Submission from the British Academy
1. The British Academy, the UK's national
academy for the humanities and social sciences, is pleased to
respond to the Committee's inquiry, Putting science and engineering
at the heart of Government policy.
2. The issues raised by the Committee are timelyit
is essential that government policy draws effectively on the full
range of expertise within the UK's world class research base.
But this must include by disciplines in the humanities and social
sciences (HSS) as well as those in science, technology, engineering
and medicine (STEM).
3. Within each of these broad groupings of research
a wide range of distinct methods is used. Policy formation has
to draw on a variety of types of work. Many policies that draw
on empirical work in STEM subjects also need to draw on
empirical work in HSS (for example, drawing on sociological
and demographic work to estimate effects on specific populations
of possible policies if implemented), on normative work
in HSS (for example, to identify options that it would be permissible/wrong
or lawful/unlawful to introduce), and on analytic and quantitative
work in HSS (for example to identify the economic consequences
of proposed policies; to identify where there are dangers of introducing
4. The British Academy makes the following
We agree that there should be an
integrated approach across government. Any strategy to put "science"
at the heart of policy-making should use a fully integrated concept
of the science and research baseie one that covers the
humanities and social sciences as well as the natural sciences.
Policy implications cannot be derived solely from empirical research
or research in STEM alone. Government policy makers need to draw
more effectively on humanities and social science expertise, and
leverage these under-valued assets to create a fully informed,
rounded approach to public policy-making.
The case has not been made for setting
up a separate Department for Science. If such a Department separated
research policy from HE teaching, it could be damaging. To separate
"science" in the narrow sense from other relevant disciplines
would be unfortunate and retrograde. A separate Department of
"Science" (in the broad sense) would have to include
The Government is failing to take
full advantage of this country's world-class HSS research base,
as shown in the Academy's recent report, Punching Our Weight:
the humanities and social sciences in public policy making. There
are deficits in the way that Government commissions research,
but also there is a widespread misconception that the only research
that matters is done in STEM subjects.
The Government should be able to
draw on the best advice available. The Government could do more
to recognise the role played by learned societies as a source
of independent advice.
Current practice in public consultation
often falls short of the best practice standards set by researchers.
The Government needs to draw more effectively on the expertise
available in HSS disciplines to improve its understanding of what
works and what does not.
There should continue to be an overarching
national policy for science and research, rather than a series
of regional policies. Quality in research is assured by a national
approach. Both STEM and HSS research are based on groups and institutions
that are not regional, indeed are often international. Any efforts
to develop regional policies should ensure that they complement
and feed into the overarching national policy.
A careful balance should be struck
between setting overarching strategic objectives and micromanaging
the work of the research councils. Robust mechanisms are needed
to encourage communication between Government and research councils
to ensure that Government priorities do not inadvertently distort
the research effort.
Public engagement is an example of
a public policy area where the Government needs to draw more effectively
on what HSS research has to offer.
It is essential that all relevant
national and regional bodies recognise and play to their several
unique strengths, and also (when required) work effectively together.
The Committee has invited evidence on the specific
issues in italics.
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
5. These are two separate questions. In response
to the first, it is essential that "science" is at the
heart of policy-making. But this requires a sufficiently broad
concept of the science and research base, which is all too frequently
lackingie one that covers the humanities and social sciences
as well as the natural sciences. The social sciences and humanities
are crucial for sound policy-making in their own right, as shown
in the Academy's recent policy report, Punching Our Weight:
the humanities and social sciences in public policy making, chaired
by Sir Alan Wilson. In addition, scientific and technological
advances have political, social and cultural implications, which
can only be fully understood and translated into practice if all
disciplines are accessed. It is now widely recognised that these
implications need to be identified "upstream" if there
is to be general public acceptance of significant changes in policy.
6. Understanding the influence of religious,
cultural and language differences is essential for effective policy-making
in many areas, and is of vital importance for much "scientific"
(in the narrow sense) research. Linguistic, sociological, cultural
and historical understanding of particular regions is also vital
for fully rounded, effective foreign policy.
7. The science and research base will only
be at the heart of government policy-making if effective cross-government
mechanisms are in place. The new Cabinet Sub Committee for Science
and Innovation (chaired by the Minister of State for Science and
Innovation) is tasked with "considering issues relating to
science and innovation, and [will] report as necessary to the
Committee on Economic Development". While the composition
of the Cabinet Sub-Committee makes it well placed to fulfil this
important cross-government role, it will clearly be important
that there continues to be parliamentary scrutiny to review the
effectiveness of the Committee's work.
8. In response to the second question, the
Academy believes that any call to set up a separate Department
for Science will need to be backed up with evidence to demonstrate
both the need for, and the added value of, such a Department.
The current structure has much to commend it. At present, the
Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible
for science and innovation, and for further and higher education,
with oversight of the bodies responsible for funding teaching
and research and intellectual property. To set up a separate Department
for "science" could lead to a separation of university
research policy from university teaching policy. In our view,
this would be unwise, and would clearly work against efforts to
ensure that the UK has a properly integrated higher education
policy. For example, good graduate programmes responsible for
the next generation of researchers need to be integrated into
research practices and cultures, eg peer review.
9. If a Department for Science were created
up, it would have to include the humanities and social sciences,
in order to reflect the full range of the research base and provide
the essential societal insights that are required to translate
science and technology policy into practice. A narrow view of
"science" would represent an unfortunate and retrograde
separation of disciplines, utterly inappropriate in terms of the
challenges facing society today.
How Government formulates science and engineering
policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)
10. The Academy is concerned that the Government
is failing to draw upon the potential contribution of the UK's
world-class humanities and social science research base as effectively
as it could and shoulda major weakness of the current system.
One reason for this is the way in which Government commissions
research. Commissioning requires expertise, a capacity to identify
which research has already been done, what is needed, how the
questions should be framed, and finally how the findings of the
commissioned work should be evaluated and implemented.
11. A second reason is a too ready assumption
that the only research that matters is done in STEM subjects.
HSS research is important in its own right to provide the evidence
that government needs when formulating policy, and also to provide
a critical voice, challenging assumptions, as well as reviewing
and evaluating the success of government initiatives.
12. An inclusive concept of the "research
base" rather than the "science base" should be
the starting point for all considerations of policy by Government.
As an Academy report, "That full complement of riches"
said: "The language and concepts used by government to encourage
the development of research and innovation are often derived unthinkingly
from now outdated assumptions that seriously impede the full exploitation
of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and the diverse kinds
of knowledge they yield."
13. While there are welcome signs that the
Government is trying to adopt more inclusive language and terminology,
there is scope for greater progress, with the aim of including
the humanities and social sciences "at the very beginning
of strategic thinking on issues related to the future development
of the UK's research and training base." This is particularly
important as humanities and social science research (as demonstrated
by Punching our Weight) contributes to many of the major
strategic questions facing society today. Research in these disciplines
enriches and informs society and provides the context in which
policy and technological innovations can advance.
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
14. These are two distinct questions. In
response to the first, it is essential that the Government can
draw on the best advice available. The Academy welcomed the recommendation
made in 2006 by the Select Committee's predecessor, the Science
and Technology Select Committee, that the Government should give
greater recognition to the important role played by learned societies
as a source of independent expert advice. In the Academy's view,
there remains scope to enhance these relationships further. Through
learned societies, Government policy makers can engage effectively
with the wider research community.
15. As regards the second question, the Academy
is concerned that current practice in public consultation falls
short of the standards set by researchers. Standards of consultation
practice need to meet appropriate standards of social scientific
research. We believe that the Government could draw more effectively
on humanities and social science expertise, in order to improve
its understanding of what works and what does not, and to develop
more sophisticated research methods and processes to underpin
its engagement activities.
The case for a regional science policy (versus
national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs
16. It would be counterproductive to replace
a national science and research policy either with a series of
regional policies or to attempt to develop a national policy based
on regional policies. There is a risk of unnecessary duplication
of effort and key national strategic objectives might be missed.
In the Academy's view, there should continue to be a national
policy rather than a series of regional policies for science and
research. Regional issues could, of course, be fed into the overarching
17. We are unclear what the Select Committee
has in mind when it refers to "updating" the Haldane
principle. The Government clearly has to be involved in the setting
of overarching strategic priorities for the research councils
and other funders, but it should recognise that it is not in a
position (and should not seek) to micro-manage their work. Furthermore,
Government needs to anticipate better the likely (and sometimes
unintended) impacts that its proposed overarching priorities may
have on the "day-to-day" decisions taken by the research
councils. It is essential, therefore, that both the Government
and the research councils should maintain effective communication,
to enable the Government to understand better the likely impact
of any proposals that it may have in mind.
Engaging the public and increasing public confidence
in science and engineering policy
18. Public engagement is an example of an
area in which HSS research is neededit helps policy makers
to understand and listen to the public's concernsand where
there is considerable scope to increase the use of HSS expertise.
The Academy's response to A New Vision for Science and Society
stressed that the new strategy for the UK should draw more
heavily on the full range of expertise available within the humanities
and social sciences research base and should also seek to improve
the integration of HSS understanding and expertise into the work
being undertaken in the natural sciences. For example, formulating
an adequate public policy on genetically modified crops and other
products requires both an understanding of the relevant bioscience
and also an understanding of the social contexts that shape beliefs,
as well the legal and regulatory frameworks within which the technology
is developed. Integrating such understanding within technical
debates is vital.
19. The Government's recent efforts to develop
a two-way interactive model of public engagement with science
("upstream" public engagement, where the public can
be involved early on and throughout research and development processes)
rely upon methods and ideas developed in humanities and social
science. More needs to be done to ensure that these methods and
ideas are not applied mechanisticallythe Government needs
to improve its understanding of their role, limitations, strengths
and weaknesses. As stated in our response to A Vision for Science
and Society, current techniques of public consultation conducted
by public bodies do not always meet the highest social scientific
standards. The Government needs to draw more effectively on HSS
expertise in order to develop more sophisticated methods and processes
to underpin its public engagement activities. In particular, "the
Academy considers that:
the Government should review the
impact of its past consultations on science-related policy, and
conduct a meta-study on the success or lack of success associated
with various approaches, and the reasons why some consultations
are less useful than they might be.
more work needs to be undertaken
on the best ways of consulting with the public. There is no single
template for public consultation, and understanding of the purposes
strengths and limits of specific approaches is needed in commissioning
any consultation in order to prevent the waste of public money.
more work is needed to assess the
reliability and effectiveness of various methods of "upstream"
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
20. All these bodies have distinctive roles.
For example, the British Academy together with the other national
academies, plays an important role as an independent and sometimes
critical voice of government policies and initiatives, challenging
certain assumptions and perceptions. It is essential that all
relevant bodies recognise, and play to, their several unique strengths,
and also (when required) work effectively together.