Previous Section Index Home Page

9 July 2007 : Column 1216

Dr. Gibson: I was a member of the John Innes Centre council at the time, and I remember a dinner party where Derek Burke—who was blatantly savaged by Prince Charles for defending GM—and I talked to the scientists who were doing the work in this country. They said exactly what I said before, “There’s no problem. It’s actually going to happen.” Then one of them appeared in public. I sent him out to a small village in north Norfolk on a dark night. The village hall was packed out, Lord Melchett was there, and he was savaged to death—and will never speak again. He has got so bad at his science that he has gone to Cambridge as a professor of genetics, in dismay at having had to interact with the public on that kind of subject. He would much rather go into a sort of industrial environment in a department in Cambridge.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Have not the British media damaged the British industry? Compared with the American, Chinese and Indian industries, we have lost out because the British media have damaged the British industry.

Dr. Gibson: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It was not just the scientists in the British media who purveyed the idea of “Frankenstein foods” and so on; the political people often did so, too. I remember that The Guardian spent all its time talking not about the value of the foods, but about Lord Sainsbury’s share interests. The political editors of the newspapers provided the focus, and the scientific editors were pushed aside. So a concerted campaign was going on—which, of course, scientists are not used to. They are used to purveying what information they can, and having arguments and so on; they are certainly not used to discussing who has more shares than someone else.

Bill Wiggin: I am curious about the issue, because obviously, I was not part of the debate at the time. When a Minister has such a high-profile role in the wider debate, what is the hon. Gentleman’s feeling about that sort of message coming from those in politics and Government towards the general public, and then their understanding of science?

Dr. Gibson: People’s hands must be rather clean. Of course, there are mechanisms for people working in this place, whereby they can filter some of their shares to offshore islands, such as Jersey and Guernsey. I do not think that that is any better, but it is quite legitimate, and if we are opening up transparency in this country, we should look at it carefully. In the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, the individual did not try to defend the situation as much as the papers attacked him, and other people were defending the Government’s position.

The learned societies, too, were far from brilliant. Instant rebuttal was something I grew up with in the Labour party. Peter Mandelson was excellent at it with his team. Instant rebuttal meant 10 or 20 minutes. The Royal Society’s idea of instant rebuttal was a long tome of 50 pages, which took six months to produce—by which time it was too late and the battle was over. So, there were lots of lessons to be learned by different functionaries in the scientific and technological movement in this country.

9 July 2007 : Column 1217

I am not entirely sure that the Science and Technology Committee report—excellent though it is—goes into things in the depth that some of us would like. I know that there was a previous report and that this report moves the debate on, but there should have been a wider examination of the structure of science within Departments. The model that has been put forward is very like the model that we live with, but we could have been a little more radical in looking at the position of Ministers in the new Department. We do not just have one Minister with responsibility for science. There is also a senior Minister, who is in the Cabinet. That is something some of us would have died for: to have at the Cabinet table somebody who can put scientific arguments at first hand, and from the point of a view of a Department that is looking at innovation, higher education and science. I welcome that kind of initiative.

The interaction between science and innovation is extremely interesting, and is an area in which we are still learning things. That interaction will take place within the Department. We have seen the first flurry of activity in higher education, with top-up fees and so on. We are all suspicious, but that has been an attempt to address a lingering problem. Things are beginning to happen. I have spent a lot of time listening to people who talk about blue-skies research, and I also talk to bio-entrepreneurs—in fact I presented prizes to some of them last week at Lancaster house. I was really glad when the first person who came up to speak was somebody to whom I had presented a prize the year before, who had set up a small company to make antibodies, outside Cambridge university. It was a spin-out company. Within a year of the conference, he had been bought out by GlaxoSmithKline for something like £1 billion. I am sure that none of us will ever see that kind of activity, but I was glad to hear that young person say that the work that he and his team of 12 had been doing had suddenly blossomed and attracted the interest of GSK.

All the other people winning prizes live in the hope that the brilliant scientific ideas and innovations that they come up with will eventually be picked up by bigger companies. That may not be the best model. We might have to look again at smaller companies just developing into medium-size companies. The talent of individuals in this country is second to none, but I am not yet convinced that we have the structures to make sure things happen, although the openings are there for things to move on. We may need a lot more in the UK Trade and Investment area to make sure that those bio-entrepreneurs develop their particular skills.

I often ask whether we need a chief scientific adviser. I am always worried that we have been given a set system. Is a one-on-one situation with the Prime Minister, involving direct interaction, the best way to get science across? I am not entirely convinced that that is not just a reaction to a situation. The current chief scientific adviser did a brilliant job—unheralded—with the foot and mouth outbreak when he showed the curves illustrating how it was going to disappear after a period of time. That demonstrated real ingenuity, and it came from a knowledge of the scientific community, who were doing that kind of epidemiological modelling.

9 July 2007 : Column 1218

The new Department has many openings with Ministers and so on. There will be an arena of people in the Cabinet and across Government involved in the whole thing. I always say that a department where people drink coffee together and take part in other activities is where things happen. The success of the Medical Research Council laboratory at Cambridge—where Nobel prizes have been won—was helped by the café on the top floor. People could sit with Crick and Watson and argue and talk to them about research until the cows came home. It was brilliant. I tried to institute something similar in Norwich; I set up a café where people could interact across the boundaries, and forget what they called themselves, whether they were zoologists, botanists or molecular biologists. It was great that they got together and talked in an interdisciplinary way, but as soon as I disappeared the café was closed and people were put back into their silos, and their own professors became the bosses of the coffee club.

Andrew Miller: My hon. Friend will be interested to know that a couple of weeks ago I hosted a meeting in the Members Dining Room, in which General Motors gave a presentation about future vehicles. Its plea was for Government to sit people from the component parts of what was the Department of Trade and Industry around the same table, so that we could produce the interaction necessary to help develop ideas.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I thought for one second that he was about to talk about Fairtrade coffee; I was sweating somewhat. Nevertheless, he makes the point that intercollegiate interaction is important these days, as science moves on. Old titles disappear, and new subjects are born overnight. Take nanotechnology, for example—although I am not quite sure what it means in detailed terms. There is an excitement about the new technologies brought about by physicists, chemists and biologists, and that brings them together. That is the way forward, and we have to do a lot more in that respect. I welcome the new Department for the chance that it gives people in different arenas, such as innovation and education, to work together and talk and argue in an interdisciplinary, collegiate way.

I am sure that I will be forgiven for saying it, but the civil service is, in the main, scientifically illiterate. That is what we have to deal with. If we come together and bring forward new, sparky ideas, they will be the civil service’s ideas tomorrow.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Is it not the case that eminent scientists, particularly research scientists, often come up with diametrically opposed conclusions, and does not that engender interest, not just among Departments and the civil servants whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but among the general public and schoolchildren? It shows them that science is an area for ideas, and that sometimes there is not a definitive response to a problem.

Dr. Gibson: I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments entirely. I know eminent virologists who do not believe that AIDS is caused by a virus, and who argue about it at conferences. That is the nature of involvement in science; one never knows what one might find out, and
9 July 2007 : Column 1219
what we think today may turn out to be subject to another explanation tomorrow. That is the excitement of it, and that is why young people deserve a better education, as the hon. Lady says.

I want to speak about risk. Points have been made about how hard it is to define it, and to get people to take it seriously, but I read that Natalie Angier, the science editor of The New York Times, has written a book called “The Canon—A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science”, which she believes sets out the minimum knowledge required by an educated person. A similar thing has been done in this country in a book by Bill Bryson; it is an amazing read. The Royal Society of Chemistry, bless it, gave one to every school in the country. It addresses the basic questions that young people ask, such as “How do you weigh the Earth?” and “Why is the sky blue?” Some hon. Members will have heard that question asked the other week. The most eminent scientist in the country could not answer it, so narrow are the specialities. But that is the nature of science: one cannot know everything, but by interacting, we can share information.

Angier mentions an issue that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised: how can we define risk in terms simplistic enough to give people an idea of what is meant? She says:

Let us not mention the effect that that would have on climate change; that is another issue. That quotation brings the subject into perspective. She goes on to raise many other points.

I have made the point that the question of how one goes about getting evidence is important. The issue of stem cells has been discussed in this Chamber and in the other place, and I remember those occasions well. Some hon. Members who are present in the Chamber today thought that we might lose the vote on the subject. There was concerted action not to argue the science in a peripheral way but to make it clear, and to involve patient groups and others. I did not see many civil servants or people from other Departments. What really won the argument was the parliamentary process interacting with people outside who ran patient groups. That was a real phenomenon, but it is not always picked up. For several weeks, we made the arguments, and we won the vote. It delighted many scientists in this country that Parliament made a decision that put us in the leading frame on this type of research. Of course there was, and is, no guarantee that stem cell research will deliver the cures for motor neurone disease and so on, but it is the chance to get the evidence that is important.

Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend find it rather strange that Galileo was prevented from making progress by the religious people of his day, and that the stem cell scientists have almost been prevented from making progress by the same group of people?

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am very aware of that, given that I serve on the Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos
9 July 2007 : Column 1220
Bill under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who also chairs the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which produced the report before us today. We have met religious groups, and nothing very much has changed since those late nights that we spent as students arguing for Darwin’s explanation of phenomena against the religious explanation. Yes, the issue is still there, and the battle will continue. Science never sleeps, and the battle to make sure that its voice is heard will continue.

Evidence comes from all corners of the world—science is global. Lots of people interact, not only at the academic level, but in terms of getting information. People will have noticed that The Observer on Sunday includes part of The New York Times, and the science is rather good, explaining issues in terms that anybody with some kind of scientific literacy could understand. The situation is getting better, and it will get better still.

People are suspicious, however, that much of the research undertaken to obtain that evidence is done behind closed doors. There are companies that do private research. We know about the falsifying of the stem cell data in Korea and so on, and other countries—even the United States—are privatising research. There are also conflicts of interest. Scientists are very keen on intellectual property rights. When I go to meetings—I went to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence the other week—I have to sign a document that says, “Anything you hear must not appear in the newspapers tomorrow.” I find it rather foreign to communication across the scientific endeavour that we cannot have open and transparent discussions because there may be a commercial interest involved.

Convincing politicians will be extremely difficult. I often ask myself why that is so. Lawyers do not care whom they defend; they will defend the victim or the alleged perpetrator of the crime—it is a job, it is money, it is what lawyers do. Scientists do not behave like that; they have a belief, a determination to be honest and an ethical code, and they talk to each other at meetings and behind the scenes—and that is curtailed only by the intellectual property phenomenon that is now with us.

As regards the stem cell debate, we should also remember that the company’s commercial interests immediately create suspicions among members of the public. There is huge, scathing distrust and a belief that certain companies that do the science hide the data to get amazing profits.

Angela Browning: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the opposition to a scientific development, particularly when it is translated into legislation and argument in this Chamber, is sometimes very much influenced by very well-resourced lobby groups? The money that they can call on to mount a campaign against such developments should perhaps sometimes be balanced against the commercial interests involved in developing something that would not otherwise be developed if there was no commercial benefit to it.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Lady. That is another truism. Many people are put under pressure subtly or quite openly. Most hon. Members find it difficult to say no to someone who wants to talk to them about a problem, such as a drug that they cannot get commercialised
9 July 2007 : Column 1221
or get approved by NICE. That makes life difficult for us. To advise us, we need a grouping that is not subjected to such pressure. I do not know whether that exists anywhere in the world, but we ought to try to achieve it.

The first hour of the meeting that I attended at NICE was spent with people talking about their commercial interests. Either the laboratory had been funded by the company that wanted the drug to be approved, or some social benefit had been offered, such as a trip to Florida. It is hard to resist that, even if one feels neutral. In the decision-making arena, such pressure can influence the way one considers the evidence. I hold my hand up and say that sometimes I do not speak out when I should because I feel some empathy with the people presenting the evidence. It is disgraceful, and having been a boy scout, I should know better.

NICE is an organisation that is finding its way forward to assess the evidence and to try and restore confidence in certain areas in medicine. If any group that scrutinises medical developments does not get it right, that damages the research and the patients. Scientific endeavour generally gets a bad name, and public funding with public support can quickly disappear. I was amazed how quickly the support for GM disappeared. We lost the argument day by day, until there was little left to fight for, although I remember slanging matches with friends of mine in this place who were against it from the beginning.

Evidence that comes forward often raises expectations. Scientists should be careful about that. The hyperbole that is sometimes associated with certain types of science gives rise to the kind of scary stories that discredit science. There may initially be disagreements, but ultimately there will be agreement about issues on which the evidence is not solid. Somehow that gets in through the media or the public domain, and is believed. A friend of mine, Ben Goldacre, writes a column in The Guardian every Saturday exposing that kind of phoney science, especially in the food industry, and some of its claims.

Many people would feel let down if there were too many stories like that. Science is not precious, but we must fight to maintain its independence and integrity. The slanging matches that go on when topics are discussed must take place in the open. The public must know that there is an argument, as well as a consensual view.

Controversial areas such as stem cells need to prosper, but only in an environment where the scientists are self-critical. Science is not just about certainty; it is also about uncertainty. I mentioned the case of Krebs saying, “I don’t know.” I have never met a scientist—this may be a parallel with scientists’ so-called arrogance—who could be absolutely sure that they had done every experiment and every control necessary to achieve certainty. That is what is exciting in schools—teaching young people to be critical, to do experiments, to think things through and to ask questions, and giving them the opportunity to develop some understanding and some interest in science.

Universities have a long way to go in how they teach science. Some of what is taught there is boring, rather than radical. I question whether the PhD is taught properly now, and whether post-doctoral fellowships are the way to do science, not necessarily because they are one-year or three-year contracts, but because in many quarters post-doctoral students are still beholden
9 July 2007 : Column 1222
to the boss of the laboratory, who gets all the credit and the kudos from research exercises, whereas a vast amount of the work that is done in this country is done by postgraduate and post-doctoral students. We should remember that we need them, although the administrative work is done by the senior member of the team. In schools and in universities, there is so much more to do to advance a subject that is very exciting.

We do science because we want to make life better for people and to have information that we can put into the system, not just in health but in other fields too. It is not always possible to devise good experiments, but we should give people the right to do that, and we should finance them to allow it to happen.

Next Section Index Home Page