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The year 2002 saw the introduction of chief scientific advisers in Departments that use or commission significant amounts of research. We welcomed that step. I reiterate our belief that whenever possible, there should be external appointments of people who have occupied senior positions in the scientific community. Curiously, the one Department with no scientific adviser is the Treasury. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether, now that the former incumbent of the Treasury has moved to a new post, the Government have any intention of remedying the omission.

There is little doubt that the Government have taken the right steps in creating departmental CSAs, but the Committee was concerned about the more general decline in scientific capacity in the civil service. That concern was highlighted by Sir David King’s comment that many civil servants hid their scientific skills or qualifications because they saw them as an impediment to promotion. Disappointingly, there are no accurate figures for the total number of scientists and engineers in the civil service, despite a recommendation in the 2002 cross-cutting review of science and research. May I ask the Minister whether the common employee record will be used to collect data on qualifications to ascertain the number of engineers and scientists in Government?

The Government said that their skills “sub-department” was conducting a sector needs analysis to identify skills gaps. Given that skills are the key responsibility in the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us its findings in relation to science and engineering.

Without the capacity to be an intelligent customer, able both to frame the questions and to analyse and interpret the responses, the Government are potentially at a huge disadvantage. A classic example of the way in which things can go badly wrong was the Health and Safety Executive’s response to the EU Physical Agents Directive relating to MRI equipment. The HSE’s failure to understand that the directive could potentially halt the use of MRI for research and use in invasive procedures from 2008 was missed. I can report, however, that following the publication of our report “Watching the Directives” and a frank recognition by the Government that errors were made, there has been a significant change of heart in the European Commission, and an amendment to the directive increasing the limits for use of MRI is now highly likely.

In past years, the Government could have relied on a steady stream of highly qualified scientists and engineers working in their own laboratories for advice, but the changing status of Government scientific facilities such as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the Forensic Science Service and QinetiQ means further loss of capacity. Given those different factors, we recommended two solutions to the Government. The first was the establishment of a Government scientific service along the lines of the Government Economic Service. The Government told us that they recognised the need to create an effective structure to support the integration of scientists in Government, but were not convinced that formalising a single system across Government was the right action to take now. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether now is the
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right time, and whether the Government have reviewed their decision not to create a Government scientific service, particularly given the emphasis on the new departmental responsibilities.

Mr. Ian Taylor: I am intervening because I was the science Minister who took the decision that we should change the status of the National Physical Laboratory and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, and I am well aware that that moved the scientific echelon of the civil service out of the civil service. I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, and I hope that the Minister will be supportive of the idea that we should re-establish the science and technology aspect of the civil service.

Mr. Willis: I was not in any way trying to make a political point; I was merely musing that there had been a huge loss in capacity. During the hon. Gentleman’s time as Minister, the Government could go to such organisations and command that they delivered responses; that has been lost.

The second proposal, which we felt was very important, is that there should be greater involvement of learned societies in peer review and the assessment of scientific evidence that comes to Government. That would have the added value of possibly reducing the Government’s dependence on external consultants. To that end, we recommended that the Government discuss with the learned societies whether aspects of the scientific advisory system in the United States could be adopted in the UK. The Government said that they would “reflect further”, and I would be interested to learn what reflections there have been.

I wish at this point to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the body representing physics and the other learned societies which regularly give evidence of the highest quality to our Committee. Such evidence could be made available to the Government in exactly the same way it is to a Select Committee. Without their evidence, it must sometimes be difficult for Government to form conclusions of the kind that our Committee is capable of reaching.

Scientific capacity is important, in terms of both social sciences and the physical sciences. If Government policies are to be evidence based—which the Government claim is the case—they need good scientific capacity. Since 1997, the Government have increasingly emphasised the importance of evidence-based policy making. In 1999, the “Modernising Government” White Paper and the Cabinet Office report “Professional policy making for the 21st century” emphasised the importance of the use of evidence in policy making. I also note that the National School of Government now runs analysis and use of evidence courses. Policies are thus increasingly promoted as evidence based—I am glad it appears that the Minister is nodding from a sedentary position. Unfortunately, however, few outside Government were prepared to accept the term “evidence based” as an accurate description of Government policy and we did not have to look far to find examples of a stark disconnect between evidence and policy. The former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), had almost no evidence when she announced her ban on junk food. Sir John
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Krebs, former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, was scathing. He claimed that

The policy announcement broke every one of the Government chief scientific adviser’s rules of engagement. Yet despite the presence of a departmental chief scientific adviser within the then Department for Education and Skills, the policy was allowed to run unchallenged.

If the Government cite evidence in support of a policy, we believe that it should be able to bear robust scrutiny and that it should be communicated convincingly to the public. If there are problems with the evidence base, the consequences for public confidence can be grave, as was the case with MMR—measles, mumps and rubella—or damaging to scientific progress, as was the case with genetically modified crops, or potentially disastrous, as with the weapons of mass destruction issue and Iraq.

In our report, we highlighted four key issues on the use of evidence. First, the Government should take steps to strengthen the evidence base by establishing a cross-departmental fund to commission independent policy-related research. Will the Minister tell us whether he will set up such a central fund for independent research? We also acknowledge that it is not just a question of money, especially for academic researchers who are struggling to put together publications in time for the next research assessment exercise—or RAE. Indeed, for that reason we recommended that the Government work to rectify the situation in which the RAE acts as a disincentive to engagement by the scientific community with policy. The Government responded that the new metrics will achieve that and I would be interested to know how they will measure the success of the new metrics-based RAE in that regard in terms of public policy.

Secondly, the Government should ensure that the evidence they use is of the highest quality. The use of evidence and its quality should be peer reviewed. We recommended that the Government commission pilot reviews of the extent to which policies are evidence based. The Government accepted that recommendation, and it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether such pilot reviews have taken place.

Thirdly, the Government should be gathering evidence to inform their future policy and undertaking horizon scanning. We recognised the excellent work of the foresight programme and the horizon scanning centre, but note that horizon scanning should be embedded within the policy-making process. It is no use if foresight produces excellent reports, but no one takes up the findings. Professor Paul Wiles, the Home Office departmental CSA, clearly stated to our inquiry that

It is a challenge, but it is a necessary challenge.

Finally, we were concerned that when the Government undertake pilots or trials or runs consultations, the results should be published and their effect on the
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policy-making process made clear. We have looked at the trials of biometric technology for identity cards and emphasised to the Government that if those trials raise any doubts, the policy should be amended accordingly. Similarly, the Government need to ensure that the purpose and remit of consultations are clear and that feedback is given to those who have contributed. Problems such as the recent consultation over civil nuclear power undermine public confidence, not just in the consultation process but in the use of evidence in policy making more broadly.

I understand that the Cabinet Office has recently launched a consultation on consultations. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there is any early feedback from the process. As with scientific advice, it is important that the Government are open about the evidence underlying policies and we believe that evidence should be published and reviewed. That will ensure that evidence is not misused or selectively published in order to prop up policies.

It was deeply disturbing to hear the allegations from Professor Tim Hope of Keele university that the Home Office had actually interfered with the publication of research. He said:

It is essential that the policy-making process and the use of evidence is fully transparent, and that where policy is not based on evidence, that should be made clear.

We acknowledge, and make the point strongly in our report, that not all policy needs to be evidence based. The Government have every right to promulgate policies that are not evidence based. Some policies have a mainly political or ideological basis. We accept that. The Government should acknowledge openly the many drivers of policy making as well as any gaps in the relevant research base or where policy is made despite the evidence. If the Government promote the idea that all policy is evidence based, they are undermining those policies on issues such as MMR, GM and climate change, where it is crucial that there is public confidence in the evidence.

Furthermore, if the Government change their mind about a policy as a result of a poor pilot or on the basis of new evidence, the Opposition—I include my party and the Conservatives—should not use that as an opportunity for political point scoring. Changing policy on the basis of evidence, pilots or research should be seen as a political strength, not a failing.

The third main plank of our inquiry into these cross-cutting areas was the management of risk. We did not attempt to deal with individual areas of risk, but focused instead on the communication of risk to the public—the issue that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) raised. Successive Governments have attempted to deal with risk and it has risen up the agenda. We have seen green books, orange books, a Treasury guide on management of risk to the public, appraisal guidance and a risk management assessment framework; there have been lots of them. There is a long way to go, but I welcome the progress and urge the Government to continue to seek ways to sustain and improve risk assessment in policy making.

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During the inquiry, we looked at the ways in which risk is communicated to the public and considered good examples, such as nanotechnology, which was communicated well to the public, has been widely accepted and is being well used, and bad examples, such as GM. The way in which risk is communicated to the public is crucial, particularly given the weak scientific and numeracy culture in this country. We recommended that the Government develop a scale of risks that could be used by all Departments. Rather than saying that the risk was very low, or one in 100,000, one could say it was as likely as being murdered. People understand that. If one wanted to express a negligible risk, such as one in 10 million—that means nothing to most people—one could say it was as likely as being hit by lightning.

Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely good point. Did his Committee look at the fact that the public see risks imposed by the state and organisations such as the railways differently from the risks they take themselves? For example, we see the numbers of people who happily expose themselves to excess doses of sunshine, when that occasionally occurs. It would be crazy for the Government to suggest the banning of package holidays to Malaga, but risks from the railways, which are much lower, are higher up the agenda from the public’s perspective.

Mr. Willis: This is not an easy area and the Committee is not suggesting that. Our conclusion was that it is important to communicate risk in a way that people can understand, and we compared different types of risk in that way. The problem that the Government and all political parties have is the compensation and litigation culture that has come into this area. Small risks are now built up into major things; for instance, one cannot play conkers—a use for horse chestnuts, I say to the Minister—within school grounds because of the risk. We need to get that into balance.

The Government said in response to our report that they would have discussions with the media to try to maximise public understanding. I would be grateful if the Minister explained what that meant and what the Government have done in this area. The Government also told us that they were establishing an expert resource centre for public dialogue on science and innovation to help all parts of Government to enable public debate on science and technology-related topics. As far as we are aware, this is still just a Government plan. If so, when will it become a reality?

Finally, may I return to the impact that the machinery of Government changes will have on the scientific advisory system within Government? The chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, was situated within the DTI as head of the Office of Science and Innovation. He therefore had a dual role combining a cross-departmental co-ordination and advisory function with the post of head of the OSI. We were concerned that these roles did not sit comfortably alongside one another and that the GCSA was unlikely to have time to develop both his cross-departmental role and his administrative functions within the OSI. It seems that these roles have been reviewed and that the changes are much more far-reaching than we suggested. We suggested that the GCSA should have a desk in the Cabinet Office and a seat in the
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Treasury. For him to sit with the Government’s chief economic adviser, who also has a seat in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, would be a strong bolstering of the independence of the Department.

Obviously, the DTI has been split, and what was the OSI has been moved into the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. We understand that there will be a new office for the Government’s chief scientific officer within that Department and that the OSI will cease to exist. Will the Minister clarify what the remit of that office will be? Will the chief scientific officer focus solely on trans-departmental scientific advice, or will he continue to have administrative responsibilities within the Department? The whole issue of scientific advice is important, and it should be at the heart not only of the new DIUS but the whole Government. I welcome the Government’s response to our report.

5 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), on his new appointment, and wish him luck in the battles ahead. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), as Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, on building on the work of the past eight years in this area. He has taken it on rather well.

Before we discuss scientific advice, we must address the question whether science is important. That battle has still to be won, not only in this country, but in large sectors of the rest of the world. If we cannot win that battle, we can give all the advice we want, but no one will listen to it or want it. Most hon. Members present can probably cite many occasions on which science has contributed to the betterment of the world or of health. For example, there is a lot of hyperbole around the science of stem cell research at the moment, but there are also great hopes and wishes that something will come out of the research. The evidence might not always be there, but people have a right to try to obtain it to improve conditions for people on this planet.

I confess that I am a member of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, which was set up by Sir Richard Sykes and various other people, such as Jon Moulton, for whom the Treasury Committee does not have much time at present. The foundation can raise £90 million almost overnight from its connections, and it wants to make a connection with the Medical Research Council to ensure that work is done in this country, and goes all the way from blue-skies thinking to product formation in this country, so that we do not see, for example, antibodies being developed in the States. That culture is beginning to take off.

There are problems with academics and researchers in general. Having been one myself, and still knowing many, I know, as other hon. Members present might confirm, that there is a great latent suspicion regarding the media and the communication of science. I have scars on my back from my frequent appearances on Radio Norfolk as a science adviser. I once tried to explain how a microwave oven works, and when I went back to the lab I was pulled apart by people who not only knew more about it than I did, but said that trying
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to explain a difficult concept to the public was simply a waste of time. That problem still exists. When I see my friends at meetings, as I did this weekend, they say things like, “The public will never understand; it’s much too complex.” We still have that battle to fight in this country.

Mr. Ian Taylor: As an amateur scientist—the hon. Gentleman is a professional—I sometimes get frustrated when I have to defend science, because many scientists do not explain or defend it. It is a big frustration that, too often, scientists in this country do not engage in public appreciation exercises, although they really should if they want their sector to flourish.

Dr. Gibson: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to say a little more about how we might address that problem. But, certainly, words such as “arrogance” come to mind, and there is perhaps a lack of humility in communicating with the public among some scientists whom I know, and I am sure other Members know as well. I saw that at first hand during the whole genetic modification debate, which some of us battled through, against friends on both sides of the House, a few years ago, when scientists arrogantly sat round dinner tables and said, “No need to talk to the public about it; they’ll accept what the scientist says.” That was a factor—not the only factor, but an important one—in the determination of this country and its people to walk away from GM crops and GM food. Indeed, a whole industry disappeared. Many of us learnt the lesson about that, but many scientists still have not done so.

Angela Browning: As someone who, in a former existence, licensed the first GM food in this country, I recall being given advice at the time that it was better to put up a scientist on the television than a politician, because the public would trust the scientist rather than a politician. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts are about that, in the light of what he has just said.

Dr. Gibson: My answer would be that there are scientists and there are scientists. There are scientists who work for companies such as Monsanto, whom I, and, I am sure, the hon. Lady, would not trust an inch, whereas independent scientists from a research institute or university are slightly better—let us put it that way—and unlikely to mess up the data or the communication. For example, I remember John Krebs once talking about food and quite blatantly saying to John Humphrys, “I don’t really know; none of us knows.” That is not the kind of answer that is expected in the media, where people are told, “Say it in black and white—yes or no?” That is the Paxman-Humphrys school, which does not always go down well with the public.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentions the media, and I want to question whether he is right to say that the problems of GM acceptance were due to scientists sitting around at dinner parties and not doing anything else. It seems to me that once the media had decided to treat GM as they did, nothing could have been done. Although some preparatory work could have been done, the problem lies much more with the media than with a failure of scientists in that case.

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