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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 137)



  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 views—not necessarily evidence, but views—in 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 expertise—globally as well as nationally—but 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 higher profile?

  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 issues team.

  Q122  Chairman: We do not hear anything about it.

  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 Kremlin.

  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 record straight.

  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 of it?

  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 engagements—you might think that that was one form of consultation—and 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 work—we have not completed it yet—to 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 O'Neill?

  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 generically—and: 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 more.

  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 role—that one was actually at the request of government—but 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 way?

  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 engineering—from the business side of it as well as the professional and academic side—then 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 departments—the 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 recommendations forward.

  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: Yes.

  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 freedom".

  Professor Dame Janet Finch: Of course.

  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.

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