Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40 - 49)



Dr Turner

  40. But you do not have a formal programme to measure the cost-effectiveness and the success of Foresight programmes?  (Mr Byers) We obviously monitor the way in which Foresight operates but there are some ideas that we do not pick up and run with, so they might be seen to be a cost for no advantage but I do think, looking at it in the round, it is a programme which is worth supporting financially because the benefits we get outweigh those areas where perhaps we do not decide to support a particular recommendation or proposal.

Mr Taylor

  41. For many years we have tried to increase the public understanding of science, or even the public appreciation of science to frustratingly little effect and it is now beginning to have a negative impact on government policy-making. We have seen what I call the Melchett effect where the courts came to a ludicrous decision on Lord Melchett's outrageous behaviour, and we have seen the public susceptibility to looking at non peer-reviewed science as if it was definitive earlier in the whole GM foods saga—and, increasingly, the public's understanding of risk. All of this means that we ought to increase public understanding of science but we have failed to do so despite a lot of hard work and goodwill. Is it something we should really spend a lot more money on and really get a grip of?  (Mr Byers) I think this is one of those areas where we all have a heavy responsibility. I am going to be making a speech on 20 March about how we can almost rebuild public confidence in science and the steps we need to take to do that but I think we have to be realistic ourselves that, because of these high profile incidents, whether over GM or BSE, the fact you then get a jury verdict as we did in the Greenpeace case is a sign that we are behind the game at the moment, and there is a huge task for government but also for those people who have a wider recognition—

  42. Just interrupting, there is another area which is directly in your field of responsibility which is that of mobile telephone masts and understanding of that, because on the one hand with the 3G licences there need to be a lot more masts covering the country to provide an integrated network and, on the other hand, we are—or government is—thinking about planning permission even for masts up to 15 feet and certainly there is a lot of public concern because they do not want to hear all the evidence which is that there is no appreciable risk, which our committee reported on?  (Mr Byers) But we need to start off by acknowledging that there is a perception that there is a risk and we have to engage people in the arguments, and we should not just take it for granted that people are going to accept these things and that is the issue. I would guess most of us in our own constituencies have had people coming to us worried about masts going up and, very often in a rather insensitive way, they have discovered there is going to be a mast not very far from where they live, and there is responsibility on the Telecoms companies to engage people in discussions and dialogue. Already there are a number of areas where people are concerned. We are becoming more risk averse as a society and there is a danger that we are getting into this compensation and blame culture where the first resort is to go to law to stop something happening. If we do that, then we are going to deny a whole range of opportunities to our country, and we do have to explain to people why change is necessary and why, in the end, we can all benefit from change, and it should not be seen as a threat. That is a bigger argument but I think science and the public understanding of science is very important in that debate. What does worry me is that we are increasingly moving to a situation which is not helped by the media, who are inclined to stoke up fears and manipulate people's views on what are sensitive matters in a way which is not really based on a well thought out or logical position but is often based on prejudice. So there is a wider debate here that has to be held and I am very keen, as the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science, to put on record the steps we need to take to restore public confidence because I do believe that, when we get behind the vocal minority and the true facts of the position, the vast majority of British people are prepared to recognise the importance of science and of progress, because that is part of our history going back generations. We can achieve that but we start off from the position of recognising that we have ground to make up and, if we are honest enough with ourselves to say: "We are behind at the moment and the public are concerned", then we can put steps in place to reassure them and restore the public confidence in science and the importance which science has given those objectives.

  43. Given that positive statement and the size of the task, my earlier question was should this not have a fundamental review about the resources which are allocated to it by government, even if it is then devolved to excellent organisations like the British Association or Royal Society to carry through the projects?  (Mr Byers) I am not sure it is a funding issue, to be honest. I think it is an issue which in a sense, in terms of making the case, does not cost very much. I think we just need to engage in the debate.

Dr Turner

  44. The public perception of science is, of course, of enormous concern. If, for instance, the animal rights lobby cannot be contained we could lose our entire pharmaceutical industry as far as R&D is concerned in this country now that people who work with animals are coming under so much attack. It would then be impossible, for instance, to exploit the fruits of the human genome work, to name but one. So it clearly is not money: I would agree with that, but it needs a very clear political impetus at Cabinet level, would you not agree, to get the message across? Would you agree that it needs somebody to take responsibility for it in Cabinet to drive, not so much understanding, but perception?  (Mr Byers) I accept that and I think that is something that I certainly intend to do and have been doing and why I want to make this speech on 20 March. It is a wider responsibility, however, and we all know the example recently of Huntingdon Life Sciences where it was their bankers who basically decided they were no longer going to be involved. We all have a responsibility here and, if the financial community walks away, then they have to recognise they have a responsibility as well so government can lead; and Huntingdon Life Sciences—Lord Sainsbury in particular—played a very valuable role in making sure in the end there was a funding package in place but I have to say I think those people involved in the bank concerned will not be able to look back with pride at the role that they played because they basically gave in to a bunch of terrorists—it is as simple as that—and we all know that, when you start doing that, it is a very slippery slope for all of us.

Dr Gibson

  45. Let me just ask you about devolution and the problems that might arise from that—  (Mr Byers) Challenges, not problems!

  46. You call them that; I think they are problems. How do you foresee any problems or challenges with devolution? Do you see groups having their own science programmes in Scotland and Wales? How do we keep it all together? How do we have a United Kingdom strategy for science in the case of devolution?  (Mr Byers) I have not seen any demand for that. I think there is a sense of coherence that comes from a United Kingdom wide approach to science and science policy and having a science strategy. My own view is that, providing we give a strong lead from Westminster and have a strategy that people can buy into and that means discussing with the devolved administrations what we are trying to do and achieve, then I cannot see the pressure developing for a separate approach in Scotland and Wales.

  47. It has not happened yet but the Royal Society of Edinburgh, for example, has tried to evolve committees and structures and so on on an English model, if you like, and there is a little feeling there that Scottish science is the best. Have you heard that said before?  (Mr Byers) I have heard it said before—

  48. But you have never believed it?  (Mr Byers) I believe it plays a very vital part in ensuring the success of science in the United Kingdom, and I think we should play to our strengths—the strengths in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland. I think we can achieve far more together if we have a United Kingdom wide science strategy than we would if we had a separate strategy for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.

  Dr Gibson: I think we agree.


  49. That is a good note to finish on. It is not very often that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry comes before this Committee three times in a Parliament; I hope it reflects our desire to see you as well as your longevity in the job. We do thank you very much indeed for coming along; we had difficulty fixing this date and then, would you believe, the Budget comes along and we have to postpone the hour, but we have been very pleased to see you. I think this afternoon's session has been a model of friendly and constructive dialogue. We have not held back on the questions but I hope we have asked them in a civilised and courteous manner and you have been forthright in your answers but have given answers that have been truthful, honest and very helpful. In conclusion, therefore, may I thank you for coming, thank you for your help, and we are sure that together we will continue to look after the interests of science.  (Mr Byers) Thank you very much.

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