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The hon. Member for Norwich, North raised the religion issue in respect of stem cells. People with religious views bring something valuable to the table: an ethical perspective. I also have an ethical perspective, which happens not to be religious. People can debate matters such as stem cell research, and where we stand on them will be determined by our principles and ideology. However, I urge the Government to be cautious about people who dress up their ideological views—both religious and not religious—as science, such as those who argue in respect of stem cells that everything can be done through adult stem cells and therefore we do not need to work with embryonic stem cells. That is simply incorrect. Such
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people must be asked, “If it turns out that work on adult stem cells is shown not to work or not to be effective, would you then support the use of embryonic stem cells?” Their answer is usually no. There is a danger of pseudo-science being promulgated to dress up what are perfectly valid ideological, religious or moral views. Such views have a place in these debates, but they should not be confused with science.

The Government have been fortunate in having benefited from the last two excellent chief scientific advisers—Lord May and Sir David King. Their reputations in the science community and among the media and the broader public have done much to underpin the Government’s credibility on science matters.

Mr. Ian Taylor: For the avoidance of ambiguity, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is referring to government with a small “g”, thereby including the last Conservative Government to which Lord May—as he now is—was chief scientific adviser, and with whom I worked closely?

Dr. Harris: Indeed, I am happy to do so. We in this House benefit from having the experience of Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who have been involved on the front line of science policy—Members who have served on the Select Committee and, as in the hon. Gentleman’s case, have also been Ministers with responsibility for science and have therefore received advice from such people as my constituent Lord May.

I wish to raise with the Minister a couple of issues that were addressed in the report. There was a recommendation to do with the double-counting of non-scientific opinion. Scientific responses to consultations often put forward the science and then also say—as the Royal Society recently did in responding to the Government consultation on embryology, and especially inter-species or hybrid embryos—“This is the science, but we must of course bear in mind the fact that there will be public worries about it, so perhaps we should be cautious.” However, the anti-science or non-scientific evidence—I do not use those terms pejoratively—often does not give any credence to the scientific side and says, “We say 100 per cent. that we must not do this as it is wrong.” Therefore when the scores are added up, there are one and a half bids for caution and only one bid for going ahead on the basis of the science. When there is considerable lay membership on scientific advisory committees, there is a danger that we get diluted scientific advice instead of pure scientific advice. So when the Government consider such advice along with that of other stakeholders—which is the right thing to do—the result is a dilution of the scientific message. The Government recognised that that was a problem and undertook to do something about it. Do they have any further thoughts on that?

I wish to reinforce points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), which were supported by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), about the future of the Science and Technology Committee. I should make it clear that some Members present have an interest in the subject as we are members of the Committee in question. However, there is a twofold danger in relying solely on a departmental
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scrutiny-type committee, regardless of how well it is chaired and does its work. First, there will be a tendency for it to be dominated by the university agenda, which is highly political. It is right that that should be so, as that is an important sector of public policy; it will flex its muscles both politically and in the media and by means of the institutions themselves. Secondly, and crucially, as with the Public Accounts Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee, in terms of science and technology there is a case for cross-departmental scrutiny of Government and Government agencies because that cannot entirely be invested in one Department. I hope that the Minister has established, and will develop, that important cross-departmental role. I ask him to share his thoughts on this matter—as far as he can, as it is subject to negotiation. Does he recognise the importance of there being a cross-departmental scrutiny role in respect of science and technology?

I also seek elucidation from the Minister on the Government’s policy on publishing evidence. Page 17 of the Government’s response addresses the Science and Technology Committee’s recommendations 34, 35, 37, 50 and 51. The Committee’s report made it clear that evidence underpinning policy should be published. The Government response states that they will publish that except in respect of freedom of information and data protection legislation exemptions. If those exemptions cover advice to Government, that could catch all, or much of, the evidence that one would hope would be published when the Government produce a policy. To be fair, it should be added that the Government say that it is final advice to Government that would be caught by freedom of information legislation. The Government’s response states in paragraph 25 of the introduction:

we have already accepted that. It continues:

It is not clear to what extent that covers the evidence or the view taken of that evidence by a departmental chief scientific adviser, because the evidence is collected, the DCSA considers it and makes a recommendation to Ministers. It would be unfortunate if none of that process could be seen, especially the crucial latter stage. It is not clear from the Government’s response what their plan is in that regard.

I shall not go into the areas of the report covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I strongly support his concern about the loss of capacity and, therefore, the need for a Government scientific service. I also support what he said about trials and pilots. It is welcome that the report made it clear that there is an onus on Opposition parties not to attack the Government for responding rationally to a pilot or trial that does not work. If a pilot or trial is ignored, it becomes early implementation followed by roll-out, and that could lead to a great waste of money.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North made several important points about the need for the scientific world to be quick on its feet. There is a dilemma between the need for rapid rebuttal and the need to ensure that the
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scientific process is not compromised by a rush to comment. The role of the science media centre has filled that gap to some extent, because it has experts on tap who, within the limits of their expertise and with care, can make a rapid response to a scare story, so we do not have to rely on the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences to set up a six-month working party to produce the definitive statement long after the story has taken off. The science world has understood that and that is why it funds the science media centre—it can redress the balance.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton made some important points about scientific capacity in the civil service, the understanding of risk and the way in which the media behave. The first newspaper I buy every day is the Daily Mail, because it is an excellent newspaper. Although I usually disagree with it on issues of policy and ethics, it transmits its message effectively and one can understand what is going on. Of course, its interest, and that of other papers, is in selling copies, and it will never have scientific accuracy as a priority. Nor will it be willing to recognise the problem that if there is one maverick with whom 99.9 per cent. of the scientific world disagree, the broadcast and the print media will tend to give both sides, which suggests to the public that there is a more even split.

Politicians are in a privileged position, because they can think, take advice and try to find the scientific consensus on an issue. They do not have to jump on a bandwagon. MMR was handled correctly by the Government and I was pleased to support them 100 per cent. at the time. Some Conservative Front Benchers at the time—and I exclude the hon. Member for Esher and Walton—did not handle it correctly, because on public health issues there can be a high price to pay for political opportunism. Little could be done other than embark on the slow process of trying to explain to the media that the evidence for MMR causing autism simply was not there. While we cannot say that anything is 100 per cent. safe—and the Government were right not to try to claim that, because that is also a dangerous thing to say—the approach had to show that the evidence base was clear. The fact that Andrew Wakefield is now up before the GMC on charges of serious professional misconduct in connection with his research is an extra factor, albeit many years later, that suggests that those of us who considered the overall scientific picture—and not just the newspaper headlines—were right on that issue.

The report mentions the precautionary principle and the problem of risk. We came to the view that the precautionary principle was an unfortunate phrase. Indeed, the chief scientific adviser said in evidence that the word “principle” seemed to imply some rule that whenever there was a potential risk, the Government had to respond. The Committee were right to applaud the use by the Government and the chief scientific adviser of the term “precautionary approach” and to make it clear that scientific progress must not be stopped because of a small potential risk. The report went further and said that the Government should lobby within the EU to change the terminology and approach taken by the EU—from the misunderstood term “precautionary principle”, which means different things to different people, to a much more fleshed-out view of what we mean by a flexible precautionary
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approach. I was disappointed that the Government’s response effectively was to give up, saying that it was in too many international agreements and we would have to live with it. I think that the Government should advocate change in that area.

In conclusion, I applaud the work by the members of the Committee, not including myself in this case. I also thank the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for going into so much detail and clarity about the particular example of MRI, which was a good example that the Committee chose to take up. I hope that this important report will be one of a series of reports that the House will continue to receive from a cross-cutting Science and Technology Committee.

6.36 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new role. I shall endeavour to keep my comments brief, as I represent a rural constituency and the next debate will be of great importance to my constituents. I very much enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ measured tones, and I especially enjoyed the introduction of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I also welcome the report. I am especially grateful for the inclusion of this sentence:

That is absolutely right, and I am delighted to see it in the report. I am sure that the new Minister will try to ensure that the Government take that advice.

It has certainly been my experience that when a change in policy has been science based, the Opposition have not accused the Government of a U-turn. The example I have in mind is the decision that the Minister for the South West, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), took as an environment Minister to stop the reactive culling of badgers with tuberculosis, because the independent scientific group research showed that it was making the situation worse. Nobody criticised that decision: indeed, we welcomed it and it was the right thing to do, given the scientific evidence. Unfortunately the ISG did not go on to give the science-based evidence that Ministers need to make a decision on that biological problem, but it illustrates my point that Opposition parties will not jump on the bandwagon when the Government make a correct decision.

Dr. Gibson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the report was the Krebs report, and that the culling was based on scientific evidence?

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is right: the initial report was on the Krebs trials, which was followed by the independent scientific group.

I was also interested in the comments by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough on biometric identity cards and genetically modified crops, and principles as opposed to use. That is an area where science has played an important part.

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In my experience, one of the areas in which the Government ignore the science is fishing quotas. Just before Christmas every year, there is a difficult conflict for Ministers to resolve between fishermen who want to catch more fish and the report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, saying that fish populations are too low and that it would be dangerous to continue fishing. If the scientific evidence being given to the Government is inadequate and they are ignoring it, they should try to ensure that the scientists look at the right things to give them evidence that they need. That is not happening at the moment. It would help our fishing industry, and others such as sea anglers, if the Minister, who was formerly at DEFRA, got that message across.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) talked about stem cells, and I was sympathetic to his comments. When people get emotional about this matter, they forget the medical benefits that could accrue to their children, parents or grandchildren. He was right to talk about the need to keep science and research in the UK instead of exporting it as a result of an unhelpful climate here.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his ability to explain the microwave and about whether the public understand science when it is presented to them. He is right; this is a problem. We should not underestimate the general public. By and large, when they care about a subject, they are eager to learn about it, they want good information, they will take the scientific evidence at face value and they will believe it. It is only when there is conflicting scientific advice that there is a problem.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we need a chief scientific adviser. I do not know the answer at this stage. There is always an urge to have a high priest-like figure to advise the Government and give the best information; the difficulty is whether that is a role for a single person. The hon. Gentleman’s speech was interesting and I can only encourage him to go on spreading coffee shops across the scientific community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) was an eminent science Minister. I regret missing some of his speech, which I am sure was every bit as good as I imagine it to have been. He talked, importantly, about the role of science in schools and how it is important for schoolchildren that more science be taught and that it be taught as well as possible.

I noticed that the Government have three Departments covering scientific work: Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform; Innovation, Universities and Skills; Children, Schools and Families. Sadly, not one of those has the word “science” in its title. My hon. Friend talked about the importance that science should be accorded in government, with perhaps even a Minister in the Cabinet. I do not know whether that is essential, but his message was that the Government need the best quality information. That applies equally to those in opposition. He also talked about bioterrorism—a subject that will continue to worry people and needs the best possible brains to ensure that we are adequately protected.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) talked about the future of the Select Committee, and I
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hope that he is right and that it will continue its excellent work. He also talked about the role of scientific advisers and their involvement in all dimensions of departmental decision making. That sounded eminently sensible and I am sure that they play a vital role. He also talked about all the different types of science and countered his earlier argument when he said that there were 40 different types of engineer. I felt that demonstrated the problem; if we want the best quality information, how do we find the man or woman who has it when there are so many to choose from? He talked about scientists not being used enough, and he was right.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East was asked a difficult question about the infected bird from Hungary. I intervened to say that we need a clearer picture of how an infection, which could have had more serious consequences for human health, could be spread around Europe quite so easily. The Government handled the matter very well, considering the facilities that were available to them. We need all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle if we are to qualify that opinion and to judge whether the Government handled it right.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East then went into a frenzy of mnemonics. He talked about the MRI community; I thought that was all about scans, and I was right. He then talked about the ICNIRP and the HSE and the consequences on the MRI community. I thought he had finished, but he then brought in the NRPB as well. I congratulate him and I am delighted to hear that the MRI scan is safe and that people can be reassured. I was also delighted to hear that the European Commission has reviewed its faulty directive.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) talked about policy makers being clear in respect of muddling scientific evidence with ideological evidence, which we strayed into in discussing cannabis. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was on the Committee that dealt with the matter and he assures me that the hon. Gentleman was right: the downgrading of the message was not the key; there was an important medical issue. A debate that improves the quality of the public’s understanding might protect people to some degree and, by definition, the Select Committee’s report is helpful, successful and useful; I look forward to reading it.

The hon. Gentleman talked about MMR. My children were born at a time when it was extremely difficult for parents to decide what to do. One of the problems that we faced with GM crops, and perhaps to a lesser extent with MMR, is the confusion that the public, parents and customers of GM crops face—who to believe. Why should the Government get involved in the debate, and what is their ulterior motive? That was particularly difficult in the debate on GM crops, as Lord Sainsbury was a key funder of the Labour party. All politicians are faced with the accusation, “Well you would say that, wouldn’t you?” But that fact made it harder for the science to come through, and it continues to this day.

Dr. Evan Harris: I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about Lord Sainsbury, but the allegation, “You would say that, wouldn’t you” could equally be made against Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. As membership organisations, one of their issues is to
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expand their membership by campaigning. Even a scientist speaking for those organisations has a huge vested interest in taking the line that they take. That accusation should be identified not only with industry and investors, but with pressure groups and NGOs.

Bill Wiggin: I do not agree; there is a difference between the trust one places in NGOs and the trust that one is obliged to place in the Government. The focus of today’s debate has been the need to ensure that the Government receive the best possible advice. Ultimately, they have the power to decide and we have to live with the results. When the Government make a decision, it is essential they get it right. If the Government are thought to be influenced by ulterior motives, it makes it harder for people to support their argument. That is an important consideration.

I do not know whether the Daily Mail is right, whether Lord Sainsbury is right or whether the GM debate is right, but I do know that if one observes the debates it is difficult to understand them at the right level. I watched a programme on medical research and genetic modification. It was clear that GM technology has a vast role to play in improving the health of all people, particularly those in less-developed countries. I thought it a shame that we had not had that debate on GM crops. The crop that was licensed in the end was cattle maize. Why were we fighting a battle about cattle food when we should have been fighting about tobacco plants being modified to produce a cure for AIDS, about different types of antibodies being produced in cattle, or about liver transplants using GM sheep? That life-or-death science is much more important, but it was denigrated because the whole battlefield and area of debate was trivialised and, possibly, influenced by Ministers. That was a great shame.

We must be careful about mixing scientific and ideological views. I might have muddled things, and I expect that I shall be bombarded with irate letters, but it is important that we make those differences clear, so that people—the general public or the Government—can get the best possible information. I hope that the Government will take careful note of the helpful report, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.

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