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

Memorandum 28

Submission from SSC Science Cluster


    —  The rationale for the creation of a separate Science Department would need to be clear, with strong evidence of added benefits.—  Government should use the expertise and contacts within Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) when developing science policy. This would boost employer involvement and "ownership" of policy in this key economic area.—  Taking a regional approach to science policy fits with our experience of effective support for science companies.

    —  Sector Skills Councils involved in science have come together to form a "cluster" which could provide ongoing information and communication on aspects of government policy affecting science companies.


  1.  Semta has established an SSC Science Cluster between those Sector Skills Councils representing companies with a key interest in science. This Cluster had its first meeting in October 2009. The Cluster will provide a mechanism to improve communication and present a coherent message on those issues in science common to such companies. It will also enable the SSCs to share expertise and experience in areas such as Labour Market Information, higher education, schools engagement, and workforce development, to benefit companies across science and science-related industries. The Cluster currently includes Semta, Improve Ltd, Skills for Justice, Skills for Health, Energy & Utility Skills, Lantra, Proskills, Cogent, and ConstructionSkills.

2.  This group of SSCs is committed to supporting the vast range of scientific technical and professional skills which are needed to put the UK at the forefront of the global knowledge economy.

Does 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?

  3.  Cabinet Sub-Committee papers and meetings are confidential, so it is difficult to establish its specific impact on policy-making.

4.  The Council for Science and Technology produces interesting work and publications, but could engage more often with other stakeholders, such as Sector Skills Councils.

Should there be a Department for Science?

  5.  Before recommending the creation of new department, there are several aspects which should be considered. The Machinery of Government changes in July 2007 undoubtedly caused some fragmentation, and we are concerned that more change might be disruptive. Individuals and organisations find ways to work with the existing circumstances, so changing the current setup would inevitably cause disruption to these relationships.

6.  In addition, Lord Drayson (Minister for Science and Technology) already attends Cabinet, so the creation of a new department would not necessarily improve representation in terms of national policy and decision-making, although it might raise the profile of science within Cabinet.

  7.  It is also important that "science" is understood to play its part in the infrastructure of society, from the economy, to education, energy, health and transport. There is a danger that creating a separate department would remove experts from these other departments and concentrate them into a single entity, which lacked influence in other departments.

  8.  In summary, the benefits of creating a separate science department are not clear, as the implication is that science would be "extracted" and isolated from the breadth of policy-making. Although the creation of a Department for Science might send an important message about the British government's commitment to science, it would require a strong rationale and clear key deliverables which improve on the current situation.

How does Government formulate science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)?

  9.  This government created Sector Skills Councils but does not use them and their resources as much as they could. SSCs provide both information in terms of research, and direct links to groups of employers. In some cases, the government appears not to utilise research which it has tasked SSCs to provide (for example the Sector Skills Agreements) and instead periodically asks the same questions. For example, DIUS' current investigation into STEM skills supply and demand did not utilise the SSAs until a late stage in the process.

10.  SSCs can also provide links to and fora for employers who are interested and engaged with skills issues in their sectors. As the "voice" of companies in our sectors on skills, we can provide both information on employer views, and direct access to companies. We can provide insight into the skill needs of science and science-related companies, their frustrations and successes in recruiting and retaining the right people. Through our employer engagement activities, we gather a great deal of information from companies on their requirements and any shortfalls. We can therefore advise policy-makers on potential impacts in our sectors. We already contribute through consultations responses, ministerial briefings, joint working with departments, etc, but this process could be improved through earlier communication, and more effective feedback.

  11.  In formulating wider national policy, government often seems to prefer a "one-size-fits-all" approach, which can leave science companies questioning its relevance. For example, the funding for skills available through Train to Gain, prior to the new Sector Compacts, limited the continuity of economically viable skills across further education to higher education. The current system has led to a dislocation in policy and provision of employer-facing science provision between FE and HE, particularly when compared to the provision available to other sectors. The skills funding policy prior to the recently announced flexibilities also took little account of the need for science skills at higher (technical and professional) levels.

Are the views of the science and engineering community central to the formulation of government policy?

  12.  We would summarise the attitude of government to the needs of the science sector as "receptive" but sometimes lacking in specific action to address concerns.

13.  In the devolved administrations, the experience is reflected in the comments made previously. In Scotland, our experience has been that the Scottish government is supportive of science, but could use the SSC network more effectively in its decision-making and policy formation. However, the Scottish government has made additional commitment to science sectors in areas such as life science apprenticeships, which suggest it has a strong understanding of the particular needs of the sector, and is responsive to these needs.

Should the views of the science and engineering community be central to the formulation of government policy?

  14.  As representative organisations for employers, the SSCs in the Science Cluster are convinced of the value of employer engagement in the formulation of government policy. The importance of skills in science to the fabric and infrastructure of a modern advanced economy cannot be overstated. The progression of new science research and development into economically valuable skills and high value-added products will provide UK plc with a proper place in the global knowledge economy. The supply of and demand for science skills enables UK plc to grow its small firms, retain its multinational capacity, and attract new investment from abroad.

15.  "Science" is core to many sectors such as energy and transport, as well as the more obviously science-based industries. These "science-related" industries rely on a good supply of people and skills with a scientific basis, and have much to contribute to science policy, particularly relating to education and public perception.

  16.  If the government truly believes that science principles and skills are essential to the future success of UK plc, consideration must be made of the needs of the community. It would be helpful if legislation and proposals could be assessed at an earlier stage for their impact on science, so that there are no unintended consequences. We do not expect all policy to be formulated with science in mind, simply that those making decisions are more aware of the potential impact on the sector.

  17.  The SSCs which are involved in science have created a "cluster" which could provide ongoing information and communication on aspects of government policy which have an impact on skills in science companies. This SSC Science Cluster has already met, and we will be working together to ensure all the SSCs involved in science present a coherent message.

How is the success of any consultation assessed?

  18.  Where formal submissions are made, SSCs naturally monitor the effectiveness of these. We are in contact with government departments and officials regularly on particular issues relating to our sectors.

The case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy)

19.  There is no doubt that science "clusters" are a key element of the sector's operation. The Sector Skills Agreement for the Bioscience industry highlighted the development of networks and clusters (which are often arranged on geographical lines).

20.  Regions are also in a strong position, through Regional Development Agencies in England and regional skills partnerships, to respond to the particular needs of science companies in their locality. Working with local universities and colleges is also a key element of successful implementation of science policy, emphasising the local links with companies in terms of both supply of skills and research collaboration.

  21.  There is also value in allowing regions to have input into the development of the supply of people with science skills, as they will have an overview of areas such as science education, and regional science initiatives (such as Science Cities).

Does the Haldane principle need updating?

  22.  We support the Haldane principle, but recognise that business can be excluded from many research decisions. The proposed reform of the Research Assessment Exercise which brings funding for university research closer to the needs of business is welcome.

23.  We endorse the continuing independence of the Research Councils from political influence.

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

  24.  There is no doubt that the relationship between the government and the science community was strained by various recent scientific debates, such as foot and mouth, BSE, GM crops, etc. The public and the media may not always appreciate the difficulties of formulating policy in a scientific environment, where so much can be at stake (both in terms of public health and the economy) but where solutions cannot be quickly established. It is important to raise public awareness of the difficulty of providing absolute cause, effect and solution for a given problem. Government and science must work closely together to ensure what is known and can be proved is used as the basis for policy, and what is unknown and unproven receives proper funding and attention.

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

25.  Sector Skills Councils, with their remit to provide expert analysis of the needs of companies in their sectors, are already providing evidence of skill demands across all the science industries. The new SSC Science Cluster will be drawing together the ongoing work to ensure that coherent science priorities emerging from the Sector Skills Agreements are established, and that appropriate actions to address these priorities are put in place.

26.  We have already commented on the potential positive influence of RDAs in England.

How should government science and engineering policy be scrutinised?

  27.  The recently renamed Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee itself is clearly an integral part of the scrutiny of policy in science. It has already examined key areas such as science budget allocations. It should continue to hold government and government bodies to account for their actions which affect the science sector.

28.  The SSC Science Cluster will be considering all aspects of government policy which impact on science in companies.

January 2009 

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