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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 38 - 39)



  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 sciences—which of course are crucial to the information technology industry and to energy R&D—are 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 Rees—although 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 record—if 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.

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