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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



  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" the debate.

  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 we put—

  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 focus?

  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 down.

  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 that?

  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 end-user?

  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 science—that 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 give us?

  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 excellence—as indeed the research councils are in Scotland for example—but 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 excellence.

  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.

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