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

Memorandum 33

Submission from the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC)

AMRC response to Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills consultation "Putting science and engineering at the heart of Government Policy"

  The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) is a membership organisation of the leading medical and health research charities in the UK. In 2007-08 AMRC's 115 member charities spent over £900 million on medical and health research in the UK.[138]

Working with its membership and external partners, AMRC aims to:

    —  Provide services and support that enable member charities to be effective research funders.

    —  Demonstrate leadership in developing solutions to key issues and challenges facing the sector.

    —  Influence the external environment so that it is enabling of the work of medical research charities.

  We are pleased to respond to this consultation, as detailed below. The comments here reflect the view of AMRC, based on our experience of working with and for our member charities and we have necessarily concentrated our submission on a number of key areas. We are aware that several of our 115 members intend to respond individually to the inquiry.


    —  AMRC applauds the Government's ongoing emphasis on science, and welcomes the fact that the Science Minister is now included within cabinet-level discussions.—  We are concerned that the "economic" focus of the cabinet sub-committee on Science and Innovation is too narrow and that, strategically, science policy must also be considered in terms of its wider social and environmental impact and benefits.

    —  AMRC would instinctively welcome the idea of establishing a Department for Science and envisage that this would have many benefits for the advancement and promotion of science in the UK.

    —  AMRC continues to have concerns about the process by which science policy is developed. This could be more transparent and contributor-friendly, reflecting the important role played by many stakeholders outside Government including charities.

    —  We support the Haldane Principle as the underlying principle of Government policy-making in this area.

    —  We believe that parliamentary scrutiny of science could be strengthened and improved with the establishment of a dedicated Commons Select Committee and better research and support services for Parliamentarians.

    —  The overall aims of Government efforts to improve public understanding of science need to be more clearly defined and their implementation based on a strong partnership approach with other stakeholders.


  1.  AMRC welcomes the current cross-government focus on science including the appointment of the Science Minister to cabinet and the establishment of a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science & Innovation. Both steps will, we believe, help to ensure that science and engineering is at the heart of policy-making and overall Government strategy going forward.

2.  However, we are concerned at the ongoing emphasis on the economic benefits of science and innovation to the potential exclusion of the consideration of wider social and environmental benefits. For instance, we consider the terms of reference for the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science & Innovation, "To consider issues relating to science and innovation; and report as necessary to the Committee on Economic Development", to be too narrow. The recent report Medical Research: What's it worth?[139] commissioned by MRC, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Science, shows that there are clear long-term social as well as economic benefits from investing in medical research. And while we understand the Government's concerns over economic impact, particularly given the current external environment, we strongly believe that policy discussions at every level need to reflect the wider impact of research and science and society's needs at any given time.


  3.  With the establishment of the Department for Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) in 2007, the scientific community gave the new Department a cautious welcome while emphasising the importance of it having strong cross-departmental links to enable it to work effectively for science. In our view, it is perhaps too early to judge how successful the Department has been in achieving this. However, our sense is that there has been a loss of momentum on some issues due to the changes in departmental responsibilities and the implementation of arrangements for their ongoing management and handling.

4.  AMRC would instinctively welcome the idea of establishing a Department for Science. In the experience of our member charities, difficulties often arise for those trying to feed into the policy-making process in ascertaining which department is leading on particular issues and where their voice can be heard most effectively and constructively. For example, responsibility for animal research stretches across several departments, including the Home Office, DIUS and BERR, but it is not always clear which department has had authority on a particular issue or policy development.

  5.  A Department for Science with a remit to provide leadership across government, forge strong cross-departmental links and ensure consistency of approach and thematic emphasis would ensure that the Government's approach and decision-making apparatus was more open and transparent to all stakeholders.

  6.  What we would not want to see is the establishment of a Department for Science in a solely cosmetic sense with no consideration given to the mechanisms and vehicles by which it will champion science across Government. The inherent risk of establishing a single department is that it would create the policy equivalent of a centrifugal force in Government which would lessen or disempower the consideration of science issues by other departments. It should also not disassemble or attempt to assume ownership of effective mechanisms set up by other Departments, such as the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR) and UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC), to develop strategy and policy on science and research issues (see below).


  7.  In the medical and health research arena the main thrust of Government policy, as enshrined in Cooksey and OSCHR, is well-aligned and responsive to the priorities of the scientific community. AMRC welcomes the partnership approach embodied within the mission of UKCRC which has created an effective forum in which to develop a coherent approach to funding health-related research and the practical steps taken by OSCHR to actively involve all stakeholders this year, including medical research charities, in setting National Ambitions on Health Research.

8.  In general we would say that as regards other science policy areas the Government has also endeavoured to be inclusive of the relevant stakeholders throughout policy development on key issues. The Foresight programme, for instance, has been an excellent example of how the community can be brought together to examine key issues and challenges and define an agenda for the long-term.

  9.  What has been less transparent and inclusive at times has been the Government approach to implementation of policy. Here the goal should be the establishment of mechanisms to gather views across the scientific community as policy is put into practice. Many key stakeholders are resource-poor and the process of contributing to policy implementation can be overwhelming. Again, a single Department for Science could considerably improve this situation by ensuring a more uniform engagement process rather than requiring contributors to monitor and develop relationships with several departments.


  10.  To provide effective scrutiny of detailed science policy it is necessary to have access to specialist science knowledge. Although many laudable steps are taken by Parliament to ensure Members have access to scientific information, including the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology and a team of specialists on hand in the Commons and Lords library, it is the case that Members of Parliament must proactively seek out this information. Often faced with multiple demands on their time and limited staff capacity, this is not a priority.

11.  Currently a wide-range of mechanisms exist which Parliamentarians can access if they are aware of them to obtain information about science—including the library, POST, Foresight, All Party Parliamentary Groups etc. However, the sheer volume of avenues can potentially be over whelming and run the risk of repetition. Within any effort to review scientific advice to Parliamentarians, AMRC would welcome an attempt to co-ordinate and streamline such efforts. AMRC recognises the similar thinking outlined in the Commons Public Administration Committee's second report of 2006-07, Governing the Future,[140] which stated:

    "…Members' capacity to engage with outside experts and the wider public could usefully be increased, perhaps by building on the work done by POST to produce something more like the Scottish Parliament's Futures Forum, where debate can be informed by experts, and can involve those outside Parliament itself."

  and would welcome further exploration into developing such a forum to improve Members' capacity to engage with outside experts and the wider public on science issues.

  12.  During the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 through Parliament, medical research charities, working closely with the medical research community, expended considerable effort to ensure all Members were aware of, and had access to, detailed briefings on the science. However, it may not always be possible for expert groups external to Parliament to expend the time, effort and resources required to pro-actively engage with Parliamentarians on a particular policy issue. Nor would these necessarily be seen as impartial sources of information and Parliamentarians lacking fluency with the scientific method may also be at the mercy of groups with other agendas who profess expertise. AMRC would welcome steps to strengthen the Commons and Lords library and other resources to enable Parliamentarians to identify and pro-actively engage on upcoming policy issues.

  13.  Furthermore, we believe that political parties themselves could do more to empower their members to be "science savvy" so they are in a position to scrutinise science policy more effectively. AMRC therefore applauds the Conservative party initiative[141] to provide Conservative Parliamentarians with lessons in scientific literacy, explaining scientific method and basic concepts, and urge Parliament to consider similar pro-active engagement with all Parliamentarians on science.

  14.  AMRC believes that the Haldane Principle should continue to be the underlying principle for government decision-making on science although we would welcome a more open public debate about whether these need updating for the future.

  15.  The effectiveness of the Haldane Principle in practice, however, rests on there also being effective checks and balances across the policy-making process, including Parliament.

  16.  While we applaud the work of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in scrutinising science policy across Government, we recognise that this is just one part of the committee's very large remit. Indeed, we were disappointed that the decision was taken not to retain a dedicated Commons Science Select Committee following the changes in the machinery of Government in 2007 and continue to believe that there should be a Commons Select Committee established to scrutinise and examine science policy and issues in more detail, regardless of whether a Department for Science is established in the future.

  17.  As the Minister for Science currently sits in the Lords and, therefore, is not able to answer MPs questions in the House, we hope the Committee for Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills will re-instigate regular oral evidence sessions with the Minister for Science.


  18.  While laudable, the overall aims of the Government's aspiration "…for all citizens to be fully engaged with science and to understand the nature of science better" (A Vision for Science & Society DIUS Consultation, 2008) need better definition particularly in terms of how Government intends to measure impact and work in partnership with others.

19.  We believe that more detailed public polling is needed to explore what the public might want to see to make them feel more confident in science and to inform more realistic goals and strategies for public understanding and dialogue. What is apparent from public dialogue work to date on specific health research issues such as ageing[142] and stem cells[143] is that there is a real need for efforts to be focused on improving public understanding of how research happens in practice—including not just realistic processes, timescales and goals, but co-ordination between funders including the involvement of industry as research partners throughout the process etc.

  20.  In our view the focus on the notion of "scientific literacy" does disservice to the public's clear interest in, and thirst for information on, research as highlighted by AMRC's public polling and dialogue work.

  21.  An Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by AMRC in October 2008 showed that a majority (57%) of British adults 15+ have donated money to a medical research charity suggesting such charities are highly valued by the public. When further questioned "How interested are you in medical research in general?" 58% responded that they have an interest in this area.[144] This suggests there potentially is a large audience for initiatives to engage the public with medical research.

  22.  Medical research charities—already inspiring high levels of confidence and support from the public—can play a key role in engaging the public with science as the recent BBSRC/MRC funded Stem Cell Dialogue report[145] recommended: "There is a significant opportunity for a coordinated campaign by medical research charities to raise the resources and profile of stem cell science."

  23.  Moreover the myriad efforts on public understanding and engagement undertaken by many organisations could benefit from a level of strategic co-ordination and leadership which the Government is well-placed to facilitate and AMRC would welcome the inclusion in the developing Science & Society policy of steps to support and promote such co-ordinated engagement.

  24.  More provocatively, it is interesting to us that the notion of a civic society, apparent in the policy-thinking of other departments, has not translated across to DIUS and the formulation of science policy. Hierarchical notions and assumptions around engagement with a "scientifically illiterate" public persist with no notion of what the supposed goal of a scientifically literate public might look like in practise. In our view, this prevents a more open-minded approach to improving public understanding through greater public involvement and participation which will benefit both science and its end-users.

  AMRC and its members welcome the Committee's inquiry and will be happy to assist the Committee further in its deliberations in any way it can.

January 2009

138   Based on AMRC Member Subscription Data collected in 2008-09 Back

139   Medical Research: What's it Worth?, November 2008-
http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/About-us/Publications/Books/Biomedical-science/WTX052113.htm  Back

140   House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration-Governing the Future, Second Report 2006-07, recommendation 16 -http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmpubadm/123/123i.pdf Back

141   Times, Nov 2008 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article5168006.ece Back

142   BBSRC, MRC, RCUK, Public Consultation of Aging,
http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Utilities/Documentrecord/index.htm?d=MRC004678 Back

143   BBSRC, MRC, ScienceWise, Stem Cell Dialogue, Dec 2008-
http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/society/dialogue/activities/stem_cell_final_report.pdf Back

144   Question: Some medical charities concentrate on providing care, information, education, doing medical research. Would you be more likely or less likely to give money to a charity that uses its donations to pursue medical research into a cause or cure?
Results: very interested 12%; interested 46%; not very interested 30%; not at all interested 10%; don't know 2%. Interested (net) 58%; not interested 41% 

145   BBSRC, MRC, ScienceWise, Stem Cell Dialogue, Dec 2008-
http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/society/dialogue/activities/stem_cell_final_report.pdf Back

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