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

Memorandum 24

Submission from the Council for Science and Technology


  1.  The Council for Science and Technology (CST) is the Prime Minister's top-level independent advisory body on strategic science and technology policy issues.

2.  The Council endorses the view that science and technology should be at the heart of policy-making and, in terms of its own position, does this by influencing Government through the advice it provides.

3.  It is an advisory non-departmental public body which comes within the remit of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) but has a remit to provide advice across the whole of Government, and to First Ministers of Scotland and Wales. It was originally created in 1993, and reconstituted most recently in 2004. Its terms of reference are at Annex A.

  4.  The CST is co-chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington, and by Professor Dame Janet Finch,[105] together with 14 members drawn from a range of academic, business and charity backgrounds (see Annex B). It focuses on issues that cut across Government departments within the medium to long-term.

  5.  The CST's work programme is developed by its members in discussion with Government. It is the CST's aim that each project should have a sponsor Minister from within Government.

  6.  CST provides its advice to Government through two main mechanisms: oral advice at meetings with Ministers, and letters or written reports either at the outcome of a particular project or during the course of the project. CST also responds to Government on specific consultations and policy developments.[106]

  7.  In undertaking projects CST draws on both the expertise of others as well as from its own membership in both gathering and interpreting the evidence base, and always seeks to present its analysis and recommendations to Government in a coherent and practical way. One of the strengths of a body such as CST is that it can range across a wide spectrum of science and technology issues, and their social implications.


Influencing Ministers and Officials

  8.  The Council is the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology. It most recently met Prime Minister Gordon Brown in December 2008 to advise on infrastructure issues, public engagement and dialogue, and innovation policy. CST had previously met Tony Blair in November 2005 and June 2006 where the discussion covered energy policy, public engagement, ways of connecting the UK services sectors to the Science base, and the need for an active R&D-based public procurement policy. The last two topics contributed to the increased emphases on services sectors in innovation policy analysis and the introduction of the Small Business Research Initiative by Government.

9.  The Council has developed an extremely close and productive relationship with DIUS Ministers, in particular with John Denham and Lord Drayson, where all sides recognise the importance of CST as an advisory body providing independent advice to Government.

10.  It is important that the Council gets traction within Government for its advice and recommendations. The recent meeting with the Prime Minister has placed CST firmly on the No. 10 radar. The focus for science, technology and innovation within DIUS has meant that CST's impact and profile with Ministers has risen, compared to earlier arrangements where the Council was an advisory body located within a much larger department, the Department of Trade and Industry—where CST, and indeed science, technology and innovation, was one component of a much bigger whole. Having sponsor Ministers within Government departments for each CST project should mean that there is immediate and direct engagement with the department which will be taking forward the Council's recommendations.

  11.  While CST is well-known and influential in certain sections of Government—particularly those departments where science and technology are core components—getting traction for the Council more widely across Government has been rather patchy, and CST is actively considering ways in which this can be improved.

  12.  Given that the Council's remit is to give independent advice to Government, it is also important that CST has traction with, and influences, top officials within Whitehall as well as Government Ministers. The Council and its secretariat have developed close links in particular with the No. 10 Strategy Unit, and with senior officials across Government departments, for example at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, HM Treasury, the Department of Health, the Department of Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Following recent machinery of Government changes, CST will be developing its relationship with the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Departmental Chief Scientific Advisors, and the Chief Scientific Advisors' Committee (CSAC) chaired by Professor John Beddington, are an important group of interlocutors—both collectively and individually—with whom CST engages extensively, as projects are being defined and during their execution. The Council also has a very extensive interaction with the Technology Strategy Board.

CST's networks in the science and engineering community

  13.  The Council recognises that in order to influence effectively Government policy, the members themselves need to use their extensive range of networks at the highest levels of business, academia and medical charities. This means the CST can draw on, and in turn influence, the leading science and engineering bodies such as the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and other professional organisations, the science base bodies such as the Research Councils and RCUK,[107] a broad range of universities themselves as well as groups such as Universities UK,[108] business organisations such as the CBI,[109] and bodies such as the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Science and Innovation Forum, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and CoRWM.[110] One example of the fruitfulness of these networks was the Council's report on Strategic decision-making for technology policy for which CST was able to draw on a broad range of external expertise often at very short notice.

14.  As part of their quarterly meetings, the Council as a whole has invited a broad range of individuals for discussions, including Government Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and senior officials, the President of the Royal Society, Chief Scientists, Chief Executives of the Research Councils, EU Commissioner Potocnik, the Permanent Secretary at No. 10, members of the Business Council for Britain and other senior business and Government representatives.

  15.  These more informal contacts have a dual purpose. They provide opportunities for CST to influence policy-making by more private input of advice to Ministers and senior officials. At the same time they also are opportunities where CST itself can, in discussion with others, develop thoughts about the direction of its own work. On two occasions major projects have been commissioned by Ministers as a result of these discussions. At a dinner in December 2006 Alistair Darling, then Secretary of State at the DTI, asked the CST to undertake a major piece of work which resulted in the report on Strategic Decision Making for Technology Policy. Similarly at another dinner in November 2007 John Denham initiated discussion about CST undertaking the project which resulted in the report How Academia and Government can work together.

CST's impact and reach

  16.  The Council's view is that its impact with Government and its wider stakeholders has grown significantly—and particularly over the last two years—but that more still needs to be done to ensure that its advice and recommendations are being picked up and implemented consistently at the heart of Government.

17.  There are certainly instances where the Council's influence is clear and direct, and others where it is indirect. The Council, in its 2005 report on Personal Information[111], was one of the first groups to highlight the need to balance very carefully the improvements stemming from better use of IT systems and the need to safeguard the privacy of personal information. The report led to Government setting up a review looking into the way personal information in the public and private sector was shared and protected. The review, published in June 2008, was carried out by CST member Sir Mark Walport (who had led the CST project) and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas.

  18.  The Council's review of the Government's progress on Nanotechnology policy[112] highlighted the need for more work on the toxicology, health and environmental effects of nanomaterials to assess risks, reassure the public and put in place regulation as necessary. It was influential in the creation of a cross-Government group of Ministers on nanotechnology with responsibility for the research base, innovation, health and safety and the environment, to give strategic direction and maintain commitment to the Government's programme of work. Following the review, a number of actions were taken to address the Council's recommendations: for example, the Department of Health committed to providing £1.25 million over five years to support the health-related research, and in February 2008 the Ministerial group issued a statement on what was needed to ensure the responsible development of nanotechnologies.

  19.  The launch of the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre for Public Dialogue in Science and Technology was in direct response to the Council's recommendation to create a corporate memory of engagement practice in its Policy through dialogue report.

  20.  John Denham has accepted the recommendations of CST's recent report How academia and Government can work together, which he commissioned in February 2008 as a component of the Higher Education Debate. The Government Office for Science is in the lead in taking forward the Council's recommendations. As an example of the extent of the CST's reach during this project, formulating the evidence base involved discussions with over 50 leading individuals and organisations from both academia and Government.

  21.  During 2007 Alistair Darling, when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, asked CST to identify a small number of crucial technologies which Government should focus on over the next five years. The Council's report on Strategic decision-making for technology policy highlighted six key technologies, which included a case study on Plastic Electronics, which helped raise the profile of this whole area, not least through the IUSS Select Committee report on Engineering, where CST members were called to give evidence.

  22.  Further details on the range of projects which CST has undertaken are at Annex C.

CST's public profile

  23.  The Council has consciously not sought a high public profile through the media or elsewhere. Nevertheless, a number of CST's reports have had significant press coverage—for example the report on Personal Information, which was picked up by Channel 4 News and Newsnight and in the press more generally; and the Council's Nanotechnology policy which had widespread press coverage including on the Today programme.

CST's current programme

24.  The Council is currently undertaking a project on Water supply technologies and is also starting to develop an overarching project on National infrastructure. The latter is at a very early stage of development but has received very positive support in discussions with the Prime Minister, DIUS Ministers, and officials. It will draw both on the expertise developed through the current project on Water supply technologies, and on an earlier project on An electricity supply strategy for the UK.

25.  The Water technologies project is investigating the level of research and development within the water sector and considering what more could be done to stimulate innovation, as well as looking at best practice in the use of technology.

  26.  CST will also be looking to return to a project on Cross-disciplinary research where the Council is investigating mechanisms to encourage cross-disciplinary research and development (R&D), in the UK and abroad, including the identification of good practice that can be applied more widely to promote cross-disciplinary R&D.

  27.  CST has also recently undertaken a forward planning exercise for potential future projects, which involved not only informal discussion with Ministers and senior officials, but also a meeting with a panel of experts drawn from elsewhere in government and from Learned Societies, who were asked to scrutinise initial ideas and give feedback. This exercise is illustrative of CST's ways of working, drawing on networks of support and advice, which are freely given to the Government's most senior advisory body for science and technology.

January 2009

105   Dame Janet is Vice-Chancellor of Keele University  Back

106   See for example the CST's response to: the consultation on the review of UK health research (the Cooksey Review); the reform of higher education research assessment and funding; and the consultation on revising the regulatory impact assessment, all of which are available on the CST website Back

107   Research Councils UK, the umbrella organisation of Chief Executives of the Research Councils Back

108   Comprising Vice-Chancellors of UK universities Back

109   The Confederation of British Industry Back

110   The Committee for Radioactive Waste Management Back

111   CST's report: Better use of personal information: opportunities and risks Back

112   CST's report: Nanosciences and nanotechnologies: a review of Government's progress on its policy commitments Back

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Prepared 23 July 2009