November 2, 2011, by Simon Gosling

A Week in Westminster for Simon Gosling… Day 2

I spent half of yesterday attending seminars/talks that had been organised by the Royal Society and the other half shadowing Mr Barry Gardiner.

In the morning, Sir John Beddington, gave a stimulating talk about the role of the Government Office for Science (GoS), and his role within. He introduced us to Foresight, which is the GoS section that undertakes and commissions large 3-5 year projects that seek to provide the best scientific advice on what some of the key long-term (up to 50 years into the future) science-based issues could be for the UK. One of the most recent examples he described was the Foresight project on Migration and Global Environmental Change. This is a project that I myself have been involved with – I led a report on the potential impact of climate change on ecosystem services, which was included as part of the scientific review that contributed towards the project as a whole; the report is available here.

However, it was especially interesting seeing the Government’s reasons behind commissioning the project and how it feeds into the Government’s wider interest, concerns and questions on long term issues that are likely to affect the UK. What stuck out most to me from Sir Beddington’s talk is that the UK government is devoted to supporting and producing leading international research to inform short-term and long-term decision-making on major issues. These have included, for instance, modelling the spread of the Swine Flu outbreak and investigating vaccination possibilities, decisions and amendments on airline flight guidelines based upon the Icelandic Ash Cloud, and providing advice upon whether a public evacuation was necessary following the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the Japanese tsunami. In all these cases, the UK government played a leading international role in communicating the science and risks of each event to the public.

Following Sir Beddington’s talk, I attended an EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Select Committee Meeting. The current committee membership includes 11 MPs, and Barry is one of them. The purpose of the meeting was to explore the current performance and objectives of the Environment Agency (EA) and its future challenges with the recently re-appointed Chairman, Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury. Lord Finsbury was accompanied by Dr Paul Leinster CBE (Chief Executive) and Mr Ed Mitchell, (Director, Environment and Business). Several questions were posed to the EA from various members of the Committee, throughout the two-hour session. The main issues discussed included:

  • Justification of expenditure and value for money of government spending on the EA. Lord Smith noted that the work conducted by the EA represented a benefit cost ratio of approximately 8:1.
  • Whether the EA’s commitment to flood risk management was sustainable, given that the EA has received a 26% funding cut but that the EA stated prior to this that they would require a £20 million increase in funding to maintain their current programme? The EA argued that they would seek funding from elsewhere (e.g. the private sector) to address this.
  •  How far the EA has met the recommendations for UK flood risk management that were set out in the Pitt Review? It was acknowledged that progress has been made but that further improvements were needed in understanding surface water flooding and drainage networks (as opposed to fluvial flooding).
  • Whether the EA could increase the funding it receives from different sources, which are not central government; e.g. private companies, through the new Partnership Funding scheme? The EA noted this was a new scheme and that there was scope to increase external funding.
  • What work is the EA doing to address water quality, so that standards set out in the EU Water Framework Directive are met? The EA noted that they were conducting pilot studies across 12 UK river catchments to investigate this in more detail. There was some concern from the Committee, however, that the EU targets may not be achievable because the financial costs that would need to be incurred to meet them would be too high.

My main thought following the EFRA Select Committee Meeting, was money. Specifically, how important it is for UK science. Given the current economic downturn, this is hardly surprising, perhaps. Nevertheless, numerous questions posed by the Committee included some aspect of finance, and in several cases were focussed purely on it. The science was indeed discussed, but it was often within the confines of whether the scientific objectives of the EA were achievable given recent funding cuts. As an academic, this is an issue we often face as well – for instance, when submitting research proposals, research councils are now interested in our pathways to impact, the risks associated with whether the project will be completed, and whether the resources for the project are justified. The EFRA Select Committee meeting was certainly a confirmation of the times that UK science currently finds itself in.

Somewhat appropriately, after this, I sat in on a debate in the Chamber of the House of Commons, in which MPs posed questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. The main theme there was that UK economic growth hit 0.5% yesterday – whether this was something to be positive and cheery about, depended upon which side of the chamber you were sitting on…



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