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

Memorandum 15

Submission from Concatenation Science Communication

  1.  As someone who has worked with various learned societies for a number of years, and who is currently engaged in a number of science communication ventures, I am pleased to be able to respond to this consultation. Alas, timing has prevented a more considered contribution.


  2.  The current Government has over a the best part of a decade restored science investment lost in the decade up to the 1998-9 financial year. This is appreciated and is to the benefit of UK PLC.

3.  However science is still not fully effectively recognised in the policy-making process and is on occasion actively ignored. Nor is it strongly represented and coordinated across all Government Departments. Furthermore it is no longer as effectively monitored as it might by all-party Parliamentarian groups with the loss of the House of Commons Select Committee for Science & Technology. This committee needs to be restored.


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

  4.  This question can be interpreted a number of ways: I will take it literally. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council of Science & Technology do not have the remit, and therefore are unable, to put science & engineering at the heart of Governmental policy-making.

5.  There are many issues in public policy that are underpinned by science. Failing to recognise, hence act on, underpinning science is a failure to put science & engineering at the heart of policy-making. Science can assist with policy relating to issues on the political agenda such as climate change impacts, biodiversity conservation, agricultural production, diseases and health concerns, energy issues, etc, etc. However scientists across disciplines can also help with regards to other public agenda concerns.

6.  For example all scientists generally handle data and are aware of the problems: with data-set resolution reflecting biometrics be they of an individual whole-organism or a sub-population; of data substitution; of data loss; and of data interpretation. All of these affect issues such as the use of genetic fingerprinting as a forensic tool as well as biometrics for identity cards.

  7.  Another example concerns the way the recent credit crunch has been handled. It has long been accepted by both Parliamentarians from both sides of the House that the UK needs to become more environmentally sustainable and this is also agreed by the scientific community as a whole (see the "Charter for Science & Engineering" launched at Parliamentary Science Links Day 2001). However getting from where we are to a more sustainable society faces a number of obstacles. Consequently, in 2008, when it was announced that there were to be financial incentives to help re-boot the economy it was a missed opportunity that the sustainability option was ignored. Now, there are many ways that this might have been tackled and I cite the following for illustrative purposes only and not as a firm statement of personal policy. One option might have been instead of a marginal VAT cut to have used the same financial value in investing in local government energy conservation schemes whereby local government awarded (and monitored) grants to ratepayers for domestic energy efficiency measures. This would have had the multiple benefits of: stimulating the grass roots construction industry; improving the actual value of property; as well as having a lasting benefit of making the UK more sustainable in the longer-term. Yet despite both political rhetoric regarding sustainability and the support for sustainability policy concerns across scientific sectors, such options were not considered.

  8.  Indeed Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council of Science & Technology do not appear to have any significant say on such broader public issues. They are more concerned with science investment and assessment matters. Consequently science and engineering cannot be said to be at the heart of, or underpin, Government policy.

  9.  As to whether there should be a Ministry of Science then the answer is a very clear "no"! Science cuts across all of society and the economy and technology (that springs from science) increasingly so. Science therefore needs not only to have its research interests looked after in a coordinated way but also be applied, or underpin policy, across all policy-making sectors in a co-ordinated way. The best place for science and technology is (as it once was) is within the Cabinet Office but run by a senior ranking Minister where it can have the authority when dealing with issues across various Government Departments.

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


  10.  Overall Govt investment levels in science have caught up with the past lost ground period (that was prior to 1998-9) and we are well-placed to move ahead (provided this momentum is not lost given current competing UK credit crunch concerns).

11.  Govt policy has not impeded UK science having higher impact per £ spent compared with most G12 competitors.


  12.  Science is over-monitored. Much public funded research is effectively appraised twice: once on project application to funder, and periodically on university departmental outcome through REAs (or its successor). Conversely applied research (not Governmentally funded but often carried out by universities when outside of industry) is not properly recognised by Government and its Agencies. For instance environmental science research did very badly in the 2001 RAE. (A specific example here is that the ecological and land-management work of Herts U. which I understand had significant funding from outside of the Science Base was not properly recognised in the 2001 RAE: it had previously been successful in attracting non-Governmental funding but the poor RAE score made it harder (though fortunately not impossible) for the university to attract subsequent non-Governmental investment.) Then again, turning away from Government funded research, much industrial research necessitates safety testing or trials (again a form of monitoring) before being implemented (or going to market) and this can eat into patent lifetime and other private value (in the economic sense). Other countries are less strict. If the UK is to retain industrial research then industry and commerce must feel that it can function in a competitive way with research in other nations. This means that though standards must be maintained, such maintenance must not impede research. A biological instance is animal licence holder work which involves considerable bureaucracy with little if any added value to the high animal welfare standards found in the UK compared to other nations.

13.  Science and engineering is not valued (in the political and social sense) in broader policy making issues of UK. This seems at odds with overall policy goals of both the Government and its opposition given that UK is an increasingly technologically-based society whose politicians seek (we are told) it to be underpinned by an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

  14.  Both the above mean that science and engineering is not contributing to the UK as it might and that the UK is not fully reaping the benefits of its science and technology expertise.

  15.  The structure and integrity of the UK science and technology sectors are being eroded. There seems to be a lack of appreciation by many policy-stakeholder parties as to how distinct different types of research truly are from each other and who should invest in them. These include:-

    —  blue skies research (dependent on Research Councils' investment)

    —  fundamental and basic research (Research Councils' investment)

    —  policy-driven research (Government Department and their Agencies' investments)

    —  applied basic research (Government Departments' and industry investments)

    —  applied near-market research (Industry and Commerce investments)

  16.  For example, while it is perfectly fine for Government Departments to invest in policy-driven research and then to contract this to Research Councils, there is increasing pressure for Research Council's to invest their own resources into what are in fact Departmental policy-driven research issues including those of technology-transfer.

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

  17.  The views of the science and engineering community should be central to the formulation of Government policy. However the way the majority of consultations are conducted (using the Cabinet Office Guidelines as the official standard) demonstrates that policy makers do not really value science unless there is a very specific scientific question needing to be addressed necessitating specific technical knowledge. Transferable science skills to the broader social arena are not valued (see earlier examples).

18.  It would be useful to have not just the outcome of a consultation assessed against the overall evidence submitted but also that the outcome is assessed against evidence received specifically from the independent scientific community (this includes learned societies). Then it would be more easily possible to see whether the science views had been considered.

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

  19.  The Haldane principle does not need updating but it does need re-affirming. Government Departments seem to be having an increasing number their policy-driven research questions answered by investment from Research Councils and not Departments and their Agencies. For example Research Councils seem to be including technology transfer in their strategies when in fact such research should be invested in by the Government Department responsible for business and enterprise. (This is robbing Peter to pay Paul.) (See also the letter in Nature from Stephen Moss 17th July 2008. (Nature vol 454, p274.))

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

20.  Public confidence in science and engineering cannot be improved until Government Departments and Agencies demonstrably appreciate (through investment and action) that they themselves have confidence in science and engineering. At the moment science and engineering concerns are not managed and addressed in a co-ordinated way across Government as they might. For example not all Government Departments have as a strong recognition of the value of science. Here for instance there is the Department for Culture, Media and Sports which seems to be slow in developing its own effective science resources. This lack of DCMS value percolates through to its related agencies. For example Ofcom does not seem to value science and has publicly distanced itself from science (see its ruling on the Channel 4 "Great Global Warming Swindle" case in which it said that it was not in a position to assess programmes' science accuracy or consider possible science misrepresentation). This means that the public has no media watchdog protecting it from popular cultural misrepresentation of science. Given this one example alone (especially one relating to the media which is fundamental to influencing public perceptions) it is hardly surprising that there is a need to increasingly engage the public with, and increase its confidence in, science and engineering.

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.  The problem at the moment is that there is no clear-cut, overarching management of science policy across Government and so issues can and do fall between the cracks. These include both specialist issues (for example of concern to specialist disciplines) and generic ones (of concern to most scientists).

22.  An example of the latter might be the actual and perceived value (hence utility) of a reasonably good science BSc to a prospective undergraduate: science career concerns have been passed from pillar to post despite much political rhetoric over the past three decades.

  23.  An example of a specific concern to ecologists falling between the cracks is that of systematics. Here the issue, despite three Select enquiries over the past quarter of a century, has fallen between education agencies and Government Departmental stools with nobody charged to take ownership of implementing the solution.

  24.  Another instance indicating that science policy issues are not being resolved, and so return again and again without being addressed, was that this "non-resolution returning" concern cropped up on three occasions during last year's DEFRA Science Advisory public meeting!

  25.  Because of this fundamental lack of tactical management, simply re-arranging the relationship between deckchairs— GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders—will have far from maximum effect.

How government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised

  26.  It needs a Select Committee. It is hugely regrettably that the House of Commons Committee for Science & Technology was disbanded and an anathema given the UK has an increasing technologically-based society whose politicians seek (we are told) it to be underpinned by an increasingly knowledge-based economy. If UK politicians of both parties truly seek the UK to develop a knowledge-based economy and for the nation able to develop and produce high-technology products and services, as well as to consume the same, and for knowledge and knowledge-based activities to pervade society, then the nation needs a Commons Select Committee with a specific focus on science and technology that scrutinises it across all of Government.


  27.  Investment in UK science has recovered much lost ground from before 1998-9 and Government funded science research is strong. However support for policy driven Departmental and Agency work has not benefited as much and industrially funded research does not have the supportive framework it might. This is in no small part due to science both not being effectively valued across Government Departments and not being actively managed across Government. Re-locating science back within the Cabinet Office, and being actively led by a senior ranking Minister, would be a start. Ensuring that science and engineering is properly scrutinised by restoring the House of Commons Committee for Science & Technology would also be a fundamental move.


  28.  Jonathan Cowie is based near Leicester and has been involved in science communication in the broadest sense for a few decades. For many years he worked for UK learned (biological) societies. More recently his ventures have come under an umbrella called "Concatenation Science Communication" http://www.science-com.concatenation.org. Because of this history it has been a pleasure to submit this response with the only regret that lack of time within the consultation window prevented a more in-depth consideration.

January 2009

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