core part of the scrutiny process for innovation. Evidence of public procurement being used to catalyse business investment in innovation should be one of the key reporting measures. A similar approach should also be taken for reporting on and evaluating science and engineering. This could cover the government's approach to science and engineering investment (which may overlap with some of the innovation review reporting) and how it has used science and engineering advice and evidence in policy.

  9.  Incorporating an element of independent external review would make this an even more valuable exercise.


  10.  Increasing the number of qualified scientists and engineers in parliament and throughout the UK civil service, in particular in senior positions, would provide a more effective basis for policy making across government.

11.  The views of the science and engineering communities should be included as a central component of all policy formulation, not just in the formulation of science and engineering policy. At present science and engineering involvement is marginal, typically on a case by case basis, and typically only where there are obvious science, engineering or R&D issues to address.

  12.  Scientists and engineers can bring the technical and practical expertise needed to judge the full depth and impact of decisions and may be in a position to suggest innovative solutions to intractable policy problems. Scientists and engineers also have particular expertise in modelling scenarios, which could prove invaluable in determining the sensitivity and resilience of policy to changes in relevant factors. In addition, they may be more willing to "think the unthinkable" and test policy assumptions and evidence to destruction "in the lab" before wider release.

  13.  It is important for social scientists to be included in the "scientists" category too as an increasing number of policy areas require solutions that have both technical and social dimensions. For example, influencing behaviour change is likely to be one of the most important components of policy in coming years where effective social science input will be essential. Perhaps the most critical policy area for this will be in meeting our climate change obligations, where substantial, sustained and pervasive behaviour change is likely to be required, alongside major technological developments.

  14.  Greater use should be made of short-term appointments for scientists and engineers within government in order to attract the best minds and avoid stagnation. A model for this can be found in the US Defence Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It should become a normal ambition for high flying technologists to have had a 3-5 year engagement within government on their CV.


  15.  The Haldane Principle has already evolved significantly since it was first set out in the 1918 Haldane Report on the Machinery of Government[28]. It is now interpreted to mean that decisions on what to research should be in the hands of researchers and made on scientific criteria, at arms' length from political considerations. The original Haldane Report made no such recommendation. Instead, it proposed a split in government funded research so that delivery departments would focus on specific forms of research of relevance to their work (eg in health, transport and defence etc), whereas general research[29] should be the responsibility of a separate organisation in government. The intention was to improve the provision of knowledge to underpin policy and free general research from departmental bias, while maintaining direct Ministerial control over research funding decisions.

16.  The majority of public funding for research is now delivered at arm's length from central government through the Research and Funding Councils (c. £5.3 billion per year), with DIUS as the department ultimately responsible. Through the peer review and research assessment mechanisms, this "science and engineering base" funding is, by and large, controlled by the researchers themselves. The other delivery departments are responsible for c. £4.3 billion per year (£1.7 billion civil, £2.6 billion defence) of public research spending.

  17.  Within both the science and engineering base and delivery department streams, our concern now is less about departmental bias and political interference—although it is important to keep these under review—and more about the funding for different types of work within the R&D spectrum.

  18.  We strongly support the emphasis placed by the Technology Strategy Board and Research Councils on research to address major challenges facing the economy, society and environment, but recognise that pure curiosity-driven research also has a critical role to play. The question that needs to be asked is, has the right balance been struck between the two? Similarly, has the right balance been struck between funding for research versus funding for development ("R vs. D")? In both cases we say no.

  19.  Support for user-focused and challenge-led research has increased in recent years,[30] but the UK still lacks the mission-driven ethos that is prevalent in competitor countries such as the US, where DARPA, NASA and other agencies lead the way in engaging business and universities to find solutions to real world problems.

  20.  Public support at the "D" end of the R&D spectrum also needs to be improved. Civil department and agency funding for experimental and technological development as a proportion of overall public R&D spending is as much as six times higher in the US than it is in the UK.[31] It is in the development and demonstration phases of new technology that the highest costs arise—as research ideas are taken through to prototypes, validation, scale-up and readiness for market—and it is here where the UK must increase its investment to build a competitive advantage for the economy.

  21.  The government could also do much more to link development spending to public procurement, using its £175 billion per year purchasing power to help pull through innovation and catalyse further investment by business. There is widespread recognition of the need for this, but, in reality, little progress has been made. The government should "raise the bar" when producing tenders as an incentive for business to invest in building their capability—helping UK businesses compete internationally—and generating solutions that will find a wider market.

  22.  A conscious reassessment of public R&D and technology funding is now required to ensure the UK is well positioned to emerge strongly from the economic downturn. We recommend supporting the acceleration of technology development in the short and medium term, linked to major challenges and procurement opportunities, while ensuring that our investment in basic research remains world-leading.


  23.  Public engagement with, and confidence in, science and engineering is essential for the future of the UK economy and society. Engagement in the science and engineering policy debate is also important as new discoveries challenge our understanding and help to shape the future. We described business interest in these issues in our input to the recent DIUS consultation on science and society.[32]

24.  To be effective, a new science and society strategy will require concerted action on three fronts: to improve the STEM[33] skills "supply chain", to bring a wider understanding of science and technology into everyday life, and to engage the public on key science and technology issues as they develop.

  25.  Engagement with science must start at an early age. It is important that school children are taught science by competent, appropriately qualified and enthusiastic teachers and for these teachers to have the science labs, materials and technical support they need to teach effectively. There should be a focus on practical experience, problem solving and understanding what happens in the "black boxes" of technology. The Digital Britain action plan provides a useful focus for stressing the importance of digital applications, as well as creativity, in a better-connected broadband world.

  26.  Careers advice must be improved dramatically to challenge misperceptions about science and engineering degrees and career prospects. Particular emphasis must be placed on encouraging girls and women into science and engineering education and careers to create a balanced workforce with the skills and experience required for the future. Continued effort is also needed to retain qualified women in science and engineering careers to address the disproportionate flow of women into other disciplines and out of the work force.

  27.  There has to be an end to the current state of affairs in which many school children, sections of society and some media presenters believe it is "cool to be thick" when it comes to science. The value of STEM to society and our way of life must be made more explicit—both in the curriculum and in everyday life. In our science and society submission, we proposed a campaign to provide scientific, technological and other information about products, processes and services at their point of use. This social marketing campaign should be wide-ranging and pervasive, primarily factual, but also designed to create debate. Public service broadcasting obligations should be used to catalyse change: ensuring that "bad science" can be de-bunked and making it unacceptable for presenters to condone a lack of STEM awareness.

  28.  Government should also take a lead on paving the way for future technology developments to be integrated into society. An in-depth and on-going public dialogue effort on key science-based challenges and new technologies is required, which the government will need to sponsor. This engagement should encourage informed public debate on risk and uncertainty, potential and impacts, priorities, choice and UK ambition. It must seek to build public trust and confidence, explore issues of concern and commit to addressing them.

  29.  Discussions should cover issues such as: stem cells and regenerative medicine; emerging diseases; what changes will be required for individuals to adapt to/mitigate climate change; and how far we should allow autonomous systems to take over from human control (eg in transportation, medical and other scenarios). The topics are likely to be controversial, but creating awareness and understanding early on will help to position the UK well to deal with future challenges. It may also help to seed demand for new products and services that will have knock-on benefits for the UK economy and society.

January 2009 

28   Report of the Machinery of Government Committee, Ministry of Reconstruction, Cmd 9230, 1918. Also see discussion in HM Treasury paper, Historical overview of government health research policy, for the Cooksey Review, September 2006. Back

29   The general research to which Haldane referred would now be called basic research. Back

30   For example with the creation of the Technology Strategy Board. There is also a business research element in HEFCE's QR funding (although this is only £61 million out of £1.46 billion-and we argued in our follow-up to the Lambert Review that it should be £200 million per year) and RAE2008 appears to have given greater recognition to research excellence beyond that judged by academic peer review of academic publications. Back

31   CBI analysis on R vs. D to be published in spring 2009. Back

32   CBI submission to the DIUS Science & Society consultation: http://www.cbi.org.uk/scienceandsociety Back

33   STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Back

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