Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



Bob Spink

  80. Do you think that if you got more money this country might have a better record in getting invention to the market place?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I would like to think that, yes, because a lot of our programmes are designed to help that process.


  81. Have you ever been on your knees asking for more money?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I am always on my knees. I normally have a little tin I use.

  82. Cambridge University is having a hard time I know.
  (Sir Alec Broers) I am very new to the Academy. I think the Academy has talked closely to the OST all along, and certainly my predecessor, Sir Den Davies, was active in doing what he could to increase our funding.

  83. Accountability to the public. How do you look at that in general terms? What is the attitude of the Academy to accountability to the public, not just financially?
  (Sir Alec Broers) We want to be very visible to the public, Chairman. We want to influence the public. We like to make sure the public has a clear understanding of what is technically correct, and what is correct from an engineering point of view in various programmes. We would like the public to understand also the importance of engineering and technology. Our attitude towards the public is to communicate with them whenever we can.

Bob Spink

  84. Let us get down to the nitty gritty now. The Royal Academy of Engineering runs several fellowships. Could you describe to us the peer review process for those fellowships?
  (Sir Alec Broers) The people who secure research fellowships are considered by panels of fellows themselves. Do you want to expand on that, Ann?
  (Professor Dowling) Do you mean research fellowships?

  85. The panel does not include people who are not members of the RAE?
  (Sir Alec Broers) No.

  86. It is just your own members?
  (Sir Alec Broers) Yes.

  87. You do not go outside of that?
  (Sir Alec Broers) No.

  Bob Spink: Do you think that is a weakness?


  88. It is research fellowships we are interested in.
  (Mr Burch) Research fellowships, is a term which, in the Academy, could cover personal research chairs, senior research fellowships and post-doctoral research fellowships. Each begins with a proposal being received by the Academy. Our reaction is led by a fellow designated "Lead Assessor" who looks at the candidate, the university and the company where applicable. The Lead Assessor convenes and seeks peer reviews from another three Fellows totally independent of the company, the applicant and the university so they do not have an axe to grind there. Formal interviews then follow to ensure that would be post-holders are deemed appointable by all the sponsoring bodies. A final thing is that once a position has been agreed and tied up the Academy appoints, again, an independent Fellow to act as a permanent mentor to the chair or fellowship to provide an extra network, to receive annual reports and, if necessary, to cut off funding if it is not working or to recommend the cessation of funding.

Bob Spink

  89. How does the cost efficiency of your fellowships compare with those run by the Research Councils?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I would imagine they are pretty good but I will turn to Jon for that.
  (Mr Burch) We like to think that they are virtually parallel. We get a very large number of very high quality applicants particularly for post-doctoral research fellowships. We had 122 applicants for five places last year and all of very high quality. It was difficult to whittle them down to five. We talk a lot to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and for some of their comparable engineering-related schemes they do not have a large number of that quality of applicants. One can try and put whatever interpretation one likes on that but I do believe, and it has certainly been reported back, that having a Fellow as a mentor all the time to get to know is seen as very, very important by the holders of our various chairs and fellowships.
  (Professor Dowling) Could I comment on that because I am on the Council of EPSRC as well as being involved in the Royal Academy of Engineering so I see it a bit from both sides. EPSRC does find it difficult to encourage applications from engineers, particularly for the Advanced Fellowships. In some ways engineers seem to trust that the Academy will review them among peers of engineers whereas in EPSRC the engineers are in competition with the pure scientists. We expect a lot of engineers, especially academic engineers. The work has to be relevant as well as being fundamental science and far reaching. When you look at references for engineers there is often "yes, but", "this is fundamental stuff but is it relevant?" When you have engineers in direct comparison with pure scientists, the pure scientists' references are always outstanding. Everyone is going to be a Nobel Prize winner in two years' time. The Academy does attract applications because engineers believe that they will be judged by other engineers and get a fair hearing and EPSRC struggle with this and are working with the Academy because of that.

  90. That is very helpful, thank you for that. Why should the OST put money into your fellowships rather than putting their cash into the Research Councils' schemes?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I think Professor Dowling has helped on that. The quality of applicant we can get is very high indeed. Because of our network of industrial fellows and our visiting professors in industry we have a lot of fingers out there into industry sponsored research which very often attracts the very brightest of the students.

  Bob Spink: Your answers have been very clear and persuasive, thank you.

Dr Murrison

  91. We heard a quite telling comment from Lord May earlier about private affluence and public squalor which I thought was interesting because he was bemoaning the possibility that there may be public squalor in the Royal Society. The Royal Society, of course, is not a public body and yours is even less so, if I may suggest, because your funding from Government is rather less than that of the Royal Society. Therefore, I think we need to go a little easier on you because it seems to me that our remit is to establish that government money is being spent wisely. With that in mind, I wonder if you could give us a figure for the cost efficiency of your fellowship schemes?
  (Sir Alec Broers) Can you do that, Jon?
  (Mr Burch) With difficulty.

  92. Is that something you could send?
  (Mr Burch) Yes.
  (Sir Alec Broers) I think we should send that to you. We have had a break down of the overhead costs but I do not think we have singled out the research fellowships.
  (Mr Burch) We do within our management plan which is submitted every year to the Office of Science and Technology.
  (Sir Alec Broers) We will send that to you.
  (Mr Burch) We break it down into internal and external spend on each of the schemes. We can certainly provide that.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Dr Murrison

  93. If I could just touch upon fellowships. I do not want to dwell too much on this because the way that you elect your fellows is your business and not ours in contrast to funding. However, I wonder if you could comment on the difference in the number of Fellows that you have, I think 1,270 is the figure I have written here against 1,203 for the Royal Society. I appreciate your two organisations are not directly comparable or comparable in any way but why do you have more than the Royal Society?
  (Sir Alec Broers) We have as many as we think fulfil the criteria, as it were, and our numbers have grown to that point. We cover a very, very broad range of technologies. I understand that the Royal Society does as well and, of course, many of us are members of both academies but we feel there is a need. We cover everything from biotechnology to pure computer software to civil engineering; there is an incredible range, particularly now with the increase in the medical area where engineering is making more and more of an impact. We have this very broad spectrum and to have representation from all of those areas we have found this is the fellowship number that we need.

  94. Is it a representative function? That is an interesting word. I think really what I am asking is what are your criteria for election to fellowship? Do you take representative bits from various disciplines within engineering?
  (Sir Alec Broers) We have committees that are focused on specific areas but they do not have absolute numbers. Do you want to describe the scheme, Jon?
  (Mr Burch) All fellows are asked to nominate and we also write to Vice Chancellors, the heads of all the institutions, asking for nominations. I write once a year. We were very conscious two years ago that whilst we were well represented in certain areas that you would expect, such as certain universities, certain companies, such as Rolls-Royce, we recognised that we were under-represented in certain areas, particularly small and medium sized enterprises, that we just did not know what was going on in there. So a small group, a proactive group, within the fellowship was established with the specific remit of looking at areas where we did not know we were under-represented, if I can put it that way. They used all sorts of mechanisms, R&D score boards, the FTSE 500, going out and talking to people in SMEs, and it is interesting to note that eight of the 49 fellows up for election at the Annual General Meeting this year have come from that group. We want to be everywhere in every engineering discipline. If we are going to be able to say to Government "we can offer you a unique, multi disciplinary response to engineering problems", we have got to be multi disciplinary.

  95. On the election of Officers and Council, I understand you are consulting the Electoral Society at the moment. Can you tell me what involvement you have had with the Electoral Reform Society?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I will introduce this. Both my predecessor and myself were very keen to make our elections to Council, etc., more transparent, to use the modern word. That is what we have decided to do as a fellowship and Jon has been talking specifically to the Electoral Society.
  (Mr Burch) The Electoral Reform Society has come up with a proposal starting with full postal votes on election to council and then working out into a single transferable vote scheme to put through before the AGM. A final decision on the way forward will be taken at an AGM. on the Ist October. They are going to run that for us. At the moment we are putting in hand with the solicitors the changes to the Charter and the Statutes to make that feasible and allowable. We hope to call an Extraordinary General Meeting on 1 October to vote that through. I am confident it will go through.

  96. Have you considered using a similar thing for the election of Fellows?
  (Mr Burch) Not so far.

  97. Would it be something that might appeal to you or not?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I think it would be very difficult to manage on the scale that we would want to operate that.
  (Professor Dowling) It would also discriminate against industrialists in SMEs which is something the Academy has taken pains not to do.

  98. This brings me on to my next point and that is clearly many engineers have made great achievements in industry, indeed they probably formed the basis of prosperity in this country during the last century and the one before that. I wonder how many of your fellows have a background in the private sector rather than in academia? Do you have those figures to hand?
  (Mr Burch) We have got about 47 per cent Fellows from academia, about 45 per cent from industry and the remainder Government and other areas. We believe it is a strength that we have that split of industry and academia and we also have the ability to pull the two together.

  99. Do you think the balance is about right?
  (Sir Alec Broers) I think we are always looking in industry more intensely than we are in academia because in academia it is easier to meet the criteria that are most easy to observe and measure, which is publications. We try to look hard at industry. A point I would make is that I would say almost all of our academic fellows will have an involvement with industry. Many of them will be spending part of their time in a company if they have not started themselves. It is a back and forth process. I do not think I am unique in the Academy in having spent the first 20 years of my career in industry before becoming an academic.


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 7 August 2002