Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-54)|
WILLETTS MP AND
22 JULY 2010
Q1 Chair: Minister, can I first of all
welcome you together with Professor Smith to what is the first
public session of the new Science and Technology Select Committee.
You will be interested to know that in another capacity your speech
to the Royal Institution was published in Science in Parliament
today. Of course that is a publication of the Parliamentary and
Scientific Committee which might have had a little hand in it
as well, so your words to the Royal Institution are now widely
available across the Parliamentary Estate as well as in the scientific
community. I want to start off just simply asking you as the new
Minister for Universities and Science what you would like to achieve
over the next five years?
Mr Willetts: First
of all, obviously I am very pleased to be at this first public
meeting of the Committee and I will always be at your disposal
and look forward to the dialogue we will have over the months
and years to come. On your specific question I would identify
several things. I think there is first of all what one would call
the kind of scientific cast of mind: evidence-based policy; empiricism;
assessment of what works and evaluation; and working with the
scientists in government departments to ensure that policy-making
is as evidence-based as possible, and, secondly, recognising that
these are very tough times when it comes to public spending but
to hope that, despite all the pressures, science and the scientific
community emerges strong and sustainable with well-focused activities.
There are other areas I could talk about: continuing to improve
public understanding of science; a particular interest in how
we do better at linking the world of science and the world of
industry where there is a striking parallel between Hermann Hauser's
report to the previous Government and Sir James Dyson's report
to my Party when we were in Opposition, with ideas such as Fraunhofer
Institutes which were very prominent in both reports; and perhaps
improving public procurement as well, but that is probably a long
and ambitious enough list to which I am sure the Committee will
want to hold me to account in the future.
Q2 Chair: You mentioned the departmental
advisers. What is your relationship with the Chief Scientific
Adviser, the network of advisers and the various scientific advisory
committees across government?
Mr Willetts: Of course Sir John
Beddington reports to the Government as a whole, indeed to the
Prime Minister, and I know he is already in good contact with
the Prime Minister. What I try to do, working alongside Sir John,
is to understand the scientific issues that are appearing across
government. A very welcome initiative that he introduced was to
have a weekly meeting of all the chief scientific advisers in
Whitehall departments and I try to join that discussion when I
can. I do not think it would be right to go every week but I do
go along to that. He keeps me in touch with issues that are particularly
concerning to him and are significant for him. Also of course
in my own department we have our own relationship with Brian Collins
there. I would say that I respect his distinctive independent
role but we have a very high level of communication.
Q3 Chair: And you have met the whole
of the team now?
Mr Willetts: I believe so. There
may have been one departmental chief scientist who has missed
the various meetings but I have had several meetings with the
departmental chief scientists as a group and I have found them
Q4 Chair: We had a little difficulty
towards the end of the last administration over the Professor
Nutt affair. What lessons do you draw from that in relation to
the treatment of independent scientific advice?
Mr Willetts: The lesson I draw
is that too great a divide had opened up between the scientific
community and democratically elected politicians and ministers.
We have our distinctive roles. Ultimately, as those who are democratically
elected on a manifesto with a set of beliefs governments are entitled
to pursue those policies. Equally, they need to be informed by
evidence and the scientific community is entitled to expect that
their evidence is properly taken into account. I hope that with
the reference in the revised Ministerial Code to taking account
of the principles that should guide the relationship between governments
and scientific advisers we have shown the importance of improving
that communication and creating trust through that communication.
Q5 Gavin Barwell: Minister, the main
thing I want to ask you about is the revised Ministerial Code
but before I do that may I ask one quick question on another issue.
The Coalition Agreement, which I appreciate was put together over
a fairly short period of time, was very light on its reference
to science and I wondered if you have any plans to set out in
more detail in a White Paper or some such document the themes
that you set out in answer to the Chairman's first question?
Mr Willetts: I have tried in a
series of speeches to set out my preliminary thinking because,
you are quite right, the scientific community was looking for
rather more guidance and a sense of the direction in which the
Government would be heading. I hope that as we emerge from the
CSR it will be possible then to set out more authoritative policy
statements and statements of direction. Incidentally, I should
apologise to the Committee in advance. I am sure there are areas
which the Committee would rightly want to press me on but as we
are engaged in the negotiations on the Comprehensive Spending
Review at the moment it may very hard for me to give authoritative
answers. I hope that post-CSR we will be able in documents on
our innovation policy and elsewhere to flesh out in rather more
detail the direction in which we are heading.
Q6 Gavin Barwell: What difference
do you think the incorporation of the Principles of Scientific
Advice into the Ministerial Code makes to the way in which the
Government develops and implements policy?
Mr Willetts: I think it achieves
two things. First of all, it sets out a basis for good relations
between professional scientists and ministers and communication
between them with mutual respect and trust. I know there has been
some suspicion amongst some critics about this use of the word
"trust". I think it is a good word to use because it
means that ministers respect that scientists will wish to give
them frank advice on the evidence and that scientists will understand
that democratically elected politicians ultimately do have to
take responsibility for the decisions they make. Secondly, there
is rather more explicitly than there was in the pastand
I pay tribute here to the work of Sir John Beddington and Lord
Draysonan appeal procedure if things are going wrong so
that we do not have tensions bubbling away and the Department
not knowing how to resolve them. The fact that the scientific
advisers can raise it with Sir John, that ministers can come to
me and John Beddington and we can have conversations and ultimately
go to the Prime Minister is the procedure in place if things are
going awry to try to address them.
Q7 Gavin Barwell: Are all Ministers
given a copy of the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government
when they are appointed?
Mr Willetts: They are certainly
given the revised Ministerial Code. I would have to check whether
they are literally physically handed a copy of the guidance or
referred to them. I believe they are but perhaps I should make
sure that that happens. If it does not happen it is a very good
point; we should ensure that it does.
Q8 Gavin Barwell: The wording in
the Code is that ministers should "have regard to the principles".
Your thoughts on why that phrase was chosen rather than to actually
follow the principles?
Mr Willetts: I think that the
aim was to signal the importance of the principles and if the
circumstances arose in which the principles were not being followed
I am sure that both Sir John and I would be involved in that,
but politics being a messy business you just have to give people
a degree of flexibility. However, it is very clear that we do
expect people to follow the spirit of that Code.
Q9 Chair: Professor Smith, would
you expect to see any changes?
Professor Smith: Changes to?
Q10 Chair: To the principles?
Professor Smith: We now have the
principles and the guidance in place. I think what John Beddington
has done over the last year or so in getting every department
(except I believe the Treasury) to have a chief scientific adviser
has led to an entirely different kind of atmosphere and dialogue
and discussion. I do not know that you will see any dramatic changes
but, as the Minister has just said, I think we have policies and
procedures in place to head stuff off before it gets into the
rather difficult territory that some things got into recently.
Q11 Roger Williams: Good morning,
Minister. Perhaps you could help us by explaining your role as
Minister for Science in the Cabinet, in particular your role in
the Economic Affairs Committee?
Mr Willetts: That is a very important
opportunity to make sure that my departmental responsibilities
in science and universities are at the table when economic issues
are being discussed collectively, and I appreciate that opportunity.
The only thing I would say is that of course Cabinet committees
do function as a device for the collective wisdom of ministers
to be shared and it would be the wrong approach at an individual
committee to come as a kind of shop steward. We are all trying
to help each other tackle problems collectively. You always learn
from the wisdom of your colleagues and hope you can contribute
something to the discussion. However, I hope the fact that as
the Science and Universities Minister I have a place at the table
is something of a comfort to the science community.
Q12 Roger Williams: How often does
the committee meet and what has been your experience so far as
to the amount of time given to science and consideration of it?
Mr Willetts: The Committee has
not met very much so far. I think it is fair to say that a lot
of the immediate focus of economic policy activity has been on
the banking system and the Chancellor and the Secretary of State,
Vince Cable, have been working a lot on the separate committee
on banking trying to get lending going to British business. Of
course, Cabinet committees also exist as a circulation list for
items of policy to be cleared collectively in writing even without
a meeting but I would say one of the good features of coalition
government is that it means that more discussion and consideration
both in meetings and on paper is necessary. You expect your arguments
to be tested, questions are put, evidence is challenged, and obviously
I cannot speak for how things worked under the previous Government
but I think probably coalition has strengthened that function
of Cabinet committees.
Q13 Roger Williams: I think it has
been noted that there has been a reduction in the number of Cabinet
committees and given the fact that you have said that the particular
committee you sit on has been focusing very strongly on the banking
aspects of the economy, do you think there could be a case for
setting up another committee or sub-committee which has greater
focus on scientific matters?
Mr Willetts: Sorry, I explained
myself badly. There is a separate banking sub-committee chaired
by the Chancellor with the Secretary of State on which I do not
sit and that has been quite active on the immediate financing
issues. The Economic Affairs Committee is a separate committee
with a wider remit. We will see. The structure we have got at
the moment is for a relatively small number of committees but
with quite a lot of business going through them. I have an open
mind on this. If it appeared to be a good idea to set up a separate
committee on that I would put it to the Prime Minister whose decision
it would be. I think at the moment we do not feel that is necessary,
but I would happily keep that idea under review and the Committee
may have its own thoughts on that as the Government carries on.
Q14 Alok Sharma: Minister, could
I turn to the Comprehensive Spending Review which is obviously
of huge interest to all of us. How have you been preparing for
the Spending Review and particularly could you tell us a little
bit about the submission you have been making to the Treasury
stating what your priorities are on science?
Mr Willetts: The Treasury sent
out guidelines to all departments about how they wanted the Spending
Review to be conducted, inviting usalthough a Treasury
invitation is hardly distinguishable from an instructionto
send in letters to them by the end of last week, which of course
we did, particularly inviting us to set out options for 25% and
40% reductions in departmental budgets and we have set that out.
There is now a process of discussion to go through over the weeks
and months ahead up to the autumn spending announcement. On science
in particular, my view is that by far the best way to engage the
Treasury and make this a worthwhile exercise for everyone is to
be rigorously evidence-based particularly drawing on the economic
arguments and evidence about the impact of R&D spending and
scientific activity more widely, and that is what I tried to do
in my speech to the Royal Institution to give a sense of the kind
of arguments that we would be deploying in our discussions with
Q15 Alok Sharma: Who have you been
consulting in preparing for the Spending Review and why have you
chosen to speak with those particular bodies and individuals?
Mr Willetts: There have been several
different exercises. The Chancellor has made it clear that he
wants this to be an open and transparent exercise and he personally,
as well as the Secretary of State and myself, has been meeting
with members of the scientific community to hear directly from
them. I try to have an open door policy as diaries permit, but
already in my first three months as Minister I have met many of
the key figures from the scientific communitythe Royal
Society, the Council for Science and Technology and many other
representatives of learned societiesand obviously public
expenditure comes up as an issue. Professor Smith, who may want
to talk about that himself,wrote inviting representatives
of the learned societies to send in their views specifically on
this subject and we had a very useful set of letters back from
those learned societies, and, if the Committee wished, I think
we would be very happy to submit them to you so that you could
see the points that were made if you have not already seen them.
Q16 Chair: Can I just ask on that,
am I right in saying that that invitation just went to the learned
societies and national academies and not to the wider scientific
community and perhaps Professor Smith could explain why it did
not go to the wider community?
Professor Smith: The wider community
is a very wide community indeed and loses no opportunity to give
one advice. The rationale for going to the higher level national
bodies was to try and get some broader principles that might inform
the way we approached the Spending Review rather than going to
individual bodies, when you will get the case for physics or the
case for chemistry and it becomes a kind of oppositional fight
for the cake early on; that was the rationale. The higher level
national bodies were the national academies, there was also the
CBI, the collective of the chief scientific advisers, the Council
for Science and Technology; people who operate at a higher level;
generous generalists, rather than experts from the specific disciplines.
That was the rationale.
Q17 Alok Sharma: Do you have a long-term
strategy for science funding? For instance, are you envisaging
a shift from public to private investment in R&D or are you
thinking about setting a percentage of GDP to go into R&D?
It would be very interesting to hear your views on that.
Mr Willetts: This of course does
very much depend on the discussions we are having as part of the
Comprehensive Spending Review. I am wary of artificial targets.
What we are trying to do, however, is to provide a stable framework
for the science community which will protect the space they need
for blue skies research, to which I attach great importance. Blue
skies does not mean without impact; it may just mean impact that
cannot always be predicted and accounted for in advance. I am
very keen and influenced by the arguments of people like Professor
Sir Paul Nurse on that. At the same time to have a coherent strategy
that has not just support for blue skies research but then realises
that one of our historic weaknesses under successive governments
has been the links between the scientific community and the business
community. Again, it depends on funding and exactly how the debates
work out, but we are very interested in whether we can have some
kind of technology innovation centre, as Hermann Hauser calls
them, and Fraunhofer Institutes is one parallel, and whether we
could at least get some of those functioning in the UK so that
on the development side of R&D there was perhaps a particular
focus. Then of course the Government, with the Treasury in the
lead, is reviewing the tax regime for how we would encourage private
investment in R&D. That review has not been concluded yet
but I hope that at the end of this process we are then able to
put that together and people will sense there is a coherent strategy
that links those up.
Q18 Stephen Mosley: You have talked
about the strategy and you have talked about the consultation
you have done but have you actually done any analysis of the impact
of potential budget reductions on the UK scientific base?
Mr Willetts: Obviously the Department
has been doing a large amount of work as we have been preparing
for the Comprehensive Spending Review and that includes looking
at a range of options and estimating as best we can what their
consequences would be.
Q19 Stephen Mosley: And are we able
to ask you in what areas would you be proposing reductions to
Mr Willetts: These are now the
subject of active negotiation between us and the Treasury and
we simply have not reached an agreed position. All I can say is
that there is not a kind of secret alternative set of analyses.
This Committee will be familiar with the kind of work that has
been done on assessing the economic impact of R&D and we are
drawing on that and much of it has been published. I referred
in the Royal Institution lecture to the piece of work by Professor
Haskel and Dr Wallace particularly on measuring the economic impact
of the work of the Research Councils, which is an excellent piece
of work, and its value was further enhanced by the fact that Dr
Wallace is an official in the Treasury so I thought it was a particularly
good one to cite. We are drawing on that sort of evidence as we
have these negotiations.
Q20 Stephen Mosley: Are you able
to ensure that a short-term approach to budget reductions does
not lead to long-term damage to the country's scientific base?
Mr Willetts: It is very tough
and some of the decisions may be very painful indeed but we do
want to emerge from this with a scientific community that has
a sense that there is a long-term plan and a long-term commitment
even if the levels of funding are not the ones that they have
had in the past few years but nevertheless there is a clear strategy
there and there is a strong sense that we have listened to the
scientific community on what their priorities would be. At the
end of this after the inevitable uncertainty at the moment I hope
people will recognise that we have then got a sustainable budget
that has been negotiated in tough times and that can then be the
basis for them to go forward.
Q21 Gregg McClymont: It was noted
at the outset that every department has a chief scientific adviser
except the Treasury. I wondered if you had any thoughts on why
this might be and whether at a time of pressure on public expenditure
it might be a good thing for the Treasury to also have a chief
Mr Willetts: Personally I do think
it would be a good thing for every department to have a scientific
adviser and I have found the community of chief scientific advisers
a really valuable resource for government as a whole. Sir John
Beddington has done an excellent job of creating a collective
sense of identity of the scientific advisers in the individual
departments. At this very moment there are perhaps some other
areas on which my negotiations with the Treasury should focus
rather than arguing that particular point with them. I know that
the Chancellor and the whole team of Treasury ministers do understand
the importance of science and scientific evidence and I hope that
we can make progress on that in due course.
Q22 Gregg McClymont: So you are confident
that the Treasury will engage in evidence-based policy-making
regarding science and technology?
Mr Willetts: Yes, and we are doing
our best to find a kind of shared framework which has to be rational
economic analysis. As I say, part of the purpose of my Royal Institution
speech was to draw together for public access the kind of assessment
that we would have been developing in our preparation of evidence
to the Treasury about what the economic arguments look like. The
speech is not perfect but it is an attempt to give a sense there
is some economic evidence there that we can draw on.
Q23 Gregg McClymont: Can I raise
in the context of evidence-based policy-making the birth cohort
study and whether that is likely to go ahead because it seems
to me from your own reflections on these studies that they are
very valuable in the context of evidence-based policy-making.
Mr Willetts: I agree about that
value. Of course this is one of the many issues that is now part
of our public expenditure negotiations, but personally I have
been struck by the way in which the 1958 and 1970 birth cohort
studies have driven so much of the debate on social mobility and
how already the Millennium cohort study is helping us assess what
works when it comes to early years interventions, so they are
very valuable research tools but we are not in a position to make
any final decision on those specific research proposals until
we have got an overall spending settlement.
Q24 Graham Stringer: I would like
to ask you some questions about regional science policy but before
I do may I go back to what you were saying in your lecture and
before this Committee today about the benefits of blue skies research
and curiosity-driven research. That begs a question because the
Government still has to choose which blue sky to look at? This
Committee previously has been concerned about the withdrawal of
funds from particle physics, for instance, and the previous Government
chose the digital economy and biological sciences to look at blue
skies there. What particular blue skies will you look at?
Mr Willetts: I am wary of giving
a set of personal views on that at the moment, partly because,
to be honest, I do not think my personal views are particularly
authoritative. We are still at the stage as part of our Comprehensive
Spending Review of hearing from the scientific community. When
I say that I see myself partly as a servant of the scientific
community, I mean that. There is no point having a set of personal
eccentric views that you try to impose on large numbers of people
who know far more about this than I do. As part of the CSR we
will have to identify the balance of funding between the Research
Councils so that will be part of the decision about the relative
funding of various different bodies. I know there are lists of
national challenges and they are very interesting. We may collectively
want to have rather more discussion than we have been able to
do so far about exactly what the priorities are between energy
security or demographic change or climate change, the kind of
candidates which tend to appear on these lists.
Q25 Graham Stringer: Thank you. I
realise it is a difficult question but the answer is interesting.
Does it matter to the Government where scientific research is
done? Do you have a regional science policy? There is a terrific
centripetal force in this country, is there not, to Cambridge
and Oxford and the great universities in London and the regions
tend to lose out. Does the Government have a regional scientific
Mr Willetts: You are right; you
have put your finger on what is a really important issue. We believe,
especially when money is tight, that you have to focus on excellence
and excellence can be in individual departments as well as entire
universities. Professor Smith may want to comment on this. Some
of the analysis that I have seen does suggest that our research-intensive
universities for example are quite well distributed geographically.
You are right; you do need to be aware of the geographic dimension
and aware that there are some scenarios in which the pursuit of
excellence has rather uncomfortable geographical implications.
I do not know if you want to add to that, Adrian.
Professor Smith: In a previous
incarnation of this Committee I think that question was asked
before and we did supply to the Committee a regional breakdown
of research funding, which I think surprised some people in that
it was not as extreme as your initial question would have suggested.
Q26 Graham Stringer: That was the
implication because certainly in the centres outside the universities
it is very extreme, is it not? 90 odd per cent of the research
in the centres takes place in the "golden triangle".
In the universities I accept it is more spread out. Does the abolition
of the RDAs have any implication for regional science? Will the
regions lose out because of the abolition of the RDAs?
Mr Willetts: I do not believe
that they should, partly because we hope that the local economic
partnerships will be a very effective device for supporting economic
growth, which includes obviously new, innovative industries in
the regions and in their local communities.
Q27 Graham Stringer: I do not want
to interrupt but they will have an explicit responsibility, will
they, for promoting science and investing in science?
Mr Willetts: In the first letter
that has gone from the Secretary of State for BIS, Vince Cable,
and also Eric Pickles, we have explicitly referred to the importance
of working with universities and colleges so that this angle is
covered. There are some of the functions currently carried out
by RDAs that we think should better be covered nationally where
we see the Technology Strategy Board having an enhanced role.
This will be tricky and you are absolutely right to pursue this.
To give you an example, I believe there are 24 different nanotechnology
centres and every region has said that they want to have strength
in nanotechnology. One of the strong messages we get from the
scientific community as we consult them about where any expenditure
cuts should fall and how we strengthen the development side of
R&D is that they say there are too many small centres which
are sub-critical in size, so we will be looking to the TSB to
take some quite tough decisions about where, for example, you
concentrate nanotechnology or other resources. I think it is most
unlikely in 18 months' time we will have 24 nanotechnology centres
across the UK. As they engage in that they clearly need themselves
in turn to have a sense of the geographical balance of the larger
specialised centres they wish to create, but we have been getting
a very strong message that especially when times are tight, in
this area and many others, people want fewer, stronger centres
of critical mass.
Q28 Graham Stringer: That sounds
like a fairly strong argument that things are going to be centralised
in the TSB. What is going to be left in the regions? Correct me
if I am wrong but it does sound like a centralising argument because
decisions have to be taken centrally. What is going to be left
in the regions for science and innovation?
Mr Willetts: We see it that a
lot of decisions are going to be become more local with local
economic partnerships, but we have identified some functions currently
carried out by RDAs which we think will go up to national level,
probably the TSB, and indeed we have identified our list of some
of the functions that are best led at a national level. It includes
inward investment, sector leadership, responsibility for business
support, innovation and access to finance. To give another example
therefore, individual RDAs running inward investment operations
around the world, as some of them have been doing, again when
money is tight it is not necessarily cost-effective to be paying
for a regional presence to encourage inward investment in a particular
region based outside the UK so there are some areas where I would
say, yes, because money is tight we do have to look for a national
lead either in BIS or in the Technology Strategy Board or located
Q29 Chair: Where will the funding
come for that new work for the TSB?
Mr Willetts: This is one of the
points that we are considering as part of the CSR. We have been
clear that there are likely to be some extra responsibilities
for the TSBs as the RDAs are abolished and we will be setting
some of that out in a policy document in the autumn aimed at the
moment to be roughly the same time as the CSR.
Q30 Roger Williams: Of course it
is not just the TSB and the Government that are supporting science
and innovation across the UK; it is also the Assemblies and Parliaments
in the devolved nations. How would you co-ordinate with those
other bodies in doing this work?
Mr Willetts: I have already had
useful meetings in London with my Welsh and Scottish opposite
numbers and I have said to them that I very much hope to be able
to go out to Cardiff and Edinburgh and meet them on their home
territory as well and certainly intend to do that before the conclusion
of the CSR. They have many other means of communicating their
views but they certainly will have a further opportunity of having
that discussion with me before the decision is finalised.
Q31 Roger Williams: I think the Welsh
Assembly has just appointed a Chief Scientific Adviser John Harries.
If they came to a different conclusion to the Government here
about what should be the priority for scientific research how
would you cope with that or how would you respond to that?
Mr Willetts: Of course the devolution
settlement is clear that the university teaching function is devolved
but the assessment of research and the Research Councils are UK-wide
functions, and that is the model within which we are working.
However, I certainly do value the conversations and discussions
I have with them and to hear the views of the Assembly and Government
in Wales and Scotland, so, yes, that would carry on. It is their
responsibility, and I genuinely do not know and would not necessarily
wish to press them on it, but they may have their own R&D
budgets in Wales and Scotland, I do not quite know how that functions
but they would be allowed to have that if they wished.
Q32 Roger Williams: In answer to
a question from Mr Stringer I think Professor Smith said that
when some work was done on the fairness (if that is the right
word) of distribution of resources for science across the UK people
were surprised about that, but there is always the concern that
some of the universities and institutions in the more remote parts
of the UK do not seem to get their fair share. How would you ensure
that there is fairness between the regions of England and the
devolved nations? Is that an important issue?
Mr Willetts: As research is a
British Government responsibility my door is as open to the Universities
of Edinburgh or Cardiff who want to talk to me about their research
role and what they do on research as it is to any other university
in the United Kingdom, and I do have those conversations with
the vice-chancellors of those universities, so we understand and
value that and there is absolutely no bias against them; far from
Q33 Roger Williams: In one of your
recent speeches you indicated quite clearly that you support clusters
very strongly. There is one massive cluster, the Golden Triangle
between Oxford, Cambridge and London. Is there any way in which
you can support clusters either starting or continuing with work
in other parts of the UK?
Mr Willetts: Yes, and I think
the story of what has been achieved in Scotland around the Universities
of Dundee and Abertay is a really good example of the creation
of a cluster, some of it using UK-wide funding that was allocated.
I think there are some examples in Wales as well, including classic
strikes like agriculture and agricultural science. One of the
things that comes across very strongly from the scientific advice
we get is that with climate change happening and with the pressures
that people are under we should think of agriculture as a very
important sector of the future where research will have a valuable
return, so there are specialties like that as well where we have
clearly got clusters.
Q34 Stephen Mosley: In a couple of
your answers you have started to move into the sort of areas that
you are going to be prioritising as a Government. Have you any
formal mechanisms in place to determine what will be the research
priorities and, indeed, have you got any idea what those priorities
Mr Willetts: I have been to Swindon
and had discussions with the Research Councils. It comes up in
many of the discussions that I have with representatives and members
of the scientific community and business. I guess there are two
approaches. First of all, you could have a list of national challenges,
and we have inherited from the previous Government, I think, a
rather interesting and worthwhile list of some of the big challenges
that we face. At some point alongside the CSR we will need to
have a collective discussion in government about those challenges,
whether we add to them, whether we subtract from them, what relative
weights we attach, and that is happening alongside the CSR. Secondly,
there is the debate about the industrial sectors where we have
comparative advantage, and I think all of us have a list that
rather trips off the tongue that we are familiar withaerospace,
advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, medical research. Yesterday
I was at Farnborough speaking about the space sector. One thing
that I am keen to do, and I am trying to encourage the Department
to do more, is for our discussions with the Treasury to ensure
that that list is as rigorously explained and economically rational
as possible. It cannot just be individuals plucking out from the
air lists of apparently sexy sounding sectors. We could all probably
go back in history and find politicians in the 1960s and 1970s
ambitiously having these kinds of lists and some of them they
would have got bang on and others might look rather embarrassing
in retrospect. Just because we have a list like this, the Treasury
will not automatically say we must back R&D in that sector.
If we look for example towards the whole Fraunhofer Institute
agenda and technology innovation centres, the more we can rigorously
define what our comparative advantage is, why we have got it and
therefore it is a robust base for backing a particular sector,
the better. I tried in my speech yesterday at Farnborough to offer
some economics about why we have a comparative advantage in the
space sector and what our strengths are in the space sector. This
may be an area where the Select Committee could really help. The
more we can have that evidence base with some strong economics
the better we can develop the argument.
Stephen Mosley: Thank you.
Q35 Gregg McClymont: Can I ask about
the Minister about pathways to impact and the extent to which
he thinks that should play a role in deciding how research is
Mr Willetts: There are two different
impact agendas of course. There is the HEFCE REF impact issue
and there is separately the Research Council impact issue. The
pathways to impact exercise which the Research Councils conduct,
they explain to meand this is something I discussed when
I went to Swindon to meet the heads of Research Councilsis
something they very much present to me as a kind of culture change
to try to ensure that people in the scientific community with
research proposals applying for grants to them at least have to
think through what could be the impact. They say that it does
not follow that it has a numerical weighting as determining what
your chances of success are in a research grant or how big your
research grant is; they just want it to be part of the thought
process that a researcher goes through. That is rather different
therefore from the proposal which I inherited on measuring impact
in the REF was that 25% of the weighting in the assessment of
research excellence should be based on impact. That was a much
harder-edged specific numerical weighting that was going to be
given to impact. It is that latter proposal that I have said I
think we need another year to assess and get more evidence on.
Q36 Gregg McClymont: Can I ask Professor
Smith about what we might have learned from the American model
on research impact?
Professor Smith: I think it is
rather the other way round. I have forgotten the exact name of
the thing you are probably referring to.
Q37 Gregg McClymont: The United States
Star Metrics initiative?
Professor Smith: The fact is that
it appears to be influenced by the British e-Val approach of the
Medical Research Council, so it is very flattering!
Mr Willetts: We are very chauvinistic
in this Department!
Professor Smith: So of course
Mr Willetts: President Obama has
announced this very recently so it is quite early days. Professor
Smith is probably right that we were ahead of them in entering
Q38 Gregg McClymont: Can I ask a
broader question which relates to research impact and the definition
of science. Lord Mandelson's definition was a broad one which
incorporated social sciences and the arts and humanities and I
wonder whether the notion of impact has a lesser or greater role
to play in those sorts of research?
Mr Willetts: That is a very fair
point. The definition of what constitutes science is quite elastic.
It certainly includes social sciences and there there are areas
where researchers are particularly keen to talk of the impact
of their research. That is fine and nobody is trying to stop them
doing that; the question is whether it is required of you. For
the arts and humanities there are, I think it is fair to say,
some sharply diverse views. Last month the British Academy produced
an excellent report which was an attempt to show that even in
the arts and humanities they could have a very valuable impact
on our national life. There are other really distinguished academics
in that community, one thinks of Professor Stefan Colleni for
example (who has said this in public), who are very wary of impacts,
so for the arts and humanities there is a significant division
within that community.
Q39 Gregg McClymont: Have you come
to a view yet?
Mr Willetts: The purpose of the
year-long delay is to do two things. It is to see whether you
can have a measure of impact that is methodologically robust.
That will partly depend on the pilots which have not yet concluded
and will be concluding in the autumn. It will help give us time
to properly learn the lessons from the pilots. It is also to give
me time to assess whether there is a consensus within the academic
community about this. My personal view is that as yet we have
not got a robust methodology and we have not got the full consent
of the academic community. The academic community is always going
to have disputations, we are never going to get to 100%, but I
did not think there was a clear balance of opinion in favour.
The extra year will give us time to see whether those methodological
questions can be resolved and to see what kind of advice I get
from the academic community.
Q40 Graham Stringer: You have answered
most of my questions. I was going to ask about the Research Excellence
Framework. Can you tell us a little bit more about the pilots
and how you are assessing the methodology for looking at whether
you can have a robust method of measuring impact and, if you cannot,
does that mean that impact will disappear from those assessments?
Will it become a zero?
Mr Willetts: The pilots have not
yet concluded. I have met some of the academics who have been
participating in them. Professor Smith might want to add to this.
I have to say several of those who have participated in the pilots
have said to me that it has turned out better than they had expected
or feared. There has been a suggestion that there does seem to
be an awful lot of paperwork involved in all of it. Again, we
are going through tough times. One of the other reasons for the
delay is the last thing I want to do is impose another set of
bureaucratic hurdles on hard-pressed academics. That is what has
tended to come from the pilots.
Q41 Graham Stringer: Can I press
you a little bit on that because I am not sure in my own mind
and we had Professor Cox here in the previous Parliament saying
he had not got the faintest idea what to do when it came to looking
at these things. If the problem is that it is difficult to measure
impacts, how does the pilot look at that? It cannot just be done
by paperwork, can it, you need deeper analysis surely?
Mr Willetts: I do not know, Professor
Smith, if you want to add to how the pilots are going.
Professor Smith: The whole point
of pilots is that you try to bottom this out and I think it is
premature to leap to conclusions when they have not finished the
work. But I would echo what the Minister said in so far as there
is a direction of travel and it has been more positive than you
might have guessed. I think you have to get away from the word
"measure". The right word is "assess". This
is not something where you have an easy set of metrics. It is
rather like peer group assessment of grant applications in some
senses. You look at a whole range of things and what that range
of things is and how it gets synthesised would probably be different
in English than it is in Nuclear Physics, and that is what we
are trying to learn in this process. I think you have to let the
pilots work their way through.
Mr Willetts: We have got 29 higher
education institutions across the UK involved in the piloting
and 100 leading academics and expert users assessing research
across a wide sample of disciplines from English, physics, medicine
and social policy to earth science. One of the things they are
trying to do is develop a methodology, so they meet up and discuss
how they assess the impact of the work that has been done by colleagues
in their discipline and that in itself is trying to help develop
an appropriate methodology. How would you set about doing it?
For example, how much weight do you give to media coveragea
question perhaps we face in politicsor is there such a
thing as bad media coverage, so there are questions like that
that they are wrestling with in these pilots.
Q42 Chair: Is this one methodology
for all subjects? It seems to me measures of cost-effectiveness
and so on can be quite different in different subjects.
Mr Willetts: That is a question
that I have put to some of the experts I have met and you could
envisage going for the REF including measurements of impact in
some disciplines but not others. Again, it would be very interesting
for this Select Committee to pursue it because we are open-minded
and we need to see. The kind of feedback I have gained is that
people would prefer a consistent methodology rather than completely
different methodologies for the arts and the sciences. That is
what I have been told but that is another question which is open.
You could imagine doing a different type of impact or only doing
it in some disciplines and not others.
Q43 Chair: I wonder whether that
is going to be regarded by the academic community as fair. I am
reflecting back to many years ago when I sat on the academic board
of what is now Portsmouth University when it was a polytechnic
and the great battles that went on between departments about "my
subject is more expensive to teach than your subject" and
so on, and therefore you cannot have a single methodology. Are
different disciplines going to regard it as fair?
Mr Willetts: I thought you were
going to suggest a very radical thought which is that the English
academics should assess the impact of the physicists and the physicists
should assess the impact of the historians. That would be a very
interesting exercise! I think what they are trying to do is to
see if they can get some kind of consistent framework that does
apply across disciplines. Whether that is possible we do not know
but I think that is the aim of the exercise.
Chair: Can we move on to the issue of
public trust which I know you expressed interesting comments on
earlier on. Graham?
Q44 Graham Stringer: I was just going
to say 50 or 60 years ago if a man in a white coat came on the
television, by and large, the population would trust his judgment
on polio vaccination or whatever. Since then we have had MMR,
GM foods and BSE and there is a distrust of science. What can
you do as Science Minister to improve the trust in science?
Mr Willetts: There was a series
of initiatives under the previous Government and we are in the
process of assessing those. In a way, there were so many initiatives
that it gives us the opportunity of assessing the ones that have
been particularly effectively and the ones that were perhaps less
effective. I would pay tribute to the previous Government. I think
in the last few years in particular, after the successive traumas
under the previous Conservative Government and then things like
GM and the MMR vaccine, there has been a real effort at trying
to have more dialogue. I think that anything that brings together
the scientific community and people outside the scientific community
is valuable. The science festival scene in Britain now is very
lively and very healthy and I think about half a million people
a year go to science festivals. You can sponsor specific dialogue
in particular areas and we obviously have to think carefully about
where we go after the regrettable recent departures from the GM
dialogue exercise, so you could both have structured dialogue
and more widely trying to make science accessible to the lay community
and they both have a role.
Q45 Graham Stringer: Is there anything
you think you can do specifically as Science Minister? Have you
given yourself a metric that by the end of four years that trust
in science and the public's view of GM foods will have changed?
Mr Willetts: I hope there are
things one can do. Let me think of some examples. I do not claim
any credit for this because this was before my time, but I think
it was great that there was already a synthetic biology dialogue
underway so that when we had the recent perhaps rather exaggerated
announcement by Craig Venter about what he claimed to have done,
we had already got an exercise which BBSRC and EPSRC have sponsored
trying to get a measure of public attitudes to synthetic biology,
which showed that the public were not automatically hostile, they
thought this could help but they did ask some very good questions
that sometimes scientists take for granted like why do they have
to do this? Are they just doing it because it is technically possible?
Is there something that would be technically possible that the
scientists might say nevertheless we should be inhibited from
doing? Are they doing it because they are after personal aggrandisement;
they want to make a name for themselves? You can try to identify
looming issues on the horizon where the scientific research is
moving fast and try to get some dialogue set up. The second thing
is as a layman I am struck by the way in which there are some
scientists who are fantastic communicators who do such a good
job conveying science to lay people and there are others who find
it very hard to explain to anyone what they are doing and why.
There is an extraordinary range and if there is anything we can
do through organisations like the Science Media Centre to help
with training and getting them to communicate with people who
may not have the expertise of the colleagues with whom they share
their labs, anything we can do to help them do that would be really
worthwhile as well.
Q46 Graham Stringer: What lessons
can be learned from the leaked emails from the University of East
Anglia from the Climatic Research Unit there? Has that damaged
the image of British science?
Mr Willetts: We have now had three
inquiries into that episode and on many of the allegations I think
the UEA and the research community there have come out essentially
cleared of any of the allegations that were made of them but,
equally, there are some lessons. Not everything was right, including
proper data-keeping. The Government attaches a lot of importance
to transparency, making sure that research data are accessible
to the wider public as easily and quickly as possible. The latest
investigation suggests, as I understand it, that most of their
raw data could be accessed, I think the phrase is, within two
minutes, but it is very important and people think that it is
absolutely clear that that kind of data should be accessible and
perhaps a certain defensiveness got hold amongst some scientists
at the UEA precisely because of the criticism and attacks they
were under from sceptics on the blogosphere. Instead of advancing
forward and wanting to engage, it made them think, "What
is this mischief maker doing and why the hell should we correspond
with that?" I think there is a lesson for all of us in that.
Q47 Graham Stringer: Finally, is
the image of British science damaged by this episode?
Mr Willetts: I hope not. Clearly
the initial reporting of the original concerns went round the
world, but we have now had three investigations covering different
aspects of this, and although there are lessons to be learned
I think they show that when it comes to the conduct of the science
the work that was done at UEA, as I understand it, has passed
muster when assessed by independent experts to check whether anything
went wrong. My view is that their scientific work stands. There
are lessons about how they engage with members of the public and
others coming to them asking for data and information about what
they are doing.
Q48 Chair: Going back to members
of the public, you talked about dialogues, what evidence is there
that such dialogues have an impact on the wider public. I can
see there is clear evidence of the impact on those who are engaged
but what evidence is there that such approaches do permeate out
to the wider public?
Mr Willetts: That is a fair question.
I think the way in which they are supposed to have an impact,
and I am not aware of any evaluations, and if there are some of
which I am unaware I will happily send you a note with further
information, is ensuring that the scientists who are considering
what research to undertake and how to undertake it are aware of
what lay people would want to know about it and the kind of questions
they need to be able to answer if they are to go down that route.
I think it is supposed to help the scientists as they consider
what kind of research activities to engage in, but I am not aware
of any evaluations of that.
Professor Smith: There is a regular
survey of public attitudes to science and scientists.
Q49 Chair: It would be interesting.
Professor Smith: The problem is
if the survey is done the week after East Anglia and Climategate
it would be different answer than if somebody has just discovered
the cure for cancer.
Q50 Chair: The second point I would
like to follow up in response to your reply to Graham Stringer
is you talked about the different initiatives that occurred under
the previous administration and they ranged across a considerable
number of departments, DEC through to education. At your level
and amongst the chief scientific advisers level, is there some
co-ordination of the work of those various initiatives so that
one can see the impact in early years education through to university
applications and so on? Is that work happening on a cross-departmental
Mr Willetts: Do you mean particularly
on science and engagement with the wider public?
Q51 Chair: No, in terms of there
was a whole string of initiatives that were taken under the previous
administration. What I am trying to get at is whether those are
co-ordinated on a cross-departmental basis?
Mr Willetts: The previous Government
left us a Science and Society strategy. I think the previous Government
commissioned five reports from five expert groups which have looked
at things on a cross-departmental basis. The one I am most familiar
with is Sir Mark Walport's report on Science and Learning but
there are also ones on careers and the media. Those reports are
very useful for us. We are now drawing on those as we plan where
the Science and Society programme goes, but that is on a genuinely
cross-departmental basis and when a minister in another department
has a particular issue where they are in the lead, like GM, they
do consult us as the custodians of the wider issue of the dialogue
with the lay community.
Q52 Chair: So you are going to follow
through with the action plans that emerged from the initiative?
Are we going to see your pronouncements on them soon?
Mr Willetts: Again I have to say
it is partly a funding issue, and what money there is to back
these initiatives. Their total cost is about £15 million,
so it is not a large part of our budget, but we have now got those
reports on our desks and I hope in the autumn to be able to give
our considered response. Meanwhile of course, there are particular
things where we have outstanding remits from the previous Select
Committee. There is some work that is currently going on on GM
and I am sorry we have not been yet been able to respond to the
Committee in its previous incarnation on things like that and
nanotechnology. We are working faster so that you do get responses
to the specific questions that were asked by the previous Committee.
Q53 Chair: Can we have a sneak preview
of the CSR and can we assume that a proportion of the science
budget will be committed to the Science and Society initiative?
Mr Willetts: I certainly think
that the public dialogue and public communication of science is
a valuable function. The Treasury quite reasonably say to us,
"Okay, there are half a million people going round science
festivals so exactly what is the requirement for public support?"
so we have to work out what is the value added for the use of
public money in that way. Science writing is so good in this country
and science journalism is flourishing that in some ways it means
that the need for direct public support is perhaps less than it
was, but I am sure there will be some public support and we will
try to identify where it can be best deployed.
Q54 Chair: Finally, you have mentioned
a couple of times in your evidence the Fraunhofer Institutes.
To what extent do you believe that those institutes and the Steinbeis
Institutes in parallel have helped better co-ordination in the
German economy, for example, and do you believe that there is
any evidence that suggests that the existence of the institutes
helps the confidence of capital and it may be partly responsible
for why it is easier for businesses to borrow money over a much
longer period in Germany?
Mr Willetts: I do think that they
have been a key part of Germany's success in advanced manufacturing
and high-grade engineering, yes. Of course it does not follow
that you can immediately transplant something from one national
culture to another. I do not believe we could ever translate Fraunhofers
and do the same thing, but there may be industrial sectors where
you can create a sort of cluster. I think the most useful definition
of cluster that I have come across from economists is a "low-risk
environment for high-risk activities", so you create an environment
where there are so many different people coming together that
even if your particular small business does not work out there
is another one down the road that is recruiting and things like
that. One of the reasons why I announced yesterday some extra
investment in earth observation is we are trying to create at
Harwell a place where you have both publicly funded science and
a large amount of commercial and development activity. You could
regard Harwell as a British cluster version of a Fraunhofer. Although
I have to admit I have not yet visited it, I have had very good
reports of the Advanced Manufacturing Centre in Rotherham which
I do wish to go and visit and which I am told you could think
of as already a long way down that route. It did have some public
money to pump-prime it and it is used by Rolls-Royce and other
leading businesses. There may be things we can draw on and expand
to get a network of several technology and innovation centres,
as Hermann Hauser calls them.
Chair: Thank you, Minister and thank
you, Professor Smith, for bearing with us We look forward to working
with you over the coming years, hopefully in a collegiate manner
but occasionally we might be putting a little bit more pressure
on you than today. Thank you for coming.