Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
MONDAY 16 MARCH 2009
Q140 Dr Harris: Before you develop
that question, Chairman, the fundamental question, it seems to
me, is that this is not a consultation or a debate on whether
we are going to target research money on certain strategic areas,
it is only about which areas. Could you clarify whether that is
your understanding? Because I think during the recess the Secretary
of State did make clear at a meeting that Nick Dusic was at that
it was not a "whether we are going to do what Lord Drayson
first canvassed", but "how we are going to do it".
Is that your understanding?
Professor Smith: No, I do not
think that is my understanding. If you look at the speech that
Lord Drayson made at the Foundation for Science and Technology,
it generally reiterated several times that he wanted a debate
and a consultation. The communication he has had with various
bodies, including Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering,
and with Martin Rees and John Brown has made very clear that he
is genuinely seeking views on that whole set of issues. There
is from my perspective no plan in place that there is going to
be radical re-targeting.
Q141 Dr Harris: So the key question
is if all those organisations which you have mentioned which those
individuals represent say that this is a bad idea then it might
Professor Smith: Then I am sure
Lord Drayson and others will be very interested to hear that response.
Q142 Dr Harris: Sorry, but that was
not an answer to my question. So there is a possibility that this
refocusing of research on strategic lines might not happen if
everyone thinks, or significant enough people think, it is a bad
Professor Smith: I think we have
to wait and see the outcome of the consultation.
Q143 Mr Boswell: Just to get a flavour
of the consultation process, you have mentioned the great and
the good within the world of science and engineering, the Royal
Academy, the Royal Society, et cetera. How much do you think it
is important to try and reach down either below that or behind
that, perhaps, to canvas the views of bench scientists and people
who may well feel, as I think some of them do, very intensely
about the situation of responsive mode funding? I know we are
not discussing that now but how much can you maybe say a multifunctional
consultation, rather than a matter of going to see the usual suspects
who will have views that you probably well know anyway?
Professor Smith: Taking up the
last point, "the usual suspects' views", I do not think
they are the usual suspects' views. My original idea of going
to bodies like the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering
and so on is that there you have high level councils who have
people seeing things from all perspectives. The problem with going
to see the biologists on Monday and the physicists on Tuesday
is that those would be the usual suspects and you would know what
they would say, but in addition to the bodies I name there is
a continuing dialogue all the time with the Research Councils,
and I do not know anybody out there whom you would describe as
a bench scientist who does not take any opportunity they can to
bump into me and tell me what they think.
Q144 Chairman: The fundamental issue
for us here is this issue of targeted research programmes, they
are the words Lord Drayson has used, so however we got to that
point of targeted research programmes my original question to
you was what do you understand by "targeted research programmes"?
Can you let me have the answer to that as briefly as possible?
Professor Smith: My understanding
of the original debate that he launched was should we be folding
into the prioritisation process the dimension, and I think he
listed three aspects to that dimension, about tensioning, in a
sense all other things being equal, against where we have potential
industrial growth capacity, potential to be world-leading, where
we have those kinds of opportunities feeding off research, ought
we to be thinking more about focusing in those areas?
Q145 Chairman: That is what you mean
by "targeted" priorities?
Professor Smith: I think the original
word was "focused", and that that process of prioritisation
and focus, thinking perhaps more consciously about where there
is potential industrial pull-through, where the United Kingdom
can be a leader.
Q146 Chairman: Can I ask the rest
of the Panel, is that your view, briefly?
Professor Edgerton: I was nodding
because the argument is a very familiar one. It goes back many,
many decades, this hope.
Q147 Chairman: So this is not new?
Professor Edgerton: It is not
new in the slightest. What is novel is that since Lady Thatcher's
time we have lived in a political world that has refused to pick
winners in industry and the economy more generally, so we end
up with a rather paradoxical situation where ministers are trying
to plan science and research, whereas they refuse the opportunity
to plan the wider economy or industry, and I think that is probably
exactly the wrong way round.
Q148 Chairman: So your view is that
government is trying to plan research?
Professor Edgerton: It sounds
like it. The problem is that is not really possible and I do not
think government has made any serious attempt to plan science
in the last 20 or 30 years, but the rhetoric of planning science
in relation to industrial development has been central to the
arguments certainly from the mid-1980s. Twenty years ago I remember
writing an article on Mrs Thatcher's science policy and it was
examining exactly the same kind of argument.
Mr Dusic: There have been three
different speeches. We have had Lord Drayson's, John Denham's
and the Prime Minister's speech, and each has a different focus
on this issue. The Prime Minister has said they will be running
increased investment across the board in science, and that was
to be welcomed, but Lord Drayson's and John Denham's had an inherent
question if we increase research in certain areas and focus on
those areas that would be potentially at the expense of others.
From the Campaign for Science and Engineering our perspective
is that that breadth of excellence that exists within science
and engineering within the United Kingdom is one of our core strengths,
it gives us a competitive advantage against other countries, and
we need to be able to have a strong and excellent research base
going forward that is able to deal with new challenges and new
industrial opportunities that we should not be getting into a
narrowing of the focus of the research base at this time.
Professor Charles: One point that
comes to me is thinking back to the technology foresight programme
a few years ago, which was meant to identify these kinds of priorities
and areas of strength, something which was central to that were
these panels at a national level who were trying to identify where
the United Kingdom strengths were and where the investment therefore
ought to focus. Largely that was not followed through in terms
of actual direction of funding for research, but these things
tend to be done at a national level and I think what is interesting
was whether the different parts of the United Kingdom felt they
were being represented effectively in that approach, and certainly
I remember being involved in some regional foresight activities
at that time and the feeling in the north was that these panels
were representing a national view and not necessarily the opportunities
and strengths at a regional level within the United Kingdom. If
you try to second-guess what the strengths are at a national level
the danger is that you do not represent the full set of opportunities
that might exist across the United Kingdom.
Q149 Chairman: I really would like
to get a straight answer from you in the sense of these targeted
research programmes, because this is the area of which you are
the director. You are responsible within government for delivering
the research budgetyes?
Professor Smith: Yes.
Q150 Chairman: So when we talk about
these targeted research programmes, does that mean to you basic
research as well as transational research? What does it mean?
Is it all research?
Professor Smith: I rather boringly
come back to the point I made before which is that what is in
process is a debate and a consultation, very wide-ranging, about
whether there is potential and need for more focus which takes
more into account, if you like, the economic pull-through opportunity.
That is a legitimate question raised by Lord Drayson which he
Q151 Chairman: What is your view?
Professor Smith: I would be very
interested to see what the results of that consultation are.
Q152 Chairman: You do not have a
Professor Smith: I think some
aspects of this are going off in a slightly wrong direction. We
have a broad portfolio of ways we invest in research and stimulate
research and its pull-through into innovation. In addition to
the mainstream work of the Research Councils there is a substantial
amount of Research Council money is brokered through the TSB,
linking with Regional Development Agencies into another agenda.
Q153 Chairman: Can I just stop you
here? This is a fundamental issue we are trying the get at, whether
in fact this research is now being targeted, because "targeted"
means you actually focus on something as part of a deliberate
government policy to put our research efforts into particular
areas, and Lord Drayson, to be fair, has actually mentioned those
areas, and I am asking you, is this going to be right through
the whole channel, right through from basic research coming out
of our Research Councils to what the dual support system funds
as well? Is that your view, as to what we are talking about?
Professor Smith: No, I do not
recognise that direction of travel. We have in the last spending
round the major cross-cutting themes across the Research CouncilsLiving
with Environmental Change, aging, energy, national security. One
is talking as though suddenly from nowhereon a blank sheet
of paperthese are extraordinarily new things. We already
have strategic focus on certain major challenges for the country
and for the economy, and we have mechanisms through cross-council
funding for dealing with those. We have mechanisms for linking
with regional agendas through the TSB, Research Council and RDA
money; the questioning is as though this is some kind of bolt
from the blue something we have never talked about before. It
is part and parcel of something that is out there in the spectrum
of the agenda already, and if you look in detail at the deliberate
wording in the Prime Minister's speech he talks about the need
for a broad base in science and protecting fundamental science.
Q154 Chairman: There is a huge contradiction
between a broad base in science and targeted areas of research.
The two take us in different directions, do they not?
Professor Smith: No. Living with
Environmental Change is a targeted challenge to which a broad
sweep of disciplines contributes. Entirely compatible.
Q155 Chairman: Am I missing something
Professor Edgerton: It has been
very difficult to pin down the real meaning of policy statements
in the area of science policies, in the plural, for very many
decades, so that is not novel either.
Q156 Dr Harris: We do not have to
look back decades, do we? We have a speech. We have no Green Paper,
no White Paper, but three speeches. I was interested that Professor
Smith said the debate is whether we do more strategic focusing,
and I accept your last answer, by the way, that there has already
been some tactical focusing on themes which may attract a broad
range of basic research. So I would like to ask Nick Dusic, who
did hear the answer to a question that was raised when John Denham
spoke at the Academy of Engineering, do you think the debate is
about whether we focus on certain "strengths", or is
it about the degree to which we focus more? What is the debate?
Is it whether or is it which/how?
Mr Dusic: Interpreting the different
speeches is very difficult, but John Denham was pretty clear when
he said "The debate is over, it is how we do it", and
the debate now is how we engage with partners and how it goes
forward. Drayson's debate and lecture was much more about let's
have a debate about these issues; John Denham's said we are moving
this debate on and we are going to discuss how we focus on different
areas, and the Prime Minister again talked about focusing of research.
So I think there has been a lack of clarity but it does sound
like the agenda is moving forward.
Q157 Dr Harris: Professor Smith,
responding to that, was that just a misunderstanding? Did the
Secretary of State mis-speak when he said it is not about whetherbecause
I was there too and it was my question actuallyit is only
about how and which? Did he mis-speak, or is there some rowing
back now to the Prime Minister's speech where it was much less
specific or to your understanding?
Professor Smith: I think if there
were some rigid set of decisions already made there would not
be the very genuine consultation and debate that is going on at
the current time. As I said, we do already have quite a number
of major challenges themes.
Dr Harris: But Lord Drayson did not say
he was going to do more of the same.
Professor Smith: He did not say
he was not, either.
Q158 Dr Harris: But he said it was
a radical change. He talked about Singapore and Finland and us
doing something different than we have done before, whether or
not we have thought about doing it before, soand I am not
criticising itI just want to know whether it is worth anyone
saying "do not do it", or whether we should now only
be arguing about which areas should have the strategic focus.
Do you understand the difference?
Professor Smith: Yes, and I would
expect that there would be some comeback from the consultation
that says: "Don't do it" and there will be other views,
and we will have to see where we take it from there.
Q159 Chairman: Would you prefer the
consultation to have been on the back of a Green Paper or a White
Paper so we clearly understood the structure which we were actually
debating? And is that not your job to do that?
Professor Smith: In the current
circumstances, because we are in a serious situation, I can quite
understand why people, when they think something needs debating
and consulting, try to get it out there and get the consultation