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


APPENDIX 75

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Select Committee's request for comments on the new Science and Innovation White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity (Cm 4814) and the recently announced Science Budget. The RSE is Scotland's National Academy of Science and Letters, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a wide cross section of Fellows.

SUMMARY

  2.  The RSE welcomes the strategic direction described in the White Paper and its emphasis on scientific excellence, the creation of the right climate for innovation, and the importance of high quality curiosity-driven research. The key points identified by the RSE include:

    —  The emphasis on having to gain public support for science and technology is particularly relevant at the present time with both science and engineering coming under the spotlight. (paragraph 5).

    —  In the key area of science policy, a good and close working relationship between ministers and officials at the UK level and in the devolved administrators is important. (paragraph 7).

    —  The RSE shares the concern about the appeal of science and engineering in schools, raised in the White Paper, and about the pay and conditions of school teachers and school laboratories. A recent review of teacher's conditions of service (the McCrone Report) had lead to major pay proposals, to be funded by the Scottish Executive, and this should help with the recruitment of science teachers in Scotland. (paragraph 9).

    —  The £1 billion programme in partnership with the Wellcome Trust to renew the science infrastructure is of great importance. (paragraph 12).

    —  The RSE believes that the RAE system should be monitored to ensure that proper weight is given to both basic and strategic research, and welcomes the increasing emphasis on cross-research council programmes and the dual support system. (paragraph 16).

    —  While the Society welcomes the £4 million available to assist in recruitment of leading researchers, measures need to be taken to address the crucial issues of academic salaries and retention of the bulk of our talent and particularly how to deal with the problems that arise from the increase in the use of short term contracts. (paragraph 19).

    —  The recognition of the problem of immigration and work permit barriers to the recruitment and retention of overseas research workers and students is to be welcomed and a step towards improving UK competitiveness. (paragraph 21).

    —  Efforts to commercialise the research base need to continue and businesses, particularly the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), should be encouraged to use higher education institutions to greater effect. (paragraph 25).

    —  There is perhaps an insufficient recognition within the White Paper that in some regions the industrial base simply does not exist to exploit the scope for collaboration with academia. This means that benefits flowing to the local area are indirect and therefore limited. There is a need to establish more technical research and development facilities to support SME communities. (paragraph 28).

    —  It would have been helpful to have a wider "Knowledge Transfer" theme within the paper which could have impacted on all government departments, for example into the creative industries, which would be of interest to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. More emphasis could also have been given to the need for government departments to have a responsibility for maintaining a science base appropriate to their particular science advice and policy needs. (paragraph 31).

    —  An educated and informed electorate will respond to science-based policy decisions within the national political arena provided that government and the industry concerned are prepared to adopt an "open information" approach. (paragraph 33).

    —  The receipt by the Medical Research Council (MRC) of £53 million for its role in the cross-council genomics collaboration comes at just the right time to give a significant boost to the large-scale population studies that are investigating the interaction between genetics and environment/lifestyle factors. (paragraph 36).

GENERAL

  3.  The White Paper and the Science Budget are very welcome and will help to strengthen the UK science base. The broad approach embodies a real recognition of the importance of science and technology to the UK in the 21st century and the detailed proposals seem well directed to achieving improvement in key areas such as research infrastructure, support for young researchers, developing the business/academic interface and giving weight in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to business-related research and development.

  4.  The specific details of the Science and Innovation White Paper and the Science Budget are addressed below:

SCIENCE AND INNOVATION WHITE PAPER "EXCELLENCE AND OPPORTUNITY"

  5.  The RSE welcomes the strategic direction described in the White Paper and its emphasis on scientific excellence, the creation of the right climate for innovation and the importance of excellent curiosity-driven research. The Society also supports the emphasis on knowledge transfer, the need to restore public confidence in science and the drive to attracting science students by improving science teaching in schools. In many respects the thrust of the White Paper is fully consonant with the RSE's own mission, goals and objectives as set out in the Society's new corporate plan.

  6.  The emphasis on having to gain public support for science and technology is particularly relevant at the present time with both science and engineering coming under the spotlight, for example, BSE, mobile phones and Railtrack. The public must feel in the long term that they are getting a commensurate return to their quality of life for the tax revenue invested by government.

Chapter 1: A Science Policy for the 21st Century

Devolution

  7.  The drafting of the White Paper highlights the difficulty of taking account adequately in such a document of the post-devolution situation. It is sometimes unclear whether a particular proposal applies UK wide or only to England and, in some cases, Wales. This underlines the importance of the key areas of science policy a good and close working relationship between Ministers and officials at the UK level and in the devolved administration. It is not clear that mechanisms exist to ensure that this essential collaboration is facilitated and more action should be taken by government to allow this to happen, for example in sensitising research council's agendas to national and regional priorities.

  8.  At the UK level, the Scottish science, engineering and technology (SET) base should remain an integral part of the UK system of basic research. Its scale benefits Scotland and the other regions of the UK by stimulating international competitiveness, through the inherent flexibility of a large system to adapt to change whilst focusing major efforts in areas of current need and the capacity to attract and retain scientists of international calibre. It must also not be disadvantaged when it comes to competing for UK funds such as those identified in this White Paper.

Excellence in science

Better science in schools

  9.  The RSE shares the concern about the need for greater appeal of science and engineering in schools, raised in the White Paper, and about the pay and conditions of school teachers and school laboratories. This responsibility is devolved to the Scottish Executive in Scotland, and a recent review of teacher's conditions of service (the McCrone Report) has lead to major pay proposals, to be funded by the Scottish Executive, and this should help with the recruitment of science teachers in Scotland.

  10.  Scientists and engineers involved in areas such as biotechnology and IT are becoming the bed-rock of a growing Scottish and UK economy. There is, however, a fall-off in interest and attainment at upper primary and lower secondary school levels but the underlying reasons are open to debate. The remedy certainly depends on good and enthusiastic teaching of science in primary and secondary schools. Part of the problem arises from the need to improve science teaching in secondary schools (although there are some notable exceptions). This in turn is a situation which has arisen through science teaching in schools having, over a good many years, appeared as an unattractive job option compared with other openings for newly qualified graduates in science.

  11.  To address these concerns the RSE will be seeking, as an expansion of its well-established and popular Young People's Programme, to foster a Teaching Fellowship Scheme for mid-career school teachers to enhance their professional and personal development. The RSE will also be seeking to introduce prizes and competitions that will extend participation of schools, teachers and pupils.

World-class infrastructure

  12.  The £1 billion programme in partnership with the Wellcome Trust to renew the science infrastructure is of great importance. Researchers in Scotland will be waiting eagerly to see how the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) will translate the Science Research Investment Fund into action in Scotland as a result of its review of research funding and policy.

  13.  The Society also welcomes the £150 million being made available by the Wellcome Trust for top-rated, but unfunded, Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF) bids and the £75 million of Wellcome Trust funding for equipment and refurbishment for biomedical science, together with the £100 million being provided by the OST for modernisation of research council institutes and development of large national science facilities.

  14.  With regard to the review of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC), the Society believes that there should be a national strategy for the development of national and international facilities to be hosted in the UK (and also, some strategic objectives for the hosting of international facilities elsewhere) and that the CCLRC could perform such a strategic role, provided that it was given proper authority and funding to do so, and provided that it was properly advised and informed about the national strategy.

Funding excellent research

  15.  The SET base must aspire to excellence by international standards. Liberalisation of global markets requires that successful business should internationally competitive. It is increasingly free to locate itself where circumstances are favourable. For knowledge-based industries, this means in locations where there is an excellent SET base and a technically highly skilled population, which itself is part of the output of the SET base. Excellence, recognised by peer review judged against international standards, is therefore a prerequisite of an effective SET base. While the White Paper notes that the UK is second to none when spending on public science is viewed in terms of value for money, there are certainly no grounds for complacency given the concerns about the falling numbers of physics, chemistry, engineering and technology graduates.

  16.  The RSE believes that the RAE system should be monitored to ensure that proper weight is given to both basic and strategic research, and welcomes the increasing emphasis on cross-(research) council programmes and the dual support system.

Funding priorities

  17.  The Society welcomes the specific initiatives in nanotechnology, e-science and genomics.

Academic rewards

  18.  The RSE supports the additional monies being made available as basic support for post-graduate research students and the comments about young researchers and the need to improve opportunities for women.

  19.  The Society welcomes the fact that £4 million will be available on a UK-wide basis to a Government/Wolfson Foundation/Royal Society partnership to assist in retaining leading researchers within the UK and attracting outstanding world class researchers here. However, there is nothing within the White Paper to address the crucial issues of academic salaries and retention of the bulk of our talent and particularly how to deal with the problems that arise from the increase in the use of short term contracts. In addition, the need to consider how the UK will generate the sort of people who will play key roles in the future to exploit the knowledge-based economy has not been addressed. The universities and other providers of higher education have a crucial role to play in producing the graduates with the skills and entrepreneurial flair essential to the creation of wealth in the 21st century. In addition, the provision of incentives for people to take risks, (including direct grants, low interest loans, well-serviced locations for growing companies in attractive surroundings with strong supporting infrastructure), are also important.

  20.  For its part the RSE intends to expand its support of advanced research and postgraduate studies, especially to promote technology transfer leading the wealth creation, improvements in the quality of life, and other Foresight priorities.

Attracting scientists and engineering to the UK

  21.  The recognition of immigration and work permit barriers to the recruitment and retention of overseas research workers and students and the proposals to remove them, are to be welcomed as a step towards improving UK competitiveness. There is, however, much to be done on the ground by the Home Officer before the ambitions of the White Paper are realised.

  22.  To assist this process, the RSE is also seeking to enhance schemes for shorter or longer-term overseas exchanges of researchers between Scotland and selected overseas countries.

Opportunities for innovation

Foresight

  23.  The £15 million fund for ideas from Foresight 2000 is welcome, While Foresight is given prominence within the White Paper, it remains to be established how Foresight research priorities will be interpreted by government departments and research funders such as the research councils and higher education funding councils.

  24.  The RSE will continue to organise its series of Foresight seminars, bringing together key people from Scotland's business, public and academic sectors, as part of the Society's Foresight contribution. The Society will also seek to organise workshops to identify and support selective research areas of high potential in which it is important that Scotland has a strategic presence.

Universities in the knowledge-driven economy

  25.  The White Paper correctly notes that our scientists and technologists are of a high global standard. For industry to benefit however, their outputs must be both relevant and timely. Effective knowledge transfer is heavily dependent on both mechanisms and culture and, as has been stated many times, there is a significant challenge in commercialising the output of our universities. Efforts to commercialise the research base need to continue and businesses, particularly the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), should be encouraged to use the institutions to greater effect.

  26.  It should be recognised, however, that this will not always involve exploitation of the results of research within the UK, though clearly that is to be preferred. The reality is, however, that industry within Scotland, or the UK, is not always in a position to pick up a piece of research and run with it. Spin-outs may not be practical in all cases, though again the spin-out route has many attractions. In some cases the international quality and complexity of the research in our institutions means that it can only be exploited by international companies. Collaborative research with such companies can bring real benefits to the institutions, and to Scotland and the UK, and improve our standing as a centre of excellence at an international level.

  27.  The RSE awards Enterprise Fellowships that equip post-doctoral researchers, or younger lecturers, with the hands-on business knowledge to enhance the commercialisation potential of their own research and to encourage the establishment of new start up companies based on Scottish and UK research achievements. In the past four years the 13 Fellows who have completed their Fellowships have formed, or been part of, eight successful spin-out companies. Because of this success, the Society will be seeking to increase the number and subject coverage of the Enterprise Fellowships in partnership with other bodies. The Society will also be running a series of Science Base Research and Commercialisation (SBRC) workshops, focusing on best-practice within the Scottish Science Base, with an emphasis on spin-outs, licensing, IPR processes, job creation, challenges in engaging the Scottish industrial base, incubators, the impact of the RAE, and the relevance of Foresight.

Stimulating demand from business

  28.  Over the last few years, considerable emphasis has been placed on encouraging commercialisation of research-generated ideas. However, one of the major weaknesses of the Scottish economy in this respect is the absence of locally-based businesses capable of developing such ideas. The model currently is very much one of higher education institutions (HEIs) "pushing" research findings out into the community rather than industry "pulling" such ideas and actively developing them. Scotland does not lack "institutional push"; it does, however, lack "industry pull". Of the top 10 publicly-quoted companies in Scotland, five are either banks or utilities and as a country, we have too few major directly research-dependent industries. There is, therefore, perhaps an insufficient recognition within the White Paper that in some regions the industrial base simply does not exist to exploit the scope for collaboration with academia. In some cases world class researchers cannot find any local businesses to work with and need to collaborate with industry outside their region or indeed outside the UK. This means that benefits flowing to the local area are indirect and therefore limited.

  29.  It is not easy to see how this can be addressed beyond encouraging such local collaboration as can take place, promoting academic spin-outs and attracting appropriate inward investment. A key objective must be to increase the number of companies performing effective R&D in these regions. This will be a long-term goal and, therefore, while efforts to attract inward investment should continue, these should be matched with a comparable development of Scotland's indigenous industry. It has to be recognised that building an R&D culture and capability is both risky and expensive for smaller companies and is, therefore, unlikely to happen without significant public investment.

  30.  There is a need to establish more technical research and development facilities to support SME communities and, in terms of vocational skill development, the strong interfaces being developed between HE and FE and articulation with HND qualifications is an excellent model in Scotland. The RSE will also be seeking to create an Industry Fellowships Scheme to bolster the links between industry and the science base in Scotland. These Fellowships will be awarded to industrial applicants to carry out relevant research programmes in partnership with a Scottish university or research institution.

Strategies for government departments

  31.  Innovation is about more than science of technology transfer. It would have been helpful to have a wider "Knowledge Transfer" theme within the paper which could have impacted on all government departments, for example into the creative industries, which would be of interest to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. More emphasise could also have been given to the need for government departments to have a responsibility for maintaining a science base appropriate to their particular science advice and policy needs, and in providing proper overheads in research grants and contracts.

Intellectual property: changing the rules

  32.  The interest by government in the issues of intellectual property (IP) management is welcome, as is the £10 million gap-bridging fund for commercialisation of IP in public sector research establishments (PSREs). The issue is already on the agenda of Universities UK and the Association for University Research and Industry Links (AURIL) where tensions are recognised between disclosure, publication and protection as well as issues of employment conditions, rights of individuals, and the expectation that institutions will exploit their assets.

Confident consumers

  33.  There is a risk that anti-science attitudes will limit the range of options available for the commercial exploitation of opportunities in some science-based areas. An educated and informed electorate will respond to science-based policy decisions within the national political arena provide that the Government and the industry concerned are prepared to adopt an "open information" approach. In Britain the Freedom of Information Bill should address this issue in part. Public caution is understandable and desirable but present attitudes to scientific advances and their commercial exploitation are rarely based on rational appraisal and often exhibit a failure in popular understanding of risk.

  34.  There are various techniques for engaging the informed general public in debates about the future of science and technology, and in Scotland the Consultative Steering Group for the Scottish Parliament has recommended that such techniques should be pursued in order to widen the base of participation in political decisions. This degree of openness to more imaginative approaches should be welcomed and encouraged. Events involving senior school pupils building on the concept of consensus conferencing, by organisations such as the British Association and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, represent useful initiatives at developing public awareness of science issues. The RSE is also seeking to engage the interest of the public and the media in news-driven public debates, in a range of piloted formats, exploring multifaceted arguments from experts (Fellows and non-Fellows) on matters of topical interests and current affairs.

SCIENCE BUDGET 2001-02 TO 2003-04

Main Changes for the years 2001-02 to 2003-04

  35.  Although the funding might appear generous, the multiple funding streams now accessed by universities risk making this system less effective than it could, and should, be. In addition, the scale of funding of the "Cambridge MIT Institute" of £65 million is larger than the total public funding into either university or science enterprise challenges. The objective "to collate and disseminate information on best practice and emerging knowledge from CMI to all universities and the business world" is also very hierarchical and unidirectional. It would have been useful if some funds could go to helping recipients absorb and implement this best practice.

Allocations to funded bodies

  36.  The receipt by the Medical Research Council (MRC) of £53 million for its role in the cross-council genomics collaboration is very encouraging. The funding comes at just the right time to give a significant boost to the large-scale population studies that are investigating the interaction between genetics and environment/lifestyle factors. This will be of particular significance in Scotland where we have considerable existing strength (MRC Human Genetics Unit, Edinburgh; strong human genetics departments in universities, Scottish Cancer Genetics Consortium, and excellent linked data registries). The RSE also supports the identification of mental health alongside cancer and heart disease as an area to be boosted by the MRC. These three areas remain the stated priorities of the Scottish Executive Department of Health and the NHS in Scotland.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

  37.  Within the White Paper, the term "science" appears to be used as an umbrella term for science, engineering and technology (SET). The Society believes that this is unhelpful. The three are inextricably linked, and not using the term SET frequently leads to the exclusion of the necessarily broader thinking which encompasses all three from the discussion. Science, engineering and technology are all important within the educational context and support for the engineering disciplines, in particular, is important if knowledge transfer into technology is to remain healthy.

  38.  In responding to this inquiry the RSE would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: The Scientific Advisory System (June 1998); Devolution and Science (April 1999); Science and Society (June 1999); Government's Expenditure on Research and Development: Forward Look 1999 (December 1999); Are We Realising Our Potential (June 2000); Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000) and the Royal Society of Edinburgh Corporate Plan 2001-06. Copies of the above publications are available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands (email: [email protected]).

29 January 2001


 
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