Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 15th March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench 6:15 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I, too, echo the thanks of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, to the Minister, the Bill team and the honourable Member for Orpington for the fruitful discussions and for listening to the points we raised at earlier stages of the Bill. I strongly support the government amendments in this group. There are two amendments with my name on them, which have already been discussed: on the establishment of an executive committee of the executive chairs of the research councils. I should declare that I am a former chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, so I have first-hand experience of this issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, both mentioned the importance of Amendment 181, which sets out that one of the research councils’ objectives is the advancement of knowledge. In fact, I would go further and say that the core objective of research is to advance knowledge. The fruits of that may be to improve the economy or quality of life but, as I said at Second Reading, one can never predict where those fruits will grow. I quoted the words of Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim, saying how important the advancement of knowledge for knowledge’s sake was in helping to promote the well-being of society and of the economy.

Amendment 164A concerns a senior independent member. I would have preferred to have a non-executive chair because I know from my own experience as the chief executive of a research council that it is quite hard to fill the roles of both the chair of the board and the proposer of initiatives to the board, but I understand that for various reasons the Government are not willing to go down that road. The role of the senior independent member who can be a mentor to the executive chair, and in difficult circumstances perhaps chair the board if it wishes to take the executive chair to task, is an important addition.

Also from my own experience, I strongly support the notion of lay members on the council as set out in Amendment 165A. There were occasions when I was the chief executive of the NERC when disputes between the warring factions of the academics—the earth scientists, the oceanographers, the ecologists and the atmospheric scientists—became so severe that I had to call upon the lay members to act as brokers in order to resolve them. I can hear the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, laughing at that remark, so obviously he has seen that kind of phenomenon before. The lay members of the research councils will have a key role to play and we should certainly support their inclusion among the 12 board members.

That is all I want to say at this stage, other than to repeat my thanks to the Minister and to noble Lords on these and other Benches with whom I have worked in trying to improve the Bill; I think we have significantly improved this part of it.