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

Response to Questions from the Committee


Question I: Do you agree with the Government's aim for the strategy?

We agree with the aim, which is all embracing, but suggest that it is expanded to " and technology..".

Question II: Do you agree with the eight proposed areas for action?

  We broadly agree with the proposed action, though some of the points require further clarification. For example, it is clearly desirable to improve the flow of appropriately trained scientists and engineers to industry, but this should not be at the expense of university science. Some university sectors are already experiencing problems in retaining trained individuals because they are unable to offer a competitive salary.

  We have a slight caveat over "streamlining knowledge transfer schemes" where it is important to recognise that different scientific and industrial sectors have different Knowledge Transfer requirements and thus we should not be pursuing rationalisation (or streamlining) for rationalisation's sake.

  Bullet 8 is misleading—it is adequately explained in paragraph 18, but the term "regulation of science" in the bullet does not cover the full aim.


Question III: Do you agree with these priorities?

Put more emphasis on multi-disciplinary research

  "Multidisciplinarity" is not only at the boundaries between Research Councils, but is equally important between different disciplines within a single Council.

  Barriers to multidisciplinary research take a variety of forms, and all need to be addressed if multidisciplinarity is to flourish:

    —  University departmental structure, both physical and administrative. Little incentive for researchers from different disciplines to meet and collaborate;

    —  The RAE, subject-based Panels—with the real, or perceived, problem that they do not favour multidisciplinary work;

    —  Discipline-orientated publications—leads to difficulty in getting multidisciplinary work published;

    —  Scientific societies—also discipline-based and may be reluctant to accredit researchers with training in other disciplines;

    —  Peer review—perceived difficulty of getting multidisciplinary research funded because of "multiple hurdles" or committee/board conservatism;

    —  Language—difficulty in finding common ground because every discipline has its own terminology.

  Whilst the importance of multidisciplinary research is now fully accepted it should also be recognised that it can only be based on world class research in a single discipline. One of the most effective ways to progress multidisciplinary studies is for effective collaborations of scientists in different areas.

Put more emphasis on basic technology, alongside basic science

  There needs to be recognition that basic science and basic technology are co-dependent; advances in one will stimulate advances in the other. Both contribute to UK competitiveness.

  We would express caution of the view that basic technology might have been under-emphasised in the past. It has long been recognised that advances in basic technology are needed to allow advances in basic science and numerous examples are to be found arising from the UK Science Base. It may well be that much of this technology has been developed outside the UK but that gives rise to different issues. Nevertheless an increased emphasis on such technology giving rise to a higher profile is fully justified.

Get the balance right between core funding and grants for research institutes

  The priority given to getting the balance right between core funding and grants in the institutes is very welcome. However, the definition of "core" is important, and in the BBSRC case raises the vital question of the future of the MAFF/FSA research budget. The BBSRC institutes were established on the basis of two sources of "core" funding via the ARC/AFRC and MAFF. MAFF no longer accept any responsibility for "core" funding and have been supported in this stance by Ministers.

  In order to stabilise the science base in key areas such as animal disease research, animal genetics and grassland and environmental research, it should be emphasised that MAFF, for example, should provide support to maintain facilities which are required for their future requirements. It is not appropriate for these facilities to be maintained from Research Council funding alone.

What are the issues?

  Core funding:

    —  Enables provision of long-term research. E.g. many "sustainability" issues require funding over many years. The Rothamsted Broadbalk experiments, which have been in continuous cultivation for over 140 years are an invaluable national resource; it is unlikely that these would have been continuously funded by grants;

    —  Allows provision of infrastructure—cost effective when built around groups of sufficient critical mass to undertake leading edge research. Large scale facilities (eg animal housing) can be planned without requiring individual grant applications;

    —  Encourages multidisciplinarity. Institutes can and do contain the range of disciplines for their mission;

    —  Enables major programmes to be planned in a more coherent way under the co-ordinated direction possible in an institute. Responsive-mode does not readily allow for equivalent planning to ensure complete coverage of a programme or balance within it;

    —  Provides a critical mass of expertise in areas of interest to industry that can lead to long term collaborations.

  Responsive-mode or initiative grants:

    —  Provide additional funding to allow exploration of new avenues (without long-term commitment);

    —  Allow flexibility—allow relatively fast changes of direction into new topics;

    —  Provide competitive edge. The continual necessity to be judged by open peer review imposes a discipline upon researchers, and should ensure that the best science is funded.

  Overall, it is important that core funding is sufficient to provide the critical mass in key areas of an institute's remit, and grants provide the opportunity for flexibility and testing out potential new avenues of research. A rigorous form of assessment of research funded from the core, plus an effective externally-driven mechanism for acting on this assessment, is essential. Finally, it should be stressed that allocation of the core grant of an Institute must be open to rigorous assessments and some element of competition.

Question IV: What changes would you want to see?

  The medium to long-term future of the science base will depend to some degree on a continuing programme for renewing infrastructure in universities and institutes—both teaching and research facilities need to be upgraded regularly and equipment has to be kept up to date. Investment in IT equipment is particularly significant in view of the growing demand for large scale data-handling in the biosciences and elsewhere.

  The strength of the science base depends also on providing the best training and a satisfactory career structure to all those who will remain in science. In particular, this requires finding and keeping the major research leaders of the future. Biological and biotechnological training is normally a three year first degree followed by a three year doctorate. A minority of people will have had an additional year. This contrasts with the physical sciences, where, for the ablest future sciences, a 4+3 form of training is becoming the norm. It is increasingly clear that a doctorate in the Life Sciences would benefit enormously from a fourth year of study. This might take a number of different forms ranging from a year spent obtaining an MSc or MRes degree following which some, but not all, would proceed onwards to a PhD. In other cases, and with great advantage, a four year period for PhD might be followed which would include many aspects of training in professional skills and other areas. This training would be planned alongside the research programme throughout the four years.


  The Government's recent initiatives on tax and expenditure policies to create a climate for innovation are to be greatly welcomed. The BBSRC agrees that ownership of intellectual property rights should be vested in those who carry out the research and this accords with the policy adopted by BBSRC for research pursued in its institutes and in universities.

  It is also prudent to consider in detail the experience of the USA with its SBIR programme. This scheme requires careful analysis however as, whilst there have been many examples of successful and innovative R&D in small firms pursued under this scheme, there have also been instances where money has not been well spent. It may be that the approach could be modified, with benefit, for the UK so that SBIR funds are not seen as "soft money" but rather they are levered with 50 per cent funding from the SME. This may provide a rather harder edge to R&D investment decisions taken. It could be accommodated within the UK system by a significant revamp of the LINK scheme, shifting the focus to start-up companies and eliminating the need for strict financial viability checks (which are a requirement under current LINK procedures and work against support for start-up companies). However it is essential that the Government maintains its investment in the public sector science base and thus if an SBIR-like scheme is to be introduced it should not be funded through a levy on Research Councils.

  The Government's actions in promoting venture capital are to be welcomed, as is the availability of seedcorn funds for start-ups arising from the science base established under the University Challenge initiative. However there remains a gap in funding between the point at which Research Council grant support ends and the stage at which the science has been developed such that its commercial potential is clear. It is only at this stage that a convincing case can be made to launch a start-up company based on seedcorn, venture capital or business angel funding. Often relatively small sums of money are required, £50-100K, to fill this development gap, and so allow reduction to practice. As part of the spending review, the Research Councils have already submitted a bid for resources to provide such development gap funding.


  It is to be welcomed that the document recognises the need for "flexibility to meet the different needs of different kinds of firms and sectors". It needs to be recognised that knowledge transfer covers a broad swathe of activities which may be classified as:

    —  knowledge development in collaboration with industry;

    —  knowledge transfer through people transfer;

    —  development of entrepreneurial skills;

    —  IP management and exploitation;

    —  promotion of start-up companies.

  It is always likely that a range of schemes will be required to ensure effective promotion of these activities appropriate to the particular area of the science base and the characteristics of the industrial sector(s) it serves.

  The BBSRC has had particular success in promoting entrepreneurial skills for postgraduates/postdoctorals through its Young Entrepreneurs Scheme, and the development of well thought through business plans from its bioscience base through its Bioscience Business Plan Competition. The Research Councils, through their intimate knowledge of their science base and user communities, are frequently best placed to deliver knowledge transfer schemes. The BBSRC has made particular efforts over recent years to cultivate networks with the wider bioscience knowledge transfer community in venture capital firms, finance houses, accountancy and law firms etc. We therefore feel well placed to encourage the networking necessary to move ideas from the laboratory to the market place.


  BBSRC acknowledges that the promotion of RDAs as strategic integrators would have undoubted benefits in having available regional innovation funds aimed at capturing the benefits of the science base for business needs at the local and regional level. However there is a danger that if too much authority, and funding, are made available at a regional level it could work against national need with individual regions competing rather than developing complementary niches. For example would all regions seek to develop their own biotechnology clusters and, if so, is this the best way for the UK to develop an industrial strategy. There could be merit in following the German example whereby regions have a certain amount of autonomy but there is also direction applied from the centre. In biotechnology, the German BioRegio Competition provides a good example of catalysing, in a co-ordinated way, activity at the regional level. Thus the centre (in this case BMBF) announced that federal funds would be available to support biotechnology clusters in no more than three regions where the criteria for bidding included evidence of regional scientific, industrial and financial/infrastructural strengths as well as consideration of resources which would be put in at the regional level.

  Whilst there is much to commend the establishment of regional innovation funds, there is nevertheless a need to retain oversight, in some form, to ensure best use of resources for the national good.


  The analysis in paragraphs 12 and 13 smacks of complacency. The key issue in PhD training is quality not numbers. In the biosciences, there is plenty of evidence from employers that the quality of the PhD "product" is not what they expect and that this feeds through to the postdoc period too. Tom McKillop, for example, was widely quoted recently, saying that the lead which the UK had previously held over other countries for research activities due to the supply of highly trained scientists had been eroded and, in practical terms, had disappeared. Other senior people in the field have made similar comments.

  To increase the supply of PhD/postdoctoral bioscientists of the right quality would require a solution along the lines of the UKLSC Working Party report; four years of PhD funding for high quality students and an increase in stipend to at least £9K.

  The take-up by SMEs of PhD/postdoctoral scientists would be further stimulated if a Bursary scheme were created to support a year's salary for scientists to join an SME following a PhD or postdoc contract.


Question XII: Do you agree with the Government's view of the diversity of mission of universities?

  It has been recognised by Government and HEFCs that there should be diversity within the University system. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), by providing research funds in a highly skewed manner on the basis of research quality, has caused this to happen.

  Greater diversification is desirable. To enable this to occur a variety of mainline drivers for funding is required. One such idea is described below. To be effective, the nature of funding needs to be driven by performance, and flagged sufficiently in advance that patterns of behaviour can change. Single-call initiatives to promote innovation are less effective.

  Paragraph 15 implies a distinction between universities that are world class centres of research excellence and those that are collaborators with local business and regional actors. The real situation is not as clear-cut as this; the two categories are not mutually exclusive. Many universities deliver on both a local and global level.

Question XIII: Do you consider that government could do more, whether through changes to funding systems, or otherwise, to help universities play a full role as drivers of innovation in the knowledge economy?

  Further incentives need to be built into the funding system to encourage universities to play a fuller role as drivers of innovation. The funding of universities by HEFCs is presently largely driven by the Research Assessment Exercise. There needs to be a counter-weight, such as a Knowledge Transfer Assessment Exercise, to encourage universities to invest in their knowledge transfer infrastructure. It will be difficult, although not impossible, to devise criteria through which universities are judged in context, measuring their performance against their particular research strengths and the needs of the local and national industrial sectors which they underpin.


  It is essential to promote the image of the UK as a modern high-tech economy in order to promote both inward investment and to encourage export trade. The recently introduced International Technology Promoters may have a role here although some priority will need to be established as to the sectors they operate in and their geographical focus. Furthermore there is a perception that Science and Technology departments in embassies abroad have been diminished over recent years, and there could be benefit to the UK in bolstering these groups through deployment of staff with scientific backgrounds adopting a more proactive approach.

  International scientific collaboration is important in terms of both adding value to the science base in the UK and in addressing science policy issues (eg. biosafety) which cross national boundaries.


  The mass media are the principal source of most people's perceptions of how government takes advice on scientific matters and of the scientific basis for policy decisions. Public confidence will primarily be generated by press, radio and TV reporting. Open publication (including on websites) of advice, research results and assumptions will help to increase confidence as will the establishment of high level working groups to take evidence and publish their views on particular topics.

  For the general public, simple and attractive leaflets on eg GM, food safety, made available at supermarkets, banks and post offices would help to disseminate information about government policies on scientific issues.

June 2000

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 3 April 2001