Science and Government, Science in Government

Before pre-election purdah set in, two interesting reports got published, one with more fanfare than the other. The one with more publicity attached was the long-awaited report (Changes and Choices) on options for future international funding by Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid. It is of course impossible currently to predict anything regarding our future relationship with Europe. If and when Brexit happens then everyone seems agreed we’d like to associate with HorizonEurope – but will they let us? How long would it take to get an agreement? What form would such an agreement take and would it be essentially pay-as-you-go/can’t take more out than you put in (as we currently do)? Given there are plenty of uncertainties including budgetary wrangling in Brussels for the next framework programme, the UK may not be attempting to negotiate at a particularly good moment (whenever that is).  It should not surprise anyone, then, that the conclusions of the report were inconclusive, as it were; there are no obvious or easy answers except we must do everything we can to ensure the UK stays open to researchers from around the world and that we invest sufficiently in science (with all parties committed to an uplift in spending as a percentage of GDP ), including through international collaborations.

Since the report was (I believe) completed, the PM has thrown a new joker into the pack in the form of the ARPA-like organisation introduced in the Queen’s Speech, the brainchild – as the rumours have it – of Dominic Cummings. If there is to be a new agency outside UKRI to carry out this ARPA-like function, plus another new structure to oversee international funding to replace Framework programmes, we are going to be creating a confusing multiplicity of structures which will probably lead to endless confusion and, one must suspect, inefficiencies of scale. I hope there will – in due course – be some appropriate joined-up thinking.

The second report, longer but probably of less immediate or obvious interest to the majority of scientists, was Realising our Ambition through Science: A Review of Government Science Capability 2019, looking at (as its name suggests) the state of science within government departments. As Norman Lamb, outgoing chair of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee explained, MPs are not exactly rushing to join his committee, a testament to the lack of interest MPs exhibit in science. We need a strong science base within government departments to offset the apparent scientific apathy spelled out in this complaint.

However, my experience at the Departure of Culture, Media and Sports a few years ago highlighted that, at that time there were remarkably few scientists in their teams: one to be precise. (I do know, with the incorporation of the digital brief this has significantly improved since.)  Nevertheless it is a fairly shocking statistic provided in the report that only 24 out of1200 ‘fast streamer’ civil servants are badged with science and engineering, and only 45 out of 400 scientists are on the generalist scheme. That really means there aren’t very many scientists to go around, compared with – say – graduates in PPE or Economics. Every department has a different need, a different composition of scientific workforce and a different culture. However, as the opening sentence of the report’s first recommendation says:

‘Every department should have a clearly defined science system’.

hat is not necessarily the case yet. It probably is hard to do with such low numbers of scientifically-qualified people in many departments.

The advent of UKRI has of late changed the landscape because there are specific funds (part, an unknown amount, of the Strategic Priorities Fund to be precise) which are dedicated to research funding for work with government departments. In order to facilitate this, each department is meant to

‘publish and refresh annually, Areas of Research Interest documents with a view to encouraging extra-mural activity and collaborations and the commissioning of key R+D.’

These documents are starting to appear (15 departments have published theirs). Of course, many topics cross departmental boundaries: AI, data science, demographic issues….- how such topics should best be handled is still to be resolved.

It was interesting to read this report having recently read Jon Agar’s book Science Policy under Thatcher, a fascinating book available free from UCL Press. Agar persuasively argues how Thatcher’s deliberate policy was to take the government right out of ‘near market’ research with the consequence of damaging science leadership within Government.  In some senses Thatcher thought, as a scientist, she knew best and could make key decisions herself. Universities were somehow supposed to pick up the pieces in ways that weren’t expected before the 1980s, and public laboratories, such as RSRE at Malvern which had done so much influential work on liquid crystal displays for instance, were sold off. The latest report is to some extent still attempting to rectify the consequences, one might say damage, that Thatcher’s decision made in our research and innovation landscape. As its recommendation 4 says

‘BEIS…should address the role of Public Laboratories across government in supporting and enabling research and development in the private sector…..’.

There are few Public Laboratories left, but their role needs to be carefully considered. The UK has little equivalent to the German well-funded Fraunhofer Institutes. But

‘Government has a lead role in setting the framework for innovation, marked by the publication of the Industrial Strategy in 2017.’

This includes ‘de-risking’ the early stages of innovation and using procurement as a useful tool as innovations take off. Too much focus has, here as in so many other situations, been paid to value for money rather than wider and perhaps more intangible benefits. Public Laboratories also offer scope to improve the so-called Place agenda, potentially opening up opportunities and jobs in some of the more deprived parts of the country.

Of course, a key part in any system is ensuring the right people both meet each other and know enough about broader contexts. It is good to see Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy – which offers fellowships to civil servants to meet up with academic experts in an intensive way – getting a shout out for the excellent work it does (Disclaimer: I am on their Advisory Board). These aspects tie in with the report’s first recommendation regarding an appropriate science system in each department. If civil servants, even if non-experts in science themselves, have a better appreciation of the wider landscape and, with a departmental CSA in place, it should be easier to create a system that recognizes the changing challenges and how policy must interface with the big issues of the day, such as climate change, privacy in the world of social media and an ageing population.

I hope this report gets traction with Government. However, since we don’t know what complexion our Government will have in a few weeks’ time, anything might happen and everything is, as one might say, up for grabs.



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1 Response to Science and Government, Science in Government

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    It is oversimplistic to talk about RSRE as just a public laboratory that was sold off. The majority of the work that was carried out there was directly defence-related [disclosure: I was on the staff of DRA, DERA and later Dstl]. The real failure was the Blair government’s decision to privatise defence research. Originally, their intention was to privatise the whole of DERA but the US Government’s opposition led to an approximate 25/75% split between the retained in government Dstl and the privatised QinetiQ.

    In most departments in the original DERA, the only people who were retained in Dstl were the senior advisers and this led to predictable problems in sucession-planning as they retired. Also much of the technical work had to be contracted out to List X companies because there were no longer staff on lower grades to carry it out.

    One outcome of the split was an improvement in the understanding that some areas of defence work had non-defence applications. In 2005 Dstl set up Ploughshare Innovations to improve technology transfer to the commercial sector.

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