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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 77)

WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2009

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

  Q60  Dr Gibson: It is the PhD students and the post-docs that do all the research. If you want research you cannot do away with graduates.

  Professor Lord Rees: Absolutely not. Can I address this for a moment?

  Q61  Chairman: No, we will leave that there, thank you. John, you wanted to come in on very quickly on this.

  Professor Lord Krebs: I have just one very brief comment on focussing and concentration. It is worth bearing in mind the comparative figures in the UK: there are roughly speaking 150 institutions that call themselves universities, of which about 90% offer graduate programmes. In the United States there are something like 4,000 institutions that call themselves universities of which less than 10% offer graduate programmes. That is just a comparative fact about concentration.

  Q62  Dr Iddon: I believe that the Haldane Principle is dead and that central government is now calling the tune more and more. What does the panel think of the Haldane Principle? Is it dead?

  Professor Lord Rees: I fervently hope not.

  Professor King: I think it needs renewing personally. It is treated with some awe and we should move on and look again at how this should be done. Again, we are talking about research at very much the basic research end. I talk about research to mean things that go right into new products, processes and business models in industry. There are some very different issues across the whole innovation chain; you cannot put it all into one bucket. I think there are areas where we should be focussing and I actually think we should be trying to persuade some of our very best young scientists and engineers to work on some of these big societal problems and problems that could really contribute to the economy. I think we have to make them attractive enough that actually some of those people who might have been applying for responsive mode funding and getting frustrated by it actually see that there are some other opportunities for applying their intellect which might be equally stimulating and the thing that excites me is about seeing what they do actually translated into real products and into the stimulation of our economy and indeed into making the profits that will enable us to invest again with more research in our universities. We have to see the whole process.

  Professor Fisk: It is my impression that the Haldane Principle was dead in the early 1980s. It is a 1918 principle. Apart from Magna Carta I cannot think of any other principle that ancient that clutters around in public life and I think actually its term is positively unhelpful for the end point you want to have. It sounds as if it is Lord John's barons asserting their right to do what they like. In most other countries there is an analogous principle but it is one about the freedom of the academic community in public life to contribute to the quality of public life. It seems like a public interest principle and not a self-interest principle. My own feeling is that we ought to be much clearer on what we think is the value of independent research in a world which is always changing. The political system is solving today's problems but needs engines at the back to try and understand what is really going on so that next week's problems are more soluble.

  Q63  Dr Iddon: This proves the principle that if you ask four academics for a view you get four different views.

  Professor Lord Krebs: I am uncharacteristically almost going to agree with David Fisk, a rare event. There was an interesting piece written by Bill Wakeham about the Haldane Principle in Science in Parliament recently and he draws essentially the point that David makes, that although we all talk about the Haldane Principle it is not exactly clear what we mean by it. If we mean by it that decisions about allocation of funding to individual projects should be made through peer review by scientists for scientists, I do not think that has been eroded. Although you talk about these seismic shifts and tectonic plates and various other geological metaphors, I do not think what we are seeing today is really that new in comparison with what we have seen over the last 15 or 20 years. There have been many occasions when science ministers have stood up and said, "We have to focus on national priorities". To me it is all a matter of balance. Of course we have to justify spending public money on scientific research in terms of some broader benefits to society but those benefits can be many and varied, including tapping into the global knowledge base by having our own expertise, but as long as there is a core of funding that is for scientists to judge what are the most innovative, creative projects that are being offered at the moment and to fund those, I think the Haldane Principle is not dead as I interpret it.

  Q64  Dr Harris: On the question of strategic priorities, some of you have raised concerns about the impact of switching money from one stream of research to concentrate it in another, but it looks like the decision that they want to do that has been made. Professor Rees, are you expecting the Royal Society to be consulted on how to do it? You have given a view that the way they are proposing is not the only way to do it and which to switch into. Are you expecting to be asked for your advice or are you expecting to be asked your advice and then the Technology Strategy Board will give the answer? Or do you think you will not be asked and it will just be for the research councils to argue amongst themselves?

  Professor Lord Rees: We shall offer our advice whether asked or not, but I think we will be asked. I hope we will be asked. We will offer advice because the Royal Society is plugged in in a unique way to expertise in all fields in the UK and I think our view is important.

  Q65  Chairman: Lord Rees, could I just broaden that question? There is a whole host of different organisations which offer advice to government from, obviously, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy and the other learned societies (Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Physics et cetera). Is there a better way of actually getting that advice in a more formalised way to government? Should we, for instance, follow the route of the American academies where in fact the Royal Society and other organisations are actually commissioned to provide advice? After all, you have at your disposal a fairly strong body of eminent scientists.

  Professor Lord Rees: I think it is difficult for government to get a whole lot of conflicting voices which they have to calibrate and this was, for example, a particular problem in science education. What the Royal Society did in that context was to set up a consortium called "score" involving other learned societies, chaired by Sir Alan Wilson, to speak with one voice. We believe that that is an effective way in which we can coordinate views and also have a more effective and helpful input into the Government on that particular issue. I think there are other examples where the Royal Society, because of its unique range, can help and obviously it has to work as appropriate with other academies and other learned societies. As regards to the contrast with the United States, as you know, the United States has three academies and they have NRC with is a large institution with 1200 employees, I believe, that churns out reports at the request of government. We, at the Royal Society, are smaller and we are more independent, but we have a tradition, we believe, of providing very high quality advice. I mentioned over the last few years infectious disease in livestock, nano-science and nano-technologies, (a report that was widely praised nationally and internationally) on ocean acidifaction, bio-fuels and also on educational issues. These are reports we do by being able to draw pro bono from our expertise.

  Q66  Chairman: My point is, should you be commissioned to do this? Should there be a formal mechanism by which government actually commissions you and pays you to actually offer that advice?

  Professor Lord Rees: The nano-science one was indeed done at the request of government and we would welcome further commissions of that kind, although we accept we cannot perform quite the same role as the Foresight studies. At the moment there is a Royal Society study on biological enhancement of food crops production chaired by David Baulcombe, one of our distinguished fellows and a Lasker prize winner, and they are doing a comprehensive job in liaison with a Foresight study on a related topic which is being done under John Beddington's direction in the Government. So I think there can be complementarity.

  Dr Gibson: Just for the record, there were two nano-technology reports which came out at the same time; it was a deal done between the Royal Society and this Committee who decided they would not stand on each other's toes and they complemented each other quite well. That was an example of working together. The best example I know of is in the cancer field which was again promoted by this Committee some time ago when we formed the National Cancer Research Institute, not a red brick building which I wanted in south London but one which was a virtual one. I think it has been an outstanding success in which all the different charities meet and decide on the policy that is going to be carried out in cancer. They know they cannot take head and neck at the same level as prostate and so on but they meet together and formulate national policies. Are we going to have something like that?

  Q67  Chairman: You can bring that round to the central thrust in terms of what the Government is trying to do in terms of choosing these areas where we are world class to actually follow.

  Professor Lord Rees: I think the Royal Society has a unique role to help provide independent advice by drawing on expertise. It must do this in coordination with government and, quite apart from the major studies I have mentioned, we have contributed to issues of plutonium, bird flu et cetera.

  Q68  Dr Gibson: What about the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Biology that is about to be formed? Will you be formulating a group with them?

  Professor Lord Rees: The Educational Consortium does involve them of course.

  Q69  Dr Gibson: Make it political, you mean? That is what we are saying. You really have to tell the Government or they will tell you.

  Professor Lord Rees: Absolutely, and we will offer advice even if it is not requested of us. I think we must remember that President Obama, when he introduced his dream team of science advisors, said that the Government should listen to scientific advice "even when it is inconvenient, indeed especially when it is inconvenient".

  Professor Fisk: Chairman, my slight concern would be that Americans are much sharper about the structure of the public sector so they would be much clearer whether the National Academy of Sciences reported to Congress or to the Administration. They would be much clearer in their own minds whether or not both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering depend on quite large streams of funding from Government which go through swing door processes but broadly speaking they are not quite as independent as you might have expected if they are only being funded by the membership. Then of course they do have the problem that although they have a brand title which is, as it were, the whole distinguished membership, it is very unusual for any of these reports and processes to be processed through the membership. It will be processed through a small number of members, very distinguished in their sphere, who have just few part time days that they can contribute to the report. That is really quite different from some of the very big national Academy of Science studies that the world often talks about. If we were to move into this process of independent advice—personally I find myself warming to it—I think the Committee might want to pay some attention to the mechanics to make sure that those who are giving advice do feel that they are in a position to do so. Otherwise you will simply have retypes by the policy divisions inside these various institutions that is not moving very far from what you would have received from the Civil service.

  Q70  Dr Harris: I want to probe this issue of independent scientific advice and to what extent the panel feel that the Government is an intelligent customer, a mature customer or even a rational customer. Let us say there is a controversial area of policy—food supply—and Professor Krebs, who is an academic active in the field, is asked to advise the Government because he is an academic active in the field of publishers. Let us say that he is head of Food Standards or something and, incidentally to that, he publishes an article in a peer review journal that comes to the view that GM is a good thing. The Government does not happen to agree with this and they demand that he retract and apologise for that view because it is not what they want to hear. Professor Rees, if he was a member of the Royal Society would you feel that that was an acceptable behaviour by the Government or would you see that there were drawbacks to that sort of activity?

  Professor Lord Rees: I think it is crucially important that advisors should be independent. They should be listened to seriously, even if their advice goes against the preconceptions of the government department concerned.

  Q71  Dr Harris: Do you think, Professor Krebs, if that had happened to you or to someone, someone might feel constrained in what advice they then gave independently to the Government because they feel they might be hectored, bullied and asked to apologise for their scientific publications if it did not match what the Government wanted to hear?

  Professor Lord Krebs: First of all I think it is quite wrong that the Government should criticise independent scientific advisors for publishing scientific work in the peer review literature. There is absolutely no doubt about that. They are free and able to do that and should be autonomous. Whether they feel intimidated by pressure from ministers, if they are put under pressure then they should not give in to that, they should stick by their independence. I cannot judge what would happen to individuals; I certainly would not be intimidated by it.

  Q72  Dr Harris: Professor Nutt did apologise which suggests he did either feel intimidated or felt he had something to apologise for. I am asking you whether you feel that any advice that now emanates from that source might be perceived—whether or not it is—as being somewhat constrained by fear that there might be another public attack on the messenger.

  Professor Lord Krebs: It is very hard to judge what the perception will be, but I would simply reiterate that independent advisory committees are there to offer independent advice and that is what they should do. As I understand it—you are referring now to Professor Nutt's publication—that was not in his capacity as chair of the Advisory Committee, that was as an independent scientist. So it is one thing for him to be attacked for his independent scientific work (which he should not be) but it is a separate issue as to how that affects the working of the Advisory Committee. I would emphasise the independence.

  Q73  Chairman: I do not really want to follow this line further as we only have five minutes left of this session. When Lord Drayson was before you and my colleague Evan Harris asked him what was the methodology for agreeing on the areas of priority, he mentioned whether peer review would be the way to do it and Lord Drayson thought peer review was. Do any of you have a view as to how the Government should go about choosing the areas where we should really put our priorities? What would you do?

  Professor Lord Rees: I welcome the fact that he asked for wide debate and I think it is very important that there should be wide inputs which bodies like the Royal Society could coordinate. I would like to make one other point since I, like others, am a university professor. We all welcome the report from the CST which says that more could be done to engage the academic community with policy making and obviously academies and learned societies can do this. My own university is setting up a science and public policy centre to provide a clearing house, as it were, whereby academics can engage with policy makers. I think that is a good model because we want to draw more of the best scientific experts into the policy process. Some are already savvy about these matters but many are not and universities could help them.

  Professor Fisk: The words "peer review" are getting very close to the Haldane Principle in my terms. What I have noticed, working with industry, is that they have almost added an extra qualifier and use the words "peer assist" which is essentially the critiques of your peers but in a constructive fashion. We have drifted slightly in the UK British science community into peer review being largely negative and destructive. If ministers and government departments want to engage with the scientific community they do need some way of feeling they have an added value of constructive criticism and over recent years that has been quite hard to illicit.

  Q74  Dr Harris: Professor King, let us say that the Government wants to invest in those areas of physical and bio-medical where there is an existing track record and/or potential for economic benefit. Throughout everything they have said it looks as if it could almost have been written by Lord Mandelson. Who should make that decision? They say they want you guys to decide; do you think the Technology Strategy Board is best placed to answer that question or university academics?

  Professor King: I think it depends where you are in the innovation chain, if you like. I would agree with Lord Rees that there is an area of basic research which has to be really high quality research which the Government and industry should not fiddle with. I disagree with a lot of the debate how the funding divides but that should be there and it is very precious. It is for the ideas that you do not what good they may be in the future but they are fascinating and interesting and we should encourage some of our scientists to be doing exactly that kind of thing. Who should decide on how you take the decision? It depends on where you are in the innovation chain and how close you are to exploitation and to having this impact on the economy. If you are a company and make particular types of product you make very, very clear decisions on what sort of R&D you want and what you are going to fund in universities. There is not one size fits all; it is a complex process.

  Q75  Dr Harris: I know about this cross-cut cutting stuff but there is a stream of astronomy based research and applied, aerospace basic research physics and applied, medical categories basic and applied and my understanding is that the Government is not going to de-fund basic and put it all into applied. It wants to expand the basic and applied streams in some areas where there is either strength or potential and reduce it in others where there is found not to be strength and potential for economic growth. I am accepting that it is not an attack on basic science in those areas; I am asking who should made the decision if it is going to be made by peer review—as Lord Drayson feels it could, international peer review maybe—whose advice should they take? People like you and your board who think about economic applications or the basic scientists?

  Professor King: I am saying that it depends on where you are in the innovation chain. The basic scientists are the best people to look at the quality of basic science and the opportunity there but as we are getting closer to application and to actually using that research I think it is very important that organisations like the Technology Strategy Board, consulting with industry (the Board has a major programme engaging with industry), are looking at, for example, what is the important basic research? I would not call it basic research if we know it is for aerospace because it is already applied by the time we know what it is for. I do think that our industry in that area should be helping to advise and prioritise that research.

  Q76  Graham Stringer: Professor King, we have heard that the Finnish Government did very well in helping the development of Nokia—as mentioned earlier on—and there are examples of government involvement and direction of science in war where there are clearly benefits. What is the best example in the recent history of the UK where the British Government has decided to take a similar sort of initiative by saying that investment in this part of science will help the economy? What is the best example of where that has been successful in the UK in the last 20 or 30 years?

  Professor King: I have no feel for the whole scope of what the Government might have done but we have some outstanding examples like the airbus wing technology which was funded by the old DTI programme. We have some outstanding examples of technology in Rolls Royce large engines. Rolls Royce moved over quite a short period of time from being a minnow in the aero engine market to competing for top place in the engines for large aircraft. It was then supported by funding of innovative programmes through the DTI. So there have been some really outstanding examples. The ones I know from my background happen to be in aerospace but I am sure there are others in other areas.

  Q77  Chairman: Lord Krebs, you have the last word.

  Professor Lord Krebs: In answer to the question of who should decide, is it the scientists or is the people who are applying the science, I think it has to be a mixture of both. It is partly about the new ideas coming forward and partly about how they can be applied.

  Chairman: On that note could we thank very much indeed Professor Lord John Krebs, Professor Lord Martin Rees, Professor David Fisk and Professor Julia King. Thank you very much indeed for coming to us this morning.





 
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