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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2009

PROFESSOR DAVID FISK, PROFESSOR LORD JOHN KREBS, PROFESSOR JULIA KING AND PROFESSOR LORD MARTIN REES

  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 themes—indeed, when I was chief executive of NERC we did have certain key themes broadly defined and the research councils have that mechanism today—but 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 outstanding centre.

  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 contend—I do not know if this is a consensus with my colleagues—that 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 day—we will probably get onto that later on—and 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 health—obesity, all the genome stuff that is coming out, a huge explosion of new drugs—you 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 important—I think Professor King was emphasising this—is 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 science—pure and applied—unless 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 1970s—which you and I are old enough to remember—we 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 those areas?

  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 chemist—which is my field—less 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 thinking—particularly since President Obama came in—of 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 in policy.

  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 way?

  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 way—I do not think it is realistic to suggest they will—despite 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 specialise—if I can use that term because it is more neutral—within 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 focus there.

  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 said—I think you said it, Professor Rees—that 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, concentrate—as 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, Lord Rees!


 
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