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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council


  1.  Having submitted a memorandum to the Committee's inquiry into the impact of the 1993 White Paper, Realising our Potential, the BBSRC welcomes this opportunity to contribute further evidence related to the publication of the 2000 White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity: a science and innovation policy for the 21 century, and of the Science Budget 2001-02 to 2003-04. Both initiatives have obvious significance for the future of the research base in the UK and, in particular for how research results might best be exploited to the benefit of the UK economy and the well being of the population.

  2.  This submission will comment briefly on each of the two documents, and then consider how the proposals set out might meet the concerns outlined in the final paragraph of the BBSRC's earlier submission.


  3.  The BBSRC welcomed the publication of the White Paper, especially its recognition of the close relationship between research excellence and capacity for effective innovation (chapter 1, paragraphs 7 to 18). The emphasis on the cycle or chain of innovation and the need to maintain all aspects of it, from the excellence of basic research to public confidence in scientific ideas and consumer demand, provides a useful framework for the development of policy at the departmental/research council level. However, it remains to be seen how effectively the proposals set out in chapter 1 may be implemented across government.

  4.  The document as a whole is strong on identifying the UK's need to maintain its international standing by, for example, keeping and attracting the best brains, and improving the quality of school teaching. It also sets out a number of very positive key proposals (paragraphs 32, 35 and 37), several of which commit the Government to significant investment in the research base. These are very welcome developments, as is the White Paper's recognition of the need to continue to address the following:

    —  how best to encourage productive international links (ch 1, para 34);

    —  the need for adequate rewards at all stages of a research career, but particularly for younger scientists (ch 2, paras 31-34). The response of the main employers of scientific staff to the Research Careers Initiative agreed by the CVCP, OST and the research councils in 1996 has been positive, but much more needs to be done to develop systematic career guidance and skills training structures for postdoctoral staff, together with more attractive recognition and reward schemes. The White Paper was disappointingly muted on these very important practical issues.

    —  why so few women are in senior posts (ch 2, paras 35-38);

    —  the need to maintain public confidence in scientific research (ch 4).

  5.  Chapter 3, "Opportunities for innovation", provides a clear analysis of the relationship between the research base and innovative economic activity, and emphasises the need to strengthen what it calls the "links in [the UK's] innovation cycle" (ch 3, para). It also sets out a variety of schemes aimed at meeting that need. The extent to which these schemes will deliver stronger links remains open to question. While broadly welcoming the initiatives, the BBSRC would wish to have some flexibility to adapt the schemes to the particular circumstances of the UK biosciences research base. The Council would also wish the Government to give a clearer indication of an appreciation of the role of the research councils' research institutes in generating knowledge and translating it into biosciences products.

THE SCIENCE BUDGET 2001-02 TO 2003-04

  6.  The BBSRC particularly welcomes the encouraging settlement for research resulting from the Spending Review 2000, which built on the ideas set out in the "Science and Innovation" White Paper, and provided further details of how the Government's investment in science is expected to deliver the required results. The headline commitments, £1 billion for infrastructure, £252 million for key areas, £100 million boost to the science budget over three years, a rise in the postgraduate student stipends to £9K pa, and £10 million to help the commercialisation of public sector research, will all be extremely important in allowing the research councils to maintain the international strength of the UK Science Base.

  7.  Within the BBSRC's areas of the interest, the investment of £110 million in genomics, 30 per cent of which has been allocated to the Council, will enable the BBSRC to make significant investments in leading UK research groups: plans are now underway for a major initiative in "Exploiting the genome". This will build on the Council's previous investments (for example the initiative "Investigating gene function", and its structural biology centres) by analysing and interpreting the vast amount of genome data generated to the benefit of the UK economy.

  8.  The BBSRC also appreciates the commitments to e-science and basic technologies. For the former, the Council is now in a position to continue its commitment to bioinformatics, and to fund other e-science applications in post-genomics. Part of the Council's programme in this area will be jointly with the Medical Research Council, thereby contributing to effective joint working between the research councils as emphasised in the science budget settlement. Effective joint working between the councils will be vital throughout the three key areas of new funding, and strategic vision for the development of the UK Science Base as a whole will be essential in the next period of scientific advance.


  9.  In the BBSRC's first submission to the inquiry we outlined a number of specific concerns about the ability of the UK science base to drive forward the knowledge based economy and society. This section considers the extent to which the proposals in the White Paper and the SR2000 settlement meet those concerns.

Providing resources to ensure the UK remains internationally competitive in scientific research

  10.  While it is always possible to seek additional funds for research, the BBSRC recognises that the settlement from SR2000 goes a long way towards ensuring the continued international success of the UK Science Base. It will be essential for the research councils to allocate the resources effectively, balancing concentration on centres of excellence with the need to maintain and encourage diversity of sound scientific ideas.

Keeping the physical infrastructure for the Science Base up to the highest international standards in key research centres in universities and research institutes

  11.  The Joint Infrastructure Fund announced after the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review started the long-term and much needed process of replacing and updating buildings and facilities at universities and research institutes. It was important that funding be made available to continue this activity. The SR2000 settlement for infrastructure (the Science Research Investment Fund) was therefore vital. In prioritising the ways in which the SRIF is allocated lessons need to be learned from the procedures for awarding funds under JIF, to ensure that funds are distributed equitably and effectively. In particular, future decisions about the allocation of such significant sums of money must be taken in the context of a strategic view of scientific infrastructure needs across the Science Base as a whole. The importance of ensuring an effective national overview of the development of the infrastructure for the Science Base is growing, so that we can be sure that best value is secured, and the unhelpful duplication and sub-critical mass are avoided. In particular, working between institutions should be strongly promoted.

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

  12.  The main thrust of the White Paper is clearly on this aspect of the Government's responsibilities, and the SR2000 settlement provides a number of specific schemes for bridging the gap between research results and commercial/industrial success. While very much welcoming these developments, the BBSRC believes there may still be a gap between obtaining initial results, securing intellectual property, and testing the results sufficiently to interest private sector investors.

Ensuring that the teaching of science subjects in schools is not undermined by poor facilities or poor quality teaching, and the issue of salaries for secondary school teachers

  13.  The White Paper clearly recognises both the growing difficulties faced by schools in recruiting good science teachers and the need to improve further the links between the research base and schools. These matters, particularly the former, are of increasing concern to the BBSRC, as evidence of the absence of adequately qualified science teachers in secondary schools mounts. Relatively few postgraduates are now opting for a career in teaching, and BBSRC would welcome a national debate about how this situation could be tackled. The Council has an excellent record of promoting links between the bioscience research base and schools but is less well placed to address directly the issue of the quality of school science teaching. The Government's plans to offer £10,000 as training and recruitment packages for teachers in shortage areas may help ease the situation, but a longer-term approach addressing the questions of salaries, teacher status and school infrastructure may also be required. Closer interaction between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Employment in developing policy specifically on science in schools might also be helpful.

Raising PhD stipends to a level that will attract high flyers

  14.  The low level of PhD stipends has long been of concern to the BBSRC. The Council was therefore particularly pleased with the commitments in the White Paper and the SR2000 settlement to raise stipends. However, there is still some concern that £9Kpa by 2003-04 may not be sufficient, and the BBSRC is considering moving more quickly to that level and may wish to enhance stipends further. The attractiveness of these increases will be partly influenced by the wider attractiveness and status of research careers beyond the PhD stage, and the role of the Government in that respect must not be overlooked.

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

  15.  The BBSRC recognises that these issues were raised in the White Paper. The initiatives underway will have some impact, bit it seems likely that this area will require further action if scientific research is to compete with the other careers open to PhD graduates.

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

  16.  The Council particularly welcome the initiatives in this area, including the proposed Code of Practice for all scientific advisory committees, the emphasis on improved scientific communication, and the recognition of the role played by consumers in the innovation cycle. The BBSRC has now geared specific website pages to gather views from the wider public on each new research initiative which the Council proposes to launch. It also offers via its website comprehensive information about contemporary bioscience research and the social policy and ethical issues which are implied. It would welcome increased use of these pages by schools as a means of encouraging scientific literacy and informed debate about the issues raised by the modern biosciences.

January 2001

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