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


Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency


  The Environment Agency is responsible for environmental regulation and management in England and Wales. It has a duty to carry out research in support of all of its functions. The effectiveness of that research, and of its scientific activities in environmental management, is dependent in part on the ability of the Agency to work with, and draw upon, the environmental research and scientific knowledge of other research players. These comprise other government departments, academia, the research councils, and industry.

  Overall, the Agency considers that the 1993 White Paper—Realising Our Potential—has had a strong impact on science and technology, and to a lesser degree on engineering policy, in the environmental sector. Our submission highlights the principal impacts from the Agency's viewpoint, and explains how we consider further changes could be achieved which would improve the level of co-operation, and hence promote wealth creation and quality of life.


  1.  We believe there is now a far greater willingness among academia and the Research Councils to co-operate with the Agency in its scientific activities. Looking back at the position prior to the White Paper (with the Agency's predecessor bodies), co-operation was weaker, partly because it lacked the now-accepted common drivers of wealth creation and quality of life. Previously it was more difficult to establish the linkage between work in the science (engineering and technology-SET) base and the more applied scientific and research activities carried out by the Agency.

  2.  We believe this was only the start of a continuous process—the co-operation now is better than it was, but further changes could be made that would secure greater benefit to the UK.


  3.  Possibly the most important measure for us has been the use of concordats. The Agency has established these with the four main Research Councils with which it works (NERC, EPSRC, ESRC and BBSRC). These documents set out procedures for developing common interests, but their main benefit is the signal they send to staff: active co-operation.


  4.  Under these concordats, we have developed a range of mechanisms for co-operation. In particular, with EPSRC, we have co-operated in developing and supporting (with inputs in kind from our staff as well as with funding) its managed programmes; and we have co-operated similarly with NERC on their thematic programmes. It is clear that, as time has progressed, the type of co-operation has matured. The Agency has now supported a number of successful projects in the "SET" base with NERC and EPSRC, where well-defined delivery requirements were agreed, and outputs have been taken up through a further Agency (or user) funded contract. This model for interfacing academic research with delivery of products to the end user is simple in theory, but has been difficult to achieve in practice.

  5.  Two other mechanisms for co-operation are being developed and improved:

    —  Fellowships and studentships—we have run many of these in co-operation with EPSRC, ESRC and NERC and have found the research student to be an effective focus for the joint involvement in exploring a particular scientific area.

    —  Placements and secondments—more recently, as the Agency has developed its national centres as a focus for its scientific expertise in specific areas, we have found these locations to provide an effective focus for placing (not necessarily full-time) research officers and for seconding its own staff into other SET organisations.

  We recognise that these types of co-operation are not groundbreaking—this is why we believe that the principal factor that has changed is the will to see co-operation deliver real benefits.


  6.  We believe that a number of constraints remain to achieving effective team working between organisations in the SET base and public sector organisations like the Agency that use the research. These are:

    —  Criteria for "scientific excellence" Where the strong emphasis on scientific publications in the refereed literature as a criteria for scientific excellence detracts at times from the ability of academic and research organisations to form effective partnerships. In particular, the requirements can make it difficult for new applicants for Research Council funds even though the researchers involved have an excellent understanding of the issues and application;

    —  Difficulties in financing "development" Where there are often difficulties in putting together the finance necessary to fund a significant "development" project. The academic sources of funding (typically a Research Council grant) can stop significantly further away from application than the end-user is prepared to finance. There are also real practical difficulties in bringing together several funding streams, usually on different timescales. The result is that the cleverer academics will often prefer to go for the funding which is more readily available. Nevertheless some areas of SET are now very "mature", in that the principal research issues are focused on the application of the existing knowledge and not the acquisition of new knowledge; and

    —  Disparate nature of the SET base In many sectors of environmental SET there are too many different groups for effective co-operation. Some sectors would be better served if the nation had fewer, larger groups.

  7.  While a range of approaches have been made to improve the mechanisms for development (or exploitation of research) and technology transfer, we believe that bridging this gap is the area in which further effort must be made—possibly by OST and the research councils recognising that in some cases more public money should be directed here, rather than into more basic research. There is a need for a culture change, in that users, researchers, and others involved in the R&D chain need to work together in addressing the weakest links in the chain. All suffer from the poor performance of R&D if it does not contribute effectively to improved business performance or quality of life.


  8.  We believe that the Foresight exercise has been generally effective in establishing a broadly owned vision of future issues and opportunities for the application of SET. It has been particularly effective in establishing the concept of "Futures" or "Scenarios" for helping the players in any sector to consider more clearly the future context of SET.

  9.  We also believe that the "Knowledge Pool" has yet to reach its potential. In general, both practitioners and researchers in the UK spend insufficient time in recording and considering the current application of SET knowledge. More resources could be put into ensuring that the knowledge pool links well into information on "good" or "best" practice in the different sectors that it covers.


  10.  While there is general understanding within the SET base of how the drivers of innovation work, there is insufficiently close adherence to these in practice in setting the research agendas for the managed programmes within the research councils. "Wealth creation" and "Quality of life" have to some extent become institutionalised. Those in the policy lead may therefore need to take a more active role in establishing the issues to be included in research programmes in the SET Base. Similar issues to this have been raised with the future EU R&D programme.


  11.  We believe that the forthcoming White Paper should address the issue of job security and career progression for young scientists in the public sector. The shortage of permanent posts and the need for many young academics to progress through temporary contracts brings far too great a degree of uncertainty into career progression. Not surprisingly, many of the best scientists leave the research arena for other more secure and better-paid jobs.


  12.  We believe that the forthcoming White Paper should draw clear links with the EU SET Base and with the EU Framework Programmes in particular. The latter form a significant impact on environmental R&D, therefore relevant areas of the UK science policy should be integrated with EU policy and mechanisms.


  13.  Because of the many ways in which a large business like the Environment Agency interfaces with the SET base, the Agency aims to draw up a Science Plan to provide a more transparent structure for this interface. This Science Plan will be available for reference by external organisations and should assist in establishing productive, and appropriate, partnerships on specific issues with academia.

12 June 2000

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