Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2009
Q40 Chairman: Do any of your colleagues
wish to comment?
Professor Lord Krebs: Thank you
very much, Chairman, for inviting me along to this session. I
would just like to make a couple of points which, in a sense,
build on what Lord Rees has said. Last night I happened to bump
into one of our Nobel Prize winners, Tim Hunt, who won a Nobel
Prize a few years ago for his discoveries relating to cancer research.
I asked him the question that you are putting to us, should the
Government focus on key areas of priority and he said absolutely
not. If you want to foster the kind of innovative research that
led to him winning a Nobel Prize you should allow great freedom
for scientists to propose research and judge it on excellence.
He made the point to me that the greater the originality of research
the less predictable the outcomes are likely to be.
Q41 Chairman: Do you agree with him?
Professor Lord Krebs: I pointed
to a very nice study that was described by Sir William Paten a
few years ago in his book Man and Mouse in which he looked
at ten key advances in cardiovascular medicine and he traced back
where those key advances came from and he identified about 600
papers in the literature that led to these key medical developments.
Over 40% of them had nothing to do with cardiovascular medicine
at all and many of them were not carried out in medical departments
or medical faculties; they were carried out in departments of
chemistry, engineering, physics, botany, agriculture, zoology,
et cetera. I think the difficulty with prioritisation is
the inherent unpredictability of where the key advances are going
to come from. If I could just add one more point, it is not that
I am totally against having key themesindeed, when I was
chief executive of NERC we did have certain key themes broadly
defined and the research councils have that mechanism todaybut
I do think that the key themes and the priorities should be presented
in a broad way so that the scientists can be innovative within
those themes and not be too prescriptive. I agree with Lord Rees
that we do not want to see a shift in the balance between strategically
directed research and responsive mode.
Q42 Chairman: Professor King?
Professor King: First of all I
would like to say that it is interesting to be there, thank you,
and I would like to agree with Lord Rees that we need to be careful
about looking and saying that the UK appears to be doing better
in the rankings in the biological/biomedical areas than it is
in engineering and physical science. What we are good at at the
moment is historic about what has been invested in; it is not
genetic and what we need to be good at, in my view, is addressing
the world's problems and the biggest of those at the moment I
believe is climate change and I believe that is not only a world
problem but it is going to be generating huge international markets
for new kinds of products and services and therefore if we want
the UK to be a successful economy we have to be keeping up our
investment in the subject areas that will deliver into solving
that problem. Physical science and engineering are critically
important. I would say that we are focussing enormously on just
the research council budget and of course there are lots of other
budgets that go into research but also into applied research and
moving that research into commercialisation and I think there
are some issues, for example, around how the RDAs spend their
budgets and I would say it is rather interesting that if you look
at a lot of RDAs they all think they are going to be outstanding
centres for medical technologies, for advanced materials, for
advanced automotive, for green energy and I think that it is unrealistic
that almost every RDA in the UK is going to actually develop an
Q43 Chairman: So they should pick
winners as well.
Professor King: I think we do
need a bit more thinking about how we could best spend some of
that other funding that is going into supporting research and
moving research into industry.
Q44 Chairman: Professor Fisk?
Professor Fisk: It is a great
pleasure to be in front of the Committee again, Chairman. I just
have two thoughts really. I am reminded of Karl Popper's observation
that if you were going to predict the wheel essentially you would
have just invented it. It is very hard to talk about picking winners
in science. I do contendI do not know if this is a consensus
with my colleaguesthat it is a jolly sight easier to spot
losers. I would have felt slightly easier if we were understanding
what we were not doing and debating whether that was the right
thing to stop than begin to get into these banner headlines which
is always a bit risky. I would note that we are not the only country
going through this sort of turmoil of trying to think what post-recession
science will look like. Some of the others do have the slight
advantage of a more obvious industrial base. We have a few very
large science and engineering multi-nationals, I am told by BERR,
and very few in the medium size category. It was the Finns who
produced Nokia, for example; we did not do that. There are a lot
of small companies whose one ambition, it seems in life, is to
sell their IPR to a big American firm and then set themselves
up as Foxtons, a profitable estate agent. As you do not have that
industrial logic it is much harder. Aerospace and satellite technology
are an enormous part of the 21st century and it is pretty hard
to understand whether that is part of a UK package and competence
when largely the IPR will remain with shareholders who live outside
of the UK. I think the industrial structure is what most other
countries have tended to use to try and help them work through
this algorithm. It was probably how we used to do things in the
60s' model. To use an anecdote, we are indeed one of the largest
manufacturers of cars in Europe but we are actually assemblers
of other people's cars and that makes a lot of difference from
the old traditional way in which universities like Warwick and
Aston and so on related to a home-based industry and its thoughts
and expectations of where the future would go.
Chairman: Thank you. Ian Gibson?
Q45 Dr Gibson: I am almost tempted
to say, "Thank God for the recession; it will make us think
out of the box a bit". I am always thinking of the question
of who runs British science at the end of the daywe will
probably get onto that later onand how do you get these
decisions through? I am interested in what you say, Martin, about
the separation of physics and chemistry and so on. If you take
the perspective that the thing that we need most (this is what
the media plays on) is to do something about our healthobesity,
all the genome stuff that is coming out, a huge explosion of new
drugsyou could not blame the politicians for thinking that
health and what you put into health is the big winner. What I
mean by that is not just the biologists doing their bit and the
medics doing their bit, but I mean the physicists and chemists
too who play a major part. It is not either/or in terms of science;
the science of this country is really tremendous in terms of the
health service. I would just add to what Julia says about climate
change. My argument is that the science was done some time ago,
it has just taken the politicians one hell of a time to realise
it has been done. There is not an awful lot to know from the political
point of view about global warming and so on; that is happening,
the caps are melting. We can finesse the details but we need the
technologies now so we need to invest in those kinds of technologies.
It is business orientated; it is making these two choices.
Professor Lord Rees: I agree that
we need to support all R&D related to health; and regarding
climate change I agree that the science is going well and needs
to be continued, but what is very importantI think Professor
King was emphasising thisis that clearly the answer to
the problems posed by climate change is clean energy and innovative
energy sources. This requires a massive R&D programme worldwide
on the same scale as the worldwide health budget. There is a tremendous
disparity between the amount the world is spending on health research
and the amount the world is spending on energy research. That
needs to be ramped up. In the UK we ought to be trying to play
a leading role in this for the benefit of ourselves and of the
rest of the developed and the developing world. I think it is
very important that we should realise that this is a new opportunity;
this is a challenge as great as health but should not be substituted
for health. Of course the other point, as has been said, is that
the non-governmental support of R&D in this country is low
compared to some other countries. We know that is because of the
distribution of activity in our economy, but we are handicapped
by that in meeting our Lisbon targets and in other ways. I think
what we want to do is to ensure that public funding maintains
a strong science base and that we have incentives to encourage
private investment. I would like to say one more thing on that
which is that we will not retain our strength in sciencepure
and appliedunless we get a good flow of young people into
the profession. The concern is that we are at risk of not getting
that and I think nothing would do more than to encourage a flow
of young people into a science than a proclaimed intention to
prioritise these activities.
Q46 Dr Gibson: You say that but they
may be stimulated by the fact that we know where we are going
and what we can do and they can play their altruistic part in
the world as well as being good scientists. We could also say
something about food technology and how important that is too.
Professor Lord Rees: Yes, but
energy as well as
Dr Gibson: We will start going round
and you will say "And, and, and". You have to pick some
things that in the foreseeable future are not going to turn the
recession into the great success.
Q47 Chairman: Or do we?
Professor Lord Rees: We are well
below the Lisbon targets in terms of private R&D. What we
have to do is to incentivise private funding of R&D in physical
based sciences rather than solely in bio-medical. If you look
back to the 1970swhich you and I are old enough to rememberwe
will recall the opportunities lost in the silicon chip industry,
INMOS and all that. That has been of lasting detriment to this
country because we do not have an electronics industry; we have
to learn from that and ensure that we do achieve a substantial
presence in the growing industries available.
Q48 Chairman: Time is really tight
and I want to get to the kernel of this. We could sit here for
the rest of the day and we could all make cases for particular
areas of science and say how important they are. The issue before
us is that there has been a shift in government policy which says
that we are going to look at those areas where Britain is world-class
or second in the world and we are going to put our energies into
those at the expense of something else. As a panel do you feel
that that is the right policy? Where did it come from and how
do we actually then make it work because somebody has to pick
Professor Lord Krebs: The implications
have been made that it comes back to the point that Ian Gibson
raised about who actually runs science and the decisions of the
allocation of funding within the research councils once the budget
has been allocated to the councils is not, as far as I know, the
job of ministers; that is the job of the scientific community
and the members of the council. I would say that it is one thing
to have the rhetoric, it is another thing to have the implementation
of the rhetoric. I do not think there has been a shift in policy
yet; there has been an indication of an intention.
Chairman: Can I just stop you there because
we want to challenge you on that?
Q49 Dr Iddon: I am travelling around
universities, as you are I am sure, and we have had tremendous
shifts in science policy. I call them tectonic shifts. We have
had three new institutes set up for energy, health, TSB for knowledge
transfer; we have had the six big challenges created (climate
change is one of them and ageing is another); we have had the
doctoral training centres set up; we have put 90% into full economic
cost now. It just seems to me that we have had so many big changes
that when I talked to a synthetic organic chemistwhich
is my fieldless than 10% of the responsive mode grants
are being granted and people are getting utterly frustrated at
the universities trying to do blue sky research. There is even
talk of British people who came back from America to here because
the conditions were right here and they were wrong in America
are now thinkingparticularly since President Obama came
inof going back to America because it is so frustrating
at the grass roots now trying to get grants to do basic research.
I do not believe that there have not been significant changes
Professor Lord Krebs: I think
the success rate in responsive mode grants is a real issue of
concern. It is very variable across different areas. I remember
when I was at NERC there were areas within EPSRC where the success
rates where very low back in the 1990s so I do not think that
that is a new phenomenon. I think it is the job of the research
councils to look at the balance of their spending in different
areas to ensure that pressures are not excessive. There should
be pressure; there should be competition. It is right that there
should be very stiff competition to get government funding for
research but if it has reached the point where it is unacceptably
low then research councils should look at that and rebalance it.
That is my view.
Dr Iddon: Can I just ask the question
which the Chairman asked of you? Which organisation has been driving
these tectonic shifts? Was it the Sainsbury Report? Lord Sainsbury
had a tremendous influence before he left office. Who has driven
all these changes in policy because frankly I do not know where
these have come from? Was there enough consultation? All these
changes were made in one year more or less.
Q50 Chairman: The President of the
Royal Society must know the answer to that.
Professor Lord Rees: Let us emphasise
that we are still focussing mainly on the science vote and the
research councils and this is only a proportion of what is being
spent on R&D in the country worldwide. However, I think you
are quite right, there have been these changes which have been
discussed with RCUK et cetera. Perhaps I could mention
something you will know that the Royal Society feels strongly
about from earlier evidence, which is that we feel the DGRC and
DIUS does need some external advisory group to advise on these
important decisions on allocation.
Q51 Dr Harris: The 26th January was
the first time that this new policy was enunciated by Lord Drayson
at this Select Committee. We are less than a month later and the
Government has announced that it is not a question of "if"
or "whether" we go in this direction (I am quoting from
John Denham's speech the other day); we are going to go in this
direction. So within month, without any White Paper or Green Paper
and without any public consultation as far as I can tell, the
Government has decided that this is where they want to go. Whether
they can get there probably depends on whether they are theirs
to go after the election. Do you have any views on the question
of whether a decision like this has been made in an appropriate
Professor Lord Rees: To be fair
to Lord Drayson he did say he wanted to initiate a debate when
he spoke in the House. There has been some interesting debate,
as you know, stimulated by what Lord Drayson said a month ago.
Q52 Dr Harris: Is that a debate about
whether to do this in your opinion or how to do it? I was told
that it was about how to do it and the RCUK head, Ian Diamond,
at the same meeting said, "We are going to do this"
and so did the TSB.
Professor Lord Rees: Obviously
it is very important to have this debate. My personal view, as
I said in my answer to the first question, is that in order to
meet the goals which have been enunciated by Lord Drayson and
John Denham, it would not be necessary nor indeed desirable to
cut back on across the board responsive mode research.
Q53 Dr Harris: If they are not going
to increase the funding in a huge wayI do not think it
is realistic to suggest they willdespite the doubling we
are still not that high up (even with public funding) behind Finland
and France (those are the two Fs that the minister gave in his
talk). We are not going to get this increase so if we are going
to concentrate then it is going to have to come not just from
research councils and not just a shift within responsive mode
funding, but also in the HEFCE vote presumably. He is not going
to say, "You do this, but you carry on your own merry way".
That means that in research council funding some success rates
are going to go from 20% to 40% because they want more volume
there and some will go from 20% to 2%. Presumably HEFCE funding
is going to follow those priorities. How are they otherwise going
to do it other than by doing that?
Professor Lord Rees: I think you
will have to ask to what extent one needs to make changes like
that in order to accept the spirit of what we need to do. I think
also we have to decide the balance between responsive mode and
special programmes within the research councils. We have to decide
how we can incentivise private R&D in the strategic areas.
We need to decide what the strategic areas are because I think
we should question whether the only strategic area is bio-medical.
As I have tried to say, I think we should emphasise the importance
and the opportunity in energy in particular and maybe IT as well.
Q54 Chairman: Professor King, you
are looking puzzled.
Professor King: I am feeling very
puzzled about this because I think there has been a lot of over-interpretation
of what has been said. I am a Technology Strategy Board board
member and we had a long debate about how, in this period of recession,
can we be more focussed in what we are doing to try to support
key technologies, key society problems and key industry development
and we certainly have not been saying we are going to focus on
bio-medical. We almost seem to have turned this into tabloid headlines
about there not being any energy research.
Q55 Dr Harris: I am saying that they
are going to specialiseif I can use that term because it
is more neutralwithin each area so even if they keep overall
spending the same across the physical versus biological, it is
the plan to specialise or concentrate and therefore by definition
to de-concentrate or dilute. Do you agree?
Professor King: I have to say
that when you have a limited pot of money you actually do have
to make some decisions about where you spend it and my expertise
is much more in the engineering and towards the technology transfer
areas, not in the pure science or responsive mode end. I certainly
do feel that we do need to be thinking very hard about how we
Q56 Dr Harris: If the winners are
picked on the basis of where we are good already, then the risk
is that those who have shall be given more and from those who
have little it shall be taken. What about areas where we need
to do more where we have not traditionally done much like renewable
energy technologies? We do not have a great record compared to
Germany or Denmark even. Maybe that is something we should do.
Professor King: My first comment
was that I do not think that what we happen to be good at the
moment is genetic. I do not think it is in our genes that we are
good at the things we are currently good at; it is a history of
investment and encouragement in those areas. The Technology Strategy
Board approach is to say, "Where are the needs and the market
opportunities?" as well as "What are the things we are
good at and those are the things we need to make ourselves good
at?" I think that is very important and part of the point
we are making.
Professor Fisk: One of the things
the UK is good at is getting good value out of its responsive
mode. If you look at some other countries where money is handed
over to universities in a rather unstructured way they actually
get nothing like the imagination and creativity the UK gets out
of its responsive mode. Not being as skilled as my colleagues
on my left in reading between the lines in government statements
I am really not sure whether the responsive mode is swept into
this model of a more directed approach. If it was that would be
a source of real concern because the UK is really good at thinking
ahead on things in that mode. If, on the other hand, it is about
challenging research councils and their themed programmes, as
someone who is actually privately funded I would not be quite
so worried. I am not sure that research council themed programmes
are any better than the sort of picking winners you have had before.
Their characteristic is that they are five years behind where
the real research agenda is. If you want to take an easy one,
you mentioned the grand challenges in the research council processes.
It is interesting that one challenge that was not there was running
the global financial system.
Q57 Mr Cawsey: I am a lay person
on these things and I feel quite confused about all this, if I
am honest. However, it strikes me that what you are saying is
that it is important that we keep lots of eggs in different baskets
because you never know where the next Nobel Prize is going to
hatch. I can understand that. Then you also saidI think
you said it, Professor Reesthat back in the 70s we lost
electronics; we have just lost plastic electronics and I think
you could build a case that the old world, if you like, that seems
to be that status quo that a lot of you want to defend, has been
the cause of that. Money went into that, research was done on
that, technologies were developed all in the UK but they were
not then backed to the extent that they could become bigger and
make a real contribution to the British economy, they might make
a big contribution to the German economy. Do you not think that
that is evidence that what we need to do is, having done the embryonic
research, back it as a winner and ensure that Britain gets the
result of that? There will be some losers inevitably if you take
that sort of approach.
Professor Lord Rees: Absolutely,
but you are talking about the R&D rather than the kind of
research in universities. I would like to reiterate two points.
Firstly, we are lucky to have world-class universities and we
will not keep them unless we can attract faculty across the board
and that requires some responsive mode, but also, being realistic
about the potential shortage of money, there are other ways to
cut overall budgets than by focussing in certain areas. One can
focus in a smaller number of centres; one can raise the threshold
of excellence needed to give a grant. So I would question that
one is forced to make these choices between subjects on strategic
grounds at the level of the more responsive mode grant.
Q58 Chairman: That is a very interesting
response, but none of that debate appears to be going on. For
instance, one of the suggestions is that we could, for instance,
concentrateas Charles Clarke wanted to do -our blue skies
research in a smaller number of world-class research institutions.
That is one way of doing it. Is anybody having that debate?
Professor Lord Rees: We certainly
are in the Royal Society and I think other bodies are too. It
is very important that issues like this are coming up within UUK
with regards to the allocation of the QR funding et cetera. I
think all of these issues are very live indeed. John Denham has
also spoken on this point.
Q59 Chairman: You would support the
idea of concentrating research in fewer institutions.
Professor Lord Rees: I would support
possibly concentrating graduate education in fewer departments
but I think it is excellent news that there is good research in
so many universities.
Chairman: You would make a good politician,