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


Memorandum submitted by the Economic and Social Research Council


  1.  The ESRC welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of the 1993 White Paper on Science, Engineering and Technology. Given the Government's preparation for the forthcoming White Paper on Science and Innovation, it appears particularly timely to learn lessons from the last major structural change following the 1993 White Paper.

  2.  As the leading public funding agency in the UK for the support of research and postgraduate training in the social sciences, Economic and Social Research Council has a central contribution to the national science base and the wider public good. The reason for this, in part, is attributable to the response that the Council has made to the 1993 White Paper, which includes:

    —  strategic aims and plans to deliver the objectives of the White Paper and ESRC's new mission;

    —  regular national consultation with the public and users on ESRC's "Thematic Priorities"—which have guided ESRC's funding decisions on research and training since 1995;

    —  users involved at all levels of ESRC's decision-making;

    —  communication strategies for all research programmes; the creation of networks of users, and user engagement plans for all research awards;

    —  engagement with White Paper initiatives such as Foresight and ROPA awards;

    —  concordats with major Government Departments and agencies;

    —  collaboration with other Research Councils and private and public sector bodies;

    —  development of major initiatives to increase take-up of ERSC funded research in public and private sectors;

    —  increased administrative efficiency and effectiveness.

  3.  More generally, we believe the changes in culture and focus that were promoted by the White Paper are being addressed and consolidated in publicly funded research. There is increasing openness and transparency in the Research Councils, and more effort and expectation in achieving knowledge exchange and use of research outcomes in policy and commercial settings. Social scientists work closely with users to increase both the quality of the research and its impact in applied settings.

  4.  However, there are a number of issues concerning the White Paper that need further consideration.

    The early focus on economic competitiveness at the expense of quality of life issues has not been entirely resolved; this has implications for the contribution of the arts and humanities to the objectives of the White Paper, as well as for the social sciences generally.

    The increasing involvement of users in the business of the Research Councils has not necessarily led to greater public acceptance or confidence in science; it is possible that it has had the opposite effect.

    The "Haldane Principle" which clearly separates scientific and governmental decision-making processes has become less clearly defined. This may also have contributed to a loss of public confidence, and needs to be restated in the modern context.

    The Funding Councils' allocation for research through the Research Assessment Exercise remains largely incompatible with realising the White Paper objectives for publicly funded research. The RAE's strictly academic incentives for scientific research encourage discipline oriented journal output rather than longer-term contribution crossing discipline and academic/user boundaries.

    Research careers remain insecure and underpaid despite the concordat. This is detrimental to research in the UK and to achieving the aims of the White Paper. We would recommend that this issue is addressed in the Inquiry.

  5.  This memorandum continues in three parts. The first part contains a general overview of the strategic and operational measures that ESRC implemented following the White Paper, and the second part addresses the specific issues raised by the Select Committee's Inquiry. There is a brief concluding section at the end.


Strategic Planning

6.  The White Paper led the ESRC to embrace the three core elements of Quality, Relevance and Independence to characterise its distinctiveness as a research funding agency, and the value it adds to public investment in research. All three are key attributes to fulfilling its purpose, but the most important is quality—ensured through peer review of all ESRC's research, without which the contribution of research to basic or applied areas would not be effective. Relevance is achieved through our Thematic Priorities, and Independence enshrined in ESRC's charter.

  The Council introduced four long-term strategic aims in response to the White Paper:

    (i)  Investing in Themes.The Thematic Priorities enable the ESRC to operate effectively at the intersection of the interests of academia, public policy, business and industry, and to engage with initiatives such as the Foresight Programme. The themes are identified through national consultations undertaken every three years and involving all our constituencies. The themes therefore allow ESRC to address the most pressing scientific and national priorities by providing the framework to guide the decisions of the Council and its Boards on funding research and training. There are currently nine Thematic Priorities (which are available on the ESRC website), with about 65 per cent of ESRC's budget allocated to them, mainly on research programmes and centres. The Council has just completed its Year 2000 Review of the themes. A set of new or modified themes will be published in the autumn and will guide ESRC for the next three years. In the context of the Select Committee's Inquiry, one important finding of the consultation was the extent to which the thematic approach has now become accepted and understood in the academic and user communities.

    (ii)  Developing Social Science.This aim concerns the Council's commitment to develop and promote social science research capacity in the UK to undertake research of the highest quality. Activities in support of this aim include responsive mode research grants, research resource provision and postgraduate training.

    (iii)  Working with Users.The Council, aiming to work with users to increase the relevance and impact of its activities, sought and succeeded in engaging users and stakeholders at all levels of Council business. Council itself consists of 50 per cent academics and 50 per cent drawn from the private, public and voluntary sectors. There is strong user presence on Councils boards and committees, and users and stakeholders are centrally engaged in research programme development, commissioning and evaluation, and in research communication. These activities, which involve users in agenda and priority setting, in selection of research and management of its output, mark a move away from the linear model of research output flowing to users through dissemination of material.

    The full extent of collaboration with external constituencies on specific ESRC programmes and schemes can be seen from the attached Annex 1, which is taken from the 1999-2000 ESRC Operating Plan. In addition, ESRC has eight concordats with central Government Departments and the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. We have recently developed "connect"—a forum for communicating ESRC research to private sector organisations.

    (iv)  Managing our Resources.The Council has continued since the White Paper to address the efficiency and effectiveness of its activities. Staff numbers have been reduced by around 20 per cent, while at the same time workload and the range of activities has significantly increased (both directly and indirectly as a result of the White Paper), and the budget itself has increased by 20 per cent. This has led to considerable pressure on the staff of ESRC.

  7.  These four aims provide the structure for ESRC's strategic and operational plans, and enables the Council to monitor the extent to which the White Paper objectives are being achieved.


Extent to which the objectives set out in the 1993 White Paper, Realising Our Potential, have been delivered.

Objective1: Forward Look

  8.  The Forward Look is useful in outlining and clarifying the priorities for science and technology across Government as a whole. The format and structure of the Forward Look has improved significantly and may well provide a helpful information source.

Objective 2: Technology Foresight/Foresight

  9.  It is now widely acknowledged that the value of the first Technology Foresight exercise was limited by the lack of social and economic perspectives in the work of the sector panels. Consequently the recommendations of this exercise did not accurately reflect important projections in such areas as the changing demographic composition of the UK (and Europe), changing lifestyles and consumer behaviour, or economic trends inherent in globalisation. The ESRC's Thematic Priorities sought to incorporate the findings of the exercise, however, and we also collaborated on specific Foresight related projects through the "Foresight Challenge" programme.

  10.  The current Foresight Programme, reflecting the views of many participants in the first exercise (including ESRC) has incorporated social and economic perspectives both in terms of the panel coverage and methods (eg the knowledge pool). Thus, for instance, there are panels on Ageing, Crime and Education, and social scientists are involved as contributors, participants and advisers to panels. We are more hopeful that the outcome of the current programme will have, in marked contrast to the first, longer-term social horizons, and greater impact as a consequence.

Objective 3: Council for Science and Technology

  11.  The role of the Council for Science and Technology and its relationship to other elements within the Office of Science and Technology are unclear. It may provide the independent advice that was originally intended, but this is not widely apparent. This would suggest the need for a wider communication of the Council's work.

Objective 4: Technology Transfer

  12.  The ESRC has welcomed the shift to place more importance on the interchange of ideas and knowledge between scientists and users, and has itself made significant changes in its decision process to address this policy. The wider interpretation of knowledge transfer is even more important with the rapid expansion of new media and information technologies as tools of the knowledge based society and economy.

  13.  However, one consequence of the technology transfer debate has been an inappropriate emphasis on the division between basic and applied research, and an apparent confusion of the roles of research funders. Public investment through the science vote alone is not sufficient to address the needs of private or public sector users—and nor should it be. The academic community and the funds it receives from the Research Councils are only one part of the equation.

  14.  This suggests that policies and incentive measures for public and private sector R & D need to be considered and applied through other Government policy mechanisms, such as fiscal policy and industrial policy. Thus it would be a mistake in our view, for the Government's Science and Innovation Strategy to place the greater burden for innovation on the Research Councils.

  15.  On a specific level the ESRC collaborates directly through LINK, CASE and TCS (formerly known as the Teaching Company Scheme). The ESRC has funded major research programmes and centres on innovation which have involved building very close links with the private sector. The Council is currently establishing a major new resource in evidence-based policy, which aims to bring the findings of the highest quality social science research in the UK further into the domain of those who need to use it. Many of our leading researchers are engaged in the development of key policies, working closely with policy-makers. The ESRC is also currently implementing a programme to evaluate the impact of our research in the public and private sectors.

Objective 5: Improve SME access to innovation support programmes

  16.  The White Paper has had an impact on improving the partnership between research and SMEs through LINK, CASE and in particular the TCS which has played an important role. In 1999-2000, 87 per cent of new TCS Programmes with ESRC funding involved SMEs.

Objective 6: Re-organisation of the research councils

  17.  Paragraph 6 illustrates the range of approaches and measures introduced by ESRC in response to the 1993 White paper. This was accompanied by measures to manage resources through reduction in staff numbers, re-structuring of divisions, and new and flatter management and grading structures.

  18.  These internal changes were part of a wider structural change of the Research Councils and the creation of the Office of Science and Technology, which itself was eventually re-located into the Department of Trade and Industry. With regard to the current make up and boundaries of the Research Councils, we believe the system has worked well, enabling the development of collaborative ventures between the Councils and the promotion of multidisciplinary research. However, the arts and humanities also have a key role to play in addressing the White Paper objectives but have remained outside the Research Council system. The Inquiry should include the future of the arts and humanities in its considerations.

Objective 7: Creation of DGRC and abolition of ABRC

  19.  The creation of both the post of Director General of the Research Councils and the Office of Science and Technology has had the positive benefit of strengthening and focusing the dialogue between Government and the Research Councils. In general, we believe that the interests of the science communities have been represented well by this arrangement as illustrated in the 1997 Comprehensive Spending Review.

  20.  However, over time we have been concerned that the relationship between the Research Councils and the OST has become less clear in terms of both preserving the Haldane principle and representing the interests of the social and economic sciences specifically.

  21.  It is possible that the location of the OST within the DTI does not ensure its equitable position across Government Departments, and inhibits communication. A closer relationship with the DfEE, for example, might go some way to addressing the disparities in the research funding mechanisms. A more consistent Government approach to research funding would no doubt increase the quality and effectiveness of research in the UK. The approach to science policy and to research funding might also be clarified and strengthened through a clearer delineation of and demarcation between the roles of the DGRC, the Chief Scientific Adviser, OST and departments, with the Science Minister taking a higher profile in Government, perhaps of Cabinet rank.

Objective 8: Public Understanding of Science

  22.  Involving users in Research Council business does not necessarily lead to greater public understanding of or confidence in science. While White Paper objectives of greater interchange between scientists and users (eg government, business, industry) may have been achieved, it by no means follows that scientific applications are acceptable to the public—as recent events have demonstrated. There is a crisis of confidence in science and in scientific advice, and in part this is attributable to the perception that vested, often commercial, interests are defining scientific agendas and applications rather than the public interest. It follows therefore, that the White Paper may unwittingly have contributed to this crisis.

  23.  It is not sufficient to undertake campaigns to increase the public understanding of science as the White Paper advocated. These will be largely ineffective because the problem does not lie with the extent of public understanding, but in the trust and confidence the public has in the process of scientific policy-making and administration. Moreover, research undertaken by social scientists shows that far from impeding the progress of science and its take-up, the active engagement of the public on equal terms in debates and decisions about science, based on open access to scientific information, creates a climate of mutual trust in which science itself can flourish.

  24.  This is clearly an important issue for the Inquiry and has implications for the Government's Science and Innovation Strategy. The key points we would emphasise are:

    —  involvement and participation of the public and their representatives in the decision-making process of science;

    —  access to scientific information and outcomes;

    —  openness, transparency and public accountability ensured through regulation;

    —  the public interest objectives of the White Paper;

    —  independence of the Research Councils from sectional interests.

  25.  The ESRC is currently developing a major new research programme on Science and Society which will be examining the issues discussed in this section.


  26.  The ESRC believes that the objectives of the White Paper have generally been addressed with a distinct cultural change geared to increasing both the involvement of users and the impact of research. It remains a good basis for science policy, but there are a number of important points that we would like the Inquiry to cover:

    (i)  the appropriate representation of public interests and public involvement in science;

    (ii)  the role of the arts and humanities in achieving White Paper objectives;

    (iii)  clarification of the position of OST in relation to other departments, and to the Research Councils;

    (iv)  research careers: the pay and conditions of researchers;

    (v)  the independence of science from sectional interests; restatement of the Haldane principle;

    (vi)  the role of the Funding Councils in meeting White Paper objectives.

June 2000


ActivityCollaboration Contribution to Corporate Objectives Status
Cities, Economic Competitiveness and Social Cohesion Programme DETRTheme 1 (Section 3.8) Operating
Intangible AssetsDTI Theme 1 (Section 3.8)Consideration
Inland Surface Transport LINK Programme EPSRC, DTI, DETRTheme 2 (Section 3.9) Operating
Climate Change CentreNERC, EPSRC Theme 2 (Section 3.9)Under Implementation
Research Studentships in Environmental Themes NERCTheme 2 (Section 3.9) and Postgraduate Training (Section 4.2) Implementation
Sustainable Technologies LINK Programme DTI, EPSRCTheme 2 (Section 3.9) Consideration
People at the Centre of Communication and Information Technologies EPSRCTheme 5 (Section 3.12) Implementation
Innovative Health TechnologiesMRC Theme 5 (Section 3.12)Implementation
Teaching Company SchemeDTI Theme 6 (Section 3.13)Operating
Teaching and Learning Research Programme HEFCE, Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly, DfEE Theme 7 (Section 3.14)Implementation
UK Centre for Longitudinal StudiesONS Theme 8 (Section 3.15) and Research Resources (Section 4.3) Implementation
Growing Older ProgrammeEQUAL Initiative, (OST, MRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, NERC) Theme 8 (Section 3.15)Operating/(Implementation
Age-NetMRCTheme 8 (Section 3.15) Operating
Time Use SurveyONS, DCMS, DETR, DfEE, DoH Theme 8 (Section 3.15) and Research Resources (Section 4.3) Implementation
Eating, Food and Health LINK Programme BBSRC, MAFF, DoHTheme 8 (Section 3.15) Implementation
CENSUS ProgrammeONS Theme 9 (Section 3.16) & Research Resources (Section 4.3) Ongoing/Implementing/Consideration
Collaborative StudentshipsVarious (in-CASE) Postgraduate Training (Section 4.2)Ongoing/Implementation
Centre and Network for Evidence-based Policy Various, especially DfEE, DETR, Home Office at current time Research Resources (Section 4.3)Consideration
CENSUS Data UnitsJoint Information Systems Committee Research Resources (Section 4.3)Operating
European Social SurveyEuropean Commission, European Science Foundation, various European National Funding Agencies Research Resources (Section 4.3)Consideration
Local Government NetworkingLocal Government Association and Local Government Management Board Working with UsersImplementation
ROPAsVariousWorking with Users Operating
Foresight LINK AwardsDTI and Various Working with UsersOperating
ESRC/AIRTO User Fellow SchemeAIRTO Working with UsersImplementation
CONNECT NetworkVarious, Public & Private Sector Working with UsersOperating/Implementation

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