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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  Q100  Dr Harris: In your evidence you say that you most recently met Prime Minister Gordon Brown in December 2008.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: That was the first time we met him.

  Q101  Dr Harris: That was not only the most recent, it was the only time.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: That is true, yes.

  Q102  Dr Harris: I am not sure that that is entirely clear from reading that; it looks as if it was the most recent of several.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: We met the previous prime minister before that.

  Q103  Dr Harris: I got the impression from one of your earlier answers that you do not think that what we were discussing with the first panel—the Drayson initiative—is a significant change of policy. We think that the Government has announced a change in policy and is having a debate about how to influence it. Do you agree that this is a relatively recent change in policy; this is the idea of picking strategic areas to publicly fund.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: There has been a speech by Lord Drayson and another one by John Denham and we are very interested in exploring the consequences of those. There has not been, as I think somebody did say in the previous session, a set of formal policy announcements about how this is going to happen so I think we see this as something that is a discussion which is continuing and to which we would wish to contribute.

  Q104  Dr Harris: I find it curious that there has not been a Green Paper or a White Paper when I think they are quite clear that this is what they are going to do. I am surprised that they have announced this proposed change of direction without the CST having been asked for its opinion in advance. You say you are going to discuss it this week but clearly you have not been in a position to offer any advice on this proposal before now.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I think that your interpretation that there has been a definite change is obviously slightly different from my understanding.

  Q105  Dr Harris: We agree there were speeches that attracted interest around policy direction.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes.

  Q106  Dr Harris: Did you know they were going to be made?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Ministers do not advise me when they are about to make speeches, no.

  Q107  Dr Harris: The point I am getting at is that you said in your evidence that you have an extremely close and productive relationship with DIUS ministers, in particular John Denham and Lord Drayson, yet I think they would say—at least Lord Drayson said—that this is a really significant announcement he is making and he came here to do it publicly. John Denham got a whole group of senior people together last week to make a speech around that issue too. Are they going to come and talk to you about this?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I am sure they are, absolutely. I do not think I can add much more to what I have already said about CST's role and the timing of this.

  Q108  Dr Harris: Do you accept that it could be interpreted that you have been sidelined in a sense because you could be asked—do you expect to be asked?—to help advise, if they go down this path, what the strategic areas are.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes, and in fact we have already been asked for advice on analogous topics already if you wish me to comment on them.

  Q109  Dr Harris: I know you issued a report to Alistair Darling on strategic decision making and technology policy that highlighted six key technologies, including plastic electronics.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Indeed.

  Q110  Dr Harris: I understand plastic electronics has not gone so well.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I think there are still opportunities in plastic electronics. I understand this Committee has already undertaken a study of that to which one of the CST members actually gave evidence to you. The outcome that particular strategic decision making study was also to produce a methodology that can be used in other circumstances. We were invited by Alistair Darling when he was Secretary of State at the DTI to advise him on how to prioritise technologies which could come to market within five years. That was the particular examination question that he put to us. In the process of doing that we produced a methodology that can be used to answer a slightly different question in terms of prioritisation and that is a methodology which we would definitely advocate government to use in other circumstances.

  Q111  Dr Harris: We do not have time to go into this now, but would you be willing to drop us a note to let us know how you think that earlier report has been implemented.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes, certainly.

  Q112  Dr Harris: I want to move onto evidence based policy making. We have issued a report previously on evidence based policy making and we pointed out that policy is not dependent on evidence; sometimes you have manifesto commitments, you have ideology and economics which trump those and that is legitimate, this is a political place. However, one thing we were very clear on is that when a policy was described as evidence based it ought to be evidence based; you should not ignore the evidence. You should not do it for these other legitimate reasons and then still call it evidence based because that undermines the vocabulary. Do you agree that that is a reasonable recommendation, suggestion and guideline for the Government to follow in policy areas?

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Yes it is reasonable and a lot lies behind that. I noted that the CST report that was launched last night reminds us that government put £2.8 billion directly into hiring consultants, including consultants who provide research.. That is a huge amount of research spend and I think it is a very legitimate question for all of us whether it is best spent getting the right evidence at the right time. We know that the relationship between academia and the Government is not entirely happy and this report has made many useful suggestions on how to improve it, as has the earlier report by Sir Alan Wilson which the British Academy produced. However, in the end a lot of what we have to look at is what are the incentives. I think the CST report addresses the question of the incentives for academics, where policy engagement does not bring peer review kudos, but we need also to look at the incentives for policy makers and civil servants. There are a lot of ways in which the commissioning of government funded research could be made more rigorous. I am not sure this is the context for approved lists of suppliers; I am not sure that it should not be a requirement to say that this was or this was not peer reviewed; and to spend some of the money on seeing whether the policies that then were implemented—both the regulation and the legislation—were effective, ineffective or counter-productive. Social science research can do a lot there, but government needs also to have the incentives to want to have evidence based policy.

  Q113  Dr Harris: I am at a slight disadvantage because I have not seen this report and I do not think we were invited to the launch last night.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I do apologise for that; that was an omission that has been pointed out to me.

  Q114  Dr Harris: Coming back to my question, do you agree with our recommendation about the importance of keeping the vocabulary honest about what is evidence based policy?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Certainly. We would absolutely recognise that government, as you say, has a number of different considerations where policy is being made, but if it wishes to base that policy on evidence then it should be robust evidence.

  Q115  Dr Harris: Advisory committees are best constituted if they include social science as well.

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes.

  Q116  Dr Harris: I just want to take one government department at random, the Home Office, and the way they treat scientific advice. In respect of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which contains social scientists, hard scientists and clinicians and indeed police representatives, they gave very clear advice twice about the classification of cannabis and the Government rejected that advice, as governments are entitled to do. However, the Government, when rejecting it, did not say that they were doing it for other reasons; they said that the Advisory Committee had essentially got the evidence wrong and had not looked at key things that the Government had looked at. Given that the Government appoints the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs do you have any comment on whether it is likely to be true that the Advisory Council just did its job badly and looked at the wrong evidence or appraised the evidence wrongly, or would you say that might be an example of where the Government has a non-evidence based decision that it wants to disguise as an evidence based decision?

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: I do not know. I have not studied the detail of that. It is always possible that advisors to government do not consider the full range of evidence. We have to accept that that can happen which is why I emphasised in my last answer to you that all evidence must be very robustly based. One would hope that scientific advice always is, but you have to accept the possibility that it sometimes is not.

  Q117  Chairman: Baroness O'Neill?

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I do not know the particularities of the case but it seems to me that clarity is achieved by making the advice available on a routine basis unless there are particular reasons of commercial confidentiality or security why the advice cannot be made available; and it is indeed open to government to say, "In this case there were other considerations which led us not to accept the advice". If it is advice you can refuse it, but I think it muddies the waters if people mix up their decision with what the advice did not say.

  Q118  Dr Iddon: In 2006 the House of Commons Science and Technology sub-Committee recommended that government should make more use of the tremendous expertise that lies with the learned societies, academies and professional organisations in general. Has there been any progress following that advice we gave in 2006 that you can detect?

  Ms Britton: There has been increasing engagement on this. Certainly now we have a lot of engagement with the Royal Society. Lord Rees mentioned the work they are doing on crop productivity which is feeding into Food and Farming Futures Foresight project. They are also, for instance, together with other learned societies looking at synthetic biology. The Royal Academy of Engineering is also looking at the definition of synthetic biology; how can we get hold of this thing so we can look at it to see how we can look forward and anticipate, as with nanotechnologies, what the Government needs to do to encourage the right things and proceed to regulate where there might be unnecessary risk. They are getting together with us to look at those kinds of areas. I think the GSRU—the Government's Social Research Unit—has been engaging with the British Academy and other learned societies on the humanities and social research side to see how better they can engage together. I think there is quite a lot of this going on and also with smaller learned societies as well. The Health and Safety Executive have people like the British Toxicology Society and the British Psychological Society and so on to actually try to draw out of them things that can help; the Ergonomics Society and so on. I would also say that now that we have rather more of these CSAs and most of them come from learned societies where they have generally been very active at the top of them so that is another route in, and also a networking route out to actually engage with the societies' members further.

  Q119  Dr Iddon: I have a few questions on the way the Government consults organisations. Baroness O'Neill, the British Academy is concerned that the Government's public consultations are not always carried out to the highest social science standards. How can we improve the process?

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I think it is quite difficult for government to improve it, but there are, nevertheless, questions and they begin with a matter of timely working, of a degree of anticipation of when you may need evidence from a particular area and then, as it were, the first order inquiry is to find the people from whom you are going to get advice as to which bodies or which particular researchers might have useful input. You and I know that sometimes these consultations are ridiculously rushed and poorly constructed, but it is possible to do better and I think that one of the ways we can help it happen is to do more to knit together the policy making community and academic community with quite focussed meetings. For example, on Monday the British Academy has a forum where we are getting academics who work on different conceptions of democracy that have been important in Britain with policy makers, to go through how they wax and wain and what influence they have or might have. That would be one example. We are doing one on international relations and conflict later on. I believe we need on-going relations between government departments and relevant researchers so that when somebody finds a problem looming they know roughly where to begin; not to get the advice but to find the people who can give advice on where there is good evidence, where there is not good evidence and, above all—and I take this to be very important—where the desire for evidence for a certain type cannot be satisfied, it is not feasible to get the evidence.

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