header image

Public policy and priorities for science and technology

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2003/12)
7-9 November 2003
Over the weekend of 7-9 November, we looked at public policy and priorities for science and technology.  This was a conference we had first planned to hold in New York on 14 September 2001 and had postponed because of the tragic events of 9/11.  On this occasion we met at Ditchley under the chairmanship of the British Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.  We were also fortunate to have around the table participants with wide experience of policy, research and other aspects of science and technology.
We looked at the question from the points of view of the national role of Governments, the national and international role of Governments as regulators, and the international role of Governments and other facilitators.
Before looking in more detail at these issues we looked at the general background against which our discussions were taking place.  As far as basic research was concerned, we acknowledged that the timescales were long before such research turned into development and wealth creation.  Crick and Watson’s work had been completed over 50 years ago and only in 2000 had sequencing of the human genome been concluded.  When it was built in 1982, the Thames Barrier had, at most, been used once a year, now it was more like 22 times a year preventing enormous damage to London.  One participant pointed out that the top five problems in physics which had been identified in the 1950s were still relevant today.  Given these long lead times, the view was expressed that Governments were among the few institutions who could afford to plan and finance research with these timescales.  This led another participant to highlight the problem of trying to find a balance between long scientific programmes and the timeframe of a politician seeking to justify to the electorate the necessary investments with the expectation of a return on them within the electoral cycle.  This, it was thought, would probably be easier in a country like the USA where science and scientists continued to enjoy widespread public support unlike many countries in Europe where neither Governments nor their electorates appeared to have much regard for science.  It was perhaps indicative that while a debate was in train in the EU about whether to mention “God” in the draft Constitutional Treaty, there was no mention of science.  Some of this distrust had, we thought, arisen where scientists had failed to make it clear when they were giving impartial advice and when they were lobbying on behalf of a firm or project. 
In looking at the resources devoted to research and development we noted that the figure of 3% of GDP was generally accepted as best practice.  We acknowledged, however, that in many cases this was only an aspiration with enormous variations between the USA and smaller economies.  For smaller countries there was no alternative to co-operation.  In the UK, for example, the priority areas for research were subject to rigorous evaluation.  One participant mentioned that it was not so much the proportion of GDP that mattered but whether there was a good return on the investment.  We noted that big companies no longer invested in scientific research, their resources were directed towards product development.  One participant pointed out that many discoveries had been made at the interface between branches of science.  The need for a multidisciplinary approach underlined the importance for industry of linking with universities.  Benchmarking within and across countries was thought to be a driver for progress.  Evaluation was equally important in the view of some participants.  But care should be taken, not just over what was evaluated, but when.  It was often instructive to look back after a number of years and see what lay behind particular developments.  Frequently the source turned out to be research which might have been discontinued if it had been evaluated after, say, five years.  The notion of “national science” was claimed to be a non-sequitur.  By its nature, science was international.  Scientists knew with whom it would be most profitable to collaborate.   “Researchers know where the breaking waves are”.  Wherever possible, it was thought, research should be based on a bottom-up approach.  In the UK this appeared to be mirrored by the programmes where some 70% were responsive and about 30% directed.  Most Governments now focused on wealth creation and research was not so concentrated as it previously had been on military and medical priorities.  The number of spin-outs from university research was taken as a measure of success.
We looked, in some detail, at the national role of Governments in relation to Science and Technology (S&T).  One of our first conclusions was that there was no “right” model.  This was an area where one size did not fit all circumstances.   Different approaches would work in different countries.  Nevertheless we thought that Governments had a key role in setting the structures within which S&T could flourish, and in some cases this would involve removing barriers to its development.  High on our list was the establishment of tax structures which encouraged investment in S&T.  Planning policies also needed to take into account the benefits from clusters of R&D groups.  National laboratories were considered a useful means of assisting research provided they were “permeable” to universities and prepared to allow universities to patent the results of their research.  The flexible use of funding and mission-oriented, not prescriptive, programmes was also thought to encourage R&D.  We identified an adequate supply of well trained people as a key component of success.  This did not just apply at the researcher level but all the way through the system from school-teachers to Universities.  A declining number of young people taking science subjects was a warning signal.  A key to correcting this was the willingness to pay adequate salaries to all those concerned at schools and universities.  A participant with experience of government bureaucracy thought that coordination across departmental budgets was one of the most difficult problems to resolve.  But without a strong cadre of well trained people, problems would arise within Government itself which needed to understand scientific issues and set priorities.  Without such a multidisciplinary pool for the Government to draw on, crises like BSE would be unmanageable.  Those responsible for policy in the UK were in favour of attracting the best overseas talent to Britain both from Europe and more widely.  It was thought that an unintended consequence of the post 9/11 restrictions imposed in the US might be to assist British efforts in this direction.
Communication came up in a number of discussions.  In terms of the general background against which policy and decision makers were operating, we noted a number of changes.  The state no longer had as much power in a globalising world as it had had previously.  Scientific experts were no longer accorded the respect they had previously enjoyed and the public was now better informed and, by using IT, both more inclined and able to protest.  It was therefore suggested that all decisions on major policy priorities should be accompanied by public debate to try to ensure that they had general understanding and support.  This was not a simple exercise, however.  We were warned against assuming that explanation would always lead to acceptance.  A seasoned practitioner commented that “the more they know, the more they worry”.  But the general consensus was that there was no alternative to openness and engagement in public debate.  If debate was avoided it would be lost.  This was particularly the case for long term priorities, which, some of us thought could only be sustained if public engagement was seen as an integral part of the overall policy.  In general, long term success would only come from long-term priority setting which avoided chopping or changing with the electoral cycle.
Evaluation was another issue to which importance was attached.  Some argued that without business planning and metrics to measure progress it would be difficult to gain political and public support.  Others argued strongly that over-precise metrics could distort.  Metrics should be made more sophisticated and tuned as the programme progressed.  The essential prerequisite was to maintain a broad view.  International benchmarking was thought highly desirable.  As one European participant put it, it would be good to “tension” one country’s efforts against another’s to maintain a standard of excellence throughout Europe, to the general benefit of all European countries.
In looking at the role of regulation we thought that before experts were asked to give their views on the risks involved prior to the framing of a regulation, it would be desirable to involve members of the public (the stakeholders) in a discussion of the framework within which the experts would be asked for their views and a risk assessment.  This might help to ensure that important issues were not overlooked.  For example, although the scientific challenge in nuclear power was the disposal of spent fuel, it appeared from public opinion polls, that the issue which most troubled people was the possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Risk analysis should, we thought, also include a statement of the benefits expected.  Without that, the current emphasis on the “precautionary principle” approach to risk evaluation could lead to stasis.  There also needed to be some way of modifying regulations once the situation changed:  The policy in the UK of slaughtering all cattle not older than 30 months if they were to enter the food chain was being maintained to guard against much less than 0.1% of a risk.  But politically it would be a difficult decision for any Government to take.  Equally, it would be impossible for a politician to announce that a given motorway was being designed to achieve the optimal number of deaths.  Scientists needed to recognise the constraints of politics.  Some expressed concern about the sensational nature of press reporting of scientific issues.  One response, suggested by a number of us, was to put more emphasis on understanding science in our educational systems and maintaining it on the curriculum up to school leaving age. 
We supported evidence-based policy making and hoped that Ministers would speak out in favour of science and scientific programmes.  One participant warned, in a memorable phrase, against policy-based evidence making which was not unknown.  We saw regulations at three levels, international, national and local and had a preference for keeping regulations at the lowest appropriate level recognising that whoever framed a regulation should bear some part of the responsibility for its effects.  A strong emphasis was laid on developing a new vocabulary for communicating the level of risk both in public statements and in framing legislation. 
International regulation, in the opinion of some, was usually a slow process and was biased towards the lowest common denominator.  Good regulation could stimulate innovation.  Governments needed, however, to have an in-house capacity to anticipate future trends.  We spent some time on the enforceability of regulation.  We were told of bodies where industry had shown itself capable of self-regulation with only occasional reference to the official regulator where inter-industry agreement had proved impossible.  We looked at a range of international organisations like the WTO and the WHO which played important roles in enforcement and adjudication.  We noted the growing role of NGOs.  Some of us concluded that high-quality competition rules were a key component of a regulatory framework.  They could help to encourage competition in the market place and diversity (eg patents and copyrights).
In looking at the international role of Governments and other facilitators of S&T we noted the increasing cost and interdisciplinary nature of research which necessitated international collaboration to pool knowledge and give economies of scale.  One participant regretted, in this context, the diminishing contact and engagement of US researchers with colleagues abroad.  This was partly a function of the proportion of research devoted to national security, partly the sheer scale of the resources devoted to US research, and, it was suggested by some, partly a certain parochialism on the part of US scientists.  This was contrasted with the informal links between American and Soviet scientists during the Cold War.  Their meetings in the “Pugwash” format had, coincidentally, led to the treaty on biological weapons.  Another participant commented that US restrictions on industrial cooperation and a tendency to autarky were anti-wealth creation and anti-alliance.  Some advocated that science should address major global problems like climate change, water security, management of disease and international terrorism.  The view  was expressed that wealth-creation should be thought of in broad terms to include the creation of social capital which needed to be put on a sustainable basis in poor countries.  Distinctions needed to be made in the overall description of countries as either “developed” or “developing”.  There were many different categories with India and China both exporting technology but sharing some characteristics with other countries at a much lower level of development.  We also needed to take account of widely differing cultural, including religious, approaches to the importance of S&T to society.  It was often the case that the pace of change in S&T was faster than the rate at which public opinion could accept technology.  We were advised that there was a need to promote a science and society dialogue on a global scale. 
We noted the role of international networks and bodies in facilitating S&T.  Our general conclusion was that there was no lack of such facilitating agencies.  The need was not to invent more but to make the existing ones work better.  The WHO, OECD and UNESCO were examples of international organisations which could be used more effectively as channels for communicating issues already being addressed at international level.  Some suggested that greater exchange of technology foresight on an international scale was needed to inform global decision making.
A number of issues were thrown up in considering S&T exchanges between industrialised and less industrialised countries.  Care should be taken, some thought, not simply to transfer technology adapted to meet the needs of the rich northern countries to poorer southern countries.  Their views should be sought.  Thought also needed to be given to the brain-drain from South to North.  Schemes in which researchers were helped, both to reintegrate themselves into their own countries while remaining in touch with their faculties in Northern universities or institutes, were commended.  Attention was drawn to the role which an emerging group of very large multinational companies were beginning to play in making a real difference to development. 
As we looked back at the points which had come up in our discussions, we were reminded that we had paid too little attention to the role of technology.  The development of high technology, in particular in our manufacturing processes, was an essential link in the chain of wealth creation.  Increasingly, major corporations tended not to own their supply chains any longer and the science and technology concerned had probably moved to different countries in the world over which they had little control.  We were advised that we had given little consideration to the 30% of global R&D which originated in Asia.  We also returned to some of the wider issues with which we had begun our discussions.  Should basic research have a mission?  One participant suggested that to adopt a wholly utilitarian view of science could be dangerous.  The problems of reconciling rationality and popular attitudes, of evidence over beliefs, would remain with us.  The governance of science itself depended on a uneasy relationship between scientists and elected politicians.  We were urged, however, not to be nervous about fundamental science.  It was part of our culture which was dynamic and had changed over time.  The real problem lay in the rapid change which S&T could bring about which differed from an evolutionary generational pattern. 
I am glad that this conference has now taken place.  In some ways, the events of 9/11 and subsequently made the issues we were discussing even more pressing.  They underlined the global importance of S&T in meeting some of the new challenges.  I am grateful to all those who participated in our discussions, some of whom travelled considerable distances to be with us.  I am also grateful to our chairman for guiding our discussions and giving us his impressions of the interface between science and government which lay at the heart of many of the questions we were addressing. 
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
Chairman : Professor Sir David King
Chief Scientific Adviser, Office of Science and Technology
HE Mel Cappe

High Commissioner for Canada (2002-);  formerly:  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (1999-2002);  Special Advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Professsor John de la Mothe
Canada Research Chair, Innovation Strategy, School of Management, University of Ottawa;  founding Director, Program of Research in Innovation Management and Economy, University of Ottawa;  Author
Ms Janet Halliwell
Executive Vice-President, Policy and Liaison Branch, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
Mr Joe Rotman OC
Chairman, Ontario Genomics Institute;  Member, Governing Council and Executive Committee, Canadian Institutes of Health Research;  a Director, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation
Professor Bernard Bigot
High Commissioner for Atomic Energy
Dr Marion Muller

Head, Berlin Office, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (2003-);  Special Assistant to the President, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (2001-03)
Dr Michael Oborne

Director, Multidisciplinary Issues, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
Sir John Chisholm

Chief Executive, QinetiQ (2003-);  formerly:  Chief Executive, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (1991-2003)
Mr Jeremy Clayton
Director, Transdepartmental Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry
Ms Fiona Clouder Richards
Head;  Science and Technology Unit, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr James Crabtree
Research Director, The Work Foundation;  Director, Voxpolitics
Professor David Fisk
Chief Scientific Adviser, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Royal Academy of Engineering, Chair Engineering for Sustainable Development, Imperial College London
Professor Michael Gregory
Head, Manufacturing and Management Division, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge
Professor Ian Halliday
Chief Executive, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
Sir John Kingman FRS
Director, Isaac Newton Institute for mathematical Sciences, University of Cambridge (2001-);  Chairman, Statistics Commission (2000-03);  Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol (1985-01);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Professor Sir Christopher Llewellyn-Smith FRS
Director, Culham Laboratory (2002-);  Provost and President, University College London (1999-2002);  Director General, CERN (1994-1998);  Fellow, Royal Society (1984-)
Dr Erik Millstone
Director, Science and Technology Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex
Dame Pauline Neville-Jones DCMG
Chairman, QinetiQ;  Adviser, Hawkpoint Partners Ltd (1998-);  Managing Director, NatWest Markets (1996-98);  HM Diplomatic Service (1963-96);  Deputy Under Secretary of State and Political Director, FCO (1994-96);  a Governor, the Ditchley Foundation
Dr Mike Norton
Counsellor, Science and Technology, British Embassy Tokyo
Professor John O’Reilly
Chief Executive, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (2001-);  Chair, Network Interoperability Consultative Committee for Oftel:  Deputy President, IEE (2002-)
Professor Sir Keith O’Nions FRS
Chief Scientific Adviser, Ministry of Defence
Mr Rod Pryde
Assistant Director General, The British Council
Dr Jonathan Radcliffe
Select Committee on Science and Technology, House of Lords (2003-);  Science Policy Adviser, EU and International Science, Environment Protection Directorate-General, Defra (2000-03)
Professor Sir Martin Rees FRS
Astronomer Royal (1995-);  Royal Society Research Professor, Cambridge University (1992-);  Fellow, Kings College, Cambridge (1973-)
Professor Sir Gareth Roberts
President, Wolfson College, Oxford (2001-);  President, Science Council (2000-);  Vice Chancellow, University of Sheffield (1991-2000);  Chairman of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council (1993-97);  President, Institute of Physics (1998-2000)
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Chancellor, University of Kent at Canterbury;  Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding;  a Governor and member of Council, The Ditchley Foundation
Dr Diana Walford CBE
Principal, Mansfield College, Oxford (2002);  Director, Public Health Laboratory Service (England and Wales) (1993-2002);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation (2000-) 
Professor Michael Walker
Group Research and Development Director, Vodafone, Professor, University of London
Dr Anthony Whitehead
Director, Science and Society;  Head, Home Office Science Policy Unity (2001-2003)
Dr Bernie Bulkin
Chief Scientist, BP International, London (2001-);  Fellow:  Royal Society of Chemistry;  Institute of Petroleum;  Royal Society of the Arts;  Honorary Professor, University of York
Admiral Frank M Dirren Jr
Vice President and General Manager, Battelle’s Navy Market Sector;  Rear Admiral, United States Navy (Ret)
Dr Hans Mark
Professor of Aerospace Engineering, University of Texas at Austin (1988-);  Director, Defense Research and Engineering (1998-);  Formerly:  Secretary of the US Air Forces (1979-81);  Undersecretary of US Air Force and Director of National Reconnaissance Office (1977-79)
Mr Daniel Sharp
Emeritus President and CEO, The American Assembly (2002-0);  President and CEO, The American Assembly (1987-2002);  Faculty member, The Aspen Institute
Dr Eugene Skolnikoff
Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (1987-);  Chairman, UN University Institute for New Technology;  Director, Centre for International Studies
Dr Clay T Whitehead
President, Clay Whitehead Associates;  Formerly:  Director, US Office of Telecommunications Policy, Special Assistant to President Nixon