Memorandum submitted by Prospect (SAGE
1. Prospect is a trade union representing
122,000 scientific, technical, managerial and specialist staff
in the Civil Service and related bodies and major companies. Our
members are professionals, managers and specialists across a diverse
range of areas, including agriculture, defence, energy, environment,
communications, heritage, justice and transport.
2. We welcome the opportunity to submit
evidence to this inquiry. Many of Prospect's members work in areas
of public science that are often unrecognised except in times
of emergency. So, whilst it is interesting and useful to highlight
case studies, we would also point out that such contributions
are drawn in practice from a wider base of scientific expertise.
This is often located in institutes that have also been subject
to detrimental decision-making, for example about site closures,
transfer of functions and significant cuts in funding streamswith
no central knowledge by government of the location, functions
or specialist expertise it employs. Hence there is no clarity
of what capability is being lost or whether retained capability
will be sufficient to cope with future demands.
3. We would draw the Select Committee's
attention to our submission in the previous Parliamentary Session
on "The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific
research". A hard copy of this submission is enclosed with
this evidence, but it can also be accessed at http://library.prospect.org.uk/id/2010/00137.
The issues raised in this submission remain valid and, in the
run up to October's Spending Review, needed to be addressed with
4. Further, in any assessment of resilience
to provide timely scientific advice and evidence we would urge
the Select Committee to give high priority to the need attract
the best and brightest graduate talent. The case of one Prospect
member provides a stark illustration of the challenge faced by
the Government in delivering this objective. The member concerned
is a physicist involved in the design of particle accelerators,
including the New Light Source accelerator and the new Swedish
light source. He is also involved in commissioning the UK's only
test accelerator suite. This member has degrees from Edinburgh
and Durham and has worked at postdoctoral level in the USA, but
is still paying off a student loan at a rate of £125 per
month for the undergraduate degree he started in 1995. His partner
is on maternity leave currently and, taking account of eligibility
for additional benefit payments and mortgage interest relief,
when his partner's Statutory Maternity Pay ends they would actually
be better off if he was out of work and on Jobseekers Allowance
until she returns to work. This contravenes Ministerial statements
recognising the importance of STEM skills to the UK economy and
is a powerful disincentive to individuals to dedicate themselves
to developing important specialist expertise.
How does/did the Government use scientific advice
and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?
5. A good example is the Integration and
Maintenance of Expertise project (ED1043) led by the Veterinary
Laboratories Agency (VLA), though similar arrangements will apply
at organisations like the Institute for Animal Health. This project
provides Defra with expertise that can be mobilised during a disease
outbreak and/or other emergencies. It is not restricted to, but
in practice does focus on, disease outbreaks such as FMD (foot
and mouth disease), AI (Avian Influenza) and BT (Blue Tongue).
The main activities of the project currently include:
Veterinary epidemiologist training, including
workshops, on-the-job training at Defra and disease outbreak exercise
A peacetime duty veterinary epidemiologist
role, where CERA (Centre for Epidemiology and Risk Analysisof
VLA) vet epis (once trained) will participate in the Defra rota
maintained by FFG (Food and Farming Groupof Defra). This
ensures that trained and experienced veterinary epidemiologists
are available every day in case of urgent queries and in case
Ongoing epidemiological advice and consultancy,
eg survey design, participation and advice for expert working
groups, eg Foot and Mouth and Blue Tongue.
Running, developing and maintaining in-house
models, such as Exodis-FMD, so that the model, and the staff running
it are fully current and outbreak prepared.
An intelligent customer function providing
modelling consultancy to Defra on all matters modelling in peacetime.
Developing a cross-cutting modelling
conference to include participants from Defra, VLA, Animal Health
(AH) and others from the UK modelling community, the aim being
to improve and harmonise modelling expertise in order that outbreak
responses and modelling are optimal.
An information support service which
includes data management, database development and management
and ongoing training and involvement with Defra and AH on the
requirements of the NEEG (National Emergency Epidemiology Group)
and NDCC (National Disease Control Centre) during an outbreak.
Development and maintenance of the VIRDO
(Veterinary Information Required During an Outbreak) database,
which would be used in conjunction with MOSS II, across Defra
in an outbreak.
Project management of all activities
within the project during peacetime and development of expertise
in outbreak processes; during an outbreak this would extend to
the project management of the NEEG and would co-ordinate and support
the provision of all of the above activities and expertises to
the NEEG and feeding into the NDCC.
6. The current year's work programme does
not include GIS, risk analysis and risk communication but this
expertise is also readily available within CERA and during an
emergency this expertise, and the expertise developed within the
project could, and would, be used to provide epidemiological data,
GIS modelling, risk analysis and project management to Defra and
to the Government. For example, during the swine flu pandemic
and the volcanic ash eruptions some or all of these specialisms
could have been called upon.
What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable,
timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions
in emergencies? Has the government sufficient powers and resources
to overcome the obstacles?
7. Prospect would highlight two key obstacles:
funding and expertise.
8. As indicated in our submission on the
impact of spending cuts, there are now many examples of decisions
being taken for short-term financial reasons that will impact
on UK scientific capacity. Another specific example arises from
cuts in the Environment Agency. If an incident or emergency requires
a national response, the Environment Agency will often provide
expert support to Defra or DECC as appropriate. One consequence
of reduced grant-in-aid is that the provider of groundwater advice
during emergencies, for example on issues such as emergency burials
following animal disease outbreaks, has been designated as a redeployee
and nobody else has been identified to take up these responsibilities.
This gap was highlighted during a recent FMD exercise, and is
symptomatic of a wider concern that funding cuts at the Environment
Agency are likely to reduce technical resilience and ability to
support emergency response.
9. Another area of concern relates to perceived
lack of urgency in the Home Office, again apparently linked to
budgetary pressures, to evaluate the possible effects of chemical,
microbiological and radiological agents that might be used in
a terrorist attack. Over several years, a handful of these agents
have been evaluated to identify exposure standards to be used
for protecting the health of first responders at incidents and
of the general public and working groups will meet later this
year to assess further agents. However, there are no plans to
identify exposure standards for the majority of substances on
the Home Office list. Instead, the intention is that the methods
used for setting exposure standards for those substances that
have been evaluated could be used for other substances should
they be used in a terrorist attack. Of course, it is not be possible
to predict precisely what agents might be used in a terrorist
attack. However, our understanding is that this would involve
commitment of modest resources (a few weeks of the time of a handful
of experts already employed by government departments) into evaluating
all of the dozen or so chemicals on their list. By contrast under
the preferred approach, although the working group meetings to
assess the substances have taken a couple of days, it takes many
weeks to collect and collate the data for the working groups to
evaluate. Thus, in the event of a terrorist attack, it could take
an unacceptably long-time to fully evaluate the risk from exposure
to the agent used. Instead safety evaluators would need to make
rapid decisions based on the data readily to hand, with the result
that the emergency services and the general public could be exposed
unnecessarily to health risks as a result of hasty judgements
made on the basis of incomplete information.
10. Professor David King very quickly found
a lack of in-house expertise after his appointment as Chief Scientific
Adviser at the onset of the FMD crisis. He noted that an "enormous"
amount of work was needed to build this expertise and to strengthen
the evidence policy for policy making. Subsequently a great deal
of work has been done, including through the new code on use of
scientific advice in policy-making and the establishment of the
Government Science and Engineering Community of Interest (GSE).
However progress takes timescientific expertise cannot
simply be turned on or off at willand advances to date
are now threatened by widespread funding cuts. Ironically, disingenuous
use of the term "frontline" often results in deprioritisation
of scientific advice that will be absolutely vital at the "frontline"
in times of emergency.
11. There are also broader cultural challenges:
Prospect has responded to previous inquiries by the Select Committee,
for example on "Putting science and engineering at the heart
of government policy" (December 2008), illustrating the lack
of specialist expertise in departments. Another problem is that
scientific advice to government is generally filtered through
relatively inexperienced generalist civil servants in policy roles
without technical/scientific qualifications. Further, it may not
be challenged at senior levels since scientists and engineers
are significantly under-represented in the Senior Civil Service.
This is not a question of devaluing the contribution of staff
without STEM qualifications, but the reality is that many of the
most pressing challenges that currently face government are of
such a technical and complex nature that such expertise is essential
to ensure appropriate advice and decision-making.
How effective is the strategic co-ordination between
government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources
of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and
reacting to emergencies?
12. Although the previous Government's "Ten
Year Framework for Science and Innovation" demonstrated a
welcome appreciation of the essential and underpinning role of
science and technology, it fell short in delivering strategic
Decision-making is largely devolved to
departments and research institutes that proceed to cut or close
facilities on the basis of business cases that have no regard
to the impact on national scientific capability. Nobody in government
has been prepared to take on this key responsibility of care for
the national science base.
The level of core funding for research
institutes leaves many of them highly vulnerable to shifts and
reductions in competitive funding that owe more to changes in
short-term priorities than to the quality of work being undertaken.
The Government simply does not know how
many scientists it employs, let alone their areas of expertise.
It therefore cannot make any credible assessment of its own capability
to meet future needs.
13. In Prospect's view a strengthened Government
Office for Science could help to address these deficiencies through:
Exercising effective powers of scrutiny
over proposals to close research institutes or facilities and
publishing its findings on a timely basis.
Establishing and maintaining a database
of public sector scientific capability.
Collating and analysing annual returns
from all government departments, agencies and non departmental
public bodies of scientists in their employment, their location
and areas of expertise.
14. Such initiatives would enhance the UK's
ability to respond quickly and effectively to immediate needs
for advice and expertise, including during emergencies. It would
also facilitate better longer-term planning of skills requirements.