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DIUS: 'Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy'

Response to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee consultation: Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy

Submitted: 9 January 2009

As the leading learned society on geological matters the Geological Society recognises the value, hence importance, of science and the need for it to be at the heart of Government policy. We are grateful for the opportunity to respond on this important subject.


  • The conception of science as a particular form of organised knowledge about the natural world is a peculiarly Anglophone interpretation. In other cultures, including all other European countries, “science” means organised knowledge about anything. This shows how important it is to understand how questions on this issue are influenced by our culture, and above all the English language.
  • In addition, within what English speakers think of as “science”, the boundaries between classic disciplines like chemistry, physics, biology, geology are breaking down. Many of the problems we face require moving between disciplines, or outside of what we traditionally regard as ‘science’. The Government’s formulation of science and engineering policy needs to reflect this.
  • The current Government has over the best part of a decade restored science investment lost in the decade up to the 1998/9 financial year. This is appreciated and to the benefit of UK PLC. However science is still not fully effectively recognised in the policy-making process and is on occasion actively ignored. Nor is it strongly represented and coordinated across all Government Departments. We favour a more focused and coherent system which might involve the creation of a Department for Science.
Specific questions addressed:

Whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council for Science and Technology put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making and whether there should be a Department for Science
1. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council of Science & Technology do not have the remit, and therefore are unable, to put science & engineering at the heart of Governmental policy-making.

2. In light of problems with the current system, detailed below, we favour a more focused and coherent system. This might involve the creation of a Department for Science, if that mechanism, given the proper powers and responsibilities, could better direct the questions posed by other departments of State to those best placed to provide meaningful answers. At one time this was a role undertaken by the Science and Technology Secretariat within the Cabinet Office.

How Government formulates science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)

3. The breakdown of boundaries between scientific disciplines is nowhere more evident than in our efforts to understand the Earth system – the complex web of influences that control our ever-changing global climate. Here as nowhere else, disciplines must work together to bring all their specialist knowledge to bear on creating a new, unified scientific worldview that incorporates everything from cosmology and solar physics through geochemistry and biological evolution to chaos theory.

4. The current system whereby Government departments and Parliamentary bodies obtain scientific advice is, we feel, rooted in a world view where subjects under discussion were easily defined as falling either in one domain of science or another. As many of those topics now include aspects of environmental change and hazard prevention or mitigation, this is no longer even remotely true.

5. Moreover, many of the issues we now face require even moving outside “science” as English speakers usually describe it. This is because many of the solutions to our current problems involve motivating large number s of people to behave differently, and in the process engaging ordinary non-scientific and non-technical people in those decisions – many of whom will either be uncomfortable – or appear to be uncomfortable, which is for the purposes of political change, the same thing.

6. With this in mind, we feel that it is worrisome that the recourse in most circumstances when scientific advice is sought is to The Royal Society, foremost and in many cases, in isolation. The Royal Society is an august body but represents a very small proportion of the whole field of scientific and technical endeavour and is highly biased towards research and to academics, who are not always best placed to understand the practical issues that need to be addressed alongside the theoretical ones.

Whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy, and how the success of any consultation is assessed

7. The views of the science and engineering community should be central to the formulation of Government policy. However the way the majority of consultations are conducted (as compared with the Cabinet Office Guidelines as the official standard) demonstrates that policy makers do not really value science unless there is a very specific scientific question needing to be addressed necessitating specific technical knowledge. Transferable science skills to the broader social arena are not valued.

8. It would be useful to have not just the outcome of a consultation assessed against the overall evidence submitted but also that the outcome is assessed against evidence received specifically from the independent scientific community (this includes learned societies). Then it would be more easily possible to see whether the science views had been considered.

Engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy

9. Public confidence in science and engineering cannot be improved until Government Departments and Agencies demonstrably appreciate (through investment and action) that they themselves have confidence in science and engineering. At the moment science and engineering concerns are not managed and addressed in a co-ordinated way across Government as they might. For example not all Government Departments have as strong a recognition of the value of science. Here for instance there is the Department for Culture, Media and Sports which seems to be slow in developing its own effective science resources. This lack of DCMS value percolates through to its related agencies.

The role of GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders in determining UK science and engineering policy

10. We at the Geological Society have a record of building upon our science’s naturally multidisciplinary nature to address pressing problems by drawing many scientific societies and interested parties together in framing recommendations and facilitating discussion. For example, our recent meeting on Radioactive Waste Disposal (24 October 2008: brought in expertise from many different fields and included a wide range of practising and academic geologists, local government representatives from potential volunteer communities, members of regulatory bodies and government departments, representatives of interested NGOs, those from other scientific societies and members of the public. In doing so, the meeting recognised that the solution is not a geological problem alone, any more than it is a civil engineering, or metallurgical one – it involves all these disciplines and more – including sociology and people who know about public engagement.

11. The problem at the moment is that there is no clear-cut, overarching management of science policy across Government and so issues can and do fall between the cracks. These include both specialist issues (for example of concern to geologists) and generic ones (of concern to most scientists). An example of the latter might be the actual and perceived value (hence utility) of a reasonably good BSc to a prospective undergraduate: science career concerns have been passed from pillar to post despite much political rhetoric over the past three decades. An example of a specific concern to geologists falling between the cracks is that of systematics. Geologists working in palaeoecology need to be able to identify fossil plant and animal species. Here the issue, despite three Select enquiries over the past quarter of a century, has fallen between education agencies and Government Departmental stools with nobody charged to take ownership of implementing the solution.

12. Again of concern to geologists, that issues seem to return again and again without being addressed was a matter that cropped up on three occasions during last year's DEFRA Science Advisory public meeting. Because of this fundamental lack of tactical management, simply re-arranging the relationship between deckchairs – GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders – will have far from maximum effect.