Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360
MONDAY 18 MAY 2009
18 MAY 2009 RT
Q360 Dr Gibson: You have been around
Professor Beddington: I am trying
to get around.
Q361 Mr Boswell: I think we would
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
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
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
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
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
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.