Setting the scene - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-54)

MR DAVID WILLETTS MP AND PROFESSOR ADRIAN SMITH

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 very valuable.

  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 past—and I pay tribute here to the work of Sir John Beddington and Lord Drayson—an 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 us—although a Treasury invitation is hardly distinguishable from an instruction—to 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 the Treasury.

  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 community—the Royal Society, the Council for Science and Technology and many other representatives of learned societies—and 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 occur?

  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 scientific adviser?

  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 policy?

  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 elsewhere.

  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 it

  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 might be?

  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 with—aerospace, 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 funded?

  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 me—and this is something I discussed when I went to Swindon to meet the heads of Research Councils—is 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 I approve.

  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 this territory.

  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 coverage—a question perhaps we face in politics—or 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 basis?

  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.





 
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