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

Memorandum 29

Submission from Semta


    —  Semta does not believe that the rationale for separate Science Department is strong—should such a department be created, it must add clear benefits to existing arrangements.—  The government could use Sector Skills Councils' expertise and networks more effectively and more often in the policy-making process. The government should use the newly-formed groupings of Sector Skills Councils in manufacturing and science in the development of policy.


  1.  Industry owned and led, Semta aims to increase the impact of skilled people throughout the science, engineering and manufacturing technologies sectors. We work with employers to determine their current and future skills needs and to provide short and long term skills solutions, whether that be training and skills development, or campaigning with government and other organisations to change things for the better. Through our labour market intelligence and insights from employers across our sectors, we identify change needed in education and skills policy and practice, and engage with key industry partners and partners in the education and training sector, to help increase productivity at all levels in the workforce.

2.  The sectors we represent are: Aerospace, Automotive, Bioscience, Electrical, Electronics, Maintenance, Marine, Mathematics, Mechanical, Metals, and Engineered Metal Products.

  3.  Semta is part of the UK-wide network of 25 employer-led Sector Skills Councils (SSCs).

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?

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

5.  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?

  6.  There are strong arguments both for and against such a step. A separate department could bring together expertise and impetus to influence policy-making for science. It might also send an important message about the British government's commitment to science, and about the role which science will play in helping the UK face the inevitable difficulties of the future (both economic and social).

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

  8.  It is therefore difficult to see the added benefit of a separate department for science. If such a department was created, we would like to see a strong rationale, with key deliverables and relationships articulated.

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

  9.  This government created Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) 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. 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.

  11.  Government could do more to engage with Sector Skills Councils, simply by including them earlier in the policy-making process, and by using their links to employers in the development of policy.

  12.  In formulating wider policy, government often seems to prefer a "one-size-fits-all" approach, which can leave science and engineering companies questioning its relevance. For example, the funding for skills available through Train to Gain has hitherto been underused, as the science and engineering sectors' skill needs are at higher levels. The new sector Compacts are beginning to address this, but valuable time has been lost in engaging with science and engineering employers.

  13.  The new Manufacturing Strategy is an interesting development, which sums up the positive aspects and potential pitfalls of science and engineering policy. A manufacturing strategy is a tremendous boost to all the industries involved in manufacturing. We hope that it will raise the profile of manufacturing within government, and give credibility to measures designed to sustain the UK's manufacturing base. However, there are elements which will need careful management to ensure they are not lost in the departmental policy cross-over of BERR, DIUS and DCSF (particularly those elements relating to education).

  14.  Having at least three departments (BERR, DIUS, DCSF) involved in the development of science and engineering policy (in addition to other departments such as Health and Work & Pensions, with another in the Science Department proposed above) inevitably raises issues. Semta's view is that this fragmentation is not necessarily a problem, where officials work together.

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

  15.  We would summarise the attitude of government to the needs of the engineering and science sectors as "receptive" but sometimes lacking in specific action to address concerns. For example, the automotive industry recently approached government with specific concerns around the economic situation, and while their needs were heard sympathetically, there is as yet no sector-based response—the response so far has merely reiterated government support which is available to all sectors.

16.  The sector-based approach on skills recommended by Leitch has been slow in implementation. It is only now being seen by companies in the Compacts, negotiated by SSCs to meet the particular needs of their sectors. It is encouraging that so many of the Compacts are for sectors involved in science and engineering, and that the very first one agreed was with Semta. The flexibilities negotiated by Semta (eg funding for second qualifications at a particular level) have since been made available to all sectors, which will help achieve the Leitch targets across the economy, but reduces the impact of a sectoral "offer".

  17.  In the devolved administrations, the experience is similar, with a few additional comments. In Wales, the newly-formed Manufacturing Forum is likely to be very helpful in raising the profile of manufacturing (and engineering), as well as improving understanding. Government in Scotland is supportive of science and engineering, but could use the SSC network more effectively in its decision-making and policy formation. However, the Scottish government has made additional commitment to the engineering sector in areas such as life science and adult apprenticeships, which suggest it has a strong understanding of the particular needs of the sector.

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

  18.  As the SSC for science, engineering, and manufacturing technologies, Semta is convinced of the value of employer engagement in the formulation of government policy. Science and engineering skills are utilised in occupations across the economy. The importance of these engineering and science skills to the UK economy as a whole means that the views of those working in these sectors and subjects must be considered.

19.  In addition, the contribution of the science and engineering sector companies to the economy is significant. For example, engineering companies are continuing to invest in the apprenticeship programme which helps individuals become highly skilled technicians and managers, who are able to contribute to those areas of manufacturing where the UK is leading the world.

  20.  If the government accepts that science and engineering is essential to the future success of UKplc, 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 and engineering, so that there are no unintended consequences.

  21.  The Sector Skills Councils which cover science and engineering have already formed themselves into clusters—the SSC Science Cluster and the Manufacturing Skills Alliance. We hope this will make it easier for government to engage directly with all the SSCs in a particular area, and for us to speak with a single voice where appropriate on policy.

How is the success of any consultation assessed?

  22.  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 sector.

23.  Unfortunately, we are sometimes faced with a disparity between ministerial opinion, which is usually very positive and supportive, and the practical implementation of policy. For example, Semta remains concerned that the apprenticeship reforms are being introduced to support and encourage non-traditional apprenticeship sectors. The proposals suggest a single approach across the economy to address the needs of non-traditional sectors, which does not meet the needs of engineering. Despite ministerial assurances that the measures will not interfere with existing arrangements where they are working well, there are still concerns. As the sector with one of the largest and most successful apprenticeship frameworks, the views of our employers must have a significant influence on the development of apprenticeships as a whole.

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

  24.  Semta has contributed to the SSC Science Cluster submission on this issue.

Does the Haldane principle need updating?

25.  Semta has contributed to the SSC Science Cluster submission on this issue.

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

26.  Semta has contributed to the SSC Science Cluster submission on this issue.

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

27.  Sector Skills Councils, with their remit to provide expert analysis of the needs of companies in their sector, are already providing evidence of skill demands across all the science and engineering 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. The Manufacturing Skills Alliance has already come together to work on key projects, and will continue to investigate joint working where appropriate.

How should government science and engineering policy be scrutinised?

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

29.  The SSC Science Cluster and the Manufacturing Skills Alliance will be considering all aspects of government policy which impact on our companies.

  30.  As an individual SSC, Semta will continue to respond robustly to consultations and inquiries, drawing on the views of our companies and our in-house technical expertise. It is our role to communicate government policy to employers, to represent their views in a coherent manner to government, and provide channels of communication between government and business.

January 2009 

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