Select Committee on Science and Technology First Special Report


The Science and Technology Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—



1. The Liaison Committee Report "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive" directed departmental select committees to provide annual reports, reporting on progress on past recommendations, difficulties encountered in Committee work and examples of good practice.[5] This Special Report is our response. Since we have not produced such a Report before, this is a Report on our activities in the whole of this Parliament rather than just the 1999-2000 Session.

2. In this Parliament we have, so far, published seventeen Reports and nine Special Reports. A list of our Reports and Government Replies is printed as an Annex to this Special Report. We draw together here some general conclusions from our inquiries and other work.

3. Our inquiries have normally resulted in publication of Reports. However, we have, on occasion, conducted one-off oral evidence sessions to discuss matters of interest with ministers or senior officials. We have not had cause to examine any draft legislation or treaties, nor have we held any confirmation hearings.

4. Since the beginning of the Parliament, the Committee has undertaken overseas visits to the USA, Canada, Germany and Helsinki in connection with its inquiries into Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation and Cancer Research—A Fresh Look. We also visited the European Commission in Brussels to discuss the Fifth Framework, funding for space research and topics related to current inquiries. The Committee has also travelled extensively in the UK, particularly in connection with its inquiry into Cancer Research—A Fresh Look, when five visits to hospitals and research centres took place. On one occasion the Committee took evidence away from Westminster, during a visit to the Generics Group in Cambridge, in connection with its inquiry into Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation. On an informal basis, the Committee has had presentations from, and held discussions with, various scientific bodies, and also met with science attachés and delegates from overseas.

The Committee's Remit

5. Under Standing Order No. 152, the Science and Technology Committee is established to "examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Office of Science and Technology". Thus, we are established as a departmental select committee although the Office of Science and Technology (OST) is itself just one part of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). But as the OST has a trans-departmental function, monitoring science and technology matters in all departments of Government, so we too have a cross-cutting function. Many of our inquiries, therefore, extend beyond the executive responsibility of the OST. For instance, we have been conducting an inquiry into the Scientific Advisory System for which the head of the OST, the Chief Scientific Adviser, has responsibility across Government. Two of our inquiries (on mobile phones and on cancer research) have focussed on matters largely within the responsibility of the Department of Health, two (on diabetes and driving, and on climate change) focussed on matters within the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and one (on the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) within the responsibility of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Other inquiries have considered matters which fall within the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the DTI. We are grateful to other departmental select committees for their understanding that from time to time we may scrutinise science matters which are the responsibility of other Departments. This has had advantages in that it allowed us to conduct inquiries into scientific aspects of policy in most Government Departments, but it has limited the extent to which we have built up a relationship with, and a detailed knowledge of, a single Department in the way other departmental select committees would normally do.

6. Because OST is part of the DTI it does not publish its own Departmental Report and Expenditure Plans. It is for the Trade and Industry Committee to scrutinise the DTI's Departmental Report and overall expenditure plans, and the DTI's transition to resource accounting and budgeting. We have, however, taken a very close interest in the Science Budget and in DTI policy on science and innovation. Earlier this year we conducted a series of evidence sessions on the impact of the 1993 Science White Paper, Realising our Potential, and are now extending it to cover the new Science and Innovation White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity, and the recently announced Science Budget. We have also resolved to examine each edition of the Forward Look, which details spending on science, engineering and technology (SET) research across Government Departments.[6]

7. We have also examined issues relating to industrial research and development (R&D) and innovation which are a crucial part of the research activity in the UK. To this end we have examined, on two occasions, the impact on R&D of the merger proposals between Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham (which are the two biggest investors in R&D in the UK)[7], and more recently, on the implications for R&D in the UK of the creation of Corus plc from British Steel and Hoogovens. Our extensive inquiry into innovation in Engineering and Physical Sciences went well beyond Government-funded R&D to look at the factors important for innovation in industry.[8]

Government Replies

8. Government replies to our Reports have generally been on time or, by agreement, slightly late, but in a couple of cases, in which Departments other than OST were involved, the Government's replies were very late.[9] In the case of our Report on genetically modified foods, the reply arrived some six months after the Report was published, barely in time for a scheduled Westminster Hall debate on the topic and only after direct complaint to the minister.

9. A further concern is the quality of Government replies. This is variable. In many cases, the Government has provided useful and constructive replies but occasionally the standard falls short of expectations. Indeed, we recently published a Report commenting on the failure of the Government to provide an adequate reply to our Fifth Report of Session 1999-2000.[10]

Follow up

10. We have followed up a number of the issues raised in Government replies to our reports by seeking updates from the Government on action taken since the reply was published. The Government's updates are attached as Appendices to this Special Report. On two occasions we have followed up an inquiry with a short inquiry into progress, one year later. In 1999, we followed up our1998 Report into computer compliance with the year 2000 date change.[11] Our initial inquiry raised a number of concerns about the readiness of the public and private sectors to cope with the millennium date change, and our follow up inquiry enabled us to examine and comment on progress in this critical preparation. Similarly in 1999, we followed up our 1998 Report on British Biotech with a short inquiry into the Regulation of the Biotechnology Industry.

Use of case studies

11. The Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) published guidelines on the use of scientific advice in policy making in March 1997. Each year, the CSA has reported on progress on implementing these Guidelines and the OST is currently consulting on a code of practice for scientific advisory committees. In parallel with this, we have been conducting an inquiry into the Scientific Advisory System through a series of case studies. Scientific advice covers a diverse range of issues, impacting on policy in most areas of Government. Our case studies have looked at issues as diverse as genetically modified food and the driving licence rules affecting people with diabetes. Conducting the inquiry through case studies has enabled us to consider scientific advice in a range of areas and identify generic, cross-cutting concerns which apply to best practice in commissioning, securing and communicating scientific advice. We will publish our overarching Report on the scientific advisory system in the new year, taking into account our findings in our case studies and other material, most notably the report of the recent BSE inquiry.

Eureka Conference

12. Each year we, together with the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, have contributed Members to the UK delegation to the EUREKA Inter-Parliamentary Conference. EUREKA is a network for Europe-wide industrial R&D collaboration. EUREKA is intended to strengthen European competitiveness, promote market-driven collaboration in R&D, involve industry and research institutes across Europe and result in cost effective products, processes and services. The Inter-Parliamentary Conference holds discussions and produces a resolution which draws the attention of the EUREKA Ministerial Conference to particular issues and developments. Beyond its formal output, participation at the EUREKA conference has been beneficial to us through the creation of a networking forum amongst parliamentarians interested in industrial R&D.

Scrutiny of Code of Practice

13. In conducting an inquiry into the troubled biotechnology company British Biotech, in 1998, we noted that there were particular problems for growth companies in this industry, particularly in terms of disclosure of research results and recommended that there should be regulation governing the release of information for the biotechnology industry.[12] The Government took the view that this was a matter for internal regulation by the industry; and the BioIndustries Association (BIA) sought our assistance in developing its Code of Practice. At the start of the process we were consulted informally on the sort of thing that the Code should cover; and later, when there was a working draft, we were asked to comment on it. We reviewed the Code of Practice and then set up an oral evidence session with the BIA to discuss it. We subsequently wrote to the BIA with comments on the draft, most of which were incorporated into the Code before it was put to BIA members. Our correspondence with the BIA was published as an Appendix to a short Report.[13]

Multiple witnesses

14. Of the many oral evidence sessions conducted this Parliament, the most memorable was the occasion on 21 June 2000 when we took oral evidence from some 20 sets of witnesses in a single session for our inquiry into cancer research. The idea came from our experiences in the USA where we witnessed members of the public presenting their evidence to Congressional Committees. We realised that the main stakeholders in cancer research had little opportunity to make direct input to the inquiry. The evidence session required novel and creative practices in terms of taking oral evidence in public. It also placed unusual demands on us, our staff and our witnesses and required thorough planning and organisation. The result of the extra effort was a highly successful, enlightening and informative session. Many organisations and individuals—patients, carers, health professionals, support groups—had the opportunity of presenting their views first hand. This session made a real difference to the inquiry and to the overall tone of the Report. It changed our perspective on the problem and demonstrated the urgency of the need to resolve deficiencies in UK Cancer Research. It also did much to increase the profile of our cancer research inquiry, which in turn, we believe, increased pressure on the Government to increase the priority given to cancer research. Should appropriate circumstances occur again, we would be pleased to conduct a similar exercise in future inquiries and commend this approach to other committees.


15. Another notable aspect of our inquiry into cancer research was the involvement of the BBC "Scrutiny" team and the resulting TV programme "Fighting Cancer", which was broadcast shortly after the publication of our report. There was also a short radio report of our visit to the USA and Canada. Despite some reservations beforehand, we agreed to be followed by the Scrutiny team throughout the inquiry. The result was most satisfactory both in tackling the cancer research issues and in presenting the various aspects of a complex select committee inquiry. The additional exposure certainly helped the inquiry. The interaction with the Scrutiny team was friendly and professional. The success of this project was to some extent a result of setting clear ground rules in agreement with the producer in advance of the project commencing. We regret the BBC's decision not to continue with the Scrutiny format.

Joint working with the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology

16. One of the unique features of the Science and Technology Committee is that we have a parallel Committee in the House of Lords. Our relations with our counterparts in the Lords have been cordial but, at present, cannot be formal. Many of our interests overlap—as can be observed by regular attendance at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee of members from both Committees. Our Chairman has had regular meetings with his counterpart in the Lords and on one occasion our Chairman and Clerk were invited to attend a Lords Committee meeting to discuss future programme, to ensure that the two Committees were not planning to do the same inquiry at the same time. On 14 November 2000 we met jointly, although informally, with the Lords Committee and the former Chief Scientific Adviser to discuss the recent Science White Paper and other matters.

17. At present, the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has the authority to meet formally with us but we have no such authority to meet formally with them. After our informal meeting with the Lords Committee we resolved to seek the permission of the House to meet formally with them. Our request is published as our Second Special Report of Session 1999-2000.[14] We hope that the Leader of the House will table Standing Order changes shortly. While we would not expect to meet jointly with the Lords Committee on a regular basis, there are matters of interest to both committees (for example the appointment of new ministers and senior officials, new science policy statements and budgets) where it might be sensible to meet together to avoid duplication of effort and to improve mutual understanding, as well as to reduce the demands on ministers.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

18. The work of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has been of major benefit to us. Four of our Members are also members of the POST Board. Two of our inquiries have begun with briefing contributed directly by POST. Our Committee staff benefit greatly from their close, informal liaison with POST staff. Members of POST staff have come to our private meetings to provide briefing on complex matters of science and technology policy and practice. Many areas of public policy are based, in some way, on scientific evidence but there are those who would misrepresent scientific evidence for their own political ends. The impartial analysis and briefing provided by POST has allowed us, and other parliamentarians, to enter into these debates with a better understanding of the issues. We note that some other select committees also use briefing from POST and we would encourage even wider use of their considerable expertise by other committees. Science and technology, and POST briefing, can be helpful in understanding policy issues in most aspects of Government—as evidenced by recent POST reports on missile defences, climate change, human genome research, MOX nuclear fuel, early years learning, biodiversity, GM crops and so on. We are delighted that the House has recently resolved to approve the Information Committee's Report recommending that POST be established on a permanent basis.[15]

Research Infrastructure Funding

19. Throughout this Parliament we have maintained pressure on the Government to increase Government investment in research infrastructure. In 1998 we called for a cash injection of £410-430 million to regenerate infrastructure for university research.[16] In response the Government provided £300 million in the Joint Infrastructure Fund through the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review, matched by a contribution by the Wellcome Trust of £300 million. This funding was later increased to £750 million in total. In the 2000 Spending Review the Government created the Science Research Investment Fund which provided a further £1 billion of new funds for research infrastructure and, critically, appears to provide for ongoing continuous renewal of research infrastructure in universities and research council laboratories for the long term. We welcome the increased funding for the Science Budget, in the spending reviews of 1998 and, in particular, 2000. We hope, and believe, that our activities and reports have been an influencing factor in this success for the academic science base.

5  First Report of the Liaison Committee, Session 1999-2000, Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive, HC 300, paragraphs 51-55. Back
6   Fifth Report, Session 1999-2000, Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look, HC 196-I. Back
7   Third Report, Session 1997-98, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham: The Merger Proposals, HC 627, and Fourth Report, Session 1999-2000, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, HC 207-I. Back
8   Second Report, Session 1999-2000, Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation, HC 195-I. Back
9   First Report, Session 1998-99, Scientific Advisory System: Genetically Modified Food, HC 286-I, published 18 May 1999: Government Response published as Cm 4527, 9 November 1999. Sixth Report, Session 1999-2000, Cancer Research - A Fresh Look, HC 332, published 27 July 2000: Government Response published as Cm 4928, 17 November 2000. Back
10   Seventh Report, Session 1999-2000, The Government's Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look-The Government's Reply, HC 723. Back
11  Second Report, Session 1997-98, The Year 2000-Computer Compliance, HC 342-I. First Report, Session 1999-2000, The Year 2000-Computer Compliance: Follow-Up, HC 37. Back
12  Fifth Report, Session 1997-98, British Biotech, HC 888. Back
13  Fourth Report, Session 1998-99, The Regulation of the Biotechnology Industry, HC 535. Back
14  Second Special Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 980. Back
15   Official Report, 21 November 2000, col 283. First Report of the Information Committee, Session 1999-2000, The Future of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, HC 659, 20 July 2000, paragraph 15. Back
16   First Report, Session 1997-98, The Implications of the Dearing Report for the Structure and Funding of University Research, HC 303-I, paragraph 35. Back

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Prepared 21 December 2000