The work of the Committee in 2007-08 - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


2  Committee inquiries and evidence sessions

8. We began the 2007-08 Session by holding an informal awayday at which we discussed our future programme and working practices. The day was productive and helpful in forming a sense of identity for the new Committee.

Core Scrutiny of DIUS

One-off sessions

9. Our first meetings included a series of one-off oral evidence sessions on the main DIUS policy areas. Key to this was a session with the new Secretary of State, the Rt Hon John Denham MP and the Permanent Secretary of the new Department, Ian Watmore. We also took evidence from Lord Leitch (on skills) and from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Minister responsible for Higher Education, Bill Rammell MP. In the area of science sessions were held with Professor Sir David King, the outgoing Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and his replacement, Professor John Beddington. While this was not an official pre-appointment hearing it allowed us the opportunity to explore some of Professor Beddington's intentions for his new role. Lastly, Lord Sainsbury of Turville gave evidence on the subject of his report Race to the Top on the UK's science and innovation policy.

DIUS's Departmental Report 2008

10. This inquiry aimed to fulfil Objectives A (task 4), B (task 5) and C (tasks 6, 7 and 9) of the Committee's core tasks by examining the administration, expenditure and policy of DIUS based on its Annual Report. It also allowed us to follow up the one-off evidence sessions held at the beginning of the year and to take a view on how well the new Department was performing. The first evidence session focused on the Department's administration, the second—with the Secretary of State—on Departmental policy, and the third—with Professor John Beddington—focused on the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) and its role overseeing science across Government. The Report will be published in early 2009. [7]

11. The creation of DIUS in the 2007 machinery of government changes saw subtle alterations to the way in which science policy-making is organised. The Science and Technology Committee had previously recommended the separation of the roles of Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and head of the OSI and the relocation of the GCSA to the Cabinet Office.[8] The first part of this recommendation was implemented when the office of the GCSA (renamed the Government Office for Science or GO-Science) moved from DTI to DIUS. GO-Science retained its independence as a discrete body within DIUS whilst most of the OSI was subsumed into the main DIUS organisation under the leadership of a Director General of Science and Research. However, the recommendation that the office of the GCSA be moved to the Cabinet Office was not accepted.[9]

Executive Agencies and Non-Departmental Public Bodies

12. One of the Committee's key scrutiny roles as outlined in Task 7 (Objective C) of the core tasks is "to monitor the work of the department's Executive Agencies, NDPBs, regulators and associated public bodies" We keep a watching brief on these organisations and directly and indirectly, through other inquiries which have touched on their work, have examined their activities as listed below.

Medical Research Council and the UKCMRI

13. The Committee's First Report of Session 2007-08 addressed the creation of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), to be located in central London next to the British Library and St Pancras station.[10] As one of the Research Councils, the Medical Research Council is an NDPB of DIUS and the founding of the UKCMRI will constitute a major relocation of its research capacity and a significant capital spend.[11] Our Report highlighted concerns about the timetable, the financial arrangements (in particular the treatment of the MRC's Commercial fund by the Treasury) for the project and the lack of clarity about which science would survive in the move from the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research to the new site. The Committee is currently receiving six-monthly updates from the MRC on progress with the project, the first of which was received in July 2008 and is published with this Report.[12]

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

14. Members of the Committee visited the part STFC funded CERN project in March 2008 to meet British scientists and to see the Large Hadron Collider before its completion and inauguration in September. We also conducted an inquiry into Science Budget Allocations, discussed in greater detail later in this Report.

The Copyright Tribunal and the Intellectual Property Office

15. In March we published our Second Report of Session 2007-08 examining the work of the Copyright Tribunal,[13] which adjudicates in commercial disputes between copyright owners and users. We examined the recent review of the Tribunal commissioned by the Intellectual Property Office (which has administrative responsibility for it) and concluded that the Government needed to take action to implement the recommendations, in the face of complaints about delays, costs and the fact that the Tribunal has failed to meet the challenges of the digital age.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

16. We took evidence from John Armitt, Chairman and Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive, in November 2008 to explore a number of issues: firstly, concerns about levels of research funding and, secondly, the role of the EPSRC in supporting innovation through the Technology Strategy Board. This session also constituted an introductory hearing with John Armitt.[14] We are currently following up the evidence taken from EPSRC and are awaiting financial data on research grant allocations.

Higher Education Funding Council for England

17. The role of HEFCE has been examined by us on three occasions. On 28 November 2007 we took evidence from Professor David Eastwood, Chief Executive, HEFCE and Bill Rammell MP, then Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, DIUS as one of our sessions introducing the work of the new Department.[15] HEFCE returned to give evidence as part of our inquiries into Equivalent or Lower Level Qualifications (ELQs), and on implementation of the Leitch Review.

Office for Fair Access

18. On 2 June 2008 we took evidence from Professor Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, Office for Fair Access (OFFA).[16] This evidence session centred on the work of OFFA in ensuring that the new fee arrangements do not deter students in under-represented groups from attending university.

SCIENCE AND INNOVATION NETWORK

19. Our Committee has taken a keen interest in the future of the Science and Innovation Network. The Network, which involves dedicated staff in 24 countries, was established by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 2000. Its objectives include promoting scientific collaboration and driving innovation and policy-making through facilitating new international partnerships.

20. Following a strategic review its future looked uncertain. We were told by the FCO that "its own requirement could be met with a smaller Science and Innovation Network" and that it was exploring other sources of funding.[17] In March we received a joint memorandum from the FCO and DIUS confirming that the Network would in future be funded jointly by the two departments, with DIUS taking overall leadership and management responsibility.[18] We will closely monitor how this arrangement works in practice.

21. We use this opportunity to thank staff from the Network who assisted in the organisation of our visits to Germany, China and Japan, and to the other members of the Network who have assisted us throughout the year with requests for information.

Inquiries into long-term issues

Renewable electricity-generation technologies

22. The first of our longer-term inquiries was a study of renewable electricity-generation technologies which we completed in June 2008 in our Fifth Report of the Session.[19] The inquiry focused on the adequacy and feasibility of the Government's targets for renewable electricity generation, as well as the funding landscape and the relationship with the planning system. The Committee visited Germany in connection with the inquiry.

The Leitch Review of Skills

23. The placing of 'Skills' in the title of DIUS is a welcome emphasis on this key area of the Government's agenda. As well as having an early evidence session with Lord Leitch we appointed a sub-committee and conducted a substantial inquiry on how the Government is implementing the recommendations of his report Prosperity for all in the global economy—world class skills. Our report will be published in January 2009. [20]

Engineering

24. We were prompted to inquire into the future of engineering following concerns expressed to us that the UK would soon have a shortage of engineers in several important areas, and a desire to conduct an inquiry which embraced every aspect of the DIUS remit. This inquiry has been a major piece of work which we conducted in an iterative and innovative way, holding initial evidence sessions with witnesses prior to choosing case studies of particular sectors: nuclear engineering, geo-engineering, plastic electronics and engineering in government. We conducted a series of visits during the inquiry, including China and Japan. The report will be published in spring 2009.

Reactive Inquiries

25. A number of the Committee's inquiries responded to issues of immediate public concern.

Equivalent or Lower Level Qualifications

26. This inquiry examined the Government's decision to withdraw funding to Higher Education Institutions to subsidise the fees of students studying 'ELQs'. The Report, the Committee's Third Report of 2007-08,[21] concluded that not only was there hostility to the changes among stakeholders, but also that consultation was poor, the policy unjustified and the transition arrangements inadequate.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

27. We held a single evidence session in July 2008 with the management of the QAA, following its report on Standards in Universities. This was particularly topical given an interview the Chief Executive gave to the BBC in which he described the degree classification system as "arbitrary and unreliable" and "rotten".[22] We will take some of these issues forward in our recently announced inquiry Students and Universities.

Science Budget Allocations

28. The Fourth Report of Session 2007-08, on Science Budget Allocations, [23] was originally planned as a short focused study of the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007, but as soon as the inquiry was announced it was apparent that members of the particle physics and astronomy community had grave concerns about future funding arrangements. Despite the fact that in CSR 2007 the science budget rose by 17.5% between 2007-08 and 2010-11, real problems arose following the creation of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, both in the balance between central commitments and responsive mode grants, and the decisions made by the STFC in its Delivery Plan on the future of the Daresbury Laboratory. We were highly critical in our report of DIUS and the STFC and took the view that they had both handled the situation in a cavalier and unprofessional way and that there are fundamental issues relating to the allocation of budgets, the setting of priorities and the Haldane principle which need further consideration. This is an issue in which we continue to take a close interest and we will take further evidence from the STFC early in the new year.

29. The inquiry also covered the work of two other Research Councils: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (with which we hope to do further work in 2009 on innovation and knowledge transfer) and the Medical Research Council.
"The Government's announcement of the 2007-08 to 2010-2011 Science Budget should have been a triumph yet somehow this £11.24 billion contribution to UK research became a PR disaster. The focus of community wrath was aimed at the door of the newly formed Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) who spotted an £80 million shortfall in key budgets. Whether the advent of full economic costs, the additional expenditure on Diamond Light Source and other large facilities, or the move to set up STFC were the cause was not clear. The decision of the IUSS Committee to hold an inquiry into 'Science Budget Allocations' encouraged the particle physics and astronomy community to air their concerns and enabled Members of the Committee to visit Daresbury Laboratory, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh to understand first hand the brilliant science that STFC was funding. A clear case of the IUSS Select Committee adding value through its scrutiny process."

Phil Willis MP, Chairman

BIOSECURITY

30. The Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2007-08[24] examined the issue of biosecurity in UK research laboratories. The 2007 outbreak of foot and mouth disease which was traced back to laboratories at Pirbright in Surrey demonstrated the importance of this matter. We recommended that the Government set up an inter-agency body with the role of improving strategic planning and co-ordination of high containment laboratories and were disturbed that Ministers had not met to discuss biosecurity, concluding that a Ministerial group should be set up to rectify this. Both of these recommendations were accepted by the Government in its response to our Report.[25]

31. Further recommendations related to the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, which is currently being redeveloped. Costs for the project have risen beyond initial expectations and our Report recommended that a final financial settlement should be sought as a matter of priority. We also recommended that the Government clarify its long term animal health strategy, including its vision for the future of the Pirbright laboratories. On these matters we are yet to receive a response from the Government.

Pre-legislative Scrutiny

32. Committees are expected to scrutinise draft Bills which fall within their remit. We therefore conducted a short inquiry on the Draft Apprenticeships Bill and published a report in early December 2008, which included a series of recommendations to improve the draft Bill and, in particular, emphasise the importance of the quality of apprenticeships.[26]

Other work

33. During the year we visited the British Library and the AQA, the UK awarding body for A-levels, GCSEs and other exams, to meet staff and have the opportunity to discuss their work. We were also pleased to meet delegations visiting Westminster, including parliamentarians from the Slovak Republic, China and Australia.

Follow-up to previous inquiries

34. Following up inquiries, evidence sessions and reports is something we take seriously. In our first year of existence much of the follow-up we carried out was in relation to previous Reports of the former Science and Technology Committee. Letters relating to this work are published alongside this report. The issues covered include:

  • Updates from the Medical Research Council about the progress of the UKCMRI project;[27]
  • Drug reclassification: we followed up the Science and Technology Committee's work by writing to the Home Secretary in June 2008 when cannabis was reclassified asking how this related to evidence-based policy making;[28]
  • Investigating the Oceans: We took oral evidence in April from the Secretary of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to follow up this Science and Technology Committee Report, and sought a follow-up memorandum to see what progress had been made in implementing the recommendations.[29] We are currently seeking a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall;
  • Evidence-based policy making: we took further oral evidence on this important issue relating in particular to the use of government statistics;[30] and
  • Doping in sport: the National Anti-Doping Organisation is to be made independent and given new powers, along the lines of recommendations made by the Science and Technology Committee in its Report on Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport.[31]

"As a Member who served on the former House of Commons Science and Technology (S&T) Select Committee I find the new Committee difficult to serve. We now meet twice a week in order to scrutinise the breadth of topics within the coverage of the new DIUS. Certainly STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are not now getting the cross-Departmental scrutiny that the former Committee were able to give them.

"The former S&T Committee produced three reports that assisted Members in understanding the difficult concepts contained in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. In this field scientific advances have been challenging the law for some time, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was long overdue for reform.

"Sadly, the Government failed to accept important recommendations contained in 'Investigating the Oceans', particularly the need for a holistic UK marine strategy and a new organisation to co-ordinate it. I hope that our recommendations on the funding of science and discovery centres will be accepted. These diverse bodies play a key role in exciting our young people into pursuing a career in science or engineering."

Dr Brian Iddon MP

35. A debate was held in Westminster Hall on 15 May 2008 on the Science and Technology Committee's Report on Science and Discovery Centres,[32] and the House debated the Science Budget Allocations Report during an Estimates Day.[33]

36. Some of the inquiries completed this session will lend themselves to follow-up work in 2008-09. We are, for example, still awaiting information on the redevelopment of Pirbright following our Biosecurity Report, and also plan to take further oral evidence on the Science and Technology Facilities Council.


7   As the Third Report of Session 2008-09, HC 51-I Back

8   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, HC 900-I Back

9   See Press Notice on Machinery of Government Changes, 28 June 2007, www.number10.gov.uk Back

10   HC 185 Back

11   Other partners involved with the UKCMRI are Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and UCL (University College London). Back

12   Ev 11 Back

13   HC 245 Back

14   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on 12 November 2008, HC (2007-08) 1170-i Back

15   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on 28 November 2007, HC (2007-08) 114-i Back

16   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on 2 June 2008, HC (2007-08) 598-i Back

17   Ev 2 Back

18   As above Back

19   HC 216-I Back

20   As the First Report of the Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 48 Back

21   HC 187-I Back

22   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on 17 July 2008, HC (2007-08) 905-I, Q 45  Back

23   HC 215-I Back

24   HC 360-I Back

25   Ninth Special Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, Biosecurity in UK research laboratories: Government Response to the Sixth Report from the Committee, HC 1111 Back

26   Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, HC 1062-I Back

27   Ev 3, 11 Back

28   Ev 4 Back

29   Ev 15 Back

30   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on 19 March 2008, HC (2007-08) 443-i Back

31   Ev 1 Back

32   HC Deb, 15 May 2008, col 481WH Back

33   HC Deb, 7 July 2008, col 1212 Back


 
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Prepared 16 January 2009