Examination of Witnesses (Questions 38
WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2009
Q38 Chairman: Good morning. Could
I welcome our very distinguished panel of witnesses this morning
to this evidence session on putting science and engineering at
the heart of government policy? We welcome Professor Lord John
Krebs from the University of Oxford; Professor Lord Martin Rees,
the President of the Royal Society, welcome to you; Professor
David Fisk from Imperial College London, welcome; and Professor
Julia King from Aston University, welcome to you as well. Sometimes
select committees have the knack of being able to chose inquiries
which are important at the time but become less important as they
carry on; this is an inquiry which in fact is gathering pace as
we go along because there has been a very significant shift, as
we see it, in government policy literally over the last few weeks.
We are somewhat perplexed as a committee that we have had this
major shift in policy. We are focussing science spending on a
few specialised areas where it has a world leading position and
we are interested in why our experts have got such a strong sense
of commitment to this new policy agenda with an unquestioning
faith that the Government has got it right. Lord Rees, what is
your comment on this new agenda?
Professor Lord Rees: First of
all may I say thank you very much for inviting myself and others
as witnesses. I think we welcome the commitment towards science
by the Government, the acceptance that whatever our economic problems
are science is part of the solution and is supported. We are fortunate
to have excellent science in the UK. Also we know that we are
especially excellent in some areas. We have some concerns about
the way in which this statement has been interpreted because one
of the great strengths of the UK is that we are the only country
outside the US that has a number of world-class universities.
They are a great national asset in a number of ways, not just
via direct spin-outs but also via the way they attract talent
from around the world and train excellent students. I think it
is crucially important to realise that excellent universities
will only stay that way if they can attract excellent faculty.
They will not attract excellent faculty unless that faculty feels
able to get support for responsive mode, curiosity driven research.
That is what happens at Harvard and at Stanford and that needs
to happen in our universities here. So it is very important that
there should not be an erosion in the level of responsive mode
support that covers the whole range of science. Of course over
and above that we accept that there is a great need, as in the
Obama stimulus package, for special efforts; I would say energy
R&D and many others. I would like to say one other thing which
is that I was slightly concerned about the statement that the
focus should be too much on the bio-medical sciences. They are
of course excellent; they are partly excellent because in this
country government funding is supplemented by the Wellcome Trust,
by the medical charities and we have a strong pharmaceutical industry.
Physics based scienceswhich of course are crucial to the
information technology industry and to energy R&Dare
somewhat more precarious because they have less in the way of
supplementary funding from private foundations or from a strong
industrial base than bio-medical sciences. I would be slightly
concerned if the concentration were to lead to any reduction of
funding from the public for physical sciences broadly interpreted
and from responsive mode research.
Q39 Chairman: With the greatest of
respect, Lord Reesalthough we as a committee are incredibly
supportive of the amount of money that has gone into science over
the last ten years and we need to put that on the recordif
you have a finite cake and you are going to give more to X it
has to come away from someone else. You seem to be thinking that
it will all continue very happily; it cannot.
Professor Lord Rees: What I am
saying is that I do not feel it would be a good idea if the budget
for the research councils were tilted away from the physical sciences.
There can be selectivity in terms of raising the threshold for
the acceptance of the grant, but I do not think there should be
a re-balancing away from physical sciences in government funding;
if anything, the other way.