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

Memorandum 40

Submission from the Royal Academy of Engineering

  A Response on behalf of the Engineering Community to IUSS Commons Select Committee.


  1.1.  This response has been prepared by the Royal Academy of Engineering with the endorsement of a number of engineering institutions and organisations, a full list of which is included at Annex A. It therefore concentrates on the implications of Government Science Policy on engineering research and the relevance of engineering to wider Government policy decisions.

1.2.  We have taken the view that this Inquiry is concerned with the formulation of Science and Engineering Policy rather than the influence of science and engineering advice on general policy development (which was covered in some depth in the Committee's previous inquiry into Engineering and its case study "Engineering in Government"). Consequently, where there might be ambiguity in the questions as to whether it refers to "science and engineering policy" or "science and engineering in policy" we have interpreted the meaning as "science and engineering policy".

  1.3.  In the context of science policy, we feel it is important to recognise that the outputs of engineering research are fundamentally different to the outputs of pure science research in terms of its immediate usefulness. This can be generalised by thinking of the outputs of science and engineering research being at different ends of the Technology Readiness Level scale[163] developed by NASA and the US Military in the late 1980s to assess how close to useful deployment a particular technology might be. Engineering outputs will generally be at TRL 4 or above and Pure Science outputs at levels one to three.

  1.4.  The Haldane Principle, which has guided Government Science Policy for many decades, therefore has different meanings when applied to the direction of science and engineering research. For pure science, it seems reasonable that researchers themselves should be best placed to understand what direction their research should proceed in and they should not be constrained in their academic endeavours. For engineering, on the other hand, it seems reasonable that Government should express requirements in terms of general challenges that can be met through directed research and expect researchers to be able to contribute to the development of solutions to wider policy deployment problems. This generalisation is expressed here in terms of "pure science" versus "engineering", but could easily apply in any disciplines where there are marked differences in TRLs between pure and applied research.

  1.5.  Science Policy and the steering of the research agenda by Government, if it is to be more overt, should aim not only to address the needs of wider Government Policy deployment, but also the economic competitiveness of the UK and the grand challenges facing our society. While it is true that at the higher levels of technology readiness, there should be significant industry pull for promising technologies, there remain many pre-commercial technologies which require Government sponsored research and development if they are to reach the point at which industry pull will be sufficient for their continued development. The creation of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has recognised this need for investment in pre-competitive technologies, but it is not clear either where the boundaries of "science policy" and "technology policy" are in these cases or how they should interact. The TSB also has the role of addressing market failures where industry is unable or unwilling to take on the pre-commercial development of promising technologies.

2.  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 and should there be a Department for Science?

  2.1.  The Council for Science and Technology does valuable work but only meets on a quarterly basis. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation is a sub-committee of the Cabinet Committee for Economic Development and therefore only reports to Cabinet indirectly. Whilst both of these initiatives are worth supporting, neither could be said to put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making.

2.2.  As the engineering community made clear in its response to the House of Commons IUSS Select Committee case study into "Engineering in Government",[164] there is a clear need for engineering and science advice to taken on board across all areas of Government policy formation at the very earliest stages. This incorporation of engineering and science advice into policy making could be interpreted as a different issue to that of making science policy central to Government policy making. Investment in the science and engineering research base and the funding of research is a pre-requisite to the provision of sound science and engineering advice to Government and in this sense, "science policy" and the use of good science and engineering advice in wider policy formation are intrinsically linked.

  2.3. The Council for Science and Technology is routinely asked to provide advice to Government on specific questions and in some instances to scrutinise the Government's response against commitments eg in reviewing the Government's response to the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society's joint report on Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies[165],.[166] Their role has been to advise on science and technology issues which are by their nature cross-departmental and while it has advised on Government Science Policy, their remit is generally much wider than this.

  2.4.  The question as to whether there should be a Department of Science is complex and there is little consensus on the issue. Currently, science policy (the support and funding of the research base and its direction) lies within DIUS. The broader remit of ensuring that science and engineering research across departments is relevant, fit for purpose and contributes properly to the work of Government lies with the Chief Scientific Advisor, whose office, Go-Science, also resides within DIUS. Scientific and engineering research is funded and carried out by a number of departments where this research is in support of the department's policy objectives. As science and engineering research are important to many departments, it is not clear what the role of a Department of Science could be beyond the funding and maintenance of the university research base.

  2.5.  A strong argument for the establishment of a Department of Science is that it would signal a strong and lasting commitment by Government to continued investment in the UK science base. The strong recommendation from the UK Engineering Community would be that should the department be established, it should be called the Department for Science and Engineering.

  2.6.  Arguably, the process of developing science and engineering policy within Government could be improved by improving the scientific and engineering literacy of the civil servants within departments. In our joint response to the Committee's case study into Engineering in Government, this point is made very clearly and applies equally to the assessment of advice pertaining to general policy issues as it does to developing science and engineering policy.

  2.7.  The funding of scientific and engineering research in general has been high in the Government's agenda for at least a decade and it is arguable that it takes at least this long to see the benefits of that funding flowing into the UK economy. This presents a strong case to maintain the science budget at least current levels going forward. However, against international comparators, it could be argued that science and engineering in the economy in general are not high enough in Government's list of priorities with UK investment in R&D below the EU average and spending on higher education at only 1.3% of GDP, below that of all the UK's major competitors.

3.  Strengths and Weaknesses of How the Government Formulates Science Policy

  3.1.  The creation of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisors and Scientific Advisory Councils has been a major advance in strengthening the Government's approach to formulating science and engineering policy.

3.2.  The continued application of the Haldane Principle (however strongly) means that the Government has few mechanisms available with which to influence how the science base in the UK develops, short of the amount of money made available to it through the current dual funding mechanism.

  3.3.  Research themes can be set by the Government Office for Science and the Research Councils are able to bid for extra funds by proposing programmes under these themes. In this case, researcher directions are not directly set by researchers except for responsive mode funding within the themes.

  3.4.  The current system of funding research with some imposition of research themes appears to be fit for purpose, but there is no structured mechanism for feedback. The Research Councils are required to fund research which contributes to UK competitiveness and quality of life, but there seems to be little assessment as to whether these are more likely to be achieved sponsoring research in, say chemistry than computer science. The establishment of priority research areas for the Research Councils in areas such as energy and living with environmental change are useful in supporting the general challenges of wider Government policy.

  3.5.  The mechanisms by which research funding is directed through the Research Councils to individual researchers or groups and the top-down imposition of research priorities work well and have the confidence of researchers. However, some feel that the Research Assessment Exercise, administered by HEFCE to allocate block grant to universities in support of research infrastructure, has a strong distorting effect on the range and types of research carried out in the UK, not least because it is a competitive system between universities and could discourage collaboration between institutions though collaboration is often sought and rewarded by the Research Councils and Regional Development Agencies.

  3.6.  The competitive "call for proposals" method is often useful but there are some instances where another method would be more suitable for use by research councils or TSB—for example, to agree to co-fund company or university work where the company has already selected its preferred partner; or to scope out centrally what's required and then go and commission/implement it, systematically, on the basis of an objective analysis of who's best placed to conduct the work.

  3.7.  The continued health of the science base, which must be a major concern of Government science policy, is linked to the level and provision of technical skills throughout the UK economy. UK based research is both a provider to and user of technical skills in the wider economy and there must therefore be strong links between the Skills Councils and GO-Science to ensure its continued and future health and capabilities.

4.  Are the Views of the Science and Engineering Community central to the formulation of Government policy and how is the success of any consultation assessed?

  4.1.  There are very strong arguments for the views and expertise of the science and engineering community to be taken into account in the formulation of wider Government policy and the Engineering Community's views on this matter are made in its response to the Committee's inquiry into "Engineering in Government" during 2008. Where science and engineering knowledge is central to a particular policy, then the policy should be based on the best available science and engineering knowledge, either through peer-reviewed research or, if that is out of date or insufficient, on the consensus opinions of a group of independent experts.

4.2.  The more specific question as to whether the views of the science and engineering community should be central the formulation of science policy is less clear. It is clear that those involved in science and engineering research should be consulted, but it is not clear that their views should be central to policy formulation. A strong case could be made for additional funding for engineering research to strategically support the UK's manufacturing sector at a time of economic downturn, but as other areas of academic endeavour have more researchers, they may have a louder voice in Government and be able to sway Government funding away from nationally strategic areas.

5.  Is there a case for Regional Science Policy (versus national Science Policy) and does the Haldane Principle need updating?

  5.1.  A good national science policy would take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the regions. Geographic clusters, which are strongly supported by some Regional Development Agencies, are important for innovation (as research has shown and as Government Policy already accepts). There is therefore a need for regional science and engineering policies that are coordinated with regional innovation policies. Regional policies should be dovetailed into national science policy and both should be complimentary.

5.2.  Regional policies currently seem to work subserviently to national science policy and the establishment of clusters seems mostly to be driven by pre-existing industrial capacity in an area and consequent links with academia or the creation of high-tech clusters around established universities. Whichever way around particular clusters have developed, research funding should be channelled to universities based on the quality of the research proposals and not in support of any local cluster.

  5.3.  It should be recognised that while regional policies should dovetail into national science and innovation policy (so you do not for instance, end up with competing centres in each region), intelligently formulated innovation policy, usually RDA-backed but implemented in partnership with business, has achieved a great deal over the past 8-9 years that would not have been achieved if by policies driven from central Government. Regional innovation policy demonstrably works. Witness the remarkable turnround in the process industries in the North East, closely tied to the region's innovation-led Strategy for Success and with clear links to inward investment; or the very considerable support for automotive engineering (Warwick/PARD), sensor technology (QinetiQ) and hydrogen energy (Birmingham et al) in the West Midlands (driven by Advantage West Midlands).

  5.4.  The Haldane principle has guided Government's involvement in research funding for many years and for the majority of research disciplines, particularly for fundamental research and pure sciences, the concept that researchers themselves should determine the direction of research is strongly supported. Engineering research, however, can be aimed at applications much closer to commercial application. Where this is the case, it seems reasonable that Government should want to encourage research in areas that support national policies. Government currently does this through the Research Councils' priority research areas.

  5.5.  A further softening of the Haldane Principle seems to have resulted in "top slicing" of Research Council budgets to fund new bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board and the Energy Technology Institute. These new bodies have specific objectives and are able to fund research or development projects in different ways to those available to the Research Councils. This could be seen as diverting funds away for the fundamental science and research that the Research Councils are primarily responsible for and that provides the knowledge supply for exploiting tomorrow. There is clearly a role for these organisations in funding very applied research and demonstrator projects, the only question raised here is whether their partial funding through the Research Council budgets is fully compatible with the Haldane Principle.

6.  Engaging the Public and Increasing Public Confidence in Science and Engineering Policy

  6.1.  There is a very strong case for researchers to be involved in public engagement, public dialogue and public understanding of science activities. These can all contribute to the general public confidence in science and engineering research if they are used appropriately. The question as to whether there should be public involvement in setting Government science and engineering policy is less clear. If, in controversial areas of research (stem cell research, genetic modification, systems biology etc) it is accepted that the Haldane Principle should be allowed to determine the direction of research, then public engagement, where the public are led to believe their views have a real impact on decisions, is of no value and can be counter-productive.

6.2.  If any organisation is to use public engagement as a tool for developing public policy, it must commit to listening to and acting on the views that the public express. The purpose of the public engagement must be clear from the outset and the methods of engagement employed suited to the purpose.

  6.3.  The Royal Academy of Engineering and the wider engineering community responded to the DIUS Consultation, "Science and Society" in October 2008[167] and this sets out the views of the engineering community on the use of public engagement in science and engineering. In this consultation, DIUS was keen to understand how to "excite" the public about science and engineering so that the public is better able to engage with the science agenda. A final strategy for "Science and Society" is expected from the department early in 2009.

7.  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

  7.1.  Science and engineering research cannot exist in a vacuum and there must be end users for the research carried out. At the very pure end of the research spectrum, there is room for research purely for academic endeavour, but as research becomes more applied, real world applications become the main drivers. It therefore follows that science and engineering policy should be based, to a significant degree, on the needs of, for example, UK based manufacturing industry and its potential to contribute to the UK economy as a whole. The wider science and engineering community, including industry, in the UK is therefore a key stakeholder in science and engineering policy.

7.2.  Consultation with stakeholders is an essential part of the development of any policy, however, it must be recognised that consultees have specific positions for which they lobby and there is always a danger that policy is in effect set by those groups with the best lobbyists. It is the job of Government to take balanced policy decisions based on the input of consultation.

  7.3.  For consultation with stakeholders to be effective or meaningful, it is essential that DIUS and other Government Departments are intelligent customers for the advice received.

8.  How Should Government Science and Engineering Policy be Scrutinised?

  8.1.  The current system of Parliamentary scrutiny allows for the various Departments to be scrutinised by the relevant House of Commons Select Committee. In general, this system seems to be adequate, but there is a strong case for a single Select Committee to have the remit to examine all Departments identify their science requirements and commission, manage, quality assure and use science and engineering advice.

8.2.  The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee had this remit to examine science across all of Government before it was disbanded and replaced by the current IUSS Select Committee. It may be preferable for the role of scrutinising science across Government be incorporated into the IUSS Select Committee's remit rather than a new committee be created.

January 2009

163   http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/codeq/trl/trlchrt.pdf Back

164   http://www.raeng.org.uk/policy/responses/pdf/Engineering_in_Government.pdf Back

165   Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, July 2004, ISBN 0 85403 604 0. Back

166   Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: A Review of Government's Progress on it's Policy Commitments, Council for Science and Technology, March 2007. Back

167   http://www.raeng.org.uk/policy/responses/pdf/Scienceandsociety.pdf Back

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