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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  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 not happen?

  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 idea?

  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 budget—yes?

  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 has asked.

  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 view?

  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 Councils—Living with Environmental Change, aging, energy, national security. One is talking as though suddenly from nowhere—on a blank sheet of paper—these 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 here?

  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 whether—because I was there too and it was my question actually—it 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, so—and I am not criticising it—I 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 started.

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