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9.49 am

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South): All members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology will want to thank the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) for the way in which he has chaired it in its first complete Session of Parliament. He has been fair and patient, and he has been loyal to the Committee in everything that he has done. The Committee will also want to join him in thanking the staff and all who have given evidence. I believe that the next Parliament will want to continue what is perhaps a slight anomaly within the structure of departmental Committees but is fully justified by the work that has been done.

The prior options review process was a time-wasting indulgence, as the Chairman of the Committee said, but it was an indulgence specifically of the Deputy Prime Minister's prejudice against science, against the public sector, and therefore against public sector science. It caused prolonged uncertainty and demoralisation in services tackling key problems on which the Government have conceded that they have failed and are no longer trusted by the public--most dramatically in the handling of BSE and food safety.

The research establishments reviewed included the Veterinary Laboratories Agency--the principal vehicle for research into BSE--and the Institute of Food Research. The three key questions posed in the review were as follows: were the functions of the establishments needed; should they remain in the public sector; and should they retain their separate existence?

There was no sense in asking the questions unless there was the option, as implied by the title of the review, of expecting the answer to be no. The eventual answers arrived at by the Minister were yes in every case, except for the Agricultural Development Advisory Service and the Building Research Establishment, which were not research council institutes.

The questions had only to be asked, after the repeated reviews to which the research establishments had already been subjected, to demonstrate that they were the wrong questions. Rather than wasting time on the wrong

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questions, I should like to ask some better questions and to suggest some better answers that the new Government will have to consider after the election.

In announcing plans for a food safety adviser, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food emphasised the adviser's freedom to comment publicly on policy. That is of course necessary, but unfortunately the problem is more serious than that. There is no problem with a certainty that has to be presented; the problem is how to handle uncertainty, genuine doubt and differences of opinion.

In an excellent review in Nature this week of John Lemon's book, "Scientific Uncertainty and Environmental Problem Solving", Tim O'Riordan says that there are four types of scientific uncertainty, raised by the following questions: what is the problem; how does one observe it; what are the odds; and what is one after, anyway?

Ministers need to understand the different kinds of uncertainty, because they unavoidably contribute to them. Framing the problem is not trivial. The question whether BSE can cross the species barrier was a good question at one stage but is not necessarily the right question today. The question whether human activity has any effect on climate may have been the right question in 1990, but is it the right question in 1997?

There is a further uncertainty about how one observes and models a system--how one sets up the logical structure within which to look for answers. The models may be biological systems on which it is possible to experiment in the laboratory, computer simulations within which the evidence is structured, or other combinations of evidence and analysis.

The odds, the statistical uncertainty, are the kind of uncertainty that people usually have in mind when they talk about risk analysis; but that is only one aspect of uncertainty, and not the most difficult.

The final uncertainty concerns what the Government are after anyway. It is not a matter only of the declared purposes or even the hidden agenda, but of the issues that inevitably arise when different parties consider the attitudes of other parties and the passage of time eventually resolves the situation.

Decision-theoretic uncertainty is not high-falutin' mathematics--the calculation of minimax solutions or expected utility, as one finds in the textbooks--but political reality; it may be sordid, but it is real. Is the Minister concerned with avoiding blame for outcomes within his period of office, as in an E. coli outbreak?

Obviously, everyone, including the Minister, is concerned with minimising the effects, but is it a matter in which the effects may be seen within a matter of weeks, as with E. coli; is it a matter of climate effects that will not be measurable for another 20 years; or is the Minister dealing not with reality as we ordinarily understand it, but with perceptions of reality in the public mind; not with trade, competitiveness and the current balance--the preoccupations of the Chancellor--but with sentiment in the foreign exchange markets?

The four kinds of uncertainty are not independent. Problem formulating, modelling, statistical uncertainty and decision-theoretic uncertainty all interact. Each has to be reconsidered in the light of changes in the others. Institutionally, each has to be provided for, possibly separately, but certainly differently; each has to be tackled, but each has to communicate with the institutions and the people tackling the others.

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On the first kind of uncertainty--what is the problem?--anyone can join in, but the Minister has a duty at all times to give his view. Unless the Government's view of what the problem is comes out clearly, neither the public debate nor the practical work of the scientists will be given a clear steer about the direction in which they need to go.

Defining the problem is not a trivial exercise, and the formulation is likely to change as the problem develops and as people change their views. When the stakes are high, as they often are, and a "play safe" strategy is required, ethical and social consensus positions will rightly be pressed and the Minister must handle them.

On modelling uncertainty, a wide set of scientific issues arises. There will be analytically elegant models for which it is very difficult to produce, or even conceive of, serious empirical testing. The currently fashionable model is the market. The market will decide: it will decide the length of traffic jams on the M25, for example.

Then there will be the prescriptive advocacy of the farmers, of the oil-producing countries or of Greenpeace, defending preset conclusions; and there will be closed shops in particular scientific sub-disciplines. Scientific peer groups will have to fight it out, and be seen to fight it out, with the victor possibly changing when the problem changes.

Typically, the institutions pursuing their different models will need to be tested and compared by another kind of institution, able to join in the technical argument, but standing above it and not pontificating. It is unlikely that the market or an operational arm of Government would be able to fulfil the testing and comparison role.

With problems and methods better formulated and reviewed, the statistical and risk analysis can be pressed all the harder, but it is not the only sort of uncertainty. Here come the hazards of the million-to-one-against events that occur with monotonous regularity, revealing the misformulation of the problem specification in the first place. The need is not so much for an institution to do the risk analysis, because the problem formulators and modellers will want to do that themselves, but for a sufficiently wide audience to understand the argument and its limitations and dependencies, not just in general but in its application to the point at issue.

That leads on to the decision-theoretic uncertainty. What are the Minister, the media or the public after? It is a palpably obvious question in politics, but a contortionist's nightmare in game theory and decision theory. Does the Minister think that I think that he thinks that they think that there is nothing in it, so they would not move anyway? The limitations and the realities of politics need to be understood, as well as the balances of scientific uncertainty. The whole process of decision making becomes much more effective and efficient if sufficient people in government and politics can handle the different sorts of scientific uncertainty. That is why the work of the Select Committee is so important.

At the time of the last general election, I said that we had learnt nothing about methods of government since the 1960s. So I got Neil Kinnock's and John Smith's agreement that the Office of Science and Technology should look, for the Government, at research on how Government should behave, as well as at Government research into how other people should behave.

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A free-standing Office of Science and Technology--a pale shadow of the proposal--has come and gone. Now, of course, it is perfectly reasonable for the Opposition to accept present Government methods as a point of departure. But, whoever wins the election, the present methods are not sustainable. They must improve or, under the pressures of continuing social and technological change, they will deteriorate further.

10.1 am

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), but I will not follow his analysis in detail. I certainly support what he had to say about my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey(Sir G. Shaw), the Chairman of the Select Committee. I am a fairly new member--not necessarily the best behaved--but he has certainly been patient and an excellent Chairman. Sadly, I too am retiring at the next general election, but I certainly support the remarks of both hon. Members about the importance of an active Science and Technology Select Committee to the nation. I hope that my hon. Friend and anyone else in authority will take that into account.

I have two themes. The first is the effect of the prior options process in my local area and in my constituency, which contains many people who work in research institutes and who have an interest in what has been happening. If time permits, I shall comment on the importance of science and scientific research and the relationship between that and public attitudes to science. Again, that is relevant to the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response to my many letters. I was surprised that I had written so often to him about prior options. When I went through the papers, I realised how grateful I should be to him for his assiduousness in getting back to me quickly with replies on the various matters. I pay tribute to his commitment to science. He has written a number of articles recently. One was in the New Scientist and I have it before me. I agree with his general approach to these matters. He pays tribute in the article to Britain's excellent science base, saying:

We certainly punch above our weight in science. I may have a little more to say about public attitudes at the end of my remarks.

I also support the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister to education and higher education as it relates to the science base. After all, I spent 23 years teaching science in the schools--it is amazing, and I can hardly believe it now. When I hear or read about my hon. Friend paying tribute to the importance of science education, I can only say, "Hear, hear!"

I will not say much about the Select Committee report and the Government response to it as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has dealt with that in some detail and, basically, I agree with his remarks. I must simply pose the question, where is the memorandum on the rationale for the recent Government decisions? It is difficult to find all the information. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me when it will appear in the Library. Indeed, it may even be there this morning, but I have not seen it.

The only other thing that I have to say about all this documentation before us this morning is to make an appeal. I have read the Select Committee report--I suppose I must

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bear some responsibility for it--and the Government response. There is not much science in it. As a scientist, all this would be much more interesting if we could get a little more science into the paperwork that affects the administration and workings of science in this country. Other countries do so. I suspect that if, we read the equivalent documents in France or Germany, we would find more science in them. I spend a lot of time wondering why the Select Committee does not write much about science itself, and the Government must take their share of that criticism.

East Anglia has the fastest growing population in the United Kingdom and, as hon. Members will agree, it has an important scientific base, a high level of research and development and a skilled work force. There is no question, therefore, but that what is happening in Norwich in relation to science is important and the Committee has taken account of that. I welcome the prior options review as it affects my area at this stage, and I welcome the retention of the Central Science Laboratory in Norwich. That was the correct decision, and I welcome it. As I said, East Anglia has a high scientific profile and devotes a higher proportion of its gross domestic product to research and development than any other region.

In Norwich, although not in my constituency, we have the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Central Science Laboratory. Also, many people who work at the University of East Anglia have connections with research institutes in other parts of the country. Indeed, I have had some correspondence from Dr. Phillip Williamson, who is a constituent of mine, about the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences--another of the institutes affected by our discussions. Dr. Williamson also gave evidence to the Select Committee, and he highlighted the concerns in his letters to me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said that concerns were raised by this process, which perhaps should not have been so acute, as I think hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree. Dr. Williamson referred to that in his correspondence. He talked about costs, staff morale and the fate of national data centres within Natural Environment Research Council laboratories. He raised a number of issues that are relevant. The scientists for whom he spoke were concerned about the process, but I think that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of that and will no doubt take note of it.

Because of my interest in institutions in Norwich, I have had representations from the National Farmers Union, which is concerned about the quality of research in agriculture and its continuance and from the trade unions. It is fair to say that all those representations were on the same theme and for that reason there is no need for me to elaborate too much. Their concerns were much the same.

I shall quote a letter that I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister some time in March last year:

I was not clear what that meant--

    "would run the risk of diminishing the level of scientific interchange and of exposing the work of such Research Council Institutes to the shorter-term priorities involved in seeking a financial return. The impetus for basic research would be weakened with less effective

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    spending and more duplication of facilities, research and skills. There would also be likely to be a deterrent effect upon the career structures of scientists in such centres given the prevalence of short-term contracts for university research staff."

I quote that to highlight the fact that the NFU was concerned about the prior options review. My quotation summarised its concerns.

My final local point concerns the university of East Anglia which has been interested in the process, not least because of its proximity to the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Central Science Laboratory. Unsurprisingly, I had considerable correspondence with the university's vice-chancellor, Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll. I do not know how this squares with the NFU's idea of university ownership or whatever it was. I did not quite follow the connection, so perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can enlighten me.

The theme that emerged from the correspondence was that the university was keen that there should be

Obviously, the university was concerned about the future of the CSL, with which I have already dealt, and with more general points, which I will not elaborate further. However, I think that the university will be happy with where we are now. The Government were sensible to let the matters stand where they are.

I hope that the debate that has been opened up between the university, the research institutes and the Government can be continued positively. I am trying to be brief, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has picked up my point and can say that that will happen. If he can do that, there is no need for me to elaborate further my local points. [Interruption.] I am doing my best to be brief, but much has been happening in Norwich on this issue.

To summarise my remarks about prior options, I shall quote from the recent note produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which states:

That sums it up well. There have been real concerns and I support those that have been raised.

I do not have time to talk about the public understanding of science. I refer hon. Members to Melvyn Bragg's recent article in The Times. I had thought that the two cultures went out after CP Snow's books, which I read, but sadly they have not. Melvyn Bragg's article says it all. Our country still has a problem with its culture and attitudes to science. I would love to talk more about it but I shall not. I hope that people will read that article and that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the serious issues that it raises.

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