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

Annex 2: Note of seminar on the future work of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held on 21 October 2009


House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

Phil Willis MP, Chairman  

Dr Tim Boswell MP  

Ian Cawsey MP  

Dr Evan Harris MP  

Dr Brian Iddon MP  

Graham Stringer MP  

Glenn McKee, Clerk

Richard Ward, Second Clerk

Xameerah Malik, Committee Specialist

Dr Chris Tyler, Committee Specialist

External participants

Professor Sir John Bell  President, Academy of Medical Sciences

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell   President, Institute of Physics

Lord Broers   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

Dame Janet Finch   Co-Chair, Council for Science and Technology

Professor David Fisk   Imperial College

Professor David Garner  President, The Royal Society of Chemistry

Lord Krebs   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

Chandrika Nath   Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

John Neilson   Director, Research Base, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Rachel Newton  Committee Specialist, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

Lord Rees   President, The Royal Society

Christine Salmon Percival   Clerk, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

Stuart Sarson  Deputy Director, Strategy, Skills and Secretariat, Government Office for Science

Stephen Tetlow   CEO, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Professor Jean Venables   President, Institution of Civil Engineers

Sir Mark Walport  Director, The Wellcome Trust

Stian Westlake   Head of Policy and Research, NESTA

Dr Astrid Wissenburg  Chair, RCUK Knowledge Transfer and Economic Impact Group

The work of the Committee

The Chairman asked those attending to identify areas of work which the Committee should consider in the session before the 2010 General Election (GE) and what issues they considered would be important to science in the next few years. The following points were made and discussed.

General approach

66.  Participants suggested that the Committee should examine matters which were of long-term significance to science and which did not give rise to party political contention.


67.  While acknowledging that significant progress had been made in building the science base in the past 10 years, participants were concerned that it was fragile. The UK needed a long-term vision for its science base and a strategy to ensure international competitiveness. Participants considered that identifying what success would look like was vital for formulating and achieving a long-term strategy.

68.  Government departments and agencies were not designed to work together and the "silo mentality" was the norm on funding and using science. Little more than lip-service was played to the concept of joined-up Government. Some conceded that science was not without its own silos which in a world increasingly reliant on multi-disciplinary research needed to be reduced.

69.  The NHS needed to be used by Government to assist industry—for example, in terms of procurement. Currently, the NHS did not take account of the effect on UK science in procurement. A cultural change in values within government was required.

70.  Science and engineering also suffered when the Government halted and restarted expenditure on major public projects. Undergraduates who started higher education with a good prospect in one area often found that by the time they graduated the Government had halted expenditure and they had no prospect of employment using their qualifications.

71.  Government should be better at taking science and engineering advice when formulating policies and making decisions. Participants identified Government decisions on major projects which appeared to be based on little, or flew in the face of, scientific evidence—for example, the decision to place large wind farms in the North Sea without consideration of engineering advice on how feasible the project would be.

72.  One topic for a inquiry could be the effect on policy within a department of the appointment of a Scientific Adviser. The Department for International Development was suggested as a possible subject for examination.

73.  The UK needed to reduce the timescale for major infrastructure projects from decision to completion. Participants cited as unnecessarily long the time taken to agree and build new nuclear power stations.

Science funding

74.  Participants suggested that the Committee could examine why science needed long-term state funding. Such an inquiry could examine the need for greater coherence in funding and examine the breadth of benefits for the UK.

75.  Some participants were critical of the Treasury's lack of vision for science pointing out that it had no vision for science and that it was failing to see the big picture.

76.  The physical sciences were more vulnerable than the life sciences to funding cuts as there was less support and diversity of funding sources. It was noted that there were many charities funding life science research, such as the Wellcome Trust. The point was made that the physical sciences underpinned medical research but this was not often recognised.

77.  There was concern that the UK had provided the capital resources to build world class facilities such as the Diamond Light Source but that it was now struggling to obtain revenue costs to operate at a satisfactory level.

International comparison and EU issues

78.  The Obama Administration in the USA was concerned about the US's competitiveness in science and the likelihood that other countries might overtake it. The recent US stimulus for science funding had, in part, been a response to this challenge and was a threat to UK competitiveness as the UK could be left behind. The US was also directing significant amounts of state resources into scientific research and trials as well as using procurement by all arms of the state to support its scientific base. The UK had been too complacent in assuming it was second to the USA in research. Other countries, notably in the Far East, were overtaking the UK in science competitiveness. The Committee could highlight the UK's strengths using international comparisons. It was suggested that such comparisons could be based on "hard" data and not narrative.

79.  The UK needed to realign and integrate its research with the EU and exert greater influence. It was important for the UK to engage more with Europe, by, for example. lobbying in Brussels and getting UK experts onto relevant committees. It might also be necessary to realign the UK's Research Councils to fit the EU model. Participants drew a distinction between the European Research Council (ERC) and the European Framework. The ERC had been careful to stand aside from the Framework, which several participants characterised as bureaucratic, ineffective and unworkable. The Committee could examine how the UK influenced EU science policy and funding and how science and engineering could benefit from European funding.

80.  Participants pointed out that in comparison to other countries the UK's research council system was the second most burdensome after Canada's.


81.  The Committee could examine the link between the science base and competitiveness and the growth of the economy in areas such as health. It was suggested that many of the points made in the New Augustine Report on U.S. Competitiveness[78] applied to the UK

82.  Several participants suggested said that the commercial exploitation of science and technology transfer in the UK needed to improve significantly. The UK had to become better at growing companies (not just creating them) so that the UK derived the full benefit of scientific developments. Plastic electronics was an example of an industry where the UK has failed to capitalise on its research. The UK also needed to re-grow industries that it had allowed to decline such as the nuclear industry.

83.  Participants suggested that the Committee highlight the positive effects on the UK's productivity and growth of increased R&D investment. The UK needed to maintain a broad R&D base. These effects were often not well publicised and would help to make the case for continuing investment in science.

84.  The point was made that it was possible to measure the effect of expenditure on R&D. The point was made, however, that the economic effects could take in, some instances, 17 years to appear.

85.  It was suggested that scientists and policy makers should move away from terms such as "blue skies" and "applied" science. Participants considered the terms set up a false dichotomy which implied that the former was futile and lacking in practical application. In the view of participants nearly all so-called blue skies research had application. Similarly, "picking winners" was considered negative as it implied resources were being wasted on "losers".

86.  The UK needed to be a more attractive location for firms to invest and locate in. For example, the pharmaceutical industry was disappearing from the UK. By the GE there might be only one international pharmaceutical company based in the UK. Participants identified a broad range of factors that were needed to facilitate companies staying or relocating to the UK: they ranged from better infrastructure such as transport links to the taxation system.

87.  Participants identified that the regulatory burden in the UK was a deterrent to chemical and pharmaceutical industries and an impediment to the UK's manufacturing capability. The requirements of the REACH[79], for example, regulations and the difficulty of carrying out clinical trials in the UK.

88.  The UK had a weakness in management skills within industry. Participants considered that the improvement of these skills could contribute to a better ability to commercialise knowledge.


89.  Science education was vital in ensuring the strength of the UK's science base. The Committee could examine science and engineering careers, including gender issues. The question was asked whether the UK offered internationally competitive careers. Research careers were made unattractive because of lack of tenure security and grant applications that only provided short-term funding. Participants raised access to higher education and it was suggested that there should be more equality of access to elite education.

90.  It was suggested that politicians had placed more emphasis on "lower" level skills, with less emphasis the importance of higher level skills to the UK. There was an acute shortage of teachers with science degrees in the subjects that they were teaching.

91.  The UK needed to be better at attracting and retaining scientists from abroad. Participants considered that visa restrictions deterred the immigration of talent to the UK.

92.  While foreign investment was beneficial, the UK needed more companies based in the UK. The UK had gone from being a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of shop assistants.

Science and engineering in Parliament

93.  It was noted that there were few scientists in Parliament and fewer engineers. Despite the work of the Committee, the profile of engineering remained low. The Committee should have "engineering" in its title.

Other issues for the Committee to consider

94.  Before the GE, the Committee should shift its approach to the examination of the improvement of policy processes. It was noted that the Evidence Check programme fitted with the "processes" approach.

95.  Some participants considered that the former Science and Technology Committee had concentrated on inputs and that the new Committee should focus outputs and on asking about outcomes—for example, why were some research programmes so small that administration costs outweighed funding; and why did it take so long to secure research funding?

96.  The Committee could follow-up on its work on The Use of Science in UK International Development Policy[80].


97.  In drawing the session to a close the Chairman identified as a theme running through the discussion: how the UK could maintain its science base in the face of international competition. More specifically, possible areas for examination included:

  • How to demonstrate the value of the UK's science base to industry and society and why sustained long-term investment was worthwhile;
  • The need for a long-term science and engineering strategy for the UK and how success of a strategy would be measured;
  • How to obtain full advantage from the UK's large facilities;
  • An examination of policy levers and processes (e.g. government procurement) to sustain and improve the science base of the UK;
  • The need to improve careers in science, retain skills and attract talent; and how the UK can offer internationally competitive careers; and
  • International comparisons of UK science and engineering with other countries and how the UK can maintain a competitive edge.

98.  An inquiry including some of these items might draw on comparative data on international science capabilities. NESTA has produced some work in this area.

78 Back

79   Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals Back

80   Science and Technology Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2003-04, The Use of Science in UK International Development Policy, HC 133-I Back

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Prepared 15 December 2009