Systematics and Taxonomy Follow-up: Government Response - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Recommendation 7.26

The Committee was disappointed by the Government's refusal to accept the recommendation (7.26) that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take responsibility as lead Government department for systematic biology. In para 6.18 of the Committee's report, the Committee gives evidence-based reasons for its recommendation. Although, as you say, it may not be uncommon for different aspects of a scientific field to be spread across departments, the Committee had taken the view that in this particular instance there were reasons why this diffuse approach was not working in the best interests of the health of the discipline. The Committee would welcome a more detailed consideration of its reasoning in para 6.18 and, further, given your reference to "effective coordination among departments" in your answer to recommendation 7.26, an account of the mechanisms by which this coordination is achieved and monitored.

Effective coordination among departments

The Government disagrees that the evidence mentioned in the Committee report makes a sufficient case for changing existing arrangements for taxonomy and systematic biology, and in particular makes a strong case that lead responsibility for these subjects should be transferred to DIUS. It is for interested parties, whether Government Departments, Research Councils or taxonomic institutions, to identify the best mechanism or mechanisms for achieving coordination of their policy interests. A number of such coordinating bodies, such as the Environment Research Funders Forum and UK BRAG, already exist in the field of systematic biology and taxonomy, and have been described by the Committee in its report. These bodies provide ample opportunity for the public bodies with an interest in taxonomy and systematic biology to raise issues of concern for discussion with others. The Government considers that these bodies are the appropriate fora for addressing the issues raised by the Committee, and believes that transfer of lead responsibility to DIUS is therefore unnecessary.


With regard to the paragraph in the introduction to the Government response listing the departments and bodies on behalf of which DIUS was acting, the Committee would welcome an explanation as to why the Scottish Government was not also consulted given the importance of RBG, Edinburgh as one of the leading taxonomic institutions in the United Kingdom.

The Scottish Government has provided the following response:

The Scottish Government welcomes the 2008 House of Lords report on "Systematics & Taxonomy: Follow-up", and recognises that systematics and taxonomy are essential for environmental monitoring and understanding the ecosystem services which our environment provides.

We have good links with a number of UK systematics research funders through membership of the Environment Research Funders Forum, UK Biodiversity Research Advisory Group, the cross-research council Living With Environmental Change programme, Defra, BBSRC and NERC, and through sponsorship of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and will continue to work with them through these routes.

In the development of our next research strategy (2011-2016), we will continue to consider the role and importance of strategic systematic research and facilities as part of Scotland's National Research Capability.

The Committee would welcome information about the governance of science within DIUS more generally.

DIUS provides funding for the research base through the Science and Research Budget, which is currently worth about £3.6 billion per annum, and through QR funding allocated by HEFCE currently worth £1.7 billion per annum. The bulk of the Science and Research Budget funding is allocated to the seven UK Research Councils, which determine their detailed scientific and research priorities in accordance with the Haldane Principle. The Rt Hon John Denham MP, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, restated his support for the Haldane Principle, in his speech at the Royal Academy of Engineering on 29th April 2008:

"For many years, the British Government has been guided by the Haldane Principle—that detailed decisions on how research money is spent are for the science community to make through the Research Councils.

Our basis for funding research is also enshrined in the Science and Technology Act of 1965, which gives the Secretary of State power to direct the Research Councils—and, in practice, respects the spirit of the Haldane Principle.

In practice, of course, Haldane has been interpreted to a greater or lesser extent over the years, not least when Ted Heath transferred a quarter of Research Council funding to Government Departments—a move undone by Margaret Thatcher.

But in the 21st century, I think three fundamental elements remain entirely valid.

That researchers are best placed to determine detailed priorities.

That the Government's role is to set the over-arching strategy; and

That the Research Councils are "guardians of the independence of science".

These should be the basis for Haldane today, and over the decades to come, and I am happy to re-state them.

But recent debates have thrown up questions about each of those principles. How researchers determine priorities? How ministers set strategy, and how Research Councils play their vital role."

Given the strength of our research base, there are always more proposals for top class research than the nation can afford to fund. Decisions on which specific projects to fund are rightly taken by the Research Councils, using peer review, on behalf of the research community.

Ministers have an important role at a strategic level The UK's world class research base requires major strategic and sustained investment to underpin it. For example, without ministers' involvement, research would not have been supported on a sustainable basis through full economic costing.

1. Major facilities

Major commitments like the UK Medical Research and Innovation Centre in Camden cannot get off the ground without active ministerial involvement across many Government Departments. The same is true of the international science and innovation centres being developed at Harwell and at Daresbury. Such commitments could be seen as constraining or pre-empting other parts of the research council programmes. But, in truth, if Britain is to be a big player in big science, major, strategic and sustained investment will always be needed.

2. Cross cutting responsibilities

Whilst the Government's role is to set the overarching science and research strategy, the decisions on how research money is spent are for the research community to make through the Research Councils.

Some have raised questions as to whether the Research Councils are unduly constrained by their commitments to the four cross-council programmes—on lifelong health and wellbeing, energy, living with environmental change, and global threats to security. The country faces serious challenges and it is only right for the nation to look to research to help to solve them. All of these activities are taking place against the backdrop of a growing budget.

A proper focus on these challenges is essential and it must be right that Government is able to harness scientific expertise in dealing with them. That also forms a key part of our public case for research investment.

Hence the thematic programmes give a focus and cross-disciplinary emphasis to part of the Research Councils' budget. But, within these programmes, the majority of the work funded will of course be in response mode and here too, the scope, definition and allocation of funding is determined by the Research Councils.

3. Response to particular issues

Occasionally cases arise where Ministers do rightly provide strategic direction, whilst still not becoming involved in individual decisions. When the Government accepted the scientific advice not to proceed with the fourth generation light sources, it raised questions about the future development of Daresbury—an important science and innovation priority. Therefore Sir Tom McKillop was asked to extend his work with the North West Development Agency, to advise on its future development. DIUS worked with STFC to ensure he has the scope to do so.

Similarly when it became clear how the STFC priorities might affect two areas of physics, the Secretary of State initiated a process that led to Professor Wakeham being asked to review the health of the discipline. The Wakeham review has been published and RCUK are working to implement the recommendations.

The allocation of the Science and Research Budget by DIUS, and the performance management of the Research Councils, is in accordance with this Principle.

The Government Office for Science is led by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington. It exists to ensure that Government policy and decision-making is underpinned by robust scientific evidence and long-term thinking. Professor Beddington reports to the Prime Minister and Cabinet and works with all Government departments.

Recommendation 7.19

The Committee was disappointed that, despite the evidence set out in paras 5.4 and 5.5 of the report, NERC was unwilling to accept the points raised concerning mixed signals and the willingness of NERC to fund classical taxonomy (recommendation 7.19).

NERC accepts that prior to the publication of the House of Lords report, its approach to the funding of taxonomy and systematics may have appeared confused. We would like to thank the Committee for drawing our attention to this and giving us the opportunity to address the problem. We hope the statement NERC made in the Government Response clarifies our approach to funding taxonomy.

11 February 2009

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009