Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



  140. Okay. You have not been consulted at all about any of these issues as a Society by the Royal Society? Do you have contact with them?
  (Professor McDermid) We do but David is perhaps better able to address that than I am in terms of formal contacts.
  (Mr Clarke) Yes. We have some contacts but I would not say that it is routine for the Royal Society to ask our views on these issues.

  141. I am sorry we are galloping along.
  (Mr Clarke) We understand. We are happy.


  142. You say that the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering research fellowships are particularly valuable. Do you think they are more effectively administered than Research Council fellowships?
  (Professor Hall) I am sorry, can you say that again. What was the question?

  143. Your written evidence suggests that you particularly value the research fellowships of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Is this because you think that they are better at administering these fellowships than the Research Councils?
  (Professor Hall) They have a different focus. They are administered in different ways. They are seeking to do slightly different things. I think our main concern is that we need more money in this area. We need more of this type. We do not want to do anything which would prejudice getting funding through.


  144. You do not want us to take it away from them and give it to you, of course.
  (Professor Hall) No, far from it. We would not want that. No, no. I think they do serve different purposes. The Royal Society fellowships are quite long term. They are actually seeking to take somebody young and let them develop their career without any impediment to worrying about tenure or administration or teaching. The EPSRC fellowships are shorter term, five years is still a long term and they are very valued fellowships. I have had a five year EPSRC fellowship for the first time in my life. They are peer reviewed on a different sort of spectrum. They are looking more, I believe, at particular areas and letting people focus on those subject areas. There is still a career element to them but I think the Royal Society ones have tended to be much longer term. The Royal Academy ones have a much more practical focus which neither of the others can really attend to, they are much more about getting industry and academia to work together and to collaborate and interact. I think they have a third focus again.

Dr Turner

  145. It has been suggested that subject areas like yours which are multi disciplinary are much better handled by a learned society than by the research councils. Would you agree with that point of view?
  (Professor McDermid) Perhaps if I can make a brief observation on that. I think it is difficult to get research proposals to bodies like EPSRC which are multi-disciplinary seen on a balanced basis and to get some of this work funded. I do not think the Royal Society has the mechanisms in place to support broadly based research proposals. They may be better placed to support individual fellowships which are multi-disciplinary but I do not think the broad research programmes that EPSRC put in place, they may deal with part of the problem, certainly they do not address all of it.

  146. Would you like to see more learned societies brought into the business of promoting fellowships with a wider spread of government funding for that purpose?
  (Professor Hall) I think the role of the learned societies is to provide the community. Personally I would not like to see the BCS have to set up the administration to run the fellowships. I think the EPSRC has that well sorted and the Royal Society, given that we would argue that it should be quicker to move to new areas, is also well set up. I think the role of the learned society is to provide the community. We would ask them to consult us as to who is the expert in what area. Most of us academics who are members of the BCS at professor level are on the EPSRC peer college and we do peer reviewing and therefore are involved very much in the EPSRC fellowship awarding.

  147. Are you happy with the involvement that you have with the other learned societies in awarding them fellowships? Is your input sufficient do you think?
  (Professor Hall) The input will tend to draw on the fellows. John and I are both fellows. I am a fellow of the Royal Academy so I get involved in reviewing and in their processes. We are both involved in the EPSRC because of our status in the academic community.

  148. Do you feel that you are consulted sufficiently about the Royal Society?
  (Professor Hall) No I think I would support John in saying that we would like them to consult us more about who is expert in what area and who should be commenting on what subject.

Mr Heath

  149. Can I just quickly bring Professor McDermid back to the point about inter-disciplinary projects and the difficulties there.
  (Professor McDermid) Yes.

  150. Is that down to a structural problem within the process of application or is it a failure of assessment or a failure of imagination?
  (Professor McDermid) I think it is the first two but not the third. Structurally you have to submit a proposal to the EPSRC to one panel or another and inevitably they are less expert and perhaps less willing to spend money in what they perceive as another discipline. It is very difficult also to find referees who can give a balanced view of a proposal. I have no evidence that the third thing you mentioned is a problem.


  151. Before I turn to Tom Harris, just a quick one. Have you ever looked at the correlation between the research assessment exercise, which you know this Committee has looked at, and the distribution of Royal Society fellowships, for example? Have you ever seen a curve?
  (Professor Hall) We have some.
  (Professor McDermid) We have some data but I think not on Royal Society fellowships.
  (Professor Hall) No, we have not done that correlation. We have the data on the RAE. I was on the RAE and we both know the Chair and he has given data on the spread of subject areas.

  152. Have you a general conclusion to make quickly about that?
  (Professor Hall) A lot of the work that has been assessed in the research assessment exercise for computing is not covered in the Royal Society.

Mr Harris

  153. Can I ask you about funding. Some learned societies have suggested to us that by accepting Government funding it is compromising their own independence. Would you agree with that and have you sought Government funding yourselves? I understand you do not actually grab funding but have you ever asked for it?
  (Mr Clarke) No, we have not. I think probably we would feel that way, that it may compromise what our community expects us to provide.


  154. Could you elaborate on that? How could we embarrass you?
  (Mr Clarke) Certainly not by giving us too much money I think. I think the independence is quite important. I assume that whenever there is funding there are some strings that go with that which push you in a certain direction in terms of what you do with that money. From our point of view I think being independent and able to provide our community with what they and we think they need is a very important part of what we do.

Dr Iddon

  155. Can I ask, Chairman, where the funding streams come from at the moment: publications, subscriptions?
  (Professor Hall) Subscriptions. A small amount on publications.
  (Mr Clarke) Yes, and we have products that we sell. We have a whole raft of strings.
  (Professor Hall) Actually quite a lot which goes way beyond academia. A lot of our revenue at the moment comes from our ECDL, the European Computer Driving Licence, which is aimed at anyone who can turn a computer on. It is very successful and it is a very broad spread.
  (Mr Clarke) It is about computer use. It is a very successful series of programmes.
  (Professor Hall) We are reaching a lot of the community in that way.


  156. The corollary of what you are saying is the Royal Society should be embarrassed by government funding or there will be a compromise at least for government funding, does that follow logically?
  (Professor Hall) No, I do not think so.
  (Mr Clarke) No, we speak for ourselves.
  (Professor Hall) I think we all want to see more funding going to science and engineering technology. We want to see more funding of the type of fellowships and support for people to do serious research work in this area so the UK can be at the forefront of what is going on. I think the learned society's role is to advise and be the body that is consulted in their area as to what the state of the art is in its area. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy have a broad brief across all subjects of excellence and quality and that is terribly, terribly important. All I believe the learned societies areasking is to be part of the consultation process.

  Mr Harris: The BCS understands and supports an increase of government funding for the Royal Academy of Engineering on the basis that there has a comparable level of activity to the Royal Society. Can I ask you to incriminate yourself? If the cake remains the same size, would you support one coming down and the other one going up to support exactly the same level of funding?

  Chairman: We do not ask difficult questions.

Mr Harris

  157. And presumably the same level of lack of independence.
  (Professor Hall) No. We would like to see the cake go up I think is the answer to that.
  (Professor McDermid) Yes, I think that would indeed be our view. Practically as well it is very difficult given the programmes the Royal Society has already, in fact, to cut funding because they have a number of long term commitments. I think it would cause very great practical problems as well as problems of principle.

  158. Can I just lastly ask this question. Has the Government asked for your advice over the last five years and do you think the Government should seek scientific advice from learned societies other than the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering? Has it done so with yourself?
  (Professor McDermid) The answer is yes, I believe it should, particularly in this area where we have access to more expertise through our membership and fellowship than the Royal Society and to some extent the Royal Academy. Certainly there are a number of instances. We have given advice on micro-electronics to the House of Lords recently. We have put an input into the Gareth Roberts review of funding of science and engineering and technology. This is done quite often, we wish it was done more. There are times when we feel we are not consulted on areas where we have the expertise. It is probably our fault for not being clear to the House where we have the expertise.


  159. Do you submit to Departments at all in departmental consultations? Is that your route for information? Do you tell Transport how to get their computer systems right and the Inland Revenue and so on?
  (Professor Hall) I have to say I think historically we have been reactive rather than proactive. Over the last two or three years we have started to build a strategy where we will be more proactive, or at least as much proactive as we are reactive. In the past we have been too reactive as a society. We are a relatively small and relatively new society.


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