Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 700-719)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q700 Chairman: People always do well in later life. But the problem with what you just said to Kevin though is, the reference to the MRC—what the Mirror actually said was, he has gone to the MRC and "it was possible that his reputation would be improved." Talk about damning with faint praise. This is one of the country's most distinguished scientists. "It is possible his reputation would be improved"?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I—

  Q701 Mr Prentice: Could not possibly comment.

  Sir Richard Mottram: "I could not possibly comment", he said, in his best Sir Humphrey fashion! I would have thought it was likely that if he was appointed to be Chief Executive to the Medical Research Council he was a man of stature. You can argue about this, but I think it is generally recognised to be one of the foremost institutions in the country for science.

  Q702 Kevin Brennan: Let me explore a couple of other things. Can you tell us how you distinguish between someone who gets an OBE, an MBE and a CBE? You said earlier on, "Graded grains make finer rice".

  Sir Richard Mottram: Yes. I knew I should not say that.

  Q703 Kevin Brennan: It is all to do with refinement presumably?

  Sir Richard Mottram: No, it is all do with criteria. For example, if you looked at, let us take a hypothetical example, a professor who has a distinguished academic record, considerable publications, international reputation, a significant contribution to the wider science community, and so on—that list of things—that sort of person would be being discussed at a sort of CBE/potentially Knighthood level?

  Q704 Kevin Brennan: Okay?

  Sir Richard Mottram: It is slightly awkward for me to do this because, again, I have a bit of a problem that I am quite conscious of people who get honours. I do not know if you see the point I am making, Chairman. I do not want to talk up the higher ones and talk down the lower ones, the sort of Dusty Springfield issue that you talked about before.

  Q705 Kevin Brennan: International reputation?

  Sir Richard Mottram: You know: big stuff. For example, one of the—again I should not be doing this, but one of the people who was honoured in, I think it was the last list—my mind has gone with all this controversy—one of the people who was honoured in the last list alongside Dr Taylor, for instance, was Professor Evans, who had been the joint winner in 2001—I wrote this down because I thought it would illustrate the point—of the Albert Laskar Award for basic medical research in the United States; and this is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. So here we had someone who had the equivalent of a Nobel Prize, who had worked in a number of universities, because also we quite like, it is not essential, but we quite like the sense of people who have contributed round the system, who had now become the director in his case, as it happens, of a school of biological sciences, whose contribution is absolutely massively important for medical science. If such a person came before you . . . Well, I will speak for myself. I do not want to speak for my Committee. If such a person came before me, I would not find it that difficult to reach the view: "This is a very, very distinguished person", and the level of recognition for him, let us say, would fall into place. Do you see the point I am trying to make?

  Q706 Kevin Brennan: I do see the point you are trying to make. What I wanted you to do is to explain how you distinguish the MBE and OBE from that level?

  Sir Richard Mottram: MBE and OBE would be, generally speaking, people who had made a less distinguished contribution or had done different things. I could give you some advice on how we do this, if you would find that helpful.

  Q707 Kevin Brennan: But you cannot give us an example, like you did just then—

  Sir Richard Mottram: I have not brought any with me.

  Q708 Kevin Brennan: —of somebody who came before you and you immediately said, "That is MBE." Then someone else came before you, and you said, "Oh, that is easy, that is OBE". It was easy for you to pick CBE/Knighthood?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Well, no, for instance, people who have made significant contributions in individual areas of research and are distinguished, they could actually be OBEs, sometimes they are CBEs, sometimes if they are stratospheric they could possibly be Knights, but for most people in this area, in the Science and Technology area, you can get the level right, "right" in inverted commas: you can find a level that the Committee as a whole are comfortable with against some objective criteria, but the application of those criteria ultimately depend upon debate. So the Committee, for example, if we had a hypothetical example, somebody had done this piece of research, they had done these things in relation to the Research Councils, etc, we would have debates about people where the issue would be was the research absolutely world-class, for example, just the sort of debates they have, I suspect, for peer review of science and technology generally, and then, because we are not the Royal Society, we would have a discussion about what else have they done. What else have they done?

  Q709 Kevin Brennan: Would you put Mick Jagger in that category?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Fortunately, as I am not—. I would not put Mick Jagger in the same category as Professor Evans, but you see that does not mean—

  Q710 Kevin Brennan: But he got a Knighthood not a CBE?

  Sir Richard Mottram: This is an issue about the whole thing, is it not? The whole thing is covering at least, sort of, well, at least two categories of people and possibly three. Mick Jagger has created a lot of wealth in the country, is a very, very iconic figure; fine, you know; but one of the things that happens at the Main Committee is that there will be discussions about, well, why over here, in this particular category, have you people at this sort of level while over here we appear to have people who have made a bigger contribution but at a lower level? That is the sort thing they have discussed, so they are calibrating across the system and trying to establish whether the merit has been applied consistently. That would be the main job of that Committee.

  Q711 Mrs Campbell: Sir Richard, could I take you back to a remark that you made earlier?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Oh dear.

  Q712 Mrs Campbell: When you said that the minute, the leaked minute, was taken from a highly compressed account?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I said it was a highly compressed account. I was making a very simple point. The Main Committee met for three hours, let us say. I do not know how many words are spoken in three hours, but we could work it out; one of our stenographers could no doubt help us. If you imagine, for example, I do not know for how long—I happened to be reading it yesterday—the discussion you had with Professor Hennessy, Professor Cannadine and Simon Jenkins: did that last three hours?

  Q713 Mrs Campbell: No, not quite?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Imagine that had gone on for three hours and then, I know the Clerks are very distinguished people, but one of the Clerks had been set the task of summarising this discussion in 1,300 words. That is my point. This discussion was summarised by someone acting in good faith.

  Q714 Mrs Campbell: All right. But what I wanted to ask you was are you then implying that this remark was actually made, it was just part of a much wider—

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am saying it might or might not have been, is what I am saying.

  Q715 Mrs Campbell: You are not saying it was not said?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am not saying it was not said, I am saying if it was said it was in a completely different context to the one that is implied by this highly compressed account. What I am saying to you, because, let us be clear about this, I can say it, I think, as the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee and as a member of the Main Committee what I am categorically saying to you is that Professor Blakemore has not been "black-balled" and he would never be "black-balled" anyway, but he certainly would not be "black-balled" for the reasons which the press have implied. Can I be any clearer?

  Q716 Mrs Campbell: I am trying to get away from the personal now and to look at the principles behind the decisions that you are making?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am sorry, I am taking us back unhelpfully.

  Q717 Mrs Campbell: What I wanted to explore with you is to what extent the nature of a scientist's work would be important. The remark that was made included the word "controversial". There is quite a lot of science that is controversial: nuclear weapons, stem cell research, GM technology. I could list a whole number of areas where the scientific research is quite controversial. To what extent does the Committee feel it has to follow popular opinion when it is making recommendations for honours?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Not at all, but what I think the Committee—because of the way in which the Committee is composed, if we could have this conversation and it is nothing to do with Professor Blakemore, we are now on something different, the Committee, if it has a discussion about someone and they were involved in issues of public controversy, if the basis on which they were involved was strong science, or strong logic, or strong philosophy, then that would not be an issue. If the basis on which they were involved was wild prejudice, completely irrelevant contribution, not based on science and technology, we would hardly regard it as a plus in relation to the Committee. What we do not have are any discussions which are based on the idea that we are trying to find people who are—for instance, having read some of your previous contributions we do not have discussions saying, "This scientist is very popular with the Prime Minister. Perhaps we can put him on the list." It is ridiculous. We do not talk like that.

  Q718 Mrs Campbell: I am not suggesting that?

  Sir Richard Mottram: We would say that controversy that is soundly based, so to speak, in evidence or in logical thought is never going to be a disadvantage to someone. Indeed, I think that the Committee would argue that an active involvement and debate around science and technology is a plus. Does that help?

  Q719 Mrs Campbell: There are a number of scientists who have been involved in fairly controversial work: Richard Lacey, Andrew Wakefield, Dr Pusztai, and so on. Were they ever looked at by your Committee?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I could not answer that.

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