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


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Biology

  1.  The Institute of Biology is the independent professional body charged by Royal Charter to represent UK biology. With over 16,000 members and some 76 specialist learned biological societies affiliated to it, the Institute is well placed to respond to the above consultation on the impact of the 1993 White Paper for science. In particular, this response is jointly submitted with the following 13 Affiliated Societies: the Association of Applied Biologists, the Association of Clinical Microbiologists, the British Association for Cancer Research, the British Association for Psychopharmacology, the British Ecological Society, the British Electrophoresis Society, the British Grassland Society, British Society for Plant Pathology, the British Toxicology Society, the Freshwater Biological Association, the Institute of Trichologists, the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the Society for the Study of Fertility. One of the co-authoring Affiliated Societies, the British Association for Psychopharmacology, has also submitted comments via the UK Life Science Committee (UKLSC) which has a more molecular focus within the broad biological spectrum represented by the 76 learned biological societies affiliated to the Institute of Biology. The UKLSC has separately submitted its own response to this consultation.


  2.  The principal points of this response are:

    (i)  After the first round, there was little of particular benefit to the life science community in Technology Foresight. However, it may still be of benefit to policy-makers.

    (ii)  The Council for Science and Technology (within the Office of Science & Technology) has not been as visibly active as its precursor, the Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACOST). The role, though remains useful.

    (iii)  The decline in Departmental investment in science has impeded technology transfer.

    (iv)  The new Research Council mission statements with their explicit commitment to wealth creation and the quality of life may be threatening blue skies (fundamental and basic) research.

    (v)  Despite the White Paper identifying the problem of short-term contracts, this issue remains one of very great concern to the biological community.

    (vi)  While it is important that the UK visibly obtains value for its investment in science, there are some difficulties with the Research Assessment Exercises.

    (vii)  The reorganization of the Research Councils was largely successful, but now the balance between whole-organism, molecular and systems research needs to be re-assessed so that the UK can begin to apply the new molecular sciences to whole-organisms, populations and systems.

    (viii)  The creation of the Director General (DG) of the Research Councils has been largely beneficial.

    (ix)  The lack of public understanding of science is in some instances impeding progress. Despite societal traits that counter science, scientists are frequently not given the time to adequately network, publish books, or engage in public understanding exercises.

    (x)  A subsequent White Paper might address the following issues:

      (a)  the level of long-term Government investment in science;

      (b)  the proportion of short-term contracts within academia;

      (c)  positioning the UK to reap the benefits of the various genome projects;

      (d)  the placement of science within Government for maximum benefit;

      (e)  ensuring that scientists can engage in scholarship and public understanding activities;

      (f)  devolution.


  The headings in non-serif bold refer to the topics raised by the Select Committee on the original 1993 White Paper.


Forward Look is welcome

3.  The annual report, Forward Look, from the Office of Science and Technology is particularly useful and is most welcome.

The 12 year retrospective, and three year forward look, is particularly useful

  4.  It is important that the data throughout represent a meaningful time frame. The 12 year retrospective, and three year forward look, in historical trends continues to be particularly useful in placing policy in a historical context covering a number of Parliaments. Less useful, and potentially misleading, is the two-year retrospective used in the main body of the report (the first two chapters of the 1999 edition).


Subsequent to the first round, Foresight has generated little interest

5.  Technology Foresight (now Foresight) does not appear to have been of particular benefit to the life science community. Apart from the initial Foresight round, the Institute and many of its Affiliated Societies have found that the life science community has had little or no interest in Foresight. On a number of occasions when attempting to compile responses for the various Foresight initiatives, contacting over 30 of its most active Affiliated Societies in addition to over 25 members of its science policy committees, yielded a minimal response (typically three or less). In addition, when jointly organising a Foresight workshop over 100 industries—belonging to an associate body—were contacted offering them a chance to explore Foresight concerns, not one replied.

Foresight may benefit Parliamentarians

  6.  However, the enthusiasm with which Foresight appears to be received from both sides of the House suggests that there is still merit in the programme. Continuing Foresight may well be of significant benefit to Parliamentarians (in summarising senior scientists' perceptions as to how science and technology will probably develop). This benefit should not be discounted, but equally not confused with enhancing a UK strategy for science.

Foresight may be unduly affecting the Science Base

  7.  Of some concern is that Foresight goals have become a part of applying for some research grants from the Research Councils (whose principal thrust should be in supporting more basic research2 (both fundamental and blue skies research)). If the function of the Foresight reports is to illuminate policy (including that of technical innovation) then the principal (though not sole) brunt of Foresight-driven research should be through Government Departments and their Agencies, Regrettably, this source of funding has seen real-term cuts over the past one and a half decades3: cuts which themselves have been of Select Committee concern on more than one occasion.4 This is not to say that the Research Councils should be completely independent of Foresight, but that the balance has shifted and that current circumstances are not ideal.


The CST has been less visible than ACOST. The role remains important

8.  The Council for Science and Technology (within the Office of Science and Technology) has not been as visibly active as its precursor, the Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACOST). However, the role remains an important one and is deserving of greater attention.


Despite the success of some schemes, technology transfer is comparatively weak

9.  Schemes such as the Teaching Company Directorate, and LINK, have been successful. However, give the excellence of the Science Base, on the whole, technology transfer remains comparatively weak.

Departmental support for Technology Transfer has waned

  10.  In sub-sections on "access to science" (paragraphs 2.10-2.13) and "technology transfer" (paragraphs 2.14-2.19) of the 1993 White Paper, several references are made to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) as well as to other Departments (paragraph 2.19) as the bodies to facilitate technology transfer. Yet real-term investment in DTI R&D funding has declined markedly since 1992-93 despite a major boost to funding that year. Overall, Departmental R&D budgets have seen a real-term decline of some 28 per cent between 1986-87 and 1998-99. DTI R&D investment declined by over 38 per cent in real terms since Realising Our Potential and 1998-99. Notwithstanding the difficulties of technology transfer, against a background of such decline in investment it is not surprising that technology transfer has not flourished as perhaps it might.

There is concern for blue skies research within the Research Councils

  11.  The new Research Council mission statements with their explicit commitment to wealth creation and the quality of life may be threatening blue skies (fundamental and basic) research. The BIG breakthroughs in science do not necessarily have an immediate commercial application.

The 1993 "wealth creation" theme helped applied research

  12.  However, the wealth creation dimension to the 1993 White Paper was welcome in that prior to that there was a philosophy that all applied research would be paid for by industry. In reality, industry is in the main motivated to fund near-market research (if industry funds research with clear potential applications but no product, or tested market, the it may be funding research that its competitors could use). Though it is not clear whether it was this philosophy—that industry should fund all applied research—that continued the trend in decline in Departmental R&D (or whether this decline was due to managing Departmental budgets), the White Paper did help boost funding for applied research, albeit somewhat circuitously. This has undoubtedly helped with technology transfer.

The balance between blue skies and applied research needs addressing

  13.  Looking forward to the forthcoming White Paper, the Institute of Biology has surveyed its Affiliated Societies and is in the process of drafting a priorities document for UK biology. Though currently in its draft form5, it should be noted that one top priority is the question of the balance between blue skies (fundamental and basic) research and applied research. It is felt that the decline of Departmental investment in R&D (and indeed the decline in synergism from the decline in Defence R&D with Civil research) has squeezed the blue skies dimension to Research Council funding. This balance should be reconsidered in conjunction with the restoration of Departmental Funding (for which we gratefully note the Select Committee has already called6). We would suggest that Departmental funding be restored to its real-term mid-1980 level and there be come restoration of Defence R&D. It is worth noting that there is a logical argument for the restoration to be greater if it is based on a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) basis.

The dominance of short-term contracts do not attract those with excellence to science

  14.  The 1993 White paper notes, in the section on the science and engineering base, industry and Government (paragraph 3.13), the importance of excellence to industry. Further, it states that "second-rate research is a poor buy". The question then arises as to whether British science is, as a career choice, attracting those of the best calibre? Of all the concerns raised by the Affiliated Societies in the Institute's survey, that of "short-term contracts and career structure (prospects)" continues to be of major concern since our previous survey in 1997. Indeed, other than the "state and status of UK research", "short-term contracts and career structures" are currently the second most cited of Affiliated Society concerns.

Adequate assessment of industrial research lacking in the RAE

  15.  The 1993 White Paper also notes (again in paragraph 3.13) that it "expect[s] research relevant to industrial and other users to be taken into account by the Higher Education Funding Councils in their Research Assessment Exercises" (RAE). However, the Institute and a number of its Affiliated Societies have previously jointly expressed concerns that the RAE fails to assess properly the industrial research undertaken by universities.7

Scholarship activities are actively being discouraged

  16.  Similarly, with regard to promoting excellent scientists in the long-term, the Institute and some of its Affiliated Societies have expressed concern8 that the drive for university income (again encouraged by the RAE) is positively discouraging scholarship activities. (Such activities include organising and attending symposia, writing text books and work with learned and professional bodies.) Indeed, we note that Cambridge University Press (CUP) in its resent evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee enquiry on "Science and Society" noted that some academics were actively discouraged from writing books. The Institute of Biology, which co-publishes texts with CUP, has also quite independently come across researchers who have been instructed not to write. Communicating, be it by writing, networking etc., is a fundamental part of technology transfer and the curtailment of scholarship activities is to be deplored.


The rationalization of the Research Councils was most welcome

17.  The 1993 White Paper's rationalization of the Research Councils was most welcome. It made sense for engineering to be combined with the physical sciences and for biotechnology to be brought into a biologically focused Research Council.

  Consequently, the creation of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) was most welcome.

Molecular biological understanding now needs to be applied to whole-organisms

  18.  The BBSRC has been most successful in funding work that furthers our understanding of molecular and cell biology together with biotechnology. However, we now need to look forward. There is considerable concern, as revealed through the Institute's survey of Affiliated Societies, that the balance between funding molecular as opposed to whole-organism research, as well as the relevance of molecular biology to whole-organisms, populations and systems, needs to be re-assessed. This concern represents what we have called the post-genome challenge for the UK. Britain now needs to position itself to reap the gains from past and current genomic work in applying this knowledge to whole-organisms, whole-organisms and communities.


The post of DG of the Research Councils is welcome

19.  The creation of DG of the Research Councils has been largely beneficial. It provides the Research Councils with the necessary co-ordination and a champion within the OST as well as frees the Chief Scientific Advisor to focus on cross-Departmental co-ordination and advising the Government of the day.


The Institute of Biology is actively involved with public understanding

20.  Echoing the 1993 White Paper (paragraphs 7.32-7.38) the Institute of Biology has long been aware of the need for public understanding of science and regularly engages in public understanding activities, including:

    (i)  holding public events with non-scientific organisations;

    (ii)  providing advice and contacts to newspapers, TV, and radio;

    (iii)  getting the latest science to teachers through the Journal of Biological Education;

    (iv)  organising biological contributions to cyberspace conferences (for non-scientists);

    (v)  providing careers information for both GCSE and "A" level pupils;

    (vi)  (up to 1993) maintaining a data base of speakers on biological topics which was subsequently subsumed by the DTI & COPUS's "Talking Science Data Base";

    (vii)  making available IoB policy offprints available to appropriate public and political meetings;

    (viii)  providing advice, and explaining science, to policy-makers.

Some frontier science issues do cause public concern

  21.  Yet despite this, together with the public understanding work of many others, since 1993 there have been a number of issues where frontier science, and its inherent uncertainty, has caused considerable public and political concern. Such issues have included: xenotransplantation, cloning, mobile phone safety, genetic modification, and climate change issues.

There are public concerns over some more established areas of science

  22.  There has also been public and political concerns over more established areas of science, including: food poisoning, loss of biodiversity, and antibiotic resistance.

Some non-science concerns adopt the trappings of science

  23.  Finally, there has been the continued promulgation of non-science using the trappings of science. For instance, the use of non-trialed alternative therapies that are referred to as "medicines" and which are available from pharmacists alongside conventional treatments, or "green" concerns couched in terms such as "environmental science" and "ecology".

Enmity, albeit from a vocal minority, is impeding some scientific progress

  24.  Against this background, enmity, as often expressed by a vocal minority, is impeding some scientific progress. For example, with regard to animal experimentation polls indicate that most people want testing if there are risks to human health at stake.11 Also polls show that there are misperceptions of what and how much experimentation goes on, and, indeed, inconsistencies between declared welfare concerns and behaviour.12 Another issue of public concern is that of genetically modified organisms. These have been used for several years for producing medicines for human consumption, but are only now of concern when used to enhance and/or preserve human food supply.

Failure to resolve the above may have considerable economic consequences for the UK

  25.  Such issues need to be resolved if the UK is to reap the benefit of new scientific developments such as the Human Genome Project. The economic consequences of failing to tackle this will be difficult to ignore. As per paragraph 18 above, this concern is one that the Institute's Affiliated Societies have identified as a biological priority for the UK.13

Scientific advice must be completely transparent and time given for proper formulation

  26.  There are a number of reasons causing public mistrust in science. One of these is the way scientific advice is solicited (and we welcome the Select Committee's current run of enquiries on scientific advice). Indeed the 1993 White Paper itself refers to the nation's need for scientific advice (paragraph 2.41). The public rightly expects complete transparency of advice and so all parties contributing to, or endorsing, advice should be clearly and fully cited. Advice affecting civil policy also needs to be publicly available and seen to be publicly available. Finally, scientists understandably require time in which to properly formulate a response. There are indeed, Cabinet Office Guidelines as to the way consultations should be conducted.14 Unfortunately, transparency is not always complete, nor is there always adherence to consultation guidelines.

The RAE does not encourage scientists to engage in public understanding exercises

  27.  Notwithstanding the above, the time scientists can devote to public understanding exercises (or even participating in consultations) is minimal if not, in some circumstance, non-existent. Similar to the concerns raised in paragraph 16 above, the RAE does not encourage scientists to engage in public understanding of science. Indeed, the two—scholarship activities and public understanding activities—are related. Researchers through scholarship activities (through activities within academia and through learned and professional bodies) can see how their research fits into the broader landscape and so are both better placed and equipped to undertake meaningful public understanding of science exercises.

The problem of public understanding is considerable

  28.  Scientists actively need to be empowered to engage in public understanding exercises as the problem is a considerable one. It has been summarised by the Nobel laureate, astrophysicist, science writer and SF author Carl Sagan,15 thus:

    "An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth—scrutinising what we mainly present to our children on television and radio and in movies, newspapers, magazines, comics and many books—might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity and consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition, many of them finally get it. What kind of society would we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?"

  For comparison purposes in 1999 the UK spent over £15.3 billion promoting just one of the above: consumerism.16


A Strategy for Science

29.  Having dwelt on the policies from the 1993 White Paper, it may be useful to look forward to the future and the next White Paper. This might contain a strategy for science which could include:

    i.  The Government's long-term investment in UK science. A return to the mid-1980s level of investment in UK science followed by subsequent growth in investment in line with the economy. In other words, the investment in UK science should be a constant proportion of the Gross Domestic Product.

    ii.  Regard to achieving a more equitable through-put of numbers of researchers, where ultimately recruitment in the public sector is more equal to retirement, so as to enable career structures that will attract quality students to study, hence quality graduates to embark on a scientific career.

    iii.  (With regard to "ii" above) the urgent need to address the question of the dominance of short-term contracts. This question was recognised in the 1993 White Paper (paragraphs 7.26-7.31) but the problem is still with us. This remains a top issue of concern to the Institute and its Affiliated Societies.

    iv.  Positioning the UK so that it can reap the benefits of the various (including human) genome projects. This will include policies that the UK has the right mix of skills as well as policies towards experimentation that do not unduly disadvantage the nation against competitors (see paragraphs 14 and 18). This too Institute Affiliates consider a top priority for UK biology.

    v.  Ensuring that science interests (currently co-ordinated by the OST within the DTI) are properly placed for maximum effect across Government and with adequate political representation at Cabinet level.

    vi.  Ensuring that scientists are genuinely given the opportunity to spend a proportion of their time on scholarship activities and public understanding of science.

    vii.  Ensuring that the UK has the appropriate science to underpin environmental and economic sustainability. Examples of areas requiring attention include: the production of new chemicals and fuels from biological sources; conserving bioresources from fisheries to the conservation of biodiversity; bioremediation; the use of biotechnology to improve productivity both of commercial processes and human beings through improved health and quality of life. "Sustainability" has been flagged as of importance by two Foresight rounds, as well as by the Institute's Affiliated Societies.

    viii  Ensuring that devolution does not undermine a UK strategy, specifically the UK science base. Rather, it should provide an additional dimension through the appropriate regional Departments. There will also need to be guidelines regarding the flow of scientific advice that is not solely of relevance to the devolved States.

  30.  The Institute and the co-authoring Affiliated Societies, in line with policy on openness, have no objection to this evidence being made public. It will shortly be available on


  1 Office of Science and Technology (1999) The Forward Look 1999: Government-funded science, engineering & technology. Stationery Office: London.

  2  Paragraph 3.8 Cabinet Office (1993) Realising Our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology. Cm 2250. HMSO: London.

  3 Institute of Biology, Association of Applied Biologists, Association of Clinical Cytogeneticists; Association of Clinical Microbiologists, British Association for Cancer Research, British Association for Lung Research, British Association for Psychopharmacology, British Association for Tissue Banking, British Ecological Society, British Electrophoresis Society, British Grassland Society, British Phycological Society, British Society for Animal Science, British Society for Immunology, Freshwater Biological Association, Institute of Horticulture, Institute of Trichologists, Marine Biological Association, Nutrition Society, Scottish Association for Marine Science, and the Society for the Study of Fertility (1999) Government Expenditure on Research and Development: A consultation response to the House of Commons Select Committee for Science & Technology. Institute of Biology: London.

  4 House of Commons Science & Technology Committee (2000) Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look (vol I). Stationery Office: London.

  5 Institute of Biology (2000) Biological Affiliated Societies Policy Priorities (Draft). Institute of Biology: London.

  6 Ibid. ref 4.

  7 Institute of Biology, British Electrophoresis Society, Society for Applied Microbiology, Society for the Study of Human Biology, Association for Applied Biologists, British Ecological Society, British Phycological Society, British Society for Animal Science, British Toxicology Society, Freshwater Biology Association, Institute of Horticulture, Linnean Society of London, Marine Biological Association, Society for Experimental Biology, Society for the Study of Fertility, and the Institute of Trichologists (1998) Research Assessment response to the Higher Education Funding Councils. Institute of Biology: London.

  8 Ibid ref. 6.

  9 Cambridge University Press, in House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology (2000) Science and Society Evidence HL Paper 38-I. Stationery Office: London.

  10 Ibid. ref. 5.

  11 Lock, R, (1993) Use of animals in schools: Pupil knowledge, experience and attitudes, in Ethical Issues in Biomedical Sciences: Animals in Research and Education. Institute of Biology: London.

  12 Davies, B, (2000) In-depth survey of public attitudes shows surprising degree of acceptance. RDS News (April) pp 8-9.

  13 Ibid. ref. 5.

  14 Cabinet Office (1998) How to conduct written consultation exercises. EX30 1998-99. Stationery Office: London.

  15 Sagan, C, (1996) The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In the Dark. Headline: London.

  16 Advertising Association (2000)UK ADspend breaks £15 billion barrier. Press Release 22 May 2000.

23 June 2000

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