Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)|
Wednesday 19 December 2001
20. Secretary of State, my friend Dr Iddon has
already referred to past anxieties about research budgets in government
department, notably MAFF as was. Can you tell us what specific
steps you will be taking to ensure that such deficiencies do not
(Ms Hewitt) What we are doing with the strengthening
of the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser and the relationship
he will have with the chief scientists in all departments and
the creation of this new Cabinet Sub Committee on Science will
mean we are raising visibility of science right across government.
I think all of us are acutely aware of the difficulties that have
arisen in recent years, for instance in relation to BSE and there
is, therefore, a political willingness and commitment to ensure
that we do have proper scientific expertise, that the investment
is being made, that the right people are being called upon from
outside government as well as within government to advise us and
we are acutely aware of the need to communicate scientific issues
rather better to the public. All of those things are now being
looked at more carefully on a cross-departmental basis. As David
was indicating earlier, I think that means we are much more likely
to spot the gaps and ensure that if one department is falling
short actually that situation is remedied.
Dr Turner: Thank you.
21. Secretary of State, will we be top slicing
departmental budgets or arguing for extra money to do that? It
is important that we do the latter rather than top slicing existing
(Ms Hewitt) I have not heard of any proposal for top
22. Secretary of State, it is very easy to look
back, we can all do that. It is more difficult to look forward,
that is why it is so important. The Government told the committee
in the previous Parliament that the Forward Look would be published
in the year following the Spending Review. If its purpose was
to present the plan following the Spending Review to the public,
why was it only published on Monday?
(Ms Hewitt) We would have liked to publish it earlier
but of course after the General Election we had a reorganisation
of government departments, which was disruptive but nonetheless
desirable, so some of the science strategies had to be reformulated,
programmes had to be reviewed to see whether they were consistent
with the new priorities of new secretaries of state and departments
and I am afraid that that just held up the preparation of the
Forward Look. It is, as you will have seen, a very, very substantial
piece of work. I think it was better to get it right and get it
up to date than to rush out with something that although it was
called a forward look it might have been out of date even before
we published it.
23. We are promised some SET tables, when can
we expect to see those?
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think the idea is we
will keep these constantly up to date because the SET tables come
from different areas two or three times a year, so what we want
to do is update them on the website, we will not publish them,
we will keep them up to date so that (a) we save some money, (b)
we save some trees and (c) it is done in real time, so you do
not have to wait until some period in the year to update, it is
updated on a regular basis.
24. When you say "regular" can you
be more specific?
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I think the answer is,
as we get the figures in from the departments we will put them
up on to the website.
25. The quinquennial review of the Research
Councils has now been published and we are interested in that
it recommends a Research Council United Kingdom Strategy Group.
At the moment, of course, we have an arrangement where the CEOs
of Research Councils meet with the Director General, yourself,
Dr Taylor. How would this new group differ from the current arrangements?
Do you think it is a good idea?
(Dr Taylor) I think it a very good idea and a lot
of work has gone into working through how it might work and what
is necessary. The way in which it will be different, I think,
will be threefold. First of all it will provide a single voice
for the Research Councils in the United Kingdom, for science in
the United Kingdom, if you will, where people will know that the
issues have been debated and that this is a cross-council view
on those issues. Another way of talking about that is a single
portal into Research Councils and where we need to have dialogue
with universities, with Funding Councils, with regions and jurisdictions,
with international bodies, and so on, the existence of a single
place with which to have that dialogue will be a big improvement.
Secondly, it will formalise and make quite a lot more explicit
and visible the whole process of our Spending Review cycle, how
we pull proposals together for what the programme should be in
the future and what kind of strategies we have in the longer term,
for example for major facilities and major programmes, so that
is a much more visibly cross-council, properly debated set of
issues. Thirdly, we will be able to look, again, right across
the Councils to see where we can do our business more efficiently
and effectively and present a cleaner interface to the people
we interact with overall, to chase the underlying objective which
came from this review, which is that science requires flexibility.
There are lots of boundaries between different parts of science
and those boundaries are moving all of the time, so what we will
really derive from RC-UK is about the ability to move and manage
across the interfaces as science changes. This is what science
needs, and this new group will maintain a serious overview of
how well we are able to do that.
26. What are the models you looked at when you
decided to go the RC-UK route; did you look at what was happening
round the rest of the world?
(Dr Taylor) We looked at lots of options and there
is a lot of material in the report about how you might go. At
one extreme there is status quo, everything is fine nothing needs
to change, at the other extreme there is the question of why not
have one Research Council, a sort of NSF, plus NIH. Again the
independent people involved in both levels of this review debated
long and hard, we did a lot of consultation with a lot of other
people and basically there was not much support at all for either
of those two extremes.
27. Were you not just a little seduced by the
unified model that has been applied elsewhere in the world? After
all, what you want really is a single voice, clear focus, clear
message, maximum clout with government, with the rest of the world,
with industry and with science education. If you really want major
clout surely it would be better to put it all together under one
unified package; would that not be more cost effective, instead
of keeping six organisations going?
(Dr Taylor) I think in walking through that set of
possibilities, we imagined doing it, we imagined wiping away all
of the Councils and appointing a single supremo, and then going
through the process of immediately setting up a set of sub-divisions
(because the overall group is much too wide for any one group
to manage). We imagined losing all of our current independent
members of the seven Councils, which are working effectively,
and trying to re-build all of that and we pictured essentially
a two-year planning blight during which time many people's eyes
would have been taken off the real issues at a time when science
is extremely fertile and moving very fast, so we went with the
majority recommendation which was to do this and focus on it and
measure it quite soon.
28. Just moving on to a slightly different angle
of the Quinquennial Review, we want in this Committee to make
sure the Government meets its objective of encouraging more R&D
and science spending, not just from the public sector but from
industry and commerce as well. The suggestion of a Funders Forum
was made. Would you include industry in that forum? It has got
higher education funding councils, government departments; would
industry be there?
(Dr Taylor) This is something we will now debate quite
carefully as we go into that recommendation. The notion of getting
together initially a public Funders Forum is quite powerful and
we would be very interested to understand how to make that effective
with private industry funders as well. There is the usual set
of representational issues and so on, but that would be a very
important part of what we would want to talk about.
29. Good afternoon. There is one area of research
activity which is completely outside of the Research Councils'
ambit and that is the general area of arts and humanities. Do
you favour the Dearing Committee's recommendation that there be
an Arts and Humanities Research Council to replace the current
Arts and Humanities Research Board and, if so, why?
(Ms Hewitt) This is really an issue for Margaret Hodge
over at the Department for Education and Skills and, of course,
she announced in September a review of how arts and humanities'
research should be funded, so all of that is being looked at at
the moment, including that particular issue of whether the Research
Board should become one of the Research Councils.
Mr McWalter: I would quite like your alliance
on this because I am an interloper in this Committee really in
that I am a philosopher.
Chairman: We all are.
Mr Heath: He thinks too much!
30. In a sense, it partly flags up what you
think about what we sometimes call the most blue sky of blue sky
research, in that, for instance, the work done by George Boole
and the laws of thought was followed up by Frege, Russell, Turing
and Gödel who gave us the theoretical basis for computers
and which was worked out by Immanuel Kant on geometry and its
foundations, and led to arguments that eventually generated the
geometry called Riemannian geometry which was an essential mathematical
tool for working out the relativity theory. I am asking whether,
in a sense, there is a recognition of that work which is done
away from the immediate pressure of the scientific research that
has got very important potential in terms, eventually, of generating
worthwhile scientific research programmes which will over the
medium and longer term be of lasting and significant value for
the development of the science base?
(Ms Hewitt) I think that is very well recognised.
There has been a debate going back several decades in Britain
about the two cultures and the danger of this divide between the
humanitiesand I am an English literature graduate myselfand
the scientific world. Some of the work that is being done around
the nature of intelligence and the creativity process again crosses
that divide between humanities and science. That is specifically
one of the issues that this review is going to look at. Once we
have had an outcome of that review we can consult on how we go
forward. John, you are involved in that review already.
31. I saw you nodding, which is good news.
(Dr Taylor) We have had some very fruitful debates
and discussions with a lot of people involved in the communities
and this set of issues. Certainly from the Research Council side,
there is a lot of openness to debating and discussing how best
we should go forward on this. There are a lot of different areas.
You have illustrated one but there are many others, where there
is the potential overlap, co-operation and mutuality of interest.
I think as the AHRB, which has just been set up in its present
form, explores its base, we are very keen to explore with them
where those areas of shared interest might lie. I guess the real
issue is whether they want to move towards research grant kind
of modalities, which is what they are starting to do now, instead
of individual funding for scholarships and individual research.
Understanding what that means for research in the arts and creative
media is another thing that needs to be explored quite carefully.
32. Lord Sainsbury, you and I have shared arguments
before about the arts/science divide; would you like to contribute?
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville) I was just going to make
the point that in fact part of the thing that sparked off this
review was an excellent report by the Council of Science and Technology
suggesting that the Arts and Humanities Research Board should
become a Research Council. I thought that was very encouraging.
There is certainly a real desire for the Research Councils and
the Arts and Humanities Research Board, in whatever form, to work
together on areas where there is a commonalty of interest.
33. One other area is history. One quite often
gets a history in which the history of science or the history
of technology has been evaporated out of being of any historical
significance whatsoever. Those of us who do take an interest in
the science owe it to the wider world to try and promote a picture
of what the science and technology is like and the fact that it
has got historical depth, and that can only be done if you get
this profitable co-operation. If it were to become a Research
Counciland you mentioned earlier that it is currently in
the purview of the DfESwould you like to see it become
in the end a departmental responsibility so that at least all
Research Councils are clearly under the umbrella of your Department?
(Ms Hewitt) That is one of the issues that I think
has to be considered within that review. One of the implications
of becoming a Research Council is that you then become part of
the Research Councils UK and are supported by our excellent DG
of Research Councils. I have certainly not begun to look at what
the implications of that might be and I think that does need to
be looked at within the context of the review Margaret Hodge has
commissioned. Obviously there will be a lot of people in the arts
and humanities' field who will have a view on that and will see
advantages and be concerned about the possible disadvantages of
that model. That needs to be thought through rather carefully.
34. Dr Taylor, do you have a view?
(Dr Taylor) I echo that very much. I think one of
the dimensions that is quite important for a lot of the community
is that the Research Council role is a UK-wide role and so we
fund the best research anywhere it is, whether it is in England,
Scotland or whatever, and there are some funding complications
flowing from the way that the AHRB is set up at the moment which
need to be looked at, but I think the notion of all of the machinery
of doing grants and awarding grants and peer review and all of
that kind of thing, and having uniform interfaces with universities
that want to be involved with that kind of process mean there
would be a lot of positive sides to bringing them into the family.
Some of them might worry about titles and names like "science
and technology" but I am sure those kind of things are very
easily dealt with.
Chairman: Mark Hoban?
35. You have now completed the first phase of
the review of the UK Foresight programme. In the last Parliament
one of the messages that this Committee heard frequently from
contributors is that Foresight initiatives had very little impact
on government departments. How do you think you can change that?
(Ms Hewitt) I certainly agree with that conclusion.
I felt as a Minister, once I discovered Foresight, that it was
one of the best kept secrets within government. It is a wonderful
programme and there is really exciting work going on in Foresight.
It engages at a very high level with the business and scientific
community, and I have no doubt at all that the business community
benefits hugely from that engagement, but it is not well used
or understood across government. We have recently, as you know,
had a review of Foresight and in the light of that review's conclusions
we are developing a new Foresight programme that I think will
be better focused and will look at investing in exploiting the
results of Foresight, not simply doing the Foresight work. Part
of that is ensuring that other government departments and other
Ministers are engaged in the Foresight process and use the fruits
of it. It is an issue we may well come back to in the new Cabinet
Sub-Committee on Science.
(Lord Sainsbury of Turville) We are looking at it
in a different way. I rather agree with youI think it was
becoming too diffuse and not as effective as it should be. There
was also a problem about the way that we managed it which was
to start off and have all the programmes start and then they all
came to a halt at the same time, and the new way we are looking
at managing it is that we will have on-going programmes but fewer
at a time because it is much better use of staff in this, and
we will also be much clearer about two kinds of Foresight, one
which is more science and technology based, and one which is more
dealing with particular challenges in particular areas of government,
particularly other government departments, so I think we are changing
it because it was becoming too diffuse and it was not doing enough
science and technology forecasting. We are pulling it back into
a more effective mode again.
36. Going back to the point the Secretary of
State made; how are you going to engage your colleagues in this
process? What mechanism are you going to produce to get them to
(Ms Hewitt) One mechanism is the design of the individual
Foresight programmes themselves, for instance work that was being
done between the DTI and the old DETR on the vehicle of the future
which came under the Foresight programme. That was an excellent
example of collaboration between two departments and the business
and technology community. It worked very effectively indeed. Both
my ministerial counterpart and Ithis was in my last role
within the DTIwere engaged in that programme and were talking
to business about it, publicising the fruits of it and so on.
In that case I think it worked very well. Similarly, I think some
of the work that Foresight has done on how you can use science
and technology to reduce crime and catch criminals more effectively,
those sorts of issues, I know the Home Office were engaged in
and I would expect Home Office Ministers to have been as well.
I also think that using the mechanism of this new Cabinet Sub-Committee
on Science we can probably engender a wider understanding of what
it is that Foresight can do so that other Ministers are not simply
being involved in things that are coming up to them, as it were,
from officials but can actually think about how they might themselves
want to use Foresight to help them tackle some of the difficult
issues they are confronting within their portfolios.
37. It sounds to me from what you have said
that the leg of Foresight which is to do with particular policy
challenges is also going to engage your colleagues, but the other
leg, science and technology, it is harder to understand how that
will engage your colleagues. Have you any particular thoughts
(Ms Hewitt) Not at this stage. You will understand
I have only been Secretary of State for six months and it is not
possible to have thought everything through in the space of six
months. I know I keep coming back to this Cabinet Sub-Committee
but we did have a very, very interesting and good discussion at
the first meeting of that Committee, which was only a week or
so ago. I am now beginning to think about what the forward programme
for that Committee might be. Your question, particularly your
reference to the more blue skies science-based, rather than policy
problem-based use of Foresight, I think that is an issue we could
come back to in the Committee and see if we can engage Ministers
at that level because a lot of ministerial colleagues are increasingly
interested and concerned about these issues, about the way in
which science is actually changing our world and creating very
real uncertainties that we need to understand as politicians and
we need to engage with the public in.
38. Can I ask you one follow-up question from
that. Who is on the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science?
(Ms Hewitt) I have not got this all in my head. The
Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for DEFRA, Stephen Byers,
Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Secretary of
State for Health, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary
of State for Education, Barbara Roche as Minister of State at
the Cabinet Office, Paul Boateng, Financial Secretary, obviously
Lord Sainsbury. I chair it. We also have in attendance the Chief
Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer and, where appropriate,
the Chief Veterinary Adviser and the Chair of the Food Standards
39. And how often do you intend to meet?
(Ms Hewitt) We met for the first time, as I say, just
a week or so ago. I think we will have quarterly meetings. I think
trying to do anything more often is actually not very practical
and I would rather have really good substantive discussions quarterly
than poorly attended meetings more often. We are now setting a
date for a second meeting in the spring.