Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report

Science and Heritage: an Update


1.  In our inquiry into Science and Heritage we explored a sector where the science base was in decline. The discipline that we called "heritage science"—the rich and diverse scientific research that underpins the conservation of our cultural heritage—originated with the development of science-based conservation in the British Museum and National Gallery in the mid-twentieth century. But this discipline, in which the United Kingdom once excelled, has in recent years been undermined by Government indifference, and by a fragmentation of interests and a prevailing sense that it was neither "science" nor "art". These factors have combined to make research funding difficult.

2.  Our Report, published in November 2006, has had a dramatic effect on this hitherto largely neglected area of science. Indeed, even before this it became clear that that the mere fact that a parliamentary inquiry had been launched to look at the sector had had a galvanising effect.

3.  What our recommendations described, in outline, was an organisational framework whereby the hitherto fragmented heritage sector could come together with university-based scientists and funding bodies to develop strategic priorities for heritage science and collaborative projects and research proposals. We argued that it was essential that this strategy should be developed by the sector as a whole—not just by those who did research, but also by those who cared for our cultural heritage, and who had first-hand knowledge of the needs of the conservation community.

4.  A week after publication, on 23 November, we held a post-publication seminar, at which representatives from the heritage and science communities, many of whom had given evidence in the course of our inquiry, were given the opportunity to tell us what they thought of our recommendations[1]. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Particularly encouraging was the welcome offered by Edward Impey of English Heritage (EH) and Tony McEnery of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Both organisations, within the framework set out in our Report, will have key roles in developing and implementing a strategy for heritage science.

5.  The formal Government response to our Report appeared in January 2007[2]. It was divided into two sections: the larger part was prepared by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), after consultation with its Non Departmental Public Bodies. We comment on the position of DCMS in more detail below.

6.  In addition, an appendix contained a self-contained response from the Research Councils to those recommendations of direct concern to them. This fully bore out the positive comments made at our seminar by Professor McEnery. In summary, the AHRC "welcome[d] the opportunity to champion heritage science", and made a series of commitments to practical actions in fulfilment of this pledge.

7.  Finally, the Report and response were debated in Grand Committee on 12 June 2007[3].


8.  Following publication of the Government response, we offered our witnesses an opportunity to submit written comments. Those that we received, which are printed as evidence with this Report, fully bore out the comments made at our seminar. The Institute of Conservation (Icon) both hailed the Report and warned of the consequences should our recommendations not be implemented:

"It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Science and Technology Committee's report … No opportunity equal to this will exist for heritage science for another generation. If we do not take the appropriate steps promptly, this could be the last ever report on heritage science in the UK. By the time the issue attracts high-level political attention again, there could be little left to report on" (p 7).

9.  Mr John Fidler, formerly Conservation Director at EH, but now a Guest Scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute in California, took an even broader view:

"The Select Committee's interest in science and heritage has impressed all those concerned with the conservation of cultural heritage—far beyond Westminster and the shores of the United Kingdom. There has been particular interest in the United States, for example, where the Committee's findings resonate well with conservation scientists who find themselves operating in a similar research policy vacuum to that revealed in England" (p 6).

10.  Perhaps equally significant were the comments of Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of English Heritage. He noted that EH had been consulted by DCMS in the preparation of the Government response, but pointedly distanced himself from the tone adopted in that response. Commenting on our recommendation that EH take the lead in developing a strategy for heritage science, he wrote: "We disagree with the somewhat negative approach of the Government's response in relation to [EH's] remit". He confirmed EH's view that it was "well-placed to provide the necessary co-ordination and secretariat functions, and its share of intellectual leadership". He also expressed EH's willingness to "contribute funding" to support efforts to bring the sector together in developing a "common approach" (p 5).


11.  The heritage sector has now started to deliver on the undertakings given at our seminar and in evidence. Although Icon, writing in March, expressed disappointment that EH had "yet to make an effective start in offering a clear lead to the sector", since that time EH and Icon have jointly organised the first meeting of the Steering Group that will lead on the development of a national heritage science strategy. This took place on 17 July at the new British Library Conservation Centre, and over 30 representatives of the science and heritage communities attended.

12.  We strongly urge stakeholders within the heritage sector, including the National Museums and Galleries, the National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces, as well as universities, research councils and other funding bodies, to throw their full weight behind this initiative. As we made clear in our Report, the establishment of partnerships and collaboration is crucial to strengthening the heritage science base; continued fragmentation will lead only to lingering decline.

13.  AHRC has also taken steps to fulfil the pledges made in the Appendix to the Government response. It has, for instance, in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, implemented our recommendation that a "champion" for heritage science be appointed at senior level. In May 2007 the appointment was announced of Professor May Cassar, of University College London (and formerly Specialist Adviser to this Committee), as Programme Director for the new Science and Heritage Research Programme[4]. We have confidence that under her direction the Research Councils will begin to give heritage science the priority and the funding that it deserves.


14.  It is with pleasure, therefore, that we can report that considerable work has already been put into implementing our recommendations. It will be clear, however, from the outline above, that this work has been done by the heritage sector and the research community. The Government have been notable chiefly by their absence.

15.  Indeed, the progress that has been made could be said to have happened despite the best efforts of the Government to prevent it. The Government response grudgingly described our recommendation for a strategy for heritage science as "appropriate". However, in practice DCMS appear to have devoted more effort to raising detailed or trivial objections to the development of this strategy than to attempting to support it.

16.  For instance, the response comments on our recommendation that EH provide a secretariat to support the development of the strategy as follows:

"While we note and applaud English Heritage's willingness to provide such a secretariat, we shall consider the proposal further taking into account the resource implications and whether it has the necessary statutory authority to undertake such a role for both moveable and immoveable heritage of all kinds."

This legal argument was described as a "red herring" by John Fidler. Even Sir Neil Cossons expressed disappointment at the "somewhat negative approach of the Government's response in relation to remit", noting that "collaborative partnership and shared ownership" were called for, not the "directive leadership" which the Government's reference to statutory authority appeared to presuppose. In the event, not only has English Heritage found the resources internally to fund a full-time post for 12 months for a secretariat to co-ordinate work on a heritage science strategy, but the legal objection has been withdrawn.

17.  One more general issue raised in the Government response also requires comment. This is the relationship between the DCMS departmental objectives and the Government's broader policy on sustainability. We argued in the Report that "Heritage science is … key to the long-term sustainability of our cultural heritage: it is about managing change and risk and maximising social, cultural and economic benefit not just today, but in such a way that we can pass on to future generations that which we have inherited". In recognition of this, we recommended that DCMS "add to its objectives an explicit reference to the need to conserve our cultural heritage for the benefit of future as well as existing communities" (paragraphs 2.21-2.23).

18.  The response states that "DCMS's existing departmental objectives already reflect the importance of sustainability", and cites, as an example, the objective to "increase and broaden the impact of culture and sport, to enrich individuals' lives, strengthen communities and improve the places where people live, now and for future generations".

19.  This response sidesteps our recommendation. In Mr Fidler's words, "The DCMS response focuses on 'Sustainability' without addressing the specific point of their Lordships' recommendation: the need to incorporate an explicit reference to the need to conserve our Cultural Heritage. This still remains a void in DCMS policy". Icon commented that the reference to sustainability was "an isolated example, and it is unsupported by the PSA targets which are associated with the Department's strategic objectives, since these are all about increasing visitor numbers and wider participation and not about stewardship for the future."

20.  Our recommendation was not that DCMS direct the sector in developing a strategy for heritage science, nor that it invest heavily in sponsoring such science. Rather, we urged the Department to offer moral support to the sector by making explicit in its own departmental objectives the importance of conserving our cultural heritage. Moral support counts—as Icon pointed out, strategic objectives feed into PSA targets, and these in turn shape how Non Departmental Public Bodies spend the resources allocated to them.

21.  Icon also provided a damning but accurate summary of the moral failure at the heart of the Government response: "The single most important response the Government should have given was to endorse the broad conclusion of the report. It has failed to do so in this response. Does the government believe that heritage science is under threat? Or does it not? From its response it is not possible to tell" (p 8).

22.  It is not good enough for DCMS to wash its hands of responsibility by falling back on the obvious fact that "it is not for Government Ministers to determine how the specific funds allocated to their sponsored bodies are to be spent." Ministers do not sign the cheques—but they can, and should, provide moral leadership, and show to those responsible for conserving our cultural heritage that their work is properly valued at the highest level. For this reason alone, DCMS should no longer delay the appointment of a Chief Scientific Adviser with an interest in heritage science.


23.  We warmly applaud the progress that has been made across the heritage and science communities in implementing our recommendations. Our inquiry and Report have clearly made a difference. We shall keep progress in the sector under review, and, in whatever ways possible, we shall continue to offer support and encouragement.

24.  We regret the failure of DCMS to grasp the significance of our recommendations. We urge Ministers now in charge of the Department to look again at our Report, and to offer the sector the moral leadership it deserves.

1   Brief notes of this meeting are given in Appendix 1. Back

2   Government Response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Report on Science and Heritage, January 2007 (Cm 7031). See  Back

3   See HL Deb., 12 June 2007, cols. GC47-80. Back

4   See Back

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