Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council


  1.  The BBSRC welcomes this opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into the impact of the 1993 White Paper, Realising our Potential.In the seven years since the publication of the White Paper, there have been significant changes in the organisation of, delivery mechanisms for and outcomes from publicly funded research in the UK. It is therefore timely to consider the extent to which these changes have met the objectives of the White Paper, and to identify where further changes may be helpful.

  2.  This submission will make general observations on the impact of the White Paper, before addressing each of the issues identified in the letter seeking evidence, focusing in particular on matters of relevance to the BBSRC and its academic and user communities in the biosciences.


  3.  The explicit functions of publicly funded research within the UK have broadened since the publication of Realising our Potential. At the time of publication, it was widely recognised that the UK produced high quality research but lacked the skills and structures necessary to exploit the research to its full potential. The general aims of the Paper were therefore to improve the UK's capability to build on its research excellence to the benefit particularly of the UK economy. It is clear that now in many parts of the science base there is a far greater awareness of the commercial opportunities and other social benefits emerging from research. Significant progress has been made in developing knowledge transfer skills within the UK research community, and in the consequent exchange of relevant information and expertise between the science base, industry and other research users.

  4.  Within the BBSRC structural changes were introduced to pursue the technology/knowledge transfer agenda, and to integrate consideration of the potential for exploitation and public good of the research funded with assessment of its scientific excellence. Some of these are set out in further detail below. Moreover, a new general framework for identifying and pursuing the Council's research priorities was set out in the BBSRC Strategic Plan, 1999-2004 The framework comprises 10 objectives of which six are science based, but refer explicitly to exploitation, innovation, economic sustainability or specific industrial sectors; of the remaining objectives, one focuses in particular on training, one on knowledge transfer, and one on public understanding.

  5.  While the BBSRC and other Research Councils have been at the forefront of activities to implement policies in the White Paper, this has not been so apparent in other sections of government with responsibility for the science base. In particular, the other side of the dual support mechanism, under the direction of the Funding Councils, does not emphasise sufficiently the contributions research should be making to the UK economy and to the quality of life. Most significantly, in its current form, the Research Assessment Exercise does little to encourage universities to be proactive in commercialising their research. Furthermore the funding formula used by the Funding Councils has tended to drive up volume, in particular student numbers, at the expense of adequate provision for research infrastructure.


  6.  Realising our Potential stated that "it is the fundamental theme of this White Paper that a closer partnership and better diffusion of ideas between the science and engineering communities, industry, the financial sector and government are needed as part of the crucial effort to improve our national competitiveness and quality of life." An assessment of the impact of the individual objectives must be made within this context although, in some areas, it is too soon to make a considered judgement.

  7.  At a general level, the BBSRC has worked very effectively to secure the involvement of its research users in the Council's decision-making processes. All its decision-making bodies (Council, Strategy Board, Research Committees and Network Groups) draw at least 40 per cent of their membership from industry and other users (including government departments, consumer groups, farming). The Council has also, with some success, encouraged its scientific community to communicate and, where appropriate, collaborate with users through a number of schemes and incentives. Some of the details of initiatives and their results will be set out below, in discussion of the impact of the specific objectives of the White Paper.

Objective 1: The Forward Look

  8.  The White Paper indicated that the Forward Look would be used to make government efforts on science and technology more explicit and open, and specified a particular audience: industrial and academic research communities. The document provides a clear statement of the Government's commitment to science and technology, and explains the role of the Office of Science and Technology, as encapsulated in its mission statement. It also provides ample information on the flows of funding into institutions and areas of science, and contains a wealth of detail about the scientific priorities of all the Research Councils and relevant government departments. However, the 1999 edition has rather little on how these priorities relate to an overall strategy for science and technology. As this edition was the first to be published for three years, and followed the Comprehensive Spending Review, it was an opportune moment to spell out such a strategy and how the different public funders could contribute to it. Moreover, while the Forward Look explains current research priorities, it is not clear that industrialists and researchers have made use of it. The BBSRC has had very little response to its section.

Objective 2: (Technology) Foresight

  9.  According to the White Paper, expectations from the Foresight exercise were three-fold: to inform government's decisions and communities; to tap into the expertise of people closest to emerging scientific, technological and market developments; and to achieve a cultural change, involving better communication, interaction and mutual understanding between the scientific community, industry and government departments.

  10.  The Foresight process has been valuable in further encouraging networking and discussion between the science base, industry and government. There is also clear evidence of cultural change in some areas of the science base, but the extent to which this was driven explicitly by the Foresight programme is uncertain. Individual Research Councils already had in place—or were developing—mechanisms for identifying emerging priority research areas, which considered the medium to long term. It is reassuring that the outcomes from those activities mapped closely on to the outcomes of the first Technology Foresight exercise.

  11.  A more disappointing aspect of the first exercise was the time horizon on which it focused. One of the main reasons why the results matched those of organisations such as the Research Councils was that it looked to existing horizons rather than beyond them. The BBSRC anticipates that the second exercise will be more successful in identifying and addressing longer-term possibilities.

Objective 3: The Council for Science and Technology

  12.  The BBSRC welcomes the notion of an independent, outside body to advise the Prime Minister and the Government on research spending priorities. However, the specific role of the CST and the impact it has had are not obvious. It should also be noted that the intention was to make the CST's advice readily available. This has not been the case, and the BBSRC would recommend that this aspect of the objective should be fulfilled.

Objective 4: A shifting emphasis for technology transfer schemes

  13.  This was a central element of the 1993 White Paper, and one in which the BBSRC has invested and continues to invest significant effort. The Council's Business and Innovation Unit (BIU) has a remit to encourage and catalyse exploitation activity, monitor and evaluate performance, and introduce specific measures to enhance knowledge transfer and to promote industrially relevant training. Among its key areas of activity are the promotion of the exchange of ideas between the science base and industry, collaboration with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and other government departments on innovation issues, and developing BBSRC policy for schemes intended to promote academic/industrial research collaboration (eg LINK).

  14.  Specific initiatives pursued by the BBSRC in order to encourage knowledge transfer include:

    —  the promotion of knowledge generation in collaboration with industry through, for example, LINK, CASE and Industrial CASE awards;

    —  the encouragement of industrially relevant training through the Integrated Graduate Development Scheme, and support for modular courses;

    —  knowledge transfer through "people transfer" using the Teaching Company Scheme and Industry Fellowships;

    —  improvement in the management and exploitation of IP in the bioscience community through a rolling series of IP workshops and the Biotechnology Exploitation Platform initiative;

    —  the development of entrepreneurial training at the postgraduate and postdoctoral level through the BBSRC Young Entrepreneur Scheme;

    —  encouragement of spinout company formation through the Bioscience Business Plan Competition, and provision of bioincubator facilities at several BBSRC institutes, with access to seedcorn funds. The first of these was particularly successful, with 120 research groups registering an interest; 16 were selected to develop detailed business plans, several of which have since attracted further venture capital and seedcorn funding.

  15.  In addition, the BIU has developed expertise on intellectual property and is able to advise its research community on issues relating to IP in the biosciences. This activity is an essential part of the BBSRC's commitment to optimising the prospects that the research and training it funds are exploited to the economic benefit of the UK.

  16.  These activities have resulted in a growing awareness within the biosciences research community of the needs of industrial users and a measurable increase in the community's commitment to the exploitation of their results. Particularly within the BBSRC-sponsored institutes, whose activities in knowledge transfer are subject to a rigorous assessment, the attached figures show upward trends since 1995 in industrial consultancies, IP held and exploitation income generated. (See attached charts)[12]. The BBSRC is also developing procedures to encourage key bioscience departments in universities, by seeking exploitation data from them on an annual basis.

Objective 5: Access for SMEs

  17.  The BBSRC is conscious of the vital role played by SMEs in developing new technologies, particularly in the biosciences. The Council is equally aware of the specific difficulties faced by SMEs in becoming involved in Research Council schemes. As a result the Council invests resources in identifying appropriate SMEs, and encouraging them to take part in BBSRC's decision making procedures and helping them to take advantage of existing opportunities. Now a significant number of SMEs participate in the LINK and Industrial CASE schemes, and a growing number of representatives sit on BBSRC's Research Committees and Network Groups. The Council also encourages the creation of spinout companies through, for example, its Bioscience Business Plan Competition referred to earlier. In addition, the Council has encouraged its institutes to be proactive in commercialising their research and already has in place many of the measures recommended in the Baker Report. There are already a number of examples of spinout companies and three of the institutes have established bioincubators, with associated seedcorn funds, to nurture start-ups. The Babraham and Roslin Institutes are also establishing bioscience parks for more established bioscience companies.

Objective 6: Reorganisation of the Councils

  18.  The formation of the new Councils with their specific remits to underpin the research needs of their user communities has led to a change in outlook. This is particularly so in the case of the BBSRC, because of the huge growth in the potential to exploit research in the biosciences. The creation of the BBSRC brought together for the first time funding for all UK non-medical life sciences, providing the opportunity to build a national strategy for research underpinning a vitally important and growing industrial sector. The BBSRC has made significant progress in developing this role, as set out in the Strategic Plan.

  19.  Bringing together the previously separate elements of the biosciences from the old AFRC and SERC created new interfaces with the physical, engineering, medical and environmental sciences. The BBSRC has worked consistently to design mechanisms which work effectively at these interfaces. The use of a joint committee (with the EPSRC) for biomolecular sciences has been particularly successful, and recent joint working with the NERC on research into gene flow, and with the MRC on the Tissue Engineering Research Centre are proving effective. There are, however, a number of areas at the interfaces between the BBSRC and the EPSRC where effective co-ordination needs to be further developed.

Objective 7: Roles of the OST and the DGRC

  20.  The initial formation of the OST, with the aim of bringing together cross-departmental responsibilities for science and specific responsibilities for the Research Councils and their part of the science base, was welcome in principle. It should have given a single focus for the consideration of publicly funded research and the development of national science policy. However, in practice the aims have not been achieved: the two main remits of the OST are not well integrated, perhaps because it is not feasible for both functions to be fully integrated. The roles of the Chief Scientific Adviser must be to advise the Prime Minister and government on the big issues in science (for example BSE, genetic modification), and to influence the research agenda across all relevant government departments. It is difficult for these functions to be accomplished from within one of those relevant departments. Ideally, the CSA and the CSA's office should have a central and independent location within Whitehall. Furthermore, given the importance of science to an advanced economy, there are grounds for reconsidering the CSA reporting through a Minister for Science of Cabinet rank.

  21.  The post of Director General the Research Councils (DGRC), with responsibility for the Science Vote and the Research Councils, is not well positioned within the DTI. The continuation of a ring-fenced Science Budget and comparability of influence of all relevant government departments on that Budget, would be more straight forward if the DGRC, and the associated executive, were positioned outwith any of those departments, as was the case when the OST was part of the Office of Public Service and Science. The BBSRC would also take this opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to the Haldane principle of an arm's length relationship between government and the decision-making processes of the Research Councils, whilst acknowledging that some funding needs occasionally to be held centrally at OST to cover major, cross-Council initiatives.

Objective 13: Public understanding of science

  22.  The campaign to improve the public understanding of science launched by the White Paper was timely and had an obvious and welcome impact. The volume of activity in this domain has been enormous, including: the growth of Science Week, the development of the Edinburgh Science Festival, the British Association's annual meeting, and the growth of lottery-funded science-based facilities (eg Techniquest, the Manchester Museum). Following its successful Consensus Conference on plant biotechnology held in 1994, the BBSRC has organised a number of public discussion meetings, and developed interactive displays, seeking feedback on scientific issues directly from the public. Researchers funded by the Council are now required to devote time to issues of public understanding and awareness and the BBSRC provides media training for scientists to support them in this activity. The BBSRC has also appointed an Expert Group to advise Council on identifying and handling bioscience issues which may be of concern to the general public. In common with the other Research Councils, the BBSRC has developed an extensive and very successful schools programme. The Council has also built important links with the Women's Institute, and has a significant presence at the Royal Show and other high-profile public events.

  23.  The rapid development of the World Wide Web is also very significant for increasing public awareness and understanding of science. In view of the potential of the web for providing up-to-date, well-researched information, including learning materials for schools, the BBSRC is currently redeveloping its website. The Council plans to use the website for public consultation including, in due course, using this medium for public discussion of its planned research initiatives. The BBSRC is also contributing to the Funding Council led project HERO, the development of a web portal as a showcase for UK universities and research. This is aimed at a variety of audiences including the general public.

Other objectives

  24.  Although the Committee's call for evidence does not specifically refer to the other principal objectives in Realising our Potential, we would make the following comments on them.

Obective 8: Maintaining the dual support system with clearer mechanisms for co-ordination between OST and DfEE

  25.  The BBSRC strongly endorses the maintenance of the dual support mechanism, but would question the effectiveness of co-ordination between the OST and the DfEE. At the level of the Research Councils and the Funding Councils, while it has been possible for the BBSRC to build effective working relations with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, whereby the BBSRC has been consulted, for example, over the allocation of research infrastructure funds within Wales, relations with the Higher Education Funding Council for England have not been as effective.

Objective 9: Maintaining Rothschild customer-contractor principle and pursuing prior options

  26.  The focus of this objective was on government departments and government research establishments. From the point of view of the BBSRC, the Council would not welcome an extended programme of scrutinies of its sponsored institutes, given the comparatively recent conclusion that there is a clear public need for these institutes. We would also remind the Committee of the difficulties faced by the Research Councils when Government Departments withdraw funding from research institutes at short notice. This was emphasised in the recent Committee report on the Forward Look, which criticised MAFF's use of the Rothschild money.

Objective 10: Drawing together cross-Departmental S & T, ensuring value for money

  27.  Following the White Paper, in common with the other Research Councils, the BBSRC entered into discussions with cognate government departments and agencies about formal liaison arrangements. It currently has Concordats with six (DTI, MAFF, DETR, the Health Departments, SERAD and the Environment Agency), and a Memorandum of Understanding with the Welsh Assembly. In some cases these have led to improved liaison and co-ordination of research programmes, as have some other cross-departmental fora (eg the various research funders' groups). It is always, however, important to guard against these becoming little more than "talking shops".

Objective 11: Improving co-ordination across European and international S & T programmes

  28.  BBSRC has actively sought to build international linkages where these benefit the UK science base, working with OST, the FCO, British Council and other bodies. BBSRC was proactive in contributing to negotiations on the European Union's Framework Programme 5 (FP5) and alerting the community to the funding opportunities, and will play a similar role in input to FP6. BBSRC has actively developed links with its sister organisations in France, Netherlands, Japan, China, Korea, USA, and Canada. Collaboration between scientists worldwide is encouraged where this meshes with BBSRC priorities. It is important that a more co-ordinated approach is developed, by OST and the FCO, taking input from the Research Councils, to address international SET issues, both to add value to the UK science base and to use SET as a vehicle to promote UK interests overseas.

Objective 12: Postgraduate training

  29.  In the light of the White Paper, the BBSRC introduced the Research Masters (MRes) course, which has been broadly successful. The BBSRC has funded courses at nine universities for the last five years. About two-thirds of students go on to pursue PhD courses, and the feedback from students has been positive. It is, however, still too soon to assess the impact of the MRes on the quality of PhD students (eg in terms of readiness for the course and submission rates). In addition, in the spirit specifically of the White Paper, several other initiatives in training have been taken, including those listed in paragraph 14.


  30.  The majority of the objectives and themes of the 1993 White Paper are clearly still appropriate, particularly the major theme of exploiting the science base to the benefit of the UK economy and for the well being of the population. As set out above, a great deal has been achieved in encouraging and improving the dialogue between researchers and research users. Initiatives in this area must be maintained and enhanced if the momentum is not to be lost.

  31.  Bioscience industries continue to demand that the UK maintains a world lead in basic bioscience research. The BBSRC continues to strive towards this goal by encouraging high quality research proposals across its remit, whilst particularly seeking proposals in areas of emerging scientific opportunity and to generate knowledge in collaboration with industry.

  32.  Some of the specific mechanisms suggested in Realising our Potential may not have been as effective as anticipated, for example, the use of the Forward Look to inform academic and industrial researchers, and the structures envisaged for cross-departmental co-ordination. However, the needs for mechanisms to deliver the objectives of communicating national science priorities to specific groups, and of improving cross-departmental co-ordination are still obvious.


  33.  Within the BBSRC's research communities, there have been clear changes. The evidence for these is set out above (see paragraphs 14, 16, 17 and 22). BBSRC has been particularly successful in encouraging its sponsored institutes to engage with the knowledge transfer agenda, and is currently working with its principal university departments (ie those which receive the greatest level of funding) to follow a similar route.


  34.  The BBSRC's views on the plans set out in the Government's recent consultation exercise were provided in the Council's response. While the BBSRC endorses the broad policy thrust of these plans, it is clear that the ability of the UK science base to drive forward the knowledge based economy and society envisaged depends on meeting a number of key needs. These include:

    —  providing resources to ensure the UK remains internationally competitive in scientific research. This may involve funding priority areas underpinning economic development and enhancement of quality of life, whilst recognising that the benefits of research cannot be predicted at the outset, and therefore there is a need to sustain a broad base of fundamental research;

    —  keeping the physical infrastructure for the science base up to the highest international standards in key research centres in universities and research institutes;

    —  ensuring that government-supported knowledge transfer schemes are effective and that resources are available for early stage development of ideas generated from the research base;

    —  ensuring that the teaching of science subjects in schools is not undermined by poor facilities or poor quality teaching. Good salaries for secondary school teachers must be available;

    —  raising PhD stipends to a level that will attract high flyers;

    —  making research careers more attractive by reducing the incidence of short-term contract employment in the early stages of a career, and increasing the level of early career remuneration;

    —  ensuring that public debate about science is well informed, and that increased weight is placed on assessing the views of the public before establishing research priorities.

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