A measure of success

June 16, 1995

In the week the new science adviser is appointed, Mark Richmond considers the impact of the Office of Science and Technology.

Many, including senior officials in the then Department of Education and Science, were astonished when in 1992 the newly re-elected Government set up the Office of Science and Technology.

Quite apart from the fact that to do something of the sort was Labour Party policy, the Conservatives had up to that time resisted pressure for this sort of change. There had been a period when Lord Hailsham was minister for science - though without a separate department to lead policy - but that arrangement was abandoned; and under Margaret Thatcher it was argued that to set up a separate department to pursue science policy under a minister for science would undesirably soften the operation of "market forces".

With hindsight, the setting up of the OST - if one dismisses the more scurrilous stories about its raison d'etre being primarily to find a job for William Waldegrave - was an attempt to change direction and to give science policy in the United Kingdom a Government-wide coherence. The department's location in the Cabinet Office and the appointment of a minister of Cabinet rank as its head would help that cause.

In the process, the prime minister's science adviser could become the Government's science adviser, and report to the minister for science. The science adviser would also become primus inter pares among the chief scientists of other Government departments and chair the inter-departmental committees of officials that shadow the relevant Cabinet committees.

In several ways, however, the setting up of the OST was problematic. Would the minister for science carry enough clout in the Cabinet to be able to effect a coherent science policy for the Government as a whole? Would the chief science adviser have the desired impact on the spending on science and technology in the major Government spending departments?

Would the transfer of responsibility for the research councils from the (then) DES to OST have serious repercussions in the universities; and, in particular, would the strengthening of the Government's science policy be at the expense of the universities?

It is often argued that the clout of a minister in the Cabinet is directly related to the size of his or her departmental budget. Personality does come into it. Quintin Hailsham had sufficient weight to make up for the shortcomings of a small budget but such figures are not widely available to Governments.

In fact, the science and technology budget of OST is of a size that would not normally merit a minister of Cabinet rank at all. This was recognised in 1992 by giving the minister for science additional responsibliities - for the civil service, for the Central Statistical Office, and for the Citizen's Charter - and the whole was wrapped up in the responsibilities of the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; and with David Hunt's appointment as chancellor, the role of adjutant to the prime minister seems to have been added.

Because of the peculiar statutory position of the Chancellery of Lancaster, it was necessary to set up an Office of Parliamentary Service and Science within it to hold the funds voted by Parliament, and the OST was itself constituted within the OPSS.

To what extent have the possible shortcomings been realised? William Waldegrave certainly made something of a hit with the academic community of the country in his science minister capacity. There is a widespread feeling that he was an intelligent minister, who was prepared to listen and who was fundamentally sympathetic; and the profile of science and technology was raised.

Quite how effective he actually was on its behalf in Cabinet is less certain. Government statistics are notoriously hard to penetrate (baseline shifts and the difficulty of comparing like with like) but it is probably true that the part of the science and technology budget in OST's purview suffered less in real terms than other Government spending programmes. But, in regard to the science and technology spending of other Government departments, his impact seems to have been much less. The DTI, for example, seems to have pulled off the age-old trick of agreeing that some of their responsibilities (for science and technology, in this case) be transferred to OST, but without the resource to support them. Indeed, it was symptomatic of the situation that, on the day OST published its White Paper, Realising our Potential, DTI announced a downward revision in its projected support for science and technology. Similarly, there is not much evidence that OST has been able to win a juste retour from the peace dividend.

Nor is there much evidence for increased coherence at the functional level across departments. The recently published Forward Look confirms this. It shows a fragmented programme somewhat misleadingly given a sense of coherence by being published within the covers of a single volume. In particular, the cleft that was established between OST and the Department for Education when the arrangements were put in place has become a gulf, something that the incomplete transfer of research funding from the higher education funding councils to the research councils and the arguments that followed has done nothing to help.

Before the OST was set up, the DES had overall responsibility for Government policy for the universities, and this gave it a coherence, even if its objectives were widely reviled. Now there is no such unitary responsibility. Enhanced cohesion for science and technology has been at the expense of a sharply reduced cohesion in university policy - something the OST's Science and Engineering Base Co-ordinating Committee seems to have done little to contain.

On balance, it seems that those who had reservations about the setting up of an OST have been justified. Without effective control over the science spending of major Government departments, OST will never be able to implement a coherent policy for science and technology. That was probably always out of range. For such a control to be possible, the OST would have to be able to direct funds voted by Parliament for the use of departments whose raison d'etre are not primarily the support of science. No permanent secretary worth his (or her) salt will allow that. And so far no prime minister has felt strongly enough about the issue to order the necessary transfer of funds.

Sir Mark Richmond is former director of research at Glaxo Wellcome and chairman of the Science and Engineering Research Council 1990-93.

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