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

Memorandum 13

Submission from BRE Global


    —  Science and engineering are so important to the success and well being of our nation that I recommend we have a Department of Science overseen by a committee chaired by the Prime Minister. —  Government needs an overarching strategy and associated policies for ensuring triple bottom line sustainability. This needs to be informed by proper scientific evidence rather than being driven by issues which can lead to waste and ineffective or damaging policy.—  Science at the academic level is well regarded and funded on a long term basis. The real gap comes in its application to Government policy where research is short term and carried out on a project by project basis frequently specified and managed by non-scientists across a range of Government Departments, regions and NPDBs. Delivery of Government science policy needs to be joined up rather than fragmented. This is particularly vital for science work associated with climate change, and the construction, management and maintenance of our National infrastructure.

    —  Better scientific education of the nation is essential to our success.

Question 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.

  1.1  Although I have spent my entire career working in science—in academia, industry, Government and latterly as Chief Executive of a technical business which is part of a Charitable Trust, I see little evidence that science and engineering is really at the heart of Government policy and conclude that the Cabinet Sub-Committee and Council have been unsuccessful.

1.2  The nature of our democracy and the media is such that Government has a natural tendency to focus its attention on the political issues of the day—big or small—from light bulbs, unemployment, shops or diabetes through to taxation, climate change, health and safety, justice, trade and agriculture. This makes it very difficult to take account of the fact that actually most issues are inter-related and that we all live in a planetary ecosystem governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. This system is essentially a closed system (other than the influx of solar radiation) with a finite capacity to cope with the demands the world's population makes on it. Unless we put real science (and also engineering, economics and ethics—hereinafter referred to just as science) at the heart of what we do then at some point, a combination of population and economic growth could mean that the demands for raw materials and energy will exceed the ability of nature to replenish them and also to absorb the resulting waste.

  1.3  To put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making requires a real overarching Government strategy coupled with a coherent means of assessing and delivering the associated policies. Current fragmentation of policy and structural issues across Departments (discussed briefly below in response to other questions) make this very difficult. A related issue is that the Chief Scientist can end up being seen as a nuisance who interferes with Departments rather than as a leader who ensures effectiveness of science.

  1.4  Science and engineering are so important to the success of our nation that I recommend we follow Norway's example and have a Department of Science overseen by a committee chaired by the Prime Minister. This would need to be underpinned by better science and mathematics education for everyone—we can't build a strong and triple bottom line sustainable economy on wishful thinking; Politicians willing to lead sustainable change will only get elected if people understand what really matters.

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

  2.1  The science of climate change, energy security, health, education, construction and agriculture remains poorly understood and provokes intense debate, lobbying and positioning. The responsibilities for development and implementation of policies for them fall across a wide range of Government Departments, Regions, Local Authorities and NDPBs. Demarcation lines are sometimes unclear and/or ignored.

2.2  As a result of this fragmentation of policy responsibilities there is often insufficient money available to research the issues properly, identify options, establish which are best and then implement them. Duplication of effort, failures to learn from experience and omission of vital work become rife. Not only does this waste tax payers money directly, worse still, it can undermine science and the Government by leading to research to back up a policy rather than to inform it ("policy based evidence" rather than "evidence based policy").

  2.3  We hope that the recent announcement of the formation of the Department for Energy and Climate Change will really bring together policy and its implementation in this important area—and bring much needed science to bear on the issues. A few illustrations of the effects of recent failures to bring science to the area of climate change made worse by fragmentation of responsibilities are given in an Annex below.

Question 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 addressed

  3.1  Science should be at the heart of what we do as a nation and it is surely the responsibility of Government to ensure that it is used to improve the long term safety, well-being and triple bottom line sustainability of the nation. The science and engineering community are a very important group that Government needs to listen to, but their inputs must be subject to proper scrutiny and peer review. As the infamous story of Millikan and the charge on the electron illustrates, even the best scientists can fool themselves.

3.2  Research councils should be "guardians of the independence of science" but as members are both recipients and distributors of grant money they are subject to conflicts of interest and this needs to be addressed.

  3.3  In general, we are well served by our Universities who are able to carry out long term basic research. The real gap comes in the application to Government policy where research is short term and carried out on a project by project basis frequently specified and managed by non-scientists. As a consequence a lot of tax payers money is wasted—not just on poor research but on badly founded policy (see illustrative examples in the Annex). This situation has got considerably worse over the years. J B S Haldane (a relative of the Haldane who invented the principle) illustrated that the tendency of government to forget what they have already done is not new. J B S Haldane[34] when discussing coal-gas poisoning mentioned that research in 1899 by the Home Office showed that exchange of air in homes is chiefly through the walls; but that same Home Office issued guidance in 1938 concerning protecting your house against air raids, ignored this report, and instead concentrated on plugging gaps in windows and doors to protect against poison gas (and ignored completely the main danger from air raids—explosive bombs!)

  3.4  A related matter is that the EU spends a lot of money on applied research to make the EU more competitive. We don't have any form of national strategy for exploiting it.

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

  4.1  Regional science policy is madness and just increases fragmentation, duplication and waste of tax payers money! See above. Science is expensive, hard work and can often be very long term and tedious. Regional science is already leading to low quality superficial work where we fail to learn the lessons from the current science and engineering community as well as from the past.

4.2  The Haldane principle needs to be updated for the 21st century. Researchers inevitably want more research. It is surely Government's role to set national priorities and policies informed and underpinned by science. Researchers can then identify solutions and options for implementing the policies and applied scientists and engineers from the Research and Technology Organisations and industry can help with their assessment and selection.

  4.3  The new Haldane principle would then be that each of the primary Government policies should be informed by science and that each new problem or opportunity should be tackled by integrated and informed research designed to identify options for solving them. Implementation decisions for the policies should be subject to peer review (basic and applied), parliamentary scrutiny and assessments of cost effectiveness/value for money for the tax payer

Question 5:  Engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy

  5.1  Fragmentation of Government, "policy based evidence" and shortage of good science teachers has inevitably dented public confidence. There is no quick fix—we've got to address science, engineering and economic education at all levels.

Question 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

6.1  The question again highlights the problem that there are too many bodies dispensing or chasing precious tax payers money, with the consequent fragmentation of policies and approaches. We should not be relying on charities such as the BRE Trust to fund work essential to the well being of the nation but should support them, the Universities and the RTOs.

Question 7:  How government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised.

7.1  We consider that it is the role of Government to set high level national priorities and policies informed and underpinned by high standards of engineering, science and economic education and research. Scrutiny should surely be by Parliament with support from eminent scientists, engineers and economists who have minimal conflicts of interest?

34   "Science and Everyday Life"-J B S Haldane FRS-1941. Back

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