Science and Technology Committee
Corrected oral evidence: Delivering a UK science and technology strategy
Tuesday 22 March 2022
Members present: Lord Krebs (In the Chair); Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford; Baroness Brown of Cambridge; Viscount Hanworth; Lord Holmes of Richmond; Baroness Manningham-Buller; Lord Mitchell; Lord Patel; Lord Rees of Ludlow; Baroness Rock; Lord Sarfraz; Baroness Sheehan; Baroness Walmsley; Lord Winston.
Evidence Session No. 9 Heard in Public Questions 64 - 80
Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Head of the Government Science and Engineering Profession and National Technology Adviser.
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and webcast on www.parliamentlive.tv.
Sir Patrick Vallance.
Q64 The Chair: I welcome everybody to this session and say good morning to our witness, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. Thank you very much for joining us today. Before we start with the questions, I remind you that the session is being broadcast on the internet. A transcript of today’s session will be sent to you in a few days’ time for you to check and send in minor corrections. If there is anything that you do not say but would like to say, please feel free to provide supplementary evidence in writing after the meeting.
Thank you again for making time in your very busy diary to present evidence to us on our inquiry into the organisation of the science base and the many changes that have taken place over the last year or so, with the creation of new bodies and new strategies.
I will kick off by asking a very general question. What would a successful UK science and technology strategy look like? We have heard that the OSTS is developing metrics to assess whether the UK has become a science superpower. Could you give us any further information on the metrics and what they are likely to include? I will just mention that John Holdren told us last week that the UK is already a science superpower.
Sir Patrick Vallance: I agree with that.
The Chair: You can probably measure it already, and you must have some metrics in your thinking about that.
Sir Patrick Vallance: Thank you very much. I agree. The starting point is that the UK is extraordinarily good at science, and by any metrics of basic science and university output we are right up there at the top of the world, depending on how you measure it in relation to population, but we are up there.
The question therefore is not so much, “Are we good at that side of science?”—we are, and we need to continue to be—but the impact, utilisation and ability to use that science in order to benefit the economy, society, health, wealth, defence and security. That is really the question.
Many people recognise that there has been a disconnect over quite a long period between the strength and breadth of our science output, in terms of research and academic output, and the ability to turn that successfully into products and outcomes that will benefit society. It is that bit where there is a need to make sure that we have a joined-up whole-of-government approach in order to make sure that that is properly pulled through and utilised.
Any metrics for the Government’s ambition for science and technology need to move beyond simply measures of academic output and to ask questions about things like intellectual property, investment in start-ups, the growth of start-ups, the scale-up of companies, the use of government procurement to pull through S&T, application and impact of the science and technology.
The Chair: That is very helpful. Thank you. Picking up on a couple of points, first, I want to ask about the ambition to increase the R&D spend to 2.4%. One analysis of what has happened in other countries when they have committed to increasing the R&D spend is that in 84% of cases they fail to do so. Related to that is the absorptive capacity: does the UK have the capacity to absorb such a big increase if it can be achieved?
Sir Patrick Vallance: A few years ago, when I first took up this role, I spoke about the 2.4% target. If you look across the world at countries that have managed to increase their R&D spend to an equivalent degree—it is 11 or so countries—all of them have achieved it with a very big increase in private sector investment. Nobody has done it simply by increasing public sector investment. The leverage ratio of private sector to public sector has always been increased in countries that have managed to do it; it is something like three to one.
So there is precedent for doing it, but it has to be linked to an ambition to increase the ability of the private sector to invest. Therefore, it comes back to this question of high-tech growth companies and the ability to get them too as part of the system, which creates the output that is required, of course, but also starts to develop a sustainable approach to this.
The Chair: You mentioned at the beginning our excellence in basic science, which is unquestionable; you measure that by the metrics of citation impact, major prizes and so on. Do you have a view about what percentage of our total public R&D budget should be spent on basic science? We have to maintain that, because that is the seed corn of future exploitation.
Sir Patrick Vallance: I have a very strong view that that needs to be maintained and increased. You are right, and I have said publiclythat protecting the goose that lays the golden egg, and the fundamental open science that leads in areas that nobody will predict or understand today, is the foundational part of this. So there is an argument for saying what percentage of the total spend one wants to ring-fence for that activity.
My concern in any system is that that is the easiest bit for people to tinker with and to reduce, because you do not feel the impact for a decade or more. Protecting that, ensuring that, is right—the exact percentage is a question for Ministers, I think—and it is an important part of the process, because anything that is done to undermine that is a massive own goal, in my opinion.
The Chair: We learned in a session a few weeks ago that, according to one witness, 15% of UKRI’s budget is spent on responsive mode, which is essentially what we are talking about. If you add the other major budgets in departments, the percentage would be quite small. Is there a case for increasing that percentage?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I am pleased that in the budget there is some definition of what needs to go in that space, and there is an uplift, which is important. Precisely how much goes into each bucket is a decision that Ministers need to make, but I am absolutely clear that protecting that fundamental science base is critical. Without that, everything else becomes a bit hollow. Countries have done it; there are countries that choose only to invest in the later stages and to develop those. That is a strategy, but not one that seems to me to be sensible for the UK, with our ambitions and history and the current very strong science base with a very strong international workforce.
Q65 Baroness Walmsley: Good morning, Professor Vallance. Could you explain to us what the role of the Office for Science and Technology Strategy is and what it does that other bodies do not? For example, is it likely to have any say in awarding research funding?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I will take a step back and say why I think the NSTC and the OSTS were formed. There is science spread across government in all sorts of different ways. There are obviously the research budgets handled by the research councils and the work of UKRI, but there is also a lot of science that is taking place, or frankly should be taking place, in many departments right the way across Whitehall. When one thinks about the application of science and technology, the ability to turn it into things that I have described, all sorts of other government levers, like departmental procurement, come into play.
There was nowhere in government where this joined up. So although there is a clear join-up of the science funding in UKRI and the sorts of things that happen in BEIS, there was nowhere that necessarily joined up with the science and technology that might be required for example in the DfT, DLUHC or the MoD. If one looks at Governments around the world, in big countries through to quite small countries, people are investing in science and technology as a strategic advantage for the country, and science and technology are such a foundational strength of the UK that, in order to do that in the UK, that needed join-up.
The idea of the NSTC and the OSTS is not to replicate what is going on anywhere else. Indeed, I feel very strongly that departments should own what they do, but create a strategy that allows the totality of S&T—from research right the way through to procurement, deployment and utilisation—to be looked at as a series of government decisions that could or should be made in order to create benefit. The only things that I think should come to the OSTS and the NSTC are things that do not sit in a single department and are of significant threshold to need that joined-up approach. That is what the OSTS should do.
Baroness Walmsley: Since the role of the OSTS and the NSTC is to pull everything together, and one of the four things you will focus on, according to the website, is sustainable environment, does it give you a problem that the Secretary of State for Defra is not on the NSTC? Will you have to work differently with Defra?
Sir Patrick Vallance: The OSTS has representations from pretty much every department. It is there to make sure that the Whitehall bit is joined up from a Civil Service perspective. Clearly membership of the NSTC is a matter for the Prime Minister. I think the situation is that any Minister can be called into the NSTC to become part of the discussion if the topic is relevant to their area. When one thinks about the sorts of things that we are talking about in environment and sustainability, it would be rather surprising if that person was not part of that discussion, because clearly that is a whole government join-up. I think the precise membership is one for the PM.
Baroness Walmsley: We have been hearing about a spider’s web of organisations whose role is to promote science. Could you send us an organogram of all the organisations—there are eight other entities, I believe, including the Office for Artificial Intelligence, for example—their roles and who they report to and interact with? It would be very helpful if somebody could send us such an organoigram.
Sir Patrick Vallance: I can tell you where the OSTS fits in in relation to departments, and where that links through into UKRI. I am not sure I want to unpick every departmental structure, if that is all right.
Baroness Walmsley: Is the process of advising Ministers up and running? Can you give us any examples of decisions that have been taken by Ministers which the OSTS has advised on?
Sir Patrick Vallance: There has been one meeting of the NSTC, so I think it is too early to point to the outputs yet. Clearly, as the thinking on this has evolved, it influenced the spending review in terms of thinking about areas that were becoming priorities. Those have already been put in the public domain, so in a year or so we will be able to see the output of the NSTC and the OSTS more clearly.
Baroness Walmsley: What about your role in relation to UKRI? How does that work?
Sir Patrick Vallance: UKRI is obviously accountable for giving out the funding that comes through BEIS for basic research, university research and Innovate. As part of that, the NSTC priority areas are things that UKRI would take into account when thinking particularly about the applied and developmental side of its research funding.
Baroness Walmsley: Would you be worried that the OSTS might be seen as just another layer of bureaucracy?
Sir Patrick Vallance: There is always a risk of that. I am very loath to suggest creating any new committees for that reason, but there is a bureaucratic problem here, which is that science is distributed across lots of departments, and if one wants to try to have an integrated response, there needs to be a strategic place where this comes together.
I will pick up again the apparently simple question of procurement. We know that countries that create a big pull for creating high-tech companies use government procurement as a tool to try to make things happen, and to signal clear long-term intent. That does not happen anywhere absent something like the NSTC, because there is no mechanism to pull it together.
So there is a gap that is being filled, which will reduce the bureaucratic tangle, because at the moment there are bits all over the place. The risk, of course, is that too much comes up to the NSTC and the OSTS, and things that rightly sit in departments get pulled centrally. I think that would be a mistake and something to guard against.
Baroness Walmsley: Would you be able to send it back again?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I think we should send it back. That is exactly what should happen.
Q66 Baroness Brown of Cambridge: Thank you, Sir Patrick, for coming to give evidence. My apologies for not being able to be there in person.
We have understood that a UK science and technology strategy is about picking the areas of science and technology to focus on where the UK could have a strategic advantage over other countries. We have also heard that the Office for Science and Technology Strategy has identified its priority areas as sustainable environment, health and life sciences, national security and defence, and digitally and data driven economy. These seem to be exactly the same areas that any developed country would be saying were critical to it.
We are interested to understand how you get from there to something that is specific enough to be meaningful for the UK to give the UK a specific strategic advantage. What will the criteria be for working out which are the specific areas in those very broad and important regions for the UK?
Sir Patrick Vallance: Thank you. That is an important question. Those four areas are policy areas which the Government care about, rather than ones that are science and technology areas bottom up. They are things that the Government want to have as their priority that have a big science and technology theme underlying them, which is where the OSTS can help with trying to define what needs to happen around that.
There will also be specific technology domains. I am afraid that these are areas that other countries will be looking at—no surprise there. They are things like engineering biology as a big theme. The UK is extremely good at some of the science of that, and we are not converting a lot of that into companies and growth yet. That is one area that you can think of.
The second is in artificial intelligence. We have a lot of strength in the UK in particular domains around that, and there is perhaps a need to think about the infrastructure, skills and ability to utilise that uptake from within government departments and public services and to pull through procurement. That, again, might come into play in order to create the environment for success.
A third area might be something like quantum, where you go for specific areas of science pull-through.
In looking at all of this—to your point—it is quite important that the UK does not view itself as an isolated island in this. Research science is inevitably international. Some things we would wish to be end-to-end enabled in; we might wish to have everything from a flourishing research base through to a very clear implementation, utilisation and public procurement angle.
In other areas, we might be good at parts, and it may be more sensible to think about a collaborative approach with other nations, and defining the criteria for those collaborations, where we know that we are doing parts of the puzzle but not the whole thing, and we at least have the utility of being able to interact with others who make it whole.
There may be a third area where, frankly, we do not have the resources or science infrastructure in the UK at the moment, and we are not sure whether we need to develop it but we know that we would like to access it if it were to become important. A different range of levers and mechanisms would need to be in place in order to do that. In some ways, you could view the Government’s OneWeb decision as an access-type decision. They said, “We don’t have it, but we’d like to access it and get some investment in it”.
I think we need to get to the granularity of areas for Ministers to make choices on, and we need to get to the specificity of the aim: is it to own, collaborate or access, as a general principle? By the way, the “own” criterion does not mean that you do everything yourself; you can both collaborate and access as part of that, but the important bit is that if you choose just to access, you should not keep investing in other things as well, because you will end up spreading too thinly across a broad front.
There are a number of things that need to take place. That is exactly the work that the NSTC and the OSTS need to go through, and Ministers need to be given the information to make choices.
Finally, it is very important, in my view, that objective analysis underpins this. It is very frequently stated in the UK that we are world class at something without a definition of what we mean by that, or indeed without any comparative data. So we have established in the Government Office for Science the Technology and Science Insights (TSI) function to provide an unvarnished set of metrics that try to give some true comparative information when people are thinking about areas or decisions.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge: Thank you very much for that. Do you see the OSTS producing a new list of strategic technologies for the UK through this process?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I think that, at the moment, the Innovation Strategy that BEIS has produced has seven technology families. That seems like a pretty good starting point, and I am rather keen that the OSTS does not start reinventing all sorts of things. You work with what you have at the moment and look at that.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge: Thank you. Of course, the UK economy is very dominated by services; they accounted for 80% of our economic output in 2021. Does this imply some reshaping of the economy away from services? How are our services picked up in your thinking?
Sir Patrick Vallance: There is a lot of innovation, science and technology going on in services, as you know. Part of the totality of this is thinking about utilisation uptake, and the ease of uptake of technologies into those industries, and indeed the new science and technologies that are coming out from those industries. I do not think they are immune from this at all; they are a key part of it.
However, eight out of the ten biggest companies in the world are very dependent on intangible assets—intellectual property and discovery—as part of their businesses. We do not have as much of that as we probably could have, given our science base. So there is an opportunity to grow companies that are much more reliant upon those sorts of discoveries as a growth mechanism. The growth rates of those companies are also the highest growth rates. So there is a question about growth and sustainability for those types of companies, which is important for the UK economy.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge: Do you think the discussions of the Cabinet Committee will involve things like changing the R&D tax credit approach so that research in humanities and all areas of the social sciences can gain tax credits for companies?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I cannot comment on the specifics of what Ministers may wish to consider, but, as a general point, I absolutely think that the incentives, financial mechanisms and things that impede or encourage private investment are key areas that the NSTC should look at, because they are the things that allow start-ups and sustainability, and indeed the growth of major companies, to occur. That has to be part of what the NSTC looks at—generally and, I suspect, sector specifically, where that is appropriate.
Q67 Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford: Thank you for your answers so far, Sir Patrick. You have spoken about procurement creating the environment for success. How do you think it will incentivise the development and deployment of specific technologies? Have you identified specific areas or specific technologies where you think it will have the potential to bring about scale? I understand that the private sector will have to play its part.
Sir Patrick Vallance: It is worth looking at other countries and what they do in this space. An obvious one is Israel, which focuses on four areas: cybersecurity, desalination of water, agriculture and defence. It uses government procurement as a way to pull those through. There are other examples: Singapore does the same, as do many other countries—in fact, the US also does it quite well at scale.
Government procurement gives a very clear signal to companies that they will have some sort of buyer at the end of the day. Where government has not been able to do that very effectively is with SMEs. A lot of the growth of science and technology is coming from SMEs and then through into sustainability. A number of things could happen in procurement that would give big signals to companies and give pull-through. An obvious example over the past couple of years is what happened with the Vaccine Taskforce, which we set up deliberately in a way that was R&D, procurement and manufacturing—looking at the whole lifecycle in order to try to get investment and encourage pull-through quickly. There are some lessons from that that are quite interesting for how one might approach this.
Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford: That was a shining example that happened at a time of crisis. How could those lessons be applied during peacetime? Obviously anyone who has worked in government or with government will know that the business case process and the value for money criteria are quite challenging to incentivising innovation, and sometimes incentives are not aligned. What might need to change in the procurement process in order to make investing in innovation, and that kind of pull-through you are talking about, happen in a way that will incentivise and scale innovation in the way you are envisaging?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I will make two comments, if I may. I will bore you by giving you seven things that I think were success factors of the Vaccine Taskforce, but before I do that I want to talk about the risk part of your question.
The National Audit Office has rightly praised the Vaccine Taskforce for what it did. If it had not been possible to make vaccines, which was definitely one of the outcomes, I suspect the report would have been different. In other words, it would have been seen as a huge waste of public money. That is a fundamental risk that needs to be adjusted. You cannot use the government approach for innovation without expecting a number of them to fail. That requires an adjustment of approach in thinking about how then to account for the public money in that system. Innovation cannot happen without failure. It is a very important thing that needs to be got right. Failure to get it right will lead to risk aversion in future decision-making. By the way, the National Audit Office agreed with what I have just said and recognised that that is an issue that needs to be looked at. It is very clear that, provided that all this is defined up front as a risk, that fits with what good audit practice says.
Going back to the seven areas I wrote down when we were thinking about setting up the Vaccine Taskforce, and indeed soon afterwards, these are important and can be applied quite widely.
The first is that content experts were brought in rapidly. This was not a generic unit, it was specialist, and they were brought in from outside as well as from inside.
The second is there was an at-risk investment mindset. It was a portfolio approach, with risk and the management of risk being understood during the investment.
The third is that R&D and procurement were linked, so the two things were inherently bound together in the way it was set up.
The fourth—this is very important—is that there was a very clear and measurable outcome. It was obvious what needed to happen. It was not obvious that you could do it, but it was obvious what needed to happen and by which time.
The fifth is a single point of accountability with an empowered leader, which is not an easy thing to do across Whitehall, as you know, but is important.
The sixth is that the private sector engagement was critical. It was not possible to do this all with the public sector; there needed to be very close alignment with the private sector.
The seventh is a long-term legacy. In other words, we wanted to end up with a vaccine industry in the UK at the end of this. That was an important part of why it was done as it was.
Those seven principles can be applied to all sorts of things. Indeed, I suggested that they should apply to all sorts of things, but it is easier during a crisis than outside a crisis, for obvious reasons.
Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford: Do you think there is anywhere across government that is yet applying those principles? If not, how do you think we can start driving those principles through procurement? I think there is a lot of anxiety about doing that.
Sir Patrick Vallance: I hope that one of the outputs from the NSTC will be that a couple of things will be picked as areas that could then be tackled using the same set of principles as this.
Q68 Lord Holmes of Richmond: Sir Patrick, thank you for everything that you did during the pandemic. You were a clear, consistent, calm and wise voice in the most desperately difficult of circumstances in the country. Massive congratulations, and thank you for that.
I would like to go a bit deeper on Baroness Blackwood’s point. When we look at investment in innovation, particularly in unproven technologies, do you think we need to fundamentally reconsider the whole concept of VFM? Without taking it completely drop and drag, what learnings do you think can we take from, say, the way VC goes about things?
Sir Patrick Vallance: It is obviously very difficult to say “remove VFM”, but the definition of VFM is quite important. If you take a very short-term cost-reduction view of it, that has big implications for innovation. If you take a portfolio view—accepting that you have risk in certain parts of the portfolio, but overall you balance that risk across the portfolio, which is a VC approach—that is totally doable and is value for money.
The Chair: Lord Winston, I think much of your question about the lessons from the vaccine programme have been answered by Sir Patrick, but is there anything else that you would like to ask by way of follow-up?
Q69 Lord Winston: I think my questions have been asked, but I will ask this. This was, after all, a case of national emergency. How do you think the principles, which you have outlined, about moving things forward in the way you have done so well, would apply when you are dealing with a more standard piece of technology in a calmer time?
Sir Patrick Vallance: First, I do not think you would apply those seven principles to everything you choose to do. Picking things is important. The biggest challenge in all this, frankly, is single-point accountable leadership with the finances to do it, because these things cross departments and that is a difficult thing to do in government. It is a difficult thing to do in big businesses as well, actually, but it is an important principle.
One reason why at least a couple of missions need to be picked by the NSTC on areas of equivalence or importance is that it allows us to test this during non-crisis times. It will not be as easy. It will be difficult, and the cross-Whitehall working will not be straightforward, but it is worth giving it a go. There are ways in which this can be delivered, but we will have to test it.
Lord Sarfraz: Just before I ask my question, Sir Patrick, I am a fan of yours, but, very respectfully, I have to say that the OSTS lists its responsibilities as aligning government departments on strategic decisions. Given that that is a stated responsibility, I find it remarkable that there is no organogram available, which Baroness Walmsley asked for earlier. How can we get this, because if the committee cannot understand all the entities, how can we come to an opinion?
Sir Patrick Vallance: For the major parts of it, it is possible to pull that together. I am just suggesting that across departments there will be things all over the place that we do not know about yet.
Lord Sarfraz: How does one pull all that together from your perspective? Is that not important to do?
Sir Patrick Vallance: It is important, and we are trying to map all of this at the moment, but there will always be groups in departments doing specific things that they should do, and they are below the meta level of where the big blocks are. The first thing to ask is, “Where are all the big blocks and do we have them joined up?” That is worth doing. I can see it being a lifetime job, because there will be things popping up all over the place and I do not want to commit to being able to provide some information about the whole of Whitehall.
Q70 Lord Sarfraz: Understood. Are you happy with the framework concept of own, collaborate and access, and how is it working out so far, given the example of OneWeb, which relied on Russian rockets?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I will give examples of where one might have thought about this differently.
The problem with 5G, for example, was not that the UK had not spotted that it was going to be important. It was not that 5G research was not taking place; there was some very good 5G research taking place in the UK, including in Surrey and other places. But there was no strategic decision about how much we cared about where the ultimate product came from, what the supply chains were, or what the linkages back to our own research were. If you looked at that again, or you looked at 6G, you might say, “What does the UK actually want to do? Are we happy to try to access it on the open market? Do we want to be part of a like-minded collaborative group of countries that each have bits of it and we know that we can put something together, or do we want the end-to-end capability to look at that right the way through?” That is obviously a decision for Ministers to take, but that is an example.
Vaccines are another obvious one. Very early in the pandemic, when we asked what was going to happen with vaccines, the UK vaccine industry had dwindled. It had gone down to quite a low state. I do not believe that was the result of a decision. It was, if you like, benign neglect. That is the sort of area where you say, “We should decide what sort of vaccine industry we want. Do we care whether we are completely enabled end to end or not?” Those are the sorts of examples where you can use the framework to start deciding strategically from a policy perspective what you think you would like to achieve, and therefore what decisions might need to be made.
Q71 Lord Sarfraz: The Digital Europe programme seemed like a very exciting large-scale programme. Are we participating in that in any way?
Sir Patrick Vallance: All participation in European science at the moment is very difficult, with lots of discussions going on between BEIS, other departments and the EU. You will have to address those questions to BEIS at the moment.
Q72 Lord Rees of Ludlow: I would like to ask about public expenditure in government departments. How should it be allocated, and what role will UKRI and the Chief Science Advisers from the different departments have in deciding the balance?
Sir Patrick Vallance: In 2019, the Government Office for Science published the Science Capability Review that looked at science across government, and it was very striking that in many departments there has been a decrease in R&D spend over quite some period. Fortunately, we wrote that report with the Treasury, so we had a clear answer to try to get that back up again. This spending review started to increase expenditure quite significantly across many departments.
Nearly all departments have a Chief Scientific Adviser now; we are very close to getting one across every department in government. We have 20 Chief Scientific Advisers. We have also recently appointed a Chief Scientific Adviser for the police, which I think was a new area to go into.
We have asked that each department defines its science system. In other words, apart from the Chief Scientific adviser, who else do they have, what is the system, and how can they run science? Most departments now have a document that describes that. We have also asked that each department publishes its areas of research interest annually, so that it can say to the outside world, academia and others what it does not know about and how it cares about it.
I think that is all headed in the right direction, including the CSAs having much clearer oversight of the budget in departments and where that might go, but that still varies from department to department. An example of UKRI interaction is the Department for Transport getting an uplift in the spending review that is linked to Innovate UK. So Innovate UK and the department are closely linked in how that will be spent, which I think is a good idea.
Finally, we have regular meetings between the CSAs and the chairs of the research councils to look at areas of government interest and UKRI spend and try to make sure that we get those joined up. There was the rather good strategic priorities fund within UKRI, I do not know what the future of that is in UKRI at the moment, but that was also quite helpful to get joint work going.
Q73 Lord Rees of Ludlow: Thank you. It does sound a bit resonant of the Rothschild report 50 years ago.
Could I just ask about public sector research establishments? How much research should be done in universities, or is there scope for expanding special focus to public sector establishments? Could something like the Faraday Institution for batteries be expanded to other aspects of clean energy? What is the balance between such institutions and other kinds of research organisations?
Sir Patrick Vallance: We also highlighted this in the 2019 report. The public sector research establishments are in many ways the under-recognised part of the system in the UK, and there is huge potential, for a number of reasons; one is that they are quite distributed across the UK and are often very closely linked to their communities and to local businesses.
There is a really big opportunity there. A quick win we had was to enable PSREs to be able to apply to UKRI for research funding. That is an important win, because it also puts a competitive quality control on some of the work they do. A lot of work has gone on since the 2019 report that is coming to a head now, including how objectives for PSREs are set by departments and how they are evaluated in terms of their science and other outputs. I hope that, later this year, we will be able to say more about how that process should occur. I am very keen that the key part of this is that departments should be absolutely clear about what they want from their PSREs, because everything else stems from that. It is not always as clear as it should be.
The Chair: On that point about PSREs, which we discussed in an earlier session, one point that came across is the heterogeneity. They need to be thought about in very different ways. The British Geological Survey is not like the Crick Institute. In your thinking about their roles, is that heterogeneity and diversity is embedded in that?
Sir Patrick Vallance: It is. As you will be aware, it is pretty difficult even to get a clear definition of what a PSRE is. That is why it has taken a couple of years to get this into some sort of shape. I do not think that in the work we are doing something like the Crick would be included. We are looking more at the government laboratory end of it, but it is obviously a very complex landscape and it is heterogeneous. Each of the PSREs, or many of them, have very different business models, depending on which part of any political cycle somebody chose to look at them. That is an added complexity.
Q74 Viscount Hanworth: Is the Civil Service sufficiently scientifically literate to enable the UK to become a superpower? Is the Government sufficiently informed to enable it effectively to spend its research budget? If not, what could be done to overcome any deficiencies? Is it true, in your perception, that there has been a decline in the scientific competence of government since, let us say, the early post-war years?
Sir Patrick Vallance: There is a recurring theme. You have already heard about one report, the Fulton report, and they have all said much the same over many years about the importance of getting more science and technology into the Civil Service. It is something that our 2019 report picked up. I am very pleased to say that the government Reform Agenda has put this as a key objective. It is now a cross-Civil Service objective to get this working.
Since our report, we have seen that the number of science and engineering fast-streamers, the specialist scheme, has more than doubled in the last few years, and it should be three times as big as it was in a year or so. That is going in the right direction. The percentage of people in the Generalist Fast Stream with science and engineering degrees was 10%, when I looked at it in 2019, and it has not budged much, but there is a clear ambition now to get that up to much higher percentages—in fact, heading up towards 50%. That should be part of a scheme to get more people in at that level.
There is also a need for people perhaps more senior in the Civil Service to get access to science and technology information and resources, and a number of schemes have been put in place to do that. I am personally very keen also to get tools in place. One of the things that has been very clear during the pandemic is that data visualisation is a critically important tool. Ministers have moved from not being very familiar or comfortable with data to being very familiar and comfortable with it, with lots of good data visualisation to help that. A key part will be the need to get those data visualisation tools much more utilised across the whole of government.
Finally, I am co-sponsoring a piece of work with Sarah Healey from DCMS on greater fluidity of movement between academia, high tech and the Civil Service to try to address this.
That is a long answer to your question. The short answer is that I do not think we are anywhere near where we need to be yet, and there is a lot to do.
Viscount Hanworth: Could you say something more about the necessary recruitment strategy?
Sir Patrick Vallance: It is interesting. It is not just recruitment; it is also what we do when people come in. We now have a very clear series of plans for the Government Science and Engineering Profession about routes for people to be deep specialists, to be scientists in jobs that have an obvious scientific basis, and, importantly, jobs that do not have an obvious scientific basis but where having a scientist or engineer in the team would add a diversity of thought. The Government Science and Engineering Profession and the Policy Profession are working together to try to get these things going. If we do not get that side of it right, you can recruit all you like but they will disappear after two years.
The other challenge with recruitment is speed and salaries. Speed is very important, because we are seeing that bright young things with STEM degrees get lots of offers pretty quickly, and unless you move quickly you cannot get them in. But if you move quickly, they want to come in; they want to be part of a public service, and we can do things for them. There is a speed issue here, which is rather important.
Viscount Hanworth: We need to divert them away from banking. Thank you very much.
Q75 Lord Patel: Good morning, Patrick. It is nice to see you. My question relates to accountability. You used the phrase “single point of accountability”. We heard evidence from United States and Israel, two countries that you might agree are at the forefront of using science and technology innovations, and the important point was accountability and direct access—in our case, to the Prime Minister.
Dr Holdren was science adviser to President Obama for eight years and was the point of contact with the President. He said that he could send a memo at any point to the President and it would be accepted and a meeting arranged, that his phone call to any Secretary of State in any department would be answered. He was the single point of contact for all the policies related to science, technology and innovation. Who is that person in the United Kingdom?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I think that is my role in terms of independent science advice.
Lord Patel: You would be the regular point of contact for the Prime Minister, not the Science Minister or the Chief Scientific Adviser. Any Secretary of State would be answerable to you.
Sir Patrick Vallance: They are not answerable to me. They are answerable to the public, I believe. I am the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Of course, it is the same for John Holdren; John’s job was science for policy not policy for science. We know that has changed in the US recently with the appointment of Eric Lander, who had a ministerial appointment as well, but that has now changed again because of his resignation.
I do not think it is quite as clear and simple as perhaps you have described it; as I understand it, it is rather a complex system in the US, including a much devolved series of accountabilities across departments. The Department of Energy, for example, has very big sway on what it does and the science advisor can advise but is not the accountable minister. It is not quite that simple. Maybe it was under John’s time, but I do not think it is at the moment.
My job as Government Chief Scientific Adviser is to give advice directly to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Yes, I can do that directly, and I do do it directly, and, yes, I interact with Secretaries of State very frequently in that capacity. The new part of the role that is not science for policy but is policy for science is the National Technology Adviser. That links to the OSTS thing. At the moment, I am double-hatting on that and trying to get that set up. A very important question longer term is whether that is two roles or one. That is one that Ministers will need to think about.
Q76 Lord Patel: In two years’ time, what will be the performance indicators of how the system is working in delivering what you are expected to deliver?
Sir Patrick Vallance: One of them is that there would be a clear and public statement of the things that government most wants to see in science and technology. There is a very obvious list of priorities, and a series of metrics, which we alluded to earlier, which have yet to be refined but which should include much more than just whether we are publishing lots of scientific papers. Of course we want to do that, but they should include metrics that span right the way across the breadth of the lifecycle, including the uptake in deployment and utilisation. Those metrics are being worked on at the moment, including international comparisons.
Lord Patel: To become a science superpower and deliver on innovation, what is the piece that is missing?
Sir Patrick Vallance: A lot of it is there. We have a very good foundation. If you look at the performance of our discovery science and academic base, we are either second or third in the world; if you do it by population, we may even be first. We are very good at that. We are better at start-ups than we were; we have many more start-ups. I still think a number of them are undercapitalised, which is problematic. We do not do well yet on scale-ups. We have a number of so-called unicorns—billion-dollar valuation companies—but we do not have true scaled companies coming up yet. That is a big area that I think needs to be focused on.
We need to recognise the huge change in the landscape of science and technology. The idea that it was the big global companies that did it all within their four walls has changed dramatically. We need a system of SMEs, scaled companies, big companies, that work together. A lot needs to be done at that end of the process, while making sure that the basic research is properly funded, that we have a good process to attract people from across the world—because this is an international endeavour—and that we have an infrastructure that enables us to undertake modern collaborative research. Infrastructure is a key part of this.
Q77 Baroness Sheehan: Sir Patrick, thank you very much for coming before the committee today. I have enjoyed your responses. You talked about the OSTS. Would I be right in thinking that it was well placed to apply lessons learned from delivery of the Covid vaccine programme to other areas?
Sir Patrick Vallance: Yes. The principles that I tried to outline could be applied to a mission-based approach in some other areas—not every area, but some.
Baroness Sheehan: I think you mentioned that you had a couple of key areas in mind. Could you say what they might be?
Sir Patrick Vallance: I suggested that the NSTC should select a couple of areas to do this in. Those areas have not been defined yet.
Baroness Sheehan: How often has the NSTC met?
Sir Patrick Vallance: The NSTC has met once so far.
Baroness Sheehan: Is that enough?
Sir Patrick Vallance: It has only just started, so it has not had a chance to meet more than once, and it will meet again very shortly. I am very keen that it meets often. It cannot be a once a year thing; it needs to be a very frequent committee.
Q78 Baroness Walmsley: My question follows on very nicely from that. I was very interested in your seven-point set of criteria for the Vaccine Taskforce. My ears pricked up when you mentioned an empowered leader. It reminded me of a report that this committee did about 15 years ago on antibiotic resistance tuberculosis. We looked at how well they were doing in New York compared to how well we were doing here, and the difference was an empowered leader. They found somebody, they let him fly, and he was very successful.
Where appropriate, how would you identify a leader to empower with those responsibilities and freedoms to achieve something? What sort of skills would you be looking for, and how would you identify those people, because they could be terribly important in the future?
Sir Patrick Vallance: They will be terribly important. A number of people around us can do these roles, depending on the precise definition of what we are asking them to do. The challenge is not identifying people who can do it; the challenge is making sure that they are properly empowered and have enough visibility. I think these need to be visible, rewarded roles that people want to do because they can see that these are important.
Baroness Walmsley: We are reluctant in this country, are we not, to give people that freedom? We tend to bind them up in accountabilities and so on.
Sir Patrick Vallance: All I can say from my experience of working in academia and in a very large company is that that issue is not unique to government.
Q79 Lord Rees of Ludlow: We have not talked very much about recruiting people into these areas. Could you comment on the issue of making sure these careers are attractive to the best of our own young people, and that, despite Brexit, we remain attractive to mobile talent?
Sir Patrick Vallance: All of this is reliant upon skills and talent. I am very encouraged by the fact that the DfE is now linking very closely with the OSTS, and indeed with the Council for Science and Technology, to try to understand the skillsets that we think might be required. That move from DfE is very welcome and one that would make a significant difference. Yes, a lot of the success in the UK has come from immigration in getting highly talented individuals into this, and I do not think this is possible without a very clear ability to attract people from around the world, some of whom will stay here but some of whom will go back to wherever they came from and will become lifelong partners. That is all part of an important collaborative infrastructure.
Q80 Baroness Brown of Cambridge: My question follows on very closely from that. I want to bring you back to this desire to achieve 2.4% of GDP by 2027, which is in five years’ time. The only countries we have seen that have achieved that kind of rate of growth of GDP are probably Israel and South Korea. In a session with representatives from fast-growing, high-technology companies a few weeks ago, the key things that they said were making them think about moving overseas, apart from access to financing, were their struggle to get the right qualified people and access to facilities. Is it realistic that in five years we can get this build-up of spend coming from the private sector in the UK, given the constraints that they are seeing at the moment?
Sir Patrick Vallance: There is obviously a big public increase, which goes quite a long way towards this, but I am very keen, for the reasons I gave earlier, to see that there is private sector involvement. You identified two very clear areas, which I have mentioned: skills and infrastructure. They need to be right. Is it possible? Yes, it is possible. Is it tough? Yes, it is tough, and a lot needs to be done.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge: What will we see that will be different, because it will need to happen soon?
Sir Patrick Vallance: Decisions need to be made about the skills base, which DfE has taken quite a strong line on, which will be helpful. UKRI and others have their SR settlement and will need to think hard about infrastructure investment from today. I have already said that it is important that the immigration system allows people to come here and to contribute to the high-tech companies that will need them. Ministers will need to make those decisions to make that happen.
The Chair: Thank you very much. I draw this session to a close by thanking you very much indeed, Sir Patrick, for spending time with us this morning. Your evidence has been immensely helpful and clear, and we appreciated it. As I mentioned at the start, do feel free to submit any additional points if you wish. For the moment, thank you again and goodbye.