Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


The Royal Society

65. The Royal Society has provided scientific advice to Government for centuries. The Society told us "in 1772, during the height of the American War of Independence, the Government asked the Society for advice about the best form of lightning conductors to protect buildings and the stores of gunpowder magazines".[93] The Royal Society provides advice both in response to consultation and proactively; inquiries on major topics such as infectious diseases in livestock have been carried out recently. Inquiries can be lengthy; a report on genetically modified plants took four years to complete, taking oral and written evidence. In the past year, the Royal Society has published ten major policy statements and reports.[94] Scientific advice should account for £100,000 of the Royal Society's grant-in-aid in 2002-03.[95] This is expected to rise to £150,000 in 2003-04 , depending on the outcome of the 2002 Comprehensive Spending Review. There are 12 full-time staff in the science advice section. The Royal Society has worked on occasions with other "Academies" - the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Academy of Medical Sciences - but told us "the Society tends to tackle policy issues that span more than one field of science, engineering and technology and thus lie beyond the expertise of any individual learned society or professional association".[96]

The Royal Academy of Engineering

66. The Royal Academy of Engineering publishes reports and responds to consultations through its secretariat. It has recently published reports on the Millennium Bridge, automatic train protection, R&D for industry, tissue engineering, nuclear energy and IT systems as a target for crime, terrorism and warfare.[97]

Learned societies


67. Our predecessor Committee examined the Government's scientific advisory system in a series of case study Reports in the last Parliament. The Committee's end stage Report, The Scientific Advisory System, which summed up issues that had run throughout the case studies, said "In our view, the Learned Bodies are an invaluable source of authoritative scientific advice, and it is surprising that Government Departments appear not to consult them as a matter of routine".[98] The Institute of Food Science and Technology told us "because of the range of expertise and experience encompassed by Institutes such as IFST they [the Institutes] are in a very strong position to assemble expert panels in order to give objective specialist advice to the Government".[99]

68. Learned societies are active in the provision of responses to government consultation but admitted to us that they tended to be reactive rather than proactive in their provision of information. We asked Professor McDermid of the British Computer Society if he thought that the Government would have benefited from that Society's expertise on major computing projects. He replied "yes, absolutely".[100] The Institute of Physics told us "the Government and its agencies have, in the past, not made as much use of the experience and expertise which lies within learned societies, as they could or should".[101] The UK Life Sciences Committee said "In submissions to the OST on obtaining and using scientific advice across government departments, UKLSC has repeatedly said that it would be very happy to act as a source of advice and information. But it has not been approached."[102] Many others expressed similar views. The Royal Society of Chemistry submitted evidence to the Scientific Advisory System inquiry which suggested that the Government thought of learned societies as interested only in academic and not industrial issues.[103] Departments commission reports from commercial consultants where expertise might be available in the learned societies. Government departments make regrettably little use of the expertise of the learned societies, despite repeated offers of assistance from those organisations. We recommend that the Government consider using learned societies instead of commercial consultancies if they could carry out research in the same areas.

69. The Institute of Biology stated "We would wish to produce proactive briefing papers. We suggest that government departments and agencies invite organisations such as IoB to tender for such activities".[104] We note this suggestion with interest. We are wary of recommending a tendering process which could lead to smaller, poorer societies missing out because their bids are not as glossy or they are unable to offer advice as cheaply as larger societies. However, we agree that societies themselves should judge when they feel they could add expertise to government policy. We also think it right that those societies who are able to provide scientific advice and are interested in doing so should receive appropriate financial reward for their efforts. In its Report on the Scientific Advisory System, our predecessor Committee suggested that the Government might commission reports from the learned societies where appropriate.[105] In its Response, the Government agreed that there was scope for working more closely with the learned societies and, undertook to explore with them whether they would welcome commissions along the lines the Committee suggested.[106] We repeat the recommendation made in our predecessor Committee's Report on the Scientific Advisory System that Government look more towards the learned societies when soliciting expert scientific advice. We think it right that all learned societies have equal opportunity to provide that advice and that there be financial compensation for those who produce substantial and extensive pieces of advice. Learned societies should be able to bid for funding to provide scientific advice work they feel competent to do.


70. Some of the learned societies felt that they should be consulted by the Royal Society when there was an inquiry into aspects of policy in their areas. The Royal Society admitted in its submission that it did not consult other learned societies.[107] It does, however, include non-Fellows on its working groups; that on the health effects of non-depleted uranium had a working group of 11, of whom only two were Fellows.[108] Criticism came from the societies who felt that their subjects were under-represented in the Royal Society. The British Computer Society felt that "the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are not in a position to offer adequately informed advice to the Government in key areas".[109] Some government agencies do realise this issue. The Environment Agency said "it should be recognised that the science elite represented in the Royal Society are not always as well integrated as they might be into the industrial cutting edge at which science is being applied in practice".[110] The issue of under-representation of certain sciences in the Fellowship of the Royal Society is further addressed in paragraph 93 below. We believe that the Royal Society's confidence in its all-round expertise may be misplaced. We urge the Royal Society to consider carefully when producing policy and advice whether it really has adequate in-house expertise in all fields of scientific knowledge, and to consult other learned societies as a matter of course.

93   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

94   Ibid. Back

95   Ibid. Back

96   Ibid. Back

97   Http://  Back

98   Fourth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, 2000-01, The Scientific Advisory System (HC 257), para 37 Back

99   See volume II, appendix 19 Back

100   Q 161 Back

101   See volume II, appendix 20 Back

102   See volume II, appendix 46 Back

103   HC 257, para 36 Back

104   See volume II, appendix 18 Back

105   HC 257, para 40. Back

106   First Special Report from the Science and Technology Committee, 2001-02, The Government's Response to the Science and Technology Committee's Fourth Report, Session 2000-01, The Scientific Advisory System, HC 360, paragraph 35. Back

107   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

108   See volume II, appendix 37 Back

109   See volume II, appendix 5 Back

110   See volume II, appendix 13 Back

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