This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Manager
I’ve written a post at the Society of Biology’s (more public-focussed) blog on ‘Opening up policy’, in which I touch on participation, the representativeness of public samples, opening up democratically, social considerations and engaging with experts.
You can read it here.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
If you are one of our members and aged 16-35, the Biochemical Society is offering you the chance to question MPs in Parliament at Voice of the Future 2013 (VOF2013).
The event was held for the very first time last year and was such a success that we’re doing it all again! VOF2013 will be held on Wednesday 20 March and is being organised by the Society of Biology and hosted by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology. The event presents young and early career representatives of a number of learned and professional societies the chance to sit in the seats usually reserved for members of the Select Committee and question the MPs as in a real evidence session.
So if you’re concerned about scientific careers, muddled about the misuse of science in and for policy, fearful about funding or stressed about short-termism, why not take your question to the top?
For your chance to attend, you just need to send us a question for the MPs by 12:00 on Monday, 25 February. Full details and instructions are available here.
You can read an article about last year’s ground breaking event here (PDF).
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Science and Technology Committee to keep close eye on FSS wind-down
I’ve been reading through the Government’s response to July’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report into the wind-down of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which was published yesterday. On balance it is quite dismissive of the report, which strongly criticised the decision, with a couple of caveats (see the end of this post).
In short, it is clear that the commercial side of the decision remains at the forefront of the issue for those wielding the power. As Andrew Miller MP, chair of the committee, said yesterday: “It is disappointing that the Home Office has failed to recognise that the decision to close the FSS should not have been taken purely on commercial and legal grounds, but also on scientific grounds.” The Government states in its response that is not the role of the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) or Home Office Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA, Professor Bernard Silverman) to give legal or commercial advice, and they reject criticism of Silverman’s role. But what about their scientific expertise? And even if it had been appropriate to announce a closure on these grounds alone, surely their expert opinions would have been useful?
Subsequent comments about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), with regards to the retention of forensic scientists within the profession and the UK – “We fully expect that the obligations arising from [TUPE Regulations] will be met… Ultimately police authorities hold these contracts” – bring to mind (perhaps unfairly) a quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger when asked about the environment early on in his governance of California. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. In the report, the Government do promise to report back to the Science and Technology Committee on the impacts of the closure on FSS staff next June. The time for judgement will be then.
The final point I find particularly interesting is that in their report, the Science and Technology Committee highlighted that there may be a problem with the Home Office’s use of scientific evidence in policy making. In their response, the Government denies this, citing positive messages in the Government Office for Science- Science Review of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, from 2007. But taking a closer look at this document, it also states several reservations regarding the Home Office, including that the CSA has no seat on the management board. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently pointed out (although the Home Office does fairly well in CaSE’s brief snapshot), this is still the case.
It isn’t all bad news. The response is positive in terms of ensuring the retention and continued operation of the FSS archive system (although the government has not revealed its long-term solution, noting that options are under consideration), and that forensic research and development should be established as a strategic research priority for the Research Councils. For the many other implications, we’ll have to see how private forensic service providers and newly (or soon to be) accredited police forensic departments adapt when the dust fully settles. Miller isn’t convinced that things wont go awry, stating: “I will be asking the committee to keep a close eye on the transition as I still fear that the forensic science research base and criminal justice system could be jeopardised if the Minister’s optimism is ill founded.” These are still worrying and uncertain times.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Chief Scientific Advisor to the Treasury says: “You are in the dark without scientific method and data analysis”.
Yesterday, Professor Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Dr James Richardson, the newly appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Treasury, gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. This evidence session follows the publication of the Government Office for Science Annual Review earlier this summer, in which it was claimed that “2010 lived up to its titles of ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ and ‘Year of Science’.”
Professor Beddington highlighted how positive he felt about the progress that was being made, particularly praising the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for its Foresight program and particularly the Future of Food and Farming project, which has been internationally recognised. Foresight is now looking at international migration in relation to environmental factors, and will report on this in the autumn, as well as the future of computer trading in financial markets.
On what had changed since he took on the position in 2008, Professor Beddington noted that the installation of Chief Scientific Advisors in every government department (although there are currently vacancies at BIS, the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) now included the Treasury, with Dr Richardson’s appointment this summer. Professor Beddington said that when he came into the post enquiries often had to go unanswered because of a lack of capacity, and there was a sense that science and engineering had lost its way in government.
On the subject of the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), an area of particular concern for the Biochemical Society, Professor Beddington referred to the fact that we are still waiting for the Government’s latest response. However, he said he would look into doing some substantial subsequent analysis on the loss of scientists from the industry, and might be able to report on this in May or June. He expressed concern over making decisions – such as closing the FSS – on financial grounds with limited consultation, but was reluctant to comment on the implications of the closure before the Home Office responds on whether capability would be maintained. He also indicated that he would look into the figures of how many scientists had left the UK in total since the comprehensive spending review settlement.
There was praise for the Home Office from Professor Beddington on the way Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, reports directly to the permanent secretary and controls large portions of the budget. Furthermore, he reported on the incorporation of the Principles of scientific advice to government in the ministerial code by the coalition, and said that he and the other science advisors felt reassured by this. These were developed following the furore that accompanied Professor David Nutt’s sacking as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009.
Dr Richardson, making his first appearance before the Committee, made positive comments about the progress that had been made. He asserted that it made sense for the Chief Scientific Advisor to be a Treasury economist, as the aim of the position is to link economics with the broader scientific community, and that economics is the predominate science in the Treasury. What was particularly encouraging was his comment that the need for science and engineering expertise is ubiquitous in government. “You are in the dark without scientific method and data analysis”, he said, as this is the primary way of providing evidence. He further remarked that knowledge of aspects of science leads to better decision making directly, citing an example as the relationship between climate change and the world economy.
Acknowledging the huge impact the Treasury has on science, both Professor Beddington and Dr Richardson were very positive about the new position, with the Treasury now vitally linked in with the rest of the science advisory network, with the wider advisory community feeding into Dr Richardson’s economic expertise. Dr Richardson said that the Treasury continues to generate policy-informing research through relationships with non-governmental bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council, but that he had already made cases for where primary research by the Treasury could solve problems.
How will the landscape change with a Treasury Chief Scientific Advisor? Dr Richardson said that his role would focus less on individual projects, but more on promoting better standards of method, evidence and analysis in the Treasury. As he confidently put it, there are probably no situations where this wouldn’t be beneficial: “There may be things to which science is irrelevant but I struggle to see what they are.”
This post was written by Michelle Brook, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.
In December 2010 the Government announced it would be closing the Forensic Science Service (FSS). On the 19 January 2011, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into this issue, followed a month later, on 16 February by a Home Office Review into “Research and Development in Forensic Science”
Discussion around the issues of closure of the FSS is still ongoing and on 17 May, Jonathan Reynolds MP (Lab/Co-op) secured a debate in Westminster Hall on the closure of the FSS. The debate was attended by three members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – Andrew Miller Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston and Committee Chair, Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central and Stephen Metcalfe, Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock.
At present the FSS is one of a number of providers of forensics services in the country – with private companies having a 35% share of the market, as well as a large amount of work being carried out in police laboratories.
Current Government thinking:
During the debate, Damien Green, Immigration Minister laid out the Government’s current thinking:
- “The Government wants the UK’s forensic science industry to operate as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost.”
- “A competitive market can help drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning that serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, I am sure that that is what we all want.”
Reasons for closure
The main reasons for the decision are problems with the market, which has led to financial challenges for the FSS:
- “The situation that led to the Government’s announcement to manage the closure of the FSS last December is clear: the challenging forensics market put the FSS in serious financial difficulty…” Damien Green
- “the FSS had monthly operating losses of about £2 million and faced the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensic services.” Damien Green
Damien Green stated that “Without the prospect of further financial help, the FSS board would have been forced to place the company into administration in early 2011”.
Three options were considered and outlined by Damian Green:
- Uncontrolled administration – which “would have seriously damaged the forensics capability available to the criminal justice system, and we were not prepared to take that risk”
- “Further restructuring – which “would have had less impact on the criminal justice system than losing the FSS overnight, it would not have solved the key underlying problem of reduced levels of customer demand….”
- And a “managed wind-down”
“I strongly believe that the managed wind-down of the FSS is the right choice, both financially and for the criminal justice system… We consulted key partners across the system before making this decision, and their collective view is that a managed closure is in the best interests of the system as a whole.” Damien Green
“Money has been put into restructuring, and it has not worked. As he said, the previous Government set up a GovCo in an attempt to solve the problem, but sadly, that has not worked.” Damien Green
“In recent months, the FSS has closed down three laboratory sites and shed 750 staff as part of a drive to make itself more competitive. It is believed to be on track to make the required level of savings, yet the Government themselves admit that the £2 million figure they repeatedly use to justify their plans takes no account of the significant savings made by the restructuring programme.” Jonathan Reynolds
1. Can we be sure that the market will replace the services carried out by the FSS?
The FSS provides a wide range of services:
- “No private provider is currently able to offer the same breadth of forensic services and expertise as the FSS, whose holistic approach is a clear benefit to our judicial system. By offering such a comprehensive range of services, it is in an unrivalled position to determine what is required from a crime scene and to provide the data.” Jonathan Reynolds
- “The FSS is the only UKorganisation with forensic experience of terrorist attacks. Without it, who would have the capability and capacity to provide the vital evidence that our judicial system requires?” Jonathan Reynolds
- “The Government have claimed that there is no reason to think that the private sector would be unable to meet the demand for forensic services; but where … is the evidence? As uncertainty continues to surround the provision of forensic science services in the UK, significant numbers of scientists are taking up jobs overseas or choosing to move on to other careers, and the coverage offered by the current private forensic science providers is broad in neither scope nor geography.” Jonathan Reynolds
- “The managed wind-down of the FSS will allow time for the restructuring of the timetable for tendering new contracts, for the re-tendering of existing FSS contracts and for other forensic suppliers to develop their capacity to meet any additional requirements.” Damien Green
- “ The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), in particular, is clear that the forensic markets can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS An orderly wind-down, which is what we are managing, will allow adequate time for the current forensics framework to be restructured… and for other suppliers to increase their capability.” Damien Green
2. Is a market-model the best model for forensic science?
- “The unit’s success relies, however, on the flexibility to devote the time necessary to each investigation. Staff at the unit fear that many of their successes might not have been possible within the financial constraints of a more commercial market. They also fear that private providers are unlikely to offer the guaranteed on-call service that is required. I am sure that private companies will bid for the work of the FSS, but the risk is that they will cherry-pick the quickest, least labour-intensive and most profitable parts, which could have a serious impact on the quality of justice” Jonathan Reynolds
3. How will in-house police work impact on the market?
Police taking forensic science work in house has lead to a decrease in the market available. Gavin Barwell asked if the Government had considered restricting the police’s ability to provide in-house forensic services, going on to say:
- “many private sector suppliers have expressed concerns about their ability to invest in the future in a declining market if police provision continues to increase.”
The issue of impartiality was raised:
- “If the police choose to increase their in-house provision of forensic services, they will also have to address the issue of impartiality. We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.” Jonathan Reynolds
4. Is it possible the FSS is bringing private sector fees down?
Jonathan Reynolds said that the FSS is providing competition to the private sector, and stated that in the absence of this competition “there is a chance that the marketplace could consolidate or prices could rise”
- “Many of the people in that specialist area have been trained by the FSS. As I understand it, private sector providers’ prices do not take into account the increased cost base of training their own people to be as skilled as they need to be to cover all the specialisms currently being covered.” Jonathan Reynolds
1. What is the future of the existing FSS archives?
The FSS hold substantial archives which are useful for solving cold cases. They hold a vast amount of material, including “more than 1.5 million case files and a vast number of retained materials, including DNA, fibres and recovered debris”.
- “The application of advanced forensic techniques to archive material by FSS scientists has helped to secure convictions for more than 220 historical crimes. That work would not be possible without the archives, but we do not know what will happen to them when the FSS is closed.” Jonathan Reynolds
- “The forensic transition board has set up an archiving project board with members from the Home Office, the FSS, ACPO and key partners across the criminal justice system to recommend options for the handling and retention of FSS records so that historical data remain available to the criminal justice system. As part of that, we will seek to ensure that the necessary expertise remains to work on the data and mine them in the future.” Damien Green
2. How will the current standards of the FSS be monitored and ensured in the private sector?
There are worries that if FSS is closed there will be decreasing standards of forensics work:
- “At present, members of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, such as the FSS, must be accredited. However, with the exception of those dealing with DNA there are no statutory requirements for forensic science companies or in-house police departments to comply with any published standards” Jonathan Reynolds
3. Will the removal of the FSS have an impact upon justice in the UK?
- “Any changes to the FSS must have the integrity of our judicial system at their core. There are still too many questions about the scope and quality of the provision that will be available following the closure of the FSS.” Jonathan Reynolds
- “We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.” Jonathan Reynolds
- “The evidential value and integrity of forensic exhibits is tested under the intense scrutiny of the courts—from the point of collection, through analysis to interpretation and reporting. Each step in the process must be able to withstand such critical review, not least because the first body that the police must convince in any prosecution is the CPS. That is now an independent function.” Damien Green
4. What is the future of Forensic Science R&D?
- “Historically, such research has been undertaken by a wide range of organisations, including the private sector, Government-owned laboratories and academia.” Damien Green
- “Our decision took into account the need to manage the impact on forensic science research and development in the UK. Unfortunately, the FSS’s financial position had already limited the capacity for research and development for which it had become renowned.” Damien Green
- What gaps are there at present in the range of services offered by the FSS and private companies? How can we be sure the private companies will provide these in the absence of the FSS?
- If the forensic market has decreased due to increased in-house police forensic work, how can we be sure this process won’t continue, further shrinking the forensics market?
- How will it be ensured that the work of private companies and police forensics work will be to the same standards as the FSS?
- How can we be sure the existing FSS archives will be accessible to all companies involved in the forensics market? And what will be incentive for working on cold cases?
- What are the statistics on the amount and focus of R&D carried out by the private sector, the FSS and academic labs?
- What will the future be of research into forensic science – will there be an incentive for private companies to invest in innovative research?
- If the FSS has undergone substantial restructuring, should the Government provide greater opportunity to see if this process could make the FSS viable in the present market?
- If forensics firms are driven by a desire to decrease costs, might that not have some impact upon accuracy of the results?
Damien Green: “In the end, I think that what all our constituents will most care about is that the system continues in an efficient fashion.”
Should efficiency be the main criterion by which forensic science is appraised and driven in the UK? And if there are other criteria involved, is abolishing the FSS the best way to meet them?
This blog post was written by Beck Smith, the Biochemical Society’s Head of Policy.
Yesterday I attended the last London PUS Seminar of this academic year where Dr Angela Cassidy from the University of East Anglia gave a talk on ‘Badgers and Bovine TB (bTB): a messy science/policy controversy in the UK’.
The issue of badgers and bovine TB is longstanding. After 20 years of variable policy and unresolved controversy over the culling of wild badgers, the mid-90s saw the commissioning of the largest field experiment ever carried out in the UK– the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT). It was hoped that this vast study would provide the definitive answers on the issue.
However, at the conclusion 10 years later in 2008, the scientific group which convened to run the RBCT concluded that culling “could not meaningfully contribute” to the management of the bTB. The inconclusive results of the study were contested (and continue to be) by many, including the Government’s own Chief Scientific Advisor at the time, Sir David King.
Dr Cassidy’s talk covered her quantitative analysis of the badger/bTB issue in the British national press from 1995-2010 – in particular the observation that badger/bTB has been covered as an agricultural, political and environmental problem, but rarely as an explicitly scientific issue. LexisNexis was used as the primary data source (slight unreliability acknowledged) to collect articles which were then analysed for who were seen to be key actors, where was the coverage taking place, and when were stories being reported?
The analysis identified several key actors: DEFRA, NFU, Badger Trust (a tiny organisation with a now disproportionate profile), RSPCA (indicative of how this issue is seen as an animal welfare issue), Professor John Bourne (Chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB), Sir David King (former Government Chief Scientist), Sir John Krebs (author of 1997 Krebs Report) and Prince Charles. The numbers of key actors illustrates another finding, the plurality of ‘expert’ advice sourced in the coverage. Despite the number of expert sources and actors, the newspaper coverage of this issue has focused heavily on culling in comparison to other policy actions (and other issues involved i.e. cattle to cattle transmission) with all sides agreeing ‘the public’ will not tolerate culling.
The badgers themselves (although not an ‘actor’ as such) and how they are depicted plays an important role in this issue. Dr Cassidy found that Wind in the Willows is frequently referenced in the coverage, exemplifying that much of the coverage has become polarised with ‘good badgers’ (emblematic of healthy environment – don’t cull!) on one hand and ‘bad badgers’ (seen as vermin and vectors – cull! cull! cull!) on the other. However, these preconceptions significantly pre-date the bTB issue with Dr Cassidy showing that the idea of badgers being brave fighters and staunch defenders of family dates back to c960.
The Times (Daily and Sunday) and Telegraph (Daily and Sunday) accounted for over half of all badger/bTB coverage with both publications adopting a predominately pro-culling stance in their articles – the Telegraph more so than the Times. The anti-culling stance was taken by the left wing press and perhaps surprisingly, the Daily Mail at first glance appearing to be adopting a balanced position. However, a more detailed look showed the Daily Mail’s seemingly balanced coverage was caused by extreme bipolarity in their coverage.
The issue has been covered primarily as a main news feature (61%) followed by general features (19%), supplement (9%), comment (8%) and unknown (3%). Of particular interest is who is writing these articles – columnists and commentators form the majority with 21%, generalists 17%, environmental science journalists 15%, agricultural journalists 14%, (anonymous 13%, other 8%) politics journalists 7%, science journalists 5%. More recently (the results above span the time period 2001-2009), it does appear the science journalists are being called on when there’s an overt scientific controversy but the bulk of the coverage is now coming from the environmental science journalists.
Related note: Dr Cassidy questioned (and I tweeted) if anyone knew of any work done/being done on the differences between science and environmental science journalism? Please do comment below/tweet at me if you have any suggestions.
When analysed on a yearly basis, frequency of coverage shows a general upward trend, building to a peak in 2008. However, when looked at more closely on a quarterly scale, the events-led nature of coverage becomes clear. Peaks of coverage levels can be seen to coincide with the start of the RBCT, the Sir David King report and Hilary Benn’s decision not to permit a cull in 2008 – as opposed to linked to scientific findings, Dr Cassidy has found no link between UK newspaper coverage and Web of Science citations.
The badger/bTB case study is a good example of the problems associated with uncertainty (in particular the challenge of developing policy when this happens) in science and raises the question of why the science of bTB is being contested in the public sphere – as opposed to in the scientific literature – and why this issue is and other similar issues aren’t? Dr Cassidy observes that scientific controversies/conflicts are normally (GM, MMR obvious examples of when this is not the case – suggesting the effectiveness of the science/policy interface is a key issue) housed within academic science.
Dr Cassidy’s fascinating work throws up almost as many questions as it answers. The badger/bTB issue is clearly culturally specific to the UK and there are exciting opportunities for comparing this issue with similar situations in other countries e.g. possums (problems associated with and attitudes towards) in New Zealand. Her analysis is focused on the UK national press, but as she recognises, analysis of regional press is likely to illustrate further polarity on the issue. The biggest question remains, what can we learn from Dr Cassidy’s work about how to deal with and talk about scientific uncertainty in a way which doesn’t lead to such entrenched polarity in which the fate of the badgers will be decided by politics as much as science?
To find out more about Dr Cassidy’s work:
View her powerpoint slides (these are slightly different to the slides used yesterday but include more insight on the good badger/bad badger idea)
This post was written by Michelle Brook, the Biochemical Society’s Science Policy Intern.
The use of the national facilities, such as ISIS, a pulsed neutron and muon source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboaratory, the Diamond Light Source and the Central Laser Facility (CLF) are of huge importance to scientists across scientific disciplines. They are used in a wide-range of programmes – from studying photo-induced nuclear reactions to solving protein structures. These facilities are operated and maintained by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
On the 19th Jan 2011 Chief Executives from four of the Research Councils gave evidence in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on the topic of the Spending Review and Science Budget Allocations. The uncorrected transcript is available online to read or to listen to. In fairness, as of yet neither the witnesses nor Members of the Committee have had the opportunity to correct the record.
A quote of interest is from Professor Keith Mason (Chief Executive of STFC) who, in response to a question from Andrew Miller MP, stated “I think we have enough working capital to maintain existing facilities at the peak of their operation.” (9:34:06)
It is interesting to compare this statement with quotes from the STFC Delivery Plan, released in December 2010:
“We will operate the UK large national facilities to ensure agreed levels of access for the other Research Councils. This involves full exploitation of the Diamond Light Source and reduced operation of the ISIS pulsed neutron and muon source and the Central Laser Facility. As part of this we will ensure their continued sustainability as world leading facilities” pg 1
“Ideally ISIS should operate for a higher number of days to maximise its world-leading science output and the return on UK investment.” pg. 12
“Under ideal circumstances, the Central Laser Facility should also operate at a higher capacity to maximise its world-leading science output supports a wide range of research, generating a large scientific output relative to its funding.” Pg. 12
This blogpost was written by the Michelle Brook, the Biochemical Society’s Science Policy Intern.
On Wednesday 24th, Professor Adrian Smith and David Willetts MP were called in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for an oral evidence session on the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) 2010 (video). The following is a summary of key discussions and issues raised.
Changes within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Andrew Miller MP (Chair) began by asking about the recent merging of the Director General, Science and Research position with the Director General, Universities and Skills role. This move created a new post at Director General level, in charge of Knowledge and Innovation. The merging of these posts caused controversy last week with Professor Sir John Beddington (Government Chief Scientific Advisor) stating during a hearing of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, that he hadn’t been consulted on the decision. When questioned on this , Willetts made reference to a letter written by Beddington to Lord Krebs to clarify his statement in which Beddington stated he:
“was consulted … on options for streamlining the senior level in BIS and responded that [he] saw merit in an option which brought together responsibility for research, HE and innovation in a single post at DG level. This [his] view. What [he] was not consulted on was the nature of the individual to fill the post, nor the recruitment process, including panel membership or whether the competition should be public or within the civil service.”
Willetts went on to state that it was a great outcome that Professor Adrian Smith (the former Director General, Science and Research) had been appointed into the new expanded Civil Service role. However, he added that he fully understood the concerns of the scientific community in that it would be untenable to have someone without a science background in that role. He added that in future it would be necessary to look at how we can reconcile this issue with the requirement for ministers not to be involved Civil Service appointments.
Providing scientific advice to Government
Another issue discussed which feel outside the session’s topic of the CSR was that of how scientific advice would be provided to the government. In October it was announced that a large number of quangos were to be either axed or merged including a number of Scientific Advisory Committees. Miller raised the point that many of the Quangos being abolished are being reconstituted as “Committee of Experts” and moved within their sponsoring Departments. When asked what the key differences are between these two bodies, Willetts stated that as a Committee of Experts the bodies would no longer be considered Non-Departmental Public Bodies. He emphasised that he believes we can be confident that these bodies will still be able to ensure independent advice to ministers and stated that the absorbance of Quangos into Departments wasn’t an attempt to reduce independence. Sadly no-one asked what benefits establishing Committee of Experts rather than Non-Departmental Public Bodies could be expected to achieve. In addition, no-one enquired if the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) would be applicable to these Committee of Experts, which given the current consultation on CopSAC would have been a very timely question. (Beck – this is something we’re raising in our response.)
Comprehensive Spending Review
In moving on to the CSR, Willetts expressed hope that the details would be released before Christmas, but stated that he believed the balance between HEFCE and Research Council funding would stay roughly the same as at present. He added that a limited consultation with the scientific community had largely expressed the view that the allocation of funds between Research Councils should be kept broadly the same.
Of concern is Willetts’s statement that the capital element of the science spend would face a cut roughly in line with the 44% cut to BIS. This cut would include the money being spent on the UKCMRI, which as a new investment, surely marks an even greater cut for current projects requiring capital expenditure? Committee members also expressed concern that the four big capital projects that are going ahead (including Diamond and CMRI) are focussed in the South East of the country. In response, Willets referred to Daresbury and said that the proposed Technology and Innovation Centres would be located all over the country.