House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES, SCIENCE & SKILLS COMMITTEE
AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills Committee
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Evan Harris
Mr Gordon Marsden
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Lord Drayson, a Member of the House of Lords, Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Mr Graeme Reid, Head of Economic Impact, Science & Research Group, and Mr Jeremy Clayton, Deputy Head, Government Office for Science, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: Could I welcome in particular this afternoon to this very first session of the new inquiry, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, Lord Drayson of Kensington, the Minister for Science and Innovation at DIUS. Welcome to you, Minister.
Lord Drayson: Thank you.
Q2 Chairman: Graeme Reid, the head of economic impact of the Science & Research Group at DIUS, welcome to you again, Graeme, it is nice to see you in the new year; and Jeremy Clayton, another old friend of the committee, the deputy head of the Government Office for Science at DIUS, welcome to you as well, Jeremy. Could I just say by way of introduction that this particular inquiry really sort of builds on, I think, three pieces of work which the committee and its predecessor have done. First of all, in terms of the engineering inquiry we have just virtually completed, we ran a small case study which was looking at engineering in government, and there were some very, very interesting comments brought forward during that particular session. Secondly was during the science budget allocations, again, there was some real concern by the committee, and indeed one of the drivers for this inquiry was what is the juxtaposition between national science policy and policy within the regions. The whole issue of the Haldane principle again came up during that inquiry, which was repeated by Wakeham's review of physics. Our predecessor committee did a major piece of work about scientific advice to government in the formulation of policy, and again, that is a theme which is running through our committee's work, which is really about evidence-based policy, so that is the background to it. But I wonder if I could start, Minister, by saying that your role differs very significantly from your immediate predecessor's, and indeed, going back to Lord Sainsbury, from his role as well, and I just wonder how you are using your upgraded position with a role within the Cabinet as well to put science and engineering at the heart of government. Do you see it in those terms?
Lord Drayson: Yes, Chairman, absolutely. I see my role as to be a champion for science and engineering through government, that is through the promotion of the research base, the promotion of excellence in research, but to do that not just through my responsibilities in my own department, but using the fact that I have been given the task of setting up this brand new committee for science and innovation to make sure that science is put at the heart of government policy. We have the second meeting of the committee tomorrow, so we have had one meeting so far, but I would say that just from the initial feedback from that first meeting with my ministerial colleagues and other government departments, there is a shared recognition across government of the central importance of science, the importance of making sure that policy is based around good science, and the importance of ensuring that government departments have access to the necessary expertise, the R&D budgets to make sure that policies which they develop and implement are consistent with policies which are being implemented in other parts of government, and to make sure that it adds up to a coherent whole which positions the UK to capitalise on, I think, its brilliant track record in science, to make sure that that science is pulled through effectively into wealth creation.
Q3 Dr Gibson: The fact that you say that it should be at the heart of policy decisions and so on kind of suggests it never has been. Are there evil forces around who believe that it might not be the right place for science to be, at the heart, but more on the periphery; do you pick that up?
Lord Drayson: I think that there are examples of real excellence, but there are also examples where science is not properly recognised, and the role of science, particularly early on in the development of policy, and that is something which we need to work on. I think the recognition of that mixed picture is why I have been appointed to this role, why this role has been structured in this way. My brief really is to make sure that good practice which does exist is taken across other areas of government, so departments learn from each other, and I see my role as to use both persuasion, exhortation, balanced argument, to persuade --
Q4 Dr Gibson: Vehemence.
Lord Drayson: And vehemence, and a bit of passion as well, to make sure that all government departments raise their game on this, and there is never a more important time to do it. I feel that the current economic environment actually provides a real focus on this, and the response from government departments in that first meeting, I would say, has been really positive. There is a recognition of the importance of this.
Q5 Chairman: Just following on from Ian Gibson's question there, it is an incredibly confusing picture of science in government, you know, with some departments having chief scientific advisors and others not having them; the sub-committees for science and innovation report to Cabinet through a committee that considers economics; you have a number of government departments that have established science advisory councils, and others have not. For instance, DIUS, the department you sit in, does not have one. What is all that about? How do you get some real sense of collective responsibility for science right across government, or is that your job now?
Lord Drayson: That is my job. I think that I am actively promoting the development of coherence, a policy of making sure that these activities the different departments are taking and the support structures that exist have synergy between them, that they are effective in working together. One of the most important aspects of this area for me is that many of the policy areas require more than one department to work together; there are a number of really quite important science projects, of strategic importance for the country, which you cannot just easily put into one particular government department. Therefore, we need to develop effective mechanisms whereby multiple departments can work together, not get embedded in their own silos, to share information and focus around a particular area. I think climate change is an area where we are going to see this being increasingly important, as an example.
Q6 Chairman: But if science is so important, you are a zealot in terms of the way in which science and engineering can affect this country's future, how can it be possible that major departments, like Treasury, for instance, do not even have a departmental chief scientific adviser? Until recently, Education did not. How is that possible, and what are you going to do about it?
Lord Drayson: I am
going to strongly encourage them to change that. I think we should recognise that
Q7 Chairman: But Minister, the sub-committee for science and innovation which you head up does not have representatives from all the departments, nor does it have the government chief scientific adviser sitting on it.
Lord Drayson: Yes, it does. It does have the government's chief scientific adviser.
Mr Clayton: I think the formal position is that Cabinet committees consist of Ministers. For this particular committee, as with some others, there is a line at the bottom which says the government chief scientific adviser is invited to attend, so as a matter of course he does attend and take part in the discussion. I think he may not be a formal member.
Q8 Dr Gibson: Scientists work in teams, they move in groups of people, fielding ideas and so on, working together across science and so on. What do you think about civil servants in this area? I think they have quite a bit of clout, do they not, in areas? You can have all the ministers you like in the world, you can have a scientific adviser, but at the end of the day, civil servants can put the boot in quite hard. Is that true, in your experience so far?
Lord Drayson: I think civil servants have a major contribution to make, and therefore it is very important that we have enough scientists and engineers in our civil servants. When I was a defence minister, I was very active in the development of the cadre of scientists and engineer civil servants within the department, and one of the things I learnt in doing that was the lack within our current Civil Service career structure for a parallel career path for civil servants to develop their careers and stay in the specialist area of science and engineering. You can do it in certain other professional areas, I am very keen to encourage the Civil Service to develop this for the science and engineering profession. That has been developed very successfully, particularly in the hi-tech industry, in the private sector. We have to have a situation where to get promoted within the Civil Service, you do not necessarily have to switch from being a specialist engineer to being a generalist. That is certainly the structure which exists in best practice in industry, and it is one which we need to develop in the Civil Service. I was very pleased to see your committee chairman ask for returns from departments on the numbers of graduate scientists and engineers in each department; I was very disappointed by the returns that came back. We have to change this.
Q9 Ian Stewart: It is interesting that you have mentioned engineers several times in the same breath as scientists. Do you therefore see yourself, when you have got this cross cutting role, as minister for science, engineering and innovation?
Lord Drayson: Yes.
Q10 Ian Stewart: So you very much see yourself as that?
Lord Drayson: Yes, in terms of championing the science profession within government and the engineering profession within government, and taking specific action already: the government chief scientific adviser has set up a professional group for scientists and engineers, he set up the first meeting last week, he invited me to come and give a talk to that meeting, it was an enormously effective gathering, the head of the Civil Service came and spoke too. So I think what we are doing is developing a sense of the science and engineering profession within the Civil Service, this is something which we need to continue and we need to develop it. We do need more scientists and engineers in the Civil Service.
Q11 Chairman: Lord Drayson, CST was clearly set up by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as being a really important organisation, sort of driving science, innovation, technology, with some incredibly eminent scientists, engineers, technologists and economists on board. The Prime Minister met regularly with that organisation. Do you meet regularly with that organisation?
Lord Drayson: Yes, I do, Chairman.
Q12 Chairman: Because they feel undervalued. The evidence we had in our engineering inquiry was they felt they were peripheral to what was happening. They write good reports, but nothing much happens.
Lord Drayson: I have met with them, if I am correct, three times in my time as Science Minister.
Q13 Chairman: Has the Prime Minister met with them, to your knowledge?
Lord Drayson: Yes, the Prime Minister met with them at a breakfast meeting towards the end of last year.
Q14 Chairman: My final point before I pass on is: in terms of international intelligence in science and technology, clearly that is crucially important for us formulating our policy, forming strategic alliances. Do you feel that there is sufficient intelligence coming into your department, do you feel we are sufficiently plugged in to get advice about what is happening elsewhere in the globe?
Lord Drayson: I think
that we are plugged in, although I think that the literature, if you like, on
the exploitation of science, the whole process of innovation by government, is
pretty patchy in the sense of its scope and quality. I think there have been a number of very good
studies, for example, on different types of model, the way in which, for
example, the Silicon Valley model has developed; the Finnish model has
developed; a smaller number of studies of what has been happening in
Q15 Graham Stringer: Do you have a theory of what has gone wrong? We all want to get the best value out of science that we possibly can, and this country has had an excellent record on innovation and scientific research, but it has been less good at turning that to the economic benefit of the country. Do you have a theory about whether this is a cultural issue, whether it is a failure of government; what is your analysis, and how do you intend to improve the situation?
Lord Drayson: I think it is a hugely complex area, therefore the answer to your question is multi-factorial, but I do think that we are seeing some key conclusions emerging. I think that I would agree with you 100 per cent that we have been truly excellent at science in this country, all the data supports that, the productivity of our science, in terms of numbers of citations, Nobel prize winners and so forth, the investment that we have made over the last ten years has led to a renaissance in the science base. The feedback I have had is the quality of the science in our research base has never been higher. We have also been very effective in the development of intellectual property from that science base in a way that we were not ten years ago. The technology transfer processes from universities have improved dramatically. I think what my predecessors, particularly Lord Sainsbury, did to change that, to understand the clustering effect around certain universities to develop lower economic costs for businesses, has all been tremendous. What has happened is that has led to a really quite significant number of spin-out companies being created and international comparisons in terms of the productivity of spin-outs, their numbers, and their quality, has been very good. The problem has been our ability to convert those increasingly large numbers of start-up companies into a sufficiently large number of really substantial businesses, and I think that there are a number of reasons for this. One of the key reasons is the economic environment, nothing to do with the credit crunch; the credit crunch is making it dramatically more difficult now and bringing all of this into focus, but we have seen that our high technology companies which have been built on our science base have tended to get to a certain size, comparably smaller than you would see, for example, in the United States, and then have been acquired or have stagnated. Now this has led to a failure to fully realise the jobs and the wealth that could be created for those businesses, and therefore I am very focused on what we can do to address that particular problem. So I think the agenda, the focus is moving; it has moved from that early stage to more the mid stage. We have to maintain our investment in science, we have to maintain this very good track record in spin-outs, but we have to see more of these spin-outs grow to be substantial employers of people.
Chairman: I want to return to that later, Lord Drayson, in terms of your second session this afternoon, but I think that has been a good opening in terms of actually exploring that further.
Dr Gibson: I want to drill deeper than just the successes that we have and say: why do we get these successes, what happens? Now I happen to believe there are two things about many young people, they do most of the science in this country at the post-doc level or at the PhD level, we see that with MIT in the States, the Massachusetts Institute, where young people come in and do PhDs and get their spin-out company, because they are set up to do that; and the second thing about young people, why they are doing all this great work and getting disillusioned, is because nobody thinks they are doing anything important. They want to drill into the process of legislation and making things happen. They are full of young ideas. You must meet them at meetings, think tanks, whatever, and there are all these bright young people that say, "I do not really want to spend six post-doc periods of my life doing research and getting a citation", which is one method of judging success, it is not the only way of doing it, and we often use that in this country as the only way. But I want to see what you are going to do about making sure young people stay with science, either the blue sky stuff, or getting into industry, because I think we have a real problem with young people in this country who are getting scientific training, and maybe they will all be civil servants one day, maybe that is where they will go, I hope not, because they are as bad as financiers.
Chairman: Let the Minister give an answer.
Q16 Dr Gibson: I just want to know, what are you going to do about young people? If you were a post-doc today, a Colin Blakemore of the future, where would you go?
Lord Drayson: I would
want to encourage the Colin Blakemores of the future to consider a career
going into teaching, so after having done one or two post-docs, to consider
alternatives to an academic research career, so consider going into teaching;
there is a real need for more science teachers who have a trained background
within sciences as a first degree. I
would want to facilitate your ability to consider going into industry, in
particular going into a technology company operating in the science area for
which you have been trained. Now we have
learnt through the last ten years of some very effective models as to the way
in which post-docs in particular, as you mentioned, can be moved from the
academic setting into industry. For
example, the relationship between a professor and their post-doc is one of real
trust often, so therefore one of the ways for a professor's intellectual
property to be commercialised is for the post-doc, or more than one post-doc,
to actually move out of the academic setting and move into the early stage
start-up company. For those two aspects
to happen, I think we need to see a shift in the way in which academic careers
are treated within our universities. To
enable those two things to happen, we have to have an environment whereby it is
possible for you to say, "I want to take a few years out from doing my academic
research, for example to go and work for a hi-tech business, but I want to have
the ability to go back into that academic research in the future". Now that is something which certain
universities, by no means all universities in the
Q17 Dr Gibson: It sounds like being a woman in science actually.
Lord Drayson: I think there is a real value in us facilitating the ability of people to make that move with their expertise in and out of the academic research environment, to business, to government policy, in terms of civil servants, to even consider going into politics, I think --
Q18 Dr Gibson: Good God no. Do not condemn them to that.
Lord Drayson: I think there is a role for more scientists in politics, and I think seriously for us to facilitate people going into teaching at different stages in their life, not only for teaching to be something which you would consider immediately after finishing your first degree, but something which could be made a natural next step for you, say, in your late 20s/early 30s.
Q19 Dr Gibson: Do you think either young people or experienced people like Colin Blakemore, who is in the room, as you know, found it fun to go into legislation, determination, making decisions and that? Do you think they felt welcome, do you think their scientific expertise was recognised in any way, or were they just a nuisance?
Lord Drayson: I can speak
for my own experience, and that is that I became interested in politics because
one particular issue around science, in my particular case, animal rights
extremism, politicised me, I became really quite exercised and concerned about
the issue, and what I learnt was that getting involved in the politics of
science, science policy, was a hugely interesting and satisfying thing, it
really was. So I think that the fact
that the protest group developed at
Chairman: Can I just park this as an issue? I think it is an absolutely crucial issue to future science policy to have a different relationship between what actually happens in the research labs in our universities and how we get these career paths, and I know Dr Harris has been pressing us for what seems like 20 years to do an inquiry on this.
Q20 Dr Gibson: Tell us about learned societies, how they could play more -- we have recommended from a previous committee that learned societies and academies could get involved to a greater extent in policy determination; do you think they are or they are not?
Lord Drayson: I believe that this is really to be welcomed, and so an example of this happening in practice is that later this week, we will be launching a science communications campaign to address the unfortunate fact that too many people in our society regard science as an elitist endeavour. We are going to tackle this head on on Wednesday, and we are doing this in full consultation and support with the learned societies who have been involved in the development of the communication campaign, together with the research councils. I think it is the first time actually we have the full science community on board with the development of the campaign, which has been in response to the policy development which has come out of the science and society work. So there we went out, did the consultation, we asked the general public, "What do you think of science, what are the issues which concern you?", and we learnt some very important things. On the one hand, we learnt that people have a very high expectation of the power of science to do good, to address issues of climate change, for example, to find a cure for cancer, but whilst having those expectations of the importance of science, when you ask them, "What is the impact of science on your everyday life?", they regard it as unimportant.
Q21 Dr Gibson: Do you recognise that all learned societies do not move at the same speed, do not have the same understanding of the world they live in and how to engage with the politicians; the black art of politics is different from their type of black arts. Having been an academic, you know the black arts of universities, much more vicious, I think, than the politics we live in now. But there are differences between them. Some are fast movers, some are slow movers, some do not even move at all, and suddenly they discover late on that there is somebody to engage with to make policy. Is that your experience?
Lord Drayson: I think it is fair to say that there is a variety of different learned societies in their focus, some have more, I think, of a focus on the modern environment and the challenges that we face as a country today. I think what we have to do in government is to work with them in a leadership role, but very much bring them with us, and I would point to the campaign on Wednesday this week, I would encourage the chairman and the committee to judge whether or not this is an example of effective working by my department, under my championing of science, and working with the learned societies to address what is clearly an issue for us as a country.
Q22 Graham Stringer: This Committee has had contradictory answers out of the government
when it has asked questions about whether it is important whether or not
science is done in the regions, whether the government in actual fact has a
regional scientific policy. Some science
ministers have come and said, "We support Jodrell Bank, we support Daresbury,
we support science in the regions", and we have also had statements in response
to reports that it does not matter wherever science is done, whether it is all
Lord Drayson: My interpretation is that the overriding factor which is most important is that science, wherever it is done, has to be excellent science. It is the quality of the science which is most important. Now for science to be of high quality, it requires a critical mass of scientists working in an area, supported with the right infrastructure, having the ability to carry out the cutting edge experiments, and in my experience, the ability to do that depends not just on decisions about the future, it depends on history too. I learnt in my own research that there is almost a genealogy to science, like there are in so many other things in life, and therefore, the existing location of expertise, the clusters of that expertise, the location of infrastructure, is very important in terms of where it makes sense for science to be carried out. So therefore, the decision about the location of future investments of infrastructure will have an impact on how that cluster of expertise is developed, but we need to take into account the decisions rightly of the peer review process, that is the principle of Haldane, that these are not decisions which are made by ministers, they are made by the science community, directed to make decisions, allocation of resources, based upon where the excellence of science will be carried out, but taking into account where the expertise and the infrastructure lie.
Q23 Graham Stringer: That is a very conservative policy really for a Labour government,
is it not? I hate the word, but it is a
very non-pro-active policy. I understand
that the Cavendish laboratory is the Cavendish laboratory and people are going
to be attracted there, but would you not think it should be part of a Labour
government's policy to create another Cavendish laboratory in Motherwell,
Lord Drayson: I do believe that history has shown us that it is very difficult and can be counter-productive to believe that you can create a cluster of expertise. There are many factors which lead to the development of a body of expertise. Often that is down to one or two key individuals, and what I believe --
Q24 Graham Stringer: Can I just interrupt there? I
accept that, that great scientists will attract the right research
workers. But what attracts great
scientists quite often is investment in equipment and facilities. There is a chicken and egg argument here, is
there not? The government can intervene
and say, "We will provide you with your latest atom smasher [or whatever it is]
Lord Drayson: You are absolutely right, and I think there is one factor which we need to in future, I believe, pay more attention to when we are making decisions about infrastructure. There is no doubt that the decisions that we take about next generation infrastructure will impact the development of these future clusters of scientific excellence. I believe that we need to think more in the future about that problem which I highlighted in an earlier question about the process of conversion of that science into wealth and jobs, and the fact that we have had this bottleneck up to now where we have not seen the development of our businesses far enough. I think that we can identify areas in the country whereby there is the ability for businesses to be spun out of research campuses, but to make sure that those businesses are supported by the local councils for a strategy of growth, so therefore when a business gets to the point where it is looking at its first production facility, that it would be encouraged to locate that production facility next to its R&D laboratory, and that you are developing a critical mass of expertise and wealth, not just in the science base itself, but also in the commercialisation of that science. What we have seen, has dogged us a bit I think up to now, is in some cases, it has been difficult for businesses which have grown up, for example, out of the campuses, from Oxford, Cambridge and London, to be able to make that growth once they get to a certain size of business, and I think that does force us to look for other developments of science campuses in the future.
Q25 Graham Stringer: That is answering rather a different point, is it not? That is answering what happens to research
when it has taken place and how the country or the region or the local
community most benefits from it. What I
would like to leave you with is a final question, and a thought really: if
you accept that money will follow scientists and current institutions, then
most of the investment in science, as it is at present, will end up in the
golden triangle between
Lord Drayson: I think that this is something which should be constantly looked at. I do not think that you can come to a conclusion about science policy and then it is done. This is something which continuously evolves. But I do think the answer to your -- you posed this as a chicken and egg problem, where do you intervene in that process, I think you are right in describing it as a chicken and egg problem. My answer to where you would intervene is with the individual. In my experience, what I believe is that what should come first is the world class scientist, and therefore, my view as to an appropriate strategy for a university anywhere in the country looking to develop would be to identify: well, what is the subject area where we are looking to become world class, and to try and attract to that university one or more individuals who are world class in that area. What that then does is attract grant funding, infrastructure, researchers and industrial interest, which then builds that, and we have seen that as an effective model. I think that is the key to the development of science campuses in other areas in the future.
Q26 Mr Marsden: Lord Drayson, my colleague Graham Stringer has pressed you quite hard on what I might describe as the push/pull basis of where you invest, where you build up critical mass and so on and so forth. I suppose if one was being mildly caustic, one might say that to continue to review things is fine if you are looking at it from the golden triangle of the south-east and nothing is actually appearing to happen to change that. But let me pick up the point that you made earlier, because you were talking quite rightly with the chairman about the whole business of engaging with different government departments, and one thing and another, and I was interested in what you said about local councils. The one thing I do not think has been referred to so far is the regional role of development agencies. Development agencies, after all, whether people like it or not, now command a substantial amount of government funding. Should you not be in your capacity now having a pro-active series of discussions and involvements with RDAs as well as with the ministers across government?
Lord Drayson: Yes, you are absolutely right, and that is exactly what I am doing, so I have had meetings with chairmen of the RDAs, I have been discussing with them their views around the regional focus that they have in their area towards clusters of excellence, how they can work with, for example, my department's technology strategy board to make sure that there is an alignment between the investments that they are making, the actions they are taking to attract inward investment, and the decisions that the technology strategy board is making, again, independent from government, but making real choices about which technologies government support goes into, and making sure that all of that is aligned. I think you are particularly right to stress this in this very difficult economic environment, where we really do need to make sure that there is that alignment.
Q27 Mr Marsden: Can I just follow that up with a quick question, and ask: again, you referred in your previous answers to the importance of university impetus, investment in positions and all the rest, are you convinced at the moment that all the regional development agencies have an effective and concrete strategy for working with higher education institutions in their region to produce the sort of results that you are talking about?
Lord Drayson: Well, one can never be absolutely sure that everything is 100 per cent as it should be, but the impression that I get is that the RDAs are doing a very effective job. The way in which the academic institutions and universities have responded to this downturn has actually been to be pretty pro-active, I think actually going out to their local business community, reminding the business community of the resources that the university can offer, are engaged with their RDAs, and this is something which they absolutely should be doing in these times, but the sense that I get is they are doing it. If there is any feeling that they are not doing that well enough, I would be grateful to learn that and follow that up.
Q28 Chairman: I think the problem is that this is another department that looks after the RDAs, and the reality is, as science and engineering minister, how do you get a handle on that effectiveness? It would be useful -- not this session, but perhaps you could give us some feedback as to what is the interdepartmental relationship which means that you have a really critical eye rather than, as you have rightly said, "I feel that that is okay", because I think you would accept that that is not good enough.
Lord Drayson: Chairman, my sense that that is working well is based upon having had a lot of interaction over the last few months with BERR and, depending upon what is the subject area, the government department that has responsibility. So I will give you a specific example, the challenge of moving to a low carbon economy, the need to really change transportation infrastructure, and a really good working relationship which has developed between the technology strategy board, in terms of the investment in the low carbon innovation platform for vehicles, working with two RDAs in particular who have identified this as an opportunity for their region, who are putting in resources and finance to support that innovation platform, and working with the Department of Transport and BERR to make sure that the work that they are doing is all aligned, so it is based upon that type of experience. The way I engage on that is through specific projects like that.
I think it would be useful if we could have a note
from your department, Minister, to say how effective do you feel all the RDAs
are, because I think we can all give examples of where an
Q29 Ian Stewart: Lord Drayson, I am going to go back to the stuff that Graham Stringer pressed you on, because I must admit, I am just a bit perplexed at the answer that you gave. You have brought very specific skills, we recognise, to the job of minister. You have described those skills and why the government has allowed you to have a cross-departmental role, to raise awareness and understanding about physics, engineering and so on, and particularly with your commercial background. That all sounds very sensible. But it is not surely that a single minister should have the level of understanding about physics, science, engineering and so on, the point there must be that the government must have that understanding, and it just strikes me as very strange therefore that we are talking here in very vague terms about the lack of government policy or strategy, in terms of regional science or innovation policy. In Haldane, as we have discussed recently, the principle that is missing, of course, is a principle on funding, and there lies the very complex area where government may have a good view of what is necessary, perhaps government accepts, for example, the Regional Studies Association report that the north and periphery of the UK is relatively weak on innovation systems. If that is accepted, and government says that it is sensible not to have everything concentrated in one area of the country, any kind of golden triangle, wherever it might be, that there is the need to recognise excellence elsewhere in the country, maintain and improve that, how can we have a situation where a government will not say that it has a regional science policy or a regional innovation policy? It seems a contradiction in terms to me. Do we need to revisit and maybe have a Haldane principles review for the 21st century?
Lord Drayson: I think you have put the focus on a very important question which we have to ask ourselves as a country, which is that in the current economic environment, and looking at the way in which the world is developing, and is likely to shape up over the next 20 years, have we been strategic enough in determining the balance of our investments in areas of science, in areas of industry, taking into account what other countries are doing, and asked ourselves the question: what are the areas that we have the best chance of being most effective and most competitive in, how are those areas likely to develop, what is going to be the competitive space, what is it that other countries are doing, and are there opportunities for us to be more strategic in the choices that we make? Now that is an enormously big question to answer. Other countries are taking the view that making strategic choices about areas of focus is the right way of dealing with the enormous complexity and the speed of change which is taking place in the modern globalised world. We have to ask ourselves whether or not we believe that is true too, and if so, what are we going to do about it.
Chairman: This is a regional issue which my colleagues are raising as to whether in fact strategically government should in fact be saying, "In order to incentivise and use science and engineering and innovation as the main driver for economic recovery, we ought in fact to have a regional dimension to that", and government has consistently said to this committee, "No, we should not".
Q30 Ian Stewart: Not only that, Lord Drayson, if we take the analysis that Graham Stringer put forward before, which you accepted, that great scientists attract funding, projects, and so on, the assumption that could be taken from the statement I made earlier about the Regional Studies Association report, saying that we are relatively weak in the north and the periphery of the country, but that does not recognise that we have great scientists outside the golden triangle. It is not just about generating great science and physics elsewhere in the country, it can be about maintaining world class science elsewhere in the country, and that is where certainly I find on this committee the complex nature of this dilemma between Haldane and a government not having a regional strategy for physics is really quite worrying. I am glad you recognised that it was a big issue that you are tackling.
Mr Reid: There have been some really impressive innovations in science outside the golden triangle, and I think just for the record we can think of research pooling in Scotland where actually the physics community in particular have developed Scottish physics research in some really exciting ways; in Wales, we have seen the merger between the University of Cardiff and the University of Wales Medical School; and in the north-west, we have seen the creation of a major university through the merger in Manchester. In each case, as I understand it, these innovations came from the community and won support from the public purse because of the quality of the ideas and the ambitions that they were putting forward. So I think it is probably overstating things to imagine that the government must lead all of the innovations and determine the geographic distribution of these innovations.
Q31 Chairman: Would you tell us one major national facility that the government has supported in the last ten years outside the golden triangle?
Mr Reid: I think I
would have to confirm the answer I am about to give, but I think that there are
supercomputing facilities going into
Chairman: Is that not sad that you, who are responsible for this area, cannot just name them off the top of your head?
Q32 Graham Stringer: Can I say that when we visited Daresbury, we were told that 97 per cent of fundamental research done outside of universities was done in the golden triangle. Surely that is not a situation that any government, particularly a Labour government, can be satisfied with? It is actually the spatial distribution of investment, not just the fact that Manchester, Wales or Scotland are trying to pull themselves up by the bootlaces that is important, is it not?
Mr Reid: It is
important, but I think that the examples I gave before are not just about
people pulling themselves up, the university community in Scotland wins a
higher proportion of research council income per capita or per
Chairman: I think you are actually missing the point that we are making. We understand that there are these brilliant research groups that are appearing, and the government, to be fair, funds them according to the brilliance of their science. We have no complaint about that, I do not think, as a committee. It is the other thing, as to how government incentivise with major facilities other areas of the country, but I would like to leave that at the moment because we are desperately short of time, and to bring in Evan Harris.
Q33 Dr Harris: Good afternoon, Minister. I
just want to look at the issue of scrutiny and to a certain extent
transparency. My first example comes
from what we have just been discussing.
I do not know if you read our report on the science budget allocations,
which was dominated by the whole
Lord Drayson: Firstly, I would say that when a decision is taken about the location of a major piece of infrastructure, it clearly will have a strategic impact, and what is important is that the strategic impact of that decision takes into account the regional development agency piece, in terms of does that piece of infrastructure lead to the facilitation of the commercialisation of that science. So, for example, investment in a supercomputing facility, will that decision, which will have a strategic impact, have an impact in terms of the location of the development of a cluster of spin-out businesses, for example. But the decision on the location of that in the first place has to be driven by, I believe, this recognition of the key driver of the excellence in the individuals who are doing the science, that is what comes first.
Q34 Dr Harris: So the regional dimension is one factor?
Lord Drayson: Yes.
Q35 Dr Harris: Would it not be good if the role of government in that decision, if there is nothing to hide, could be out there and transparent, and that is why I was wondering if you would consider reviewing the decision of the department, DIUS, not to release the allocation letters to the research councils, even if they have to be blacked over for commercially sensitive issues, just like you do release the allocation letter to HEFCE. It is still all taxpayers' money, it is still all public funding of research and teaching and research, in the case of HEFCE, but it is disappointing that the government so far has refused to release the content of those letters, so we know and can scrutinise what the government says has some strategic elements to it, because I do not think we disagree that that should be permitted.
Lord Drayson: I think that as we go forward, your argument about the need for clarity around a view about the strategic impact regionally of key investments does make sense to me, and so that is something as we go forward which I am happy to take back and look at. I am actively working with the RDAs in terms of this link-up between the interventions which they are making and the science base, but I do not see any benefit or need in terms of going backwards. I think as we go forward from here, particularly in the context of an overall strategy relating to our science policy and the development of wealth from that science, making decisions about the strategic investments, it does make sense to take into account the regional aspect.
Q36 Dr Harris: Can I just ask you then about this issue, again, continuing on the scrutiny theme, of what you said earlier? You said that you were driven by a wish to see government policy based around good science and have wider recognition in government of the virtues of the scientific method. I think we all accept that policy does not have to be evidence-based, but then it should be labelled as not evidence-based. To what extent do you think government understands that if it does not accept the clear advice of its scientific advisers, then it needs to be clear in its public statements that the policy that they have implemented, which they are entitled to, for ideological or economic reasons, is not one based on the scientific evidence; do you see the problem? Because if they say, "Well, it is still evidence-based, we just disagree with the scientists who are advising us", it rather debases the language of evidence-based policy.
Lord Drayson: I think that it is a fact that science, the evidence, is one aspect of the factors which are taken into account when making a policy decision, and I do think that it is a benefit to be transparent about the reasons why a decision has been come to. I think that it is of increasing importance to develop good use of scientific method in the development of policy, I think that is something which could be developed further, for example, in areas of social policy, operating on the basis of a sort of clinical trial development in an area: piloting something, getting good data about its efficacy, whether or not it has achieved its end points, before rolling it out into other areas. That is something which is being increasingly done, and is to be supported.
Q37 Dr Harris: Absolutely, with sensible and pre-agreed outcome measures. My last question is around a specific example. If you take government drug policy, which is something this committee has declared on, there has been consistent advice from the advisory council on the misuse of drugs about the classification of cannabis. In the government's response, which was to reject it, at no point did they say, "We now recognise this is not an evidence-based policy, it is for other reasons", which it is not the remit of this committee to comment on, that is for Parliament to decide. I just wonder whether you think there is a price to pay for that, because if that happens again, if/when the committee reports on Ecstasy, and the government on the same day that that report is published says, "No, we absolutely are not going to accept your clear advice on this", then do you think there is a danger that scientists are going to be not prepared to give their time to advising the government if the government is saying, "This is a scientific question, we are interested in the evidence", but then almost pre-empting that by rejecting it for non-scientific reasons without being clear that they are non-scientific.
Lord Drayson: Well, I believe that scientists are sophisticated people and they understand that these questions of policy are complex, they have to take into account a number of different factors, and therefore, what scientists expect is that the contribution that the data, that science can make, is fully employed, where it appropriately can be, and then the decisions are taken based around it with clarity about the way in which that decision has been reached. I am not getting a sense that there is any disillusionment amongst the scientific community in the way in which they are engaged; quite the opposite, I get the sense that the scientific community welcomes that engagement and sees that as a positive trend.
Dr Harris: Because there was a pretty strong letter to The Guardian about this issue.
Chairman: I am going to stop, that is something clearly we will come back to, it is a constant thread, but we have overrun, and I am going to leave the last question, I am afraid, because we have overrun on this session. Can I thank you very much indeed as far as our inquiry is concerned, thank you very much indeed, Lord Drayson, Jeremy Clayton and Graeme Reid for your evidence.