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5.30 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I start by congratulating the Science and Technology Committee, of which I used to be a member, on its excellent work in producing the report. A lot of effort and consideration has gone into it, and it is a valuable contribution to our debate.

I welcome the Minister to his new position. In my view, it is the best job in Government, although he does not have quite as much of it as I will recommend he should have had. Nevertheless, as Minister with responsibility for science, he will find dealing with these subjects very stimulating.

Before the Minister gets too excited by his promotion, let me give him a warning. During my period as Science and Technology Minister, the BSE crisis was suddenly launched upon us. On the very day that the information had been revealed, there was an evening reception at Downing street. The Prime Minister was saying nice things in welcoming various Ministers until he got to me, when he said, “Oh yes, you’re the science Minister, aren’t you? Look what a mess you’ve made of this.” The Minister must remember that he will get the blame for crises in science that other Ministers do not want to know about. One of the problems is that although science is at the heart of decisions in virtually every Department, most Ministers are either ignorant of, or do not wish to know about, the implications of science and evidence-based decision making. That is one of the subjects addressed in the report.

During the past year, I have been producing for my party a report on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is remarkable just how buoyant those subjects are in our universities. I want to make the Minister understand, in his new departmental role, that it was a mistake to put science in just with the universities, which are much broader institutions that do not just concentrate on science. I hope that he has more than his fair share of debates within the Department and that he influences other Departments, particularly the Treasury. It is critical to the future of this country that we not only do excellent science and punch above our weight in publications and citations but capture the benefits of that science as they emerge.

One difficulty is that although we as a country are brilliant at providing ideas for the rest of the world, producing 9 per cent. of publications and an even bigger percentage of citations from a very much smaller
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percentage of population, other countries capture those ideas. The other day, I heard that one of the key people in the development of the new Apple iPhone was at Northumbria university—a Brit—but the innovation has been captured in the United States of America. As we begin to compete in this world, even more so at the knowledge-based industry level, we will have to capture more of the ideas that come out of our science base. To put it crudely, we need to have the same esteem for engineers as we have for scientists, because engineers capture the discoveries of scientists and turn them into applications.

My plea to the Minister is that he should not get corralled within the Department. When I was Science and Technology Minister, I claimed and exercised trans-departmental responsibility mainly because I had the full backing of the then Deputy Prime Minister. If the Minister is to make science count in Government, he will need an ally in Cabinet Committees.

Other speakers have already mentioned the fact that some key decisions that we have to take in the years to come are very science oriented. There are disadvantages to that. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the importance of considering the evidence on which a decision is based. The difficulty is that politicians often have to make quick decisions without the evidence. The BSE case was a good example. It was difficult to get scientists to give evidence to the politicians—one of whom was me—who wanted to make speeches in the House of Commons in favour of this country being a leader in stem cell science. We must understand that there are pressures on politicians to which scientists have to respond, rather than just saying, “We will do it in our own time and the evidence will eventually emerge.”

Another difficulty in the relationship between scientists and politicians is what I might call the absolute statement. When in trouble, a politician is desperate to say, “I’ll do what the scientists tell me.” It is very rare that scientists will tell a Minister exactly what he should make a judgment on.

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of the general public are laymen in scientific terms? It is difficult for them to know what to believe. They read daily in their newspapers dire warnings, particularly about food science, the causes of global warming and treatments for illegal drug use. Very often, there is conflicting information, and it is difficult for them to know whether something is just the opinion of one scientist or a definitive fact on which they can rely.

Mr. Taylor: I entirely agree, and that applies not just when it appears that fairly disreputable people in the science community are saying something, as in the confusion over MMR, where the scientific evidence was all weighted on one side and a lone operator was questioning it. The press, however, gave equal balance to him.

It is difficult for the public to know quite where to stand, and it is difficult for Ministers. The report is important because it deals with the advice given to Ministers and the form in which it is given. As I said, that process affects virtually every Department.

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Energy is an area of great importance and food science is critical. We excel at food science in this country, but the public are increasingly concerned about it. If evidence is given in the wrong way, the scare is already in the Daily Maila newspaper that I would ban if I were a dictator, because it does more harm to public opinion than anything else. That probably means that I shall get a bad sketch. Actually, I will not, because there are no journalists present—even if I could see them. That is typical of the interest shown in scientific matters.

The report’s key point is that we not only have to make Ministers more literate, but that the advice to them must be more independent and should be perceived as being so. I intervened on the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) about this. I would like to claim that the 1997 election was just a matter of the public overwhelmingly deciding that I should not continue as science Minister, but the reality is that leaving the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the National Physical Laboratory and many others outside Government meant that the concept of a technical civil service went with them. We should consider that area carefully.

Recently, I published a proposal that was widely unread because it was a press release from a Conservative Back Bencher, but it said that there should be a Department for science and innovation, with a Secretary of State responsible for it in the Cabinet. I know that the Secretary of State to whom the Minister reports is in the Cabinet, and the same applied under the previous Conservative Government: the Minister for science was not in the Cabinet, but the Secretary of State asked for briefings just before Cabinet meetings, in case something interesting came up.

I will go further. Science is now so central to Government that a department for science and innovation should be responsible not only for the things for which the Minister is already responsible, but for the co-ordination of a technical civil service, and it should work with various scientific advisers in the Departments. When Ministers are dealing with an issue—the environment, defence or transport—such a department should be a central resource whose advice is respected within Government. I would have included technology in that department, which has been put in another Department under the Prime Minister’s reforms, because the two go well together.

I have also advocated a move to smarter public procurement, which is another responsibility that could have been included in the Department. Sadly, I do not have the ability nowadays to do much more than issue press releases. However, I hope that the Government absorb some of the message that I am trying to convey because although, as a Conservative, I should like a Conservative Government in the near future, in the national interest, we cannot continue to wait.

That takes me back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). The public are ill informed. It is not their fault—in a way, it is ours. Successive Governments have never grasped the need for more scientific literacy in schools. We are still struggling. Even according to the Government’s figures, we are doing much worse than we should be in ensuring that every school child has some understanding of basic science and mathematics—by that, I mean
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making our children numerate as well as literate. We do not enable them to understand risk, and then we are surprised when, as adults, they are not scientifically literate and cannot evaluate.

I did not think that anyone remembered that something had happened before 1997, but I am flattered because I suddenly noticed that the report quotes me. Paragraph 190 states that, as science Minister, I

I called it a scientific Richter scale. We have a Richter scale in a different context; why not have one for science?

The report goes into considerable detail, which I have no time to repeat, but we must find a way of communicating to a currently scientific illiterate public the way in which they should react in a set of circumstances. Let me make a crude comparison, which is contemporary rather than the best example. When the car bombs, which thankfully did not explode in London recently, were announced to the public, there was no panic because somehow, at the same time, the extent of risk that they should assume was communicated to them. Although the risk was high, other factors meant that there was no panic.

We are lucky that, so far, a biological or chemical attack has not taken place in London. The public will not understand degrees of risk in something so invisible and difficult to grasp. Tragically, we know about car bombs and the damage that they can do, but we are ill educated about the consequences of a biological or chemical attack in this city. We must start preparing the public in ways they can understand about how to react without scaring them. It is a complex art and I do not claim that I have an instant solution, but we must start thinking about it.

Angela Browning: Does my hon. Friend agree that educating the lay public is not simply about putting complex scientific evidence and information into language and a perspective that people understand, but has a psychological element, which is perhaps not easy to pin down? For example, anyone who is prescribed medicine and takes the trouble to read the accompanying bit of paper, could decide never to take the medication because of all the possible side effects. I have thought that myself. However, as the medication has been prescribed by a doctor for a specific purpose, the vast majority of people will ignore the huge risks that might be included on the accompanying bit of paper and take their medication as prescribed. Psychologically, they know they need it, and a doctor—somebody whom they trust—has prescribed it. It is difficult to get a balance between raw basic science put in a simple form that people understand, and the psychology of the risks that people are and are not prepared to take.

Mr. Taylor: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, but in some ways people are unpredictable in what they determine to be an acceptable risk and what they will not accept. I agree that some of those instructions make one’s hair stand on end—I do not have enough to stand on end—and that if people read them, they would be confused or terrified about the possible side effects.

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The person whom one has trusted—the intermediary—is the doctor, or perhaps even the chemist, if one gets the drugs from a pharmacy. I am not inviting the Minister to wear his doctor’s or pharmacist’s cloak whenever he goes out, but there must be some trust between the Government and the public in communicating risk whenever it might occur.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for being generous and giving way again. Does he recognise that the lay public’s understanding of scientific matters can also have a commercial knock-on effect? For example, tons of blueberries have been sold over the past couple of years, because they were thought to be a super-food that counteracted free radicals. More recent information suggests that they perhaps do not do that. One can envisage sales of that product plummeting and the commercial market being affected.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend is right that food scares can create shifts in the market. When I was a Minister, I had to react to a headline that said something to the effect that “Grapefruit is a killer”. Not surprisingly, grapefruit sales plummeted. I looked into the matter and found that grapefruit is a killer if one has just had all one’s internal organs operated upon and some of them removed—apparently it is not terribly wise to have grapefruit in the week after major internal surgery. That might be specific to the patient who has had such a serious operation, but it is not a general risk to the public. Grapefruits eventually came back when the public realised that they were perhaps not at risk if they had not major internal surgery. It is difficult to get that message across, particularly if a newspaper headline has already done the damage, as has been said. The work then is reactive, rather than about putting a constructive case to try to explain the issue.

My point, which I am sure colleagues will share, is that we must assume that things will go wrong in that way. We must therefore prepare ourselves constantly to try to explain the situation and put a positive aspect on it. More scientists should take into account the benefits of the public’s appreciation of science in, for example, being awarded research grants. I give due credit to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering for increasingly encouraging and perhaps even pressuring their fellows to do that.

We are all in this together. If we want active stem cell research and, ultimately, commercial applications for the benefit of the public, we must defend stem cell research in this country. We have the salutary example of what went wrong in the United States, where the Christian right decided that stem cell research was a cause cél├Ębre and President Bush supported them, rather than science. Slowly that work is being restored in the United States, albeit at the state, rather than the federal, level.

We must all be on our guard and we must all be positive. We must increase the amount of science education in our schools. This debate is not about that, but we must never forget that it is crucial. We must do more to encourage our universities to maintain science. The Higher Education Funding Council recently improved grants to universities for science teaching, but the funding is still not enough. I have proposals on that, but the nation will have to wait until my report is published to learn of them.

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Those are serious collateral issues in the context of scientific evidence, which we cannot take in isolation. This debate and the Science and Technology Committee’s report are timely and, for the Minister, an object lesson. The euphoria of his appointment is now balanced by the burden of attempting to persuade his ministerial colleagues that he is the most important man in the Government.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), perhaps I should remind the House—without being invidious to him or to the Front-Bench speakers to follow—that there is another debate after this one, for which there is no set dividing time. Speeches have averaged 27 minutes so far, and that might put the other debate at some peril.

5.50 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). I also congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), on acquiring the role of Minister responsible for science and innovation. I am sure that that is a great privilege for him.

The report on which the debate is founded is based on three separate inquiries undertaken by the Science and Technology Committee. The first was on the ABC classification of drugs, and it has already been debated—in a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate on 14 June. The second was on identity card technologies, and I hope that we have contributed to that ongoing debate. The third inquiry, on which I shall say more in a minute, was on the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive, which is a bit of a mouthful.

The Science and Technology Committee was particularly interested in how the Government use the scientific advisory system as a whole to form their policies. As the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), pointed out, the Government claim to base their policies on the evidence provided to them. I should stress that we also considered the application of social science, as well as of the natural and physical sciences.

I would like to say a few words about the Select Committee. Last Thursday morning, I was at the parliamentary affairs committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry at Burlington House. I am one of its parliamentary advisers, and a fellow of the society. Representatives of all the great learned and professional societies around the city attended that meeting, as well as representatives of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I want to convey to the House their utmost concern about the possible future of the Science and Technology Committee, to which the Chairman has already referred. They want me to tell the House that it would be almost a calamity if the Select Committee disappeared as a separate-standing, cross-cutting Committee which looks at all science, technology and engineering across
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Departments—a truly cross-cutting Committee like the Public Accounts Committee. They would prefer to see it survive in its present form, rather than be subsumed into the departmental Committee of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether, if we were subsumed into the departmental Committee, we could still enjoy a cross-cutting role? I do not think that we could, but he might have a different view.

Some of the greatest problems that the Government are facing today need advice from our scientists. They include food scares; E. coli; foot and mouth disease; bovine spongiform encephalopathy—BSE—in cattle and its transmission to man as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria; HIV/AIDS; the threat of avian influenza; substance abuse, in which I include alcohol and tobacco; the threat of terrorism and crime in general; the supply of energy; and climate change. These are all examples of policy areas that have required, and will continue to require, a scientific input. The current review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 is another example of the importance of scientific advice in advising the Government on the way forward. In a recent session with the chief medical officer, I got the distinct feeling that scientific research was ahead of even his thinking in this policy area.

In March 2007, the then Government chief scientific adviser, Lord May, published his “Guidelines on the Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making”, which was updated in 2000 and 2005. In March 1998, the then Select Committee on Science and Technology published a major inquiry into the scientific advisory system, which we have followed up, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has already mentioned. A number of reports, such as Lord Phillips’ report on BSE and CJD in October 2000, Government reports such as the White Paper “Investing in Innovation” published in 2002, and the Government’s 10-year investment framework for science and innovation have strongly influenced the application of science in Government policy making during the time of this Government.

The Committee has always taken the view that the Government’s chief scientific adviser should be seen to be as independent of Departments as possible. Indeed, our report recommends that the CSA should sit in the Cabinet Office with a seat on the Board of the Treasury, rather than in the Office of Science and Technology or, now, in the new Department. We shall wait with interest to see whether the new arrangement will give a greater focus to science, engineering and technology, although I am disappointed, as are others, that the word “science” does not appear in the title of the new Department. Significantly, the head of the Government economic service, Sir Nicholas Stern, has his base in the Cabinet Office, but retains a desk in the Treasury.

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