Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-313)

PROFESSOR JOHN ENDERBY AND MR STEPHEN COX

WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002

  300. You are saying that a committee which has failed to identify its future form and function with a chairman will now do so when?
  (Mr Cox) I cannot say whether Lord Jenkin will be successful. His role is to see whether he can bring together the different elements of the Copus council. The council was composed of a group from three organisations and now it comprises nine organisations. I am hopeful, but these things do take time to come together.

  301. That is obvious from the history. Is the rudimentary business plan that you submitted to the May council extant as the way forward; is that the basis on which you think Copus will develop?
  (Mr Cox) We have certainly suggested that to Lord Jenkin, yes.

  302. Do you anticipate that there is a measure of agreement within the council for that?
  (Mr Cox) There were very diverse views. That is one of the reasons why I was slightly hesitant in giving you a copy because there was not agreement around the council table about that business plan. That was not to say there was disagreement. I just think the process needed time for everybody to agree on a way forward.

  303. It has taken quite a lot of time already, has it not, without much happening?
  (Mr Cox) Absolutely.
  (Professor Enderby) The council does have difficulty with words like "co-ordination", to take one example, because it can mean anything you want. It is only fair to point out, if I may, that during all this the Copus activity has continued. I slightly disagree with Dame Bridget on one point. I think she rather downplays the grants and the book prize and the open meetings, which I think are terribly important. If you look at the geographical distribution, I should think every one of you around this table in your own constituencies have benefited from the small grants. We get incredibly positive feedback from that. It is a way of democratising science. All that has carried on. The one thing we have not got totally to grips with is our vision. I have a vision, which I suspect coincides rather closely with Lord Jenkin's vision. We are out of the business of direct delivery and we are in the business of looking at generic issues. That has to be embedded in the business plan, and that is the point where we have not yet got the council fully on board.

  304. I would be delighted if there was evidence in rural Somerset of the work, but it does worry me that given the intention of Copus over the last couple of years has been to create it into an umbrella body to co-ordinate public understanding and science work, the co-ordination approach seems rather negative to that role.
  (Professor Enderby) I guess that is the price you have to pay for having a very broad-based committee. There will be a divergence of interpretation. To that extent, I think I under-estimated the spread of opinion. I think those two go together.

  305. Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, backed the new approach of Copus, since when very little, frankly, has happened to develop that approach. Has there been no either impatience or curiosity expressed by the Minister in the future of the body which funding is being provided for?
  (Professor Enderby) I cannot obviously speak for Lord Sainsbury, but I think we are all slightly frustrated at the slow progress.

  306. He has not made any approaches to the Royal Society or to Copus as a body.
  (Professor Enderby) I think one of his colleagues attended the September meeting.
  (Mr Cox) To pick that point up, Lord Sainsbury has taken a close personal interest in the development of Copus. He has attended at least two of the Copus meetings, one quite recently in September. Since then, I and several others have been in regular contact with his officials. I know that the President of the Royal Society has been in contact with the Minister about Copus. We are all very, very keen indeed to get Copus moving, but it has proved extremely difficult to do so and get agreement round the Copus council table about the way forward.

Bob Spink

  307. Would it be fair to say that when the business plan emerges eventually, as a mature document about which there is general agreement within the council, at that point will you find a chairman so that Lord Jenkin's influence will be removed from the council?
  (Mr Cox) We do not really have a position on that, until we know what Lord Jenkin is going to recommend. We have a completely open mind about what next. We certainly feel that we have a business plan which is the basis for taking things forward.

Dr Turner

  308. Professor Enderby, you said that you had not got the council fully on board. It seems to suggest there is some tension there. Is "we" the Royal Society or is it all three parent institutions? Is there some conflict in terms of who calls the shots as far as Copus is concerned, between the Royal Society and Copus? That is the impression I have gained.
  (Professor Enderby) It is a very fair question, if I may say so. There is an ambiguity in the relationship between the three founding partners and the council. That is absolutely clear just by looking at the constituency of the council. There are two from the founding members and one from each, so there is an ambiguity. My view—and I would be very interested to know whether Stephen agrees with this—is that the three founding members take overall responsibility for the Copus, with the very strong advice of the council; but there is undoubtedly an ambiguity that was not resolved at the outset. In that context, we refer to the three founding organisations.

Bob Spink

  309. David raised a point about co-ordination, which is a difficulty. It is a very general term, so can you say in what specific areas there was a difficulty in achieving co-ordination?
  (Professor Enderby) Suppose, for example, PPARC and some other organisation wanted to run a week's work on the new possibility of an earth-like planet: there is redundancy there. In some sense, they are both using public money. Should Copus say "hang on a minute, you had better do it?" Some people interpret co-ordination in that sense—that we would try and stop someone doing something which somebody else was doing in the system. My view is that both organisations know that they are running parallel programmes. When you use the word "co-ordination" some people think the council is going to try and stop you doing what you think is appropriate for your area.

Dr Iddon

  310. When I was questioning Dame Bridget last week, I asked her about the previous re-configuration of Copus in 2001. I assumed that it was herself who recommended the re-configuration and the re-housing of the Royal Society, but she replied: "We had an expert outside organisation who do this sort of thing as a matter of course. I cannot remember the name of it. I can let you know."
  (Mr Cox) We think it was the Jameson report. We are happy to let you have a copy if you want it. September 2001 was the Jameson report.

  311. That is fairly recent, is it not? There was a recommendation to re-configure Copus.
  (Mr Cox) There was a paper, which was prepared under my name, and I am perfectly happy to let you have a copy. I cannot recall the date but that was the rationale for the re-configuration of the Copus council. It was the paper that was presented to the three councils.

  312. The point I am really coming to is that that was fairly recent, in 2001, as far as I can see from the evidence in front of me. I would just like to refer to the press release you put out today. Today we have questioned you about the way forward and asked you whether you think that Copus has been doing a good job during this difficult period. You have given us a fairly good impression and mentioned the book prize and the grants et cetera; yet in your press release you are not very positive. There seems to be a conflict between the evidence we have taken today and what you have said in your own press release today. You have said this: "We share Dame Bridget's disappointment that more rapid progress was not made in mapping out a new role for Copus." You also say: "The Copus council continues to consider how it can best develop Copus to underpin science communication in the UK." It does not sound very positive, in the sense that you have found a way forward.
  (Mr Cox) I think that is a fair comment. We are very disappointed that a way forward has not been found. We were very sorry—and that means all the Copus council but particularly the three bodies that feel personal responsibility, RI, BA and RS, for Copus. We are disappointed that there has not been progress and an agreed way forward. We are looking to Lord Jenkin to begin to see whether one can indeed come together with a way forward.

  313. My personal view is that you seem to have set up a very complicated beast here. You have three major and very distinguished scientific bodies that are responsible for Copus; and you have enlarged the council to include so many people that it cannot apparently reach agreement, which is what you have said this afternoon. Perhaps you have such a complicated beast that it needs simplifying and releasing and giving independence. What would you say to that?
  (Mr Cox) The key word "independence" was discussed and the Copus council wished to remain as an unincorporated body with the present arrangements for the next three to five years. That was in the report and that is what the Copus council bought into, or agreed to. It might be the case that the beast is too complicated. There might be a structural problem here. When it was set up at Dame Bridget's request, it may be that we were setting up something that was too complicated, in order to try and have everybody on board. That might be the crux of the problem.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming here and helping us with our inquiry. You can go ahead now and produce a report. I am sorry the gestation period has been so bad but we hope the re-birth will be somewhat better.


 


 
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