Select Committee on Science and Technology Memoranda


Memorandum submitted by the Save British Science Society

1.  INTRODUCTION

  Today few, if any, policy decisions by Government can be made which are free of scientific and technological implications. Often the underlying scientific issues are complex and as the rapid advance in science and its applications brings it into relevance with increasing areas of importance to life and work, policy decisions may have to be taken when knowledge is incomplete and uncertain.

  The scientific evidence on which advice to Government is based must be of the highest quality, authoritative and free of any possible source of bias, political as well as commercial. The same must apply in the formulation and presentation of the advice to Government. After that it moves into the political domain, has to be weighed together with other considerations and policy decisions made.

  The principle sources of independent scientific advice to Government are the universities and public sector research establishments (PSREs). There are 42 of the latter: 22 managed by departments (the Government research establishments, GREs) and 20 research council institutions (RCIs) which come under the Office of Science and Technology (OST), a ring-fenced enclave within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

  In a continuous series of reviews[31] between 1988 and 1996, a number of former GREs became wholly or partially privatised, and dependent on non-public, commercial sources of income. These can no longer be considered unquestionably disinterested sources of advice in areas where there is a significant commercial dependence. A similar situation is developing in the universities as growth in industrial funding of research is now becoming strongly concentrated in some sectors, such as pharmaceuticals.

  To ensure full public confidence all members of independent advisory bodies should be required to state any affiliations with commercial relevance to the topic under consideration, including private consultancies and any significant dependence on funding of their research.

  The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has a key role in co-ordinating science across departments and overseeing the process of providing sound scientific advice to Government. In March 1997 Sir Robert May issued a note on the use and presentation of scientific advice in policy making "Science and Policy: Key Principles". It is a set of guidelines for Government departments to follow in ensuring access to the best research, from their own and other sources, and in using the results to formulate advice. It is a very clear and concise document. It emphasises the need for openness at all stages, and especially to build public confidence in the processes underlying the formulation of advice.

  If one could be sure that within Government the May guidelines would always be followed, there should be no cause for concern. But the present structure, in which departments manage laboratories responsible for a major part of the research on which policy decisions are made, does not inspire confidence. Recent events, notably the BSE crisis and its handling, cast doubt on whether in practice and over time guidelines can be effective in ensuring that:


    —  research and its interpretation is free of influence leaking across from the dominant political interests of the department;

    —  the best quality scientific help and advice is always sought; and

    —  long-term research programmes are not starved by low budgetary priority for research and pressures of immediate problems.

  For these and other reasons, SBS suggests that as the departmental Government research laboratories (GREs) are, in reality, an important component of the national science and engineering research base, their management and the budgets for the main research programmes should be transferred to the control of an enlarged, strengthened Office of Science and Technology (OST) making them an integral part of the science base.

2.  CONCERNS

2.1  Political Pressures

  The departmental laboratories have the task of providing their parent departments with the information and advice necessary to support departmental policy and actions. The research programme will therefore be designed to be appropriate to these needs—in that sense properly matching a policy agenda.

  Evidence that inappropriate influence can occur has been revealed during the BSE inquiry, which has thrown a harsh light on the research process in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). Sir Richard Southwood has remarked on the "optimism" of the MAFF officials, and the Permanent Secretary's wish that the Southwood committee would not put forward any advice which would make it difficult for the department to stay within its expenditure limits. If it is thought appropriate so to influence a distinguished, independent committee, what pressures—insidious or direct—may the department's own staff feel?

  Observations that would have rung alarm bells elsewhere seem to have been disregarded at first in a MAFF laboratory; "optimism" and a reluctance to recognise potential "bad news" for the department's agricultural interests?

2.2  Openness

  As the May guidelines say in advocating early sharing of data on a potentially serious issue with others of the scientific community: "Scientific advance thrives on openness and competition of ideas." The BSE case demonstrated the reverse behaviour, important data was withheld for years and in consequence contributed to the damage caused.

2.3  Short-termism

  Scrapie, as a disease known only in sheep and not a serious economic issue for farmers, was apparently not considered an important research problem in spite of the fact that the nature of the disease and its transmission were not at all understood. As the MAFF expenditure on R&D declined in the mid 1980s resources and staff were taken away from scrapie research.

  When the BSE emergency broke, and the supposition was made that BSE in cows was derived from scrapie, "new money" was signalled for research. But staff had already been lost, and the programme could only be re-started by taking scientists off research in other areas. One of these was the study of the possible consequences of the intensive dosing of "factory farm" animals with anti-biotics. This is now, predictably, one of today's major concerns

  Perhaps it seems unfair to base the case so far on the MAFF and the exceptional BSE crisis. But it was this that led to the detailed scrutiny of MAFF and revealed failings which might well lie hidden from view in other departments.

3.  DEPARTMENTAL FUNDING OF R&D

  In spite of the obvious importance of maintaining a strong research base in an area as vital as the provision of food, and especially when the techniques employed in food production are changing so fast, the MAFF appears to treat research as a relatively low priority item in its budgeting. The research councils have frequently suffered damaging withdrawals of MAFF funding of research at short notice.

  Except for a small £7 million (5 per cent) jump in 1992, between 1986 and 1997—including the "BSE years"—MAFF annual funding of R&D fell continuously in real terms, reaching a level about 25 per cent lower by the end of the period.

  In 1997 the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) expenditure in its areas of responsibility was only one-third of the value in 1986[32]. Total civil R&D, all departments (not including OST and Higher Education Funding Councils (HEFCs)), halved over the period.

  The consequences include increased financial demands on the science base, through links with research council programmes. For example, in 1993 the DTI suddenly ended the Advanced Technology Programme and unilaterally withdrew from activities being jointly supported with the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). The SERC was left with additional demands estimated at £40 million over two years.

  Although the recent Comprehensive Spending Review took a careful look at funding policy for the science base—the research councils and the HEFCs—the rest of government funded civil research, 33 per cent, was left out. Until the departments have decided how much of their budget is left for research, the figures will not be known and the Government's "Forward Look" on R&D awaits the outcome. The recent, very welcome, increases for the science base may well suffer erosion if departmental funding is reduced.

  When the then President of the Board of Trade, the Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Cabinet Minister responsible for science policy, was asked, by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, whether she had any powers over departmental spending on R&D she was heard to reply "Sadly, no." There is no government wide policy on science and the funding of research.

4.  A UNIFIED SCIENCE BASE

  SBS has long argued that the pervasiveness of science and technology into almost all areas of Government policy requires that formulation and management of science policy has a central position in government, ensuring coherence across departments and with the rest of the science base.

  The Royal Society has suggested (March 1994) that since the OST (then in the Cabinet Office) is alone among Government departments in being a "supplier" of research rather than a "customer", it "is uniquely placed to hold responsibility for government research establishments (GREs) across all fields."



  SBS has proposed ("Policies for the Next Government: Science and Technology" 1996) that all GREs are brought into the control of an enlarged OST, with a transfer of all the funds needed to cover infrastructure and operating costs, including the base, or core, programmes of medium to long term basic and strategic research. Departments could remain responsible for commissioning and funding applied research specific to their responsibilities, from the GREs managed by the OST or elsewhere.

  Such an arrangement would give the OST the control necessary to develop a coherent overall policy, including funding, for government science and technology across the enlarged science and engineering base. It should ensure:

    —  a necessary degree of stability in funding of forward-looking medium to long term research programmes;

    —  coherence of the research programmes of the GREs with the rest of the science base, leading to greater collaboration and openness;

    —  common procedures, such as peer review, to ensure research meets high, international standards;

    —  "the publication of all the scientific evidence and analysis underlying decisions on sensitive issues" as the May guidelines recommend; and

    —  improved public confidence in the impartiality of scientific advice through clear separation of the basis of that advice from the political process of making policy decisions.

  Such a separation of functions will necessitate strong links to be maintained by departments with the relevant former GREs in the new science base, and probably lead to new associations. The concordats between departments and research councils, like the one between Department of Health and the Medical Research Council, provide a model for these links.

  The departments will need to retain a Chief Scientist supported by a number of experts: to help ensure effective transmission of advice to Ministers including a proper understanding of the significance of the research on which it is based; and so that departments can act as informed "customers" in the commissioning of applied research. Active, experienced scientists on secondment from the science base for fixed terms should be the major component of these teams. This structure would lead to the development of an effective informal net-work of contacts with the science base of great value to the Chief Scientists, especially when the unexpected arrives.

  The responsibilities of the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and the OST in overseeing the functioning of the science base and ensuring the quality and objectivity of scientific advice from all sources would remain vital. The Official Cabinet Committee on S&T (EASO) chaired by the CSA would continue its important role guiding and facilitating cross-departmental approaches to scientific issues.

September 1998


31   "Next Steps Agencies", departmental "prior options", "efficiency scrutiny", further "prior options". Back

32   And in cost only one-sixth, including net Launch Aid. Back


 
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