Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Director General of Research Councils, Dr John Taylor, following the evidence session of 19 December



  1.  The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, the Minister for Science & Innovation, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, and the Director General of Research Councils (DGRC), Dr John Taylor gave evidence to the Committee at its session on 19 December 2001. During that session, Dr John Taylor, DGRC, was invited to provide a memorandum on the Government's funding of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The request was set out in more detail in a letter from the clerk to the Committee on 7 January and this memorandum provides a response to the points made in that letter.


  2.  The Office of Science and Technology—and the Department of Trade and Industry more widely—enjoys a strong relationship with the Royal Society (RS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). Both bodies, by virtue of their position as the UK's academies of science and engineering respectively and their international standing, are key contributors to the development—and delivery—of UK public policy across a range of science and engineering issues.

  3.  Underpinning this relationship with Government is the support these bodies receive from Government in the form of Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid from the Science Budget, which is administered by the Office of Science and Technology. In the present financial year, 2001-02, the RS's Grant-in-Aid amounts to £25.9 million and the RAEng's to a little over £4.3 million. Collectively these sums amount to 1.7 per cent of the Science Budget this year.

  4.  Grant-in-aid is paid to support a range of specific programmes carried out by each body. In making Grant-in-Aid payments to these bodies, therefore, Government is procuring specific aspects of its wider programme of support for basic and strategic research and of maintaining and improving the health and vitality of the UK's science and engineering base.

  5.   Central to the activities supported by Grant-in-Aid are the range of programmes run by both bodies to secure that the very best research talent is harnessed and retained for the United Kingdom's Science & Engineering Base. This human capital investment is an essential adjunct to the physical capital investment which Government makes in science research infrastructure. Years of underinvestment in the latter led to the so-called brain drain as the best scientists and engineers were not attracted to research, left it disillusioned, or were enticed by better conditions to carry out their research in other countries. Now that the years of neglect for university science research infrastructure are being addressed with substantial new funding through the Science Budget and the Funding Councils, the task of the RS and the RAEng in playing their part in human capital investment to reverse the brain drain becomes more crucial than ever.

  6.  While this is an area which the Research Councils also address (especially the Medical Research Council), the RS and RAEng are uniquely well placed to make a significant contribution across the whole of science and engineering. The high profile of their fellowships gives them a strong brand in UK science and engineering and a major presence on the world stage.

  7.  In some cases this will involve funding for the brightest young talents and those with the greatest promise to give them a secure career footing and to help ensure that they stay in research in the UK SEB. This is an increasingly important issue as the knowledge economy increases our long-term dependence on research and at the same time creates an increasing pool of highly paid jobs for the best people in business and industry. Other schemes involve identifying the best talent from across the world and bringing it to the UK.

  8.  The main programmes supported by the Government's Grant-in-Aid to the RS and the RAEng respectively are set out in annexes A and B, which include figures summarising for 2001-02 how the Grant-in-Aid is broken down by programme.

  9.  The level of Grant-in-Aid to be made available to the RS and the RAEng is decided following each spending review by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the basis of advice from the DGRC and the Science Minister, as part of the same process as is used for the Research Councils. That advice is informed by submissions commissioned and received by OST at the start of the spending review. These submissions are discussed in some detail with the body concerned as part of the process of determining DTI's overall input to the spending review.

  10.  Following the spending review, once the Science Budget global totals are known, the DGRC and the Minister for Science advise the Secretary of State on how the Science Budget should be allocated. As part of the allocations process, the RS and RAEng Grants-in-Aid are tensioned against other Science Budget activities, principally the Research Councils' Grant-in-Aid. Thus the level of support given to the RS and the RAEng is set in the context of the funding of the Science & Engineering Base more generally.

  11.  Once the allocations process is complete, the Director General of Research Councils writes to the Presidents of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to inform them of their bodies' Grant-in-Aid for the following three years. The letter specifies the main purposes to which the funding—including any increase in funding—is to be put, but is not absolutely prescriptive as to how the Grant-in-Aid should be divided up among the various schemes we wish to support. We believe that it is right and proper for matters of detail to be decided by the bodies themselves.

  12.  Our funding relationship with the bodies is governed in each case by a Financial Memorandum which sets out the basis of the financial and administrative relationship which exists between us. The Executive Secretary of each body is appointed as an Accounting Officer by the DTI Accounting Officer and is personally accountable to the DTI Accounting Officer and to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee for issues of regularity, propriety and value for money in respect of the Grant-in-Aid. The uses to which the Grant-in-Aid are put are open to investigation in the normal way by the National Audit Office, who have a right of access to each of the two bodies. The accounts of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are subject to external audit by registered auditors. The Royal Society accounts are prepared under the provisions of the requirements for charities and include a report by the auditors to the DTI regarding the use of the Grant-in-Aid. A similar framework applies to the Royal Academy of Engineering.

  13.  OST officials meet the Executive Secretaries and other members of staff of each body approximately quarterly to review progress in respect of Grant-in-Aid funded programmes and to discuss other matters of common interest. These discussions enable OST to take a realistic view of the RS and RAEng spending proposals in the spending review process described above.

  14.  Apart from the Grant-in-Aid which is paid directly from the Science Budget, some further small sums of money are paid to the RS and the RAEng by the Research Councils. The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) contributes between £25,000-£40,000 per year to the RAEng towards Fellowships, Conferences, and Research Programmes. EPSRC also pays a further £200,000 per year towards Industrial Fellowships awarded by the Royal Society. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) pays £50,000 per year for the same purpose.

  15.  The Committee asked specifically about Government funding for other learned societies (for example through peppercorn rent of premises). No such funding is made available directly through the Science Budget. EPSRC makes small sums available annually to the Institute of Physics (c£65,000) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (c£10,000) for workshops, summer schools, and conferences. The Department of Trade and Industry gives around £6,000 per year to the Engineering Council as an Industrial Affiliate. It has also funded the start-up costs of the Engineering and Technology Board, which is replacing the Engineering Council, and expects to contribute to appropriate projects. It does not fund any of the engineering institutions.

  16.  We understand that several learned societies operate from Burlington House, which is owned by the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The Royal Academy is also located at Burlington House where it enjoys a peppercorn rent.


  17.  The Committee asked about the funding for one-off inquiries such as the current Royal Society inquiry on Infectious Diseases in Livestock. Such inquiries are not budgeted for in the Grant-in-aid provided by the Government, unless they are known about at the time that the Grant-in-Aid is set. In the present case, the Government has agreed with the Royal Society that the resources required for a thorough inquiry are likely to be significant and has therefore agreed a one-off increase in Grant-in-aid of £125,000 as a contribution to the costs, with a matching contribution from DEFRA. In cases where the work undertaken is not unduly resource intensive, we would normally expect the bodies to fund their inquiries from within their existing resources.


  18.  The Government's response to the Third Report of Session 2000-01 on Scientific Advice on Climate Change was sent to the Committee on 7 January. On the recommendation at paragraph 20, the response indicates that a national committee on the science of climate change would be inappropriate given the scope and authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There is however a role for national bodies to advise national Governments on mitigation and adaptation policies. Such bodies must of course have the necessary scientific expertise. There are however already enough such bodies, and a new one would offer little value.

  19.  As to whether jointly established Government-Royal Society advisory bodies would in general be a good idea, we do not consider that there is much potential to add value to the synergies which can already be exploited under existing arrangements. It is, of course, good practice to consult widely with bodies such as the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering on matters which are of concern to their membership. We also consider that their own expert groups, on for example renewable energy and carbon sinks, are a very valuable source of independent advice to Government. It is important to preserve the independence of both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering so that they can provide in-depth, unsolicited advice and opinion.


  20.  The Government enjoys a strong relationship with the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. There is every reason to expect these relationships to deepen further as the Government will continue to look to these bodies to support key aspects of its strategy of improving further the health and vitality of the Science and Engineering Base, especially in the area of the supply of the highest calibre people. As science and engineering play a larger and larger part in all our lives, Government will need to rely increasingly on the high-quality and independent technical advice that these bodies can provide across the whole range of science and engineering.

25 January 2002

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