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6.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (Ian Pearson): I begin by thanking all the Members who expressed their good wishes to me in my new role as Minister for science. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for introducing the debate, and thank him for his warm welcome to the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills—DIUS. I understand that Dius was the Roman God of oaths; I express a personal oath that science will run through and be at the heart of the new Department’s policies. The hon. Gentleman will not find us lacking in making sure that science is regarded as being of the utmost importance to our Department.

I am also grateful to other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I acknowledge that there is always room for improvement and that there are always lessons to be learned, so we welcome the scrutiny of the Science and Technology Committee. Before I respond
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to the important points that have been raised, I shall set out our general approach to the Government’s use of scientific advice; I want to give a clear sense of the considerable progress that we have made as a result of the contribution of scientific evidence to departmental policy making in the past 10 years.

We have a long record of commitment to the UK’s science base. In the 2002 spending review, we announced the largest sustained growth in science expenditure for at least a generation, and that growth continues. We have strengthened departmental use of science and research by appointing chief scientific advisers in most Departments. We have strengthened the use of scientific analysis in policy making through the publication of guidelines that set out how evidence should be sought and applied, and through the code of practice on scientific advisory committees. We are now working with Departments to ensure that the value of those approaches is recognised and applied.

Most Departments have published or are publishing their own science and innovation strategies. My former Department, DEFRA, has gone further by bringing together all its analytical inputs as its evidence and innovation strategy. That valuable step could usefully be developed across other Departments. We continue to review how Departments identify their science requirements and how they commission new scientific advice and science in general. We have completed and published reviews of the HSE, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as a first-stage report on the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Reviews of the Department of Health and one other Department are also planned for this financial year, and we remain committed to completing reviews of all the main science-using Departments in the next few years.

The foresight programme, which moved into its second phase in 2002, creates and explores challenging visions of the future in areas where science could offer new economic and quality-of-life opportunities for society or contribute directly to Government policy development. The programme reinforces cross-government working, uses rigorous independent peer review throughout its analysis and has a clear policy focus, and there are agreed departmental responsibilities for implementing the results. The recent report of the Select Committee on Public Administration, “Governing the Future”, commended the work of the foresight programme and its ability to undertake systematic strategic thinking to advise the Government about future threats and opportunities.

The horizon scanning centre’s programme, which was launched in March 2005, examines future threats and opportunities that might have an impact on Government policy and feeds the evidence into strategy and policy making. Its work encompasses the full range of evidence, including science and technology, and I was pleased that the Science and Technology Committee commended its innovative work.

Looking to the future, we are developing a framework to measure Government performance in managing and using scientific evidence alongside other analytical disciplines. A framework of evidence on emerging science and technologies developed by our
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horizon scanning centre is embedded in the Treasury’s comprehensive spending review analysis of long-term challenges and opportunities in the UK. As part of the CSR, we have worked closely with the Treasury to identify emerging technology clusters that have the potential to disrupt or enhance policies.

I now move on to the individual recommendations of the Select Committee report, starting with the code of practice for scientific advisory committees, which we see as a key vehicle for developing the role of advisory committees. We are committed to reviewing and updating the code and seeking its wider adoption. We will take into account the Committee’s recommendations, but I would also welcome Committee members’ proposals for further changes. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, the public consultation was launched on 25 June and will close on 16 September. We will then publish the results and reissue the code before the end of 2007.

We believe that Sir David King’s adoption of the role of head of the science and engineering profession presents another opportunity to drive up appreciation of the value of scientific evidence across Government. In response to the Committee’s recommendation, we are preparing plans for the chief scientific adviser to lead a campaign across Government to promote good practice and wider awareness of the value of scientific and engineering evidence in policy making across Whitehall. On a broader front, we are working with other heads of analytical professions to gather examples of good practice across all disciplines in government and agree ways of taking that work forward.

We continue to deliver a programme of workshops and events to support improved performance in areas of particular concern; it includes more widespread use of horizon scanning, scientific peer review and engaging the scientific community. We have also worked closely with the National School of Government to develop the scientific element of the “analysis and use of evidence” core skill and to embed horizon scanning concepts in the “strategic thinking” core skill.

The creation of DIUS will have a significant impact on the delivery of that important agenda. I am ambitious for the success of the new Department alongside the other machinery of Government changes. It will provide a strong, integrated voice across Government for effective investment in research, science, innovation and skills, embedding them into the heart of the Government’s competitiveness strategy. The creation of the new Department will not mean any loss of momentum in the areas that we have discussed today. On the contrary, it is a positive development. Driving up the Government’s management of scientific advice, risk and evidence remains at the heart of both the Government chief scientific adviser’s remit and Government policy making.

The route from science to innovation and economic performance will not be lost. It needs to be strengthened and more focused at every stage. There are opportunities for us to do more in those areas. I anticipate strong working relationships not only with the other two new Departments—the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Children, Schools and Families—but more widely across Government. That has to be done
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within an appropriate regulatory framework that safeguards the environment and health. In developing that framework, we must listen to the public’s concerns. It is important to get that balance right.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised several points in his opening comments. All Members referred to the future of the Science and Technology Committee. Let me put on the record the great value that the Government attach to the work of the Committee and the positive and constructive spirit in which its work has been conducted under the leadership of both the hon. Gentleman and his distinguished predecessor. Whatever arrangements are proposed through the usual channels, I hope that value will be recognised and reflected in future arrangements, and that there will be the opportunity and ability for science to be examined right across government. I believe that that is important, but I would direct hon. Members to the usual channels.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s reinforcement of the importance of scientific evidence and risk management in high-profile areas, such as human pandemic influenza and climate change, and they are central to my own thinking.

Turning to the lay membership of scientific advisory committees, which were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), the current public consultation on our review of the code of practice for scientific advisory committees will take account of the Select Committee’s views, alongside those of research being undertaken by the university of Liverpool to address this very question. That consultation will also give us the opportunity to consider the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough for the wider adoption of DEFRA’s scientific advisory council model, with which I obviously have a great deal of sympathy, because I have seen it working well in practice. However, it would be inappropriate for me to prejudge the genuine consultation taking place at the moment.

The position regarding a scientific adviser inside the Treasury remains unchanged since the evidence given before the Select Committee by Sir David King. I am sure that he and my Department will continue to have a very good relationship at all levels with the Treasury. The key point to make is that successive science budget settlements in tight spending rounds have made clear the real value that the Treasury places on science and its importance in creating the knowledge and innovation economy for the future.

The hon. Gentleman also sought improvements in our understanding of the size and nature of the community of scientists and engineers. Although the common employee record can be extended further, my Department is also independently considering how it can work with other Departments to improve such data. It is too early to answer questions about the sector skills review, but I should like to draw attention to the experience of my new permanent secretary, Ian Watmore, who has spent five years on the board of E-Skills UK, the sector skills council for IT and telecoms. He is a former member of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, and Business in the Community. I am sure that this subject will receive a lot more attention from him, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will from me as well.

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Recommendation 17 of the Select Committee’s report states that we should establish a Government scientific service. Again, that was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. The idea is that there is a need to provide a stronger professional identity and focal point for specialists in government from across the physical and natural science and engineering spheres. In our response in February, we acknowledged the reasoning behind that proposal, but we did not feel persuaded that setting up such a service was necessary to address the Select Committee’s concerns. That remains the position today. We still feel that those concerns could be properly addressed through the actions that we are pursuing in connection with professional skills in government and the role of the head of the science and engineering profession, where we are making significant progress. However, we will keep that recommendation under review, and as a new science Minister, I want to do exactly that.

The hon. Gentleman returned to the question of a central fund for research. The chief scientific adviser has been actively engaged by the Treasury in considering cross-cutting policy issues and how they can best be addressed in the future. In some cases, such as research and development to support counter-terrorism, that is likely to involve funding streams that support several Departments’ objectives, and we need to bear that in mind.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the research assessment exercise and the potential for new metrics to inform its operation. We see such things as evolving over time. Again, it is right that they be kept under review. The position on the use of pilot schemes has not altered since the Government’s response to the Select Committee, but we will work closely with other Departments in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the rather strangely named Cabinet Office “consultation on consultations”. As he is aware, that will come to an end in September, when we should be clearer about how that work has progressed. Certainly, communication and consultation are fundamental to the Government.

In response to hon. Members who made valid points about how the media report science, I want to say that it is not for the Government to tell our free press what to write on science issues, but I welcome the activities of the independent Science Media Centre, which arranges media access to real scientists who can provide authoritative independent comment on topical science issues. That is a helpful development in promoting a good debate on science issues that is accessible to the public.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked for an update on how we are working with the media. Since the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, through the media emergency forum, we have continued to discuss with the media a range of risk-related issues, including pandemic flu, the fuel and power industry, and business continuity. The Sciencewise programme, which was set up in 2005 by the then DTI to develop public engagement projects that support key policy areas, has already committed to 13 projects, with a value of £1.5 million, on a range of critical science challenges, including brain science, stem cell research, nanotechnology and a range of new emerging technologies identified by the horizon scanning centre. Building on the success of the existing programme, DIUS is now
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developing an expert resource centre for public dialogue on science and innovation. As announced by the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report in November 2006, it will be launched in April 2008, as part of the future Sciencewise programme.

Dr. Evan Harris: The Minister mentions the success of the current programme. Can he say—he might not be able to do so now—how that was evaluated? What criteria were used to judge whether it was successful? Or is it simply a hope that it was successful—or is that his own view?

Ian Pearson: The programme is going on at the moment; it will be fully evaluated, and no doubt all the findings will be published.

I want to make a point about the Sciencewise strategy group, chaired by Professor Kathy Sykes from Bristol university, which is providing advice on the objectives and scope of the new expert resource centre. We expect to have completed its specification in the autumn. I would find it helpful if members of the Select Committee wanted to have a dialogue with my officials, and perhaps with Kathy Sykes and some of the others who are advising us. Again, we want to capture and disseminate best practice, and I am sure that we can learn a lot from members of the Select Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) talked of two battles: that of making the importance of science more readily apparent to the British public and that of communications. I agree with him that there are lessons to be learnt from some of the debates, on issues such as stem cell research and GM, where different public perceptions are all too clear. He talked about bio-entrepreneurs and gave the good example of a business spinning out and then being bought out by a major pharmaceutical company. Of course, that is one of the routes by which we can commercialise the new ideas that we need to encourage in our science base and ensure that they are not lost—a point made by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor).

I agree with my hon. Friend about the interaction between academics. Often, cross-disciplinary interaction can provide the stimulus to achieve breakthroughs in knowledge. Some of the interaction that we have at ministerial level, however, just seems to me to be like having meetings, and getting the balance right will be crucial.

My hon. Friend also made a number of points that touch on the ethics of research, its transparency, the potential for commercial interests to get in the way, intellectual property and how ideas can be transmitted. In response, I should like to say that throughout history there have been examples of people jealously guarding their ideas rather than transmitting them to the public, but there is a real issue and it should be the Government’s role not only to be a staunch defender of intellectual property where it has been validly demonstrated, but to transmit new ideas openly across boundaries, across disciplines and across borders, and getting that balance right is important.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the important role that Parliament has played in developing the UK’s
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approach to stem cell research, which has allowed us to play a leading role in that critical area. That is a good example of public debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Esher and Walton for his kind words and his sagacious advice as a distinguished former science Minister. He raised a number of points about boundaries between the new DIUS and the two other new Departments, and other Departments and the Treasury. I assure him that I will not get corralled in DIUS. I fully agree that science policy needs to go right across Government. He also made some valid points about procurement; that is another important area in which I want to play a role as the Minister with responsibility for science. He also raised the issue of how we can improve scientific literacy. I agree that that is an important area, but I want to highlight the fact that we also need to improve financial literacy and literacy in general. One of the great strengths of the new Department is that it will bring the skills agenda together with the innovation agenda, to produce benefits for all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) talked at some length about the lack of scientific evidence behind some EU legislation, particularly with regard to the physical agents directive. I do not want to respond in great detail, but I agree about the importance of ensuring that the policy-making process in Brussels also takes full account of the scientific evidence, which has not always been the case in the past. From my experience as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am aware of examples where I do not think that decisions are being taken that fully recognise the scientific evidence. My hon. Friend also talked about the role of departmental scientific advisers, and I hope that what I have said about the importance that the Government attach to the role will provide him with some reassurance.

My hon. Friend also said that he thought that the civil service preferred generalists to specialists. I have heard that view expressed by others, but it certainly was not my experience when I was Minister for Trade in the Department of Trade and Industry and we wanted real specialists. Nor was it my experience when I was Minister for Climate Change and the Environment in DEFRA, where, again, the role of specialists in policy making was fully recognised. As I mentioned, DEFRA’s science advisory council plays an important role and works very well.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon talked about the nature of scientific inquiry and evidence, and the dangers of pseudo-science. I agree with what he had to say on those subjects. He raised the issue of double counting and referred to the fact that scientists, by their very nature, sometimes express degrees of caution, whereas other people responding to consultations perhaps do not feel quite so constrained. It is the role of Government to make mature judgments based on the evidence that we receive in consultation exercises. We have to weigh the various elements in the balance, looking at the scientific evidence and public opinion.

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