Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480
TUESDAY 17 OCTOBER 2006
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 didand I mentioned this earlier onwas 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 controlthis
means that the epidemic was increasing exponentially with timemeant
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 timeand
this is terribly importantwas 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 handand in
a way this comes back to David Burrowes's earlier questionthe
"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 projectwe have a language which tries to clarify
thiswe 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 scientistsone
or two of them areI 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
Professor Sir David King: Is this
for the Foresight programme?
Paul Flynn: For the Foresight programme,
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 publishingwe always do the scenario
analyses that David referred tothe 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 doneand really
we do take up an enormous amount of the time and effort of the
scientific communitybut 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
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