Committee reports on Skills Department

20 January 2009

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), set up 18 months ago, has not yet found its feet and it is too early to say if it will achieve the Prime Minister’s ambitious targets, concludes a report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. The Committee also expresses concern about the approach of the Government’s new Chief Scientific Adviser to his role as a champion of evidence-based science.

In its report examining the work and performance of DIUS, the Committee says the DIUS annual report is ‘impenetrable’ and ‘peppered with jargon’. It fears that the jargon may be a substitute for having a clear idea about where DIUS is going and how it will achieve the Prime Minister’s goals to make Britain one of the best places in the world for science, research and innovation.

Examples of innovation in DIUS’s own operations were disappointing, and the Committee also has doubts about the way DIUS presents figures and calls for the statistics in future annual reports to be reviewed independently.

When he gave evidence in 2007, just before he took up post as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Beddington said that Government should get the "best possible scientific advice that is available at the time". The Committee voices concern that when giving recent evidence about homeopathy as Government Chief Scientific Adviser he did not take the opportunity to restate the importance of scientific process and to emphasise the need for balance of scientific evidence. These worries were heightened when Professor Beddington said on homeopathy that "wider factors than science may be relevant".

The Committee cautions that the customary, strong public voice from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser advocating policy based on evidence-based science must not become muted.

The Committee also recommends that DIUS:

  • develops a consistent method for ensuring policy is soundly based on evidence
  • faces up to and addresses the criticisms it received in the Capability Review
  • shows clearly how £1.5 billion in efficiency savings it has promised will be generated.

The Chairman of the Committee, Phil Willis MP, said:

"We were less than satisfied with the DIUS report, which we found unhelpful and too reliant on promoting a positive tone rather than providing us with clear and comprehensive information. While we appreciate that it will take some time for DIUS’s work to be realised, this must not be used as an excuse to produce a sub-standard report. A more concise report written in plain English with independently verified statistics would be of far greater use next year.

"We were somewhat surprised by Professor Beddington’s evidence. It is understandable that the new Government Chief Scientific Adviser has a desire to work within the Whitehall machine, and we can see some advantages in this approach. But this must not be done at the expense of championing evidence-based science or challenging government policy and we may return to this issue in our inquiry Putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy."

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