Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
MONDAY 16 MARCH 2009
Q160 Dr Harris: Are you saying because
the recession makes it urgent?
Professor Smith: I think it changes
slightly the context for everything. It does bring everything
into focus, and I remind you the original word used was "focus"
Q161 Dr Harris: But I understood
this was a post-recession policy, because this is going to take
some time to sort out, if it is agreed and if it is decided.
Professor Smith: From this perspective
the two are the same, are they not? The recession necessitates
the view that as one moves through it the world is going to change
and the landscape is going to change, and the genuine question
is should we think a bit about what that landscape would look
like and whether we have the right kind of focus?
Q162 Dr Harris: To move on, my understanding
from your answer is that it is not too late for people to say
"Don't do this" in their response to this debate; it
is not a given. If that is wrong and if the decision has been
taken you can write to let us know, but you have been pretty consistent
that that is still an "if" not just a "how"
question. It may well be a "how" as well because it
may well be you are going to go down that path, so the question
is how are you going to handle those areas which lose funding?
In response mode funding, assuming there is a decision, and I
know we are painting a scenario now but it is one we have been
invited to paint by ministers, to concentrate in certain strategic
areas, then clearly you will have to de-concentrate on other areas
if it is going to be any sort of sizeable shift, on other areas.
How are you going to handle that? What thought has been given
to handling those areas where success rates for responsive mode
funding applications drop from 20% to 5% in order that others
might be expanded?
Professor Smith: We are not in
that territory, are we, and you will know just from the mechanics
of how the Research Councils and research grants and forward investments
work that we are looking at some period ahead to where there would
be slack in the system, as it were, to start rethinking where
Q163 Dr Harris: How long do people
have? If they feel they are in a discipline that has not got the
historic good research that might count, or is not in one of these
opportunities that has been mentioned, or is otherwise likely
to be mentioned, how long do they have to change their career
Professor Smith: I do not think
that is the appropriate question because, as we said before, if
you look at those speeches you will see time and time again reiterated
the need for a very broad research base and a fundamental research
base. Something like Living with Environmental Change sounds
a very applied focused project but actually there are huge amounts
of fundamental research across a multitude of disciplines that
feed into. So just raising this kind of debate does not lead down
a track which says that certain disciplines or certain kinds of
research are not fundable any more.
Mr Dusic: The government needs
to be really clear about what it is doing going forward. We have
other countries that are making a big investment in science and
engineering at the moment, and if there is uncertainty about what
the United Kingdom is going to be doing, we want to be able to
track and maintain leading science engineers from a wide variety
of disciplines, but I think they need to be very clear about what
they are planning. Just in terms of narrowing the research base
there is a lot problems if that is the direction that they go
Q164 Graham Stringer: Professor Edgerton,
returning to your answer previously, I am not sure I understood
it and I would like you to expand. Are you saying that if the
government chooses not to pick winners in industry it cannot pick
winners in science?
Professor Edgerton: Yes.
Q165 Graham Stringer: Can you justify
Professor Edgerton: Yes. What
I mean is there is a plausible nationalistic policy of investing
in certain industries because you feel you need to be strong in
them. I think it is much more difficult to do that successfully
in research simply because the future of research is uncertain;
you do not really know where it is going to go. If you want to
build a supersonic aeroplane or a gas-cooled reactor you have
a pretty good idea that you will be able to do it and you will
get some energy out of it even if it turns out to be very expensive.
I think there is a conceptual difference between going for an
industrial policy that picks a certain sector to invest in and
a research policy of a potentially analogous sort.
Q166 Graham Stringer: I do not want
to over-interpret it but you are really saying that the government
has an impossible policy, and that what it is saying is not achievable?
Professor Edgerton: Yes. I think
it does not make sense to have a policy in which you stimulate
a particular area of academic science, which is fundamentally
what we are talking about, on the grounds that it is needed to
develop a certain kind of industry that the United Kingdom is
going to have if you do not have a policy for developing and maintaining
that industry. It simply does not make sense.
Q167 Graham Stringer: So if one could
take what I hope would be a realistic instance like trying to
develop hydrogen fuel cells to move towards a hydrogen economy,
you are saying there would be no sense in doing that unless you
stimulated the whole of the automobile industry, or some equivalent
Professor Edgerton: Exactly, if
you take a view as to how you are going to ensure that the automobile
industry takes that up, but we obviously live in a very international
world both in the basic science of fuel cells and automobile production,
so I think unless you think through all this very careful there
is a very strong likelihood of what you are indicating, which
is that you are on a hiding to nothing here.
Q168 Mr Marsden: Could I focus the
Panel's attention on the Haldane principle? Now the vast matter
of the evidence we have received cites support for the Haldane
principle; the only problem is they all seem to think it means
different things. United Kingdom Computing Research have said
they support the principle as originally stated; CaSE have said
there was no agreed definition; and DIUS we are told supports
the thrust of the Haldane principle. So I wonder if I could start
off with you, Professor Edgerton, and ask you as one historian
to another to give us very briefly why the Haldane principle has
come about; has government mucked around with it since 1918, and
what is your understanding of what it means today?
Professor Edgerton: The headline
is: "There is no Haldane principle and never has been",
and if there has been something like it it was not created in
1918 by Lord Haldane but rather in 1964, I think, perhaps a little
bit earlier, by another future Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham.
He created it, I think, as an argument against the then Labour
Opposition, who in his view wanted to do things to the Department
of Scientific and Industrial Research, as then was, that he did
not approve of. If I may just read very briefly Quintin Hogg,
as he then was, in the House of Commons, on the Ministry of Technology:
This was a totally newly departure from recent practice and in
my opinion at least is a most retrograde step. Ever since 1915"he
is correct about that"it has been considered axiomatic
that responsibility for industrial research and development is
better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical,
agricultural and other fields on what I have called the Haldane
principle through an independent council of industrialists, scientists,
and other eminent persons and not directly by a government department".
Q169 Mr Marsden: It is an anti central
planning thing, basically; it is a credo for: Don't get your mits
on planning science and technology.
Professor Edgerton: It is anti
central planning and anti, as the argument for DSIR originally
was, having a normal government minister, if I can put it that
way, in charge of research. You need a senior person outside the
usual administrative run of departments, the Lord President of
the Council notably, to take a very broad view of what was of
course only a very small part of the total research investment
of government. So that is one element. The other element that
is already there is this notion that scientists themselves control
the research agenda, but that is a very different concept, not
in Haldane either.
Q170 Mr Marsden: So how does that
fit in with how John Denham told us he interpreted the Haldane
principle today? He said: "Research is the best place to
determine detailed priorities. Government's role is to set the
over-arching strategy. Research Councils are guardians of independence
of science. These should the basis for Haldane today." Does
that have any link with what has previously gone on?
Professor Edgerton: I do not think
anyone has ever thought of the research councils as the defenders
of the independence of sciencethat is a very odd definition
indeed and I hope we have not actually got that. Learned societies,
universities and individual academics are the custodians of the
independence of science. The other point is they do not have any
particular grip on the issue of the management of science let
alone whatever the Haldane Principle might be.
Q171 Mr Marsden: Could I then just
turn to you, Professor Smith, on the back of the historical exegesis
that Professor Edgerton has given us? Does it suit the Government
to keep Haldane vague? Professor Edgerton said it is a bit like
the peace of God, it passes all understanding; is there a succinct
view of what Haldane means in the department today that you can
Professor Smith: I can certainly
make it succinct. Whether or not there is a Haldane Principle,
the very clear separation where high level research councils make
proposals to Government during spending reviews, draft the delivery
plans, these are debated, Government allocates funds and then
once those funds are allocated, does not interfere in the scientific
decisions as to how much goes to Professor X and Professor Y seems
to me a very valuable, practical separation of powers, whatever
you call it. The Government is certainly committed to that and
sees it as a valuable part of the landscape.
Q172 Mr Marsden: I want to bring
my colleague Brian Iddon in in a minute, but just briefly since
we have you here, Professor Charles, of course they certainly
did not have regional policy in 1915 or 1918 and it is arguable
how Wilson's Government really thought about regional policy in
the Sixties, but is Haldane as discussed today a hindrance or
a help in terms of articulating regional policy?
Professor Charles: Those principles
can operate at different scales; the question is whether there
is an idea that science investment will be directed at a regional
scale and then within that region it could follow a Haldane Principle
in terms of focusing on the excellent research and building up
excellence within that regional scale, just as you could say within
the European framework programme there are issues about how you
select the excellent projects at that scale. We are talking about
operating on different scales and whether there is a view that
in order to support the economic development of all parts of the
UK there should be a greater distribution of research funds. That
does not mean to say that some research programmes should not
be operated on a national level or purely on the basis of excellenceas
indeed the research councils are in Scotland for examplebut
at another level either central government or some regional body
decides to make strategic investments that complement and work
with the resources that are distributed purely on the basis of
Q173 Dr Iddon: Have we not got into
a difficult situation which is creating tensions in allocations,
whether you believe in Haldane or not, partly because the state
departments are not funding the volume of the research that they
used to do, Defra being a typical example. Why have we let that
situation develop? You are nodding, Professor Edgerton, let us
start with you and then Nick Dusic.
Professor Edgerton: The reason
goes back to the point I was making earlier, that there is a certain
disillusion with large scale departmental programmes like Concorde
and the AGR; in fact, Tony Benn back in the Sixties said "No
more Concordes" and Lady Thatcher certainly reiterated that
in the 1980s, so there was a feeling that research, which was
directly concerned with the well-being of people, the strength
of the economy, was not yielding the results that it should. That
contracted and, as you say, the research councils which had always
funded a very small proportion of the total government research
budget found themselves funding more. For that reason there was
increased emphasis on trying to justify that kind of research
in relation to the broader objectives, so you get a rather odd
situation where people are expecting basic science in the universities
to translate directly into economic benefits or social quality
of life benefits for the British people in the short term. One
has to think much more internationally and much more regionally
as well about research and be much more focused on the necessary
uncertainty that there is in research. As I said before, trying
to create an industrial policy out of what should be a policy
for university research is a serious mistake.
Mr Dusic: Going back to the original
Haldane Report it is about the machinery of government and there
is a distinction made between departmental R&D which is for
a specific use and general research which would be outside of
a department's objectives and so there is less political interference;
now that is where we are. There are related issues about departmental
R&D spending and the autonomy of the research councils to
pursue research. The fact that departmental R&D spending has
stagnated over the last ten years for the most part has meant
that there are increased pressures upon the research councils
to be delivering the sort of research needs that departments should
be looking to fund as well as industry. The science policy needs
to be seen as a whole and not just focused upon what the research
councils should be delivering but the wider agenda in terms of
government departmental spending and also encouraging industry
to invest in R&D itself.
Q174 Dr Iddon: Professor Smith, whose
job is it to reinvigorate the applied research that the state
departments have largely been responsible for in past decades?
Is it the Chief Scientific Adviser's job or whose?
Professor Smith: It is very much
a concern of and on the radar of the Chief Scientific Adviser.
Q175 Dr Iddon: Does your evidence
that you are receiving suggest that the Chief Scientific Adviser
is going to try and persuade the departments to invest more of
their money in the research base?
Professor Smith: This is a set
of issues which are being discussed over the next few weeks and
months in the new Science and Innovation Committee and the Chief
Scientific Adviser is leading on discussions with that committee.
Q176 Dr Iddon: That is very good.
Did somebody else indicate that they wanted to come in?
Mr Dusic: We have a science minister
who is at the Cabinet table who chairs the Science and Innovation
Committee; hopefully one of Lord Drayson's roles with his expanded
remit is to get other ministers and other Cabinet members to see
the importance of investing their budgets in R&D, so hopefully
that will be the case.
Q177 Dr Iddon: I just want, finally,
to turn to a statement that CaSE has made and that is "The
lack of transparency in the science budget allocation process
makes it difficult to determine if a decision was made by a research
council or the Government" and what you are calling for,
I understand, is more transparency in the policy-making process.
I guess I should ask Professor Smith again: would a more open
and transparent discussion between Government and the research
councils and indeed the research community that they represent
be a good thing, and is that on the radar screen at the moment?
Professor Smith: There are two
aspects to it, one of which I have already mentioned, that I have
set in train and identified a group of national bodies that I
will formally consult with in the lead-up to the spending review,
and their submissions will be published. In relation to the research
councils, there is actually a process, of course, leading up to
spending reviews where there is an iteration of plans, demands,
pushbacks, discussions and negotiations at a technical level about
money, and many of those things are necessarily confidential,
commercial in confidence, because they involve things like international
subscriptions or whether one continues to invest in particular
institutes or whatever. But, as soon as that debate and negotiated
part is over, the allocations are published in the booklet as
you know, so there is total transparency at that stage. What I
am trying to inject in the process is much more transparency about,
let us say, the views of the Royal Society, the views of the Royal
Academy of Engineering as we shape the big strategic picture that
leads up to the allocation.
Q178 Dr Iddon: Do you think when
a major player in our research business gets refused a grant that
they ought to be able to enter into a dialogue with the people
at the research council who have made the decision, as happens
in America, to find out why the grant has been refused essentially?
Professor Smith: I will have to
duck that in the sense that I do not exactly know what happens
in America but if we have to have the resource and the research
councils to enter into prolonged debate with everybody who did
not get exactly what they wanted in their grant application we
would be spending a significantly greater proportion of the research
money on administration than we would on actual research.
Q179 Dr Iddon: The system works well
in America and people can see why their grants have been refused.
Professor Smith: I will go and
educate myself on what the Americans do.