Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 25 FEBRUARY 2009
Q120 Dr Iddon: Can I ask Judy Britton
also how you feel we can improve the way that government consults?
Ms Britton: I think the word "consultation"
can cover a multitude of different things. Consultation is often
very open and asking anyone who has viewsnot necessarily
evidence, but viewsin a particular area and reasons for
having those views "please come forward and say that".
So you do get a vast conglomerate of stuff, as it were, which
covers politics as well as evidence, if you like. They are very
broad. If you are trying to do a focussed study you do have to
target people a lot more. If you are doing something like a Foresight
project you will very much target but go for a very wide field
of expertiseglobally as well as nationallybut actually
get people to write papers and so, not just ask for their views.
It is very clear, it is stronger than a literature search but
is really looking to find all the expertise that there is there
and then coming to a conclusion on the way forward. I suppose
what I am saying is that there are different extremes in consultation
and I think the Government could focus sometimes and think what
kind of consultation are we going for here rather than asking
for different kinds of things in the same basket.
Q121 Chairman: Coming back to that,
the Institute of Physics said to us in a previous session that
GO-Science needed to develop a clearer strategy and focus and
that in fact it needed to be much more proactive in shaping debate
across to Whitehall. Indeed, I understand that the CBI has been
particularly critical of GO-Science. Do you think that that is
a fair criticism? Should you be more proactive? Should you be
Ms Britton: I think we should
certainly be pro-active in key areas where we can add value. This
is one reason why John Beddington has set up this enhanced global
Q122 Chairman: We do not hear anything
Ms Britton: A lot of the work
that GO-Science does is within government. We do not necessarily
preach from the rooftops; we have a lot of committees that we
coordinate, sit on and so on where we feed advice in at the official
level as well as John working with permanent secretaries, sitting
on EDSI and various other cabinet committees. These are not things
that appear in the public eye and I think one would not necessarily
expect them to at all but we are very proactive.
Q123 Chairman: It sounds like the
Ms Britton: Why? We are civil
servants working within the Civil Service.
Dr Bradshaw: We have very good
relations with Professor Beddington; he came to one of our committee
meetings last year and we had a very good debate with members
there about some of the big challenges facing the planet, the
economy, the environment, health and whatever in the future which
we found very interesting. One of the challenges we have had recently
was with the horizon scanning part of GO-Science mainly because
they seem to have been quite constrained in terms of the modelling
that they were doing, whereas business might think, looking at
some of the real shocks in terms of changes to the oil price and
things like, it was apparent that some of the modelling they were
doing was rather more constrained because that is what government
ministers would expect and they did not like the idea of looking
at really extreme examples of what might happen. Broadly we have
not been critical of GO-Science.
Chairman: You have been able to put the
Q124 Dr Iddon: I have been rather
critical of the way government carries out consultations myself
and so annoyed by the way it does it. For instance, launching
consultations just before Christmas or just before Easter when
there is a three month response time. A number of organisations
have written to me and said that this is wrong, they just do not
have time to get their act together. On another front, do you
think that government consultations are meaningful? Are they box-ticking
exercises with pre-determined outcomes? Or are they genuine consultations
in which government is prepared to listen to the responses?
Dr Bradshaw: I think it is mixed.
There are bound to be some that are box ticking exercises but
there are definitely some where there is a real willingness to
engage and listen. I think Lord Sainsbury's review was a very
good example of government willing to listen and engage properly
with organisations like the CBI, the Technology Strategy Board
and other representative bodies, whereas there are some others
where you might find that the CBI, for example, is counted as
one despite the fact that we are representing a large proportion
of industry and then we might only have the same weight as one
learned society or one university. So you end up with a list of
people who have responded to the consultation which is 97 universities
and 50 professional societies in the CBI. So our voice in that
might not actually be given what we think it should be. It is
mixed; they are not all bad, they are not all brilliant.
Q125 Dr Iddon: What is the last one
that you personally were involved in? What was your experience
Dr Bradshaw: I cannot remember;
I will have to come back to you on that one.
Q126 Dr Iddon: Professor Finch?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I
do not think that the CST has a view on government consultations
as such. We have done a substantial amount of work on public engagementsyou
might think that that was one form of consultationand we
produced a report in 2005 called Policy Through Dialogue
where we recommended that there are examples of very good practice
within government of getting this right. This is in areas where
there is an inherent public anxiety about some new technology
or medical development and where government genuinely needs to
understand what the public are thinking and perhaps take that
into account before deciding which direction to move in. It is
not quite the same thing as consultation but really engaging people
in a genuine understanding of what the issues are before they
react to it. We produced some recommendations about good practice
and the Government did actually accept not only our recommendations
but also a specific aspect of that which was to establish an expert
resource centre which is there within GO-Science now to advise
across government on how to do this well. Three years on we are
now reviewing the consequences of that and we are still undertaking
that piece of workwe have not completed it yetto
see whether the impact of that advice has been positive in the
way in which government does public engagement across a range
of different topics. We are very interested in how that happened;
it has a particular resonance for the development of science and
technology and the development of science based innovation.
Q127 Dr Iddon: Thank you. Baroness
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
I have my own favourite amazingly bad consultations. I think my
favourite was a Home Office one called Footprints, Fingerprints
and DNA Samples issued in July to be returned in September;
it had a certain glory. However, I have seen some useful bits
of work of this sort. For example, when I was on the Royal Academy
of Engineering and Royal Society nanotechnology and nanosciences
group we commissioned a bit of work and we found out that at that
point 29% of the public knew the word "nano" in some
context and 10% of the public knew it meant "very small".
It was very useful to know that, but whether it was value for
money would be another question. There are, of course, consultations
which are essentially professional exercises and you get a lot
of responses of that type. I think they are very important because
one hears the different positions that people have. Nevertheless,
that is very different from consulting the public at large and
I think one of the things that bedevils this area is the assumption
that there is a class of entities called `stakeholders' which
runs from individual sixth formers to the CBI for the same consultation.
I think that good practice would suggest horses for courses here,
and value for money all the way. Ask first: what do you wish to
find out?not the answers, but genericallyand: Will
you find it out by this method?
Q128 Dr Iddon: Could I continue with
you, Baroness O'Neill, and ask my final question? Following the
consultation, do the people who have taken part in it get enough
feedback from the Government?
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
My experience has been that they do not get feedback. If you are
an institutional respondent you can often, by looking at the paperwork
of a select committee or other body, discover quite a lot; but
I think feedback is unusual. This is a very interesting feature
of society with its supposed commitment to transparency and communication,
that information is fed up but nobody knows, on the whole, whether
it is listened to, understood or acted upon.
Q129 Dr Iddon: Can I put that question
to you, Tim, as well?
Dr Bradshaw: We do not get feedback
as such but we monitor what happens in terms of whether there
is change in government policy or in the implementation of policy.
Sometimes it would be nice to have feedback; it would save us
having to trawl through various papers and documents and things
to find out what is really going on.
Ms Britton: I should add that
best practice on government consultation is that there is clear
feedback and you can actually see the results of the consultation.
Those are supposed to be published at the end of the consultation.
Dr Iddon: We could not agree with you
Q130 Dr Harris: They are not always
published though, are they?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I
think one of the most recent consultations that CST has been involved
in is a formal consultation with the consultation actually within
DIUS about the science of society policy area. As I recall the
outcomes of the consultation were published and widely made available
for that. So that is an example of good practice.
Q131 Graham Stringer: You have talked
about consultation and advice. Scrutiny is a more difficult word
in some ways. Do you see it as part of your role to scrutinise
government science policy?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: In
the sense that scrutiny has a technical meaning, no; that is not
part of CST's terms of reference. We do see it as part of our
role to consider the impact of what government has done in various
scientific areas and to analyse that and to advise on further
work. For example, Lord Rees in the previous session mentioned
the Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal society study of nanotechnology
and Baroness O'Neill has just mentioned that she was involved
in that. As part of the Government's response to that report they
indicated that they were going to ask for an independent review
of how they had progressed to recommendations three years on.
CST was actually asked to undertake that review which we did.
It is not exactly a scrutiny rolethat one was actually
at the request of governmentbut we are very happy to look
at government performance in relation to a particular set of objectives
that government had set itself and to make comments about how
well it had performed against those.
Q132 Graham Stringer: In a sense
a lot of what this Committee does is to scrutinise government
science policy. Do you think that overall the scrutiny of the
Government's science policy could be improved? If so, in what
Professor Dame Janet Finch: It
is difficult ever to say that something could not be improved.
I think that the range of ways in which this Committee and CST
in a different way and other bodies have the opportunity to comment
on science policy is actually quite extensive and quite varied.
We have a good level of public debate about science policy in
this country. I could not deny that there might be ways of improving
it but I do not have any specific suggestions.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
I think public scrutiny is important and quite difficult and that
this Committee and the Science and Technology Committees do, on
the whole, a good job. However, we have to recognise that we work
against a background which sensationalises science in ways that
are quite maverick. If you read, for example, the POST (Parliamentary
Office of Science and Technology) report on the media coverage
of GM in 1999 one sees there a very good case study of how a bit
of science policy was completely taken over by rather populist
and hysterical writing about certain aspects of the issue, with
profound effects on the science base of this country, particularly
in plant sciences. I do not now how to resolve this one because
those who do responsible scrutiny only hold a few of the levers.
However, I still think responsible scrutiny is really important.
Dr Bradshaw: You would expect
me to say this, but if we had a little bit more input from the
user side of science and engineeringfrom the business side
of it as well as the professional and academic sidethen
that would help to rebalance things.
Ms Britton: On the scrutiny side
of things John Beddington, before he was Government Chief Scientific
Advisor, was chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee in Defra.
He is championing the idea that there should be these kinds of
councils throughout government departmentsthe Home Office
has one which representatives of learned societies sit on as well
as the chairs of their scientific advisory committees. The idea
is that they take a view across the department at a strategic
level and can see what is going on, critique it and challenge
it. He thinks these are a very valuable form of more internal
scrutiny than a select committee.
Q133 Graham Stringer: When you are
carrying out an internal scrutiny of different government departments,
how responsive are they to their review findings?
Ms Britton: I think they are responsive.
They are usually responsive to a few high level recommendations
and that is one of the reasons why we have been looking at changing
the way we do the science reviews because you can come up with
a very long list of recommendations and that is too much for people
to take in. If you give them two or three really key things to
do then they will follow those. I think we would have a lot more
hits in doing that. They have been receptive, yes. They are very
helpful during the reviews and receptive in actually taking the
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
I would like to mention that one of the very simple things in
this area is the question of knowing what your own department
has done before, and as we know a number of departments in Whitehall
do not always have a good memory of past policy initiatives, what
worked and what did not work. In that context I think there is
room for an extension of a rather valuable new website called
Historyandpolicy (one word) which provides policy orientated
papers by historians but I think it would often be extremely useful
if those who know what worked and what did not work in the quite
recent past were there to say, "By the way, you tried this
in 2002 and you gave it up for the following reasons". Simple
information is often useful information.
Q134 Graham Stringer: We should stop
inventing the wheel.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
Q135 Graham Stringer: Judy, in terms
of what you have just said, can you give us some examples of where
departments have taken on recommendations?
Ms Britton: One that might be
pertinent to the discussion today is that we have talked quite
a bit in the various reviews about the role of social science
and indeed the `harder' scientists and the social scientists within
government coming together because working together can actually
strengthen policies considerably. I think that has been taken
on board in Defra, for instance; they have strengthened things.
In CLG they are actually bringing the hard scientists and the
social scientists who tended to be in separate pots just looking
at particular areas and they are now getting together and getting
really effective results. Similarly in the Home Office again this
idea that hard scientists in one place and the social researchers
are in the main building, actually bringing them together I think
is a particular area where people are working quite hard to improve.
Q136 Dr Harris: A lot of government
scientific advisors like yourselves are still research active
and published and you are a distinguished academic yourself in
your field, do you worry that if you publish something the Daily
Mail might say, "Leading government advisor says families
doing this, that or the other in terms of their inheritance"
implying unfairly that this is now government policy in some way.
Do you worry about that? Do you think other people worry about
that who are also independent government scientific advisors?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I
would not worry about that, no. Someone in the previous session
said something similar, that that can happen in any event. In
the study that we did about how academics and government can work
more closely together we did actually find that that this is an
anxiety which some academics have. It is one of the impediments
to more academics becoming involved in government, that people
are concerned that if they produce work which has policy relevance
and it has more high profile in a policy context that their work
may be distorted to their disadvantage. I would not worry about
it personally but it is definitely one of the issues that need
to be overcome if we are going to get more academic input.
Q137 Dr Harris: You would expect
the Government to stand by them and say, "Look, this is academic
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Of
Chairman: On that positive could I thank
our panel of Dr Tim Bradshaw, Professor Dame Janet Finch, Judy
Britton and Baroness Onora O'Neill. Thank you very much indeed
for your evidence this morning.