Select Committee on Science and Technology Thirteenth Report


1  Science in Parliament

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

1. The House of Commons first established a Science and Technology Select Committee in 1966 in order "to consider science and technology and report thereon".[1] This Committee existed for the duration of the 1966-1971 Parliament and was re-appointed in 1971 and 1974. The Committee was abolished in 1979 when the departmental select committee structure was established. A similar Committee, with a remit more closely mirroring that of a departmental committee, was established in July 1992 and has remained ever since. The current Science and Technology Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.

2. The function of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI) and its associated public bodies.[2] This includes the seven UK Research Councils, the Council for Science and Technology, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Science and Technology Committee has been unusual amongst departmental select committees in that it has monitored the OSI, which was part of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) at its conclusion, though it had been in the Department of Education and Science previously, rather than a department in its own right. The Office of Science and Innovation defined its mission as "supporting excellent science, engineering and technology and their uses to benefit society and the economy". The Committee therefore has had a similarly broad remit. This means that the Committee's work has addressed the activities of other Government departments where they have had implications for, or made use of, science, technology and research. Recent examples that fall into this category include the Committee's inquiries into the classification of illegal drugs, the technologies supporting the identity cards scheme, and human enhancement technologies in sport.[3]

THE DEMISE OF THE COMMITTEE

3. On 28 June 2007, the Prime Minister announced changes to the machinery of Government that resulted in the splitting of the responsibilities of the DTI and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) into three new departments: the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR), the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).[4] The responsibilities of the OSI, previously within DTI, have been taken over by the DIUS Science and Innovation Group and the Government Office for Science within DIUS.[5]

4. Under Standing Order No. 152, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is appointed to scrutinise the OSI.[6] The abolition of the OSI meant that it was necessary to revise this Standing Order. On 25 July 2007, the House agreed a motion to amend the Standing Order to replace the Science and Technology Committee with a departmental select committee, which would scrutinise the work of DIUS. The House agreed that the motion would take effect from the beginning of the next session.[7] Therefore, at the beginning of the next session the Science and Technology Select Committee will cease to exist.

5. The new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee will scrutinise the work of DIUS. DIUS has a broader remit than the OSI because it takes over policy areas previously within the Department for Education and Skills such as higher education and skills. DIUS defines its aims as:

"To:

Sustain and develop a world-class research base;

Maximise the exploitation of the research base to support innovation across all sectors of the economy;

Raise and widen participation in Higher Education;

Raise participation and attainment by young people and adults in post-16 education and learning;

Tackle the skills gap amongst adults, particularly equipping people with basic literacy and numeracy;

Increase the supply of people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)".[8]

Given these declared aims, we are disappointed that the Government has omitted the word 'science' from the title of the new department. We urge the Government to change the title of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to include the word 'science' to reflect the importance of science within Government.

6. During the debate on the Standing Order changes, several Members questioned whether the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee would spread itself too thinly and science would not receive appropriate scrutiny in the Commons.[9] These comments reflected the concerns of the science community regarding the demise of the Science and Technology Committee (see paragraph 30). Two alternative options were proposed: creating a sub-committee for science and technology, and retaining a separate science and technology committee.[10] The Leader of the House, Ms Harriet Harman MP, said that the proposed Standing Order made provision for the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee to set up a sub-committee and that the new Committee could use this sub-committee to scrutinise science and technology in a similar way to the existing Science and Technology Committee.[11] She explained that the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee would have 14 rather than 11 Members in order to make the establishment of a sub-committee easier. The Standing Order changes were subsequently agreed on division.

7. The new Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee will be scrutinising the work of DIUS. We hope that its inquiries will reflect all areas of DIUS's work including science, as well as areas such as skills, education, and innovation. We believe that the potential breadth of the work of the new committee is not accurately described in a name that omits the word 'science'. Even if the Government chooses not to change the name of the department, there is precedent for a select committee to have a different name from the body that it scrutinises. For example, we have remained the Science and Technology Select Committee whilst scrutinising the Office of Science and Innovation. In order to reflect accurately the remit of the new committee, we recommend that the Leader of the House bring forward Standing Order changes to change the name of the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee to include the word 'science'.

House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

8. The work of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has been complemented by the work of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee. The Science and Technology Select Committee is one of the four permanent investigative committees in the House of Lords; the others are the Select Committees on the Constitution, Economic Affairs and the European Union.[12]

9. The Science and Technology Committee was established in the Lords in 1979. Its terms of reference are "to consider science and technology". These terms of reference are broader than the terms of reference of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Whilst the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee traditionally focuses upon science policy within Government, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee tends to undertake broader inquiries focusing on technological challenges, such as personal internet security; public policy areas that ought to be informed by science, such as water management; and topics of public interest, like allergy.[13] The different approaches and interests of the science and technology committees in the Lords and the Commons has meant that the committees have complemented one another, rather than duplicating effort.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

10. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) provides scientific briefings to the House and scientific support to select committees. Its aim is to inform debate and it does so with a range of briefing notes (POSTnotes), reports and lectures. Its work falls into four areas: biological sciences and health; physical sciences, IT and communication; environment and energy; and science policy. Although it provides independent and accessible analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology, POST does not undertake scrutiny and thus its work is quite different to select committees. The void left by the demise of the current Science and Technology Committee could not, and indeed should not, be filled by POST. The resources represented by POST could, however, and should be applied more effectively in the support of the scrutiny function of both Houses.


1   "Science and Technology Committee", www.portcullis.parliament.uk Back

2   This remit changed in April 2006 to reflect the merger of the Office of Science and Technology and the Innovation Group within the Department of Trade and Industry to create the Office of Science and Innovation.  Back

3   Science and Technology Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2005-06, Drug classification: making a hash of it?, HC 1031; Science and Technology Committee, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport, HC 67.  Back

4   HC Deb, 28 June 2007, col 36WS Back

5   "New Government Office for Science", DIUS press release, 20 July 2007. Back

6   Standing Orders are the rules under which Parliament conducts its business and they regulate the way Members behave and debates are organised.  Back

7   Votes and Proceedings, 25 July 2007  Back

8   "The role of the new department",www.dius.gov.uk Back

9   HC Deb, 25 July 2007, col 941-955 Back

10   HC Deb, 25 July 2007, col 941-942; HC Deb, 25 July 2007, col 945 Back

11   HC Deb, 25 July 2007, col 941-942 Back

12   House of Lords Briefing, Science and Technology Committee, November 2005  Back

13   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2006-07, Personal Internet Security, HL 165; House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Second Report of Session 2006-07, Water Management: Follow-up Report, HL 21; House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2005-06, Allergy, HL 1 66 Back


 
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Prepared 7 November 2007