Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 39)



Dr Gibson

  20. It was a bit like a hurricane in there this afternoon with billions and billions floating about and we noted intellectual property was mentioned. Would you say why you think that has to be addressed? What do you see is the problem and why in the Budget was that taken up as a fairly major issue this afternoon? What is the role of academia and how do they use intellectual property in the States? What are the lessons that the Government has picked up and addressed this afternoon in terms of intellectual property?  (Mr Byers) This is really at the heart of the knowledge economy; it is one of the building blocks. If we are encouraging people to invest and commit resources, then they have to know that the investment they are making is going to be secure. That means, when we look at intellectual property rights, people need to know that there will be legal protection for the investment they have made in the intellectual property they then have in a product or a mechanism. What we can do, and what we thought we should do, is look at how the tax system could be used to provide further incentives in that particular direction so it very much complements the R&D tax credits that we have just been talking about because it is targeted in a specific way, recognising that knowledge and the application of knowledge and the protection of that is going to be very important. If we can put in place a tax regime which, once again, provides support as far as developing intellectual property is concerned, then that will pay benefits in the medium and long term.

  21. Do you think that academic life views intellectual property as just generating income for the library or sports centre or whatever and not as in America, where it is servicing the public and life outside the university? It tends to see it simply as an income generator?  (Mr Byers) I think you will probably know better than me about the way these things are seen in the academic community but I do think the point is well made that all too often in some of our universities the potential of exploiting ideas beyond the campus is not always identified and that is partly cultural because of the nature of our university sector. I do think it is changing, and has changed, quite dramatically over the last few years but there are still examples of where that is not the case and through the various initiatives we have launched, through the Science Enterprise Challenge, the University Challenge and now the Higher Education Innovation Fund, we are helping to build those bridges. Within that context, however, I think IPR is a very good example of people perhaps just seeing it for funding within the university and not seeing it having wider implications beyond that.

  22. Could I carry on and ask you about careers? It is almost as if there is a general election pending with some of us going around campuses talking about science, and it really is wonderful because it is so positive in terms of what the Government has done, but one issue that keeps coming up time and time again is the career structure. Most of the science is done by young people and they feel they are under-valued. They are not avaricious, millionaire types, but they just feel there is no career structure, only one-year contracts and so on, and a lot of the young people become lawyers because there is more money there; they do not want to but they feel it is not a real career job now, and that is a big issue. Many people have identified this point and certainly I feel very sensitive when questioned about it. We will have to do better, do you not agree, in terms of our young people seeing it as a career and paying them accordingly?  (Mr Byers) I was pleased that we were able to announce in the Science and Innovation White Paper an increase in the PhD stipend going up to £9,000, and that is getting in at the right level. Clearly there is more that we might be able to do. I know David Blunkett, as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, is looking very closely at what he might do within the higher education sector to support research and fund research students. There is also a wider issue about the career structure—this issue about whether we have valued enough scientists and engineers in the UK. I think we all know that in some quarters it is seen as being not the first choice of many parents or, indeed, students and that will take time, but if we are investing, and we are now, if we promote science and take a good deal more pride in science than perhaps we have done and if we can celebrate the success we do have, then all well and good. This is why I think mapping the human genome has huge potential to engage people in what we are doing in the UK. Having talked to young people as well, there is a number of people who got engaged by science and engineering in the late 50s/early 60s because of space exploration—who knows? We discuss science an awful lot. If you look at what is happening, sometimes it is very controversial—whether it is GM, whether it is what is happening now with foot and mouth, BSE or the human genome—these are all areas where scientists are to the fore, and it may well be ironically that we will see a lot more interest from young people in science as a career because it is now commented on on a daily basis.

  23. Are you aware that, within universities, you can have two or three tiers of post-graduate students in that Wellcome will always pay more?  (Mr Byers) I know, and will still pay more than our £9,000 stipend.

  24. Yes, so they are driving it. Do you not think it is time to have discussions with them and get one uniform structure rather than have these charity bodies—Cancer Research Campaign and others—who pay more and give the department £5,000 or £6,000 for consumables. So you have two tiers of students which does lead to a lot of problems within the department.  (Mr Byers) I think we need to get to a situation where we are providing adequate rewards, yes.

  Dr Turner: I do not think we can emphasise enough the importance of not just encouraging PhD students but the really productive period of the years after completing your PhD. Of course, most research fellows do not survive that; they go and do something else—get a teaching job or whatever. They are really the richest seam of talent—

Dr Gibson

  25. They become MPs!  (Mr Byers) I was going to say, looking at the number of PhDs around this table—

Dr Turner

  26. It used to be quite absurd; when I was in that position people used to say, "Well, when are you going to get a proper job?"  (Mr Byers) They say the same to me now!

  27. I think it could be suggested that what would make a great contribution towards the quality and productivity of British science would be the establishment of career research posts in universities which are like lectureships but predominantly research-based, and this could be a joint enterprise between DfEE and DTI. I think it would go a long way towards raising the name of British science.  (Mr Byers) I think that is an interesting concept and we will have a good look at it.

Dr Kumar

  28. Like Dr Turner, I was a research fellow for three years and another two years, which created a whole lot of uncertainty in trying to map out my life and career and caused a great deal of concern, because you want support to buy a house and so forth and, because you do not have a career structure, you will not get the support. Perhaps we could look at a big leap in this direction for post-graduate, post-doctorate fellows. Just as it has been demonstrated by a government that science is very important, those people who are going to make a future contribution to science, the small changes, though they are helpful, need a big shake-up, a big increase to demonstrate the Government's commitment, and that will send a very powerful signal to the scientific research community in our universities.  (Mr Byers) But would we do this with the business community as well in a joint way, or would this be solely government-funded?

  Dr Kumar: I certainly think that the Government could play a very powerful role, sending a signal saying its commitment is strong to those fellows saying yes, government does care that they do not abandon their research after a few years and go on to something else. Some people finish up in the city and make lots of money—a wise move.

Dr Iddon

  29. I suppose I had better declare an interest—from a reader in chemistry at university to MP brought an increase in salary of £10,000 in 1997 so that must speak something for the salaries of academics! Secretary of State, we have talked to a number of organisations privately as members of this Committee and recently have been talking to quite a few representatives of industry who have identified a drastic shortage of good quality, and I underline that, science teachers in schools. Recently we talked to the Chemical Industries Association, for example, who felt we ought to try and promote science teaching more in primary schools. Now, there is some very good science teaching going on in primary schools but not across the board unfortunately. Of course, science has moved from the DfEE through the Cabinet Office to your department, so what can the DTI do to promote good teaching? Do you think you can do anything to get industry more involved than they are at the moment—some are very much involved but not all industry is involved—and could you tell us something about your joint strategies with the DfEE.  (Mr Byers) We have been talking to the Department for Education and Employment about how we can raise the profile of science in schools generally. As a result of that there is going to be a Science Year in our schools which we will use as an opportunity to raise the profile of science. You will be aware, I think, that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has put in place now a number of measures to attract scientists into teaching by providing them with a lump sum if they enter the teaching profession by ensuring that, in those shortage areas which very often are the science subjects, additional support is given. That is beginning to have an impact already and I think, if one looks at the applications for teacher-training posts in science subjects, what has been a decline over many years has now seen an upturn which I think is helpful; and if we do get trained scientists who are teaching in our schools, then they will be able to enthuse young people. Part of the difficulty we have at the moment—and these are figures that I have not seen recently but when I was Minister for Schools I saw them—is that we have a very large number of secondary school teachers teaching science who have no qualifications in science and I think those people would be in an almost impossible position to enthuse young people, but with science training they will be in a far stronger position. I think we need to recruit scientists to teach science. Measures are being put in place by David Blunkett to do that and I think that will help in terms of enthusing young people about the importance of science.

  30. Also we have talked to the biotechnology industry which is a sexy area for scientists to work in, so it does not have a problem attracting good quality scientists, but what it does have trouble with is managing the industry. There is a great lack of skilled managerial entrepreneurs in this country to manage the industry—in other words, converting the ideas into products is the problem. I know your department is doing something about encouraging entrepreneurs to come to the United Kingdom or to become existent in the United Kingdom internally or from outside. What do you think we ought to do to overcome this problem that has been identified by the biotechnology industry?  (Mr Byers) In terms of the biotechnology industry there is a number of things we need to do—one is learn from the success of some other countries and if we look at the position in Bavaria in Germany, for example, they have seen a huge growth in the biotech sector because of the infrastructure they have put in place and because of the very beneficial tax regime which they have been able to establish through the Laender, rather than through the Federal Government, and there are lessons we can learn there. Also they have married together people who may not be scientists but who have entrepreneurial skills working alongside the scientists to develop the companies which are developing as far as the biotech sector is concerned. Whether it is the Government almost acting as a marriage broker bringing together people with enterprise skills and entrepreneurial skills with scientists so they can work together in a productive way, we have certainly been looking very closely at that. We have also been looking, as you mentioned, at the idea of encouraging people who could be elsewhere in the world but who have these skills to come to the United Kingdom and set up businesses here and looking at ways in which we can support a lot of financial incentives for that to happen. So there is a package we can pull together. It is not reinventing the wheel but there are good examples of what does work well elsewhere in the world, and we can develop a lot of that here in the United Kingdom.

Mr Taylor

  31. I think you and I ought to be quite careful about saying that non scientists cannot enthuse people about science because you and I have both been trying to do that and we are not scientists, but you made a very important point about schools. Are you keeping a watch on the curriculum because there could be thought to be a tendency to go for the softer side of the science curriculum which is not what we want to see when making sure our best people get the right training and then go on. I remember talking to Lord Oxburgh at Imperial who has to spend virtually months now taking even double A maths `A' level students and putting them through a learning course which used to be done in schools as part of the `A' level. In a sense, therefore, our best universities are having to train `A' level students even if they are, by the category of marks they get, the best students of all. I am worried about whether the curriculum is demanding and stretching enough.  (Mr Byers) Also I think the issue is the quality of `A' levels as well. I know there is a lot of work that is going on to make sure they are not being devalued in terms of the expertise that a young person sitting those exams needs to achieve if they are going to be successful. It is true to say that, for understandable reasons, there has been a broadening of the curriculum and that may well lead to some of the problems you have identified but I am aware that David Blunkett certainly, as Secretary of State, who obviously has responsibility here, keeps the curriculum under review and would be the first person to take action if he felt in any way that it was getting softer or the curriculum was not being useful.

  32. The point of my question is that I also think it is your interest—ie, that when we look for the top academic results in university and then on to research we obviously want to bring in people from schools. So it is on the one hand enthusing people about science who may not then become scientists, but at the same time making sure that those who are going to become scientists are stretched in schools and are prepared to go on to university and meet international standards.  (Mr Byers) I will certainly discuss that with David Blunkett. Having worked under David when I was Minister for Schools, we still talk about these issues as it happens so I will take it up with him.

Dr Gibson

  33. The Council for Science and Technology is probably the top level advisory body in this country but it does have a very low profile. Could you tell the Committee if there is anything it has really contributed to the big scientific debates that you illustrated earlier—stem cells, GMOs and so on. Do they report to the Cabinet? Does the Prime Minister say: "What is the position of this Committee on this issue, or that?", or does it come from other angles?  (Mr Byers) No, it does not. I occasionally will go along and sit in on their deliberations and they have done some very excellent work and they do report directly to the Prime Minister. They are appointed by the Prime Minister and it is a classic dilemma really but I think they find they could get lots of easy publicity but not have much impact on government policy. I think the view they take is that they are more effective if their reports are going directly to the Prime Minister and myself without a great fanfare, allowing us then to consider the issues they have raised, which then informs the development of government policy. Looking here at the reports they have done recently, they have reported on science teachers developing the profession of science teaching in primary and secondary schools; the whole question of the exploitation of science and technology by United Kingdom business; and a review of the whole of science and technology activity across government departments—so they have been looking at those sorts of issues, and there are a number of other areas which they are looking at in some detail.

  34. But as a political animal, do you think they do a good service by behaving in this subterranean way? They may do good reports but nobody sees them other than the Prime Minister. Would it be better if they had a bit of a wider presence in the scientific community? They are very eminent people.  (Mr Byers) I see the reports as well and I find them very helpful, and they do inform in the way in which they develop policy, and they do operate almost as a sounding board for the science community. Of course, there is the Chief Scientific Adviser who probably advises on the more contentious issues—whether it be BSE or GM—and, of course, the Chief Scientific Adviser is there on a daily basis and can give immediate advice.

  35. He once told us he only reported to Peter Mandelson and not to the Prime Minister directly. Is there a direct link to the Prime Minister now on scientific matters as in the States where the adviser speaks directly to the President?  (Mr Byers) Yes.


  36. I think it might be best if we understood that as he said he only reported to the Secretary of State, just in case there is any misunderstanding on that particular point!  (Mr Byers) Yes. The Prime Minister has a great personal interest in science as well and enjoys the conversation and the discussions on science matters that he has with the Chief Scientific Adviser.

Dr Turner

  37. What is your view of the impact of the Foresight programme?  (Mr Byers) I think it has huge potential, and I have tried to raise its profile slightly. We had a Foresight festival in December where we tried to get all the Foresight panel reports coming out at round about the same time in a ten-day period. The Foresight panels involve people who are very enthusiastic and some leading thinkers in their own areas. I have to say, we have given Foresight a lot more freedom in terms of the areas they can look at and I felt, looking at the reports in December, that they were rather variable in their quality. Some were quite good; others I did not rate very highly at all. That is why I have asked Lord Sainsbury to do a review of Foresight and the Chief Scientific Adviser is carrying that through on a day-to-day basis. Foresight can be a great force for good and we need to make sure we focus it. We are providing extra money now and there is £15 million going to develop some of the ideas coming out Foresight. We have to make sure that is money well spent. I think we can improve Foresight; there have been good initiatives coming out of it, but I think we can do better.

  38. How do you see it in relation to other programmes, like the European Eureka programme and so on?  (Mr Byers) I think it is complementary but the great attraction of Foresight is it has a freedom and we have deliberately given people a freedom to think wild thoughts if that is the direction they want to go in. It is quite difficult because some of the ideas coming out of some of the Foresight panels are potentially quite embarrassing, and I was slightly worried that they seem to be government-approved because some of them I certainly would not want to sign up to on behalf of the Government, but I think they are regarded as independent bodies, which is good.

Dr Gibson

  39. Are you prepared to give any examples?  (Mr Byers) No. We will all have our own, I think! Perhaps after the Committee I might draw your attention to one or two ideas but I think that is one of the great strengths of Foresight—that they have that facility. Some of them have done some very practical, very valuable work. If you look at the manufacturing panel, for example, the 20/20 vision of manufacturing is very significant, and also links in the way in which manufacturing can feed into the Science Base in the United Kingdom, supporting innovation and so on.

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