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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  Q80  Chairman: You are hedging your bets now. Professor Finch, do you feel that the Government is an intelligent customer?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Obviously as Co-chair of the CST I approach this from a slightly different angle from the CBI. I think I can do no better than make reference to the report that Lord Rees mentioned in your previous session which is the Council's most recent report entitled How Can Academia and Government Work Together? It is a report which was actually commissioned by the Secretary of State, John Denham, and has been published as part of a series of reviews of higher education. Yesterday evening we had a specific launch of this report in which we are analysing what the impediments are to greater and closer involvement of academics, not only giving advice but also supporting policy making within government, and how those impediments can be overcome. I am very pleased to say that the Secretary of State spoke at that event and announced that he has commissioned an individual to produce an action plan based on our recommendations. Certainly there is more that can be done both at the university end and within government to encourage more extensive, effective and closer working relationships between academics and policy makers.

  Q81  Chairman: In terms of the current policy shift—whether it is huge or minor depends on your viewpoint—was the CST involved in those changes?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: The CST meets next week and we will be considering the recommendations as we understand them that are coming from both the Secretary of State and Lord Drayson, so formally we have not formulated our advice to government yet. We expect to be doing that and we will do it next week. I can draw on a number of things we have done to date.

  Q82  Chairman: Can I just stop you there because I think the point of my question was, if the Government has already made a decision and is then consulting you that is very different to you being part of that formulation of policy.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I was sitting in the last session and I think my understanding mirrors that of one or two of your other witnesses that government has initiated this debate, has indicated that there are some principles that it feels it needs to follow, but is still inviting inputs to that debate. That is what CST expects to make.

  Q83  Chairman: It is not a debate, is it, when the chief executive of RCUK says that they are enthusiastically supporting this initiative?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I have not read what Ian Diamond said so I cannot comment on that. I think the principle of prioritising government investment in research is well established so I do not know whether he meant anything more than that. I really cannot comment.

  Q84  Chairman: Baroness O'Neill, Tim Bradshaw made an interesting comment about the need for greater social science within government policy. Do you think that there is a tendency in this particular debate about looking at where we channel our efforts in terms of getting the greatest economic benefit from our science and engineering base to ignore the social science base?

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Yes, I think there is.

  Q85  Chairman: What should we do about it?

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I do have some ideas but first of all I think it matters to try to see exactly where social science and humanities research add economic value. I take it for granted it is part of the background that they add value of many other sorts (cultural value, public value and so on), but I think they add three sorts of economic value. One is that where one achieves research in these areas it has very considerable indirect economic impact. It is hard to measure but we all know, for example, that sophisticated workers in a knowledge based economy will wish to go to those countries where there are these other things available. The second is that they are the prime source of economic value for what we might call the cultural industries and sector. We think immediately of publishing, of international research students, of the BBC and tourism and heritage which are very major employers in this country. Again it is very hard to put your finger on the proportion of their employees that is research driven as it is very hard in engineering too to know what proportion of the value produced and the employment produced lies in the quality of the research. However, it is definitely a major source of value and employment. Thirdly—I think this speaks very much to what Tim Bradshaw mentioned—humanities and social science research is a crucial adjunct for the intelligent innovation in all research, including all stem research. I say a crucial adjunct because we all know that we want effective rather then ineffective legislation but we do not even know in this Parliament when we have produced ineffective legislation as this Committee will be aware. We want to know which management structures and which ways of working are effective. For example, research done at Aston on team working tells you crucial things about what works and what does not work. We want to know about the ethical, legal and social implications of innovation and then of course we want to know about the public engagement matters. I put that last because it is mentioned most and it completely underplays what humanities and social science research can contribute.

  Q86  Chairman: I was surprised that when Lord Drayson made his initial remarks supported by Lord Mandelson—or perhaps it was Lord Drayson who was supporting Lord Mandelson—and now it appears to have become hard line policy from DIUS, you did not make any adverse comments. Clearly the assumption is that if additional resources are going to be put into key areas of science they are going to be taken away from arts and humanities.

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: That is a simple assumption and I take it that you are correct, that there is no expanding cake in these times. We suffer all the time across the whole diverse research community from the fact that money that goes here does not go there, so you do not actually know in an absolutely clear way. My own view is that step one to clarity is that when we talk about science we need to remember that there is a distinction between science in the broad sense f(or which DIUS is responsible through a number of delivery organisations) and science in the sense of stem research. It looks as though—but we have to say so far it is a matter of speeches—stem research is being favoured and within stem biological sciences looking to our glorious past and present, so to speak. Whether that is the reality I do not know, but if you want to have successful innovation you actually need to keep the other streams going. I would want to generalise what Lord Rees said when he pointed out that you are not going to do the medical and biological research well if you try to shrink physics or chemistry; I would say that you are not going to do the stem research and stem innovation well if you try to shrink or do without the other sorts of research.

  Q87  Chairman: I find this a most bizarre world that we live in. We are going to have greater concentration, we are going to have more resources put into it, but nobody loses. It cannot be that way.

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: It cannot, that is correct.

  Q88  Mr Cawsey: Dr Bradshaw, I understand that you said previously that the US Defence Research Projects Agency has a good model for building scientific and engineering capacity. I am interest in what sort of lessons you think we can learn for the UK patent. Is it the sort of model we should be trying to instigate and roll out in this country?

  Dr Bradshaw: I think the Technology Strategy Board is developing in that direction which is what we wanted to see. It is mission driven, but perhaps not as mission-driven as DRPA is. DRPA has a very clear role, it is to look for radical innovation in the defence technology area to avoid the US being surprised and then to surprise its adversaries. If we adopted that same sort of ethos in some of the other big challenge areas in the UK—defence, energy, health or any number of other areas—then I think we could lead the field on some of these things. Their mission is very clear: innovation, challenge-led, get out there and do it, cut the red tape. I think if we had a little bit more ambition from some of our government departments and delivery agencies to actually think some of the unthinkable things, get rid of some of the on-going existing projects which are not going to deliver and actually think something a little bit more radically, then yes, we could deliver too. Do we have that ambition? I would say perhaps not at the moment.

  Q89  Mr Cawsey: Do you think that is perhaps because we are trying to create something like it but perhaps it is still a bit embryonic, still a bit lacking in ambition and still trying to find its feet really?

  Dr Bradshaw: The Technology Strategy Board is getting there and I think the main problem with them is that they just do not have the funding to take forward the programmes of work that they know they should do. If you look at things like the aerospace technology strategy that has been set out for them very well, I think they are only funding about a third of it. That is one area where there is a fantastic strategy already written up, business knows what it wants to develop, the academic researchers know what they want to develop and we are just not being able to put enough funding concentration into that to deliver it.

  Q90  Mr Cawsey: I suppose in the end that comes down to decisions right at the top of government and this is more general to everybody, not just to yourself. We have been told at previous discussions we have had that Tony Blair was very keen on the science community and had them in for regular discussions so that he was happy with what was going on, but perhaps less so with Gordon Brown. That may just be that Tony Blair was particularly interested rather than any criticism of the current prime minister, but whether it is him or his strategy unit, do the scientific community have the ear of government right at the very top so that there is the drive and ambition to push these things forward? I am really interested in a general comment from any of you about how you are finding contact with government.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: The Council for Science and Technology met the prime minister just before Christmas.

  Q91  Chairman: For the first time.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes, for the first time under the present prime minister. I think that we found a very ready ear for the issues that we put before him on that occasion. I am also aware that if government is to be influenced at the highest level it is also important that the Policy Unit and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and so on are focussed on these issues and again CST has had recent and regular contact with those groups. I think our feeling is that this Government is taking science very seriously. That is partly reflected in the past history of investment in science and all our recent contact suggests that the Government is extremely serious from the prime minister downwards about the importance of science in helping us out of the recession. There may be debates about the ways of doing that, but I do not think that we would have any doubt about the seriousness of it.

  Q92  Mr Cawsey: Do you think it took the recession to get that interest?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: No, I think the commitment to science and funding science has been there for a long time.

  Q93  Chairman: Judy, do you see a lot of the prime minister?

  Ms Britton: Not personally, I have to say. The Government Office for Science has very, very strong connections with the Strategy Unit through Foresight projects and through our more general work. We meet very regularly with them about what they are doing and what we are doing and how those two can influence one another. I think how science fits more generally into policy making is very much there on the agenda through the various key themes that the prime minister has set out and so on and does take very strongly how they actually do that.

  Q94  Mr Cawsey: It is important that it happens across government departments. How do you ensure that that happens and what is your experience of that?

  Ms Britton: We do that through the community of chief scientific advisors which I think is getting stronger and more effective all the time. A particular initiative of John Beddington has been to gather the key ones together into a core group working and challenging sometimes (on things like the Gallagher Review of bio-fuels and peer review of elements of government policy) just gathering together, talking on key areas (like climate change, food, counter terrorism) and making sure that everybody is joined up together and bringing together work to feed into the policy of their departments. I think that is working very well. Mentioning the research councils and their themes, another initiative that John is just trying at the moment is really to take some of those themes and say, "Yes, the research councils are working on them but we need to be working on them as well. How can we actually get together in these areas to take them forward more strongly?" The research councils, for instance, are working on environmental change where they have gone beyond the research councils to gather people together and the Government wants to be much more strongly linked into that. That is one area. Another area that is he is wanting to look at is global security. You will remember that John has very strong views on all these different global challenges on climate change, on food, on water, on population and migration and so on and how we can actually work on those together. So another area he wants to work with research councils on is global security. Finally, he is actually looking at one with the research councils rather than the TSB, looking at what the research councils know about things like high tech manufacturing and also at the way the economy develops and so on. That is a slightly different area that he wants to get into, being an economist by background as well as a scientist.

  Q95  Mr Cawsey: Everybody thinks that government departments would be well advised to take notice of science in all that they do, but one of the problems is that the number of scientists that go into the Civil Service is not as high as perhaps they have been previously. It seems to me important that we have some way of ensuring that civil servants have a better understanding of science and have a better understanding of how to make use of it. How are we making progress in engaging the Civil Service so that science becomes a more core activity?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I have already mentioned CST's report on how academia and government can work together. One of the recommendations that we make is about building capacity within the Civil Service as well as capacity within the academic community to engage more effectively with each other and a particular part of that recommendation is the significant extension of secondment schemes in both directions and at all career levels. There are some good examples at the moment. The ESRC has run a placement scheme for academics to work on short term secondments—six months or 12 months—in government to do particular projects. We would like to see a considerable extension of that scheme across all the disciplines and also a number of other ways in which the career progression of both civil servants and academics can be more tied directly to effective engagement with each other. There are quite a number of measures that can be taken, we believe, that will encourage cultural change both in the Civil Service and in academia to make this a much more routine part of both sets of people's lives.

  Q96  Dr Harris: Professor Finch, you and the CST are independent of government, are you not?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: We are part of government but we are an independent voice.

  Q97  Dr Harris: So you are speaking to us now independently.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Absolutely, yes.

  Q98  Dr Harris: You do not have to look over your shoulder.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: No.

  Q99  Dr Harris: How often has the CST met Gordon Brown?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Once.

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