Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 269-279)

PROFESSOR JOHN ENDERBY AND MR STEPHEN COX

WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002

Chairman

  269. Stephen Cox and John Enderby, welcome to this session. Thank you very much for making yourselves available at such short notice to help us in our inquiry, which you have already anticipated. You will have read the transcript of last week and you have heard certain criticisms levelled against the Society. How would you care to respond to them?

  (Mr Cox) Thank you, Chairman. Perhaps I can give a bit of the background of Copus, which was set up following the Bodmer report back in the eighties, as the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science. It was a joint committee of the British Association (BA), the Royal Institution (RI), and the Royal Society (RS). I should add at this point that the BA and RI would have liked to have been with us, but I think the Committee felt they just wanted to see the Royal Society. Over the next decade or so, Copus promoted the better understanding of science by implementing the Bodmer report recommendations. It encouraged organisations and individuals to get involved in public understanding and established a series of activities: book prize meetings, seminars, grants, and programmes. At that time, and for much of its life, it had no dedicated staff. It drew upon the three sponsoring bodies of the RI, the Royal Society and the BA to provide the staffing. We provided the core secretariat and administered the grants from our staff from within the Royal Society. The BA ran the meetings and the seminars and the RI provided all sorts of support in kind. It was essentially a committee bringing together the three bodies to promote public understanding, but what was already clear when Dame Bridget took over from Lewis Wolpert in 1998, that Copus needed to change to reflect the very significantly changed environment in which it was having now to operate. I think we all agree that the environment had changed partly as a result of the work that Copus itself had done. The Committee was clear that it needed a new agenda and did indeed produce a new agenda for the period of 1997 to 2001, and this was under Lewis Wolpert's chairmanship. However, Dame Bridget felt that change needed to be more radical than that new agenda laid out, and we agreed. I do not think there was any dispute at all on this. We therefore instituted a series of consultations, trying to bring together various parties, and a new council was formed. The membership of the new council reflected very much the wishes of the chair, which was Dame Bridget. It brought in significant players in the biomedical field, so we had the Welcome Trust, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Academy of Medical Sciences; and it brought in major funding bodies: the research councils and the major public science facilities, the museums and the science centres. We had to get some approval for this, so the new membership of the new Council was approved by the three councils, of the Royal Society, of the Royal Institution and the British Association. So far, so good. Again, there was not really very much dispute. In addition, the Royal Society recruited two new members of staff to be dedicated to Copus work, and the BA and the RI continued to provide support in kind. We now had a new council, and whereas before staff were simply drawn from the existing organisations, we had two dedicated staff to provide support for Copus. The new council met in May 2001 for the first time and has held four meetings so far. The crux of the issue, I suspect, is September 2001 when the Council considered the Jamieson report, entitled Terms of Reference. Discussion in Copus Council centred not on the first part of that report, but on the second part, on the corporate governance. The council agreed at its meeting in September 2001 that Copus should remain as an unincorporated body, hosted by the Royal Society; but the Copus council asked that a memorandum should be drawn up to clarify Copus's relationship with the Royal Society and also with the other sectors on the council. At that moment, the Royal Society initiated a series of consultations to see the nature of that memorandum. These consultations were primarily with the original partners, that is the BA, the RI and the Royal Society, and I offered to prepare a paper for the January council meeting. This offer was not acceptable to the Chair, and so that paper was not presented to the council in January 2002. At the 2002 meeting, the Royal Society was asked to produce a draft business plan for consideration at the May meeting, we did indeed prepare a draft, and that draft business plan was discussed at the May council meeting. The positive outcome of all this was that the May council meeting, though there was a lot of disagreement about what should be in the business plan—there was considerable engagement for the first time with the issues. Towards the end of that meeting, I felt that we were actually at last beginning to make progress, but at that point Dame Bridget resigned. During the whole of this period, as a result of a great deal of hard work by the dedicated Copus staff, but also by staff in our three organisations—because the Royal Society staff generally continued to provide support for Copus—the work of Copus has continued uninterrupted. We have continued the grant scheme, the books prize, and the seminar programme. I asked for a leaflet to be put round the table as an example of the sort of thing that we believe not only Copus should do, but actually does extremely well. It shows the link between the British Association and Copus. The Royal Society is signally absent. It was part of Copus activity and not really much to do with the Royal Society. We have also changed the corporate identity, produced a separate website, produced a different e-mail system, generally pursued a re-branding exercise and continued with such things as the book prize. Again, today, there is a massive spread in this newspaper and the whole page is basically Copus. We hope that the Guardian will have a similar spread next Monday. It indicates the range of activities of Copus, which has continued.

  270. That has put it in focus for us—thank you. Nevertheless, Dame Bridget did say: "When I was invited nearly four years ago to chair Corpus, I recognised that Copus had lost its way. I do not know if the three owners of Copus have ever really realised that." Do you think that is a fair comment?
  (Mr Cox) I was not there either—Dame Bridget and I arrived at about the same time—so I looked back, and I felt that that was unfair because Copus had produced the new agenda and there was a recognition in the three organisations and in the Copus council that Copus needed to develop, and develop along particular lines. As I have indicated, Bridget thought this should have been more radical than it was; but nevertheless the scene was changing very rapidly at the time, and we were very happy to re-visit it when she took over as Chair.

  271. Do you think Corpus achieved what was set out to be achieved when it started? If you had to rate its achievements on a 1 of one to 10, where would you put it?
  (Mr Cox) I would put it, in its original brief, as 9 or 10. The change in the environment in which Copus came into being in 1984, and the circumstance we found ourselves in in the late nineties, were worlds apart. Newspapers now cover science extensively and they did not in 1984; every science organisation is involved in some way or another in public understanding or science communication, efforts and work. That demonstrates to me just how effective Copus has been in the past.

Geraldine Smith

  272. Can you explain the status of Copus as a committee of the Royal Society, and can you tell me what legal implications that has for staffing, finance and policy issues?
  (Mr Cox) The status of Copus is a committee of the three bodies, the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association. Copus is an unincorporated body, in other words has no legal identity. That matter was considered in the September 2001 council meeting, but it was decided that they did not wish to change that. That was a very clear decision by the Copus council. They wished to remain an unincorporated body. In relation to the status of staff, the Royal Society is the employer and employs the staff on behalf of Copus. The Royal Society supports Copus in the work that it does and provides the financial background and financial back-up.

  273. What is the role of the grants committee?
  (Mr Cox) It is there to allocate the Copus grants. It has no other role. It acts as, basically, a mini peer-review committee. I should not really use that term because they are not scientific proposals, but it acts as a review committee, looking at the proposals and allocating the grants according to the budget that OST lays down.

  274. Since Copus was reconstituted in 2001, what has changed fundamentally?
  (Mr Cox) The first is the newly reconstituted council itself. The second is dedicated staff, staff dedicated entirely to Copus work. The third is the wish on our part, and I think on OST's part, to see Copus extend and expand its activities in an agreed fashion. In terms of its focus, it has changed, as a policy issue, from promoting public understanding of science, to developing science communication. This is very much in tune with the view of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the way in which the nature of science communication has changed over the past five or ten years.

  275. What are the responsibilities of the Copus council?
  (Mr Cox) Their responsibilities are to oversee the work of Copus and to prepare, produce and provide a new direction. That is probably the key, the new direction for Copus, in the new circumstances we find ourselves in, where Copus should be going in the next five years.

Mr Heath

  276. You said that the legal status of Copus was as a committee of all three of the stakeholders because that is not the same information that Professor Halliday gave us the other day: he said that Copus is legally speaking a committee of the Royal Society.
  (Mr Cox) I think my answer was correct. As an unincorporated body, it does not have a legal status. I am not a lawyer, but the view we have always taken is that it is a joint committee of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association; and that is in all the documents.
  (Professor Enderby) We get money from the OST, and therefore we have to have an accounting officer. That accounting officer is Mr Cox, who is employed by the Royal Society, so in that sense, and in that sense alone, the responsibility for the proper disbursement of public funds is the Royal Society's. That is quite different, if I might say so, from saying that Copus is a Royal Society committee.

Bob Spink

  277. Mr Cox has quite eloquently explained how the structures of the business plan are being developed to meet the new needs and demands. Can you explain, Mr Cox, how Lord Jenkin's approach will differ from that of Dame Bridget?
  (Mr Cox) I know that Lord Jenkin is looking to see whether he can offer advice to Copus council on the way forward, given the current situation. His approach is as a facilitator. He is not chairing Copus. He is not in any other position; he is an informal facilitator, and we are extremely grateful—he is probably sitting behind me and I think I had better say this, but I mean it: we are very grateful indeed to him for coming to our aid in trying to help resolve the issues.

Dr Iddon

  278. Is this a fixed-term appointment or an indefinite appointment?
  (Mr Cox) We would hope that it would certainly not be indefinite. We would be in terrible trouble if it were! There is not a specifically fixed-term; and we see it as short-term. I hope he will agree with me.

Mr Hoban

  279. You say that Copus is an unincorporated body. Why did the Council decide it should remain so, and was this a universal view?
  (Mr Cox) The recommendation of the report that Copus commissioned was that it should remain as an unincorporated body for between three and five years, and that then the situation should be reviewed. It was my recollection—and I am having to recall this because the minutes do not record dissent—that it was pretty well unanimous; the voices round the table were comfortable with that arrangement. I do not recall major dissension.

 


 
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