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

Memorandum 45

Submission from the Wellcome Trust

  1.  The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.

2.  Science has a crucial part to play in the development of government policy and we therefore welcome this inquiry. Because of the breadth of the committee's investigations, we have focused our response on a few cross-cutting issues, as follows:

    —  the need for a coordinated approach across government;

    —  ensuring the best available evidence informs policy-making at an early stage;

    —  recognising the impact of EU legislation on UK science policy-making;

    —  the importance of a strong research base to inform policy-making;

    —  the regulation of science; and

    —  the need to ensure public confidence in science policy.


  3.  Science in the UK has gone from strength to strength over the past five years. We welcome the Government's commitment to the excellence of the UK research base, signalled first in the "Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14", and recently reinforced through the 2008 Science and Innovation White Paper, "Innovation Nation". We welcome the recent appointment of Lord Drayson as Minister of State for Science and Innovation, and particularly the recognition that this should become a Cabinet role. We are also pleased to see the continued development of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research, which is beginning to shape a single health research strategy for the UK.

4.  While science and innovation formally sits within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), it is important to recognise that many other departments also depend on science for their policies—including the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR); the Department of Health (DH); the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF); the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC); the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for International Development (DFID). It is therefore crucial to ensure that there is a joined-up approach across Government. DIUS must work closely with all departments to ensure science is appropriately reflected in government priorities, and that government policy reflects the needs of science.

  5.  The Chief Scientific Advisers have an important role to play, working together to identify and explore cross-cutting issues from an early stage. We note, however, that there has recently been a significant increase in the number of agencies and committees providing advice on science, enterprise and education. We would encourage Government to ensure there is not unnecessary duplication; it may be helpful to clarify the remits of these different advisory bodies and to streamline their activities if appropriate.


  6.  Government policy must be informed by the best available evidence. We therefore urge the Government to make the best possible use of the significant expertise of academia, learned societies, research funders and charities in the UK. The recent report by the Council for Science and Technology, for example, made a number of suggestions of ways to improve engagement between academia and policy-makers.[177]

7.  The passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill through parliament provides a particularly good demonstration of the benefits of consulting with the research community from an early stage. A partnership of stakeholders worked closely with the Department of Health and parliamentarians from both Houses to ensure that the provisions of the Bill were consistent and clear, and the legislation future-proofed so that it will be able to respond to as-yet-unanticipated scientific advances. We believe that the resulting Act will enable cutting-edge stem cell research in the UK to continue to flourish within a robust regulatory framework, while maintaining public confidence and support.


  8.  Legislation from Europe increasingly has the potential to impact on science in the UK—often in unintended ways. It is therefore vital to ensure that the process for seeking scientific advice from stakeholders is as comprehensive for the development of European legislation as it is for UK policy.

9.  The EU Physical Agents (EMF) Directive provides an example of the potential risks when the full implications of European legislation are not recognised at an early stage. The Directive, as initially approved in 2004, would have seriously restricted the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), both in the clinic and for research purposes. Thankfully, implementation of the Directive has now been postponed for four years, allowing time to review recent evidence and prepare amendments. We are pleased to see that the UK Government—having now recognised the concerns—continues to work to ensure that the revised Directive takes into account the concerns of the MRI community, including researchers.

  10.  It will also be important to ensure that revisions to the EU Directive 86/609 on the protection of animals used for scientific research—currently passing through the European legislative process—are both evidence-based and proportionate. The Directive must promote animal welfare, patient benefit, and UK scientific and economic competitiveness, without introducing unnecessary bureaucracy. The Government must continue to work with all stakeholders in a coordinated way to provide an informed response within a potentially tight timetable.


  11.  The best Government policy relies on—and is reflected by—a strong and sustainable research base. We therefore encourage the Government to continue its commitment to the dual support system in UK universities. This arrangement allows a diversity of funders—including charities, industry and overseas funders, in addition to the Research Councils—to support the best research. It is this system that has created the world-class research base demonstrated by the recent results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.

12.  Funding agencies can also play a role in helping to identify key areas of need and prioritise research questions, but should not be too directive. The Trust has developed funding structures that enable us to respond rapidly to the best ideas from the research community while providing the most appropriate form of support to take these ideas forward.

The regulation of science

  13.  The regulatory framework must encourage and facilitate research, maintaining an appropriate degree of checks and balances without introducing unnecessary and unhelpful bureaucracy. While clear regulations are needed to ensure that research is safe, undertaken in accordance with the highest ethical standards, and with appropriate protection for patients and the public, it is important to ensure that a proportionate approach is adopted, which reflects the degree of risk involved.

14.  Researchers are increasingly expressing concern about the current regulatory burden which results in needless delays to research, particularly when undertaking clinical trials.[178] The various regulatory bodies are often poorly coordinated and regulations are inconsistent. There is a risk that regulation and governance of research becomes so overburdensome that the UK loses its international scientific competitiveness. We recognise that in the area of medical science, National Institute of Health Research is introducing measures to tackle these concerns,[179] but would emphasise the unique role that policy makers in Whitehall have in ensuring a more streamlined approach within the Better Regulation agenda.

Engaging the public to ensure confidence in science policy

  15.  For society to benefit from scientific developments, the public must have confidence in the regulatory framework. Research commissioned by the Trust in 2006 found that there was strong support among the public in principle for the importance of biomedical research, but there was very little awareness of different models of research governance.[180]

16.  We therefore welcome the recent moves by DIUS to develop a "Science and Society" strategy, and the vision of "a society excited by and valuing science". The public must not only be excited about science, but ideally should be able to engage in informed debate about scientific issues. This will also depend on a scientific workforce that embraces its engagement role with the public, and is willing to explore the potential benefits and risks of new developments. DIUS should continue to work to coordinate efforts to develop best practice to ensure that a scientifically literate public is able to have confidence in science policy.

January 2009

177   How academia and government can work together, Council for Science and Technology, October 2008. Back

178   See, for example, Times 14 January 2008 p.4; Stewart et al, BMJ 2008:337 1085-1087. Back

179   NIHR coordinated system for gaining NHS permission, National Institute for Health Research, April 2008. Back

180   A literature review of research conducted on young people's attitudes to science education and biomedical science, Wellcome Trust, August 2006. Back

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