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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 37)



  Q20  Dr Gibson: Tell us about learned societies, how they could play more -- we have recommended from a previous committee that learned societies and academies could get involved to a greater extent in policy determination; do you think they are or they are not?

  Lord Drayson: I believe that this is really to be welcomed, and so an example of this happening in practice is that later this week, we will be launching a science communications campaign to address the unfortunate fact that too many people in our society regard science as an elitist endeavour. We are going to tackle this head on on Wednesday, and we are doing this in full consultation and support with the learned societies who have been involved in the development of the communication campaign, together with the research councils. I think it is the first time actually we have the full science community on board with the development of the campaign, which has been in response to the policy development which has come out of the science and society work. So there we went out, did the consultation, we asked the general public, "What do you think of science, what are the issues which concern you?", and we learnt some very important things. On the one hand, we learnt that people have a very high expectation of the power of science to do good, to address issues of climate change, for example, to find a cure for cancer, but whilst having those expectations of the importance of science, when you ask them, "What is the impact of science on your everyday life?", they regard it as unimportant.

  Q21  Dr Gibson: Do you recognise that all learned societies do not move at the same speed, do not have the same understanding of the world they live in and how to engage with the politicians; the black art of politics is different from their type of black arts. Having been an academic, you know the black arts of universities, much more vicious, I think, than the politics we live in now. But there are differences between them. Some are fast movers, some are slow movers, some do not even move at all, and suddenly they discover late on that there is somebody to engage with to make policy. Is that your experience?

  Lord Drayson: I think it is fair to say that there is a variety of different learned societies in their focus, some have more, I think, of a focus on the modern environment and the challenges that we face as a country today. I think what we have to do in government is to work with them in a leadership role, but very much bring them with us, and I would point to the campaign on Wednesday this week, I would encourage the chairman and the committee to judge whether or not this is an example of effective working by my department, under my championing of science, and working with the learned societies to address what is clearly an issue for us as a country.

  Q22  Graham Stringer: This Committee has had contradictory answers out of the government when it has asked questions about whether it is important whether or not science is done in the regions, whether the government in actual fact has a regional scientific policy. Some science ministers have come and said, "We support Jodrell Bank, we support Daresbury, we support science in the regions", and we have also had statements in response to reports that it does not matter wherever science is done, whether it is all done in London or whether it is all done in Aberdeen. What is your interpretation of the government's policy with respect to regional science policy, and your interpretation of the Haldane principle, please?

  Lord Drayson: My interpretation is that the overriding factor which is most important is that science, wherever it is done, has to be excellent science. It is the quality of the science which is most important. Now for science to be of high quality, it requires a critical mass of scientists working in an area, supported with the right infrastructure, having the ability to carry out the cutting edge experiments, and in my experience, the ability to do that depends not just on decisions about the future, it depends on history too. I learnt in my own research that there is almost a genealogy to science, like there are in so many other things in life, and therefore, the existing location of expertise, the clusters of that expertise, the location of infrastructure, is very important in terms of where it makes sense for science to be carried out. So therefore, the decision about the location of future investments of infrastructure will have an impact on how that cluster of expertise is developed, but we need to take into account the decisions rightly of the peer review process, that is the principle of Haldane, that these are not decisions which are made by ministers, they are made by the science community, directed to make decisions, allocation of resources, based upon where the excellence of science will be carried out, but taking into account where the expertise and the infrastructure lie.

  Q23  Graham Stringer: That is a very conservative policy really for a Labour government, is it not? I hate the word, but it is a very non-pro-active policy. I understand that the Cavendish laboratory is the Cavendish laboratory and people are going to be attracted there, but would you not think it should be part of a Labour government's policy to create another Cavendish laboratory in Motherwell, Manchester or Newcastle, somewhere else, so there should be more direction to the government's policy about new investment?

  Lord Drayson: I do believe that history has shown us that it is very difficult and can be counter-productive to believe that you can create a cluster of expertise. There are many factors which lead to the development of a body of expertise. Often that is down to one or two key individuals, and what I believe --

  Q24  Graham Stringer: Can I just interrupt there? I accept that, that great scientists will attract the right research workers. But what attracts great scientists quite often is investment in equipment and facilities. There is a chicken and egg argument here, is there not? The government can intervene and say, "We will provide you with your latest atom smasher [or whatever it is] in Newcastle", rather than in London, Oxford or Cambridge.

  Lord Drayson: You are absolutely right, and I think there is one factor which we need to in future, I believe, pay more attention to when we are making decisions about infrastructure. There is no doubt that the decisions that we take about next generation infrastructure will impact the development of these future clusters of scientific excellence. I believe that we need to think more in the future about that problem which I highlighted in an earlier question about the process of conversion of that science into wealth and jobs, and the fact that we have had this bottleneck up to now where we have not seen the development of our businesses far enough. I think that we can identify areas in the country whereby there is the ability for businesses to be spun out of research campuses, but to make sure that those businesses are supported by the local councils for a strategy of growth, so therefore when a business gets to the point where it is looking at its first production facility, that it would be encouraged to locate that production facility next to its R&D laboratory, and that you are developing a critical mass of expertise and wealth, not just in the science base itself, but also in the commercialisation of that science. What we have seen, has dogged us a bit I think up to now, is in some cases, it has been difficult for businesses which have grown up, for example, out of the campuses, from Oxford, Cambridge and London, to be able to make that growth once they get to a certain size of business, and I think that does force us to look for other developments of science campuses in the future.

  Q25  Graham Stringer: That is answering rather a different point, is it not? That is answering what happens to research when it has taken place and how the country or the region or the local community most benefits from it. What I would like to leave you with is a final question, and a thought really: if you accept that money will follow scientists and current institutions, then most of the investment in science, as it is at present, will end up in the golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London. Do you not think that for the next stage of investment, which leads to those business clusters and could lead to better development of them, that the government should review its policy on where money is invested, and look to invest more in the regions?

  Lord Drayson: I think that this is something which should be constantly looked at. I do not think that you can come to a conclusion about science policy and then it is done. This is something which continuously evolves. But I do think the answer to your -- you posed this as a chicken and egg problem, where do you intervene in that process, I think you are right in describing it as a chicken and egg problem. My answer to where you would intervene is with the individual. In my experience, what I believe is that what should come first is the world class scientist, and therefore, my view as to an appropriate strategy for a university anywhere in the country looking to develop would be to identify: well, what is the subject area where we are looking to become world class, and to try and attract to that university one or more individuals who are world class in that area. What that then does is attract grant funding, infrastructure, researchers and industrial interest, which then builds that, and we have seen that as an effective model. I think that is the key to the development of science campuses in other areas in the future.

  Q26  Mr Marsden: Lord Drayson, my colleague Graham Stringer has pressed you quite hard on what I might describe as the push/pull basis of where you invest, where you build up critical mass and so on and so forth. I suppose if one was being mildly caustic, one might say that to continue to review things is fine if you are looking at it from the golden triangle of the south-east and nothing is actually appearing to happen to change that. But let me pick up the point that you made earlier, because you were talking quite rightly with the chairman about the whole business of engaging with different government departments, and one thing and another, and I was interested in what you said about local councils. The one thing I do not think has been referred to so far is the regional role of development agencies. Development agencies, after all, whether people like it or not, now command a substantial amount of government funding. Should you not be in your capacity now having a pro-active series of discussions and involvements with RDAs as well as with the ministers across government?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, you are absolutely right, and that is exactly what I am doing, so I have had meetings with chairmen of the RDAs, I have been discussing with them their views around the regional focus that they have in their area towards clusters of excellence, how they can work with, for example, my department's Technology Strategy Board to make sure that there is an alignment between the investments that they are making, the actions they are taking to attract inward investment, and the decisions that the Technology Strategy Board is making, again, independent from government, but making real choices about which technologies government support goes into, and making sure that all of that is aligned. I think you are particularly right to stress this in this very difficult economic environment, where we really do need to make sure that there is that alignment.

  Q27  Mr Marsden: Can I just follow that up with a quick question, and ask: again, you referred in your previous answers to the importance of university impetus, investment in positions and all the rest, are you convinced at the moment that all the regional development agencies have an effective and concrete strategy for working with higher education institutions in their region to produce the sort of results that you are talking about?

  Lord Drayson: Well, one can never be absolutely sure that everything is 100% as it should be, but the impression that I get is that the RDAs are doing a very effective job. The way in which the academic institutions and universities have responded to this downturn has actually been to be pretty pro-active, I think actually going out to their local business community, reminding the business community of the resources that the university can offer, are engaged with their RDAs, and this is something which they absolutely should be doing in these times, but the sense that I get is they are doing it. If there is any feeling that they are not doing that well enough, I would be grateful to learn that and follow that up.

  Q28  Chairman: I think the problem is that this is another department that looks after the RDAs, and the reality is, as science and engineering minister, how do you get a handle on that effectiveness? It would be useful—not this session, but perhaps you could give us some feedback as to what is the interdepartmental relationship which means that you have a really critical eye rather than, as you have rightly said, "I feel that that is okay", because I think you would accept that that is not good enough.

  Lord Drayson: Chairman, my sense that that is working well is based upon having had a lot of interaction over the last few months with BERR and, depending upon what is the subject area, the government department that has a responsibility. So I will give you a specific example, the challenge of moving to a low carbon economy, the need to really change transportation infrastructure, and a really good working relationship which has developed between the Technology Strategy Board, in terms of the investment in the low carbon innovation platform for vehicles, working with two RDAs in particular who have identified this as an opportunity for their region, who are putting in resources and finance to support that innovation platform, and working with the Department of Transport and BERR to make sure that the work that they are doing is all aligned, so it is based upon that type of experience. The way I engage on that is through specific projects like that.

  Chairman: I think it would be useful if we could have a note from your department, Minister, to say how effective do you feel all the RDAs are, because I think we can all give examples of where an RDA does some terrific work on a particular project, but there are certain RDAs, and I will not mention them, who never get mentioned, if you follow that drift.

  Q29  Ian Stewart: Lord Drayson, I am going to go back to the stuff that Graham Stringer pressed you on, because I must admit, I am just a bit perplexed at the answer that you gave. You have brought very specific skills, we recognise, to the job of minister. You have described those skills and why the government has allowed you to have a cross-departmental role, to raise awareness and understanding about physics, engineering and so on, and particularly with your commercial background. That all sounds very sensible. But it is not surely that a single minister should have the level of understanding about physics, science, engineering and so on, the point there must be that the government must have that understanding, and it just strikes me as very strange therefore that we are talking here in very vague terms about the lack of government policy or strategy, in terms of regional science or innovation policy. In Haldane, as we have discussed recently, the principle that is missing, of course, is a principle on funding, and there lies the very complex area where government may have a good view of what is necessary, perhaps government accepts, for example, the Regional Studies Association report that the north and periphery of the UK is relatively weak on innovation systems. If that is accepted, and government says that it is sensible not to have everything concentrated in one area of the country, any kind of golden triangle, wherever it might be, that there is the need to recognise excellence elsewhere in the country, maintain and improve that, how can we have a situation where a government will not say that it has a regional science policy or a regional innovation policy? It seems a contradiction in terms to me. Do we need to revisit and maybe have a Haldane principles review for the 21st century?

  Lord Drayson: I think you have put the focus on a very important question which we have to ask ourselves as a country, which is that in the current economic environment, and looking at the way in which the world is developing, and is likely to shape up over the next 20 years, have we been strategic enough in determining the balance of our investments in areas of science, in areas of industry, taking into account what other countries are doing, and asked ourselves the question: what are the areas that we have the best chance of being most effective and most competitive in, how are those areas likely to develop, what is going to be the competitive space, what is it that other countries are doing, and are there opportunities for us to be more strategic in the choices that we make? Now that is an enormously big question to answer. Other countries are taking the view that making strategic choices about areas of focus is the right way of dealing with the enormous complexity and the speed of change which is taking place in the modern globalised world. We have to ask ourselves whether or not we believe that is true too, and if so, what are we going to do about it.

  Chairman: This is a regional issue which my colleagues are raising as to whether in fact strategically government should in fact be saying, "In order to incentivise and use science and engineering and innovation as the main driver for economic recovery, we ought in fact to have a regional dimension to that", and government has consistently said to this committee, "No, we should not".

  Q30  Ian Stewart: Not only that, Lord Drayson, if we take the analysis that Graham Stringer put forward before, which you accepted, that great scientists attract funding, projects, and so on, the assumption that could be taken from the statement I made earlier about the Regional Studies Association report, saying that we are relatively weak in the north and the periphery of the country, but that does not recognise that we have great scientists outside the golden triangle. It is not just about generating great science and physics elsewhere in the country, it can be about maintaining world class science elsewhere in the country, and that is where certainly I find on this committee the complex nature of this dilemma between Haldane and a government not having a regional strategy for physics is really quite worrying. I am glad you recognised that it was a big issue that you are tackling.

  Dr Reid: There have been some really impressive innovations in science outside the golden triangle, and I think just for the record we can think of research pooling in Scotland where actually the physics community in particular have developed Scottish physics research in some really exciting ways; in Wales, we have seen the merger between the University of Cardiff and the University of Wales Medical School; and in the north-west, we have seen the creation of a major university through the merger in Manchester. In each case, as I understand it, these innovations came from the community and won support from the public purse because of the quality of the ideas and the ambitions that they were putting forward. So I think it is probably overstating things to imagine that the government must lead all of the innovations and determine the geographic distribution of these innovations.

  Q31  Chairman: Would you tell us one major national facility that the government has supported in the last ten years outside the golden triangle?

  Dr Reid: I think I would have to confirm the answer I am about to give, but I think that there are supercomputing facilities going into Edinburgh.

  Chairman: Is that not sad that you, who are responsible for this area, cannot just name them off the top of your head?

  Q32  Graham Stringer: Can I say that when we visited Daresbury, we were told that 97% of fundamental research done outside of universities was done in the golden triangle. Surely that is not a situation that any government, particularly a Labour government, can be satisfied with? It is actually the spatial distribution of investment, not just the fact that Manchester, Wales or Scotland are trying to pull themselves up by the bootlaces that is important, is it not?

  Dr Reid: It is important, but I think that the examples I gave before are not just about people pulling themselves up, the university community in Scotland wins a higher proportion of research council income per capita or per GDP than the UK as a whole, they punch above their weight and have done for some time, so there are high performing communities outside the golden triangle, but the sheer scale of the golden triangle—

  Chairman: I think you are actually missing the point that we are making. We understand that there are these brilliant research groups that are appearing, and the government, to be fair, funds them according to the brilliance of their science. We have no complaint about that, I do not think, as a committee. It is the other thing, as to how government incentivise with major facilities other areas of the country, but I would like to leave that at the moment because we are desperately short of time, and to bring in Evan Harris.

  Q33  Dr Harris: Good afternoon, Minister. I just want to look at the issue of scrutiny and to a certain extent transparency. My first example comes from what we have just been discussing. I do not know if you read our report on the science budget allocations, which was dominated by the whole STFC business, and the government's response, and then there was a debate in the Lower House on this, but there is this difficulty of understanding what the government's position is on this. I think everyone agrees that the government's role is to set out the overarching strategy, John Denham made that clear in his speech in April 2008, and you may have more to say on how you are developing that in due course; and that researchers peer review, the research councils decide which projects to fund, particularly on the detail. So the question is: when it comes to where you site something, like a collider or something, and there are different bids, is it for the government, is it a strategic decision to park it in the north-west or south of Oxford? The difficulty we had in that report, just to shortcut this, is that on the one hand the government said, "We do not interfere in those decisions", but on the other hand, there was clear evidence which we concluded which showed the STFC council, once the government had seen their draft, had to change their decision on what they were going to site at Daresbury, and those of us from the golden triangle do not feel that there should not be a regional policy in the north-west, but if there is, it should be explicit, and then it can be scrutinised by us and the science community. I happen to think, and this is my view, that when it is government money or taxpayers' money, then the government is entitled to have a view on issues like where it should be spent. It does not mean that it is intervening on the quality of the science. I was wondering if you could reflect on that, because that is where we are struggling: the government says it does not have a regional policy, but it appears from reading between the lines of what is happening that when it comes to something politically sensitive, they very much do.

  Lord Drayson: Firstly, I would say that when a decision is taken about the location of a major piece of infrastructure, it clearly will have a strategic impact, and what is important is that the strategic impact of that decision takes into account the regional development agency piece, in terms of does that piece of infrastructure lead to the facilitation of the commercialisation of that science. So, for example, investment in a supercomputing facility, will that decision, which will have a strategic impact, have an impact in terms of the location of the development of a cluster of spin-out businesses, for example. But the decision on the location of that in the first place has to be driven by, I believe, this recognition of the key driver of the excellence in the individuals who are doing the science, that is what comes first.

  Q34  Dr Harris: So the regional dimension is one factor?

  Lord Drayson: Yes.

  Q35  Dr Harris: Would it not be good if the role of government in that decision, if there is nothing to hide, could be out there and transparent, and that is why I was wondering if you would consider reviewing the decision of the department, DIUS, not to release the allocation letters to the research councils, even if they have to be blacked over for commercially sensitive issues, just like you do release the allocation letter to HEFCE. It is still all taxpayers' money, it is still all public funding of research and teaching and research, in the case of HEFCE, but it is disappointing that the government so far has refused to release the content of those letters, so we know and can scrutinise what the government says has some strategic elements to it, because I do not think we disagree that that should be permitted.

  Lord Drayson: I think that as we go forward, your argument about the need for clarity around a view about the strategic impact regionally of key investments does make sense to me, and so that is something as we go forward which I am happy to take back and look at. I am actively working with the RDAs in terms of this link-up between the interventions which they are making and the science base, but I do not see any benefit or need in terms of going backwards. I think as we go forward from here, particularly in the context of an overall strategy relating to our science policy and the development of wealth from that science, making decisions about the strategic investments, it does make sense to take into account the regional aspect.

  Q36  Dr Harris: Can I just ask you then about this issue, again, continuing on the scrutiny theme, of what you said earlier? You said that you were driven by a wish to see government policy based around good science and have wider recognition in government of the virtues of the scientific method. I think we all accept that policy does not have to be evidence-based, but then it should be labelled as not evidence-based. To what extent do you think government understands that if it does not accept the clear advice of its scientific advisers, then it needs to be clear in its public statements that the policy that they have implemented, which they are entitled to, for ideological or economic reasons, is not one based on the scientific evidence; do you see the problem? Because if they say, "Well, it is still evidence-based, we just disagree with the scientists who are advising us", it rather debases the language of evidence-based policy.

  Lord Drayson: I think that it is a fact that science, the evidence, is one aspect of the factors which are taken into account when making a policy decision, and I do think that it is a benefit to be transparent about the reasons why a decision has been come to. I think that it is of increasing importance to develop good use of scientific method in the development of policy, I think that is something which could be developed further, for example, in areas of social policy, operating on the basis of a sort of clinical trial development in an area: piloting something, getting good data about its efficacy, whether or not it has achieved its end points, before rolling it out into other areas. That is something which is being increasingly done, and is to be supported.

  Q37  Dr Harris: Absolutely, with sensible and pre-agreed outcome measures. My last question is around a specific example. If you take government drug policy, which is something this committee has declared on, there has been consistent advice from the advisory council on the misuse of drugs about the classification of cannabis. In the government's response, which was to reject it, at no point did they say, "We now recognise this is not an evidence-based policy, it is for other reasons", which it is not the remit of this committee to comment on, that is for Parliament to decide. I just wonder whether you think there is a price to pay for that, because if that happens again, if/when the committee reports on Ecstasy, and the government on the same day that that report is published says, "No, we absolutely are not going to accept your clear advice on this", then do you think there is a danger that scientists are going to be not prepared to give their time to advising the government if the government is saying, "This is a scientific question, we are interested in the evidence", but then almost pre-empting that by rejecting it for non-scientific reasons without being clear that they are non-scientific.

  Lord Drayson: Well, I believe that scientists are sophisticated people and they understand that these questions of policy are complex, they have to take into account a number of different factors, and therefore, what scientists expect is that the contribution that the data, that science can make, is fully employed, where it appropriately can be, and then the decisions are taken based around it with clarity about the way in which that decision has been reached. I am not getting a sense that there is any disillusionment amongst the scientific community in the way in which they are engaged; quite the opposite, I get the sense that the scientific community welcomes that engagement and sees that as a positive trend.

  Dr Harris: Because there was a pretty strong letter to The Guardian about this issue.

  Chairman: I am going to stop, that is something clearly we will come back to, it is a constant thread, but we have overrun, and I am going to leave the last question, I am afraid, because we have overrun on this session. Can I thank you very much indeed as far as our inquiry is concerned, thank you very much indeed, Lord Drayson, Jeremy Clayton and Graeme Reid for your evidence.

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