Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)



  Q480  Mr Prentice: I am interested in your views because of your advice to the Prime Minister. May I finish on a separate point? Foot and mouth. For the life of me I cannot remember when the outbreak was.

  Professor Sir David King: We first knew about it on 20 February 2001.

  Q481  Mr Prentice: When foot and mouth was raging you were already the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser. Is that right?

  Professor Sir David King: I had just come into post.

  Q482  Chairman: That is why you remember the date, is it not?

  Professor Sir David King: It is.

  Q483  Mr Prentice: I suppose the question for me is: what was your advice at the time to the Government? Was it vaccinate or not? I remember the National Farmers' Union being dead against vaccination because if we vaccinated the animals we would lose valuable export markets. What was your advice to the Government on that?

  Professor Sir David King: I became involved in the foot-and-mouth-disease epidemic on roughly 18 March, so the epidemic had been running for a while. In my new post I felt that I ought to provide the best possible advice. What I did—and I mentioned this earlier on—was draw together a group of scientists, vets, farmers, practical people as well as epidemiological modellers and in addition modellers from the MoD so that any advice I gave would be within the capacity of the MoD to operate. Having built that team together, we modelled the epidemic on the basis of the data which was being published by the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, as it was then, and we produced output from the models, running them on fairly large-scale computers, in a relatively short space of time. From that we understood that with the control procedures, that is the lessons learned from the outbreak in 1967 with the control procedures put in place, the epidemic was out of control. The day that I concluded that and told the Prime Minister I also went on the media to state that, just to underline my previous point about being open and transparent about the advice that I give. The upshot was that the understanding that it was out of control—this means that the epidemic was increasing exponentially with time—meant that we had to find a new control procedure to install, so we tried to map onto our computer models a whole variety of control procedures. This included vaccination and it included different cull procedures. I went back to the Prime Minister once we had turned the exponential growth into exponential decay with one of these models and that model was effectively put into place. I have to emphasise that it was put into place alongside control procedures which had already been introduced by MAFF. For example, the three-mile-radius cull which had already begun in the Lake District area was continued alongside the new programme of culling which came out of my modelling. The upshot was that, as I predicted, within two days exponential growth turned into exponential decay and as a matter of fact the predictive theory which was published in all the media in advance of time was followed very precisely by the data points as they kept coming in. The point I am going to make is that we included vaccination and rejected it for the very simple reason that the vaccination model was to create a ring around a newly infected farm and then vaccinate inwards and cull the infected farm in the middle. In our modelling we found that we would have to vaccinate over a very large region in order to have the same control process that we did with the refined culling procedure. What was also clear to me at the time—and this is terribly important—was that the methodology for distinguishing whether or not an animal was diseased could not distinguish a diseased animal from a vaccinated animal. What this meant was that once you started vaccination with any haphazard movement of animals you could lose control of what had been vaccinated and what had not and serology was the only test which was available then, there was no PCR test available to us. It also meant that if we were to emerge with our foot-and-mouth-disease-free status as a nation we would therefore have to cull not only the sick animals but every animal that was vaccinated if we wanted to return to the international FMD-free status. The Dutch Government on the other hand, where there was also an outbreak, followed the other model we had tried, the vaccination model. The upshot was that the Dutch Government culled approximately 10 times more animals than we did per infected farm in order to bring themselves back into an FMD-free international status. I am delighted to have this opportunity to explain this because there are several people in the media who have still not understood that story.

  Mr Prentice: You were very clear.

  Q484  Julie Morgan: I believe the 2001 general election was put off for a month because of the foot-and-mouth situation, was it not? Were you part of those discussions?

  Professor Sir David King: Let me answer you in this way. I was fully aware of the fact that 5 May had been pencilled in by many people in the media at least as a date for the general election. The general election was actually called on 7 June that year. Whether this was something to do with the modelling predictions I made or not you would need to ask the Prime Minister.

  Q485  Julie Morgan: But you made the modelling predictions to him and he decided on 7 June.

  Professor Sir David King: The Prime Minister was certainly aware of the modelling predictions and, according to the predictions, by 5 May we would still not have had it under control but by 7 June it would be very much a minor outbreak.

  Chairman: It just shows how useful it is to have a Chief Scientific Adviser, does it not?

  Q486  Julie Morgan: A few more general questions. How do you decide which subjects to look at in depth?

  Professor Sir David King: The first two programmes I initiated were decided in my Office. I felt that flood and coastal defence management, in the light of what I understood about the impacts of climate change on Britain, would be an important project, so I chose that one. Another one we chose was on "Cognitive systems" which relates back to our understanding of brain science and my sense that we could inform information technology developments to see whether we could mirror how the brain works in information technology. Subsequently we set up what has now come to be known as the hothouse of about 15 smart people who get together in a hotel. We lock them into the hotel for 24 hours with a group of enablers and they are given the instruction to come up with a dozen Foresight programmes. They discuss over that 24-hour period. Usually they come up with a number, around 60 or 70, and then that boils down to the optimal 10 or 12. We have gone through two thirds of those from that first process but subsequently other issues have emerged and now we have had a second hothouse process and we are beginning to work on the projects emerging from that.

  Q487  Julie Morgan: That sounds absolutely fascinating: a hothouse for 24 hours with a group of people. Who are the people who are put in?

  Professor Sir David King: They are leading scientists from different areas; leading medics, veterinary scientists, economists, sociologists, editors of major journals, editors of Nature for example, people who have a broad picture as well as narrow specialists. Perhaps at this point I could just mention to you that the Chancellor asked me to develop a centre of excellence for horizon scanning. The centre of excellence for horizon scanning has developed a different methodology. If I may, perhaps I could just tell you something about that?

  Chairman: Please do.

  Professor Sir David King: The methodology has two sides to it. On the one hand we went to a group of 200 leading scientists around the world and asked them what developments in science today are likely to emerge as technological developments over the next 10 or 20 years. We developed this big base of push-outs from the science base, potential technologies, some of them pretty wild. On the other side we went to political scientists, social scientists, philosophers, economists and asked what the big challenges were going to be in the world of tomorrow. Let me give you an example. Today we have a globalised economy. What is the possibility that we will move back towards the insular economies of the past because of various challenges. We asked them for the big challenges we are faced with over the next 50 to 100 years. We have the pull-through from the way we anticipate societies will develop and the push-out from what science and technology can deliver. Then we are filling the space in between. We are looking at areas where the science and technology could meet future problems, which is really why I said earlier on that the big challenge for science and technology is sustainability through the 21st century, challenged by the fact that we do not have three planets. A lengthy answer to your question, but that gives you some idea. We have started another process and that process in the centre there will also be used to mine out new topics for Foresight.

  Q488  Julie Morgan: So the Prime Minister would not ask you to look at a topic.

  Professor Sir David King: There is no reason why the Prime Minister should not ask me to look at a topic, but none of the topics we have looked at has been selected by the Prime Minister. On the other hand—and in a way this comes back to David Burrowes's earlier question—the "Brain science, drugs and addiction" programme actually emerged from a different path, which was the chief scientists in both the Department of Health and the Home Office suggesting that as a potential project. This was really looking at the longer term from their own perspective, at what was a potential area where we could assist the process.

  Q489  Julie Morgan: If your advice is not followed in the departments, did you say you then report that to the Prime Minister?

  Professor Sir David King: I am glad you have given me the opportunity to clarify. When we have finished the project—we have a language which tries to clarify this—we then launch the project into the hands of the stakeholder minister. The stakeholder minister's responsibility is to take it forward. I go back a year later and report back to the Prime Minister on what has been achieved over that period.

  Q490  Kelvin Hopkins: You have already demonstrated, to me at least, that science and politics overlap and that you cannot just be a scientist in your position. You are a politician in a sense because you make choices. On nuclear power, in a sense you have made a choice. Would you accept that there are other choices which may be more or less expensive, and that there are other choices which politicians might make?

  Professor Sir David King: My role is to provide the best possible advice, so my answer to the question about nuclear power was simply to point out the challenging situation we have because of our ageing nuclear power fleet, which is why I say I was aware of the cracks in the fleet. It is a political decision to decide how to deal with that situation. There may be more expensive routes ahead. My objective is to take science out of the box. I do not want it left in a box where people can say it has nothing to do with politics so I respond very positively to your question. This is science within the political system; I am an adviser within the political system, but I am an adviser, I do not take decisions.

  Q491  Kelvin Hopkins: Given that you are dealing with politicians, almost all of them are not scientists—one or two of them are—I should have thought they would tend to defer to your recommendation quite strongly in such a matter and you therefore have a very privileged position in that respect.

  Professor Sir David King: I should have to say that I think I understand that and I should also have to tell you that I am extremely circumspect in the advice that I give, particularly if the consequences are very substantial. For example, we are all aware of the fact that an avian flu epidemic is on its way round the world, there are many countries where it has been quite severe in the poultry population and there is a potential for a human flu pandemic to develop if the virus transforms. I have to advise the Government with the best possible scientific advice on what is the right way to prepare for such an eventuality and that is done with enormous care.

  Q492  Kelvin Hopkins: I am sure there are occasions when your scientific advice might make life very uncomfortable for politicians and in a sense they do not want to go there. I give one example: foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. There is a very strong body of evidence of some children suffering from this, but there is also substantial evidence of a lot more suffering from it in a milder less obvious way. I have raised this in the Commons but the Government do not seem to want to take it on board because clearly it would mean a difficult decision, recommending to all women that they do not drink when they are pregnant. I will say that the evidence derives from your original country, South Africa, where black women working on wine estates were paid to some extent in wine, and an enormous number of babies have been damaged by foetal alcohol syndrome there. Do you sometimes experience such uncomfortable situations, where government is resistant to accepting even information, let alone advice, because they know it leads in a direction they do not want to go?

  Professor Sir David King: I am only hesitating because I have not actually experienced that. I am trying to think through. I have not experienced that difficulty, but this is not to say the advice is always taken. No, I cannot give you an example.

The Committee suspended from 4.50 pm to 4.58 pm for a division in the House.

  Q493  Paul Flynn: Which of the projects you have put up to the Government for consideration have been rejected?

  Professor Sir David King: Is this for the Foresight programme?

  Paul Flynn: For the Foresight programme, yes.

  Professor Sir David King: None of them has been rejected.

  Q494  Paul Flynn: The reason I ask the question is that when we spoke to Lord Birt on the Strategy Unit and the subject that he did on drugs, which David Burrowes gently described as a government strategy, the report he did was one of high quality but one which was meant to be kept secret, that is the reason it probably was of high quality, because the main conclusion of it was one which was deeply embarrassing to the Government and all governments' programmes on drugs which have not been characterised by any empirical evidence. You have not come across that at all. Would you say that the subjects you pick are not avoided if they are potentially embarrassing to Government?

  Professor Sir David King: My position on that is first of all that I am effectively an independent voice in government. No, I would defend the publication and have done if anyone has ever suggested that we should not publish. These suggestions do come forward because sometimes it looks as though the material we are publishing—we always do the scenario analyses that David referred to—the scenarios look rather terrifying and there is concern that when you publish them, put them into the public domain this may seem to be government policy in some way. The media has never responded in that way. I think the media has taken our Foresight programme seriously as a contribution to the debate. However, the Strategy Unit is working on a much shorter timescale. I mentioned the safe space of 10 years' onwards and that is quite an important point. The Strategy Unit is expecting results in the time period of a given minister or prime minister.

  Q495  Paul Flynn: If I may illustrate the point, the main conclusion of this report which was only published under freedom of information, was that you could not control the drugs trade on the supply side, but that is precisely what the Government are doing in sending young men to die in Afghanistan. That is why it was potentially embarrassing. What other pressures are on you? When you reached your conclusions about nuclear power, what was the comparable weight of evidence, the quality of the scientists involved, from the nuclear power industry which is up and very prosperous, compared to the tidal power business which has enormous potential, again virtually no carbon except in the construction. How would you compare the two or the renewables and their voices? How loud, how persuasive were they and what quality compared to the ones we know to be very powerful from the nuclear industry?

  Professor Sir David King: The answer to your question is that I think it is my function to see that I challenge all those communities so I do think my response is even-handed. If you look at my response in terms of whether it is a barrage on the Severn or wind farms or wave, I have been around the world finding out where best practice is in each of those areas and informed myself in that way. I do not rely on what experts tell me. My function is to challenge each and every one of those experts and then draw my conclusions. I was asked about nuclear. Now that you have raised the question of renewables and I believe that it is very important that we raise the level of renewables putting energy onto the grid in this country. I believe that it is equally important that we develop much better processes for dealing with energy efficiency as we move forward in time. That is the massive win-win: to improve energy efficiency. I think it is quite possible that over a 30-year period we could reduce energy usage in the built environment, which produces 50% of our carbon dioxide by a factor of three by proper building regulations and by properly refurbishing old buildings. All of these things, every one of them, needs to be tacked down if we are going to manage what I think is a massive problem, the problem of global warming.

  Q496  Paul Flynn: We accept entirely your scientific integrity but we are all subject to pressures on various sides. If we take the report you did on brain science, there is a controversy about brain chemistry between the group of people who claim that there is such a disease as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder which can be cured by a balance of the chemicals in the brain by using Ritalin and others who claim this is entirely theoretical, no-one has taken synovial fluid and measured it and found there was anything out of balance at all. If you came across something like that in your brain science report which would be very controversial and upset the pharmaceutical industry, or many other things on disease-mongering and so on which might upset the pharmaceutical industry, how do you feel under pressure by them, again another powerful lobby, who are contributing to your work? Would you come up with a conclusion like that and have no hesitation in presenting it even if it were damaging and embarrassing to powerful interests?

  Professor Sir David King: I come back to the actual Foresight process. The ownership is taken by those 100 or so individuals who contribute to the process. In other words I may publish a foreword congratulating the people on the massive amount of work they have done—and really we do take up an enormous amount of the time and effort of the scientific community—but I do not step in and change their report one little bit. It is their ownership.

  Q497  Paul Flynn: A final question which is based on what we are looking at here. You are very much in contact, you have given evidence to the scientific committees and to the Environmental Audit Committee on various occasions, but many of the other bodies involved in looking to the future have very little direct contact with parliamentarians as such. There is a suggestion to set up a committee to look at the future and to look at all policies, possibly build on the basis of how they will affect people in 25, 50, 100 years' time. Do you think this would be useful?

  Professor Sir David King: Very simply: yes. I can hardly think of anything new that would be more useful than that.

  Q498  Paul Rowen: You mentioned earlier on the work that goes on in departments and your work is necessarily very strategic. What monitoring do you do once you have published a report and it has been accepted by government to ensure that the actual policies and procedures laid down in that report are being implemented?

  Professor Sir David King: If I may answer your question broadly and then narrow it down, when I came into government, faced with that foot-and-mouth-disease epidemic which I have now spoken on at some length, the Prime Minister asked me how we could ensure that every government department has improved access to science-based advice and asked me to report to him what was necessary. My report essentially said that we need a chief scientific adviser in each government department who has a dotted line to me and a direct line to their secretary of state so there is no filtering of that advice. Secondly, I said that I should develop a science review system to go into government department after government department to review the quality of the knowledge base, the evidence base that they are using, particularly around the sciences and to see the fitness for purpose of the work they are doing and to see whether that advice is taken. We have set up such a review process. It is an in-depth process and the reviews take time. It is a nine-month or so exercise on average and we have been a little slow in getting this underway. Nevertheless, it is underway and we are about to publish three reviews of different government departments. I think that the different government departments themselves are finding this very useful. There is always a sense of fear when we are coming in that we may be about to publish a critical report, but our analysis is always meant to be constructive and moving best practice from one government department to another, but also looking for areas where different government departments could assist each other, where they are unaware at the moment perhaps that they could do that. I set up a general process of review: the Foresight process is just a small part of that.

  Q499  Paul Rowen: I do not know much about the three departments, but if I take one about which I know something, the Department for Transport, figures I have say that only 50% of all new road building schemes have actually had a climate change assessment carried out on them. If you become aware of that and you have helped set the general policies with regard to climate change, what steps do you take to make sure that the department rectifies that?

  Professor Sir David King: I would certainly be talking to the chief scientific adviser in the first instance and I would probably also be talking to the secretary of state.

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