The Are We Realising Our Potential Inquiry MEMORANDUM by The Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Are We Realising Our Potential Inquiry MEMORANDUM by The Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Are We Realising Our Potential Inquiry MEMORANDUM by The Royal Society of Edinburgh


The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Select Committee’s request for comments on the 'Are We Realising Our Potential' Inquiry. The RSE is Scotland's National Academy of Science and Letters, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response distils the views of a wide cross section of Fellows. The timetable for submission meant it was not possible for it to be fully considered by the Council of the Society, and has, therefore, been approved by the Officers on its behalf. Given his prior involvement as Chief Scientific Adviser in the White Paper, and because he has given evidence separately to the Select Committee, the Society's President, Sir William Stewart, has not been involved in producing or approving the RSE's response.

The Realising our Potential White Paper of 1993 was an important landmark in recognising the importance of the research base and its contribution to the wealth of the UK. It paved the way for what has been built on and adopted since, and demonstrably raised the profile of science. The development of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) and the reorganisation of the Research Councils have been highly beneficial, resulting in an important voice for science in Government. The concepts of public/private partnerships in science funding are now better developed, although the UK is still playing below an international level in industry research and development (R&D). On the whole, therefore, the Realising our Potential White Paper must be regarded as a significant success. It would be foreshortening our options and vision, however, to say that we are yet fully 'realising our potential': there is ample scope to continue to build upon the White Paper's aspirations.

The specific areas of consideration are addressed below:

The extent to which the objectives set out in the 1993 White Paper, Realising Our Potential, have been delivered;

Many of the issues highlighted in the inquiry have been moved forward significantly as a result of the implementation of many of the recommendations of the White Paper. Overall, progress has been made in most of the areas identified.

The creation of Technology Foresight

Technology Foresight caught the imagination of the science and technology (S&T) community and brought together industrialists and academics who were enthused by the prospects of creating a technology and market blueprint that aimed to enhance wealth creation and improve the quality of life within the UK. Many of theparticipants in the programme felt that this initiative was overdue. It brought the UK in line with technological powerhouses such as the USA and Japan who have their own technology look-ahead methodologies, and placed us ahead of others. The Foresight process was sometimes misrepresented as a forecast activity that attempts to predict the future. Hopefully this misunderstanding has now been corrected and that it is now recognised that Foresight is concerned with alerting the business and academic communities to market and technology opportunities already on the horizon.

Foresight has provided a useful framework for exploring key issues regarding science/industry links and the processes have produced useful and interesting material. Networking has been greatly enhanced and the outcomes of Foresight have been incorporated into Government policy documents. Applicants to the Research and Funding Councils need to know the relevance of their work to Foresight priorities. Attitudinal changes take a long time to develop and we believe that significant change has not yet occurred. What is clear is that the outcomes of Foresight can provide the glue that holds together the goals of ‘Realising our Potential’ and other current or future related initiatives.

It will be difficult in the long-term to de-convolute the relationship between economic success, lifestyle improvements and the Foresight process. However, this should not prevent attempts being be made to do this. Possible metrics include trends in: the industrial relevance of science base R&D; the technological balance of payments for the UK; health and other quality of life statistics; patenting activity; number of high-technology start-ups; business expenditure on R&D.

The abolition of the Advisory Council on Science and Technology and its replacement with the Council for Science and Technology (CST)

The CST has, from the outside, been relatively low profile. This is not to say that it has not had a positive effect but that it is very difficult to evaluate externally. One view is that it should be more transparent in its advice and commentary. However, it would need to guard against becoming simply reactive, media-driven, or less incisive, in its advice.

A shifting of emphasis for technology transfer initiatives between the science and engineering base and industry

The greatest impact of the White Paper has been to promote a change in culture within the science community, encouraging greater dialogue, partnership and collaboration. Most attention has been focused on the transfer of technology and knowledge out of Universities, with less being done on the transfer into companies and innovation within companies. The response of industry has been patchy: for example, small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) have not sought to take as much advantage of links with academia as might be hoped. Universities are, therefore, becoming better at supplying technology and innovation, but there is not the required demand from the UK business base in taking this up, partly because some of what University R & D is offering does not match UK industry’s view of what is exploitable technology. The consequence is likely to be a stronger University base transferring knowledge to export markets where there is both the demand and also the capability.

Programmes to improve access for small and medium-sized enterprises to innovation support programmes

It has inevitably been more difficult to deal with the issues of access for small and medium-size enterprises to innovation support programmes. There is a continuing problem with SME's which no one has solved satisfactorily. There is the constant problem of the resources available within small companies, which are almost always fully stretched. Engaging creatively with additional initiatives, therefore, poses real problems for them. The LINK initiative and Teaching Company Scheme (TCS), however, have been successful.

The reorganisation of the research councils

The White Paper has provided the impetus to analyse operations and improve efficiency within the Research Councils, allowing a greater proportion of the science budget to be freed to fund science. Much has been achieved since 1993 through rationalisation, restructuring and finding more efficient ways of working, often through joint initiatives.

One of the White Paper's reforms, however, was a commitment to maintain and strengthen the Rothschild customer-contractor principle in relation to departmental applied research and development. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's Fifth Report: Government Expenditure on Research and Development, The Forward Look (March 2000) drew attention to the issue of Departments withdrawing funding from the Science Base, often at short notice. This has often resulted in staff redundancies, site closures and, at worst, loss of national research capability in particular areas. Financially the Science Budget may, as a result, have to pick up the pieces.

The creation of the post of the Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC)

The creation of the DGRC and the absorption of the functions of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils in to the OST has provided a focus for the co-ordination of the activities of the Research Councils, as well as enabling the undertaking of pan-Council initiatives and providing a cohesive platform for the bid for the science vote. One could argue that the latter has been the single most important impact, if measured by the successful outcome of the 1997 Comprehensive Spending Review.

The launch of a new campaign to spread understanding of science among school children and the public.

Realising our Potential raised the issue of the need for greater efforts to improve public understanding of science and technology and today the Research Councils and a number of bodies, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, are now involved in a wide range of activities aimed at promoting dialogue between science and society. The recent House of lords Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report: Science and Society, however, has identified shortcomings in the current relationship between scientists and the public which still remain. The Society's views on this issue can be found in its submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology's inquiry into Science and Society.

Whether the objectives and themes of the 1993 White Paper remains appropriate to the development of a strategy for science, engineering and technology and, if not, what other themes and objectives would be more beneficial;

The emphasis of the 1993 White Paper on creating partnerships to benefit UK wealth creation and quality of life is as relevant now as it was in 1993. However, while recognising that the kind of change that the White Paper aimed to bring about takes time, there are specific problems which require further work. For example, as noted above, the industrial input into R&D, and therefore the means of connecting up the high quality of research in universities with the needs of industry and commerce, has still some way to go. The reasons for this are many. In the larger companies it is often the needs of institutional investors who want an annual return as high as possible and company managers responding to the desire for good financial results by constraining R & D investment. In the smaller companies the continuing problems of time and energy and internal resource equally pose barriers, as does the 'communication gap' between science and general managers. Some progress is being made, but there is not enough industrial "pull" to maximise the advantages of the UK's research base.

A significant development since Realising our Potential is devolution. As was concluded in the Royal Society of London and Royal Society of Edinburgh's joint study into Devolution and Science, the science, engineering and technology base should remain well integrated on a UK level with as few internal barriers as possible. The Research Councils, which are a reserved UK function and which should remain so, and the devolved Higher Education Funding Councils, should recognise their important roles in maintaining the UK SET base. At the same time, devolved powers should be a basis for more effective application of the SET base through the creation of regional alliances, as advocated in the 1998 White Paper on Building the Knowledge Driven Economy. The means whereby these latter objectives are attained will vary from region to region, depending upon the nature of devolved responsibilities. It is important, however, that, as the constitutional arrangements become more complex, effective means of co-ordination of the UK SET base are developed.

In terms of other themes, there would be merit in more express recognition of such developments as the growing importance of biotechnology, the increasing globalisation of industry and research, and the importance of the value in the international market of knowledge, and of services flowing from the ownership of knowledge.

Another area where further attention would be beneficial concerns the research infrastructure within universities. The Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF) initiative has been good and timely; however, it is essential that as part of the current comprehensive spending review some longer term measures are put in place to ensure that the research infrastructure available in British universities is adequate to the needs of the economy. This adequacy needs to relate to the speed at which technology moves and to allow maximum exploitation of that infrastructure within institutions and through partnerships with other related institutions.

With regard to the managing, development and renewal of central facilities, there would also be merit in a systematic approach to new capital facilities. There have, up to now, been difficulties in approving, and now in setting up, the management for facilities, such as the new synchrotron radiation source. As a result, it could be argued that the UK has suffered loss of expertise in managing capital projects and failed properly to exploit the facilities we have.

Whether attempts to deliver the proposals of the 1993 White Paper have resulted in a culture change across, or in parts of, the science, engineering and technology base, and, if so, what is the nature of this change and how has it been demonstrated;

The emphasis of the White Paper was on the themes of wealth creation, partnership and training. Many of the issues have been taken forward, and are more embedded in the policy making environment and SET community, as seen in the accepted prominence of the role of the science base in future economic development.

Within the science community, the White Paper has resulted in the promotion of a change in culture, encouraging greater dialogue, partnership and collaboration, although effort still needs to be concentrated on stimulating industry to innovate and to work with the universities.

The Government's recent consultation on Science and Innovation Strategy stated that "the aim is to use the UK's excellence in science to achieve improvements in our national innovation performance and so to improve the competitiveness of the economy and the quality of everyone's life". Do you agree that these are appropriate aims for a national strategy for science?

The RSE believes the list of aims is appropriate although there could be some mention of science for the public good.

What do you believe should be the main features of a modern strategy for science, engineering and technology and why?

The main features of a modern strategy for science should be:

  • promotion of excellence in the science base, because only excellence will suffice in a highly competitive global economy;
  • fostering of collaboration with industry, because the science and technology base is such a potentially valuable resource to industry and to society generally;
  • retaining a global perspective, because of the increasingly global nature of the economy; and
  • being open with the public, because only through the provision of better communication of information can the public’s unease about science and technology be addressed.

While there has been some co-ordination of Government Department research, co-ordination and integration of departmental research with the main policy making functions should also be a main feature of the science strategy.

Additional information

It should be noted that the Scottish Executive is also developing a science strategy for Scotland. Devolution has changed the patterns of responsibility for regional components of the SET base and is likely to produce regional priorities for it. This will create both risks to the effectiveness of the SET base and opportunities to increase its effectiveness. It will be important to avoid the former and exploit the latter.

In responding to this inquiry the RSE would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: The Scientific Advisory System (June 1998); Devolution and Science (April 1999); Science and Society (June 1999) and Government's Expenditure on Research and Development: Forward Look 1999 (December 1999).

Copies of this response and the above publications are available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands


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