Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


ORAL EVIDENCE - Part 1

TAKEN BEFORE THE SELECT COMMITTE ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

TUESDAY 29 JULY 1997

Present:


Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Perry of Walton, L.
Craig of Radley, L.Phillips of Ellesmere, L.
Flowers, L.(Chairman)
Hogg, B.Platt of Writtle, B.
Kirkwood, L.Porter of Luddenham, L.
McFarlane of Llandaff, B.Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.
Nathan, L.




Examination of Witnesses

Sir Ron Dearing, Chairman of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, and Sir Ron Oxburgh, KBE, FRS, Rector of Imperial College and a member of the National Committee, were called in and examined.  

Introduction

Chairman

  1. Sir Ron, thank you very much for coming and for bringing with you a gentleman whom I shall try to refer to as the Rector, hoping my colleague to my left will not reply! Perhaps you would like to make some introductory remarks and introduce your colleagues?

(Sir Ron Dearing) You know Sir Ronald Oxburgh, the Rector, and Mrs Shirley Trundle, Secretary of the Committee. Thank you for inviting us so quickly before we have had an opportunity to forget those things which we ought to have remembered in the report! We established a Research Committee to guide us in our work and our report reflects very much the work of that committee. It was one of the approaches we consciously adopted, given that we had only 14 or 15 months to do the job, to work through a number of sub-groups. It had a further advantage of enabling us to involve a wider basis of expertise. For example, we invited Professor John Laver on the arts and humanities side to join that group because we wanted to investigate in particular the case for increased funding for the arts and for the humanities and how that was best managed. Accordingly we brought in that particular expertise, and so on. As to the report itself, as you will have seen, research has its chapter and we have some very real concerns. We think, and the report says so plainly, that the university sector has done an excellent job in research and with very little increase in resources over the last decade it has maintained and, I would say, enhanced the reputation of United Kingdom research in academe. By such measures of productivity as are possible it has done well, increasing productivity, increasing effectiveness. In the studies we made of major international awards, again the United Kingdom did well. According to our information - and I disbelieve most figures - between 1991 and 1996 we earned 12 per cent of international medals and awards for which the prize was £200,000 or more. But while there has been a very good record of achievement, there is a much less satisfactory record of maintenance of the capability to conduct research in the future. To an extent my own judgement would be that we have achieved that very high level of performance by eating into capital that was created in the past, in terms of buildings, infrastructure, and research equipment. As a result, we now have a worrying position. Surveys have been conducted on behalf of the funding bodies and research councils and one to which we refer shows a backlog in equipment funding of £474 million. We suggest that needs to be addressed now, with extra funding of £100 million a year over four to five years, and increased funding for communications and information technology. But also we see that there is a pressing need to renew major infrastructure created 30 or so years ago. Various people have given a broad judgement of the kind of sum that is needed to renew that infrastructure in research centres of real international excellence to enrich the whole of research throughout the United Kingdom, and the figure we have is £4-500 million. That is on top of the equipment. Relate that to an annual funding for research of £2.5 billion and we are talking, in round numbers, of getting on for a billion. We have a big issue to face and that is stated squarely in the report. There are other issues but if I had to identify one, it is the excellence of the achievement at the cost of eating into the seedcorn and its need for replacement.

  2. Thank you very much indeed. Perhaps I should emphasise at the outset that colleagues in the House of Lords are interested in all aspects of your rather splendid report and, indeed, members of this Committee are interested in all aspects, but this Committee, as a Committee responsible for considering science and technology, is bound to emphasise most this morning your considerations of research. That is the only reason why the agenda may, to an extent, seem limited.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) We recognise we are at hazard on all matters in the report and are glad to respond.

  3. We have, I hope, let you have a list of possible questions?

(Sir Ron Dearing) Yes, you did.

Volume of research

  4. Following up your introductory remarks, do you see a need for more research, or for more adequate support of the current level of research?

(Sir Ron Dearing) If I may take that one, we are saying, first, that what we are doing - and that is the first priority - needs to be properly funded, and it is not. We do look to some expansion in funding for research under particular headings, but perhaps one ought to begin by some general justification for a view that there should be extra funding for research. I have a general view that if a thing is being done extremely well and it matters very much to national well-being, it is not a bad policy to invest in success. Our report shows that as a proportion of GDP we rank No. 5 in the G7 countries with, I think, 2.2 per cent of GDP in research. That is not a matter just for government; it is for the whole community. We spend about £14.5 billion on research and the government funds a third of that sum. Looking ahead to a basis for a successful national economic strategy, my judgement and the Committee's judgement is that it must be grounded in knowledge, research-based activities and, therefore, it must be a good long-term national strategy to encourage research. So as a general national strategy we see a case for some increase in research but we do not venture large numbers. We deal with it in particular ways. We suggest that the dual funding system is not working well at the moment, and we suggest that the research councils ought more fully to fund the projects they sponsor. We recommend that the overhead addition is raised from 45 to 60 per cent, which produces a figure, I am told, of £110 million. We identify ways in which that could be responded to and the first, and preferred, method is an increase in the quantum. Our Scottish Committee says without that there should be no change in the present arrangements. It is very clear on that. Our second option is to reduce the number of projects funded from the research councils, and the third option is a simple transfer, but the Committee, taking a view about the value of research and long-term needs, thinks there is a clear case for increasing funding. That is the main point. We recommend the creation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council, and that the present funding of just over £20 million - I think it is £21.5 million - should be increased progressively over the next three years by £8 million a year, to produce an extra £25 million over the three years. That would be additional funding. We also offer the view that collaborative research between the university sector and industry should be encouraged and over the long term we see that the fund of £50 million existing at present might be, say, doubled. Those are the main specifics, but in the long term assessment we make, we indicate that if the number of students studying at higher levels goes up, as it will, there would need to be increased funding to go with that. So in those ways, specifically identified, we look to increased funding within the framework of the value of research and the success of research in British institutions.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) I think I would support all that. We did not specifically address the question of how big the United Kingdom research base should be because that raises a very wide range of problems, as everyone here knows, my Lord Chairman, but a number of the recommendations we make implicitly suggest that it could well be larger than it is today. But I suppose the overriding consideration is that no-one benefits from inadequately supported research and, to some extent, the degree of selectivity one has to have in the system is determined by the amount of money available, and if you make a small amount of money available then you support a small number of research projects but you support them properly. We do not recommend that but that seems to us to be the way one has to go.

Quality of research

Lord Flowers

5. May I begin by congratulating Sir Ron, as you did, on the general excellence of his report.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Thank you, my Lord.

  6. It is greatly to be welcomed and will help enormously, I am sure, even if we do quibble with some of it. I ought also to declare that I am Chancellor of the University of Manchester and Chairman of the Nuffield Foundation. The question I wanted to ask was related to the last statement you made, Sir Ron, in your opening remarks. You paid warm tribute to the distinguished performance of the British universities in research and I am sure that 15 or 20 years ago that was most certainly true, that their performance was absolutely world-class over many, many fields. I wondered - and perhaps the Rector could answer this - whether there is hard evidence that that is still the case? It is not my impression that our distinction in research in the universities is now, in 1997, what it was 20 years ago. Is there hard evidence to support that statement?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Let me respond first and then turn to the Rector for a more expert response. We do quote in our report - and we recognise that it is an imperfect measure - citations in relation to the volume of research and it seemed from the figures we quoted that we do rather well. I am not sure-footed on numbers. I think we have about 9 per cent of the citations, and then there were the awards to which I referred. But there were also the impressions from visiting a number of overseas countries, where I did find respect for research in the United Kingdom. At the same time we do say in our text that we have, to some considerable extent, been living on the past and we see some evidence, from the measures that I quoted, that over the last few years we have been slipping. We think that reflects the under-funding and this, in turn, is reflected in the real expressions of concern we are getting from the highest levels of research-based industries in the United Kingdom, that they are now beginning to become concerned about our ability to match, in terms of quality of resource, the best institutions overseas. So taking a ten-year view, we have done well, but in the last few years the evidence is, as far as we have been able to see it, that it is slipping.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) My Lord Chairman, this is a difficult one again and I think the answer is that there is not hard evidence. The problems are, as my Chairman indicated, that almost every measure that you use has a time lag associated with it and so anything that you measure today reflects the consequences of things done five or maybe ten years ago and that is difficult to take into account. If one looks at probably the best, although imperfect, quantitative information available, it is the study carried out by Sir Robert May and published in Science recently [7 February 1997, vol. 275, p. 793]. There is a rather longer and more detailed departmental report associated with that and that indicates that we are not doing badly but our position today relative to our competitor countries is probably slipping, not enormously but it is slipping. So our absolute position is not bad but the trends do not look very good.

Number of researchers

Lord Craig of Radley

  7. May I also add my praise to you and your Committee for this report. You have drawn attention to the need for additional funding for research and also drawn our attention to the problems of the infrastructure. I think you mentioned a moment ago the long-term aim of increasing the numbers of people going into undergraduate studies from 36 or 37 per cent to 45 per cent. How much is the ability to spend those additional resources on research itself dependent on increasing the numbers going through into research activity in academia? Is there a correlation, in your judgement, or would you in effect be able to spend those additional resources with the existing numbers who work in that field?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) My Lord Chairman, the estimates for future expenditure, or recommended future expenditure, on research are based on the present size of the research base and, indeed, the additions which are proposed are really needed to make effective use of the present research base.

Advisory council on national research policy

Chairman

  8. Can I move on to the next question. You say that there is a need for better co-ordination between the various support systems. The 1993 White paper invented something which I think is called the Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Yes, indeed.

  9. I am not surprised that you say you have been unable to study it because it seems to be a somewhat difficult body to study. Similarly, the Council for Science and Technology is not all that open to study. So how do you see this greater clarity being introduced?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) This is an area which we would like to have spent more time on, my Lord Chairman. It is hard to plead lack of time but we did actually complete the report, under our Chairman's "whip", very fast indeed. This is an area which we certainly would like to have looked at in more detail, and the nature of our recommendations is necessarily tentative, but we were not convinced that any of the existing bodies were really taking a panoramic view of science and research support in the country as a whole. The research councils had their particular view, their particular set of priorities, and they spoke of their research programmes. There is a comparable pattern of research in industry. The universities have their agenda. Particularly in the medical area the Wellcome Foundation and other major medical charities have a very important influence. We ourselves are proposing additional funding streams and we felt that it would be in the broad national interest if there was an influential and independent group that was able to stand back and comment and, indeed, perhaps on occasion nudge various parts of this highly desirable and complex arrangement for support of research. We did not work things out in detail simply because we did not have the time.

Lord Flowers

  10. Were you thinking of something like the old, very old now, Advisory Council on Science and Technology?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Something of that kind.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) But not required to proceed through published reports, which tend to slow down the way things happen, as people meticulously strive to make sure that what they say will stand up to public scrutiny and so on. There is a human point I would like to make which applies to all human activity. We are condemned by our nature to be territorial; turf is protected vigorously. There needs to be some body which does not have turf to protect, which is taking the overall view to maximise the benefit we get from research. So we thought an influential independent body with access to the Prime Minister could be beneficial, such as ACARD and ACOST, but proceeding - and this is very debateable - more by advice given privately than through what I would describe as "muzzle-loaded" procedures, that is, published reports.

Chairman

  11. I take your point, Sir Ron, about the disadvantages of publishing reports. On the other hand, there is an advantage, that you are speaking not only to government but also to the community at large, which needs to know more of what the thinking is.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) I have found, my Lord Chairman, in today's world, much though one would like to proceed in secret, it is impossible. Also, I think from time to time a Committee such as this might well choose to issue a published report. It is just that, based upon experience, we thought there was wisdom in not committing oneself to proceed in this rather formal muzzle-loaded way. It is a slow procedure.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) But we saw merit in both approaches.

Lord Porter of Luddenham

  12. Sir Ron, continuing this, which actually comes up again in some of our later questions, the possibility of resuscitating something like ACOST and ACARD, who do you see as the department possessing this outfit? It was originally the Cabinet Office, was it not?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Yes.

  13. Do you see us going back to a Cabinet Office run thing? We have no Minister for Science really, no department, and the DTI is doing it at the moment.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) I would prefer something that was not linked into one departmental minister. We have a committee at the moment, a distinguished committee chaired by - I am not sure the title is used so much as it was in the last government - the President of the Board of Trade, and we have another committee under Sir Robert May. They have their departmental channels and one of our purposes is to lift this above the interplay of departmental interests and arguments.

  14. You would agree that they in no sense can be called independent?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Absolutely, and they have a job to do. They have a purpose.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) I think this has to be Cabinet Office. I would hesitate to say that Sir Robert May was not independent. His office was set up with all sorts of checks and balances in place to give him an interdepartmental role, even though he is in DTI for pay and rations. But even so, I think that this ought to be an independent body and it has to be Cabinet Office and there are one or two precedents for this kind of thing in government. Really a view across the whole range of departmental interests has to be taken.

  15. Could I press you a little and say, would you see the ultimate chairman of this as the Prime Minister?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) It is not something we have discussed but my personal view is that I think it would be impractical because a Prime Minister simply does not have the time. I would see the effective chairman probably as a senior person from industry.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) But with direct access to the Prime Minister.

Chairman

  16. I understand that the President of the Board of Trade does see herself as Chairman of the Council for Science and Technology.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Indeed.

Indirect costs of research

  17. We now get on to the topic of indirect costs. I noticed that during the report, Sir Ron, you, to my mind perfectly properly, eschewed the word overheads" but this morning you actually used it, rather to my distress. Could I ask you why you still come back in the body of the report and in your introduction to providing indirect costs as a proportion of staff salaries, whereas there are obvious objections to this such as that it encourages people to recruit staff that they do not necessarily need? It does not help people getting grants which do not require really the recruitment of additional research staff in terms of research assistants and so on. Why should not applicants for research grants put in a proper estimate of the indirect costs, such as the IT costs and so on which you come to later?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) We do provide for that. In making an application, if the applicant feels that the general figure is inappropriate, then by all means they should pursue an alternative. We do encourage in this report - and I placed some emphasis on it - institutions to develop a much better understanding of their costs and we think this will be entirely healthy. There is some long way to go before I think they do have a full understanding of their costs and perhaps it is not part of the tradition of the university community to be so willing to record the necessary information to allocate costs.

  18. But you are among the makers of change, Sir Ron.

  (Sir Ron Dearing) My Lord, I know my limitations! But we do point the way ahead and we do recommend that there is much better, harder information, and now that we are moving into this communications and information technology society, in which our institutions are well in the lead, there is no excuse, if I may say so, over the next three years for not being much better able to quantify costs. But given the present situation, we could not find a "better hole" to go to. As I say, we do offer the alternative. As for inflating cost levels, as a layman who listens only and has no direct knowledge, I get the impression that people feel there is advantage in bidding to a research council not to overstate costs, in fact the other way round. So I do think there is a countervailing pressure on inflating costs.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) My Lord Chairman, if we actually said explicitly that indirect costs should be proportional to staff employed, I have to say that it is something that escaped my eye in proof-reading the report. I do not recall that we used precisely those words but if we did I would have excised them if we had spotted them because, for precisely the reasons you say, it is not a very sensible or practical way of estimating indirect costs. I thought we had been rather specific and careful and not based our statement on any particular method of calculating indirect costs, but if we did I apologise.

  19. Could I, I am afraid, remind you that in paragraph 11.29 you say -

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) I stand corrected!

  20. - "We propose that the present rate met by the Research Councils of 45 per cent on staff costs should be increased to 60 per cent."

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) That is correct, but that is a statement of the present situation. We can logic-chop on the context of those words.

  21. I take your agreement with my original statement?

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Absolutely.

  Chairman] Thank you. Could we now go on, since some of us are actually rather excited about this issue, to the question of block grants and student choice.

Student choice

Baroness Platt of Writtle

  22. First of all, I would like to declare my interest as Chancellor of Middlesex University and also to add my congratulations to other noble Lords' for the report. I am particularly interested in the backing for work experience and continuing learning throughout life, and also I like the idea of encouraging HNDs and not just graduates, so this is for the good. At the beginning you emphasised the importance of wealth creation and the United Kingdom having a competitive situation, and you have repeated, Sir Ron, this morning, that we must compete. It seems to me that a large part of that is going to depend on able young people going into, I would say - I am biased obviously - engineering. We know that the choice level is going down. We also know that engineering and science courses are amongst the most expensive. So whilst backing those aims, but worrying about maths and physics teaching in schools, I was rather worried by your recommendation towards the end where you base your proposals for expansion on student choice. You do mention - and I would be with you all the way - "informed" choice. Nevertheless there is also the question of easy options?

  (Sir Ron Dearing) Yes, thank you. When we were considering the form of the graduate contribution to the cost of higher education, we did have very much in mind that we should avoid, in a fee-based approach, any contribution related to the individual cost of courses and we, therefore, recommended a flat figure. That was very much to avoid causing students to opt for law or economics and away from engineering and the costly sciences. So we were totally with you on that. Turning to more specifics, on engineering, and I have had several discussions with the professional bodies, they did not have a concern about the numbers offering themselves for engineering. Their concern was about very high quality applicants and some dearth in those. We accepted their reading of need and went with them, but not in the precise way they had in mind, to encourage greater differentiation in the approach to engineering by students. From our whole approach of having a framework through which students can progress, we had in mind that there would be fast routes for those who are clear and able, and more gradual routes with more stepping-off points for those that have a lesser aptitude for a subject. So we did try that. For the sciences, in my view, the problem lies not in our universities, but in our schools. We are not in the schools encouraging sufficient young people to choose the sciences for their studies beyond the age of 16 and I have had many debates with the Royal Society about the countervailing advantages of going for broad science between 14 and 16 as opposed to the particular sciences and a concern that the very great success we have had in increasing the take-up of the sciences through double science between 14 and 16 has been at the cost of those who at the age of 16 have sufficient science to essay A levels in physics, chemistry and mathematics which are very tough. That debate still continues. I think we have to find a solution to that one if we are going to get the right number. Can I just say finally on that, my Lord Chairman, if our figures in this report are well based, compared with most other countries the proportion reading sciences is not low in this country; it is a smidgen above average. But to sum up we do share your concern and we tried to reflect it on our proposals on funding.

  (Sir Ron Oxburgh) Could I add a little to that, my Lord Chairman? I think the important thing is that the proposals that we have put forward are to some extent a coherent whole and, as our Chairman emphasised, this choice that we are suggesting involves the student, the student's family, the student in the long term, making a payment. Now, experience in North America is very interesting in this respect because in the 1980s there was a shift, because there is not a single system, but there was a shift away from what in English parlance would be grants to loans and the figures that we were shown when we were there suggested that this change in funding support mechanism did have an influence on student behaviour. What one saw was first of all no change in the social make-up of the student body, that the same groups seemed to participate in higher education. What one did see was a shift in choice towards subjects which looked to be directly related to employment away from those that did not and, in particular, one saw a shift towards science, engineering, management and things of that kind at the expense of the purer sciences and the humanities. My concern under our proposed scheme is that our pure sciences base might possibly be eroded and that this is something we would have to keep under pretty close scrutiny.


 
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