Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



  220. Okay. It was then taken to your council and the council finally agreed that.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Yes.

  221. It seems as though your position within the Royal Society at the moment is leading to the difficulties. You are housed in Carlton House Terrace, the principal funding comes from the Royal Society. Is it the lack of independence that has led to the present difficulties and would it not be better if you moved out of the Royal Society building and became completely independent of the Royal Society apart from perhaps some grant funding from them?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I think that if you have an umbrella body then it has to be a gathering of equals and has to be seen to be independent of any one body. My model for this is the Association of Medical Research Charities, which I was involved with from the day of its founding, and that is a very similar kind of thing in the sense that it has enormous bodies, such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, involved and then many tiny members, it has 100 members. It is set up independently. It started very gently because you have to get people to buy in. You have to have an agenda which everybody agrees. You have to take it slowly and earn trust, and that is exactly what happened with the Association of Medical Research Charities and it is not housed with one of the member organisations. It was initially housed in the Wellcome Trust but it very quickly moved out simply because we felt it was essential that once it had got on its very early feet it should be seen to be independent. I do not think it is necessarily anything particularly to do with its physical presence in the Royal Society, rather the way in which the Royal Society exerts control.

  222. Thank you. Moving on, could you perhaps tell us what you think Copus's main successes have been and also its failures? I think you have mentioned some of the latter.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) There is no question that in the early days it really sharply drew to the attention of the scientific community the need to engage. It reminded them, I guess, that most scientists get their money from Government ie from the public. I do not think we should insist that all scientists should engage in this but they should see to it that the work they do is drawn to the attention of the public. The fact of the matter is 90 per cent or more of the science that goes on the public are very supportive of, there are just certain key issues which people are concerned about. Also, the other thing that has happened is that science moves so fast now and it is so powerful. I do not think it is the slightest bit surprising that some aspects of science people are concerned about, 'twas ever thus after all. In the very earliest days of steam engines they expected to go along with a little man in front with a red flag. Nothing has changed in that way, just some important issues which people are—

  223. What has Copus got that none of the other scientific organisations have got? What is special about Copus?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I think in the early days it was special because it was owned jointly by the three bodies which traditionally over a long period of time had engaged in this sort of activity, particularly the British Association, which of course is very distinguished and has a very excellent history and track record right up to the present day in this, the Royal Institution which was very important, particularly in the London area, and the Royal Society because it represents the best science in the country and knows how to get access to the world science. It was entirely appropriate that should be the initial situation, but as I say it was the explosion of activities in the early 1990s which meant that Copus did not grow to match that.

  224. So you are saying one of your main strengths has been partnership?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Yes.

  225. Have you any advice to give to your successor?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I would simply say that I think the objective that we tried to achieve for Copus to become I believe is a very important objective, trying to maximise what is going on by seeing where the gaps are, getting people to work together when it is necessary but not actually doing much itself, not to take away from others, that was never the intention.

  226. Could I now look at funding. Can you give us a breakdown of the Copus accounts?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) The Royal Society is responsible for that. We can give it to you of course.

  Dr Iddon: That would be helpful.

  Chairman: That would be easier, we will get it that way.

Dr Iddon

  227. I take it from that response that the Royal Society audit and manage the funding and get the accounts audited as well and they are in full control?
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Complete control. I have never seen a real budget.

  228. Why is the Royal Society so dominant in the control when you have mentioned the British Association and the Royal Institution? I have just referred to one of your strengths as partnership but it seems the Royal Society is dominating events too much.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Perhaps you could ask my colleagues from the British Association.


  229. I am sorry but you can understand how serious we take this situation. When an eminent person like Dame Bridget resigns from an organisation something is going on that needs probing.
  (Dr Briggs) We are very happy to join in on this discussion when you would like us to.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Perhaps you could answer that question.
  (Dr Briggs) I think it was seen as best in the past when it was three organisations effectively working together in partnership. I think the difficulty has been how to find the most effective way of getting a larger number or organisations working together in partnership. When it was three organisations in effect the Royal Society always played two roles. It was a partner body in the sense that the three partners ran activities and it was also, and always has been, the channel of funding for Copus, either funds that came direct from the OST to supplement the grant scheme or funds through the Royal Society grant in aid for Copus activities. In a sense the financial arrangements of Copus have always been channelled through the Royal Society. The partnership issue has always been about delivering the activities and making the thing work.

  230. Would you be looking at perhaps rechannelling that funding, perhaps directly, from the Office of Science and Technology?
  (Dr Briggs) I think the first thing to do is to be absolutely clear what it is Copus ought to do. It seems to me there is a very clear emerging consensus about what Copus ought to be about and then the question is what is the model on which it operates, how much funding does it need and where that comes from. When people talk about Copus being independent one of our concerns would be there is a very big community of organisations now concerned with science communication, maybe there is 100, I do not know what the number is, and what we do not want simply is for Copus to be the 101st, somehow it has to be different than that. It has to be an organisation about which we all have a sense of ownership and in which we all have a stake. Once that is sorted and it can be clearly defined in some sense, I do not think it matters where the money comes from provided that it is clearly defined as Copus money and Copus, however it is manifested, has the ability to manage its own funds. I think you can see a variety of models by which that might work.

  231. In any organisation somebody has to determine the programme, the business plan, they have to cost it and then make the bid. Who does that in the case of Copus? Is it the Royal Society, is it Copus itself or is it a partnership? Who makes the bid for funds? Who determines your budget in other words?
  (Dr Briggs) I think it has changed in the last few years. Copus has gone through a period of relative inactivity where a number of pre-existing activities that Dame Bridget has already spoken about have been maintained. Some have been delivered by Copus staff. I think Copus has worked best when, for example, Dame Bridget referred to the Science Communicators' Conference that we held a couple of weeks ago which the BA organised in co-operation with Copus. That means we have a means of operating where we are not in competition with each other, we are achieving collective objectives and working together. In the past when we were clear about what was happening the Royal Society staff, and this is in the past scenario when organisations contributed staff to work for Copus rather than their being dedicated Copus staff, put together the budget, managed the budget and it was allocated to them.


  232. Are the Royal Society slow in decision making or just a bunch of control freaks, in your opinion?
  (Dr Briggs) I have no idea.

  233. That would be one hypothesis. That would be how we would look at other organisations that we deal with if this was the result.
  (Dr Briggs) The British Association receives funding from the Royal Society and that certainly would not be true in that case.

Mr Heath

  234. The stakeholders, to use a term that you used earlier, seem remarkably incurious about Copus, how it operates and what its future is.
  (Dr Briggs) Remarkably incurious?

  235. Yes. There seems to be no interest from the people who are identified as stakeholders in any of what is happening.
  (Professor Halliday) Can I make an interjection there. There is a technical point which is Copus is legally speaking a Committee of the Royal Society so the accounting officer chain is through the Secretary of the Royal Society, who is sitting at the rear of the room. There is a technical question about legal responsibility. Given Lord Jenkin's report, given what Lord Sainsbury said at the beginning, there was a real strong belief that there would be a large measure of independence for Copus as an independent committee to be able to make its mind up and how it would bring knowledge about what the Research Councils' interests were and others would bring other interests. It has been extremely frustrating that we have not delivered on that agenda. It has been known for some time at a level of talk that there has been money in OST and there is a strong consensus inside the committee about the kind of agenda that is very much defined by the Science in Society Report about what Copus should be and the statement that it should not be the 101st funder of a small grant scheme is taken for granted in the Copus Council. It is that tension, the tension between the Royal Society as accounting officer, legal chain of command, and this desire for strategic view independence on the part of the committee members that is basically hamstringing the operation.

  236. But that desire is presumably shared by the Government as effectively the funder and as a Government which has set aside money for this specific purpose which has not been drawn down. Does the Government not have a view on this? Has it not expressed any view on why money is sitting in the OST account not being drawn down? Has the Minister not made any observations to the Royal Society?
  (Professor Halliday) The Minister has made, I believe, a very strong statement that he would like this independent strategic view from Copus.

  237. Initially?
  (Professor Halliday) Initially.

  238. But since then nothing has happened.
  (Professor Halliday) Effectively.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) Effectively.


  239. What has happened is the Royal Society has walked all over you, has it not? That is the Jeremy Paxman question. They have walked all over you and you have found it very difficult to resist them.
  (Dame Bridget Ogilvie) I do not think that is entirely fair. Copus does belong to three organisations. I do not think it is a formal brand name in the sense of having a patent lawyer involved but it does belong to them. If they do not wish to have it evolve in this way that is their affair. Why do we have to call it Copus, we can just call it something else? I find this hang-up about the name really extraordinary, I like to do things.


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