House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
science and technology committee
Wednesday 14 October 2009
LORD DRAYSON and PROFESSOR JOHN BEDDINGTON
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Mr Tim Boswell
Mr Ian Cawsey
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Witnesses: Lord Drayson, a Member of the House of Lords, Minister of Science and Innovation, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Minister for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, Ministry of Defence, and Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: I would like to welcome Lord Drayson, our Science Minster. Thank you very much indeed for joining us at this, the first meeting of the newly formed Science and Technology Committee. Could I put on record our thanks to you for being a leading supporter of the need to bring back the Science and Technology Committee and, indeed, for meeting us at our first meeting. Welcome too to Professor John Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser. We are very grateful that you have joined us at our very first meeting. Perhaps I can start with you, Lord Drayson. We finished our last session as the IUSS Committee with a report Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy. We are obviously awaiting a response from government on that particular report. Could you briefly outline what you are going to do in the time between now and the general election to put science and engineering right at the heart of government. Or are we just going to be on general election alert?
Lord Drayson: I hope that this becomes an election issue, Chairman. The need we have in this country to rebalance our economy post the credit crunch and the implementation of the Government's policy of industrial activism depends upon us being effective in delivering on a policy of putting science at the heart of government. To do that, we need to make sure that we have sufficient expertise within government. John and I are working very hard in partnership to strengthen the sense of community of scientists and engineers within the Civil Service - and John can talk about the network that he is developing. We have put in place a number of initiatives over the past year to strengthen the voice of science within government: flowing from my chairmanship of the new Science and Innovation Committee, the scrutiny, for example, that will be taking place of departmental science research budgets, and the continued commitment to the science ring fence, the ten-year framework. If we are to realise this country's potential of translating its world class science base into growth in the economy, the creation of new jobs, then we have to make sure that in the run-up to the election we are showing that as the present Government we are seriously effective in implementing all of these things which we have done to put science and engineering at the heart of government. Then I hope that, when it comes to it, people will be asking the question: What are the policies that are important for the future? I want to achieve science being seen as a key pin in that future policy.
Q2 Chairman: How do we stop going backwards in terms of the work that you and others have done within the scientific civil service, if I might use that as a generic term. How do we stop that process retreating?
Professor Beddington: I would make two points, if I
may, Chairman. The first is that we now
have a situation where all the major departments of state which do science have
a chief scientific adviser. They all
have a contract. Those contracts will last
well beyond the election. That is some
degree of protection, I suppose. The
second is that the community of government science and engineering, which I
started fairly soon after arriving, is continuing to expand. We have a meeting on Monday in
Q3 Chairman: Yes, provided it is very brief.
Professor Beddington: Then I will not make it. I will make it at some later point.
Q4 Chairman: If you do not get the opportunity, perhaps we could come back to that at the end.
Professor Beddington: Of course.
Q5 Chairman: Clearly getting a political buy-in is absolutely crucial to science - and I do not necessarily mean in party political terms. How often do each of you meet the Prime Minister, for instance? How often do you have a conversation with the top man about science and science policy?
Professor Beddington: The last time I met with the Prime Minister was about three weeks ago. We were discussing the issue of this new Centre for Nuclear Excellence, which is an initiative that he has asked me to deal with. I do not meet him regularly on a one-to-one basis but I do meet very regularly with senior officials at Number 10: Jeremy Heywood and others. Obviously Paul can speak for himself, but Paul and I meet very regularly. There is a lot going on. I have no concerns that messages on science and engineering are not getting through to the Prime Minister. I have written to him on a number of occasions and I have met him on a number of occasions to make certain that this is there. I feel confident as Chief Scientific Adviser that if there is an issue that I really want to get to, that can be done, but in terms of regular meetings every month or every two months, no that does not happen.
Q6 Chairman: Lord Drayson, do you think you have good access both to him and to the secretary of state?
Lord Drayson: Absolutely Obviously attendance at weekly Cabinet meetings is not only an opportunity as Science Minister to make points from the perspective of a scientific view on the subjects of discussion at Cabinet but also, in terms of the access that I have both to the Prime Minister and to his team at Number 10, is excellent weekly access. In the year that I have been Science Minister I have felt that there has been a genuine engagement in the task of making this vision of putting science at the heart of government real because it is seen as central to the future economic success of the country. Not all science is about economics but the fact that economic pressure to rebalance the economy and to deliver growth from this fantastic asset that we have in our science base is so up the political agenda, means that there is a real interest in the contribution that science and engineering can make which has an urgency to it which has not been around for some time. That is good for science overall. At the same time, although I detect there are concerns in some parts of the scientific community as to whether or not science is seen just through the prism of business, there is a recognition that that strength in science comes from the fact that we have a very broad science base, that we are committed to investment in both pure fundamental science as well as applied science, so I feel that there is a healthy relationship between science and this Government. It is getting stronger, but we are making sure that the measures that we have put in place are getting embedded, such that they are not dependent just upon us and our championship of these issues but they really are integrated into the way in which the Government does business.
Q7 Chairman: There was a sense that here was this new monster department that was set up and that science would get lost within that. You as Science Minister, a real enthusiast for Science, suddenly became also the minister with the Ministry of Defence, and that sent out, perhaps wrongly you might say, a message that science was getting lost. How do you ensure that your time is focused on science when you have such vast responsibilities within this monster department?
Lord Drayson: I understand why people might be concerned, but I am a focused individual and I am focused on making sure that in the roles that I have with the Ministry of Defence and within BIS I am championing the science voice. For example, within the Ministry of Defence there was a decision that was taken, prior to my appointment as Defence Minister, to reduce the science research budget with defence. I believe that was a regrettable decision. It will not happen whilst I am Defence Minister. The fact that I have responsibility for the science and research budget within the MOD means there is a strong ministerial champion for science and research within the MOD that was not there before. That is an important improvement.
Q8 Dr Harris: You mentioned that that you are a champion of science. Given all the fuss in the last two days about the preventing, potentially, of the reporting of parliamentary proceedings because of our libel laws, are you aware of the concern in the science community about the impact of English and Welsh libel laws on the ability of scientists to engage in robust debate with scientists and non scientists, particularly in the case of The British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh?
Lord Drayson: I am very aware of the concern within the community. It was a topic which came up in the debate that I had with Ben Goldacre on science communication; it is a topic which has been tweeted about frequently. The interaction that I have been able to have with the science community through new media channels like Twitter makes sure that as Science Minister I am well aware that those topics are of concern. I am aware that this topic of freedom of speech within science is a concern at the moment. Obviously I cannot comment on the particular case that you mention, but it is very important that we have an environment in this country where scientists feel that there is freedom to comment.
Q9 Dr Harris: You would be willing to talk to ministerial colleagues about whether there is anything the Government can do in terms of policy or legislation potentially to improve the situation if it is judged that there is a problem.
Lord Drayson: If it is judged that there is a problem, then I would be very happy to discuss that with colleagues.
Professor Beddington: This is a matter of real concern. I have taken it up with the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Justice. I have written to him and suggested that we need to address this issue. I cannot comment on the particular issue you raise, Dr Harris, but it is clearly important that if science is to be successful it has to have the ability to be independently criticised and anything that erodes that is inappropriate. This is ongoing business for me. I am engaging with the Justice Department to discuss the concerns and I would be happy to come back to this Committee as to how these discussions develop. If you recall, a little while ago we met briefly informally and you raised the issue, and I indicated that I was considering how to do it. I have now considered how to do it and I am engaging directly with justice and we will be taking this forward over the next month or so.
Dr Harris: Thank you very much.
Boswell: Minister, I can assure you in preface that I
do not go much on theology, I am more interested in outcomes, but equally I do
not think we need to preserve the amour propre of the recommendations of
our precursor Committee. I wonder if I
can probe you a bit, in the light of that Committee's report on engineering,
with our recommendation there, which was then rejected by government, for a
chief engineering adviser. Since then
there have been two interesting developments which are not exactly the same and
I would be grateful if you could talk us through them. One is the announcement that there is to be a
chief construction adviser. That is not
a departmental position; it is to be a central government role. The second is your remark, as reported, at a
fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference, which I did not attend, which is
well reported and naturally press released by the Royal Academy of Engineering,
talking about having the equivalent of a chief technology officer in government
departments. I notice in the text - and
I just quote one sentence - there is the sentence: "Science, technology and
Lord Drayson: The Committee has put its finger on an important need within government which is part of the development of a stronger capacity both in terms of scientific and engineering advice within government. Also, importantly - it is what I was alluding to in the comments that I made, which are correctly reported, at the Labour Party Conference - in a number of areas of government policy it is important that ministers have access to the type of advice, and, if you like, a scrutiny and approval process which takes place in an economic context, from a scientific and technology standpoint. There are a number of big decisions which are having to be made (for example, in response to climate change, the application of infrastructure, transport and so forth) where in the past, perhaps, there has been a view that government can be technology and science agnostic. That, in my view, is no longer the case. Importantly, the success of implementation of these policies requires the government to make choices about which scientific and engineering developments to choose, based upon a judgment of which are in the British national interest. To do that, we need to have the expertise in government to advise ministers. We do have a strong chief scientific advisory network, led by John, but the development which I think needs to happen is in the sense of a scrutiny and approval process. Let me give you an analogy. In terms of a project for an investment in the UK, let us say by a car manufacturer to set up a new facility, there will be an assessment by economists within the Civil Service to judge and give advice to ministers on its value for money and there is also the ability for ministers to get advice on scientific and engineering questions, but I think there needs to be advice on whether or not there is value for that technology, whether or not the technology embedded in that project is of particular British interest, whether it makes sense in terms of that investment being sticky to the UK in the longer term, and therefore having access - and I have described it as a chief technology officer - to someone who has the ability, as the chief economic adviser would do, to make a judgment that that does pass the test in terms of the technological appropriateness for the UK. That is something which I do believe the Government needs to develop. I am working on that with John; Brian Collins is working on that within the Department for Business and is coming up with proposals to me and to the secretary of state to develop that capacity. So it is not just advice, but approval recommendations of products.
Boswell: That is a helpful response. Perhaps I can follow up by asking one point
of gloss and two other questions of fact.
The point of gloss is that I presume that part of this input as you
envisage it would be in fact to take account of wider issues; for example, if
there were some new technical development in relation to car manufacturing, whoever
would be advising you, you would like to be able to give a view as to whether
or not this had some transfer interest, say to aerospace or to whatever it
might be. That is one point of gloss and
I have two specific questions.
First of all, as I understand it - and I think the analogy of the chief construction
adviser may be relevant here - you are looking at this as being almost a
function for central government over and above whatever technical input is
being available through the chief scientific adviser in a department. Second, when you were putting this together,
with this sort of paragon who is going to advise you on this, how widely will
you cast your net in terms of advice as to who to appoint. If you are looking, for example, at a
construction adviser - and I just use this as an example - is that talking to
the construction industry, is it talking to the Royal Academy of Engineering
Lord Drayson: It is absolutely a cross-government issue. That makes it complex because different government departments have different areas of technology which need to be assessed. I want to stress that it is about strengthening what is already an excellent network of chief scientific advisers, but it is a matter almost, as I have described it, of body language within the machinery of government. It is not just to be giving advice but approving projects. To take, for example, Clean-tech, I was in California last week meeting with investors who raised to me what they saw as the central issue, in that responses to climate change, making decisions about investment in such things as carbon capture and storage, require really difficult judgments about technology risk and, therefore, the Government needs to get the best possible advice on that technology risk. We must not fall into the trap of believing that it can leave those sorts of decisions to the market; the Government has to take a view and get these decisions right. Therefore my final answer to your question is that the expertise pool needs to be as wide as possible, it needs to include an international dimension where necessary, but it is about strengthening the existing network, giving it more power within the Whitehall machinery, and getting it to the level where it is in balance with the economic analysis which is already done - which I think is a good model for this engineering and scientific analysis.
Q12 Chairman: One of our central themes in terms of our engineering report was exactly the point you have made in terms of implementation of policy, that you needed better judgments in terms of being able to make decisions about major engineering, construction or other projects in which the Government had a fundamental interest. The other key recommendation we made was that at the policy formulation stage you needed engineering advice; in other words, if you are taking wind energy, that we could deliver the policy which the Government wanted. Do you see that either the technologist or the construction adviser would be at the policy level or are they simply when government has made a decision and it simply then wants advice?
Lord Drayson: In my view they need to be
central to the development of the policy - right at the start of the
process. They need to provide the
context to that process for decision-making. There are examples whereby we
already have a shopping list of decisions that need to be taken. I have given the example of Clean-tech, and
another example is the provision of digital broadband. We have a policy which says that we will
provide that by a certain date across the
Chairman: Thank you very much.
Q13 Graham Stringer: Professor Beddington, can you tell us where we are up to scientifically with the swine flu pandemic. Just to follow up the Chairman's opening questions, can you tell the Committee whether you have had one-to-one discussions about swine flu with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health?
Professor Beddington: I have not had a one-to-one
discussion with the Prime Minister but I have with the Secretary of State
for Health, both with Alan Johnson when he was in position and with Andy
Burnham, as it currently is. I can brief
you in more detail in writing, if you like, as to where we are, because
obviously the situation is changing, but our perception at the moment is that
we now have much, much better information than we have had previously,
primarily from work that is being done by the Health Protection Agency and the
Department of Health in the UK, but also we have been getting information from
Australia, New Zealand and places in South America which has enabled us to get
a rather clearer idea of what the epidemic is looking like. At the moment we are seeing, as expected, a
moderate increase in the number of cases, primarily in school age children
following their return to school. There
is an issue about how fast that increase is going. It is fair to say that we think it is going
at a relatively moderate rate; that we have an expectation of a peak perhaps
from the end of October through to the end of November, when cases will go
up. Best expectation is quite uncertain,
but a worst case scenario is indicating a relatively modest wave. We are reasonably optimistic that the early
fears that we had of a very substantial problem in the autumn may not be
substantiated. That is coming
through. Put in general terms, the
disease seems to be relatively mild but extremely severe in some. We have to take it very seriously. There are certain groups that are highly at
risk which we have to make certain are properly protected. Mild in many.
Indeed, it seems to be that there is a potential that in some people who
get it there are virtually no symptoms. There
is a part of the population which has probably had the virus but has not shown
any real symptoms for it. That is one of
the reasons why we believe there is going to be a relatively smaller wave in
the back end of this year, because a reasonable number of people have some
degree of immunity from the fact that they have had the virus but without
showing symptoms. That is difficult to
assess at the moment but we are working at it in terms of looking at the
serology of a number of patients. It is
problematic, because the indication of whether someone has had the virus comes
in after some time delay because you do not generate enough information. That is work in progress. That is where we are. The international situation is that in
Q14 Graham Stringer: You have seen my questions to the Secretary of State for Health, that the priorities for immunisations that the Government has followed, of immunising and vaccinating the at-risk groups first, might not give the best results. I have seen some work which shows that if you were to vaccinate young people first, you would get more herd immunity and less people would get influenza. In the response from SAGE and from the Secretary of State, the Government's modelling shows different results from that. I understand that, but can you tell us who commissioned that modelling and whether that modelling is publicly available.
Professor Beddington: To explain the key issue here,
the idea of vaccinating children in general because they are arguably "super
spreaders" - they have much more contact with others, they generate more
quantities of viral with the potential for passing on - is well-known and
therefore, in general terms, vaccinating children is rather an efficient way to
do it. But it depends at what stage in
the epidemic you have that vaccine available. The situation at the moment is that we have
had a substantial first wave. We also
have the issue that there is some degree of uncertainty about the people who
have had the virus and are showing no symptoms - which would include school
children. The benefit of a vaccination
policy targeting children now to generate herd immunity is very limited because
the first wave has happened. The
analysis looking at it in detail indicates that the benefits from vaccinating
school children to get this herd immunity is extremely limited at the moment.
The advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunity is very much
that, because of the type of disease that we have, which is extremely severe in
some cases, the targeting of the vaccination strategy should be to try to
reduce morbidity and mortality in the highest risk groups, including health
workers and social workers. That is
going to be the absolute priority and I believe that is an appropriate thing to
do. The analysis that is being done both
by the Department of Health but also by an independent group at the
Q15 Graham Stringer: Who commissions the modelling work? Is it publicly available?
Professor Beddington: Two groups have been doing
the primary work, the Health Protection Agency and the
Q16 Graham Stringer: Is that a polite way of saying that it is not available to the Committee now?
Professor Beddington: The issue is that these are extremely technical. They are analyses that have been looked at and peer reviewed and scrutinised, not just by the individuals who have developed them but by the SAGE group, which has independent epidemiologists and independent virologists on it, so it has had some degree of scrutiny. The availability of it in a general way I do not think would be particularly beneficial. It is not a polite way of saying that we refuse - that you would have to take up with the individuals - but I see no particular merit in circulating what are extremely complex, rather detailed models, but we examine those and that is part of the job of SAGE.
Q17 Graham Stringer: One of the general concerns of this Committee has been to examine the basis on which government takes decisions, the evidential base. I accept these will be complicated modelling schemes, and what you say is reasonable, but we cannot evaluate them unless we can get independent experts to look at them. The difference between the modelling that was presented to me by a public health officer and the modelling you are showing - and there may be a meeting of those two things, it is difficult to say - was a difference of 40% in the number of deaths. I do not think it is reasonable that that work is withheld from this Committee. I ask you directly: Will you provide that work to the Committee?
Professor Beddington: It is not in my gift to provide that, but I will inquire and I will see. Where I would take issue with you is that I do believe the sort of modelling that you presented to the secretary of state has been looked at and assessed properly by SAGE to be basically inappropriate in this particular situation. In due course these models will be published in peer reviewed literature and people will have a chance to see that, but I will inquire about whether in fact these can be made available to the Committee.
Q18 Graham Stringer: If it is not in your gift as the chief scientific adviser to the Government, who should we be asking for the information?
Professor Beddington: I have indicated the three groups
who are doing it. These results are coming to us from
Chairman: Apart from us not being intellectually capable of understanding these, which is really the argument you have put forward - apart from you, Dr Harris, of course.
Dr Harris: No, I am sure you are right.
Q19 Chairman: And perhaps the rest of the Committee, so I put the question on my part - why would you not want to make that information available?
Professor Beddington: I do not have any particular concerns about making that information available other than the fact that this is complicated and people have been developing the results. SAGE is operating under constraints. What comes to SAGE and the discussions with SAGE are confidential. That is the basis of the SAGE advice that we are getting. That is the constraints I work under. There is also a supplementary point in terms of vaccination. There is, I understand, commercially confidential information which it would be problematic to release into the public domain.
Q20 Mr Cawsey: This is very much down at the layman's level, I am afraid, but we all know that when it comes to vaccines there is the whole issue of public confidence in their safety, and I have been quite surprised when talking with some health professionals in my own area that, whilst they have been telling me about the arrangements for a vaccine, they have quite candidly been saying, "But we didn't have it ourselves." When asked why, they said, "Because of the sheer speed at which this vaccine is being rushed through. We do not accept that it can be properly safe to be used." I would have thought you might like to give us some reassurance today of the safety of this vaccination. The seasonal flu vaccine, which of course is done every year anyway, is not a vaccine, as I understand it, that is just rolled over from year to year: it depends on which strain of flu it is decided is likely to be the most virulent that particular year. If we have people working in the NHS expressing personal concerns about it, I have great fear that that might roll over into the public. What would you say to reassure the people who maybe make decisions on these things?
Professor Beddington: It depends on the timing. The European authority for assessing the safety of vaccines has given it a licence. These things are not done lightly. There was a proper examination of it. The effect of vaccination will be monitored as it goes out, to see if there are any unintended consequences or consequences of some form of harm coming from the vaccination. That will be monitored and any problems being raised will be taken up. The JCVI, who have been advising, have indicated that they believe the vaccine is safe and the benefits of having it far outweigh any potential risks. This is the expert group. It has been reviewed not just by the JCVI team but by a wider group, including eminent virologists and immunologists, and that is their advice. To the extent that one needs to reassure individual professionals in the system, I think we need to be thinking about how we communicate that appropriately. But the advice is unequivocal.
Q21 Mr Cawsey: Is the process similar to that of the seasonal flu vaccine?
Professor Beddington: One of the issues of swine
flu is that it is a unique virus. We
have not encountered viruses of this sort before. GSK has developed something which, talking in
very loose terms, has a relatively broad spectrum. It has used an adjuvant-based vaccine, which
has the ability to stimulate the immune system, which means that you will get a
better result and, therefore, if the virus changes somewhat you have a
reasonable chance that there will be some degree of efficacy of the vaccine
subsequently. That is not the type of
vaccine that comes out in the seasonal flu.
However, in earlier days, when there were concerns about bird flu -
which still remain concerns - there was quite extensive testing of the H5N1
vaccine development using the this adjuvant.
As we move forward into the future - and, I am sorry, this is really
quite complicated - there is an expectation that the current seasonal flu,
which has an H1N1 component, is likely to be replaced by the swine flu in some
sort of competition amongst viruses, but there are two other types of seasonal
flu: H3N21 and B. These are two
different types of viruses. We may
expect to see them coming up and for the seasonal flu of the next winter flu
season you might get a tri-melan vaccine; that is, one that is produced that is
immune to all three. That is the sort of
activity that is happening in
Stewart: I should say before I start that I am the
Chairman of the All-Party Group on Vaccine-Damaged People. The group is well aware that with all
vaccines there will be some small number of accidents that are
unavoidable. That is why the Government
has the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme.
Have other solutions been looked at rather than vaccination? For example, in
Professor Beddington: I cannot answer your
particular question on what is happening in
Q23 Chairman: I want to move on from swine flu - because I feel like I am going down with it at the moment!
Professor Beddington: I know the feeling, Chairman.
Q24 Dr Harris: As a former vaccine man you showed great self-restraint during that exchange. In your recent debate with Ben Goldacre - I think a welcome engagement with the issue from government - you expressed the view as the basis for your position that media reporting of these sorts of things had improved. Are you optimistic that the reporting of swine flu vaccine issues will be better than it has been in the past with previous vaccine issues like MMR?
Lord Drayson: Yes.
Q25 Dr Harris: Would you like a bet?
Lord Drayson: Yes.
Q26 Dr Harris: Okay. You saw the Sunday Times coverage of the cervical cancer jab which had a picture of a girl who dies of a mediastinal tumour as far as I can tell, under the headline What Are You Doing To Our Children? in the Sunday Times - not a tabloid the last time I looked. Does that give you pause in your confidence? You probably have deeper pockets than me, so it might have to be a small bet.
Lord Drayson: I will leave it to you, Dr Harris, to choose the size of the bet but I sincerely believe that, although there are some really poor examples even now, in general, overall, the quality of reporting of the cervical cancer vaccine and issues around swine flu that have taken place over the last few months is of a different order to the quality of reporting that took place over MMR. If you look at the example of the quality of reporting that took place over BSE and compare that to the reporting over the hybrid embryos - if we go back to big science questions of the day eight/ten years ago as compared to now - because the reporting is being done by specialist science journalists, often scientists themselves, it is much better. We must not be complacent: there are bad examples.
Dr Harris: I accept that point but mine is vaccine specific. I want to put on record that the Chairman has just agreed to underwrite me on this bet, so we can proceed on that basis.
Chairman: I will have to share it with Mr Legg first!
Q27 Dr Harris: Could I turn to the question of the STFC. It is hard to know where to start. In your online notepad on your website, which I presume is one of these modern manifestations of communication with the public, you stated that the STFC "budget has increased year-on‑year since its creation." If you look at what is available for them to spend, is that really correct? If you take out non cash and just look at the near cash and capital, it is pretty much flat, is it not, rather than increased?
Lord Drayson: The issue in relation to STFC, I accept, is a difficult one because of the history of the creation of STFC, the structure therefore of its budgets and what has happened in terms of the international economic situation - which has put pressure on the budgets because of the exchange rate change - and the large proportion of the STFC budget which is committed to large projects where the UK is a part of an international collaboration which therefore does not allow much flexibility in terms of decision making over funding. But I do not accept that the STFC budget has remained flat. The contribution that has been made to the STFC beyond increasing inflation, with extra contributions from the Government to offset the change in the exchange rate, means that the STFC should have sufficient funds to carry out its mission. But the STFC has to decide - and that is not a matter for ministers - which projects for it go back within that overall budget.
Q28 Dr Harris: Let us break down that answer. The near cash from the CSR-07 allocation - the near cash is the spendable cash - even before you take out the problem with the exchange rate, where they have to take the first £3 million hit on each subscription even before any help comes, is £432.25 million 2008-09, £428,932 million 2009-10 - which has been augmented, I understand, from taking the next year, 2010-11. But taking from next year's allocation, which was only £432,741 million, to boost this year's, 2009-10, is not going to be an increase in near cash. In effect, what matters to the scientists is what is left to spend after all the pressures. Do you not think it might be sensible to say, "Let's insulate STFC from profit and losses on exchange rates?" It is not appropriate, is it, that research councils, given that they have to think strategically and fund strategically, should have a windfall or a big loss based on exchange rates?
Lord Drayson: I absolutely accept your point of concern. It is Treasury policy now, though. We perhaps could debate the appropriateness of that but it is Treasury policy that individual departments have to bear the exchange rate risks. The research council which has the biggest exchange rate risk is the STFC, because of international collaborations. Therefore we have accepted the particular difficult position the STFC has found itself in and have compensated the STFC with additional funds to meet the exchange rate risk.
Dr Harris: It is a loan, is it not? That additional fund is not a grant; it is a loan, in a sense, from future allocations, I am told. Is that correct?
Chairman: It is not additional money, Lord Drayson. That is the point.
Q29 Dr Harris: Maybe you could let me know. Let us not speculate - either of us.
Lord Drayson: The important point is that the researchers in this community need to be clear that their research grants have not been penalised or reduced because of the STFC having to accept exchange rate risk. The STFC has been compensated. The difference has been made good. The additional funds have been provided to the STFC for the past two years to cover the exchange rate risk. That is a very important point to get on the record, because my position is that the STFC, therefore, has been provided sufficient funds to carry out its mission.
Q30 Dr Harris: The reductions in the budget to run ISIS and Diamond Light Source cannot be blamed, therefore - I think you are saying - on the impact of the exchange rate mechanism.
Lord Drayson: Absolutely not.
Q31 Dr Harris: Because that has been compensated for. I would like clarification as to whether that is new money and a new good for them or something that they will have to find to pay back in later years. They told me it was not grant.
Lord Drayson: My understanding is that it is additional funding. I will write to the Committee.
Q32 Dr Harris: The reason I ask is because, if it is additional funding, it is essentially that they are not taking the risk at all at any stage from future allocations. If there is this Treasury rule - and I accept there is - science can be made an exception. Science has a ring-fenced budget, which is unusual, therefore a case could be made, and will you make it to the Treasury, that uniquely because of the strategic nature of science, compared to every other budget pretty much, an exception could be made that they do not risk loss or gain, as it were, from exchange rates. Would you pursue that?
Lord Drayson: Some important points of background. The significant movement in the exchange rate, the pound against the Euro, a 25% movement, has created a significant issue. The decision has been taken on an in-year basis to compensate through additional funding to the STFC to make that up, but it has not been done on the basis of setting a precedent. I do not have Treasury agreement that this is a policy which can be maintained. Treasury policy is that departments have to bear the burden of exchange rate movements if they are negative or if they are positive. Therefore, although the decisions have been taken for this year and have been taken for past years compensating the STFC for exchange rate movement, the question for future years is still an argument that has to be made and has to be won.
Q33 Chairman: Lord Drayson, there is an inconsistency here. The only department that I understand can hedge against currency fluctuations is the Treasury itself, so allocating STFC an extra £20 million in-year in order to be able to deal with this, either from future budgets or as additional grant, becomes a problem again, unless, in fact, they can start to hedge forward in terms of being able to buy currency over a longer period of time. The Treasury can do that. First of all, do you agree that it would be good if STFC could do that with their budgets; in other words, to get greater cost certainty over a longer period of time - for instance, if only over a three-year comprehensive spending review? If you do agree with that, is that something that you would support?
Lord Drayson: The practicalities are, Chairman, that in the environment of the level of market volatility which exists in exchange rates, the cost of hedging against exchange rate movement over a period of time like three years is prohibitively expensive. It is just not viable for a research council to do it, even if it had the ability to do that under the Government policy. We have the overarching issue, which is the exchange rate movement itself, the volatility of the pound versus the euro, and then there is policy whereby government departments have to bear that risk themselves. This is something which is a real challenge for departments which needs to be managed. We need to find a better way of doing it. I recognise that in the case of the science ring fence it is also a particular problem because this is a ring-fenced budget. I do want to make it absolutely crystal clear to the community which is really concerned about this that they have not suffered as a result of losses of grants because of exchange rates. Those have been made good up to now, but we do not have the commitment in the long term for that always to be done.
Q34 Dr Harris: Thank you for that. If it is not exchange rates that is causing the pressure, then it must be just essentially the flat cash allocation. I am not saying there should be more money; I just think there needs to be recognition. Scientists see that the amount of time on these facilities is reduced, their programmes are being reduced - or, as the STFC say they have "adjusted", which I think means cut, the proposed programme for 2009-10 - and then they see you say that there is a year-on-year increase all the time. There is a feeling that something is not clear as to what the cause of this is. Do you accept that there are pressures that are not fully met in the budget, leading to cuts?
Lord Drayson: No. There has to be a judgment overall, made by government, as to the absolute amount of money which would be invested in science - which, as I have said many times, has been significantly increased and maintained. Then there is also a judgment of how that is allocated within research councils. If one looks at the STFC as a particular case, then that has received significant increases of funding. I accept that within the STFC, the particular nature of the responsibility of that research council provides it with specifically more difficult challenges - the nature of the large facilities, the inflexibility of a large proportion of their spending - but in the end, the job of the STFC is to make judgments on how it allocates those budgets based around how they principal peer review - the independence, if you like, from government - and therefore its decision as to whether to allocate x amount to ISIS, Diamond or whichever laboratory is a matter for STFC.
Harris: The problem is that MRC gets much more money
and government says, "Isn't it great - we've allocated much more money, so all these
things are being done." With a research
council that does not get much more money, or arguably any more money, then we
get ministers saying, "Well, this is their decision; it is nothing to do with
us." It is centralising the praise and
delegating or decentralising the blame. That is what we are faced with. Let us turn to ISIS and Diamond Light
Source. You said in one of your earlier
answers that you wanted to see cost-effective use of our resources. Many people would argue and have argued in
the science community that it is not rational or sensible or efficient to
invest all this money - in partnership with Wellcome in the case of the Diamond
Light Source - and then see the funding reduced so that there is either less
time available, as with ISIS, or, as with Diamond, less time available next
year because this year has been protected, but they advertise that there will
be "fewer resources for scientists" (as they describe it) and other
negatives. Do you understand the logic
of having these big facilities and then not maximising the use of them? You just have a deadweight that has had all this
Lord Drayson: I do accept the argument but prudent management of taxpayers' money requires us to make decisions about how to manage the allocation of resources between research councils. Where you have a situation where this particular research council has projects where the budgets for those projects is getting significantly overspent, where that therefore leads to pressure on other projects within their portfolio, the answer is not to provide extra money to the research council. The answer is to say to that community, "You have to live within the overall budget which you have been allocated, which is seeing considerable growth. Where there have been outside pressures which are beyond your control - like the exchange rate movement - those have be compensated for, but if you have a project over here which has gone significantly over budget, you are going to have to find the savings from over there."
Q36 Dr Harris: Is there not an argument that to create a single research council that builds these big facilities but then does not have the funding essentially to maximise the use of them, to sweat the asset for UK science, is a problem, and that there is an argument for restructuring to separate out these two approaches so that there is much more clarity, so that you do not lose out on the utilisation of these big projects in order to deal with problems elsewhere in an unrelated discipline?
Lord Drayson: I accept that we should continue, as we do, to look carefully at the funding structure and the mechanisms by which the allocation of funding is made and the way in which we can make sure that we are not missing opportunities to maximise the utilisation of these very expensive resources because of some anomalies, if you like, in the funding structure. But I do believe there is a fundamental principle here: overall the Government has continued to invest more and more within science. It has made a judgment as to the allocation of that within the research councils, but then the research councils have to manage within that budget, and they have to be really good at managing the pressures which come up where there are international collaborations which then put pressure on their internal affairs.
Cawsey: I would like to move on to the final frontier,
which of course is space. Lord Drayson.
In July you launched a consultation on the funding and management of
Lord Drayson: What has changed is the experience that I had as the Science Minister, going to the ESA Ministerial last November and being in a quite difficult position of negotiating on behalf of the United Kingdom against other partner nations, such as Italy, Germany, France and others, who do have such a mechanism, which allows them much more efficiently to determine their policy on the allocation of the overall space budget. It means that we have to change our view on this. Common to a number of research areas within government, a lack of cross-departmental budgets and clarity as to where funding is going to come from puts us in a more difficult position in negotiation with our international partners. I believe that this consultation is timely. The problem was highlighted last November. The consultation is just about to close and we will take views from that consultation and make a decision. But my personal experience was that the lack of a central budget has meant that we are not in as strong a position as we otherwise would be to have these negotiations.
Cawsey: That is very clear. Thank you.
There is also a Cabinet Office review on the strategic security for the
Lord Drayson: My involvement is as Science Minister. I do not have any additional involvement from the point of view of the security aspect. My MoD responsibilities do not lead me to have any additional involvement in that review beyond the involvement as Science Minister.
Q39 Mr Cawsey: Is there anything that you can share with the Committee about what the remit and timescale of the review are?
Lord Drayson: I can certainly write to the Committee and give you a full description of that.
you very much indeed. Lord Drayson, when
we looked at space about three years ago now and we considered the issue of an
agency, we supported the Government's view about not creating an agency. One of the reasons for it was about budgets,
the fact that the amount of money which the
Lord Drayson: I accept, Chairman, your concerns about the linkage between the size of budget and the identification of where budget is going to come from, and the clarity, therefore, for the future. The advantage potentially of an agency is that it will provide at whatever level of budget is determined, greater clarity about future direction and priority and allocation of funding than the lack of an agency presents at present. We are still going through issues today where we are having to spend an awful lot of time negotiating between departments within government to get clarity, and, frankly, the world moves on faster than the system's ability to make these decisions. I am very pleased that at last we had a decision on Pirbright - another example of where it takes far, far too long. That is what I think would be the added value of an agency in the particular area of space research.
Iddon: First, I should declare that I am a member of
the University and Colleges Union, and I have another registered interest that
is connected to these questions. The
University and Colleges Union are currently reporting that there is likely to
be a loss of around 6,000 jobs across the HE and FE sectors, with the majority
of those jobs being lost in research-intensive departments.
Lord Drayson: The Government is maintaining the investment in science. The Government has shown, both by its track record and by what the Government have said from the Prime Minister down, that it remains committed to increasing investment in science, maintenance of the science ring fence, but that I believe is central to the Government's policy. The management of individual university institutions - they are independent - is a matter for them, but of course I monitor very carefully what is happening within the research community and if I felt that there was a serious diminution taking place, then I would be concerned.
Q42 Dr Iddon: Are you being advised by any university in the country that they are expecting to lose jobs in the science and technology sectors?
Lord Drayson: We have a competitive system within our universities. Therefore there are winners and losers in that system in terms of individual departments, on the basis of the relative successes of those institutions, both in terms of being successful in the planning of grants from Government but, also, in terms of being successful in being able to generate income from research grants from other sources, charitable funding and industry. But if one looks at the overall metrics in terms of the scale, the level of investment, the strength of scientific research base in this country, it continues to be extremely healthy. There are examples of institutions and departments that are going through contraction, but if you look at the overall picture, what I as Science Minister am most concerned about is the recent data which shows that the UK continues to be the most productive scientific nation in the G8 - the strength/the breadth of our research base. We must not be complacent, but I think we have a very healthy picture and we should not be misled by feeling that if there is something happening in a particular university/a particular department this is indicative of a broader national problem. I do not believe it is. Science in this country is extremely strong right now.
Professor Beddington: It really is so important, and Lord Drayson has referred to it, that from the highest level down there is a major commitment to the ring fence of the science budget. Within that obviously, as Lord Drayson has said, there will be winners and losers, and some departments and some universities will be more successful than others. The real defence is that fact of the ring fence on the science budget and therefore what goes into the university sector by research grants. That is so important.
Iddon: I take your point, Professor Beddington, but
it worries me that I have a report in front of me that
Lord Drayson: It is important that the research community maintains its expectation from the Government that the Government will maintain its investment in science, the maintenance of the science ring fence and the maintenance of the trajectory within the ten-year framework. The Government could not be clearer in its commitment from the Prime Minister downwards of its commitment to science and, therefore, it is that on which the scientific community should focus and take some confidence from
Q44 Dr Iddon: To turn to another aspect of funding of universities, that of full economic costs, this Committee has supported the principle of FEC, and it will approach 100%, I gather, in the next financial year, 2010. However, there are certain worrying features about FEC that are reaching me. I have talked to a number of academics in different disciplines over the summer and visited a number of departments and the scientists are rather concerned about what the university is doing with the money that comes via full economic costing for research and development in the universities. I know there have been some recent reports looking at these concerns. Can either of you bring us up to date with the current position regarding full economic costing?
Lord Drayson: Perhaps I could kick off, Chairman. The RCUK carried out a review of FEC very recently and the outcome of that review was generally positive. There is a general consensus that the move towards full economic costing is a move which was required. We are going through a transition, a period of change, and, therefore, as that change takes place there are going to be issues which are going to be thrown up which will have to be addressed and we will have to see how the whole thing settles down. But the feedback we are getting at the moment is that this is a process which, overall, is leading to a positive change. However, Chairman, if the Committee has specific examples of the areas of concern you mention, I would be grateful to receive them and I will follow them up.
Q45 Dr Iddon: The area of concern we are picking up is that the money might not be being spent by the universities on the infrastructure which supports a well-founded laboratory or workshop - which I think was the original intention - and that the universities are diverting this money into other areas of their expenditure. I take your point that the recent report seems to indicate something different.
Lord Drayson: If there are specific examples, I would be happy to look at them.
Q46 Dr Iddon: Thank you very much.
Professor Beddington: I do not have much to add. Universities do have a degree of autonomy and they can think about the portfolio of how they get research money in. Some of it will be with full economic costing; other charitable ones will not. In a sense, it is their business to balance this and make things work. The move to full economic costing was really so important, because the infrastructure within universities had declined, the laboratory quality had declined. It was very generally welcomed, even though it arguably leads to some diminution in the overall research volume being done. We were looking at a situation where the quality of laboratory and the quality of the environment was decreasing, and full economic costing is a way of addressing that.
Lord Drayson: One concern that did come out during this review was that the community felt that there was a need for greater transparency.
Q47 Dr Iddon: Yes.
Lord Drayson: We welcome that. There is a working group which is now charged with monitoring that and providing feedback. In the light of that, if there are opportunities for us to shine a focus on any particular area of concern in that move towards greater transparency, we would be happy to do it.
Iddon: The other criticism of FEC that I am picking
up, from industry this time, is that it has significantly raised the amount of
money that industry has to put into the universities to support research
projects and there is some indication, that I am picking up at least, that
certain industries now are preferring to invest across Europe rather than in
Britain. I have a report here from one
company that says that to invest in research in
Lord Drayson: The businesses that invest in
scientific research in
Q49 Chairman: Finally, Lord Drayson, you led this Committee up to the top of the mountain, with great excitement just over a year ago, when you started your debate about the strategic priorities, and we were very enthusiastic to get involved in that debate. You seem to have led us down the other side of the hill, and that debate has gone away. Where do you stand at this moment in terms of that very interesting debate you began about strategic priorities and where does the Government stand on it now?
Lord Drayson: I am interested, Chairman, to get that pretty direct feedback on how the Committee sees it.
Q50 Chairman: I call it the Jenson Button factor.
Lord Drayson: Hey, it is not over for
Jenson Button, okay! We all have very
high hopes for the remainder of the season. With hindsight it has been
interesting how I have struggled to properly communicate to the science
community what I was aiming to achieve with this debate and focus, where still
just recently there have been commentaries in the press which have suggested
that I have been attacking investment in fundamental, pure research. That disappoints me. What I said, what I have always said, is that
investment in fundamental pure research is an absolute requirement which we
will maintain. My discussion about the
need for focus in terms of those areas where the UK has real strength, in the
context of what are the hot, important areas within science, is not a question
about pure versus applied research; it is about what areas of science are
likely to be the ones which are going to have the greatest contribution from
the UK science community. In terms of,
as you have described it, Chairman, taking people up the hill, I feel that in
our journey together up that hill there was a very productive debate which took
place about which of the areas within science are likely to be those which are
going to have the greatest contribution and the
Q51 Chairman: That dichotomy between fundamental and applied science is as polarised now as when you began the debate.
Lord Drayson: That is because certain commentators and, frankly, certain scientists have tried to frame the debate in those terms because they are concerned that their particular area is under pressure. Those people who see themselves as applied scientists have used the side of the argument to support applied science and those who have seen themselves as pure fundamental scientists have used the argument for their side. I do ask you to go back and read what I said. It is on the record. I did not say that we should take money from pure fundamental research and switch it into applied research. I said that history tells us that only by maintaining our investment in pure fundamental research do we maintain a broad science base. The serendipity of science leads to the key breakthroughs and discoveries. I really ask people to read again what it was I said. The fact that these issue, as you say, are still polarised shows how important it is for me to continue to talk about this and for this and Committee and others to discuss it and how important it is for me to carry on saying what I have said.
Q52 Chairman: Thank you very much. Professor Beddington, you said you had three points at the beginning and I said, very kindly, that we would get around to the third one and we have about three minutes for you to tell us your third point.
Professor Beddington: The third point was really
addressing some of the comments that you had made and Lord Drayson has answered
in terms of your recommendations about engineering in government. It is really important that there is an
increasing empowerment of chief scientific advisers, many of whom are engineers
as well, so that they can have the opportunity early on to challenge and raise
policy. One of the things that I wanted
to share with you is that we have put together a group to do just that in looking
at the issue of the Severn Barrage - a major issue which is going to be with us
for many years. We have put together a
group of chief scientific advisers, plus engineering and other experts from
outside, to do a proper review of the way that work is being taken forward. We
will be meeting regularly on that. That
is a good example of the way in which we can use the community of chief
scientific advisers. The other point,
which is complementary to that, is that you may have noticed that President Barroso
in his speech to the European Parliament indicated his intention to appoint a
chief scientific adviser and review the way science advice operates in
Q53 Chairman: On that note I would like to thank you very much indeed, Professor Beddington and Lord Drayson. As ever, it has been a really worthwhile and interesting session.
Lord Drayson: Thank you. It is absolutely brilliant to be here in front of the new Science and Technology Committee.