Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-479)

9 JUNE 2004


  Q460 Dr Iddon: We did refer to your concordat with DFID in the previous session. Could you tell us what the benefits and problems are of developing that concordat and how it may direct itself in the future?

  Mr Winterton: Yes. We have had a long and really quite productive association with DFID and its predecessors. The Ministry of Overseas Development back in the 1960s was contributing probably a comparable kind of sum to the MRC's budget as DFID is today, so there has always been a relationship where clearly DFID and its predecessors wanted to know what they were getting for their money, for making their contribution. We were anxious to be seen to be responding to a key stakeholder in this field, so, if you like, the concordat has enshrined that in a formal statement of what we are trying to achieve, and how DFID will influence MRC decision-making, which is a key part of it, and how we will monitor progress. It is an informal encouragement to closer working, to regular meetings between officials and a regular annual review of progress. It has an importance in terms of, as I say, enshrining good working relationships within an agreement.

  Q461 Dr Iddon: Does it add value to the work you are doing, or is it just a monitoring exercise?

  Mr Winterton: In itself it adds value, in the sense that it sets out procedures whereby DFID can play a formal part in helping to shape the MRC's programme. In that sense it adds value, but it is not in itself a value-added document.

  Q462 Dr Iddon: Does it cause problems for you?

  Mr Winterton: No, I do not think in itself it causes any problems at all.

  Q463 Chairman: Professor Maudlin and Professor Haines, who do you think should fund the tropical animal health work in the UK institutions?

  Professor Maudlin: As I said before, it is at present funded largely by DFID and the Wellcome Trust.

  Q464 Chairman: But not enough.

  Professor Maudlin: The Animal Health Programme of DFID is one of the National Resources programmes of DFID and it gets about £1.5 million a year. We had a meeting recently at the Wellcome Trust where they said, "That is about the size of one of our project grants." They perceived it as being miniscule.

  Q465 Chairman: It is.

  Professor Maudlin: Yes.

  Q466 Chairman: Absolutely miniscule.

  Professor Maudlin: Yes. Because, you see, the problems with animal health—notwithstanding my colleagues' interest in AIDS—are of a similar magnitude. Pig rearing in Africa is now a major money earner but African swine fever is a major problem. The virus which causes it is as complicated as the AIDS virus, so throwing a £100,000 grant at this problem is speculative, to say the least.

  Q467 Chairman: If you are unhappy, how much should they have? I should say I just reviewed a grant for somebody on public understanding of science and they got £0.25 million for it. £0.25 million—so that is not far off the £1.5 million—and you can balance up what is more important to the world.

  Professor Maudlin: Yes, and we are supposed to handle all the tropical animal health problems with that £1.5 million, including dissemination, including . . . .

  Q468 Chairman: Come on! Here is your chance. What do you think you need to handle the problems?

  Professor Maudlin: In fact DFID have acknowledged the fact that this is an under-funded area. As they say in their new research framework, they intend to set up a public/private partnership to help with this which will have much more substantial funding.

  Q469 Chairman: You will forgive us if we are a bit suspicious that that only came out after our inquiry started. You cannot possibly say anything.

  Professor Maudlin: I am not aware of that.

  Q470 Chairman: You know why we are suspicious of this. What do you think we need, to do the project work that is so essential?

  Professor Maudlin: Something of the order of £10 million a year.

  Q471 Chairman: Andy Haines?

  Professor Haines: This is really not my field of expertise, but certainly it does sound as though it is very much under-funded.

  Q472 Dr Iddon: Where do you think would be appropriate for that money to come from? From the Research Councils? From the EU?

  Professor Maudlin: The EU is a bit of a non-starter, and I speak personally here.

  Q473 Dr Iddon: You mean you have the scars to prove it.

  Professor Maudlin: Yes. Battle scarred. I would not again subject myself to applying for money from them.

  Q474 Chairman: We will protect you.

  Professor Maudlin: One would say stitch-up is their way of working.

  Q475 Dr Iddon: You would look to Research Councils?

  Professor Maudlin: Yes, DFID, where there is a level playing field; or the Wellcome Trust, where there is a very level playing field.

  Q476 Chairman: So what has this new research strategy come down to? Does it really, really address the problems?

  Professor Maudlin: I think DFID say in their preamble that they are going to focus on four big research themes, which is right: agricultural productivity in Africa—which is what I am really concerned with mainly; killer diseases; climate change . . . These are the issues of the day, are they not, and it is quite right that they should focus their efforts on those.

  Q477 Mr McWalter: I do not know how much you heard of our previous evidence session but there is an absolute gap in terms of things like actually providing resources for water and sanitation and yet that is an absolutely fundamental primary health concern, is it not? You are all asking for extra money but there is a whole area of activity that is vital for health that nothing much has been done about at all. Do you not think that you, wearing your health hats, should be concerned to try and get the engineers to be doing the stuff that needs to be done to improve the health of people in developing countries as well?

  Professor Haines: Certainly water and sanitation have been rather neglected and certain colleagues at the London School who do specialise in this area keep on telling me that not enough money is going into research and development in this area, and also into research on relatively simple interventions like promoting hygiene within low income households, which can have a very major impact on important diseases like diarrhoeal diseases and so on. These have been relatively neglected and I suspect that you are right: probably the return on research and investment in that area would be high.

  Professor Maudlin: I think there is an enlightened self-interest argument for a lot of our work as well. In terms of animal health, as you know, these viruses spring up from nowhere and bite you and mostly they come from animal reservoirs. We have an interest of our own therefore in monitoring these things. In order to do that we need scientists who understand them. They do not produce them overnight. It takes 20 years.

  Q478 Chairman: Do you know about the water hyacinth problem in Malawi?

  Professor Maudlin: I know about the water hyacinth problem in Lake Victoria very well.

  Q479 Chairman: Tell me what the mistake was there. What went wrong in that whole process?

  Professor Maudlin: The mistake in the first place was allowing the water hyacinth to get into Lake Victoria but there is nothing we can do about that. They did introduce what they thought were some hi-tech solutions to the problem which made it worse. One of the interesting side effects of that was—

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