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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: Could I welcome in particular this afternoon to this very first session of the new inquiry, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, Lord Drayson of Kensington, the Minister for Science and Innovation at DIUS. Welcome to you, Minister.

  Lord Drayson: Thank you.

  Q2  Chairman: Graeme Reid, the head of economic impact of the Science & Research Group at DIUS, welcome to you again, Graeme, it is nice to see you in the new year; and Jeremy Clayton, another old friend of the committee, the deputy head of the Government Office for Science at DIUS, welcome to you as well, Jeremy. Could I just say by way of introduction that this particular inquiry really sort of builds on, I think, three pieces of work which the committee and its predecessor have done. First of all, in terms of the engineering inquiry we have just virtually completed, we ran a small case study which was looking at engineering in government, and there were some very, very interesting comments brought forward during that particular session. Secondly was during the science budget allocations, again, there was some real concern by the committee, and indeed one of the drivers for this inquiry was what is the juxtaposition between national science policy and policy within the regions. The whole issue of the Haldane principle again came up during that inquiry, which was repeated by Wakeham's review of physics. Our predecessor committee did a major piece of work about scientific advice to government in the formulation of policy, and again, that is a theme which is running through our committee's work, which is really about evidence-based policy, so that is the background to it. But I wonder if I could start, Minister, by saying that your role differs very significantly from your immediate predecessor's, and indeed, going back to Lord Sainsbury, from his role as well, and I just wonder how you are using your upgraded position with a role within the Cabinet as well to put science and engineering at the heart of government. Do you see it in those terms?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, Chairman, absolutely. I see my role as to be a champion for science and engineering through government, that is through the promotion of the research base, the promotion of excellence in research, but to do that not just through my responsibilities in my own department, but using the fact that I have been given the task of setting up this brand new committee for science and innovation to make sure that science is put at the heart of government policy. We have the second meeting of the committee tomorrow, so we have had one meeting so far, but I would say that just from the initial feedback from that first meeting with my ministerial colleagues and other government departments, there is a shared recognition across government of the central importance of science, the importance of making sure that policy is based around good science, and the importance of ensuring that government departments have access to the necessary expertise, the R&D budgets to make sure that policies which they develop and implement are consistent with policies which are being implemented in other parts of government, and to make sure that it adds up to a coherent whole which positions the UK to capitalise on, I think, its brilliant track record in science, to make sure that that science is pulled through effectively into wealth creation.

  Q3  Dr Gibson: The fact that you say that it should be at the heart of policy decisions and so on kind of suggests it never has been. Are there evil forces around who believe that it might not be the right place for science to be, at the heart, but more on the periphery; do you pick that up?

  Lord Drayson: I think that there are examples of real excellence, but there are also examples where science is not properly recognised, and the role of science, particularly early on in the development of policy, and that is something which we need to work on. I think the recognition of that mixed picture is why I have been appointed to this role, why this role has been structured in this way. My brief really is to make sure that good practice which does exist is taken across other areas of government, so departments learn from each other, and I see my role as to use both persuasion, exhortation, balanced argument, to persuade—

  Q4  Dr Gibson: Vehemence.

  Lord Drayson: And vehemence, and a bit of passion as well, to make sure that all government departments raise their game on this, and there is never a more important time to do it. I feel that the current economic environment actually provides a real focus on this, and the response from government departments in that first meeting, I would say, has been really positive. There is a recognition of the importance of this.

  Q5  Chairman: Just following on from Ian Gibson's question there, it is an incredibly confusing picture of science in government, you know, with some departments having chief scientific advisors and others not having them; the sub-committees for science and innovation report to Cabinet through a committee that considers economics; you have a number of government departments that have established science advisory councils, and others have not. For instance, DIUS, the department you sit in, does not have one. What is all that about? How do you get some real sense of collective responsibility for science right across government, or is that your job now?

  Lord Drayson: That is my job. I think that I am actively promoting the development of coherence, a policy of making sure that these activities the different departments are taking and the support structures that exist have synergy between them, that they are effective in working together. One of the most important aspects of this area for me is that many of the policy areas require more than one department to work together; there are a number of really quite important science projects, of strategic importance for the country, which you cannot just easily put into one particular government department. Therefore, we need to develop effective mechanisms whereby multiple departments can work together, not get embedded in their own silos, to share information and focus around a particular area. I think climate change is an area where we are going to see this being increasingly important, as an example.

  Q6  Chairman: But if science is so important, you are a zealot in terms of the way in which science and engineering can affect this country's future, how can it be possible that major departments, like Treasury, for instance, do not even have a departmental chief scientific adviser? Until recently, Education did not. How is that possible, and what are you going to do about it?

  Lord Drayson: I am going to strongly encourage them to change that. I think we should recognise that UK has been a real leader in terms of international governments in the way in which it has developed scientific advisors within government departments. Many countries in Europe do not have any at all. So what we need to do is raise the game of those departments which do not have science as a central part of their policy development, and its implementation, and I think that is a combination of me being a zealot, as you say, but also pointing out to departments the benefits. Part of it is breaking down some prejudice about what science is, so that where you may have pockets of people saying, "We do not do science in this area", pointing out to them that they may not think they are doing science when they are working on this particular area, for example, in particular, like a social science, they may not think about the scientific method as a way of development of policy, but there are real areas of relevance. Part of my job I see as just not accepting the easy, "We do not do that"; I go back and say, "Well, let us go through this, let us see how we can change the way in which you are doing things".

  Q7  Chairman: But Minister, the sub-committee for science and innovation which you head up does not have representatives from all the departments, nor does it have the government chief scientific adviser sitting on it.

  Lord Drayson: Yes, it does. It does have the government's chief scientific adviser.

  Mr Clayton: I think the formal position is that Cabinet committees consist of Ministers. For this particular committee, as with some others, there is a line at the bottom which says the government chief scientific adviser is invited to attend, so as a matter of course he does attend and take part in the discussion. I think he may not be a formal member.

  Q8  Dr Gibson: Scientists work in teams, they move in groups of people, fielding ideas and so on, working together across science and so on. What do you think about civil servants in this area? I think they have quite a bit of clout, do they not, in areas? You can have all the ministers you like in the world, you can have a scientific adviser, but at the end of the day, civil servants can put the boot in quite hard. Is that true, in your experience so far?

  Lord Drayson: I think civil servants have a major contribution to make, and therefore it is very important that we have enough scientists and engineers in our Civil Service. When I was a defence minister, I was very active in the development of the cadre of scientists and engineer civil servants within the department, and one of the things I learnt in doing that was the lack within our current Civil Service career structure for a parallel career path for civil servants to develop their careers and stay in the specialist area of science and engineering. You can do it in certain other professional areas, I am very keen to encourage the Civil Service to develop this for the science and engineering profession. That has been developed very successfully, particularly in the hi-tech industry, in the private sector. We have to have a situation where to get promoted within the Civil Service, you do not necessarily have to switch from being a specialist engineer to being a generalist. That is certainly the structure which exists in best practice in industry, and it is one which we need to develop in the Civil Service. I was very pleased to see your committee chairman ask for returns from departments on the numbers of graduate scientists and engineers in each department; I was very disappointed by the returns that came back. We have to change this.

  Q9  Ian Stewart: It is interesting that you have mentioned engineers several times in the same breath as scientists. Do you therefore see yourself, when you have got this cross cutting role, as minister for science, engineering and innovation?

  Lord Drayson: Yes.

  Q10  Ian Stewart: So you very much see yourself as that?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, in terms of championing the science profession within government and the engineering profession within government, and taking specific action already: the government chief scientific adviser has set up a professional group for scientists and engineers, he set up the first meeting last week, he invited me to come and give a talk to that meeting, it was an enormously effective gathering, the head of the Civil Service came and spoke too. So I think what we are doing is developing a sense of the science and engineering profession within the Civil Service, this is something which we need to continue and we need to develop it. We do need more scientists and engineers in the Civil Service.

  Q11  Chairman: Lord Drayson, CST was clearly set up by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as being a really important organisation, sort of driving science, innovation, technology, with some incredibly eminent scientists, engineers, technologists and economists on board. The Prime Minister met regularly with that organisation. Do you meet regularly with that organisation?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, I do, Chairman.

  Q12  Chairman: Because they feel undervalued. The evidence we had in our engineering inquiry was they felt they were peripheral to what was happening. They write good reports, but nothing much happens.

  Lord Drayson: I have met with them, if I am correct, three times in my time as Science Minister.

  Q13  Chairman: Has the Prime Minister met with them, to your knowledge?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, the Prime Minister met with them at a breakfast meeting towards the end of last year.

  Q14  Chairman: My final point before I pass on is: in terms of international intelligence in science and technology, clearly that is crucially important for us formulating our policy, forming strategic alliances. Do you feel that there is sufficient intelligence coming into your department, do you feel we are sufficiently plugged in to get advice about what is happening elsewhere in the globe?

  Lord Drayson: I think that we are plugged in, although I think that the literature, if you like, on the exploitation of science, the whole process of innovation by government, is pretty patchy in the sense of its scope and quality. I think there have been a number of very good studies, for example, on different types of model, the way in which, for example, the Silicon Valley model has developed; the Finnish model has developed; a smaller number of studies of what has been happening in Singapore. But I think we need to do everything we can to make sure that we are really clear on what is the state of the art in terms of understanding how an investment in science research can best be managed and structured to deliver the best possible impact for the outcomes of the country. How do you get the balance right in terms of the different elements, in terms of pure and applied; how do you make good allocations against the different areas, particularly in an environment where the science is moving very quickly, and where the economic environment is also changing fast.

  Q15  Graham Stringer: Do you have a theory of what has gone wrong? We all want to get the best value out of science that we possibly can, and this country has had an excellent record on innovation and scientific research, but it has been less good at turning that to the economic benefit of the country. Do you have a theory about whether this is a cultural issue, whether it is a failure of government; what is your analysis, and how do you intend to improve the situation?

  Lord Drayson: I think it is a hugely complex area, therefore the answer to your question is multi-factorial, but I do think that we are seeing some key conclusions emerging. I think that I would agree with you 100% that we have been truly excellent at science in this country, all the data supports that, the productivity of our science, in terms of numbers of citations, Nobel prize winners and so forth, the investment that we have made over the last 10 years has led to a renaissance in the science base. The feedback I have had is the quality of the science in our research base has never been higher. We have also been very effective in the development of intellectual property from that science base in a way that we were not 10 years ago. The technology transfer processes from universities have improved dramatically. I think what my predecessors, particularly Lord Sainsbury, did to change that, to understand the clustering effect around certain universities to develop lower economic costs for businesses, has all been tremendous. What has happened is that has led to a really quite significant number of spin-out companies being created and international comparisons in terms of the productivity of spin-outs, their numbers, and their quality, has been very good. The problem has been our ability to convert those increasingly large numbers of start-up companies into a sufficiently large number of really substantial businesses, and I think that there are a number of reasons for this. One of the key reasons is the economic environment, nothing to do with the credit crunch; the credit crunch is making it dramatically more difficult now and bringing all of this into focus, but we have seen that our high technology companies which have been built on our science base have tended to get to a certain size, comparably smaller than you would see, for example, in the United States, and then have been acquired or have stagnated. Now this has led to a failure to fully realise the jobs and the wealth that could be created for those businesses, and therefore I am very focused on what we can do to address that particular problem. So I think the agenda, the focus is moving; it has moved from that early stage to more the mid stage. We have to maintain our investment in science, we have to maintain this very good track record in spin-outs, but we have to see more of these spin-outs grow to be substantial employers of people.

  Chairman: I want to return to that later, Lord Drayson, in terms of your second session this afternoon, but I think that has been a good opening in terms of actually exploring that further.

  Dr Gibson: I want to drill deeper than just the successes that we have and say: why do we get these successes, what happens? Now I happen to believe there are two things about many young people, they do most of the science in this country at the post-doc level or at the PhD level, we see that with MIT in the States, the Massachusetts Institute, where young people come in and do PhDs and get their spin-out company, because they are set up to do that; and the second thing about young people, why they are doing all this great work and getting disillusioned, is because nobody thinks they are doing anything important. They want to drill into the process of legislation and making things happen. They are full of young ideas. You must meet them at meetings, think tanks, whatever, and there are all these bright young people that say, "I do not really want to spend six post-doc periods of my life doing research and getting a citation", which is one method of judging success, it is not the only way of doing it, and we often use that in this country as the only way. But I want to see what you are going to do about making sure young people stay with science, either the blue sky stuff, or getting into industry, because I think we have a real problem with young people in this country who are getting scientific training, and maybe they will all be civil servants one day, maybe that is where they will go, I hope not, because they are as bad as financiers.

  Chairman: Let the Minister give an answer.

  Q16  Dr Gibson: I just want to know, what are you going to do about young people? If you were a post-doc today, a Colin Blakemore of the future, where would you go?

  Lord Drayson: I would want to encourage the Colin Blakemores of the future to consider a career going into teaching, so after having done one or two post-docs, to consider alternatives to an academic research career, so consider going into teaching; there is a real need for more science teachers who have a trained background within sciences as a first degree. I would want to facilitate your ability to consider going into industry, in particular going into a technology company operating in the science area for which you have been trained. Now we have learnt through the last ten years of some very effective models as to the way in which post-docs in particular, as you mentioned them, can be moved from the academic setting into industry. For example, the relationship between a professor and their post-doc is one of real trust often, so therefore one of the ways for a professor's intellectual property to be commercialised is for the post-doc, or more than one post-doc, to actually move out of the academic setting and move into the early stage start-up company. For those two aspects to happen, I think we need to see a shift in the way in which academic careers are treated within our universities. To enable those two things to happen, we have to have an environment whereby it is possible for you to say, "I want to take a few years out from doing my academic research, for example to go and work for a hi-tech business, but I want to have the ability to go back into that academic research in the future". Now that is something which certain universities, by no means all universities in the United States—

  Q17  Dr Gibson: It sounds like being a woman in science actually.

  Lord Drayson: I think there is a real value in us facilitating the ability of people to make that move with their expertise in and out of the academic research environment, to business, to government policy, in terms of civil servants, to even consider going into politics, I think—

  Q18  Dr Gibson: Good God no. Do not condemn them to that.

  Lord Drayson: I think there is a role for more scientists in politics, and I think seriously for us to facilitate people going into teaching at different stages in their life, not only for teaching to be something which you would consider immediately after finishing your first degree, but something which could be made a natural next step for you, say, in your late 20s/early 30s.

  Q19  Dr Gibson: Do you think either young people or experienced people like Colin Blakemore, who is in the room, as you know, found it fun to go into legislation, determination, making decisions and that? Do you think they felt welcome, do you think their scientific expertise was recognised in any way, or were they just a nuisance?

  Lord Drayson: I can speak for my own experience, and that is that I became interested in politics because one particular issue around science, in my particular case, animal rights extremism, politicised me, I became really quite exercised and concerned about the issue, and what I learnt was that getting involved in the politics of science, science policy, was a hugely interesting and satisfying thing, it really was. So I think that the fact that the protest group developed at Oxford relating to support for animal research at Oxford, with a 16-year old student leading that, is a sign that young people's concern and belief in the importance of science is alive and well.

  Chairman: Can I just park this as an issue? I think it is an absolutely crucial issue to future science policy to have a different relationship between what actually happens in the research labs in our universities and how we get these career paths, and I know Dr Harris has been pressing us for what seems like 20 years to do an inquiry on this.

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