UK parliamentary committee criticises government for
inadequate support for science and technology
7 August 2009
The UK Government has reduced science to a political bargaining chip
and must raise its game to produce an ambitious science and engineering
strategy for the future, conclude MPs in a report published last month.
In the report, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of
Government Policy , The Innovation, Universities, Science and
Skills Committee says that while there are many positives to take from
its inquiry into science and engineering policy in Government, such as
the growth of the science and engineering community in the civil
service, a broad vision is missing.
The failure to find a stable home for the Government Office for
Science (GO-Science) has reduced science and engineering advice to, at
best, a peripheral policy concern, and, at worst, a political bargaining
chip. The Committee directly appeals to the Prime Minister to bring
GO-Science into the Cabinet Office and it urges the creation of a
Government Chief Engineer and a Government Chief Scientist.
To improve transparency and safeguard the independence of scientific
advice, the Government should establish a press office in GO-Science
which would also serve all the Science Advisory Committees.
The independence of scientific advisers is crucial. The criticism by
the Home Secretary of Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory
Council for the Misuse of Drugs, after his comments about ecstasy could
deter experts from serving on Scientific Advisory Committees. It is
vital that in such cases the Government Chief Scientific Adviser steps
up and offers public support to safeguard the independence the advisory
The report also says:
- if the Government is to return to 'picking winners' it must have
clear priorities and come clean about which areas of research will
get less money;
- the 2009 Budget Research Council savings are in reality an
attempt to influence research funding streams and the Government
should not label them as something they are not;
- the Haldane Principle should be replaced with a principle which
accommodates a much wider range of factors, for example regional
science policy; and
- after the general election, a new free-standing Science,
Engineering and Technology Committee should be created with a
Phil Willis MP, the Chairman of the Committee, said: "My Committee
does not underestimate how important the Government believes the role of
science and engineering advice to be. We were impressed by evidence
demonstrating that significant progress is being made, such as the
increasing use of Chief Scientific Advisers.
"We ask that a tangible and ambitious strategy for UK science and
engineering policy is developed. The Government has committed to placing
science and engineering advice at the heart of policy formulation and
now it is time to do so: scrutiny of policy must be strengthened and a
clearer vision for the future must be developed."
In response to the report, Nigel Fine, the Institution of Engineering
and Technology (IET) Chief Executive, said, “The Innovation,
Universities, Science and Skills Committee’s report rightly highlights
many positive steps taken by the Government from the inquiry into
science and engineering policy.
“However, the IET is concerned that this policy still does not sit at
the heart of Government. One way of achieving this would be through the
appointment of a Chief Engineering Adviser. We are disappointed that,
despite previous recommendations, this has not come to fruition.
“Equally, a central home must be found for the Chief Scientific
Adviser and Government Office for Science to ensure that expert advice
plays a crucial role in the development of effective strategies and
policies across Government.
“A successful economy needs both science and engineering. Without
them we will not effectively recover from the current economic downturn
or solve the huge global issues of our time, such as climate change and
Martin Rees, President of The Royal Society said: "This report is
timely and throws up a number of pressing issues in the government's
current science policy. Its recommendation that a new free-standing
Science, Engineering and Technology Committee be set up after the next
general election receives our full support.
"The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington,
has worked hard to ensure that all government departments have Chief
Scientific Advisers to provide the best possible science and engineering
advice. The independence of scientific advisers is crucial and we would
welcome any moves taken to strengthen this autonomy.
"It is however very disappointing that the report does not refer to
the important role that the Academies and Learned Societies have to play
in influencing science policy. There is great value to their genuinely
independent and authoritative voice and to overlook this would be a
Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. Putting
Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy. London,
The Stationery Office Limited, 23 July 2009. The report can be viewed
and downloaded from:
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