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 [1], 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 system.

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 cross-departmental remit.

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 renewable energy.”

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 mistake."


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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