Memorandum submitted by the Save British
Science Society (SBS)
1. SBS is pleased to respond to this consultation
on developments in science policy since the last Science White
Paper in 1993. SBS is a voluntary organisation campaigning for
the health of science and technology throughout UK society, and
is supported by 1,500 individual members, and some 70 institutional
members, including universities, learned societies, venture capitalists,
financiers, industrial companies and publishers.
2. This response follows the format of questions
in the call for evidence. SBS regrets that the unavoidably wide
ranging and general nature of the inquiry mean that our response
cannot be short. Many of the issues have been dealt with in previous
SBS documents, and where this is the case, we have appended the
relevant document rather than reiterate the same information.
Q1. THE EXTENT
1993 WHITE PAPER
3. The 1993 White Paper does not in fact
explicitly set out a list of objectives, although it does set
out 13 "specific policies", each of which is dealt with
in turn below.
4. In general, SBS believes that significant
progress has been made in this area, although the lack of openness
surrounding the siting of the new synchrotron was a retrograde
step. Our views on the Forward Look are set out in our response
to the Committee's previous inquiry into overall levels of government
investment in science. Our views on openness in the use of scientific
advice are set out in our response to the Chief Scientific Adviser's
consultation on the implementation of his Guidelines.
Copies of these responses are appended.
Policy 2Technology Foresight
5. SBS's view on Foresight were summed up
in our response to the consultation on the second round of Foresight,
a copy of which is appended.
Our principal concerns remain (i) that Foresight must not become
too prescriptive in determining which projects should be funded
in the science base, and (ii) that the level of personnel involved
in interactions between different communities remains too highit
is researchers at the laboratory bench, not always their Heads
of Department, who might make valuable suggestions.
Policy 3-The Council for Science & Technology
6. The Council for Science & Technology
has seen interesting developments in the past three years. Its
work programme is realistic and interesting. We note, however,
that apart from a DTI press release, no new press release has
been posted on the CST's website since December 1998, although,
of course, two interesting reports have been posted.
Policy 4-Technology Transfer
7. The process of technology transfer has
changed dramatically in the past seven years. The changes have
come about largely through cultural shifts in universities and
elsewhere, and these changes are discussed in answer to question
Policy 5-Innovation Support
8. It is difficult to see how it can be
true that it is easier for firms to access innovation support
from the DTI and what were until recently the Scottish, Welsh
and Northern Ireland Offices, when the level of relevant investment
9. In the DTI in the current financial year,
annual investment in science, engineering and technology is £168
million lower in real terms than it was when the White Paper was
published in 1993, using published figures excluding launch aid.
Using the figures that include launch aid, the overall level of
annual investment has fallen by £113 million4.
10. The fact that the Government's recent
consultation5 proposes the development of a Small Business Service
suggests that it recognises the failure of this policy since 1993.
SBS has welcomed the new service.
11. It is impossible now to comment on the
Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices, since their functions
in this area have been taken over by new bodies. SBS detects very
positive indications on science and innovation, particularly from
the Welsh Assembly.
Policy 6-The Research Councils
12. The creation of full-time Chief Executives
of the Research Councils has been a positive step, bringing high-quality
scientists into the science policy arena. The distribution of
subjects among Research Councils is effectively a neutral decision,
since interdisciplinary work is increasingly important, as was
evident in the award of new money for research at the interface
of biology and the physical sciences, invested in the Engineering
and Physical Sciences in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review.
13. Focusing Research Council missions on
wealth creation and quality of life has only worked because these
objectives are seen by many on grant committees as secondary considerations
to the quality of the science. In those instances where this is
not the case, such focus is inappropriate for Research Council
funding. Any attempts to increase the degree of focus would be
Policy 7-Director-General of the Research Councils
14. Few people doubt that the post of Director-General
of the Research Councils was an asset in the 1998 Comprehensive
Spending Review, when the then incumbent played a significant
role in making the case for science.
Policy 8-Dual support funding mechanism
15. The dual funding mechanism remains crucial.
It is not true, however, to say that it has been properly "maintained"
as the 1993 White Paper set out. The proportion of funding for
the science base that comes through the Funding Council side of
the mechanism has continued to fall since 1993, following a trend
that has been established since at least 19814.
16. The 1993 White Paper explicitly allowed
that Funding Council money should be available for use "at
the institutions' discretion". Most Vice-Chancellors and
Heads of Department no longer feel that they can exercise this
discretion fully, within current levels of Funding Council investment
in research, and with the blurring of the boundaries between accountability
to Government and control by Government.
17. The erosion of the Funding Council side
of the dual support system is the root of the now well-known problem
of poor salaries and poor career structures for researchers.
Policy 9-The customer-contractor principle
18. Privatisation of the Government laboratories
cannot claim to have been an unqualified success, and, for example,
the Government's current plans for the Defence Evaluation and
Research Agency do no appear to have been formulated in the best
interests of science policy. A briefing paper outlining SBS's
views on this particular privatisation is appended.
19. More generally, the constant series
of reviews, such as "Prior Options", "Efficiency
Scrutiny," "Next Steps Agencies" etc., has made
scientific advice to Government increasingly dependent on non-public,
and hence somewhat partial sources of funding.
20. Good scientific advice to government
must not only be impartial but be seen to be impartial, and SBS
agrees with the Committee's recent report7 that the cuts in research
budgets of civil departments that have happened since 1993 have
Policy 10-Departmental co-ordination
21. Departmental co-ordination of scientific
matters remains unacceptably poor. The Chief Scientific Adviser
told the Committee in a recent evidence session that he has "relatively
little impact" in some departments, and that in any case
he has no "authority," merely an advisory capacity.
At the same evidence session, the Science Minister was unable
to deny the veracity of SBS's belief that "the Office of
Science & Technology is powerless in the face of government
departments that are under pressure" from elsewhere8.
Policy 11-European and international science programmes
22. The fact that many researchers choose
to apply for European funding only if they cannot obtain grants
from other sources suggest that the EU's handling of scientific
matters remains far from perfect.
Policy 12-Postgraduate training
23. Although there have been some welcome
developments in post-graduate training (such as the growth of
the MChem degree), the policy of proper underpinning has not in
general been achieved. In many subjects, it remains the norm for
students are expected to complete both a first degree and a PhD
within a total of six years.
24. The draconian measures taken against
departments whose doctoral students do not complete their PhDs
within a short timescale are forcing universities to adopt practices
that will further devalue the British PhD relative to those of
25. In most cases, it should be normal for
an extra year to be included to bridge the gap between bachelor's
degrees and doctoral degrees. In some cases, this may be best
achieved by having a Master's level undergraduate course, in others
it may be more appropriate to have a longer PhD. Either way, changes
are needed to bring about the "proper underpinning"
of PhD training that the 1993 White Paper expected. The Wellcome
Trust's four year PhD, in which students spend a year working
on small projects in different laboratories before making a final
choice, is a model that is working well and is attracting many
of the best students.
Policy 13-Public Understanding of Science
26. The current OST website says that the
first round of public understanding of science grants is complete,
and a second round will begin in the spring of 2000. This is welcome,
but if the "campaign" alluded to in the 1993 White Paper
had been taken as seriously as it should have, the grants scheme
would not have taken six years to come into effect.
27. The concept of the "public understanding
of science" is becoming outdated, with people beginning to
recognise that "scientists' understanding of the public"
and "public understanding of scientists" are equally
as important. More properly, what is needed is an approach based
on discussion and dialogue between scientists, a wider public,
government and industry etc. The recent House of Lords report
on Science and Society deals with this and many related points,
and we append a copy of our evidence to that inquiry(10).
28. Perhaps the most important issue is
for governments to be more open about admitting scientific uncertainty.
Untrue platitudes about the safety of BSE-infected meat came from
politicians, not from scientists, who warned in 1989 that there
might be a risk to human health.
Q2. WHETHER THE
THE 1993 WHITE
29. The assumption in the 1993 White Paper
was that the UK science base was excellent, and that it would,
almost by default, remain so. Such problems as existed were said
to be concerned with the application of the results generated
within that science base.
30. This assumption is dangerous, because
the quality of the science base is the fundamental policy on which
everything else rests. Without an excellent science base, the
thirteen policies outlined in the 1993 White Paper, and the "key
principles" or "areas for action" in the current
Government's science strategy consultation(5), are pointless.
31. The most appropriate objective for the
White Paper that is currently being prepared is to reinvigorate
the UK science base, with increased investment, better career
structures and more scope for creativity and innovation. This
would be the best way of delivering the fundamental aim of the
1993 White Paperimproved wealth creation and quality of
Q3. WHETHER ATTEMPTS
1993 WHITE PAPER
32. There is no doubt that the cultural
change created by the 1993 reforms has been substantial.
SBS believes that, in current circumstances,
the university sector has made as great a change in its approach
as can be expected. As we set out in our response to the Government's
consultation document on a science and innovation strategy(12),
we believe that encouraging "industry pull" is now equally
as important as "university push" in striving to ensure
the economic benefits of UK science.
3.1 SBS's survey of recent grantholders
33. The fact that universities now focus
on the economic and social benefits of their research are clear
from SBS's survey of researchers who have been awarded grants
under schemes created or developed following the 1998 Comprehensive
34. The survey covered the lead applicants
on successful bids to the Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), as
well as the Vice-Chancellors of all universities awarded grants
by the JIF, University Challenge Fund, Higher Education Reach
Out to Business and the Community Fund, and the Joint Research
35. The 45 per cent of JIF grantees and
22 per cent of Vice-Chancellors who responded were unequivocal
in their emphasis on the wealth creating and quality of life benefits
of the work that is being funded. A substantial majority believed
their projects would create wealth, and slightly more than half
saw improved quality of life as a feature of their work.
3.2 Independent advice
36. Another shift in culture is very unwelcome.
Universities used to be seen as independent, disinterested sources
of advice on scientific issues, but there seems little doubt that
this view is shifting. This might be inferred from the fact that
people trust "Professors" more than they trust "Scientists"(14).
37. Continued pressure for private sources
of funding of research is seriously damaging the perception of
independence in some areas.
Q4. WHETHER THE
38. SBS's views on the Government's consultation
document are more fully set out in our response to the consultation,
Maintaining an excellent science base for the benefit of the
UK's citizens, a copy of which is appended to this response.(12)
Q5. What should be the main features of a
modern strategy for science?
5.1 Human resources
39. The single most important feature of
any science strategy should be to ensure an excellent science
base. Without this, no other policy is worth having.
40. An excellent science base can be created
only with the right people, so the single most important indicator
of the success of any science strategy is the quality of its people.
This applies strongly not just to those currently holding senior
positions, but also at lower levels, from which the future science
base must be regenerated.
41. The evidence for the strength of the
UK's science base is varied, and a great deal of it has been analysed
and presented by the Chief Scientific Adviser15. Parts of the
evidence are somewhat anecdotal, or based on statistics that are
difficult to interpret, taken together, the body of evidence suggests
that the UK remains among the stronger scientific nations for
the time being.
5.1.1 Evidence of a Brain Drain
42. However, the evidence of problems for
the future potential of the science base is also considerable.
The recruitment and retention of high quality students, postgraduates,
postdoctoral researchers and academic staff is proving increasingly
difficult in many universities, with inevitable variation among
43. The simplest demonstration of difficulties
in recruiting and retaining top-quality researchers is the testimony
of the university Vice-Chancellors, Deans, and Head of Department
whose job it is to appoint researchers.
44. The Independent Review of Higher Education
Pay and Conditions16, carried out in 1999, surveyed universities
and found that 98 per cent had experienced difficulties in recruiting
academic staff. Moreover, for more than three quarters of the
institutions surveyed, such difficulties were not rare. Almost
6 per cent experienced difficulties more often than not. The figures
for the retention of staff were no less encouraging. More than
95 per cent of institutions had experienced problems in retaining
staff, and such difficulties were not rare in more than 50 per
cent of institutions. Although these figures apply across all
disciplines, there is no reason to suppose that patterns of recruitment
and retention in the natural and social sciences are atypical.
45. SBS is currently surveying Deans of
Science in UK universities, and the preliminary results demonstrate
that recruiting high-quality postgraduate students, postdoctoral
researchers and academic staff is a significant problem in science
46. Further evidence of a recruiting problem
comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research
Council, which believes that the gap in remuneration between postgraduates
studentships and the salaries the same young people could earn
elsewhere is "making a significant impact"(17).
47. Anecdotal evidence collated for the
Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science demonstrates
that "the lack of an attractive career structure threatens
[the] future [of research]".
48. A report by the Office of Manpower Economics
found that recruitment was "becoming more difficult"
in universities, prompting one newspaper to state that there was
"a crisis over finding the professors of the future"(18).
49. In the industrial sector, the testimony
of senior figures serves to show that difficulties in recruitment
and retention of top-quality researchers are becoming greater.
A single, clear example comes from the pharmaceutical company
Pfizer, which employs 4,500 people in the UK. Its Director of
Science Policy says that to compete in the global marketplace,
"you need the best quality scientists, and we are increasingly
finding that we're recruiting from mainland Europe"(20).
50. It is because the weight of evidence
point unambiguously to a crisis in recruiting and retaining the
best people in British science that SBS believes that the UK is
wasting its potential.
5.1.2 Causes of the brain drain
51. The reasons for a haemorrhaging of the
best brains from UK science are varied, but there can be little
doubt that the salaries of researchers in British universities
are no longer even remotely competitive.
52. Some European scientists say they look
at the salaries offered in academic job advertisements in Britain
"when they want a laugh," and a university in Canada
is deliberately "targeting" UK universities in an effort
to poach high-quality people in the knowledge that UK salaries
are deeply uncompetitive(21).
53. Thus, a modern science strategy should
aim to pay its researchers stipends and salaries that are commensurate
with their abilities, and commensurate with their market value.
In the words of the Chief Scientific Adviser during a radio discussion
with the Director of SBS: "Could I just agree with Peter,
we ought to pay people more"(22).
54. A modern science strategy should understand
the value of investment. As the current Science Minister himself
has said: "The more you put in, as a whole, the better."
He further acknowledged that "Government investment in science
is . . . not brilliant".
5.2.1 Building on past investment
55. A problem with a simple assertion that
the science base is currently excellent is that it fails to acknowledge
that current excellence is largely a measure of past investment.
As the Chief Scientific Adviser has said, his own demonstration
that UK science delivers more outputs per pound sterling investments
than any other country is based on " a lot of building on
5.3 Exploiting knowledge
5.3.1 Economic exploitation
56. A modern science strategy should aim to exploit
knowledge for the economic benefit of the UK's population. Many
of SBS's ideas in this area are set out in our document From
the Laboratory Bench to the Boardroom: Creating Wealth from the
Academic Science Base(23), which followed a successful symposium
in the City of London. A copy of that report, based on the views
of academics, industrialists, financiers, government officials,
entrepreneurs and others, is appended.
5.3.2 Better government
57. Better government would come through
a more effective use of impartial scientific advice by Government.
58. Such impartial advice can only come
via proper investment in government science. We do not expand
on this point, because the Committee inquired into this area in
great detail in its recent report on government Expenditure on
Research and Development.
59. This report quite properly stressed
the lunacy of continually cutting departmental research budgets,
as science and technology become increasingly important in policy
making. It also made the eminently sensible recommendation that
the Minister for Science should sit in the Cabinet.
60. In this context, we find it disturbing
that the Science Minister recently used the word "marginal"
to describe the cut of £40million per annum in civil science,
engineering and technology that has occurred since the 1997 General
Election. It is difficult to square the description of this three
per cent cut as "marginal" in the same interview as
an eight per cent increase in another parameter as "very
61. We disagree with one conclusion of the
report. The Committee felt that SBS had not made a persuasive
case for a Ministry of Science, on the grounds that "any
attempt to create a central R&D budget would throw up more
problems than it would solve". But our proposal specifically
ruled out the creation of such a central budget, arguing that
while the proposed Ministry would have "oversight of all
government R&D" to avoid political interference in interpreting
results, the individual ministries would "retain their own
R&D budgets" and the "right to define the scientific
questions that might be asked".
62. SBS persists in its belief that to avoid
the kind of political interference that exacerbated the problems
of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathies (BSE), a central Ministry
of Science is essential.
5.4 Scientific education and appreciation of
5.4.1 Formal Education
63. At an SBS symposium on Holding on to Excellence
in British Science, a report of which will be published shortly,
a varied group of UK scientists identified major changes in the
education system as a crucial part of the changes required to
ensure UK excellence in science during the coming years.
64. For example, schoolteachers would benefit
from the opportunity for sabbaticals, to allow them time and opportunities
to keep up to date with rapidly moving developments.
65. Moreover, university-level teaching
requires the same kind of kudos as attached to research.
66. An outline of SBS's position on changes
required to PhD training is given in paragraphs 23 to 25.
5.4.2 Involving the public
67. The public mood matters. The disposal
of the Brent Spar oil platform was an example of public opinion
triumphing when it disagreed with the best scientific advice.
68. When the press and public appear to
be turning against a new technology, a modern strategy for science
would see the Government facilitating a proper dialogue. In this
regard, for example, it was unhelpful when the Health Minister
Lady Hayman was reported as saying that it was "not a safety
issue" when 20,000 acres of crops with some genetically-modified
content were planted by accident(24). The public remembers only
too clearly being told by politicians that BSE was not a safety
issue, only to find out that this was wrong. Thus, a policy of
openness and honesty is essential, and in this regard SBS welcomes
the Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines on the use of scientific
advice in planning public policy.
69. The Government's role in involving the
public in scientific debate should be considerable, although in
fairness, this area ought also to be the concern of all scientific
1. World class investment in world class
science, SBS, 1999 [SBS 00/23]
2. Better government through the highest
quality scientific advice, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/03]
3. Response to the consultation document
on the next round of Foresight, SBS, 1998.
4. The Forward Look 1999: Government-funded
science, engineering & technology, OST, 1999 [Cm 4363]
5. Science and innovation strategy: consultation
paper, DTI, 2000.
6. The future of the Defence Evaluation
& Research Agency, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/13]
7. Government Expenditure on Research
and Development: The Forward Look, Fifth Report of the House
of Commons Science & Technology Committee, Session 19992000
8. Oral evidence to the House of Commons
Science & Technology Committee, 25 May 2000.
9. Science and Society, Third Report
of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology,
Session 19992000 [HL Paper 38]
10. The isolation of the scientist,
SBS, 1999 [SBS 99/15]
11. see the BSE website www.bse.org.uk
12. Maintaining an excellent scientific
base for the benefit of the UK's citizens, SBS, 2000 [SBS
13. The benefits of recent investment
in scientific research, SBS, 2000 [SBS 00/15]
14. Seeking Consensus on Contentious Issues:
Science and Society, talk by Robert M Worcester, Foundation for
Science & Technology 12 July 1999.
15. The Quality of the UK Science Base,
16. Independent Review of Higher Education
Pay & Conditions, Stationary Office, 1999, appendix E, tables
1 and 2
17. Talk at Heads of Biochemistry Departments
Meeting, 4 May 2000.
18. ARMS Newsletter, January 2000, p.3.
19. The Times, 25 February 2000,
20. The Westminster Hour, BBC Radio 4, 4
21. SBS Newsletter, Number 26, July 2000.
22. The Learning Curve, BBC Radio 4, 21
23. From the Laboratory Bench to the
Board Room: Creating Wealth from the Academic Science Base,
SBS, 1999 [SBS 99/17]
24. Guardian, 18 May 2000.
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