Science and Technology - Minutes of EvidenceHC 1667

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House of COMMONS



Science and Technology Committee

Engineering in Government: Follow-up

wednesday 14 December 2011

Sir John Beddington

Evidence heard in Public Questions 30 – 54



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 14 December 2011

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Stephen Metcalfe

Pamela Nash

Graham Stringer

Roger Williams


Examination of Witness

Witness: Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, gave evidence.

Q30 Chair: Sir John, welcome; it is good to see you again. As you know, we are exploring the relationship between the Government and the engineering sector, and looking to see how that has changed, if at all, since our predecessor Committee wrote "Engineering: turning ideas into reality" in 2009. Do you and the Government now see the Royal Academy of Engineering as the first port of call for engineering advice?

Sir John Beddington: Yes, in general that would be the case, but it depends. For example, a particular issue might be a civil engineering or mechanical engineering matter, and we might at some levels go directly to the appropriate institution. But if it is a general engineering thing I would immediately go to the Royal Academy of Engineering.

In fact, if you would allow me to expand on that a little, one of the issues that is coming up is that of shale gas and how we are going to deal with it. There is quite a lot of uncertainty. The Foundation for Science and Technology had an open meeting on it, which I think you attended. I also had a meeting with the chief scientific advisers, and we said that there are real issues here. My first port of call was to contact the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society to say that we would be very interested if they were in some way to think of examining the question of shale gas. That is under discussion within the two academies, and I hope that they will be taking it forward. But that would certainly be the first port of call, for example, for something that is very current.

Q31 Chair: Absolutely. I was discussing the matter with some scientists only yesterday, and we were slightly amused at the BBC’s choice of a so-called independent adviser, which happened to be Benny Peiser. The Geological Society is quite adamant about their views on safety in the context of the supposed earthquakes. Is that the kind of view that is coming through?

Sir John Beddington: If I may, I would rather wait until I have heard the results of the deliberations of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society on safety, potential reserves and so on. My concern is that we should have a detailed and authoritative evidence base before we start making policy on this.

Q32 Graham Stringer: There has already been one Select Committee report on shale gas. Do you think that this Committee should take a look at the subject? Would that be of help to you?

Sir John Beddington: I would probably say again that we are hoping to get advice from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. A small taskforce has been set up to look at shale gas in particular in the British Geological Survey. It is a very active discussion. It might be appropriate for your Committee to look at the subject once a report or some form of advice has come from those two bodies, and talking to the chairman of the Committee or the appropriate officers within it would then seem to be perfectly in order. As to whether you need to have a comprehensive inquiry, that is not my role, but there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, and it is rather important to get the evidence base fixed first. I have hopes that we would have some form of assessment by Easter or early summer.

Q33 Chair: Let us return to this inquiry. It is true to say that, over the last four or five years, relationships between engineers and the Government have improved. However, we sometimes hear that policies are too often developed without consideration of the engineering perspective. Do you agree that that remains a problem?

Sir John Beddington: I don’t think that it is a problem. I have seen these comments, but they are not underpinned by much in the way of examples. In terms of this sort of generic issue, there are a few things that I have done at an institutional level. One is that I have arranged for the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering to sit ex officio on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. I have also arranged for the Royal Academy of Engineering to have an ex officio position on GSIF, which I am reminded is the Global Science and Innovation Forum. You can see that I am not a civil servant because my ability to master acronyms is not good.

Chair: Or to invent them.

Sir John Beddington: The Global Science and Innovation Forum previously had only the Royal Society on it, but we now have the Royal Academy of Engineering as an ex officio member and the Academy of Medical Sciences. We are doing that. In addition to the Council for Science and Technology currently having Sir John Parker as an ex officio member, six of its members are in fact qualified engineers. For example, Colin Smith is chief engineer at Rolls-Royce. The CST has a very significant number of engineers on it.

Also, we are looking to engineers fairly regularly. A recent example was the tragic floods in Hungary. Our Prime Minister met the Hungarian Prime Minister and offered help, and we were asked to put it together. We were able to get a team from BGS and engineers from Newcastle university to go to Hungary to provide advice on mitigating future problems and to advise on the general environmental effect. That was very successful, and the Hungarian Minister for Environment and Water came over to Britain specifically to develop these links. So we are calling it in appropriately. I am sure that you will ask me later on, but in terms of the CSA community there will be some announcements this week which will be favourable in that direction, if I can put it that way.

Q34 Chair: For the record, you will be interested to know that I was speaking in Hungary a couple of weeks ago, and the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences specifically asked me to pass on his thanks for your involvement in that chemical spillage.

Sir John Beddington: Thank you.

Q35 Chair: The other aspect about which engineers are expressing some angst-it also came out in two rather brilliant BBC programmes recently about the Airbus wing and Rolls-Royce engines-is the undoubtedly huge concern about our skills base, particularly regarding tuition fees policies. Do you think that the potential impacts of that on the future supply of engineers have been given sufficient consideration by BIS and the Department for Education when developing policies?

Sir John Beddington: They were certainly thought about, but it is probably too early to judge whether there has been a significant detrimental effect. It is interesting that I have seen evidence indicating a decline in engineering in Scotland, where tuition fees have not been imposed. As for whether there will be any significant effect, the jury is out. It is certainly a concern even outside the debate on tuition fees that we need more scientists, and we certainly need more engineers.

In order to address the problem, we have to up the image of engineers quite substantially. The initiative to set up the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering, which came from the Government, is one that I strongly support. I hope that it will show that the UK takes engineering extremely seriously. We have engaged with industry to put funding into the prize, which the Government strongly support, and the Queen has lent her name to the prize. That is extremely important, as it shows that the UK is taking engineering extremely seriously. Whether some 17-year-old deciding on their A-levels is going to be influenced by the potential of winning the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering in 30 years I cannot say, but the hope is that sufficient publicity will be associated with it to drive the message that engineering is really important. In my capacity, I will certainly do everything that I can to help that go forward. I am a special adviser to a trust that has been set up to examine appointing a panel to choose the potential winner or winners of the prize.

Q36 Chair: There are all sorts of companies. I shared a platform the other day with Kevin Tebbit, gamekeeper turned poacher, I guess, in his capacity as chairman of Finmeccanica, and we were discussing the development of the curriculum with the Design and Technology Association. There are real worries out there about design and technology being taken out of the English curriculum. Do you share those worries?

Sir John Beddington: It is an area that has been drawn to my attention, and we need to think very hard about it. It is a discussion that Sir Adrian Smith and I have been having. To an extent, it is a bit removed from my immediate responsibilities, but I have talked to Adrian Smith about this and I think that we need to examine it. Arguably, if there is sufficient evidence for it, it needs to be rethought.

Q37 Chair: It may be removed from your immediate area of responsibility, but the successor to your successor’s successor will have no job if you do not have a supply of scientists and engineers in this country.

Sir John Beddington: I thoroughly agree with that, and it is very high on my agenda, but I thought that you were asking particularly about design and I am not well enough briefed to give a detailed answer on that. However, I have discussed the matter with Adrian, and he will engage with HEFCE if there is evidence that this is a real problem. There is absolutely no doubt-I have made many a speech on the subject and taken action-that we need significantly to up the role of engineers and the attraction of that career. There must be ways to do that. The ambassador scheme, which was developed several years ago, which has practising engineers and scientists going into schools and talking about what they do, has been really very successful. I think that we need more of the same.

It may seem slightly facetious, forgive me, but it seems to me that TV has enormous power in attracting young people into certain careers. The forensic sciences had a major increase in students wanting to study the subject at university, and the causal mechanism was a lot of TV programmes on it. Brian Cox’s programmes on the universe, cosmology and basic physics have also brought about an increase in people interested in reading physics. Perhaps this Committee could persuade the BBC that they need to make programmes showing engineers as serious heroes.

Chair: It is a pity that they were not here yesterday televising the STEMNET awards, for example.

Q38 Stephen Metcalfe: May I pick up on a point made by the Chairman? His original question was about the potential link between tuition fees and the drop-off in the take-up of STEM subjects. Regardless of the link, now that that policy is established, do you think it would be better to spend more time talking to the students and explaining the ramifications of the changes, rather than kicking it around like a football? Should we not be explaining that it is not like any other debt and you pay back a percentage of what you earn? Actually, engineers are statistically very high on the graduate pay scales, and their earning potential is much greater than for many other subject areas. Perhaps we should make those points more clearly to them.

Sir John Beddington: You make an excellent point. As you say, it is not an up-front fee; it is paid once the salary increases above a threshold. Those engineers that graduate, by and large, are pretty well paid compared with other graduates, and some are extraordinarily well paid if they move into the City of London and use their engineering skills there. Even in more conventional engineering, it is less of a problem. Engaging in that way is really important, and it is a very good suggestion.

Q39 Stephen Metcalfe: Thank you. I will now turn to the area that I was going to chat to you about. You mentioned shale gas and said that you were seeking advice on that. Does that indicate that the Government are now an intelligent customer, if you like, for engineering advice and that civil servants are better equipped to understand when that advice is needed?

Sir John Beddington: I would say that requiring the Government to be an intelligent customer is very much my job. It is the job of the chief scientific adviser in each Department. As I indicated earlier, I think that more engineers will be entering over the next month or so. However, the key is that chief scientific advisers need to point out when engineering advice is needed. For example, if there is concern that we don’t have an appropriate intelligent customer base on a particular area, we need to work out ways of getting it done. That is very much recognised by the Departments. Going back to shale gas, there is interest in a number of Departments on this such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Defra and so on, but the Treasury also has an interest. The recognition that we need authoritative engineering advice on this issue came directly from a discussion that we had at the chief scientific advisers’ breakfast meeting. It is too complicated. We need to be intelligent enough to say that we need expert advice from the very best people, whether it is about science-and there is a lot of science-or engineering.

The answer to that is yes, but of course there will be times when things are problematic. DECC’s decision to appoint a chief engineer reporting to the chief scientific adviser and providing a role as head of profession for engineers in DECC is an indication that it recognises it needs more engineering advice. Indeed, that is just part of it; the Department is recruiting a number of new engineers into the Department.

Q40 Stephen Metcalfe: Rather than seeing a reduction in engineering expertise across Government, following the recent changes in departmental budgets, you can see it improving the number of engineers across Government.

Sir John Beddington: The aggregate figures would need to be addressed, because they will be different in different Departments. The analysis that I and the permanent secretary to the Treasury did, which was shared with this Committee and the Committee in the other House, indicated that, albeit there had been cuts in individual Departments, they had not been disproportionate and engineers were not being disproportionately cut compared with scientists or, indeed, general policy people. There are variations, of course. DECC is a particular example; there has been an increase in the number of senior engineers there, but in the other large science and engineering-using Departments the cuts are pretty much proportionate to the overall finances.

Q41 Stephen Metcalfe: Are there alternative ways of increasing the capacity to use engineers and engineering advice across Government, perhaps by seconding academics or industrial engineers into Government?

Sir John Beddington: That is a really interesting idea and one that we should follow up. The sort of thing that we need to be thinking about is, in a sense, what is in it for them. If we can persuade a number of academics to sit on science advisory councils-many advisory councils have engineers on them-that would be a good thing. I think I have told this Committee in the past that one exercise I have undertaken is to hold meetings, some under the auspices of the Royal Society and some under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Engineering, to inform academics about Government and how they could help Government. That is something to take forward.

I have also set up a meeting-it will probably happen in March-with the vice-chancellors or their nominees of most of the key universities where engineering is a discipline. I have asked them to come down for a meeting with CSAs from key Departments, Adrian Smith and me to explore ways in which academia can feed into the Government process. The CSA from DECC could be telling them of the Department’s problems and saying that he would welcome advice; the same goes for other Departments. I hope that that will engage the academic community so that we can assure vice-chancellors that this is something we value.

Q42 Roger Williams: Some members of my family would not agree that engineers are well paid. However, they would agree that, if they had taken their skills into other sectors such as finance, they would be more adequately rewarded. By dint of their responsibilities, a number of Government Departments may require engineers as their chief scientific advisers. Would you say that that is the case? Should the default situation be that they have engineers?

Sir John Beddington: I am in a slightly awkward position, because two announcements are to be made tomorrow. My answer to that question in practical terms will be made manifest once these announcements have been made. I think it is quite clear-you will see it in the advertisements-that the Department for Transport and BIS indicated that an engineer would be completely appropriate for the position of chief scientific adviser. A similar advert went out for the Ministry of Defence chief scientific adviser, which is in process. It is recognised. Going through individual Departments, some call for, if not a straight engineer, at least someone with the physical or chemical sciences that are appropriate, but others such as Defra might want someone with more of a background in the biological or environmental sciences. I agree with your specification. Action has been taken in respect of the advertisements. As for the practical results, watch this space, but I think it indicates how the Government are treating the matter.

Q43 Roger Williams: So you are not going to answer my second question on what tomorrow’s announcement by BIS and the Department for Transport is going to be.

Sir John Beddington: All I can say is that I would be delighted to answer it, and I think the style of this conversation indicates that the answers will be to your liking.

Q44 Roger Williams: That is manifest. You have already said that DECC has appointed a chief engineering adviser to report to the chief scientific adviser. That follows very closely the recommendation made by the predecessor to this Committee that that should be the case. Will that be replicated in other Departments?

Sir John Beddington: If a Department has a chief scientific adviser who is an engineer, then replication will not be necessary. It is very much for the Department’s chief scientific adviser and permanent secretary and the departmental board to take a view. The situation is open. For example, in the Home Office, the prima facie requirement for engineering might arguably be less than in the MOD or DECC. The Home Office’s chief scientific adviser, Bernard Silverman, is a mathematical statistician, and he has engineers working within the science and engineering community, primarily on border security and the sensing of hazards. A community of engineers out there reports to Bernard, and it works reasonably well. Whether it would be enhanced by having a very senior engineer is something for the Department to decide.

We are open to all solutions, and individual Departments will have individual structures which merit it. For example, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development is a medic, but much of that Department’s work is to do with mitigating and adapting to climate change, and dealing with some of the major resources needed for that. But he is an expert in malaria, so he appointed a deputy chief scientific adviser with expertise in climate change and resource management. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If I was asking engineering questions of a particular scientific adviser and wanted to know how he was dealing with them, essentially I would be concerned if I was getting no indication that they were being dealt with properly, and the science and engineering reviews of which you are aware aim to explore that.

It is a rather bland one-size-doesn’t-fit-all answer, but we are very open. The entire community of chief scientific advisers recognises how important engineering is.

Q45 Roger Williams: In general, in recruiting chief scientific advisers and engineering advisers, is the recruitment process aimed at academics or is there a broader approach to it? Perhaps you could comment generally in recruitment terms. Do people come mainly from the academic sector?

Sir John Beddington: No, not entirely. We target industry and academia in our adverts. There is a slight problem in salary levels if you are moving into government from industry; it is arguably slightly less attractive than for academics moving into government. But we aim to do it. In some areas, if you had someone from academia in a key Department where engineering was important, or indeed that business was important, we would want to be confident that they had engaged substantially and that would be one of the criteria of choice.

I cannot remember exactly how many chief scientific advisers I have appointed in the last four years-it seems to be quite a lot-but one of the criteria that we use in particular areas is to ask how much they have engaged with the key stakeholder community. For example, to take it away from engineering, in DFID we would want to explore whether the person had worked in the developing world and knew the NGO community and the major stakeholders in the international aid banks and so on. That is the sort of engagement. For example, the chief scientific adviser at BIS, prior to being appointed, must have had some significant engagement with an industrial base.

Q46 Pamela Nash: With your Council for Science and Technology hat on, how do you decide the right balance of expertise in the membership of the council? In particular, how do you ensure that it has engineering expertise?

Sir John Beddington: We did not really decide on the right balance. It is fair to say that we did not say we wanted six engineers, half a social scientist and two economists. However, that is what came through. We placed adverts and phoned around, contacting people who we thought might be attracted to the job.

We then had something that I have never encountered before; it was called a conversation with a purpose. It would be interesting to examine the antithesis of what that might be-gossip, I suppose. We had a series of conversations with a purpose with something in the order of 25 candidates from a field of about 80 applicants. During those conversations with a purpose, we filed them down to about 12 individuals, perhaps slightly more, who we felt were appropriate for appointment. That list then went to the Prime Minister, because it is his council, and he chose the final 11 members. As it happened, quite a few of them were eminent engineers. For instance, Christopher Snowden, the vice-chancellor at the university of Surrey, is an FRS and FREng and has worked in industry-a classic. Another appointment was the straightforward engineer, Colin Smith, who is chief engineer at Rolls-Royce. Others involved in engineering include Keith Burnett, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield university; he is a physicist, but much of his work in Sheffield was dealing with advanced manufacturing. We did not set out by saying that that was what we wanted, but that is what happened and I feel very comfortable with it.

Our engagement with the Prime Minister has been really quite successful, in the sense that we have had the input of engineers at all stages. That has helped. That is not to say that the social scientists involved are not helpful-they are, as are the mainstream scientists-but having that mix across the spectrum is really important.

Q47 Pamela Nash: Is that something that would have to be formalised in the future, or are you quite confident about achieving that balance informally?

Sir John Beddington: It would be really pernicious to formalise it. The criterion has to be excellence. My own view is that, if you have someone really excellent, then they will be able to move outside their immediate field. For instance, could the engineers really comment on issues to do with biodiversity? I would expect them to be able to do so. Similarly, if we hired people who were chemists, I would expect them to be able to make comments on engineering aspects. In my view, excellence has to be the prerequisite of appointments, but formalising it, no. However, we have formalised the ex officio appointment of the presidents of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy. In that way, science, engineering, medical science and social science and the humanities are represented. That is how to do it, rather than saying that we need six of this, three of the other and so on.

We are in the process of appointing another co-chair for me, as Dame Janet will be stepping down at the end of the year. The process is ongoing-the application deadline was last week-and we are in the process of appointing a co-chair. To an extent, we might want to think a bit about balance in that appointment-a bit of balance for me, as I come from a particular area, and there might be merit in having someone who works in a different area as co-chair. However, that is specific.

Q48 Chair: On the question of expertise-I am trying to get my head round this-the code of practice for the scientific advisory committee states, "The SAC Chair, secretariat and Departmental CSA (or relevant senior official for non-department sponsors) should discuss and agree areas of expertise required in advance of appointments."

Sir John Beddington: For science advisory committees, that is relevant, but the CST is rather special. For example, I chaired Defra’s science advisory council for a while, and it was very clear that we needed an epidemiologist-someone who could comment on some of the key issues of livestock disease that Defra has. That was a perfectly sensible thing to do. When recruiting, we specified that we wanted someone with that background. You can do that; it is perfectly legitimate in individual Departments for the departmental science advisory councils to do that. It would be crazy if, by wanting excellence in Defra, you had people who were expert only on biodiversity, but in the science advisory councils you are seeking particular expertise and it is therefore sensible to do it. You cannot be comprehensive in a Department like Defra or you would have a science advisory council of about 80. Within the constraints of numbers, it is sensible to have a broad brush.

I believe that the Council of Science and Technology is different. It would be an odd composition if that council did not have a number of people from business, no one with engineering or a mainstream science background, and did not have anyone with a social research background. But the actual balance is not there.

Q49 Pamela Nash: Last week, the chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering told us that it normally nominates members for specific departmental scientific advisory committees. He was not able to tell us there and then which ones. Would you be able to shed any light on that?

Sir John Beddington: We can find out. I do not know it off the top of my head, but, when we recruit for any position, we would certainly consult the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and we would also talk to the research councils. In a sense, they are the people who have the expertise and know who is active and where the skills are. There is quite a broad consultation.

As for whether the Royal Academy of Engineering has been approached, I would be surprised if it was not approached by DECC for its suggestions for a chief engineer in that Department. DECC now has a science advisory group, and I would be surprised if it had not been asked for advice on who might be there, for example, to provide a bit of expertise, because the Department’s advisory group has people who are experts on geoengineering, nuclear engineering and so on. Some advice from the engineering community would be sought, but I am not aware of the particulars.

Q50 Pamela Nash: Could you provide us with information in writing on that?

Sir John Beddington: Yes, I am sure that we can.

Q51 Pamela Nash: On that point, are any other engineering bodies routinely consulted by the Government, or is it only the Royal Academy?

Sir John Beddington: I think it is all the main institutions. For example, we asked for some help from the engineering community about water management and the problems of water security, and civil engineers and others put together a very detailed presentation with suggestions on how to deal with water security. It is horses for courses. For example, if we had issues to do with the transport system, we would expect one of the first ports of call to be the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In a sense, the thing goes in an odd way; if I contact the Royal Academy of Engineering, it will often say that it would be much better to talk to this or that group. It is a relatively fluid process.

When I first became involved as chief scientific adviser, I had regular meetings with the chief execs of a number of the key engineering institutions, mainly because we did not know them. Now I do, so we not have those regular meetings, but we often have groups from the engineering community attending a meeting of the Chief Scientific Advisers Committee. That has happened on several occasions in the last year.

Q52 Pamela Nash: So the relationship is good and informal.

Sir John Beddington: It is fair to say that the direction of travel since I became chief scientific adviser pleases me. I think we are much more intimately linked in with the engineering community than we were when I arrived. That is entirely to the good.

Q53 Pamela Nash: Very quickly, because the bell tells us that we are running out of time, to clarify the matter do you or does anyone else have overall responsibility for ensuring that there is engineering expertise on each of the scientific advisory committees?

Sir John Beddington: I am afraid the buck stops with me. My responsibility is for the quality of all science and engineering in Government, including social science. That is the job description, so it ends with me.

As for the head of profession role that I play, I have told the Committee before that I take it quite seriously in setting up the Government’s science and engineering community. In fact, we had the chief executive of a Formula 1 company present a meeting of scientists and engineers in government about two months ago, and Colin Smith has agreed to address the GSE annual conference that takes place in January. We are engaging at that level. Interestingly, we have about 3,500 members in that community, and just under 50% are engineers, of which a significant proportion have professional qualifications as well as engineering degrees-so the balance is not bad now.

Q54 Pamela Nash: Finally, do you think that your successor in your role should be an engineer?

Sir John Beddington: That is for the Prime Minister to say, but there is absolutely no reason why not. I would feel completely comfortable if my successor was an engineer, but I would not say that it has to be an engineer. That would be unwise. Again, you would hope to have someone who can do the job. I have to say that I was spectacularly surprised to be offered the job.

Chair: Sir John, as usual, you have been very open with us. We look forward to tomorrow’s announcements, and we may be able to read in your answers something about the qualifications of some of the appointees. Thank you very much for your attendance, and have a good holiday.

Prepared 28th April 2012