The Work of the Committee 2008-09 - Science and Technology Committee Contents


2  Committee inquiries and evidence sessions

11.  Having concentrated, though not exclusively, in the 2007-08 session on the skills and intellectual property work of DIUS as well as the scrutiny of science and engineering across government we decided to carry out a major piece of work examining the "education" side of DIUS in 2008-09. In the event we completed two major inquiries: one on the mismanagement of the capital programme for further education colleges; and the other on students and universities. We were also, as the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, able to continue our scrutiny of science policy and related matters across the Government and with the re-establishment of the Science and Technology Committee in October this became our primary focus.
There has never been a more propitious time for a Science and Technology Committee scrutinising the executive given the concern about the way the Government handles independent scientific advice and the pressure on resources for science.

Dr Evan Harris MP

One-off sessions

12.  The one-off sessions held in 2008-09 focussed on two bodies—one new in 2007 and the other given a wider remit in 2007—whose operations may affect the development and use of science in the UK. First, we held a one-off session on 1 April 2009 with the Technology Strategy Board, the remit of which was widened in July 2007 to include coordinating the innovation work of Regional Development Agencies, Research Councils and Government departments. We took evidence on its current and future programme of work, taking oral evidence from Iain Gray, Chief Executive, David Bott, Director, Innovation Programmes, and David Golding, Head of Strategy.

13.  We also held a one-off session on 8 June 2009 with Professor Sir John Bell, Chairman of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR), and Professor Sir Alex Markham, Chair of OSCHR's Translational Medicines Board. OSCHR was set up following a recommendation in Sir David Cooksey's review of UK health research funding published in December 2006 that "the Government should seek to achieve better coordination of health research and more coherent funding arrangements to support translation".[15] The former Science and Technology Committee examined the Cooksey Report in 2006-07 and, while it broadly endorsed the approach taken by Sir David Cooksey,[16] it had a number of concerns about the operation of OSCHR.[17] We therefore decided to hold the session to discuss OSCHR's progress since it was set up in 2007 as well as its current and future priorities.

SCIENCE QUESTION TIME

14.  We held two Science Question Time sessions with the Science Minister, Lord Drayson. The sessions took place on 28 January and 18 May 2009. The format followed that agreed with his predecessor, Lord Sainsbury, that is three or four questions in forty minutes. DIUS was notified in advance of the potential areas of questioning, which were also issued in press notices.[18] After being asked each "headline" question, the Minister made a statement on the matter and Members then asked supplementary questions. We regarded these sessions as a key part of the scrutiny of Government policy on science, allowing us to cover several issues across government. We intend to continue the practice in the 2009-10 session.

SETTING THE SCENE ON SCIENCE, ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY ISSUES ACROSS GOVERNMENT

15.  When its remit changed in October 2009 the new Science and Technology Committee was keen to get down to work in order to begin scrutinising science and science policy across Whitehall and to examine government departments' use of science, engineering, technology and research. We started with a one-off evidence session on 14 October which allowed us to set the scene by taking evidence from two key players, Lord Drayson, and Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser to help structure our work programme. This sat well with an informal seminar we held a week later on 21 October when eminent members of the scientific, technology and engineering community plus members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee came together with members of the Commons Committee to discuss the work and direction of the re-established Commons Science and Technology Committee. A note summarising the main points to come from the seminar is at Annex 2.

Core Scrutiny of DIUS

DIUS's Departmental Reports 2008 and 2009

16.  We published our report on DIUS's first (2008) Departmental Report in January 2009.[19] We found the Departmental Report less than satisfactory. It relied too much on jargon and we were surprised that it was not more informative or helpful to the reader. We pressed DIUS to produce a more concise report in 2009 written in plain English with clearly presented and independently verified statistics to aid the scrutiny of DIUS. We were pleased that DIUS responded constructively to our criticisms. Because of the machinery of Government changes in June 2009 we were not able to carry out detailed scrutiny of DIUS's final, 2009 Departmental Report.[20] On the basis of a cursory examination we noted some improvements and wrote to BIS acknowledging the improvement.

17.  Memoranda on DIUS's winter and spring supplementary estimates for 2008-09, main estimates for 2009-10 and 2008 Autumn Performance Report, which we would have published with a report on DIUS's 2009 Departmental Report, are published with this report.[21]

Inquiries into long-term issues

Students and Universities

18.  The Committee began its inquiry into Students and Universities[22] in October 2008 suggesting submissions address a wide range of issues but focussing around the experience and the perspective of the student. We estimate that the inquiry took up more than a quarter of our time during the session and was therefore a substantial piece of work.

19.  In response to the call for evidence, we received 121 written submissions. As, however, only two were from students themselves, we decided to take a number of steps to draw out the views of undergraduate students.

  • We set up an e-consultation that ran for six weeks from February to April.
  • We had a student panel: students who gave oral evidence in February, read the evidence and came back to give further evidence in April.
  • The Committee visited universities in Liverpool and Oxford taking formal oral evidence from students and meeting groups of students for informal discussions, a record of which was taken, sent to participants in draft and published as written evidence.
  • In addition, the Chairman, acting as a rapporteur, visited Imperial College London meeting students and staff and one of our members, Mr Gordon Marsden, visited Howard University to meet students and staff during our visit to Washington DC.

The Committee visited Washington DC in April, to take evidence on the university system in the USA. We met students, academics, representative organisations and officials with responsibilities for higher education. (The visit also covered work on our inquiry, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy.)

20.  Approaching higher education with our previous experience of inquiries into science we were surprised by the absence of, and in some cases reluctance of the sector to assemble, evidence to underpin its operational arrangements—for example, to examine whether there was a link between research in universities and the quality of teaching. Our Report called for urgent changes in the higher education sector, concluding, for example, that the current arrangements for safeguarding standards were out of date, inconsistent and in need of replacement. The Committee found defensive complacency in the leadership of the sector and no appetite to explore key issues such as the reasons for the proportional increase in first and upper second class honours degrees in the past 15 years.

21.  We are pleased that this Report has been the subject of sustained press coverage since its publication and we are hopeful that it has started a debate which will gather momentum as the independent review of tuition fees proceeds with its work in 2009-10.

22.  Because of the machinery of Government changes in June 2009, we, as a committee, shall not be able to follow-up many of the issues in the higher education sector which, during the course of the Students and Universities inquiry, we identified as warranting further scrutiny. In the time available we were able to widen our inquiry (and Report) to review a potential problem emerging during the summer of 2009—demand for places in higher education significantly exceeding supply.[23] We also listed in our Report those areas which our successor committee in this area—the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee—may wish to examine.[24]

23.  During the Students and Universities inquiry we received two allegations of interference with witnesses to the inquiry—both were academics at Manchester Metropolitan University. After careful consideration, although we had criticisms of the University, we decided in the circumstances not to refer the cases to the Standards and Privileges Committee. We set out our reasoning in the Students and Universities report.[25]

INQUIRIES INTO ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE

24.  Engineering and Science took up a similar amount of time to higher education during the course of the session—over a quarter of our time—though it was spread across two reports: i) in 2008-09 we completed, Engineering: turning ideas into reality,[26] which had started in 2007-08; and ii) Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy,[27] work for the whole of which fell in 2008-09.
The Committee (as the IUSS Select Committee) has been active and vigorous in support of excellence in British higher education and skills and separately in promoting the interests of service and technology (on which it will now be concentrated). I enjoyed our report on "Students and Universities" as it exposed a number of issues of contemporary concern; and at the same time I have been happy to participate in our continuing work to probe and refine the relationship between Government and science. Above all, 'Engineering' was a major topic well worth tackling, with a fair but on balance positive outcome!

Tim Boswell MP

ENGINEERING: TURNING IDEAS INTO REALITY

25.  The Committee completed its wide-ranging inquiry into engineering, which included case studies as well as main conclusions, with the publication of its Report, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, on 27 March 2009. The Government responded in June 2009. The Committee held 13 oral evidence sessions and made a number of visits during the previous session. We found these visits to be extremely useful and were struck by the high esteem in which UK engineering is held overseas. The final oral evidence sessions and the deliberative sessions fell in 2008-09. The Committee found engineering to be one of the UK's great strengths and were pleased to discover that UK engineering and engineers are highly regarded internationally.

PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT POLICY

26.  Our second engineering inquiry, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy,[28] brought together several timely policy strands that have been of longstanding interest to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee and the former Science and Technology Committee, in particular, a number of issues that were raised in the following reports:

  • Engineering: turning ideas into reality[29] on the Government's capacity for sourcing and using engineering advice;
  • Science Budget Allocations[30] on regional science policy and the Haldane Principle; and
  • Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making[31] on the Government's capacity for sourcing and using science advice.

27.  The Committee received over 80 written submissions and held five oral evidence sessions. In the report the Committee concluded that science had been reduced to a political bargaining chip within government. Among the matters we addressed in the Report were the Haldane Principle,[32] regional science policy and the debate Lord Drayson initiated on the strategic priorities of research funding—that is whether the Government could "pick winners". We concluded that a new framework was needed that added transparency and vigour to the relationship between government and the research community. We also expressed concern that Government Office for Science has been housed in three separate departments in two years—reducing scientific and engineering advice to a peripheral policy concern.[33] With a degree of foresight as it turned out, we examined the role and operation of Science Advisory Councils and Committees and, in some detail, the actions of the former Home Secretary, Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP, when she publicly criticised the then Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor Nutt. We made a number of recommendations to Government to safeguard the independence of all Science Advisory Committees.[34]

28.  Subsequently, we were able to draw on our Report when Ms Smith's successor, Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, dismissed Professor Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. We wrote to Mr Johnson, Professor Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Wiles, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Home Office, drawing on our Report and the Government's response[35] when we sought their accounts of the sequence of events leading up to Professor Nutt's dismissal.[36]

29.  We published their replies and a memorandum from Professor Nutt on 19 November. We have now decided to contribute to the Government's review of the principles that should apply to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government.

SITES OF SPECIAL SCIENTIFIC INTEREST

30.  In May 2009 the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee decided to hold a one-off evidence session on Sites of Specials Scientific Interest (SSSIs), specifically assessing the scientific evidence base for designation and monitoring of SSSIs.[37] Several issues were raised at the evidence session in June and we wished to put on record that the review of the existing SSSI series through a new Notification Strategy must be must be soundly based on up-to-date evidence and scientific knowledge.[38] The Committee found that the current Guidelines for selection of biological SSSIs were out of date, and during evidence the Chief Executive of Natural England agreed that there was a need to act to ensure that the Guidelines reflected, for example, the pressures of climate change.[39]

Executive Agencies and Non-Departmental Public Bodies

31.  One of the Committee's key scrutiny roles as outlined in Task 7 (Objective C) of the core tasks is "to monitor the work of the department's Executive Agencies, NDPBs, regulators and associated public bodies". We keep a watching brief on these organisations and directly and indirectly, through other inquiries which have touched on their work, have examined their activities as listed below, apart from the Technology Strategy Board and OSCHR, which were described in an earlier section in this report.

32.  The bulk of our work in this area focused on pre-appointment hearings. We held three. Government proposals for pre-appointment hearings were set out in the 2007 Green Paper The Governance of Britain. The Government sought to "involve Parliament in the appointment of key public officials" to "positions in which Parliament has a particularly strong interest because the officeholder exercises statutory or other powers in relation to protecting the public's rights and interests".[40] The paper continued:

The hearing would be non-binding, but in light of the report from the committee Ministers would decide whether to proceed. The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate's suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in selection.[41]

The Liaison Committee subsequently produced a set of guidelines to ensure pre-appointment hearings are conducted appropriately, and in order to "maintain an appointments process which is proportionate and continues to attract high-quality candidates".[42]

33.  For us the new arrangements were an extension of current practice. Between 2003 and 2007, prior to the introduction of pre-appointment hearings, the former Science and Technology Committee held introductory hearings with newly appointed Chairmen and Chief Executives of Research Councils soon after they had taken up their posts.[43] These hearings aimed to "satisfy parliament that the post has been filled with someone of sufficient calibre", and to facilitate understanding of the role and interests of both parties.[44] Following the Governance of Britain proposals, the Committee stated:

We are pleased that the Government is taking steps to involve select committees more fully in the scrutiny of public appointments. We believe that pre-appointment hearings with the relevant Select Committee will improve accountability and help ensure that the right people are appointed to key positions. We recommend that Chairpersons and Chief Executives of the Research Councils be included in the proposed list of appointments that should be subject to these hearings.[45]

34.  Such appointments were not originally included in the Government's list of posts to be subject to pre-appointment hearings. They were proposed by the Chairman on behalf of the Committee during the Liaison Committee consultation,[46] and the Government's response included Research Council Chairs in a revised list of suitable posts.[47]

35.  We carried out three pre-appointment hearings during the 2008-09 Session.

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

36.  The first was on 5 May 2009 when we held a pre-appointment hearing with the Chair-elect of the Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Alan Gillespie CBE. On the basis of the evidence provided at this hearing we concluded that he was a suitable candidate for the post.[48]

BIOTECHNOLOGY AND BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES RESEARCH COUNCIL

37.  The second took place on 13 May 2009 when we held a pre-appointment hearing with the Chair-elect of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Professor Sir Tom Blundell. On the basis of the evidence provided at this hearing we concluded that he was a suitable candidate for the post.[49]

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY FACILITIES COUNCIL

38.  The final hearing took place on 13 July 2009 when we held a pre-appointment hearing with the Chair-elect of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Professor Michael Sterling, FREng. Again on the basis of the evidence provided at this hearing we also concluded that he was a suitable candidate for the post.

RESEARCH COUNCILS' ANNUAL REPORTS AND ACCOUNTS

39.  We examined the annual reports and accounts of all the Research Councils and posed questions in writing to each Council. The Councils' responses will be published with the printed version of the evidence session with Professor Alan Thorpe, Chairman of RCUK, which took place on 2 December.

MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL AND THE UKCMRI

40.  The Committee's First Report of Session 2007-08 addressed the creation of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI), to be located in central London next to the British Library and St Pancras station.[50] As we noted in our Report on the work of the Committee in 2007-08,[51] the Medical Research Council (MRC) was a non-departmental public body of DIUS and the founding of the UKCMRI constituted a major relocation of its research capacity and a significant capital spend.[52] Our earlier Report highlighted concerns about the timetable, the financial arrangements (in particular the treatment of the MRC's Commercial fund by the Treasury) for the project and the lack of clarity about which branches of science and projects would survive in the move from the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research to the new site. The Committee is currently receiving six-monthly updates from the MRC on progress with the project; the July 2009 update is published with this Report.[53] This is an issue we intend to keep under review, not least because of the potential effects of the economic recession and the project's requirement for public expenditure.

Reactive inquiries

Capital Investment for Further Education Colleges

41.  In February 2009 the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee issued an open call for topics suitable for oral evidence hearings later in the year under the heading "Subjects for scrutiny: have your say". (We examine this process in more detail in the next chapter.) In response to a subject suggested by the 157 Group, which represents 26 of the largest colleges in England, we undertook an inquiry into the Learning and Skills Council's decision, in December 2008, to stop considering capital investment applications. We held two evidence sessions, taking evidence from the Learning and Skills Council and the former Chief Executive of the Council, the 157 Group, the Association of Colleges and DIUS in May. Along with the written and oral evidence received the Report also drew extensively on Sir Andrew Foster's review, published in April, A Review of the Capital Programme in Further Education. The Committee also met Sir Andrew privately. In July the Committee published its highly critical Report, Spend, spend, spend? - the mismanagement of the Learning and Skills Council's capital programme in further education colleges outlining what we described as the "catastrophic mismanagement by the Learning and Skills Council".[54]

EVIDENCE CHECK: HOMEOPATHY AND LITERACY INTERVENTIONS

42.  In preparation for the establishment of the Science and Technology Committee on 1 October, the former Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee commissioned work to assess the Government's use of evidence in policy-making. The Committee wrote to the Government on ten topics and asked two questions: (1) what is the policy? (2) and on what evidence is the policy based? Having considered the Government responses the Committee selected literacy interventions and homeopathy for its first and second "Evidence Check" inquiries. The Committee took evidence on literacy interventions at the end of the 2008-09 session and on homeopathy at the start of the 2009-10 session and we intend to report in December, January and February. Subject to the pressures of our programme of work, a third "Evidence Check" inquiry is also planned for spring 2010.

Other work

43.  On 24 June 2009 we organised with the Royal Institution a panel—consisting of James Caan, entrepreneur, Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, and the Chairman of the Committee—to cross-examine world renowned inventors and scientists. The event took place at the Royal Institution. This was a new departure for us as neither the format nor the subject matter had been tried before. The feedback was positive: describing it as having an inclusive atmosphere and intimate space with dynamic speakers, and the number of questions from the audience demonstrated how engaged they were in the subjects under discussion.

Follow-up to previous inquiries

44.  Following up inquiries, evidence sessions and reports is something we take seriously. As noted in paragraph 26, we followed up a number of issues in our report, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy. We have also used the pre-appointment hearings to pose questions which draw on our scrutiny work—for example, we asked the Chair-elect of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Professor Michael Sterling about his views on the future strategic direction of Council, including the current and future priorities for STFC and the management of STFC's budget.[55] These were matters we had considered in our Report, Science Budget Allocations,[56] published in April 2008. As noted in paragraph 40, we receive updates from the MRC about the progress of the UKCMRI project.



15   HM Treasury, A Review of UK Health Research Funding, December 2006, para 9 Back

16   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, The Cooksey Review, HC 204, para 6 Back

17   HC (2006-07) 204, paras 13-15, 20 Back

18   "Science Question Time", Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Press Notice No 10, 21 January 2009, "Science Question Time", Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Press Notice No 37, 13 May 2009 Back

19   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Third Report of Session 2008-09, DIUS's Departmental Report 2008, HC 51-I Back

20   Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Departmental Report 2009, Cm 7596, July 2009 Back

21   Evs 1, 10, 18, 28, 31, 35, 36, 40 and 49  Back

22   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09, Students and Universities, HC 170-I Back

23   HC (2008-09) 170-I, paras 12-20 Back

24   HC (2008-09) 170-I, Annex 2 Back

25   HC (2008-09) 170-I, Ch 6 Back

26   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2008-09, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, HC 50-I Back

27   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, HC 168-I Back

28   HC (2008-09) 168-I Back

29   HC (2008-09) 50-I Back

30   HC (2007-08) 215-I Back

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

32   The Haldane Principle is popularly used to describe the notion that decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians. Back

33   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 88 Back

34   HC (2008-09) 168-I, chapter 2 Back

35   Science and Technology Committee, Ninth Special Report of Session 2008-09, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy: Government Response to the Innovation, Science and Skills Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, HC 1036 Back

36   "The dismissal of Professor David Nutt as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs", Science and Technology Committee Press Notice issued 5 November 2009 Back

37   HC (2008-09) 717 Back

38   HC (2008-09) 717, paras 23 and 25 Back

39   HC (2008-09) 717, para 11 Back

40   Ministry of Justice, The Governance of Britain (Cm 7170), July 2007, p 28 Back

41   As above, p 29 Back

42   House of Commons Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2007-2008, Pre-appointment hearings by select committees, HC 384 Back

43   Sir John Chisholm, Chairman of MRC, July 2007 (HC (2006-07) 746); Mr Ed Wallis, Chief Executive of NERC, April 2007 (HC (2006-07) 747-I); Professor Philip Esler, Chief Executive of AHRC, February 2007 (HC (2006-07) 310-I); Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of PPARC, January 2006 (HC (2005-06) 808-I); Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC, October 2005 (HC (2004-05) 491-I); Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of MRC, December 2003 (HC (2003-04) 55); Professor Ian Diamond, Chief Executive of ESRC, January 2003 (HC (2002-03) 277-I). Back

44   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, Chairman of the Medical Research Council: Introductory Hearing, HC 746, p 3 Back

45   HC (2006-07) 746, p 6 Back

46   HC (2007-08) 384, p 20 Back

47   House of Commons Liaison Committee, Pre-appointment hearings by select committees: Government response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2007-2008, HC 594, p 6 Back

48   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2008-09, Pre-appointment hearing with the Chair-elect of the Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Alan Gillespie CBE, HC 505 Back

49   Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2008-09, Pre-appointment hearing with the Chair-elect of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Professor Sir Tom Blundell, HC 506 Back

50   Innovation Universities and Skills Committee, First Report of Session 2007-08, UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, HC (2007-08) 185 Back

51   HC (2007-08) 49, para 13 Back

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

53   Ev 49 Back

54   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2008-09, Spend, spend, spend?-the mismanagement of the Learning and Skills Council's capital programme in further education colleges, HC 530, para 40 Back

55   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2008-09, Pre-appointment hearing with the Chair-elect of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Professor Michael Sterling FREng, HC (2008-09) 887, para 17 and Qq 24-32, 54 Back

56   HC (2007-08), HC 215-I Back


 
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