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


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Institute of Biology


  1.  This response's principal contents include:

    (i)  the White Paper is greatly welcomed, and it addresses a number of key concerns

    (ii)  however, the White Paper does not go far enough to resolve a number of problem areas. These include the: pan-Departmental co-ordination and support (especially departmental investment) for UK science; and scientists' career structure (especially with regard to the dominance of short-term contracts)

    (iii)  that the failure to meaningfully address these concerns will result in the continued erosion of UK science and impede the UK from becoming a leading high-tech/high-income nation

    (iv)  this failure will severely hinder (and probably prevent) the UK from becoming more sustainable (both more self-reliant in terms of resource use (both natural and human)) and in terms of environmental quality.


  The Institute welcomes the Science White Paper and looks forward to continued real-term investment in the Science Base, the proposed cross-departmental approach and its biological priorities.

  2.  The Institute welcomes the Excellence and Opportunity Science White Paper (2000) and its proposed initiatives. In particular, the reassurance as to the Government's appreciation of curiosity-driven (blue skies or fundamental) research (White Paper, paragraph 28). As such, we look forward to its continued increased real-term investment in the Science Base as a proportion of UK Gross National Product (GNP).

  The Institute also welcomes the cross-departmental approach that is said to "underpin" the White Paper (White Paper, paragraph 31), the concern for the high proportion of researchers on short-term contracts (White Paper, paragraph 34), and the biological emphasis on funding priorities (White Paper, paragraphs 26 and 27).

Prior to the White Paper the Institute identified several policy concerns for the OST

  3.  Prior to the White Paper the Institute responded to the Office of Science and Technology's (OST) pre-White Paper consultation on Science and Innovation Strategy. In its response the Institute cited the following policy concerns:

    (i)  the need for a co-ordinated strategy across all of government, its departments and agencies;

    (ii)  the need for dedicated and well-trained scientists in providing excellence in science research;

    (iii)  the need to reverse the current discouragement for scientists engaging in scholarship activities;

    (iv)  barriers to inter- and multi-disciplinary research (but not to force partnerships that may be less than useful);

    (v)  the need to provide the tools for, and the reward of, excellence;

    (vi)  to reverse the decline in total governmental investment in science to its real-term mid-1980s level;

    (vii)  to note that some research is not suited to the three-year standard funding model;

    (viii)  free impartial advice and source of initial resources from a single source for start-up and/or spin out companies;

    (ix)  concerns over A-level science uptake;

    (x)  major concerns over the proportion of short-term contracts in research;

    (xi)  concerns over the current research assessments, for example not including industrially commissioned or orientated research and its output;

    (xii)  reforming the scientific advisory system and the need to make it easier for bench scientists to contribute their advice;

    (xiii)  the need to properly value advice from royal chartered bodies.

  NB. The above strategies are in order of the OST's consultation questions and not Institute priority.

That many of the above concerns are shared by the White Paper is welcome, but action beyond the White Paper's proposals is required

  4.  The Excellence and Opportunity White Paper (2000) does address many of the above priorities, and this is greatly welcomed. However, in virtually all areas the White Paper does not go nearly far enough to meaningfully address the issues it raises.

Three fundamental priorities especially need to be addressed with urgency

  5.  Though all of the above concerns need far more attention given them, the following need special mention as requiring substantial attention:

    (i)  the balance of short-term contracts to fixed tenure (which for scientists with several years of proven track record generates an additional administrative burden. Also, in terms of costs to the UK, not inconsiderable personnel overheads associated with generating new contracts, advertising, interviews etc.) We note that this concern remains unresolved despite being highlighted by the previous 1993 White Paper, Realising Our Potential and being mentioned in a number of select committee reports

    (ii)  the need for proper strategic and budget control across departments so as to be able to implement a meaningful UK strategy for science

    (iii)  the need to return to the real-term, mid-1980s level of government investment in science and to maintain this as a proportion of the UK economy. Nowhere has the year-on-year decline in investment been so noticeable as with MAFF. This is all the more surprising given the often-stated political imperative to base policy on sound science. Yet despite issues such as salmonella, bovine TB, BSE, and GM crops/food, MAFF has devoted reduced resources in real-terms to research virtually every year since the mid-1980s.

Several consequences can be expected from failing to address these three priorities

  6.  If the issues in the above paragraph (6) are not fully and adequately faced, then we confidently predict that the UK can expect to see the following:

    (i)  the continuing decline in terms of the proportion of science A-level pupils continuing to study "core" science to BSc level—as science becomes less attractive as a career option. (While biology itself is currently doing well in these terms (compared to physics and chemistry), policy decisions need to be made as to the UK requirements for the balance between science and non-science bachelors' output, irrespective of whether a career in research is then followed);

    (ii)  the continuing decline in the best science graduates embarking on a career in science (for instance as revealed by the Save British Science survey of university departments);

    (iii)  the continuing decline in the proportion of top scientists (for instance as represented by the proportion of Fellows of the Royal Society) working within the UK;

    (iv)  continuing impedance to address policy concerns with a core scientific dimension to them (for instance as revealed by the recent Phillips Report);

    (v)  continuing pressure on the research councils to include policy-driven concerns (such as from Foresight) at the expense of blue skies or fundamental research. (Policy driven research needs to be led by government departments within an agreed strategy);

    (vi)  continued problems in transferring knowledge to the industrial-commercial sectors (as this should be supported largely by appropriate departments and not the Science Base; industry and commerce will only support close-to-market applied research);

    (vii)  the failure for the UK to become a leading high-tech, high-income nation in the 21st century;

    (viii)  the failure for the UK to become more sustainable (both more self-reliant in terms of resource use (both natural and human) and in terms of environmental quality). Indeed without the proper investment in, and strategy for, UK science will continue to become less economically and environmentally sustainable.

The UK bioscience community is actively identifying its priorities for UK science

  7.  Because we believe the concerns of the UK bioscience community must be taken seriously, the Institute of Biology has been surveying the views of its 76 affiliated societies. It has compiled these and, following a feedback ratification period with these societies, will be publishing a bioscience priority list for UK science policy in the Spring of 2001. It will be sharing these conclusions with those with a central role in UK science policy as well as its cousins, royal chartered bodies that relate to physics and chemistry within the Science Council.

12 January 2001

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