House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INNOVATIONS, UNIVERSITIES, SCIENCE AND SKILLS COMMITTEE
putting science and engineering at the heart of
PROFESSOR JULIA KING and PROFESSOR LORD REES
DR TIM BRADSHAW, PROFESSOR DAME JANET FINCH,
BARONESS O'NEILL OF BENGARVE and MS JUDY BRITTON
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Mr Ian Cawsey
Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Examination of Witnesses
Professor David Fisk, Imperial
College London, Professor Lord John
Krebs, a Member of the House of Lords,
Q38 Chairman: Good morning. Could I welcome our very distinguished panel of witnesses this morning to this evidence session on putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy? We welcome Professor Lord John Krebs from the University of Oxford; Professor Lord Martin Rees, the President of the Royal Society, welcome to you; Professor David Fisk from Imperial College London, welcome; and Professor Julia King from Aston University, welcome to you as well. Sometimes select committees have the knack of being able to chose inquiries which are important at the time but become less important as they carry on; this is an inquiry which in fact is gathering pace as we go along because there has been a very significant shift, as we see it, in government policy literally over the last few weeks. We are somewhat perplexed as a committee that we have had this major shift in policy. We are focussing science spending on a few specialised areas where it has a world leading position and we are interested in why our experts have got such a strong sense of commitment to this new policy agenda with an unquestioning faith that the Government has got it right. Lord Rees, what is your comment on this new agenda?
Professor Lord Rees: First of all may I say thank you very much for inviting myself and
others as witnesses. I think we welcome
the commitment towards science by the Government, the acceptance that whatever
our economic problems are science is part of the solution and is supported. We are fortunate to have excellent science in
Q39 Chairman: With the greatest of respect, Lord Rees - although we as a committee are incredibly supportive of the amount of money that has gone into science over the last ten years and we need to put that on the record - if you have a finite cake and you are going to give more to X it has to come away from someone else. You seem to be thinking that it will all continue very happily; it cannot.
Professor Lord Rees: What I am saying is that I do not feel it would be a good idea if the budget for the research councils were tilted away from the physical sciences. There can be selectivity in terms of raising the threshold for the acceptance of the grant, but I do not think there should be a re-balancing away from physical sciences in government funding; if anything, the other way.
Q40 Chairman: Do any of your colleagues wish to comment?
Professor Lord Krebs: Thank you very much, Chairman, for inviting me along to this session. I would just like to make a couple of points which, in a sense, build on what Lord Rees has said. Last night I happened to bump into one of our Nobel Prize winners, Tim Hunt, who won a Nobel Prize a few years ago for his discoveries relating to cancer research. I asked him the question that you are putting to us, should the Government focus on key areas of priority and he said absolutely not. If you want to foster the kind of innovative research that led to him winning a Nobel Prize you should allow great freedom for scientists to propose research and judge it on excellence. He made the point to me that the greater the originality of research the less predictable the outcomes are likely to be.
Q41 Chairman: Do you agree with him?
Professor Lord Krebs: I pointed to a very nice study that was described by Sir William Paten a few years ago in his book Man and Mouse in which he looked at ten key advances in cardiovascular medicine and he traced back where those key advances came from and he identified about 600 papers in the literature that led to these key medical developments. Over 40 per cent of them had nothing to do with cardiovascular medicine at all and many of them were not carried out in medical departments or medical faculties; they were carried out in departments of chemistry, engineering, physics, botany, agriculture, zoology, et cetera. I think the difficulty with prioritisation is the inherent unpredictability of where the key advances are going to come from. If I could just add one more point, it is not that I am totally against having key themes - indeed, when I was chief executive of NERC we did have certain key themes broadly defined and the research councils have that mechanism today - but I do think that the key themes and the priorities should be presented in a broad way so that the scientists can be innovative within those themes and not be too prescriptive. I agree with Lord Rees that we do not want to see a shift in the balance between strategically directed research and responsive mode.
Q42 Chairman: Professor King?
Professor King: First of all I would like to say that it is interesting to be there,
thank you, and I would like to agree with Lord Rees that we need to be careful
about looking and saying that the UK appears to be doing better in the rankings
in the biological/biomedical areas than it is in engineering and physical
science. What we are good at at the
moment is historic about what has been invested in; it is not genetic and what
we need to be good at, in my view, is addressing the world's problems and the
biggest of those at the moment I believe is climate change and I believe that
is not only a world problem but it is going to be generating huge international
markets for new kinds of products and services and therefore if we want the UK
to be a successful economy we have to be keeping up our investment in the subject
areas that will deliver into solving that problem. Physical science and engineering are
critically important. I would say that
we are focussing enormously on just the research council budget and of course
there are lots of other budgets that go into research but also into applied
research and moving that research into commercialisation and I think there are
some issues, for example, around how the RDAs spend their budgets and I would
say it is rather interesting that if you look at a lot of RDAs they all think
they are going to be outstanding centres for medical technologies, for advanced
materials, for advanced automotive, for green energy and I think that it is
unrealistic that almost every
Q43 Chairman: So they should pick winners as well.
Professor King: I think we do need a bit more thinking about how we could best spend some of that other funding that is going into supporting research and moving research into industry.
Q44 Chairman: Professor Fisk?
Professor Fisk: It is a great pleasure to be in front of the Committee again, Chairman. I just have two thoughts really. I am reminded of Karl Popper's observation that if you were going to predict the wheel essentially you would have just invented it. It is very hard to talk about picking winners in science. I do contend - I do not know if this is a consensus with my colleagues - that it is a jolly sight easier to spot losers. I would have felt slightly easier if we were understanding what we were not doing and debating whether that was the right thing to do than begin to get into these banner headlines which is always a bit risky. I would note that we are not the only country going through this sort of turmoil of trying to think what post-recession science will look like. Some of the others do have the slight advantage of a more obvious industrial base. We have a few very large science and engineering multi-nationals, I am told by BERR, and very few in the medium size category. It was the Finns who produced Nokia, for example; we did not do that. There are a lot of small companies whose one ambition, it seems in life, is to sell their IPR to a big American firm and then set themselves up as Foxtons, an estate agent. As you do not have that industrial logic it is much harder. Aerospace and satellite technology are an enormous part of the 21st century and it is pretty hard to understand whether that is part of a UK package and competence when largely the IPR will remain with shareholders who live outside of the UK. I think the industrial structure is what most other countries have tended to use to try and help them work through this algorithm which was probably how we used to do things in the 60s' model. To use an anecdote, we are indeed one of the largest manufacturers of cars in Europe but we are actually manufacturers of other people's cars and that makes a lot of difference from the old traditional way in which universities like Warwick and Aston and so on related to a home-based industry and its thoughts and expectations of where the future would go.
Chairman: Thank you. Ian Gibson?
Q45 Dr Gibson: I am almost tempted to say, "Thank God for the recession; it will make us think out of the box a bit". I am always thinking of the question of who runs British science at the end of the day - we will probably get onto that later on - and how do you get these decisions through? I am interested in what you say, Martin, about the separation of physics and chemistry and so on. If you take the perspective that the thing that we need most (this is what the media plays on) is to do something about our health - obesity, all the genome stuff that is coming out, a huge explosion of new drugs - you could not blame the politicians for thinking that health and what you put into health is the big winner. What I mean by that is not just the biologists doing their bit and the medics doing their bit, but I mean the physicists and chemists too who play a major part. It is not either/or in terms of science; the science of this country is really tremendous in terms of the health service. I would just add to what Julia says about climate change. My argument is that the science was done some time ago, it has just taken the politicians one hell of a time to realise it has been done. There is not an awful lot to know from the political point of view about global warming and so on; that is happening, the caps are melting. We can finesse the details but we need the technologies now so we need to invest in those kinds of technologies. It is business orientated; it is making these two choices.
Professor Lord Rees: I agree that we need to support all R&D related to health but
regarding climate change I agree that the science is going well and that needs
to be continued, but what is very important - I think Professor King was
emphasising this - is that clearly the answer to the problems posed by climate
change is clean energy and innovative energy sources. This requires a massive R&D programme
worldwide on the same scale as the worldwide health budget. There is a tremendous disparity between the
amount the world is spending on health research and the amount the world is
spending on energy research. That needs
to be wrapped up. In the
Q46 Dr Gibson: You say that but they may be stimulated by the fact that we know where we are going and what we can do and they can play their altruistic part in the world as well as being good scientists. We could also say something about food technology and how important that is too.
Professor Lord Rees: Yes, but energy as well as -----
Dr Gibson: We will start going round and you will say "And, and, and". You have to pick some things that in the foreseeable future are not going to turn the recession into the great success.
Q47 Chairman: Or do we?
Professor Lord Rees: We are well below the
Q48 Chairman: Time is really tight and I want to get to the kernel of this. We could sit here for the rest of the day and
we could all make cases for particular areas of science and say how important
they are. The issue before us is that
there has been a shift in government policy which says that we are going to
look at those areas where
Professor Lord Krebs: The implications have been made that it comes back to the point that Ian Gibson raised about who actually runs science and the decisions of the allocation of funding within the research councils once the budget has been allocated to the councils is not, as far as I know, the job of ministers; that is the job of the scientific community and the members of the council. I would say that it is one thing to have the rhetoric, it is another thing to have the implementation of the rhetoric. I do not think there has been a shift in policy yet; there has been an indication of an intention.
Chairman: Can I just stop you there because we want to challenge you on that?
Q49 Dr Iddon: I am travelling around universities, as you are I am sure, and we have had tremendous shifts in science policy. I call them tectonic shifts. We have had three new institutes set up for energy, health, TSB for knowledge transfer; we have had the six big challenges created (climate change is one of them and ageing is another); we have had the graduate training centre set up; we have put 90% into full economic cost now. It just seems to me that we have had so many big changes that when I talked to a synthetic organic chemist - which is my field - less than ten per cent of the responsive mode grants are being granted and people are getting utterly frustrated at the universities trying to do blue sky research. There is even talk of British people who came back from America to here because the conditions were right here and they were wrong in America are now thinking - particularly since President Obama came in - of going back to America because it is so frustrating at the grass roots now trying to get grants to do basic research. I do not believe that there have not been significant changes in policy.
Professor Lord Krebs: I think the success rate in responsive mode grants is a real issue of concern. It is very variable across different areas. I remember when I was at NERC there were areas within EPSERC where the success rates where very low back in the 1990s so I do not think that that is a new phenomenon. I think it is the job of the research councils to look at the balance of their spending in different areas to ensure that pressures are not excessive. There should be pressure; there should be competition. It is right that there should be very stiff competition to get government funding for research but if it has reached the point where it is unacceptably low then research councils should look at that and rebalance it. That is my view.
Dr Iddon: Can I just ask the question which the Chairman asked of you? Which organisation has been driving these tectonic shifts? Was it the Sainsbury Report? Lord Sainsbury had a tremendous influence before he left office. Who has driven all these changes in policy because frankly I do not know where these have come from? Was there enough consultation? All these changes were made in one year more or less.
Q50 Chairman: The President of the Royal Society must know the answer to that.
Professor Lord Rees: Let us emphasise that we are still focussing mainly on the science vote and the research councils and this is only a proportion of what is being spent on R&D in the country worldwide. However, I think you are quite right, there have been these changes which have been discussed with RCUK et cetera. Perhaps I could mention something you will know that the Royal Society feels strongly about from earlier evidence, which is that we feel the PGRC and DIUS does need some external advisory group to advise on these important decisions on allocation.
Q51 Dr Harris: The 26th January was the first time that this new policy was enunciated by Lord Drayson at this Select Committee. We are less than a month later and the Government has announced that it is not a question of "if" or "whether" we go in this direction (I am quoting from John Denham's speech the other day); we are going to go in this direction. So within month, without any White Paper or Green Paper and without any public consultation as far as I can tell, the Government has decided that this is where they want to go. Whether they can get there probably depends on whether they are theirs to go after the election. Do you have any views on the question of whether a decision like this has been made in an appropriate way?
Professor Lord Rees: To be fair to Lord Drayson he did say he wanted to initiate a debate when he spoke in the House. There has been some interesting debate, as you know, stimulated by what Lord Drayson said a month ago.
Q52 Dr Harris: Is that a debate about whether to do this in your opinion or how to do it? I was told that it was about how to do it and the RCUK head, Ian Diamond, at the same meeting said, "We are going to do this" and so did the TSB.
Professor Lord Rees: Obviously it is very important to have this debate. My personal view, as I said in my answer to the first question, is that in order to meet the goals which have been enunciated by Lord Drayson and John Denham, it would not be necessary nor indeed desirable to cut back on across the board responsive mode research.
Q53 Dr Harris: If they are not going to increase the funding in a huge way - I do not think it is realistic to suggest they will - despite the doubling we are still not that high up (even with public funding) behind Finland and France (those are the two Fs that the minister gave in his talk). We are not going to get this increase so if we are going to concentrate then it is going to have to come not just from research councils and not just a shift within responsive mode funding, but also in the HEFCE vote presumably. He is not going to say, "You do this, but you carry on your own merry way". That means that in research council funding some success rates are going to go from 20 per cent to 40 per cent because they want more volume there and some will go from 20 per cent to two per cent. Presumably HEFCE funding is going to follow those priorities. How are they otherwise going to do it other than by doing that?
Professor Lord Rees: I think you will have to ask to what extent one needs to make changes like that in order to accept the spirit of what we need to do. I think also we have to decide the balance between responsive mode and special programmes within the research councils. We have to decide how we can incentivise private R&D in the strategic areas. We need to decide what the strategic areas are because I think we should question whether the only strategic area is bio-medical. As I have tried to say, I think we should emphasise the importance and the opportunity in energy in particular and maybe IT as well.
Q54 Chairman: Professor King, you are looking puzzled.
Professor King: I am feeling very puzzled about this because I think there has been a lot of over-interpretation of what has been said. I am a Technology Strategy Board board member and we had a long debate about how, in this period of recession, can we be more focussed in what we are doing to try to support key technologies, key society problems and key industry development and we certainly have not been saying we are going to focus on bio-medical. We almost seem to have turned this into tabloid headlines about there not being any energy research.
Q55 Dr Harris: I am saying that they are going to specialise - if I can use that term because it is more neutral - within each area so even if they keep overall spending the same across the physical versus biological, it is the plan to specialise or concentrate and therefore by definition to de-concentrate or dilute. Do you agree?
Professor King: I have to say that when you have a limited pot of money you actually do have to make some decisions about where you spend it and my expertise is much more in the engineering and towards the technology transfer areas, not in the pure science or responsive mode end. I certainly do feel that we do need to be thinking very hard about how we focus there.
Harris: If the winners are picked on the
basis of where we are good already, then the risk is that those who have shall
be given more and from those who have little it shall be taken. What about areas where we need to do more
where we have not traditionally done much like renewable energy technologies? We do not have a great record compared to
Professor King: My first comment was that I do not think that what we happen to be good at the moment is genetic. I do not think it is in our genes that we are good at the things we are currently good at; it is a history of investment and encouragement in those areas. The Technology Strategy Board approach is to say, "Where are the needs and the market opportunities?" as well as "What are the things we are good at and those are the things we need to make ourselves good at?" I think that is very important and part of the point we are making.
Professor Fisk: One of the things the
Cawsey: I am a lay person on these things
and I feel quite confused about all this, if I am honest. However, it strikes me that what you are
saying is that it is important that we keep lots of eggs in different baskets
because you never know where the next Nobel Prize is going to hatch. I can understand that. Then you also said - I think you said it,
Professor Rees - that back in the 70s we lost electronics; we have just lost
plastic electronics and I think you could build a case that the old world, if
you like, that seems to be that status quo that a lot of you want to defend,
has been the cause of that. Money went
into that, research was done on that, technologies were developed all in the
Professor Lord Rees: Absolutely, but you are talking about the R&D rather than the kind of research in universities. I would like to reiterate two points. Firstly, we are lucky to have world-class universities and we will not keep them unless we can attract faculty across the board and that requires some responsive mode, but also, being realistic about the potential shortage of money, there are other ways to cut overall budgets than by focussing in certain areas. One can focus in a smaller number of centres; one can raise the threshold of excellence needed to give a grant. So I would question that one is forced to make these choices between subjects on strategic grounds at the level of the more responsive mode grant.
Q58 Chairman: That is a very interesting response, but none of that debate appears to be going on. For instance, one of the suggestions is that we could, for instance, concentrate - as Charles Clarke wanted to do -our blue skies research in a smaller number of world-class research institutions. That is one way of doing it. Is anybody having that debate?
Professor Lord Rees: We certainly are in the Royal Society and I think other bodies are too. It is very important that issues like this are coming up within UUK with regards to the allocation of the QR funding et cetera. I think all of these issues are very live indeed. John Denham has also spoken on this point.
Q59 Chairman: You would support the idea of concentrating research in fewer institutions.
Professor Lord Rees: I would support possibly concentrating graduate education in fewer departments but I think it is excellent news that there is good research in so many universities.
Chairman: You would make a good politician, Lord Rees!
Q60 Dr Gibson: It is the PhD students and the post-docs that do all the research. If you want research you cannot do away with graduates.
Professor Lord Rees: Absolutely not. Can I address this for a moment?
Q61 Chairman: No, we will leave that there, thank you. John, you wanted to come in on very quickly on this.
Professor Lord Krebs: I have just one very brief comment on focussing and
concentration. It is worth bearing in mind
the comparative figures in the
Q62 Dr Iddon: I believe that the Haldane Principle is dead and that central government is now calling the tune more and more. What does the panel think of the Haldane Principle? Is it dead?
Professor Lord Rees: I fervently hope not.
Professor King: I think it needs renewing personally. It is treated with some awe and we should move on and look again at how this should be done. Again, we are talking about research at very much the basic research end. I talk about research to mean things that go right into new products, processes and business models in industry. There are some very different issues across the whole innovation chain; you cannot put it all into one bucket. I think there are areas where we should be focussing and I actually think we should be trying to persuade some of our very best young scientists and engineers to work on some of these big societal problems and problems that could really contribute to the economy. I think we have to make them attractive enough that actually some of those people who might have been applying for responsive mode funding and getting frustrated by it actually see that there are some other opportunities for applying their intellect which might be equally stimulating and the thing that excites me is about seeing what they do actually translated into real products and into the stimulation of our economy and indeed into making the profits that will enable us to invest again with more research in our universities. We have to see the whole process.
Professor Fisk: It is my impression that the Haldane Principle was dead in the early 1980s. It is a 1918 principle. Apart from Magna Carta I cannot think of any other principle that clutters around in public life and I think actually its term is positively unhelpful for the end point you want to have. It sounds as if it is Lord John's barons asserting their right to do what they like. In most other countries there is an analogous principle but it is one about the freedom of the academic community in public life to contribute to public life. It seems like a public interest principle and not a self-interest principle. My own feeling is that we ought to be much clearer on what we think are the values of independent research in a world which is always changing, which naturally the political system is solving today's problems but needs engines at the back to try and understand what is really going on so that next week's problems are more soluble.
Q63 Dr Iddon: This proves the principle that if you ask four academics for a view you get four different views.
Professor Lord Krebs: I am uncharacteristically almost going to agree with David Fisk, a rare event. There was an interesting piece written by Bill Wakeham about the Haldane Principle in Science in Parliament recently and he draws essentially the point that David makes, that although we all talk about the Haldane Principle it is not exactly clear what we mean by it. If we mean by it that decisions about allocation of funding to individual projects should be made through peer review by scientists for scientists, I do not think that has been eroded. Although you talk about these seismic shifts and tectonic plates and various other geological metaphors, I do not think what we are seeing today is really that new in comparison with what we have seen over the last 15 or 20 years. There have been many occasions when science ministers have stood up and said, "We have to focus on national priorities". To me it is all a matter of balance. Of course we have to justify spending public money on scientific research in terms of some broader benefits to society but those benefits can be many and varied, including tapping into the global knowledge base by having our own expertise, but as long as there is a core of funding that is for scientists to judge what are the most innovative, creative projects that are being offered at the moment and to fund those, I think the Haldane Principle is not dead as I interpret it.
Q64 Dr Harris: On the question of strategic priorities, some of you have raised concerns about the impact of switching money from one stream of research to concentrate it in another, but it looks like the decision that they want to do that has been made. Professor Rees, are you expecting the Royal Society to be consulted on how to do it? You have given a view that the way they are proposing is not the only way to do it and which to switch into. Are you expecting to be asked for your advice or are you expecting to be asked your advice and then the Technology Strategy Board will give the answer? Or do you think you will not be asked and it will just be for the research councils to argue amongst themselves?
Professor Lord Rees: We shall offer our advice whether asked or not, but I think we will
be asked. I hope we will be asked. We will offer advice because the Royal
Society is plumbed in in a unique way to expertise in all fields n the
Q65 Chairman: Lord Rees, could I just broaden that question? There is a whole host of different
organisations which offer advice to government from, obviously, the Royal
Society and the
Professor Lord Rees: I think it is difficult for government to get a whole lot of
conflicting voices which they have to calibrate and this was, for example, a
particular problem in science education. What the Royal Society did in that context was
to set up a consortium involving other learned societies chaired by Sir Alan
Wilson to speak with one voice. We
believe that that is an effective way in which we can coordinate views and also
have a more effective and helpful input into the Government on that particular
issue. I think there are other examples
where the Royal Society, because of its unique range, can help and obviously it
has to work as appropriate with other academies and other learned societies. As regards to the contrast with the
Q66 Chairman: My point is, should you be commissioned to do this? Should there be a formal mechanism by which government actually commissions you and pays you to actually offer that advice?
Professor Lord Rees: The nano-science one was indeed done at the request of government and I think we would welcome further commissions of that kind, although I think we accept we cannot perform quite the same role as the Foresight studies. At the moment there is a Royal Society study on biological enhancement of food crops production chaired by David Baulcombe, one of our distinguished fellows and a Lasker prize winner, et cetera, and they are doing a comprehensive job in liaison with a Foresight study on a related topic which is being done under John Beddington's direction in the Government. So I think there can be complementarity.
Dr Gibson: Just for the record, there were two nano-technology reports which
came out at the same time; it was a deal done between the Royal Society and
this Committee who decided they would not stand on each other's toes and they
complemented each other quite well. That
was an example of working together. The
best example I know of is in the cancer field which was again promoted by this
Committee some time ago when we formed the National Cancer Research Institute,
not a red brick building which I wanted in south
Q67 Chairman: You can bring that round to the central thrust in terms of what the Government is trying to do in terms of choosing these areas where we are world class to actually follow.
Professor Lord Rees: I think the Royal Society has a unique role to help provide independent advice by drawing on expertise. It must do this in coordination with government and, quite apart from the major studies I have mentioned, we have contributed to issues of plutonium, bird flu et cetera.
Q68 Dr Gibson: What about the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Biology that is about to be formed? Will you be formulating a group with them?
Professor Lord Rees: The Educational Consortium does involve them of course.
Q69 Dr Gibson: Make it political, you mean? That is what we are saying. You really have to tell the Government or they will tell you.
Professor Lord Rees: Absolutely, and we will offer advice even if it is not requested of us. I think we must remember that President Obama, when he introduced his dream team of science advisors, said that the Government should listen to scientific advice even when it is inconvenient, especially when it is inconvenient.
Professor Fisk: Chairman, my slight concern would be that Americans are much
sharper about the structure of the public sector so they would be much clearer
whether the National Academy of Sciences reported to congress or to the
administration. They would be much
clearer in their own minds whether or not both the Royal Society and the Royal
Academy of Engineering depend on quite large streams of funding which go through
swing door processes but broadly speaking they are not quite as independent as
you might have expected if they are only being funded by the membership. Then of course they do have the problem that
although they have a brand title which is, as it were, the whole membership, it
is very unusual for any of these reports and processes to be processed through
the membership; it will be processed through a number of members, very
distinguished in their sphere, who have a few part time days that they can
contribute to the report. That is really
quite different from some of the very big national
Q70 Dr Harris: I want to probe this issue of independent scientific advice and to what extent the panel feel that the Government is an intelligent customer, a mature customer or even a rational customer. Let us say there is a controversial area of policy - food supply - and Professor Krebs, who is an academic active in the field, is asked to advise the Government because he is an academic active in the field of publishers. Let us say that he is head of Food Standards or something and, incidentally to that, he publishes an article in a peer review journal that comes to the view that GM is a good thing. The Government does not happen to agree with this and they demand that he retract and apologise for that view because it is not what they want to hear. Professor Rees, if he was a member of the Royal Society would you feel that that was an acceptable behaviour by the Government or would you see that there were drawbacks to that sort of activity?
Professor Lord Rees: I think it is crucially important that advisors should be independent. They should be listened to seriously, even if their advice goes against the preconceptions of the government department concerned.
Q71 Dr Harris: Do you think, Professor Krebs, if that had happened to you or to someone, someone might feel constrained in what advice they then gave independently to the Government because they feel they might be hectored, bullied and asked to apologise for their scientific publications if it did not match what the Government wanted to hear?
Professor Lord Krebs: First of all I think it is quite wrong that the Government should criticise independent scientific advisors for publishing scientific work in the peer review literature. There is absolutely no doubt about that. They are free and able to do that and should be autonomous. Whether they feel intimidated by pressure from ministers, if they are put under pressure then they should not give in to that, they should stick by their independence. I cannot judge what would happen to individuals; I certainly would not be intimidated by it.
Q72 Dr Harris: Professor Nutt did apologise which suggests he did either feel intimidated or felt he had something to apologise for. I am asking you whether you feel that any advice that now emanates from that source might be perceived - whether or not it is - as being somewhat constrained by fear that there might be another public attack on the messenger.
Professor Lord Krebs: It is very hard to judge what the perception will be, but I would simply reiterate that independent advisory committees are there to offer independent advice and that is what they should do. As I understand it - you are referring now to Professor Nutt's publication - that was not in his capacity as chair of the Advisory Committee, that was as an independent scientist. So it is one thing for him to be attacked for his independent scientific work (which he should not be) but it is a separate issue as to how that affects the working of the Advisory Committee. I would emphasise the independence.
Q73 Chairman: I do not really want to follow this line further as we only have five minutes left of this session. When Lord Drayson was before you and my colleague Evan Harris asked him what was the methodology for agreeing on the areas of priority, he mentioned whether peer review would be the way to do it and Lord Drayson thought peer review was. Do any of you have a view as to how the Government should go about choosing the areas where we should really put our priorities? What would you do?
Professor Lord Rees: I welcome the fact that he asked for wide debate and I think it is very important that there should be wide imports which bodies like the Royal Society could coordinate. I would like to make one other point since I, like others, am a university professor. We all welcome the report from the CST which says that more could be done to engage the academic community with policy making and obviously academies and learned societies can do this. My own university is setting up a science and public policy centre to provide a clearing house, as it were, whereby academics can engage with policy makers. I think that is a good model because we want to draw more of the best scientific experts into the policy process. Some are already savvy about these matters but many are not and universities could help them.
Professor Fisk: The words "peer review" are getting very close to the Haldane Principle in my terms. What I have noticed, working with industry, is that they have almost added an extra qualifier and use the words "peer assist" which is essentially the critiques of your peers but in a constructive fashion. We have drifted slightly in the UK British science community into peer review being largely negative and destructive. If ministers and government departments want to engage with the scientific community they do need some way of feeling they have an added value of constructive criticism and over recent years that has been quite hard to illicit.
Q74 Dr Harris: Professor King, let us say that the Government wants to invest in those areas of physical and bio-medical where there is an existing track record and/or potential for economic benefit. Throughout everything they have said it looks as if it could almost have been written by Lord Mandelson. Who should make that decision? They say they want you guys to decide; do you think the Technology Strategy Board is best placed to answer that question or university academics?
Professor King: I think it depends where you are in the innovation chain, if you like. I would agree with Lord Rees that there is an area of basic research which has to be really high quality research which the Government and industry should not fiddle with. I disagree with a lot of the debate how the funding divides but that should be there and it is very precious. It is for the ideas that you do not what good they may be in the future but they are fascinating and interesting and we should encourage some of our scientists to be doing exactly that kind of thing. Who should decide on how you take the decision? It depends on where you are in the innovation chain and how close you are to exploitation and to having this impact on the economy. If you are a company and make particular types of product you make very, very clear decisions on what sort of R&D you want and what you are going to fund in universities. There is not one size fits all; it is a complex process.
Q75 Dr Harris: I know about this cross-cut cutting stuff but there is a stream of astronomy based research and applied, aerospace basic research physics and applied, medical categories basic and applied and my understanding is that the Government is not going to de-fund basic and put it all into applied. It wants to expand the basic and applied streams in some areas where there is either strength or potential and reduce it in others where there is found not to be strength and potential for economic growth. I am accepting that it is not an attack on basic science in those areas; I am asking who should made the decision if it is going to be made by peer review - as Lord Drayson feels it could, international peer review maybe - whose advice should they take? People like you and your board who think about economic applications or the basic scientists?
Professor King: I am saying that it depends on where you are in the innovation chain. The basic scientists are the best people to look at the quality of basic science and the opportunity there but as we are getting closer to application and to actually using that research I think it is very important that organisations like the Technology Strategy Board, consulting with industry (the Board has a major programme engaging with industry), are looking at, for example, what is the important basic research? I would not call it basic research if we know it is for aerospace because it is already applied by the time we know what it is for. I do think that our industry in that area should be helping to advise and prioritise that research.
Stringer: Professor King, we have heard that
the Finnish Government did very well in helping the development of Nokia - as
mentioned earlier on - and there are examples of government involvement and
direction of science in war where there are clearly benefits. What is the best example in the recent
history of the
Professor King: I have no feel for the whole scope of what the Government might have done but we have some outstanding examples like the airbus wing technology which was funded by the old DTI programme. We have some outstanding examples of technology in Rolls Royce large engines. Rolls Royce moved over quite a short period of time from being a minnow in the aero engine market to competing for top place in the engines for large aircraft. It was then supported by funding of innovative programmes through the DTI. So there have been some really outstanding examples. The ones I know from my background happen to be in aerospace but I am sure there are others in other areas.
Q77 Chairman: Lord Krebs, you have the last word.
Professor Lord Krebs: In answer to the question of who should decide, is it the scientists or is the people who are applying the science, I think it has to be a mixture of both. It is partly about the new ideas coming forward and partly about how they can be applied.
Chairman: On that note could we thank very much indeed Professor Lord John Krebs, Professor Lord Martin Rees, Professor David Fisk and Professor Julia King. Thank you very much indeed for coming to us this morning.
Examination of Witnesses
Q78 Chairman: We welcome our second panel this morning. We welcome very much indeed Dr Tim Bradshaw from the CBI, Professor Dame Janet Finch, Co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology, Judy Britton, Deputy Director of Science in Government, GO-Science and Baroness Onora O'Neill, President of the British Academy. If I could start with Dr Bradshaw - this is a question that was put to the last panel - do you feel that the Government is an intelligent customer of scientific and engineering advice? If not, what should it do to improve the situation?
Dr Bradshaw: Thank you very much for inviting me to come here today. I think broadly speaking yes, they are an intelligent customer. However I would like to put a caveat on that in that science is more than just the sort of physical and biological natural sciences; we would like to see a little bit more advice coming in on the social science side. Previous witnesses mentioned some of the big challenges facing the country - things like climate change - and our view is that part of the solution to that is technological but another part of that is the behaviour change aspects which will need significant amounts of social science type research and investments to actually make sure they take place. That is exactly what business is doing; they are investing in not just the technology and the R&D that you see reported, but also in the human factors, social science aspects of it too so the technologies they bring to market will actually find attraction and make a difference in changed behaviour. I think if there is one thing the Government can do a little bit more of is perhaps building up on that social science side as well as the purer science and engineering side of advice.
Q79 Chairman: In terms of this agenda of choosing areas of advantage - if we do not call it picking winners - you feel that the Government has sufficient scientific and engineering expertise in order to be able to become an intelligent customer, in order to put tax payers' money into particular areas.
Dr Bradshaw: I think if it draws on the expertise in the bodies it funds - like the Royal Society, the research councils, the Technology Strategy Board - and comes and talks to business and others as well then yes, there are enough pathways of advice to help the Government. It is a case of whether it has the vision and ambition to actually use those effectively. We will see; it is getting there perhaps.
Q80 Chairman: You are hedging your bets now. Professor Finch, do you feel that the Government is an intelligent customer?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Obviously as Co-chair of the CST I approach this from a slightly different angle from the CBI. I think I can do no better than make reference to the report that Lord Rees mentioned in your previous session which is the Council's most recent report entitled How Can Academia and Government Work Together? It is a report which was actually commissioned by the Secretary of State, John Denham, and has been published as part of a series of reviews of higher education. Yesterday evening we had a specific launch of this report in which we are analysing what the impediments are to greater and closer involvement of academics, not only giving advice but also supporting policy making within government, and how those impediments can be overcome. I am very pleased to say that the Secretary of State spoke at that event and announced that he has commissioned an individual to produce an action plan based on our recommendations. Certainly there is more that can be done both at the university end and within government to encourage more extensive, effective and closer working relationships between academics and policy makers.
Q81 Chairman: In terms of the current policy shift - whether it is huge or minor depends on your viewpoint - was the CST involved in those changes?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: The CST meets next week and we will be considering the recommendations as we understand them that are coming from both the Secretary of State and Lord Drayson, so formally we have not formulated our advice to government yet. We expect to be doing that and we will do it next week. I can draw on a number of things we have done to date.
Q82 Chairman: Can I just stop you there because I think the point of my question was, if the Government has already made a decision and is then consulting you that is very different to you being part of that formulation of policy.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I was sitting in the last session and I think my understanding mirrors that of one or two of your other witnesses that government has initiated this debate, has indicated that there are some principles that it feels it needs to follow, but is still inviting inputs to that debate. That is what CST expects to make.
Q83 Chairman: It is not a debate, is it, when the chief executive of RCUK says that they are enthusiastically supporting this initiative?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I have not read what Ian Diamond said so I cannot comment on that. I think the principle of prioritising government investment in research is well established so I do not know whether he meant anything more than that. I really cannot comment.
Q84 Chairman: Baroness O'Neill, Tim Bradshaw made an interesting comment about the need for greater social science within government policy. Do you think that there is a tendency in this particular debate about looking at where we channel our efforts in terms of getting the greatest economic benefit from our science and engineering base to ignore the social science base?
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Yes, I think there is.
Q85 Chairman: What should we do about it?
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I do have some ideas but first of all I think it matters to try to see exactly where social science and humanities research add economic value. I take it for granted it is part of the background that they add value of many other sorts (cultural value, public value and so on), but I think they add three sorts of economic value. One is that where one achieves research in these areas it has very considerable indirect economic impact. It is hard to measure but we all know, for example, that sophisticated workers in a knowledge based economy will wish to go to those countries where there are these other things available. The second is that they are the prime source of economic value for what we might call the cultural industries and sector. We think immediately of publishing, of international research students, of the BBC and tourism and heritage which are very major employers in this country. Again it is very hard to put your finger on the proportion of their employees that is research driven as it is very hard in engineering too to know what proportion of the value produced and the employment produced lies in the quality of the research. However, it is definitely a major source of value and employment. Thirdly - I think this speaks very much to what Tim Bradshaw mentioned - humanities and social science research is a crucial adjunct for the intelligent innovation in all research, including all stem research. I say a crucial adjunct because we all know that we want effective rather then ineffective legislation but we do not even know in this Parliament when we have produced ineffective legislation as this Committee will be aware. We want to know which management structures and which ways of working are effective. For example, research done at Aston on team working tells you crucial things about what works and what does not work. We want to know about the ethical, legal and social implications of innovation and then of course we want to know about the public engagement matters. I put that last because it is mentioned most and it completely underplays what humanities and social science research can contribute.
Q86 Chairman: I was surprised that when Lord Drayson made his initial remarks supported by Lord Mandelson - or perhaps it was Lord Drayson who was supporting Lord Mandelson - and now it appears to have become hard line policy from DIUS, you did not make any adverse comments. Clearly the assumption is that if additional resources are going to be put into key areas of science they are going to be taken away from arts and humanities.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: That is a simple assumption and I take it that you are correct, that there is no expanding cake in these times. We suffer all the time across the whole diverse research community from the fact that money that goes here does not go there, so you do not actually know in an absolutely clear way. My own view is that step one to clarity is that when we talk about science we need to remember that there is a distinction between science in the broad sense f(or which DIUS is responsible through a number of delivery organisations) and science in the sense of stem research. It looks as though - but we have to say so far it is a matter of speeches - stem research is being favoured and within stem biological sciences looking to our glorious past and present, so to speak. Whether that is the reality I do not know, but if you want to have successful innovation you actually need to keep the other streams going. I would want to generalise what Lord Rees said when he pointed out that you are not going to do the medical and biological research well if you try to shrink physics or chemistry; I would say that you are not going to do the stem research and stem innovation well if you try to shrink or do without the other sorts of research.
Q87 Chairman: I find this a most bizarre world that we live in. We are going to have greater concentration, we are going to have more resources put into it, but nobody loses. It cannot be that way.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: It cannot, that is correct.
Cawsey: Dr Bradshaw, I understand that you
said previously that the US Defence Research Projects Agency has a good model
for building scientific and engineering capacity. I am interest in what sort of lessons you
think we can learn for the
Dr Bradshaw: I think the Technology Strategy Board is developing in that
direction which is what we wanted to see.
It is mission driven, but perhaps not as mission-driven as DRPA is. DRPA
has a very clear role, it is to look for radical innovation in the defence
technology area to avoid the
Q89 Mr Cawsey: Do you think that is perhaps because we are trying to create something like it but perhaps it is still a bit embryonic, still a bit lacking in ambition and still trying to find its feet really?
Dr Bradshaw: The Technology Strategy Board is getting there and I think the main problem with them is that they just do not have the funding to take forward the programmes of work that they know they should do. If you look at things like the aerospace technology strategy that has been set out for them very well, I think they are only funding about a third of it. That is one area where there is a fantastic strategy already written up, business knows what it wants to develop, the academic researchers know what they want to develop and we are just not being able to put enough funding concentration into that to deliver it.
Q90 Mr Cawsey: I suppose in the end that comes down to decisions right at the top of government and this is more general to everybody, not just to yourself. We have been told at previous discussions we have had that Tony Blair was very keen on the science community and had them in for regular discussions so that he was happy with what was going on, but perhaps less so with Gordon Brown. That may just be that Tony Blair was particularly interested rather than any criticism of the current prime minister, but whether it is him or his strategy unit, do the scientific community have the ear of government right at the very top so that there is the drive and ambition to push these things forward? I am really interested in a general comment from any of you about how you are finding contact with government.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: The Council for Science and Technology met the prime minister just before Christmas.
Q91 Chairman: For the first time.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes, for the first time under the present prime minister. I think that we found a very ready ear for the issues that we put before him on that occasion. I am also aware that if government is to be influenced at the highest level it is also important that the Policy Unit and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and so on are focussed on these issues and again CST has had recent and regular contact with those groups. I think our feeling is that this Government is taking science very seriously. That is partly reflected in the past history of investment in science and all our recent contact suggests that the Government is extremely serious from the prime minister downwards about the importance of science in helping us out of the recession. There may be debates about the ways of doing that, but I do not think that we would have any doubt about the seriousness of it.
Q92 Mr Cawsey: Do you think it took the recession to get that interest?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: No, I think the commitment to science and funding science has been there for a long time.
Q93 Chairman: Judy, do you see a lot of the prime minister?
Ms Britton: Not personally, I have to say. The Government Office for Science has very, very strong connections with the Strategy Unit through Foresight projects and through our more general work. We meet very regularly with them about what they are doing and what we are doing and how those two can influence one another. I think how science fits more generally into policy making is very much there on the agenda through the various key themes that the prime minister has set out and so on and does take very strongly how they actually do that.
Q94 Mr Cawsey: It is important that it happens across government departments. How do you ensure that that happens and what is your experience of that?
Ms Britton: We do that through the community of chief scientific advisors which I think is getting stronger and more effective all the time. A particular initiative of John Beddington has been to gather the key ones together into a core group working and challenging sometimes (on things like bio-fuels and peer review elements of government policy) just gathering together, talking on key areas (like climate change, food, counter terrorism) and making sure that everybody is joined up together and bring together work to feed into the policy of the department. I think that is working very well. Mentioning the research councils and their themes, another initiative that John is just trying at the moment is really to take some of those themes and say, "Yes, the research councils are working on them but we need to be working on them as well. How can we actually get together in these areas to take them forward more strongly?" The research councils, for instance, are working on environmental change where they have gone beyond the research councils to gather people together and the Government wants to be much more strongly linked into that. That is one area. Another area that is he is wanting to look at is global security. You will remember that John has very strong views on all these different global challenges on climate change, on food, on water, on population and migration and so on and how we can actually work on those together. So another area he wants to work with research councils on is global security. The department is much more closely knitted in in their approach with the research councils. Finally, he is actually looking at one with the research councils rather than the TSB, looking at what the research councils know about things like high tech manufacturing and also at the way the economy develops and so on. That is a slightly different area that he wants to get into, being an economist by background.
Q95 Mr Cawsey: Everybody thinks that government departments would be well advised to take notice of science in all that they do, but one of the problems is that the number of scientists that go into the Civil Service is not as high as perhaps they have been previously. It seems to me important that we have some way of ensuring that civil servants have a better understanding of science and have a better understanding of how to make use of it. How are we making progress in engaging the Civil Service so that science becomes a more core activity?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I have already mentioned CST's report on how academia and government can work together. One of the recommendations that we make is about building capacity within the Civil Service as well as capacity within the academic community to engage more effectively with each other and a particular part of that recommendation is the significant extension of secondment schemes in both directions and at all career levels. There are some good examples at the moment. The ESRC has run a placement scheme for academics to work on short term secondments - six months or 12 months - in government to do particular projects. We would like to see a considerable extension of that scheme across all the disciplines and also a number of other ways in which the career progression of both civil servants and academics can be more tied directly to effective engagement with each other. There are quite a number of measures that can be taken, we believe, that will encourage cultural change both in the Civil Service and in academia to make this a much more routine part of both sets of people's lives.
Q96 Dr Harris: Professor Finch, you and the CST are independent of government, are you not?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: We are part of government but we are an independent voice.
Q97 Dr Harris: So you are speaking to us now independently.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Absolutely, yes.
Q98 Dr Harris: You do not have to look over your shoulder.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: No.
Q99 Dr Harris: How often has the CST met Gordon Brown?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Once.
Q100 Dr Harris: In your evidence you say that you most recently met Prime Minister Gordon Brown in December 2008.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: That was the first time we met him.
Q101 Dr Harris: That was not only the most recent, it was the only time.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: That is true, yes.
Q102 Dr Harris: I am not sure that that is entirely clear from reading that; it looks as if it was the most recent of several.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: We met the previous prime minister before that.
Q103 Dr Harris: I got the impression from one of your earlier answers that you do not think that what we were discussing with the first panel - the Drayson initiative - is a significant change of policy. We think that the Government has announced a change in policy and is having a debate about how to influence it. Do you agree that this is a relatively recent change in policy; this is the idea of picking strategic areas to publicly fund.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: There has been a speech by Lord Drayson and another one by John Denham and we are very interested in exploring the consequences of those. There has not been, as I think somebody did say in the previous session, a set of formal policy announcements about how this is going to happen so I think we see this as something that is a discussion which is continuing and to which we would wish to contribute.
Q104 Dr Harris: I find it curious that there has not been a Green Paper or a White Paper when I think they are quite clear that this is what they are going to do. I am surprised that they have announced this proposed change of direction without the CST having been asked for its opinion in advance. You say you are going to discuss it this week but clearly you have not been in a position to offer any advice on this proposal before now.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I think that your interpretation that there has been a definite change is obviously slightly different from my understanding.
Q105 Dr Harris: We agree there were speeches that attracted interest around policy direction.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes.
Q106 Dr Harris: Did you know they were going to be made?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Ministers do not advise me when they are about to make speeches, no.
Q107 Dr Harris: The point I am getting at is that you said in your evidence that you have an extremely close and productive relationship with DIUS ministers, in particular John Denham and Lord Drayson, yet I think they would say - at least Lord Drayson said - that this is a really significant announcement he is making and he came here to do it publicly. John Denham got a whole group of senior people together last week to make a speech around that issue too. Are they going to come and talk to you about this?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I am sure they are, absolutely. I do not think I can add much more to what I have already said about CST's role and the timing of this.
Q108 Dr Harris: Do you accept that it could be interpreted that you have been sidelined in a sense because you could be asked - do you expect to be asked? - to help advise, if they go down this path, what the strategic areas are.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes, and in fact we have already been asked for advice on analogous topics already if you wish me to comment on them.
Q109 Dr Harris: I know you issued a report to Alistair Darling on strategic decision making and technology policy that highlighted six key technologies, including plastic electronics.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Indeed.
Q110 Dr Harris: I understand plastic electronics has not gone so well.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I think there are still opportunities in plastic electronics. I understand this Committee has already undertaken a study of that to which one of the CST members actually gave evidence to you. The outcome that particular strategic decision making study was also to produce a methodology that can be used in other circumstances. We were invited by Alistair Darling when he was Secretary of State at the DTI to advise him on how to prioritise technologies which could come to market within five years. That was the particular examination question that he put to us. In the process of doing that we produced a methodology that can be used to answer a slightly different question in terms of prioritisation and that is a methodology which we would definitely advocate government to use in other circumstances.
Q111 Dr Harris: We do not have time to go into this now, but would you be willing to drop us a note to let us know how you think that earlier report has been implemented.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes, certainly.
Q112 Dr Harris: I want to move onto evidence based policy making. We have issued a report previously on evidence based policy making and we pointed out that policy is not dependent on evidence; sometimes you have manifesto commitments, you have ideology and economics which trump those and that is legitimate, this is a political place. However, one thing we were very clear on is that when a policy was described as evidence based it ought to be evidence based; you should not ignore the evidence. You should not do it for these other legitimate reasons and then still call it evidence based because that undermines the vocabulary. Do you agree that that is a reasonable recommendation, suggestion and guideline for the Government to follow in policy areas?
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
Yes it is reasonable and a lot lies behind
that. I noted that the CST report that
was launched last night reminds us that government put £2.8 billion directly
into research funding. That is a huge
amount of research spend and I think it is a very legitimate question for all
of us whether it is best spent getting the right evidence at the right
time. We know that the relationship
between academia and the Government is not entirely happy and this report has made
many useful suggestions on how to improve it as has the earlier report by Sir
Alan Wilson which the
Q113 Dr Harris: I am at a slight disadvantage because I have not seen this report and I do not think we were invited to the launch last night.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I do apologise for that; that was an omission that has been pointed out to me.
Q114 Dr Harris: Coming back to my question, do you agree with our recommendation about the importance of keeping the vocabulary honest about what is evidence based policy?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Certainly. We would absolutely recognise that government, as you say, has a number of different considerations where policy is being made, but if it wishes to base that policy on evidence then it should be robust evidence.
Q115 Dr Harris: Advisory committees are best constituted if they include social science as well.
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Yes.
Q116 Dr Harris: I just want to take one government department at random, the Home Office, and the way they treat scientific advice. In respect of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs which contains social scientists, hard scientists and clinicians and indeed police representatives, they gave very clear advice twice about the classification of cannabis and the Government rejected that advice, as governments are entitled to do. However, the Government, when rejecting it, did not say that they were doing it for other reasons; they said that the Advisory Committee had essentially got the evidence wrong and had not looked at key things that the Government had looked at. Given that the Government appoints the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs do you have any comment on whether it is likely to be true that the Advisory Council just did its job badly and looked at the wrong evidence or appraised the evidence wrongly, or would you say that might be an example of where the Government has a non-evidence based decision that it wants to disguise as an evidence based decision?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I do not know. I have not studied the detail of that. It is always possible that advisors to government do not consider the full range of evidence. We have to accept that that can happen which is why I emphasised in my last answer to you that all evidence must be very robustly based. One would hope that scientific advice always is, but you have to accept the possibility that it sometimes is not.
Q117 Chairman: Baroness O'Neill?
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I do not know the particularities of the case but it seems to me that clarity is achieved by making the advice available on a routine basis unless there are particular reasons of commercial confidentiality or security why the advice cannot be made available and it is indeed open to government to say, "In this case there were other considerations which led us not to accept the advice". If it is advice you can refuse it, but I think it muddies the waters if people mix up their decision with what the advice did not say.
Q118 Dr Iddon: In 2006 the House of Commons Science and Technology sub-Committee recommended that government should make more use of the tremendous expertise that lies with the learned societies, academies and professional organisations in general. Has there been any progress following that advice we gave in 2006 that you can detect?
Ms Britton: There has been increasing engagement on this. Certainly now we have a lot of engagement
with the Royal Society. Lord Rees mentioned
the work they are doing on crop productivity which is feeding into our future
farming Foresight initiative. They are
also, for instance, together with other learned societies looking at synthetic
biology. The Royal Academy of
Engineering is also looking at the definition of synthetic biology; how can we
get hold of this thing so we can look at it to see how we can look forward and
anticipate, as with nanotechnologies, what the Government needs to do to
encourage the right things and proceed to regulate where there might be
unnecessary risk. They are getting
together with us to look at those kinds of areas. I think the GSRU - the Government's Social
Research Unit - has been engaging with the
Iddon: I have a few questions on the way the
Government consults organisations.
Baroness O'Neill, the
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I think it is quite difficult for government to improve it but there are, nevertheless, questions and they begin with a matter of timely working, of a degree of anticipation of when you may need evidence from a particular area and then, as it were, the first order inquiry is to find the people from whom you are going to get advice as to which bodies or which particular researchers might have useful input. You and I know that sometimes these consultations are ridiculously rushed and poorly constructed, but it is possible to do that and I think that one of the ways we can help it happen is to do more to knit together the policy making community and academic community with quite focussed meetings. For example, on Monday the British Academy has a forum where we are getting academics who work on different conceptions of democracy that have been important in Britain with policy makers to go through how they wax and wain and what influence they have or might have. That would be one example. We are doing one on international relations and conflict later on. I believe we need on-going relations between government departments and relevant researchers so that when somebody finds a problem looming they know roughly where to begin; not to get the advice but to find the people who can give advice on where there is good evidence, where there is not good evidence and, above all - and I take this to be very important - where the desire for evidence for a certain type cannot be satisfied, it is not feasible to get the evidence.
Q120 Dr Iddon: Can I ask Judy Britton also how you feel we can improve the way that government consults?
Ms Britton: I think the word "consultation" can cover a multitude of different things. Consultation is often very open and asking anyone who has views - not necessarily evidence, but views - in a particular area and reasons for having those views please come forward and say that. So you do get a vast conglomerate of stuff, as it were, which covers politics as well as evidence, if you like. They are very broad. If you are trying to do a focussed study you do have to target people a lot more. If you are doing something like a Foresight project you will very much target but go for a very wide field of expertise - globally as well as nationally - but actually get people to write papers and so, not just ask for their views. It is very clear, it is stronger than a literature search but is really looking to find all the expertise that there is there and then coming to a conclusion on the way forward. I suppose what I am saying is that there are different extremes in consultation and I think the Government could focus sometimes and think what kind of consultation are we going for here and are we asking the different kinds of things in the same basket.
Q121 Chairman: Coming back to that, the
Ms Britton: I think we should certainly be pro-active in key areas where we can add value. This is one reason why John Beddington has set up this enhanced global issues team.
Q122 Chairman: We do not hear anything about it.
Ms Britton: A lot of the work that GO-Science does is within government. We do not necessarily preach from the rooftops; we have a lot of committees that we coordinate, sit on and so on where we feed advice in at the official level as well as John working with permanent secretaries, sitting on EDSI and various other cabinet committees. These are not things that appear in the public eye and I think one would not necessarily expect them to at all but we are very proactive.
Q123 Chairman: It sounds like the Kremlin.
Ms Britton: Why? We are civil servants working within the Civil Service.
Dr Bradshaw: We have very good relations with Professor Beddington; he came to one of our committee meetings last year and we had a very good debate with members there about some of the big challenges facing the planet, the economy, the environment, health and whatever in the future which we found very interesting. One of the challenges we have had recently was with the horizons part of GO-Science mainly because they seem to have been quite constrained in terms of the modelling that they were doing, whereas business might think, looking at some of the real shocks in terms of changes to the oil price and things like, it was apparent that some of the modelling they were doing was rather more constrained because that is what government ministers would expect and they did not like the idea of looking at really extreme examples of what might happen. Broadly we have not been critical of GO-Science.
Chairman: You have been able to put the record straight.
Q124 Dr Iddon: I have been rather critical of the way government carries out consultations myself and so annoyed by the way it does it. For instance, launching consultations just before Christmas or just before Easter when there is a three month response time. A number of organisations have written to me and said that this is wrong, they just do not have time to get their act together. On another front, do you think that government consultations are meaningful? Are they box-ticking exercises with pre-determined outcomes? Or are they genuine consultations in which government is prepared to listen to the responses?
Dr Bradshaw: I think it is mixed. There are bound to be some that are box ticking exercises but there are definitely some where there is a real willingness to engage and listen. I think Lord Sainsbury's review was a very good example of government willing to listen and engage properly with organisations like the CBI, the Technology Strategy Board and other representative bodies, whereas there are some others where you might find that the CBI, for example, is counted as one despite the fact that we are representing a large proportion of industry and then we might only have the same weight as one learned society or one university. So you end up with a list of people who have responded to the consultation which is 97 universities and 50 professional societies in the CBI. So our voice in that might not actually be given what we think it should be. It is mixed; they are not all bad, they are not all brilliant.
Q125 Dr Iddon: What is the last one that you personally were involved in? What was your experience of it?
Dr Bradshaw: I cannot remember; I will have to come back to you on that one.
Q126 Dr Iddon: Professor Finch?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I do not think that the CST has a view on government consultations as such. We have done a substantial amount of work on public engagements - you might think that that was one form of consultation - and we produced a report in 2005 called Policy Through Dialogue where we recommended that there are examples of very good practice within government of getting this right. This is in areas where there is an inherent public anxiety about some new technology or medical development and where government genuinely needs to understand what the public are thinking and perhaps take that into account before deciding which direction to move in. It is not quite the same thing as consultation but really engaging people in a genuine understanding of what the issues are before they react to it. We produced some recommendations about good practice and the Government did actually accept not only our recommendations but also a specific aspect of that which was to establish an expert resource centre which is there within GO-Science now to advise across government on how to do this well. Three years on we are now reviewing the consequences of that and we are still undertaking that piece of work - we have not completed it yet - to see whether the impact of that advice has been positive in the way in which government does public engagement across a range of different topics. We are very interested in how that happened; it has a particular resonance for the development of science and technology and the development of science based innovation.
Q127 Dr Iddon: Thank you. Baroness O'Neill?
Baroness O'Neill of
Bengarve: I have my own favourite amazingly bad
consultations. I think my favourite was
a Home Office one called Footprints,
Q128 Dr Iddon: Could I continue with you, Baroness O'Neill, and ask my final question? Following the consultation, do the people who have taken part in it get enough feedback from the Government?
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My experience has been that they do not get feedback. If you are an institutional respondent you can often, by looking at the paperwork of a select committee, discover quite a lot but I think feedback is unusual. This is a very interesting feature of society with its supposed commitment to transparency and communication, that information is fed up but nobody knows, on the whole, whether it is listened to, understood or acted upon.
Q129 Dr Iddon: Can I put that question to you, Tim, as well?
Dr Bradshaw: We do not get feedback as such but we monitor what happens in terms of whether there is change in government policy or in the implementation of policy. Sometimes it would be nice to have feedback; it would save us having to trawl through various papers and documents and things to find out what is really going on.
Ms Britton: I should add that best practice on government consultation is that there is clear feedback and you can actually see the results of the consultation. Those are supposed to be published at the end of the consultation.
Dr Iddon: We could not agree with you more.
Q130 Dr Harris: They are not always published though, are they?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I think one of the most recent consultations that CST has been involved in is a formal consultation with the consultation actually within DIUS about the science of society policy area. As I recall the outcomes of the consultation were published and widely made available for that. So that is an example of good practice.
Q131 Graham Stringer: You have talked about consultation and advice. Scrutiny is a more difficult word in some ways. Do you see it as part of your role to scrutinise government science policy?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: In the sense that scrutiny has a technical meaning, no; that is not part of CST's terms of reference. We do see it as part of our role to consider the impact of what government has done in various scientific areas and to analyse that and to advise on further work. For example, Lord Rees in the previous session mentioned the Royal Academy of Engineering study of nanotechnology and Baroness O'Neill has just mentioned that she was involved in that. As part of the Government's response to that report they indicated that they were going to ask for an independent review of how they had progressed to recommendations three years on. CST was actually asked to undertake that review which we did. It is not exactly a scrutiny role - that one was actually at the request of government - but we are very happy to look at government performance in relation to a particular set of objectives that government had set itself and to make comments about how well it had performed against those.
Q132 Graham Stringer: In a sense a lot of what this Committee does is to scrutinise government science policy. Do you think that overall the scrutiny of the Government's science policy could be improved? If so, in what way?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: It is difficult ever to say that something could not be improved. I think that the range of ways in which this Committee and CST in a different way and other bodies have the opportunity to comment on science policy is actually quite extensive and quite varied. We have a good level of public debate about science policy in this country. I could not deny that there might be ways of improving it but I do not have any specific suggestions.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I think public scrutiny is important and quite difficult and that this Committee and the Science and Technology Committees do, on the whole, a good job. However, we have to recognise that we work against a background which sensationalises science in ways that are quite maverick. If you read, for example, the POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) report on the media coverage of GM in 1999 one sees there a very good case study of how a bit of science policy was completely taken over by rather populist and hysterical writing about certain aspects of the issue with profound effects on the science base of this country, particularly in plant sciences. I do not now how to resolve this one because those who do responsible scrutiny only hold a few of the levers. However, I still think responsible scrutiny is really important.
Dr Bradshaw: You would expect me to say this, but if we had a little bit more input from the user side of science and engineering - from the business side of it as well as the professional and academic side - then that would help to rebalance things.
Ms Britton: On the scrutiny side of things John Beddington, before he was Government Chief Scientific Advisor, was chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee in Defra. He was championing the idea that there should be these kinds of councils throughout government departments - the Home Office has one - which learned societies sit on as well as the chairs of their scientific advisory committees. The idea is that they a view across the department at a strategic level and can see what is going on, critique it and challenge it. He thinks these are a very valuable form of more internal scrutiny than a select committee.
Q133 Graham Stringer: When you are carrying out an internal scrutiny of different government departments, how responsive are they to their review findings?
Ms Britton: I think they are responsive. They are usually responsive to a few high level recommendations and that is one of the reasons why we have been looking at changing the way we do the science reviews because you can come up with a very long list of recommendations and that is too much for people to take in. If you give them two or three really key things to do then they will follow those. I think we would have a lot more hits in doing that. They have been receptive, yes. They are very helpful during the reviews and receptive in actually taking the recommendations forward.
Baroness O'Neill of
Bengarve: I would like to mention that one of
the very simple things in this area is the question of knowing what your own
department has done before and as we know a number of departments in
Q134 Graham Stringer: We should stop inventing the wheel.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Yes.
Q135 Graham Stringer: Judy, in terms of what you have just said, can you give us some examples of where departments have taken on recommendations?
Ms Britton: One that might be pertinent to the discussion today is that we have talked quite a bit in the various reviews about the role of social science and indeed the harder scientists and the social scientists within government coming together because working together can actually strengthen policies considerably. I think that has been taken on board in Defra, for instance; they have strengthened things. In CLG they are actually bringing the hard scientists and the social scientists who tend to be in separate pots just looking at particular areas and they are now getting together and getting really effective results. Similarly in the Home Office again this idea that hard scientists in one place and the social researchers are in the main building, actually bringing them together I think is a particular area where people work quite hard to improve.
Q136 Dr Harris: A lot of government scientific advisors like yourselves are still research active and published and you are a distinguished academic yourself in your field, do you worry that if you publish something the Daily Mail might say, "Leading government advisor says families doing this, that or the other in terms of their inheritance" implying unfairly that this is now government policy in some way. Do you worry about that? Do you think other people worry about that who are also independent government scientific advisors?
Professor Dame Janet Finch: I would not worry about that, no. Someone in the previous session said something similar, that that can happen in any event. In the study that we did about how academics and government can work more closely together we did actually find that that this is an anxiety which some academics have. It is one of the impediments to more academics becoming involved in government, that people are concerned that if they produce work which has policy relevance and it has more high profile in a policy context that their work may be distorted to their disadvantage. I would not worry about it personally but it is definitely one of the issues that need to be overcome if we are going to get more academic input.
Q137 Dr Harris: You would expect the Government to stand by them and say, "Look, this is academic freedom".
Professor Dame Janet Finch: Of course.
Chairman: On that positive could I thank our panel of Dr