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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  Chairman: Just before we finish this and I pass you on to Graham Stringer, in terms of the grant letters to the research councils why do you think they are not made public?

  Professor Smith: I know that a request has been put and is being considered at the moment by the secretary of state so we will wait and see what comes from the secretary of state.

  Q181  Chairman: Do you have a view on any of these things?

  Professor Smith: Part of the view is what I have just said. I have only been in the job for a period which meant that I did not take part in the nitty-gritty of the lead-up to the previous spending review. But I know that there is a period in the process of discussion, bids, iterations around bids, where a lot of the content you be regarded as commercial in confidence in the sense that it affects various kinds of interactions with all sorts of bodies.

  Q182  Chairman: We understand that.

  Professor Smith: In my view as soon as that process is over the equivalent of, for example, the letter that goes from HEFCE to the universities is the allocations booklet.

  Q183  Chairman: That is the allocations booklet.

  Professor Smith: Yes.

  Chairman: Okay, thank you.

  Q184  Graham Stringer: Professor Charles, the Regional Studies Association told us that there should be a regional science policy; what would it look like?

  Professor Charles: The question of what a regional science policy would look like depends on what institutions the UK decided were needed in order to develop such a thing. At the moment we have got a fairly ad hoc system whereby the RDAs try to dabble around the edges in order to support investment in certain areas of science which they think are relevant to their particular needs. We have a very different situation in Scotland where there is actually a science strategy for Scotland and the Scottish Government has identified areas in which it wishes to invest, which would complement that investment which might come from a UK level. By and large there are not the institutions in the regions of England that are effectively placed to identify areas of strategic investment that might complement and strengthen that which is coming through the competitive process, either through the HEFCE QR system or from research councils. In many of these regions there is no departmental government investment in science so there is not a regional science policy, yet we see a number of countries around the world, both federal countries and non-federal countries, where there is significant investment in developing the research base for the regions and in many cases there are institutions which have developed either through devolution or through other means in order to foster that. We do not have that in this country.

  Q185  Graham Stringer: That is very interesting and it is not the answer I was expecting at all. What you are saying is it is really a matter of government structure and institutional structure and not a matter of resource allocation on a spatial basis. Usually when people talk about regional policies it is because there is this huge imbalance in investment in science in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London and a much sparser allocation of resources in the regions; are you not concerned about that?

  Professor Charles: In order to address the issues of resource allocation you need to have mechanisms that can allocate those resources effectively, and my argument at the moment is that in order to have that effective allocation you have to look at the institutions that would decide what that should be. That could be central government—if you take the example of Finland, Finland has invested in centres of excellence and centres of expertise across the regions in Finland, they have a more decentralised approach, but it is done from central government in consultation with stakeholders within those regions. In other countries where there is a regional government that has its own policy, its own strategy and makes its own investment and seeks there to complement what might come from central government you have a different kind of mechanism, but unless you get the mechanisms right, unless you get institutions that can make sensible decisions you just get a kind of ad hoc system which may not lead through to effective resource allocation.

  Q186  Graham Stringer: Is that an implied criticism of the regional development agencies?

  Professor Charles: I do not think the regional development agencies have the history, the established expertise or the resources to be really effective at this. Typically an RDA will have maybe two or three people who have some knowledge of science and innovation, broadly speaking. That is not a successful base on which you can really look at a very significant support for science. What we are talking about in other countries where you have got a regional government or a state government, you have a department for industry, science and innovation where you have a team of people who are working in that area. Also, in a federal system, typically those regional or state-level bodies have their own departments with their own internal science investment, they have their own R&D centres, they have their own scientific advisers who can help them make those sorts of decisions. Without that kind of base in the RDAs I cannot see how they can do the same kind of job that, say, an Australian state, an American state, Catalonia or a German land can do.

  Q187  Graham Stringer: Professor Smith, why have we found it so difficult to establish why there is a scarcity of investment in science in the regions outside of the big universities? Is it because there is an application of the Haldane Principle as understood in the department that says we do not interfere, or is it because you do interfere but you do not like telling us about it?

  Professor Smith: I have a picture in front of me which looks across regions at research funding normalised by population and, clearly, London and Cambridge act as quite big magnets but I do not think actually that there is this kind of famine level across the regions that you speak of. The distribution is not as extreme.

  Q188  Graham Stringer: Can I just interrupt you. The genesis of this part of this inquiry came partly from our visit to Daresbury which was limiting funds, and we were told there that outside of the universities and national institutions over 90% of government funding was going into the golden triangle, which rather dissolves those figures—though obviously if you put Manchester and Newcastle Universities in you get different figures. That is part of the concern and the Committee has been told different things: one, that ministers will not interfere with regional policy because it is in conflict with the Haldane Principle, and at other times we have been told by ministers that they will protect investment at places like Daresbury. Can you explain it to us?

  Professor Smith: The version of the Haldane Principle that I think you quoted John Denham as referring to earlier drew this separation between government having a role in really major strategic decisions—for example, if we are going to build the world-beating medical research centre in St Pancras that puts together a huge number of partners and massive levels of investment that only government can negotiate in the current situation. That is not the same—at the other end of the scale—as interfering at a micro-level with decisions. Looking in front of me, if you look at the rhetoric in and around the golden triangle there are an enormous number of large facilities located outside that golden triangle—in Edinburgh, in Manchester, in Durham, in Liverpool, in Nottingham. There is a slight exaggeration of the picture, and if you look at the research investment—as I say, I have a graph where there is a peak in London and some in the East of England but there are considerable resources going from the research councils across the regions.

  Q189  Chairman: Could I interrupt you there, Professor Smith, to say would it be possible for the Committee to have this information because we do not have access to that?

  Professor Smith: If it would be helpful.

  Q190  Graham Stringer: Could you also give us that information in the way it was given to us at Daresbury, that disaggregates the research carried on in universities from that carried on in other centres?

  Professor Smith: You might have to communicate to me more precisely what you were given and I will try and replicate it.

  Q191  Chairman: Yes, we will. I am desperately trying to move on. Nick, very quickly.

  Mr Dusic: What Graham Stringer said about Daresbury where there are different signals given from ministers about the guidance given to research councils regarding it, that is why we put in the request under the freedom of information to get the science budget allocation letters to the research councils so there is a bit more guidance about what ministers are telling research councils.

  Q192  Chairman: But you are being told the allocation booklet gives you all that information.

  Mr Dusic: I would be interested to see the letters to see if that is the case.

  Q193  Chairman: You do not feel that that is sufficient.

  Mr Dusic: The science budget allocation booklet gives us the high-level commitments for the different research councils.

  Q194  Chairman: But not the rationale.

  Mr Dusic: Not the rationale. I think the letters would provide some more information which would be useful.

  Q195  Chairman: Can you understand why this Committee has been denied that information?

  Mr Dusic: We have been denied it too; I do not understand it.

  Q196  Dr Harris: Professor Smith, do you accept the distinction between the allocations booklet and the letter?

  Professor Smith: I thought I had tried earlier to explain that the interchanges of letters that lead up to that involve matters which are toosensitive to be in the public domain.

  Q197  Dr Harris: Do not repeat that, but some months later there is the final allocation letter a la HEFCE, do you accept that that is different from the allocations booklet as Mr Dusic has just said? If you do, why is it that months later that is not available like it is for HEFCE?

  Professor Smith: I think I said it earlier: the allocations booklet would be the equivalent of the final letter that is sent out to HEFCE, which is the final picture once all the dust has settled in and around the discussions and negotiations.

  Chairman: All right, we are not going to get anything more from you on that.

  Q198  Mr Boswell: Professor Smith, just a final question and then perhaps something to the panel in the light of what you say. The Government's debate on strategic science policy is now under way; is this specifically and explicitly going to consider regional factors?

  Professor Smith: That debate could well have a regional dimension. Take a specific example: if we up the ante on something which has already been launched through the ETI of offshore power generation of various kinds—marine technology for example—if we are going into that in a big way it inevitably has a geographic location element to it.

  Q199  Mr Boswell: It is a derived consequence rather than a conscious allocation.

  Professor Smith: It is a derived consequence. You do not start saying "can we put something around the coast?"

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Prepared 23 July 2009