Willetts and Smith face Commons Science and Technology Committee

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.

Capital expenditure

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.

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