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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)

MONDAY 18 MAY 2009


  Q360  Dr Gibson: You have been around a bit.

  Professor Beddington: I am trying to get around.

  Q361  Mr Boswell: I think we would encourage that.

  Professor Beddington: I think it is enormously important, and actually I try to ensure that I do not just talk to, as it were, the director of the lab and the three senior people, but I make certain that I actually talk to individual scientists and engineers.

  Q362  Mr Boswell: Thanks for that. Just a footnote, if I may, on the departmental chief scientific adviser, really a question about the signal to the scientific community and the general public, that science advice is taken seriously by the government. Does it add value substantially? I suspect the other point which I would add into that is the impact on lay policy-makers and civil servants who are administrators and do not have specific scientific knowledge, are they being trained to take what you and your colleagues are saying seriously at an early enough stage to influence policy?

  Professor Beddington: It is a hard question to answer in general for government as a whole, but I would think in some instances, it is really quite feasible to say I have been quite pleased.

  Q363  Mr Boswell: But you might, for example, yourself, take an interest in the strengths and weaknesses of this good practice or bad practice.

  Professor Beddington: Well, for example, I think in the new Department of Energy and Climate Change, I was very concerned that the plans for the Severn Barrage were not being discussed at a sufficiently sophisticated scientific and engineering level involving policy people, so what I have done is put together a team of people, which Brian Collins, one of the CSAs, will lead, to actually look and work with the group that are actually working to evaluate options for the Severn Barrage and will be linking closely with policy people.

  Mr Boswell: That is fine, thank you.

  Q364  Dr Harris: Lord Drayson, I was just reflecting on the answer I got from John Beddington. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser writing to a fellow member of the Cabinet to complain essentially about action taken in respect of an independent scientific adviser is unprecedented. Although I know it may be awkward for you to talk about that specific case, I am just wondering whether you, as Science Minister, with responsibility for this area, have a plan to try and stop this happening in the future? Because the letter was post facto firefighting.

  Lord Drayson: I support what John has said with regard to the importance of the way in which such advice is commissioned, in terms of ensuring its independence; also the points which you have made, in terms of people feeling that they are able to, without fear or favour, provide that independent advice. I am pleased that this is something which, in his role as chief scientific adviser, he has taken very seriously and has responded to. As he said, it is something which we need to monitor carefully.

  Q365  Dr Harris: I suspect if we see the correspondence, and of course we will be asking the Home Secretary, we might ask her directly to publish it to us, if there is no regret or acceptance that something went wrong, then there is a clear disagreement between one of the senior secretaries of state in government and the chief scientific adviser. Can I say, it is healthy that at least we know about this, although I understand that there are issues attached to it. That is an unsatisfactory situation if it is not resolved in one person's favour or the other, because it is unresolved and it might happen again. Do you have a plan to provide more guidance to colleagues to prevent it happening again?

  Lord Drayson: I do not have a plan at present to advise colleagues in the way in which you suggest, Dr Harris, because I am not aware that this is a wider problem. This issue has come up in this particular instance, John in his role as chief scientific adviser has responded to it, but I share his view that it is something which we need to monitor carefully, but I do not believe that it is indicative of a wider problem.

  Q366  Dr Harris: Turning to the issue of the debate on strategic science funding, which you kicked off publicly in a prior session before this Committee, which we remember well, can you clarify whether what you were saying was, shall we focus more on strategic research priorities, or how shall we do it, because we are going to do it? Could you first clarify that? If it has changed, then could you clarify whether that question has been answered, or changed?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, it is the former. My point in raising the topic as a debate was to stimulate a serious debate about whether or not the science community felt that we should apply more focus to decision-making around research priorities, and also to encourage them, should they come to that conclusion, as to make recommendations as to how that should be done.

  Q367  Dr Harris: Have they come to that conclusion, in your view?

  Lord Drayson: In my view, the whole process of raising this topic for debate has been a successful one. Research Councils UK announced today their conclusions relating to the debate. The feedback that we have had from the wider scientific community regarding research policy I believe has been very healthy. It sets a model for how, in future, as we go through spending rounds, we should do what I believe this committee has recommended in the past, that we have a wide debate, encourage those inputs, and the response that we had as a result of kicking off the debate, for example, from the members of the Council for Science and Technology, from the learned societies, from the research community as a whole, I think has been very helpful.

  Q368  Dr Gibson: Suppose I said that you had already made your mind up, I know you are a determined individual, but the debate is where it goes, when you focus it, where does it go? That is what the debate is.

  Lord Drayson: One of the things which I learnt as part of the debate, how important it is for the Science Minister to repeatedly communicate the principles by which he or she is operating, because what I found as the debate progressed, certain things were being characterised as a question of, for example, pure versus applied science, which was never what I said in my original speech, and I have continually had to repeat this. I have also repeated, as I said in my speech, I did not see that this was something which ministers should be deciding, this should be decided by the research community, but it just goes to show that you have to keep on saying the same thing again and again to make sure you are understood.

  Q369  Dr Harris: Do you think a Green Paper, in retrospect, where it could have been crystal clear that this was a suggestion, that it was not about pure versus applied, that this was a genuine consultation, would have been beneficial?

  Lord Drayson: I have thought about this, and in retrospect, no, I do not. I think that the way in which the debate was able to be initiated as quickly as it was by the method which I took, the way in which it was very effective, I must say, in stimulating response, so there was no shortage of response to the debate, in fact it had a useful by-product, I believe, in contributing to the raising of the overall profile of the importance of science as part of the debate about our response to the economic downturn.

  Q370  Dr Harris: Clearly you can do things quicker without a Green Paper, I understand that. From what you have said, it looks like you have not yet reached a conclusion on the question; you have had some responses from the scientific community informally and I guess formal responses from Research Councils who represent research councils, is that right, you have not reached a conclusion, and when you do, can we hope for a White Paper, or is that—

  Lord Drayson: I do not want to give the impression that this is a process by which government will come to a conclusion at a point in time. This is a process by which I have asked, through this debate, for the research community to consider the issue relating to prioritisation.. The research community has provided that feedback. That information has then been fed back through the research councils. It is then for the research councils to make their determination of the allocation of research funding—

  Q371  Dr Gibson: But is the debate over, Paul?

  Lord Drayson: I believe this is a debate which we must continue to refresh. So therefore I do not believe that it is a debate that stops at a point in time.

  Q372  Dr Harris: Let me be clear, there is not going to be a government policy announcement?

  Lord Drayson: No.

  Q373  Dr Harris: So far as I understand it, the bulk of this feedback has not been published in one place and summarised, like normally happens in consultations, but stuff has been sent back to the research councils, including their own views?

  Lord Drayson: I would be happy to publish. Some of the feedback has been put in the public domain. If you would like me to determine whether all of that feedback can be put in the public domain, that is something which I will—

  Q374  Dr Harris: Yes, in a coherent way. What you are saying is this will be for the research councils to decide, based on the debate you have stimulated and the responses to that debate, and you are not giving them a steer?

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely.

  Q375  Dr Harris: And you are not giving them a steer because you do not believe it is right for you to give them a steer, or why are you not giving them a steer?

  Lord Drayson: Because I do not think it is right for ministers to be determining the research priorities in this way. I think it is right for the research community, through the independence of the research councils, through the peer review process, to make these judgments.

  Q376  Dr Harris: That is interesting. On the timing, it was badged initially, perhaps not by you, so this is your chance to be clear, that this was a response to the recession, and if this was implemented, and I must say I thought it was a government policy proposal, but you have clarified that now, this would help us out of the recession. Is that the timing, or if we are out of the recession next year, is this more than simply a mid-recession response, and something that is substantive for the future?

  Lord Drayson: The reason for me raising the debate at the time I did was because of the developing economic downturn, and the raising, if you like, of the question generally of what is the appropriate response by governments, not just this government, but governments internationally, to this global downturn. I believe that the process that we have been through in this case has provided us with a useful model which we can use in the future. I do believe as we go through future spending rounds, it would be a good process. It is one which I hope we will be continuing to consult in this way. The feedback that we have had from, for example, the learned societies, and the other groups, has been extremely productive, and so this is something which I think we should embed in our process in the future.

  Q377  Dr Harris: Finally, can you guarantee that the funding for curiosity driven research will be ringfenced in the future?

  Lord Drayson: The funding for research is ringfenced. That is one of the, I think, important decisions that have been made recently by the government to maintain the science ringfence in the recent budget statements, and as set out prior to that by the Prime Minister himself. In terms of the government's commitment to fundamental, pure, blue-sky research, however you want to define it, that commitment remains. It was never my intention within the area of raising the debate about focus to make the distinction between pure and applied research. I think I have gone on record a number of times now saying how I recognise the importance of fundamental research. The balance of fundamental to applied research is a judgment that the scientific community, through the research councils, need to make, based upon their judgment of excellence within the particular branch of science which is being considered.

  Q378  Dr Gibson: You believe they are capable of making that decision?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, I do, I have confidence in them to do that.

  Q379  Dr Harris: And you are not throwing hints about economically productive research being something they should favour?

  Lord Drayson: I am not making hints about my belief that there is some association between economically productive and pure and applied, or pure or applied. I think that is the linkage which people are trying to make the jump to, but which I do not accept. I think we need to be clear as to which branches of research, based upon excellence in science, based upon excellence within our scientists, in terms of the global environment, and those judgments are rightly made through the peer review process.

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