House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Innovation, Universities, SCience & Skills COMMITTEE
at the heart of government policy
Monday 16 March 2009
NICK DUSIC, PROFESSOR DAVID EDGERTON, PROFESSOR DAVID CHARLES and PROFESSOR ADRIAN SMITH
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills Committee
on Monday 16 March 2009
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Mr Tim Boswell
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Mr Gordon Marsden
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Professor Adrian Smith, Director General for Science and Research, DIUS, Nick Dusic, Campaign for Science and Engineering, Professor David Edgerton, Imperial College London, and Professor David Charles, Regional Studies Association, gave evidence.
Q138 Chairman: Could I welcome our Panel of very distinguished witnesses this afternoon, welcome to you all. It is our first meeting with you, Professor Smith, so we are delighted you are here. We hope you are enjoying your role and you will enjoy this afternoon even more. If I could start with you, Professor Smith, the government is conducting a major debate at the moment to consider the strategic focusing of what it calls targeted research programmes. First could you tell us what you understand by targeted research programmes, and do you actually support the government's move in this direction?
Professor Smith: Can I take you into the slightly wider context? When I came into this job there was some kind of legacy of dissatisfaction in the way that consultation processes took place in looking at priorities, in particular in the build-up to Spending Review, so one of the first things I did with the support of ministers was to say we should have a more public, as it were, consultation process, and I have listed a number of bodies - the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, et cetera - and that originally was thought of in the context of a lead-up to a Spending Review, but we do not have a timetable for a Spending Review and we do not quite know when and how that process will take place, but I think what we were trying to do there culturally was to up-the-ante on a consultation and debate about priorities of every shape and form. So I think what Lord Drayson has been doing coheres entirely with that kind of strategy of seeking to be much more consultative and get views from a wide variety of sources and priorities.
Q139 Chairman: So it was all planned?
Professor Smith: Compatible with the planned process that I set in motion when I took up the job.
Q140 Dr Harris: Before you develop that question, Chairman, the fundamental question, it seems to me, is that this is not a consultation or a debate on whether we are going to target research money on certain strategic areas, it is which areas. Could you clarify whether that is your understanding? Because I think during the recess the Secretary of State did make clear at a meeting that Nick Dusic was at that it was not a "whether we are going to do what Lord Drayson first canvassed", but "how we are going to do it". Is that your understanding?
Professor Smith: No, I do not think that is my understanding. If you look at the speech that Lord Drayson made at Foundation for Science and Technology it generally reiterated several times that he wanted a debate and a consultation, and the communication he has had with various bodies, including Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, and with Martin Rees and John Brown has made very clear that he is genuinely seeking views on that whole set of issues. There is from my perspective no plan in place that there is going to be radical re-targeting.
Q141 Dr Harris: So the key question is if all those organisations which you have mentioned which those individuals represent say that this is a bad idea then it might not happen?
Professor Smith: Then I am sure Lord Drayson and others will be very interested to hear that response.
Q142 Dr Harris: Sorry, but that was not an answer to my question. So there is a possibility that this refocusing of research on strategic lines might not happen if everyone thinks, or significant enough people think, it is a bad idea?
Professor Smith: I think we have to wait and see the outcome of the consultation.
Q143 Mr Boswell: Just to get a flavour of the consultation process, you have mentioned the great and the good within the world of science and engineering, the Royal Academy, the Royal Society, et cetera. How much do you think it is important to try and reach down either below that or behind that, perhaps, to canvas the views of bench scientists and people who may well feel, as I think some of them do, very intensely about the situation of responsive mode funding? I know we are not discussing that now but how much can you maybe say a multifunctional consultation, rather than a matter of going to see the usual suspects who will have views that you probably well know anyway?
Professor Smith: Taking up the last point, the usual suspects' views, I do not think they are the usual suspects' views. My original idea of going to bodies like the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and so on is that there you have high level councils who have people sitting from all perspectives. The problem with going to see the biologists on Monday and the physicists on Tuesday is that those would be the usual suspects and you would know what they would say, but in addition to the bodies I name there is a continuing dialogue all the time with the Research Councils, and I do not know anybody out there whom you would describe as a bent scientist who does not take any opportunity they can to bump into me and tell me what they think.
Q144 Chairman: The fundamental issue for us here is this issue of targeted research programmes, they are the words Lord Drayson has used, so however we got to that point of targeted research programmes my original question to you was what do you understand by "targeted research programmes"? Can you let me have the answer to that as briefly as possible?
Professor Smith: My understanding of the original debate that he launched was should we be folding into the prioritisation process the dimension, and I think he listed three aspects to that dimension, about tensioning, in a sense all other things being equal against where we have potential industrial growth capacity, potential to be world-leading, where we have those kinds of opportunities feeding off research, ought we to be thinking more about focusing in those areas?
Q145 Chairman: That is what you mean by "targeted" priorities?
Professor Smith: I think the original word was "focused", and that that process of prioritisation and focus, thinking perhaps more consciously about where there is potential industrial pull-through, where the United Kingdom can be a leader.
Q146 Chairman: Can I ask the rest of the Panel, is that your view, briefly?
Professor Edgerton: I was nodding because the argument is a very familiar one. It goes back many, many decades, this hope.
Q147 Chairman: So this is not new?
Professor Edgerton: It is not new in the slightest. What is novel is that since Lady Thatcher's time we have lived in a political world that has refused to pick winners in industry and the economy more generally, so we end up with a rather paradoxical situation where ministers are trying to plan science and research, whereas they refuse the opportunity to plan the wider economy or industry, and I think that is probably exactly the wrong way round.
Q148 Chairman: So your view is that government is trying to plan research?
Professor Edgerton: It sounds like it. The problem is that is not really possible and I do not think government has made any serious attempt to plan science in the last 20 or 30 years, but the rhetoric of planning science in relation to industrial development has been central to the arguments certainly from the mid-1980s. Twenty years ago I remember writing an article on Mrs Thatcher's science policy and it was examining exactly the same kind of argument.
Mr Dusic: There have been three different speeches. We have had Lord Drayson's, John Denham's and the Prime Minister's speech, and each has a different focus on this issue. The Prime Minister has said they will be running increased investment across the board in science, and that was to be welcomed, but Lord Drayson's and John Denham's had an inherent question if we increase research in certain areas and focus on those areas that would be potentially at the expense of others. From the Campaign for Science and Engineering our perspective is that that breadth of excellence that exists within science and engineering within the United Kingdom is one of our core strengths, it gives us a competitive advantage against other countries, and we need to be able to have a strong and excellent research base going forward that is able to deal with new challenges and new industrial opportunities that we should not be getting into a narrowing of the focus of the research base at this time.
Professor Charles: One point that comes to me is thinking back to the technology foresight programme a few years ago, which was meant to identify these kinds of priorities and areas of strength, something which was central to that were these panels at a national level who were trying to identify where the United Kingdom strengths were and where the investment therefore ought to focus. Largely that was not followed through in terms of actual direction of funding for research, but these things tend to be done at a national level and I think what is interesting was whether the different parts of the United Kingdom felt they were being represented effectively in that approach, and certainly I remember being involved in some regional foresight activities at that time and the feeling in the north was that these panels were representing a national view and not necessarily the opportunities and strengths at a regional level within the United Kingdom. If you try to second-guess what the strengths are at a national level the danger is that you do not represent the full set of opportunities that might exist across the United Kingdom.
Q149 Chairman: I really would like to get a straight answer from you in the sense of these targeted research programmes, because this is the area of which you are the director. You are responsible within government for delivering the research budget - yes?
Professor Smith: Yes.
Q150 Chairman: So when we talk about these targeted research programmes, does that mean to you basic research as well as transational research? What does it mean? Is it all research?
Professor Smith: I rather boringly come back to the point I made before which is that what is in process is a debate and a consultation, very wide-ranging, about whether there is potential and need for more focus which takes more into account, if you like, the economic pull-through opportunity. That is a legitimate question raised by Lord Drayson which he has asked.
Q151 Chairman: What is your view?
Professor Smith: I would be very interested to see what the results of that consultation are.
Q152 Chairman: You do not have a view?
Professor Smith: I think some aspects of this are going off in a slightly wrong direction. We have a broad portfolio of ways we invest in research and stimulate research and its pull-through into innovation. In addition to the mainstream work of the Research Councils there is a substantial amount of Research Council money that goes through brokering through the TSB, linking with Regional Development Agencies into another agenda.
Q153 Chairman: Can I just stop you here? This is a fundamental issue we are trying the get at, whether in fact this research is now being targeted, because "targeted" means you actually focus on something as part of a deliberate government policy to put our research efforts into particular areas, and Lord Drayson, to be fair, has actually mentioned those areas, and I am asking you, is this going to be right through the whole channel, right through from basic research coming out of our Research Councils to what the dual support system funds as well? Is that your view, as to what we are talking about?
Professor Smith: No, I do not recognise that direction of travel. We have in the last spending round these major cross-cutting themes across the Research Councils - living with environmental change, aging, energy, national security - one is talking as though suddenly from nowhere on a blank sheet of paper these are extraordinarily new things. We already have strategic focus on certain major challenges for the country and for the economy, and we have mechanisms through cross-council funding for dealing with those, we have mechanisms for linking with regional agendas through the TSB, Research Council and RDA money; the questioning is as though this is some kind of bolt from the blue of something we have never talked about before. It is part and parcel of something that is out there in the spectrum of the agenda before, and if you look in detail at the deliberate wording in the Prime Minister's speech he talks about the need for a broad base in science and protecting fundamental science.
Q154 Chairman: There is a huge contradiction between a broad base in science and targeted areas of research. The two take us in different directions, do they not?
Professor Smith: No. Living with environmental change is a targeted challenge to which a broad sweep of disciplines contributes. Entirely compatible.
Q155 Chairman: Am I missing something here?
Professor Edgerton: It has been very difficult to pin down the real meaning of policy statements in the area of science policies, in the plural, for very many decades, so that is not novel either.
Q156 Dr Harris: We do not have to look back decades, do we? We have a speech. We have no Green Paper, no White Paper, three speeches. I was interested that Professor Smith said the debate is whether we do more strategic focusing, and I accept your last answer, by the way, that there has already been some tactical focusing on themes which may attract a broad range of basic research. So I would like to ask Nick Dusic, who did hear the answer to a question that was raised when John Denham spoke at the Academy of Engineering, do you think the debate is about whether we focus on certain "strengths", or is it about the degree to which we focus more? What is the debate? Whether or which/how?
Mr Dusic: Interpreting the different speeches is very difficult, but John Denham was pretty clear when he said "The debate is over, it is how we do it", and the debate now is how we engage with partners and how it goes forward. Drayson's debate and lecture was much more about let's have a debate about these issues; John Denham's said we are moving this debate on and we are going to discuss how we focus on different areas, and the Prime Minister again talked about focusing of research. So I think there has been a lack of clarity but it does sound like the agenda is moving forward.
Q157 Dr Harris: Professor Smith, responding to that, was that just a misunderstanding? Did the Secretary of State mis-speak when he said it is not about whether - because I was there too and it was my question actually - it is how and which? Did he mis-speak, or is there some rowing back now to the Prime Minister's speech where it was much less specific or your understanding?
Professor Smith: I think if there were some rigid set of decisions already made there would not be the very genuine consultation and debate that is going on at the current time. As I said, we do already have quite a number of major challenged themes and focuses that are out there.
Q158 Dr Harris: But Lord Drayson did not say he was going to do more of the same.
Professor Smith: He did not say he was not, either.
Q159 Dr Harris: But he said it was a radical change. He talked about Singapore and Finland and us doing something different than we have done before, whether or not we have thought about doing it before, so I think - and I am not criticising it, I just want to know whether it is worth anyone saying do not do it, or whether we should now be arguing which areas should have the strategic focus. Do you understand the difference?
Professor Smith: Yes, and I would expect that there would be some comeback from the consultation that says: "Don't do it" and there will be other views, and we will have to see where we take it from there.
Q160 Chairman: Would you prefer the consultation to have been on the back of a Green Paper or a White Paper so we clearly understood the structure which we were actually debating? And is that not your job to do that?
Professor Smith: In the current circumstances, because we are in a serious situation, I can quite understand why people, when they think something needs debating and consulting, try to get it out there and get the consultation started.
Q161 Dr Harris: Are you saying because the recession makes it urgent?
Professor Smith: I think it changes slightly the context for everything. It does bring everything into focus, and I remind you the original word used was "focus" the debate.
Q162 Dr Harris: But I understood this was a post-recession policy, because this is going to take some time to sort out, if it is agreed and if it is decided.
Professor Smith: From this perspective the two are the same, are they not? The recession precipitates the view that as one moves through it the world is going to change and the landscape is going to change, and the genuine question is should we think a bit about what that landscape would look like and whether we have the right kind of focus?
Q163 Dr Harris: To move on, my understanding from your answer is that it is not too late for people to say "Don't do this" in their response to this debate; it is not a given, and if that is wrong and if the decision has been taken you can write to let us know, but you have been pretty consistent that that is still an "if" not a "how" question, although it may well be a "how" as well because it may well be you are going to go down that path, so the question is how are you going to handle those areas which lose funding? In response mode funding, assuming there is a decision, and I know we are painting a scenario now but it is one we have been invited to paint by ministers, if there is a decision to concentrate in certain strategic areas, then clearly you will have to de-concentrate if it is going to be any sort of sizeable shift, on other areas. How are you going to handle what thought has been given to handling those areas where success rates for responsive mode funding applications drop from 20 per cent to 5 per cent in order that others might be expanded?
Professor Smith: We are not in that territory, are we, and you will know just from the mechanics of how the Research Councils and research grants and forward investments work that we are looking at some period ahead to where there would be slack in the system, as it were, to start rethinking where we put --
Q164 Dr Harris: How long do people have? If they feel they are in a discipline that has not got the historic good research that might count, or is not in one of these opportunities that has been mentioned, or is likely to be mentioned, how long do they have to change their career focus?
Professor Smith: I do not think that is the appropriate question because, as we said before, if you look at those speeches you will see time and time again reiterated the need for a very broad research base and a fundamental research base. Something like Living with Environmental Change sounds a very applied focused project but actually there are huge amounts of fundamental research across a multitude of disciplines that feed into that. So just raising this kind of debate does not lead down a track which says that certain disciplines or certain kinds of research are not fundable any more.
Mr Dusic: The government needs to be really clear about what it is doing going forward. We have other countries that are making a big investment in science and engineering at the moment, and if there is uncertainty about what the United Kingdom is going to be doing, we want to be able to track and maintain leading science engineers from a wide variety of disciplines, but I think they need to be very clear about what they are planning. Just in terms of narrowing the research base there is a lot problems if that is the direction that they go down.
Q165 Graham Stringer: Professor Edgerton, returning to your answer previously, I am not sure I understood it and I would like you to expand. Are you saying that if the government chooses not to pick winners in industry it cannot pick winners in science?
Professor Edgerton: Yes.
Q166 Graham Stringer: Can you justify that?
Professor Edgerton: Yes. What I mean is there is a plausible nationalistic policy of investing in certain industries because you feel you need to be strong in them. I think it is much more difficult to do that successfully in research simply because the future of research is uncertain; you do not really know where it is going to go. If you want to build a supersonic aeroplane or a gas-cooled reactor you have a pretty good idea that you will be able to do it and you will get some energy out of it even if it turns out to be very expensive. I think there is a conceptual difference between going for an industrial policy that picks a certain sector to invest in and a research policy of a potentially analogous sort.
Q167 Graham Stringer: I do not want to over-interpret it but you are really saying that the government has an impossible policy, and that what it is saying is not achievable?
Professor Edgerton: Yes. I think it does not make sense to have a policy in which you stimulate a particular area of academic science, which is fundamentally what we are talking about, on the grounds that it is needed to develop a certain kind of industry that the United Kingdom is going to have if you do not have a policy for developing and maintaining that industry. It simply does not make sense.
Q168 Graham Stringer: So if one could take what I hope would be a realistic instance like trying to develop hydrogen fuel cells to move towards a hydrogen economy, you are saying there would be no sense in doing that unless you stimulated the whole of the automobile industry, or some equivalent end-user?
Professor Edgerton: Exactly, if you take a view as to how you are going to ensure that the automobile industry takes that up, but we obviously live in a very international world both in the basic science of fuel cells and automobile production, so I think unless you think through all this very careful there is a very strong likelihood of what you are indicating, which is that you are on a hiding to nothing here.
Q169 Mr Marsden: Could I focus the Panel's attention on the Haldane principle? Now the vast matter of the evidence we have received cites support for the Haldane principle; the only problem is they all seem to think it means different things. United Kingdom Computing Research have said they support the principle as originally stated; CaSE have said there was no agreed definition; and DIUS we are told supports the thrust of the Haldane principle. So I wonder if I could start off with you, Professor Edgerton, and ask you as one historian to another to give us very briefly why the Haldane principle has come about; has government mucked around with it since 1918, and what is your understanding of what it means today?
Professor Edgerton: The headline is: "There is no Haldane principle and never has been", and if there has been something like it it was not created in 1918 by Lord Haldane but rather in 1964, I think, perhaps a little bit earlier, by another future Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham. He created, I think, as an argument against the then Labour Opposition, who in his view wanted to do things to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, as then was, that he did not approve of. If I may just read very briefly Quintin Hogg, as he then was, in the House of Commons, the Minister of Technology, Labour plan at that time, is the totally newly departure from recent practice and in my opinion at least is a most retrograde step. Ever since 1915 - he is correct about that - it has been considered axiomatic that responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical, agricultural and other fields on what I have called the Haldane principle through an independent council of industrialists, scientists, and other eminent persons and not directly by a government department".
Q170 Mr Marsden: It is an anti central planning thing, basically; it is a credo for: Don't get your mits on planning science and technology.
Professor Edgerton: It is anti central planning and anti, as the argument for DSO originally was, having a normal government minister, if I can put it that way, in charge of research. You need a senior person outside the usual administrative run of departments, the Lord President of the Council notably, to take a very broad view of what was of course only a very small part of the total research investment of government. So that is one element. The other element that is already there is this notion that scientists themselves control the research agenda, but that is a very different concept, not in Haldane either.
Q171 Mr Marsden: So how does that fit in with how John Denham told us he interpreted the Haldane principle today? He said: "Research is the best place to determine detailed priorities. Government's role is to set the over-arching strategy. Research Councils are guardians of independence of science. These should the basis for Haldane today." Does that have any link with what has previously gone on?
Professor Edgerton: I do not think anyone has ever thought of the research councils as the defenders of the independence of science - that is a very odd definition indeed and I hope we have not actually got that. Learned societies, universities and individual academics are the custodians of the independence of science. The other point is they do not have any particular grip on the issue of the management of science let alone whatever the Haldane Principle might be.
Q172 Mr Marsden: Could I then just turn to you, Professor Smith, on the back of the historical exegesis that Professor Edgerton has given us? Does it suit the Government to keep Haldane vague? Professor Edgerton said it is a bit like the peace of God, it passes all understanding; is there a succinct view of what Haldane means in the department today that you can give us?
Professor Smith: I can certainly make it succinct. Whether or not there is a Haldane Principle the very clear separation where high level research councils make proposals to Government during spending reviews, draft the delivery plans, these are debated, Government allocates funds and then once those funds are allocated does not interfere in the scientific decisions as to how much goes to Professor X and Professor Y seems to me a very valuable, practical separation of powers, whatever you call it. The Government is certainly committed to that and sees it as a valuable part of the landscape.
Q173 Mr Marsden: I want to bring my colleague Brian Iddon in in a minute, but just briefly since we have you here, Professor Charles, of course they certainly did not have regional policy in 1915 or 1918 and it is arguable how Wilson's Government really thought about regional policy in the Sixties, but is Haldane as discussed today a hindrance or a help in terms of articulating regional policy?
Professor Charles: Those principles can operate at different scales; the question is whether there is an idea that science investment will be directed at a regional scale and then within that region it could follow a Haldane Principle in terms of focusing on the excellent research and building up excellence within that regional scale, just as you could say within the European framework programme there are issues about how you select the excellent projects at that scale. We are talking about operating on different scales and whether there is a view that in order to support the economic development of all parts of the UK there should be a greater distribution of research funds. That does not mean to say that some research programmes should not be operated on a national level or purely on the basis of excellence - as indeed the research councils are in Scotland for example - but at another level either central government or some regional body decides to make strategic investments that complement and work with the resources that are distributed purely on the basis of excellence.
Q174 Dr Iddon: Have we not got into a difficult situation which is creating tensions in allocations, whether you believe in Haldane or not, partly because the state departments are not funding the volume of the research that they used to do, Defra being a typical example. Why have we let that situation develop? You are nodding, Professor Edgerton, let us start with you and then Nick Dusic.
Professor Edgerton: The reason goes back to the point I was making earlier, that there is a certain disillusion with large scale departmental programmes like Concorde and the AGR; in fact, Tony Benn back in the Sixties said "No more Concordes" and Lady Thatcher certainly reiterated that in the 1980s, so there was a feeling that that research, which was directly concerned with the well-being of people, the strength of the economy, was not yielding the results that it should. That contracted and, as you say, the research councils which had always funded a very small proportion of the total government research budget found themselves funding more. For that reason there was increased emphasis on trying to justify that kind of research in relation to the broader objectives, so you get a rather odd situation where people are expecting basic science in the universities to translate directly into economic benefits or social quality of life benefits for the British people in the short term. One has to think much more internationally and much more regionally as well about research and be much more focused on the necessary uncertainty that there is in research. As I said before, trying to create an industrial policy out of what should be a policy for university research is a serious mistake.
Mr Dusic: Going back to the original Haldane Report it is about the machinery of government and there is a distinction made between departmental R&D which is for a specific use and general research which would be outside of a department's objectives and so there is less political interference; now that is where we are. There are related issues about departmental R&D spending and the autonomy of the research councils to pursue research. The fact that departmental R&D spending has stagnated over the last ten years for the most part has meant that there are increased pressures upon the research councils to be delivering the sort of research needs that departments should be looking to fund as well as industry. The science policy needs to be seen as a whole and not just focused upon what the research councils should be delivering but the wider agenda in terms of government departmental spending and also encouraging industry to invest in R&D itself.
Q175 Dr Iddon: Professor Smith, whose job is it to reinvigorate the applied research that the state departments have largely been responsible for in past decades? Is it the Chief Scientific Adviser's job or whose?
Professor Smith: It is very much a concern of and on the radar of the Chief Scientific Adviser.
Q176 Dr Iddon: Does your evidence that you are receiving suggest that the Chief Scientific Adviser is going to try and persuade the departments to invest more of their money in the research base?
Professor Smith: This is a set of issues which are being discussed over the next few weeks and months in the new Science and Innovation Committee and the Chief Scientific Adviser is leading on discussions with that committee.
Q177 Dr Iddon: That is very good. Did somebody else indicate that they wanted to come in?
Mr Dusic: We have a science minister who is at the Cabinet table who chairs the Science and Innovation Committee; hopefully one of Lord Drayson's roles with his expanded remit is to get other ministers and other Cabinet members to see the importance of investing their budgets in R&D, so hopefully that will be the case.
Q178 Dr Iddon: I just want, finally, to turn to a statement that CaSE has made and that is "The lack of transparency in the science budget allocation process makes it difficult to determine if a decision was made by a research council or the Government" and what you are calling for, I understand, is more transparency in the policy-making process. I guess I should ask Professor Smith again: would a more open and transparent discussion between Government and the research councils and indeed the research community that they represent be a good thing, and is that on the radar screen at the moment?
Professor Smith: There are two aspects to it, one of which I have already mentioned, that I have set in train and identified a group of national bodies that I will formally consult with in the lead-up to the spending review, and their submissions will be published. In relation to the research councils there is actually a process of course leading up to spending reviews where there is an iteration of plans, demands, pushbacks, discussions and negotiations at a technical level about money, and many of those things are necessarily confidential, commercial in confidence, because they involve things like international subscriptions or whether one continues to invest in particular institutes or whatever. But as soon as that debate and negotiated part is over the allocations are published in the booklet as you know, so there is total transparency at that stage. What I am trying to inject in the process is much more transparency about, let us say, the views of the Royal Society, the views of the Royal Academy of Engineering as we shape that big strategic picture that leads up to the allocation.
Q179 Dr Iddon: Do you think when a major player in our research business gets refused a grant that they ought to be able to enter into a dialogue with the people at the research council who have made the decision, as happens in America, to find out why the grant has been refused essentially?
Professor Smith: I will have to duck that in the sense that I do not exactly know what happens in America but if we have to have the resource and the research councils to enter into prolonged debate with everybody who did not get exactly what they wanted in their grant application we would be spending a significantly greater proportion of the research money on administration than we would on actual research.
Q180 Dr Iddon: The system works well in America and people can see why their grants have been refused.
Professor Smith: I will go and educate myself on what the Americans do.
Q181 Chairman: Just before we finish this and I pass you on to Graham Stringer, in terms of the grant letters to the research councils why do you think they are not made public?
Professor Smith: I know that a request has been put and is being considered at the moment by the secretary of state so we will wait and see what comes from the secretary of state.
Q182 Chairman: Do you have a view on any of these things?
Professor Smith: Part of the view is what I have just said. I have only been in the job for a period which meant that I did not take part in the nitty-gritty of the lead-up but I know that there is a period in the process of discussion, bids, iterations around bids where a lot of the content you would regard as commercial in confidence in the sense that it affects various kinds of interactions with all sorts of bodies.
Q183 Chairman: We understand that.
Professor Smith: In my view as soon as that process is over the equivalent of, for example, the letter that goes from HEFCE to the universities is the allocations booklet.
Q184 Chairman: That is the allocations booklet.
Professor Smith: Yes.
Chairman: Okay, thank you.
Q185 Graham Stringer: Professor Charles, the Regional Studies Association told us that there should be a regional science policy; what would it look like?
Professor Charles: The question of what a regional science policy would look like depends on what institutions the UK decided were needed in order to develop such a thing. At the moment we have got a fairly ad hoc system whereby the RDAs try to dabble around the edges in order to support investment in certain areas of science which they think are relevant to their particular needs. We have a very different situation in Scotland where there is actually a science strategy for Scotland and the Scottish Government has identified areas in which it wishes to invest, which would complement that investment which might come from a UK level. By and large there are not the institutions in the regions of England that are effectively placed to identify areas of strategic investment that might complement and strengthen that which is coming through the competitive process, either through the HEFCE QR system or from research councils. In many of these regions there is no departmental government investment in science so there is not a regional science policy, yet we see a number of countries around the world, both federal countries and non-federal countries, where there is significant investment in developing the research base for the regions and in many cases there are institutions which have developed either through devolution or through other means in order to foster that. We do not have that in this country.
Q186 Graham Stringer: That is very interesting and it is not the answer I was expecting at all. What you are saying is it is really a matter of government structure and institutional structure and not a matter of resource allocation on a spatial basis. Usually when people talk about regional policies it is because there is this huge imbalance in investment in science in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London and a much sparser allocation of resources in the regions; are you not concerned about that?
Professor Charles: In order to address the issues of resource allocation you need to have mechanisms that can allocate those resources effectively, and my argument at the moment is that in order to have that effective allocation you have to look at the institutions that would decide what that should be. That could be central government - if you take the example of Finland, Finland has invested in centres of excellence and centres of expertise across the regions in Finland, they have a more decentralised approach, but it is done from central government in consultation with stakeholders within those regions. In other countries where there is a regional government that has its own policy, its own strategy and makes its own investment and seeks there to complement what might come from central government you have a different kind of mechanism, but unless you get the mechanisms right, unless you get institutions that can make sensible decisions you just get a kind of ad hoc system which may not lead through to effective resource allocation.
Q187 Graham Stringer: Is that an implied criticism of the regional development agencies?
Professor Charles: I do not think the regional development agencies have the history, the established expertise or the resources to be really effective at this. Typically an RDA will have maybe two or three people who have some knowledge of science and innovation, broadly speaking. That is not a successful base on which you can really look at a very significant support for science. What we are talking about in other countries where you have got a regional government or a state government, you have a department for industry, science and innovation where you have a team of people who are working in that area. Also, in a federal system, typically those regional or state-level bodies have their own departments with their own internal science investment, they have their own R&D centres, they have their own scientific advisers who can help them make those sorts of decisions. Without that kind of base in the RDAs I cannot see how they can do the same kind of job that, say, an Australian state, an American state, Catalonia or a German land can do.
Q188 Graham Stringer: Professor Smith, why have we found it so difficult to establish why there is a scarcity of investment in science in the regions outside of the big universities? Is it because there is an application of the Haldane Principle as understood in the department that says we do not interfere, or is it because you do interfere but you do not like telling us about it?
Professor Smith: I have a picture in front of me which looks across regions at research funding normalised by population and, clearly, London and Cambridge act as quite big magnets but I do not think actually that there is this kind of famine level across the regions that you speak of. The distribution is not as extreme.
Q189 Graham Stringer: Can I just interrupt you. The genesis of this part of this inquiry came partly from our visit to Daresbury which was limiting funds, and we were told there that outside of the universities and national institutions over 90% of government funding was going into the golden triangle, which rather dissolves those figures - though obviously if you put Manchester and Newcastle Universities in you get different figures. That is part of the concern and the Committee has been told different things: one, that ministers will not interfere with regional policy because it is in conflict with the Haldane Principle, and at other times we have been told by ministers that they will protect investment at places like Daresbury. Can you explain it to us?
Professor Smith: The version of the Haldane Principle that I think you quoted John Denham as referring to earlier drew this separation between government having a role in really major strategic decisions; for example, if we are going to build the world-beating medical research centre in St Pancras that puts together a huge number of partners and massive levels of investment that only government can negotiate in the current situation. That is not the same - the other end of the scale is interfering at a micro-level with decisions. Looking in front of me, if you look at the rhetoric in and around the golden triangle there is an enormous number of large facilities located outside that golden triangle - in Edinburgh, in Manchester, in Durham, in Liverpool, in Nottingham. There is a slight exaggeration of the picture, and if you look at the research investment - as I say, I have a graph where there is a peak in London and some in the East of England but there are considerable resources going from the research councils across the region.
Q190 Chairman: Could I interrupt you there, Professor Smith, to say would it be possible for the Committee to have this information because we do not have access to that?
Professor Smith: It would be helpful.
Q191 Graham Stringer: Could you also give us that information in the way it was given to us at Daresbury, that disaggregates the research carried on in universities from that carried on in other centres?
Professor Smith: You might have to communicate to me more precisely what you were given and I will try and replicate it.
Q192 Chairman: Yes, we will. I am desperately trying to move on. Nick, very quickly.
Mr Dusic: What Graham Stringer said about Daresbury where there are different signals given from ministers about the guidance given to research councils regarding it, that is why we put in the request under the freedom of information to get the science budget allocation letters to the research councils so there is a bit more guidance about what ministers are telling research councils.
Q193 Chairman: But you are being told the allocation booklet gives you all that information.
Mr Dusic: I would be interested to see the letters to see if that is the case.
Q194 Chairman: You do not feel that that is sufficient.
Mr Dusic: The science budget allocation booklet gives us the high-level commitments for the different research councils.
Q195 Chairman: But not the rationale.
Mr Dusic: Not the rationale. I think the letters would provide some more information which would be useful.
Q196 Chairman: Can you understand why this Committee has been denied that information?
Mr Dusic: We have been denied it too; I do not understand it.
Q197 Dr Harris: Professor Smith, do you accept the distinction between the allocations booklet and the letter?
Professor Smith: I thought I had tried earlier to explain that the interchanges of letters that lead up to that involve matters which are sensitive to be in the public domain.
Q198 Dr Harris: Do not repeat that, but some months later there is the final allocation letter a la HEFCE, do you accept that that is different from the allocations booklet as Mr Dusic has just said? If you do, why is it that months later that is not available like it is for HEFCE?
Professor Smith: I think I said it earlier: the allocations booklet would be the equivalent of the final letter that is sent out to HEFCE, which is the final picture once all the dust has settled in and around the discussions and negotiations.
Chairman: All right, we are not going to get anything more from you on that.
Q199 Mr Boswell: Professor Smith, just a final question and then perhaps something to the panel in the light of what you say. The Government's debate on strategic science policy is now under way; is this specifically and explicitly going to consider regional factors?
Professor Smith: That debate could well have a regional dimension. Take a specific example: if we up the ante on something which has already been launched through the ETI of offshore power generation of various kinds - marine technology for example - if we are going into that in a big way it inevitably has a geographic location element to it.
Q200 Mr Boswell: It is a derived consequence rather than a conscious allocation.
Professor Smith: It is a derived consequence. You do not start saying can we put something around the coast.
Q201 Mr Boswell: Can I then ask the other members of the panel whether they feel that there should be a specific regional tier in this debate up front as being a requirement for a rational science policy? Professor Edgerton.
Professor Edgerton: To have a national science policy in the singular is an impossibility. We have the possibility of having many different kinds of science policies but a regional science policy is also an impossibility and to attempt to get one is undesirable. We should get away from the whole Haldane-oriented way of thinking about this and insisting that it is only because you have a national research council that you can achieve high quality. By suggesting that we should break the monopolies of the research councils - not all of them have a monopoly, the Medical Research Council does not quite of course because of the Wellcome - and have a series of bodies, perhaps headquartered in different parts of the country that compete with each other to generate the best quality research, that take not just a national view but an international as well as a regional view; I think that will help us get away from the rather self-satisfied view the research councils sometimes take of their own endeavours and open that up to competition, to new thinking, to genuine debate. It would be very difficult for a research council in, let us say, Leicester to fund work in Manchester, but if they are held to account on the basis of the quality of the research they will do it.
Q202 Mr Boswell: Any views from Nick or Professor Charles on that?
Mr Dusic: The UK-wide research councils provide a really strong benefit for the country and that should remain. One of the things we are having to look at, because of devolution, is regional science funding coming through the different funding councils. It is therefore a different landscape that we are doing science policy in and that needs to be respected and understood. DIUS understands that but it needs to have a UK-wide focus and an England-only focus as well. Maybe the Council for Science and Technology which has a UK focus could be looking at the science policies across the UK, looking at how they develop and how they interact and challenge both the UK Government and devolved administrations to make sure they are up to scratch.
Q203 Chairman: The last word from you, Professor Charles.
Professor Charles: There is often a problem in this country in that we associate regional with not being the same as excellent; there is often an assumption that what happens in the regions is by definition of lower quality - it goes back to the RAE where we talk about sub-national quality, national quality and international quality. We need to move away from that, we need to be focused on excellence and international quality everywhere but recognise that in different regions there may be different areas of excellence, different areas of opportunity for exploitation of science and technology and, therefore, we might need to have a variety of different objectives and priorities.
Q204 Mr Boswell: My final question is could there be some difference in weighting within regions or between regions as to whether they were pure science or had a strong element of regional industrial nexus policy?
Professor Charles: It is inevitable that there might emerge a different focus. If you allowed the scientist base in the regions to identify their areas of research you would get a different pattern emerging no doubt, and if there was an institutional base in the region that could identify what the priorities might be they would possibly look different. Until we go down the route of this exercise and actually try to build a debate at a regional scale, to see how that might relate to a national science policy - and indeed to the policies that are emerging from the EU - we do not really know what that would look like.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I am sorry we have overrun on your session but it has been really good. Thank you very much indeed Professor Adrian Smith, Nick Dusic, Professor David Edgerton and Professor David Charles.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sir Roland Jackson, British Science Association, Professor Iain Haines, UK Deans of Science, and Tracey Brown, Sense about Science, gave evidence.
Chairman: We welcome our second panel for this afternoon on the inquiry into putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy; we welcome Tracey Brown, Director of Sense about Science, welcome to you Tracey, Sir Roland Jackson of the British Science Association, welcome to you, and Professor Iain Haines of the UK Deans of Science, a distinguished second panel. I am going to ask Evan Harris if he would like to open this session.
Q205 Dr Harris: Good afternoon. What mechanisms might the government put in place to ensure adequate and independent scrutiny of scientific evidence and whether it is being used appropriately in policy formation? What sort of structures do you think do exist or ought to exist or ought to be beefed up? I do not mind who starts.
Ms Brown: We have seen a period of quite unprecedented innovation and focus on that concern. The Committee has noted the installation of chief scientists in departments, the rewriting in 2005 of the chief scientist guidelines and, from the point of view of evaluating the quality of the evidence that is used in policy-making as much as the content, it is something that Sense about Science has promoted, and we have been delighted to see things like peer review discussed much more widely in government. However, there is potentially a procedural limit on these sorts of questions and I detect quite a strong push towards wanting to have a set of questions or procedures that enable you to make good, evidence-based policy. In fact, there are two problems with this. We have got great guidelines - if you look at the chief scientific adviser's guidelines they are very good but one of the problems is that they do not stand up to political pressure and in fact what you get is policy-driven evidence in those circumstances. They have co-existed with quite a number of cases where we have had policy-driven evidence and I do not think they are strong enough to stand up to that. In fact, without the kind of scrutiny that parliamentary committees offer I cannot see how - the Government has got a long history of innovating ways around procedures - we will not end up always in that situation when the political pressure is on.
Q206 Dr Harris: You do not think there is anything internal that is strong enough.
Ms Brown: No.
Q207 Dr Harris: A Chief Scientific Adviser who was prepared to be firm would actually prevent the Government, or do you require that to be publicised in order for that to be effective?
Ms Brown: It would be an odd thing to hang an approach around the personality of an individual anyway but surely the position of those individuals could only be strengthened by having external scrutiny. There is always going to be this problem of having to engage with awkward evidence and people giving you awkward advice who may well be the chief scientist at times. The need to engage with them would become much stronger if you felt that you would be called to account for the decision-making process and for whether or not you listened to that advice, and indeed that the chief scientist would be called to account for whether or not that advice was being taken on board.
Q208 Chairman: Professor Haines, can we bring you in?
Professor Haines: I very much agree with what Tracey has said. There is a real difficulty in suggesting that one person, working within Government, can possibly have the power and knowledge to make these decisions. One of the points that we made in our evidence, which we did not know, was the proportion of civil servants - or perhaps more senior civil servants - who have science and technology backgrounds; if the Chief Scientific Adviser is going to have the extent of advice internally there would need to be some very serious overview of the extent to which there were scientists and technologists working within the department under that person.
Q209 Chairman: A constant theme for this Committee is to get the answer to your very question. Sir Roland?
Sir Roland Jackson: The point I would make, which we made in our evidence, which is very much related to this is that it is really important - it sounds obvious - for government to be clear when it is consulting and when it is communicating, to be clear about that. I can imagine from all sorts of points of view it is occasionally helpful to maybe be a little bit unclear about that, but certainly looking at it from a public perspective it really does risk increasing distrust in the political process if government is not specific about that.
Q210 Dr Harris: All of you have said that there is a need for the external scrutiny to be tough and you have mentioned parliamentary committees which we can come on to, but are there any other mechanisms that could be introduced to make sure that there is effective external scrutiny - for example, using the learned societies in a more formal way?
Professor Haines: It depends on where you are looking for scrutiny. One of the things that concerns me is the way that policy gets developed. The term "great and good" has already been used once today and there is this danger that the same people come and say the same things in whatever consultation exercise there is. There is a consultation for the future of higher education at the moment and a certain group of individuals have been asked to write reports and statements about their view of the future. I would actually like to see, just once, somebody being willing to take up the nettle and saying "We are going to invite, almost randomly, under 35 year old scientists to come to a meeting and discuss where science should be going in the future" and not keep on looking at the great and good who, no matter who they are, have got their own interests. In terms of professional bodies, the professional bodies will always tend to grind on - and I am a great supporter of the Royal Society of Chemistry - with their own particular interests. Deep down inside, the under-35s have got new ideas, radical ideas, which we really ought to be getting to tap into.
Q211 Dr Harris: Professor Haines has mentioned in his evidence the need for there to be a Science and Technology Committee as of old, recast in some way, in order to have that scrutiny of science across government. Does either of the other two agree with that?
Ms Brown: In some form. Actually, if you go back to the Science and Technology Committee's 2006 Report on the Government's use of evidence it wrote the mandate really for how that Committee should evolve. It is not quite the same remit perhaps because there is a difference. One of the problems we are talking about when we are talking about science policy is are we talking about the science wow and how or are we talking about science as in UK Plc and the investment strategy and the research base or are we talking about scrutiny of decision-making? Although those things overlap quite a lot there are distinctions.
Q212 Dr Harris: You think that Mr Willis is not doing a good enough job on the last of those with his Committee?
Ms Brown: There is a loaded question. The scrutiny of decision-making is actually the most valuable role that a scrutiny committee could play. It opens up questions about how decisions were reached and the evidence on which they are based in the way that the public actually has a way of getting hold of, and indeed scientists more widely have a way of getting hold of. We experience a lot of people saying to us that they have got frustrations, as many scientists had with, for example, the Physical Agents Directive, for over a year, not knowing where to take them because there was not an open consultation that asked those kinds of questions at that moment in time. The existence of the Committee created that option, but I would be really cautious about the idea of a further panel of experts that scrutinises. One of the other sides to having a parliamentary committee is its democratic accountability and there is a lesser problem, one that fewer people raise, of the scientisation of politics and elevating the role of the expert above the role of the elected officer. Having parliamentary scrutiny is actually quite a healthy thing from that point of view as well.
Q213 Dr Harris: It is in the remit of this Committee to do what you have just described but are you saying - and certainly this has been said - that the remit also covers innovation, university and skills and therefore there is not enough time for this Committee to do what the old Science and Technology Committee did, or do you think it should be just a high-level priority for us to do it or there should be a new committee to do it and that means we would not do it?
Ms Brown: As I understand it the sub-committee functions at the moment.
Q214 Dr Harris: There are fluid sub-committees so as I understand it it is in our remit and sometimes we could look at a decision across government or in a government department if we had the time, and we could do that in the sub-committee or not, so the sub-committee is not a material point. Obviously there are always priorities; the question is, is there merit in that work being done by the same committee that has responsibility for looking at the role and the work of the Science Minister and his/her department, or does that not matter and you could have a freestanding scrutiny committee looking at the evidence base behind decisions?
Ms Brown: The second option is probably the most important one and I am not necessarily best placed to know whether it would be possible to combine that entirely. As a cross-cutting role of the Committee I just cannot see how you could possibly not have a cross-cutting role of the main Committee if you have two scientists in every department. In fact, if you look at the sorts of examples that the Science and Technology Committee dealt with - for example in that 2006 Report - they were not all concerned with the department that the universities and skills base were in.
Q215 Dr Harris: Sir Roland?
Sir Roland Jackson: I do not think I have a great deal to add except to comment that this Committee has taken a lot of interest in this particular area. This inquiry has been running for quite some time now and indicates that you can address these issues over a length of time and in the way in which they evolve and, clearly, things have evolved quite substantially in the past year.
Q216 Chairman: Can I just interrupt? One of my concerns here about this particular exchange is that in order to be able to scrutinise something effectively you have to have a body of information presented to you which is capable of being interrogated. In terms of this inquiry, which is about science and engineering policy, we seem to have had a number of speeches made which indicate a change of policy, and actually getting to grips with that is incredibly difficult. Do you share that frustration?
Professor Haines: Absolutely. The three speeches and the difficulty of working out quite where the balances were were summed up very well at the earlier discussion. Can I come back to this business of should there be a separate committee for science? In our evidence we suggested there should be; it is not the suggestion that the Chairman is not doing his job, nor is it the suggestion that the members are not doing their job, it is just that we feel that the Committee is too broad. From innovation - and that is economic innovation - on the one hand, right the way through to skills of all kinds of an undescribed nature, it is too big. I just happened to look at a few of the evidence sessions that you had in January. I looked at three: there were no more than six members able to be present and at two of them there was not even a contributor from each of the three main parties. That I do not think is sufficient support for the business of questioning what the Government is doing and what the departments are doing outside DIUS.
Q217 Dr Harris: I want to change to a specific area which is to work out if there is any role for internal scrutiny to protect scientists giving advice. I want to take the Home Office as an example because it has been in the news with regard to its misuse of statistics, which it admitted, and where there does not appear to have been any civil service conjunction before that was done - the internal statisticians did not seem to be involved - and then there is the whole business of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. There are two issues there and I want to focus on the second of these: one is the fact that the Government rejected the advice of its advisers while still trying to claim that it was evidence-based policy and, secondly, is the treatment of the adviser himself, Professor Nutt, where he was castigated publicly for publishing in a journal some work. Was there a role for the Home Office chief scientist? Who should have come to his defence within the department because, as far as we know, no one did?
Ms Brown: At the time that it happened I suspect that the Home Office chief scientist was not aware of late night phone calls. There is a serious issue in terms of the knock-on effect of this as well. It is something on which you have to absolutely 100 per cent back the independence of the people you have asked to come in and give independent advice. We have over 3,000 scientists working with us on a whole range of projects and we are already picking up a really negative reaction to that. There was already frustration about the number of people who feel that their time is misused sometimes and it relates to something that Roland raised actually, which is not just the need for consultations and the use of expertise to be clear about whether it is communicating or consulting, but also what the status is that that is being given. Are you submitting something that is going to be the basis of a policy or are you just throwing your lot in the pot? That is often not clear to scientists and academics who give their time for free. That has a serous implication and unless you want to see all the work that has been done since the Phillips Report on improving the contribution made to policy-making, then that is something you are going to have to take really serious issue with.
Q218 Dr Harris: Does either of the two of you have a view on his treatment or are you not aware of the case?
Sir Roland Jackson: I am aware of the case and I would echo the way that Tracey saw it.
Q219 Chairman: Do you think there are scientists that you know of, even the great and the good, who might be more reluctant to provide expert advice to government in case the government disagrees with them and they get a hard time?
Sir Roland Jackson: I do not personally have any evidence to that effect and I certainly know that a lot of scientists who give evidence would still be perfectly prepared to go ahead and do so, but it does not help the climate.
Q220 Chairman: Can I move on? Tracey, you told us that debate on science and policy engagement tends to only make "euphemistic reference" to the existence of misconceptions. What do you mean by that?
Ms Brown: What I mean is that where there is a problem in the way that an issue is portrayed in public it would be quite useful if consultations actually spelled that problem out.
Q221 Chairman: Would you give us a concrete example?
Ms Brown: For example - although actually I am picking on something which is perhaps not the worst example - the recent consultation that started two years ago on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act update made reference to things being controversial, for instance, and did not explain why they are controversial or actually on what basis the Government assumed them to be controversial. In fact, we looked at the evidence being used there to ascertain public opinion and discovered it was a circular set of references where the Chief Medical Officer had called it controversial so the Department of Health did so, and in fact there was not a study that showed that the hybrid and chimera embryos being discussed there were particularly controversial. It would be very helpful for people to lay things out in a way that actually refers to how they would have experienced the discussion in society around them.
Q222 Chairman: Sir Roland, you mentioned that your Association wanted to have a science and society framework in which we could actually have positive engagement - in other words that you would set the rules and terms for a science and society engagement to take place. What has happened to that proposal, where is it?
Sir Roland Jackson: I would not dream to attempt to set the rules.
Q223 Chairman: The framework then in which you could actually have a sensible debate.
Sir Roland Jackson: There has recently been a consultation by DIUS on their science and society strategy, introduced by the previous Science Minister, Ian Pearson, and we are awaiting at the moment the formal response to that. My Association's suggestion was a parallel to what the Government had done to bring coherence to the whole area of science education through the so-called STEM programme; we were simply saying we think there is a need and an opportunity to take that slightly wider picture, look across the whole science and society interface which, as others have commented, is very diverse. There is a multiplicity of purposes and reasons for people to do this and, essentially, to help clarify the landscape a bit to say what are we doing and why in which areas, and do we have the sort if infrastructure and capabilities and culture in those areas that are necessary to take things forward.
Q224 Chairman: Do you think that is possible?
Sir Roland Jackson: I certainly think it is because actually a lot of the elements of it are in place already, and it does not need a heavy touch by government either because there are many independent agencies involved in this business for their own perfectly legitimate reasons, but enabling those to work together for better mutual effect is where government should be putting its efforts. It should be supporting those things where people are starting to come together and the most recent big example is the Big Bang Fair that I know you were involved with - which was initiated by us with young engineers and then by the ETB - which has brought together 50 or more associations in a common purpose for a much bigger national impact over time. There are a number of areas where we can continue to do that by either exploiting existing networks like National Science Engineering Week or the Science Expert Resource Centre and others or, if there are gaps, identify where those are and seek to fill them.
Q225 Graham Stringer: In terms of public understanding and participation in scientific consultation the media often gets an unjustified bashing; what do you think the learned societies or the scientific community as a whole could do to help the media get their stories more accurate or better? It is easy to blame the newspapers but could the scientific community do more? Tracey.
Ms Brown: An awful lot is already being done there. If you look back five or six years ago many universities and professional learned societies did not really have a media-facing function for their science communication; now they do, and you have the Science Media Centre and a lot of organisations that have learned to work with the media. Actually, for all that people say that the media are a problem, we are blessed with a lot of people in the UK who take their time to pursue stories pretty well and make the relationships fairly effective. I also think the media raise quite a lot of important questions about the basis on which decisions are made - we can refer back to our earlier discussions - and that is often overlooked.
Sir Roland Jackson: I would agree with that. On the whole we are remarkably well served by our media, particularly supportive agencies like the Science Media Centre, and we take great care to cultivate relationships with journalists at times like the Festival to get a huge and almost invariably very positive coverage of science and engineering and what is going on. There are some systemic things which can be built on which are that it really is very important for the scientific and engineering community to understand how the media works and to work with the grain of the media because the media are not going to change in principle. Schemes like our media fellowship scheme or other training schemes that other organisations run that enable scientists to work directly with journalists and understand how the two can work better together are really important.
Q226 Graham Stringer: This is slightly Utopian, is it not? There is obviously a lot of good reporting but there is the MMR media reporting, stem cell research, GM foods, all of which have been appallingly reported. That is slightly the best of all possible worlds, that sort of outlook, and it ignores the real problem, if you do not mind me saying so.
Sir Roland Jackson: It depends how you define appalling there. From the MMR point of view one could say the scientific community should have come out earlier, rather than the journalists necessarily, and highlighted where the balance of evidence actually lay. In terms of GM it is a very, very complex debate because like most of these things it is not just about science, it is about other clashes of values and perceptions and, in cases like that, again, the scientific community should come out all guns blazing and explain, while recognising where other people are coming from, what its perceptions and views are. Journalists on the whole respond to that.
Professor Haines: We should not be complacent about this but it is a fact that the majority of the population do actually believe that scientists and science are good for them and are moving the world forward. I say we must not be complacent, but I would say that there will be that section of media outlets that are always looking for the bad story, the story that sells the newspaper or the story that gets people to turn on the television at 8.30 and watch their channel rather than somebody else's. We have to keep on fighting and struggling against that but, broadly speaking, science has been on the up for a considerable amount of time in the opinion of the population as a whole.
Q227 Graham Stringer: What are the best examples of public engagement exercises about science that have led to a real improvement of the public's understanding of a particular scientific issue and why were those examples successful?
Ms Brown: They are not necessarily at a national level. One of the things that our Trust does is respond to questions from anybody who has got any kind of audience or constituency which could be a local midwife trying to deal with a story about plasticizers in babies' bottles or a local authority addressing concerns about wi-fi in schools. Actually where things become successful I think are where people have relationships that they can pursue their questions through, which is to say "Is this even a scientific question?" That is the question we get asked the most, "Is this even a scientific question?" and then if it is "Where do I go?" because there may be X number of engineering institutes but who knows which are for what and whether they will answer my questions. When people form those relationships and get confident to pursue those kinds of questions, those tend to be more the successful things. I do not think that there is some kind of policy for harmony on a national level that we can establish that would prevent any kind of blow-up of a vaccine scare or that kind of thing. At that point we just have to look at who the players in that discussion are and whether people are putting forward the arguments and the evidence and work it out as they come up.
Q228 Graham Stringer: It is very interesting in terms of process and individual examples. Sir Roland and Professor Haines, are there examples you can give us of something on a national level that has led to a better understanding of science?
Sir Roland Jackson: I am not sure that we have ever really deliberately orchestrated those sorts of activities. This is again something that we put in our evidence, that we suggested that selected government consultations on major areas of policy in relation to science could be used by government if it so wished with an educational agenda alongside as well. To give you an example, I recall all the consultations around the Energy White Paper a few years ago which, like most public consultations, were primarily stakeholder consultations - the usual suspects and institutions responded. The material that was produced for that was really very detailed and actually written in a very accessible way, and could quite easily have been turned into something that could have been used by a whole range of organisations like science centres or us or others to broker a set of individual debates and discussions around the country, to inform people about what the issues were and, crucially, to pick out what was coming back in public debate and feed that back in. I do not think we are doing enough of that and that would both help the policy process, give a lot more validity to the policy process and educate the public at the same time.
Professor Haines: You asked the question in a rather specific way about the understanding of science. I know that there are different words used at different times but I am not sure I would want to use the word understanding of science in relation to people recognising what science had done for them; I would prefer to look at it as appreciation of science and in that people are fully aware that it is scientists that are going to solve the problem of HIV AIDs, climate change - we will leave out the issue of whether it is global warming or not - and a whole range of other issues. I do think that people do appreciate that science and scientists are going to solve all the kinds of problems that they have an interest in.
Q229 Dr Harris: Do you think they make a distinction between proper science and TV nutritionists?
Professor Haines: No, and I do not think that a certain heir to the throne helps very much in that regard either.
Q230 Chairman: I am going to meet another member of the Royal Family in half an hour; we will leave that subject there.
Ms Brown: Can I just make a point about peer review though because when we set out some years ago now to popularise an understanding of peer review scientists laughed about it because they experience it as that really awful, dull thing that frustrates them. Actually we published a short guide called I Don't Know What to Believe and we found that 200,000 people wanted it, which we had never anticipated, and we now find that the question "Is it peer reviewed?" - which is not to say it is right or it is wrong, it is good or it is bad, it just says have we at least got to the stage here where something is being published so that it can be scrutinised by others and we can have a conversation then about what others said - is starting to crop up. We monitor the use of that and that leaflet is now used by NHS Direct, it is part of the 21st century science teaching in schools and just the recognition question that the calibre of the science you are looking at is as important as the findings and the possible conclusions. That is something where there has been a lot of success and it is not only ours, we have encouraged lots of others to do likewise, and people are beginning, even at a very basic level, to ask the question "What I am reading here on page 3 of the Daily Moon is that actually good science or bad science?" That is actually quite a new question for people to ask and a very helpful one.
Q231 Dr Harris: Does it help them to understand the importance of publishing the evidence and say it is reliable?
Ms Brown: In a mixed fashion. There are some people who are very aware of the need to do that and there are obviously still cases where that does not happen, which refers back to the point I was making earlier that it is political pressure actually that forces people to explain the basis on which they reach a decision.
Q232 Graham Stringer: My final question, Tracey, you outlined the initiatives that affect democratic engagement by the public rather than audience participation. Can you expand on what the key differences are in those two approaches?
Ms Brown: Similar to the difference of the enjoyment of science in popular science - reading popular science books, going to see shows and that kind of thing, and actually pursuing something where there is an element of accountability, where you are even asking the question why is the Government telling me this is right, or this is evidence-based and how has it come to that conclusion. That is the beginning of the path of democratic accountability, it is a different process. I would also add that I am slightly wary of the idea that seems to be around in relation to DIUS about it having a strategy. I know Roland has referred to the need to engender trust and, clearly, we do not want people doing things that encourage mistrust, but it is actually healthy for people not to have a blanket trust and that we should celebrate things like sharing science, your love of science, or improving science education or dealing with difficult issues. Those things are maybe justified in their own terms rather than because they help improve trust in government or in DIUS. It slightly worries me that there could be a manipulative element to those kinds of activities, that the reason why DIUS might fund a science fair might be because they are hoping to promote some sort of trust me, do not look too close at everything else, we have done the science fair.
Q233 Dr Iddon: I want to turn now to consultation and how the government goes about it. How do you think the Government could improve its consultation? Ian, can we start with you?
Professor Haines: I mentioned the consultation about the future of higher education earlier. That does tend to appear to be something where in choosing a certain group of people to in the main produce their own personal report, having admittedly in most cases - as far as I can tell from the reports, all of which I have read - gone and consulted with a certain number of people; I think that is not in any way the way to progress; it is much more important to have some open meetings with some open questions. I went to the meeting a couple of weeks ago on the government agenda for science which John Denham spoke at and it was actually very interesting because by the time John Denham had given his speech there was a serious opportunity for people to question the minister. With about 250 people in the room virtually nobody put their hand up. I would suggest that that was an indication of people sitting there tending to feel that the decisions had already been made, so what I am arguing for is much more open discussion, open questions rather than closed presentations.
Q234 Dr Iddon: Not just the usual suspects; okay. Roland?
Sir Roland Jackson: This came up in evidence that others gave to you a couple of weeks ago. It depends very much on what the purpose of the consultation is because there are, quite legitimately, different framings and emphases for a particular consultation. Is it a consultation about the policy per se, is it about how we implement the policy or whatever, so clarity about that is really important. The dimension I would add, which we put in our evidence, which again is trying to give a broader public voice to government consultation, is to say that alongside the traditional stakeholder type of route which we have all talked about it would not be that difficult to instigate some sort of more continuous, what you might call social intelligence gathering around what are likely to be key areas of science policy. I am thinking, for example, of what we did in nanotechnology a few years ago where we worked with partnership organisations to run a whole series of events on discussions around nanotechnology, to collate the views from those discussions, feed them back into subsequent discussions and then pull out what people were saying. A lot of that will give you similar views to the views that come out of more in-depth social science work or sometimes out if questionnaire work, but if you had a system that in a sense enabled you to tap in on a continuous basis to areas of public interest and concern about science I think you would then be able to provide policymakers on a timely basis with much more nuanced and up to date evidence. I think that would be helpful.
Q235 Dr Iddon: Tracey.
Ms Brown: One of the biggest problems is not knowing what is at stake. It is like the classic thing, if you went round an estate of people and asked whether they were fed up with dog mess they would all say they absolutely hate it, but if you say shall we get rid of all the dogs in the area as a result of that decision they would not say the same thing. That is half the time the problem, people do not know whether they are expressing a preference or whether they are being asked to actually make a decision, in which case they need to take into account a much broader range of potential consequences. One of the things that has happened for Sense about Science is that when we have raised concerns about new developments of policy, not just with departments but also with statutory bodies under them as well, they have complained that there was a consultation period, why did we not hear about it then. But sometimes what is at stake only becomes clear at some later stage of implementation, and then the scientists get told off for the fact that they did not realise quickly enough that this was going to wipe out their use of a particular procedure, for example. We had this with the Tissue Bill, we had it with the Physical Agents Directive and so forth. That is actually quite a problem in terms of explaining what it is at stake - it is not just the social reaction to that, it is also trying to work these things through. At the moment I have had a conversation with the Statutory Instruments Committee and they are wondering with all the things that are coming through from Europe actually what is likely to create some sort of a reaction, how are scientists getting to hear about new European directives that may then have an impact on the kind of work that they can do. We only hear about it at the point at which it is being implemented into UK law, by which point it is really a bit too late to be trying to do something about it, it is a big uphill struggle. There is a problem there with not knowing what the implications of things are until a later stage.
Q236 Dr Iddon: Are you all aware there is a Cabinet Office document on how consultation should be conducted?
Sir Roland Jackson: Yes.
Professor Haines: Yes.
Ms Brown: Yes, and it has actually begun to have a slight improvement on the thing about not just going to the usual suspects. I have really noticed that departments are going much more broadly with who they are consulting.
Q237 Dr Iddon: How do we measure the success or otherwise of a consultation once the government has done it, is it possible? Tracey.
Ms Brown: That is defined by the terms of what it was for in the first place. I think if it has not uncovered a significant reaction or problem then of course you could say it is unsuccessful but if the consultation is to appease public opinion about something that is a bit of a more tricky issue. If it was to be seen to be doing the right thing or to give people the feeling that they had had their say - some kind of almost psychological benefit for the participants - then that is actually a much more difficult thing to look at and I am not even sure that that is what consultation should be for.
Sir Roland Jackson: I would point here to the South West Expert Resource Centre and some of the work that it is doing, which I hope will tease out some of these things, because what it is trying to do is support a culture right the way across government, particularly in relation to science and technology issues, of what sorts of consultations might be carried out for what purposes and how, and how you evaluate that. I would look out for their work as it carries on and is published.
Professor Haines: I do not know that I can add very much but I am just thinking that when one goes to a conference one fills in a form at the end that says what you thought of the conference. I just wonder once whether there might be an opportunity to say what one thought of the consultation.
Q238 Dr Iddon: The Government carried out a consultation on science and society and it reached two amazing conclusions: first, that there is a need to increase high quality public engagement and, second, that we need to increase the UK's stem base. As the first conclusion was essentially the reason for conducting the consultation in the first place and the second conclusion is already government policy, what was the point of that exercise? Did you take an interest in that; I am sure you did.
Ms Brown: It is such an enormous range of subjects that were covered that it did just re-pose the questions in the end and I think they found themselves with something perhaps rather overwhelming because it was not very focused. One of my frustrations is that there is very little being invited in the way of true evaluation of what had gone before, which I suspect might be because there is a lot of incentive to talk about the fact that money was well-spent, and therefore nobody wants to ask the really difficult questions about where it might not have been so well-spent. Surely, actually, that is where you are going to develop quite a useful set of insights into what should be developed in the future. It is only a summary that has been produced and they are now looking to evaluate that summary, but the hands-off almost no comment feel to it is quite strong.
Q239 Dr Iddon: Are there any other comments about that particular consultation?
Sir Roland Jackson: I would say that what the consultation, as far as I have seen it so far, has shown - perhaps not surprisingly - is how diverse and complex what we call public engagement is. Some people see that as a problem, and it certainly is if you try and see it as one activity, as a lump, but what you need to do and what I hope will come out in the consultation at the next stage is to focus down and say yes, we agree it is a very broad area, it covers all the way through from the things we were talking about here such as scrutiny of the way decisions are taken that have some public relevance, right the way through to exciting young people to take a career in science. What we need to do is to say okay, these are the legitimate purposes, the main purposes for which this public engagement is being carried out, do we have the right infrastructure and systems in place for each of these particular reasons, each of which is valid but they are distinct and different and trying to capture it all under one heading is a bit too difficult.
Q240 Dr Iddon: Too ambitious, okay. Professor Haines.
Professor Haines: I do not think I have got anything to add.
Dr Iddon: Thank you very much.
Chairman: On that degree of unanimity we will bring this session to a close. Thank you very much indeed Tracey Brown, Sir Roland Jackson and Professor Ian Haines.