Select Committee on Science and Technology Thirteenth Report


2  Role of the Committee

11. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee undertakes work in relation to core tasks established following a recommendation made by the Liaison Committee and a resolution of the House on 14 May 2002. The core tasks for the Science and Technology Committee are:

a)  To examine and comment on science and technology policy;

b)  To examine and comment on Government expenditure on science and technology;

c)  To examine and comment on the administration of the Office of Science and Innovation and the Research Councils;

d)  To assist the House in debate and decision.[14]

The Committee's performance in relation to these core tasks is detailed in its Annual Reports and it is not our intention to reiterate this information but rather provide an overview of our working practices and approach to scrutiny.[15]

12. In practice, the work of the Committee can be broadly divided between cross-Government scrutiny and scrutiny of the research base. This division reflects the allocation of responsibilities within the OSI, now DIUS, between the Transdepartmental Science and Technology Group (now the Government Office for Science), and the Science and Innovation Group. The Government Office for Science, headed by Professor Sir David King, is responsible for science across Government, international relations and horizon-scanning. The Science and Innovation Group, headed by Professor Sir Keith O'Nions, is responsible for areas such as the research base, technology and innovation, the British National Space Centre, the Patent Office and the National Weights and Measures Laboratory. It is also responsible for the allocation of the Science Budget via the Research Councils. In scrutinising the OSI, therefore, the Science and Technology Committee not only considers the research base, but also science across Government.

Cross-Government Scrutiny

13. All Government departments use science and technology, either to inform or to implement their policies. Consequently, many of our inquiries examine the work of departments other than the DTI, now DIUS. Table 1 outlines the departments involved in inquiries undertaken by the Committee since its appointment on 19 July 2005.

Table 1: Departmental involvement in inquiries since July 2005
Inquiries Departments involved
Strategic Science Provision Department for Education and Skills
Forensic Science on Trial Department for Constitutional Affairs;

Home Office

Carbon Capture and Storage Department of Trade and Industry
Research Council Support for Knowledge Transfer Office of Science and Technology
Scientific Advice on the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive Department of Health
Identity Card Technologies Home Office
Classification of Illegal Drugs Home Office
Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making Cabinet Office; Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Department for International Development; Department for Transport; Department for Communities and Local Government; Department of Education and Skills; Department of Trade and Industry
Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law Department of Health
Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport Department for Culture, Media and Sport;

Office of Science and Innovation

Research Council Institutes Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Government Proposals for the Regulation of Hybrid and Chimera Embryos Department of Health; Department of Trade and Industry
Space PolicyDepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Department of Trade and Industry; Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Department for Transport; Ministry of Defence; Department for Education and Skills; Ministry of Justice
International Policies and Activities of the Research Councils Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Department of Trade and Industry; Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Investigating the Oceans Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Department of Trade and Industry; Ministry of Defence; Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Funding of Science and Discovery Centres Department for Children, Families and Schools; Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Scientific Developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 Department of Health
Renewable Energy-Generation Technologies Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

14. Our scrutiny of science policy across Government also leads us to take evidence from different Ministers. In our inquiries since 2005, excluding our work on OSI scrutiny, we have taken evidence just once from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in his capacity as Cabinet Minister for science and twice from the Minister for Science. By comparison, we have taken evidence from Ministers from other departments on fourteen separate occasions, including three appearances from Home Office Ministers alone. The Ministers that have provided evidence to inquiries are detailed in Table 2.

Table 2: Ministerial evidence to inquiries since July 2005
Inquiry Name Minister providing evidence
Strategic Science Provision Bill Rammell MP, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Department for Education and Skills
Forensic Science on Trial Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith QC, Attorney General

Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP, Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Andy Burnham MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office

Carbon Capture and Storage Malcolm Wicks MP, Minister of State for Energy, Department of Trade and Industry
OSI ScrutinyRt Hon Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry
Scientific Advice on the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Identity Card Technologies Joan Ryan MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for nationality, citizenship and immigration, Home Office
Classification of Illegal Drugs Vernon Coaker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for policing, security and community safety, Home Office
Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making Rt Hon Alistair Darling MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law Caroline Flint MP, Minister of State for Public Health, Department of Health
Human Enhancement Technologies in Sport Rt Hon Richard Caborn MP, Minister for Sport and Tourism, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Research Council Institutes Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Minister of State for Sustainable Farming and Food, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Government Proposals for the Regulation of Hybrid and Chimera Embryos Caroline Flint MP, Minister of State for Public Health, Department of Health
Space PolicyMalcolm Wicks MP, Minister for Science and Innovation, Department of Trade and Industry
Investigating the Oceans Jonathan Shaw MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Funding of Science and Discovery Centres Jim Knight MP, Minister of State for Schools and 14-19 Learners, Department for Children, Schools and Families

Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport

Scientific Developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo MP, Minister of State for Public Health, Department of Health

15. The Government's continued interest in developing science across Government is demonstrated by several measures including the establishment of the Government Office for Science within DIUS, the implementation of the Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014, the creation of Departmental Science and Innovation Strategies, the development of Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making, and the appointment of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers.[16] Furthermore, developments such as the creation of the Office of Climate Change indicate a desire by Government to co-ordinate scientific policy across Government.

16. Given that science across Government appears to be burgeoning, we believe that it is essential for the select committee system to make provision for the cross-departmental scrutiny of science, whether that be through the main Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee, a sub-committee or a future free-standing Science and Technology Committee modelled on the Environmental Audit Committee. The importance of cross-cutting scrutiny has been underlined by Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, who has stated that:

There is a need for a select committee that can deal with scientific issues that span several departments. Without this important 'check and balance', the House of Commons will find it more difficult to scrutinise the government's performance on issues in which science plays an important part.[17]

This point has been reiterated by Dr Peter Cotgreave, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, who wrote in an open letter to the Leader of the House:

In theory, other committees could investigate [issues outside their remits] but in practice they don't […] it would be a mistake to limit the scope of parliamentary scrutiny of science policy to the narrow remit of the DIUS.[18]

The positive impact of the Science and Technology Committee's cross-departmental work has also been noted by Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers, such as Professor Paul Wiles at the Home Office and Professor Sir Gordon Conway at the Department for International Development.[19] We urge the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee to continue the current Committee's cross-departmental scrutiny approach to ensure that the whole range of science policy within Government is included within its scope.

Research Council Scrutiny

17. In addition to cross-Government scrutiny, we undertake scrutiny of the Research Councils. The previous Committee held separate sessions with each of the Research Councils over the course of the Parliament and published Reports on each in turn. In October 2005, we decided to take a different approach to scrutinising the Research Councils and we began a programme of thematic scrutiny. The areas we have covered so far have included Research Council support for knowledge transfer, Research Council institutes, and the international policies and activities of the Research Councils.[20] We have found our new thematic approach to scrutinising the Research Councils to be effective. It results in continual rather than periodic scrutiny for each Council and highlights best practice.

18. As well as undertaking thematic inquiries, we also scrutinise the work of the Research Councils during other broader inquiries and in one-off sessions. Our inquiry into space policy, for example, considered in particular the work of the newly-created Science and Technology Facilities Council, whilst our inquiry into marine science focused upon the Natural Environment Research Council. We regularly hold one-off introductory sessions with newly-appointed Chief Executives or Chairmen of the Research Councils. Although we have no power to veto appointments, such sessions provide us with the opportunity to satisfy Parliament that the post has been filled with someone of sufficient calibre; to establish the views and the principles that the new incumbent brings to the job; and to heighten awareness of our role in scrutinising the Research Councils. When we have concerns about a new appointee, we do not hesitate to report them.[21]

19. Although the Research Councils are Non-Departmental Public Bodies, they are subject to changes in Government policy. In this Parliament, for example, the Research Councils have been heavily affected by the Government's Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps.[22] In March 2006, the Government published its Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, which included proposals for the creation of a new Large Facilities Council (later named the Science and Technology Facilities Council) and the merger of the Department of Health's R&D budget and Medical Research Council's budget.[23] In these cases, we sought clarification from the Government regarding its plans and followed the development of the proposals with great interest. Following the publication of Sir David Cooksey's review of the Government's proposals regarding health research, we took evidence from Sir David and subsequently published a Report.[24] We also took evidence from: the then Secretary of State, Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, on 24 April 2006; Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Science and Innovation on 20 June 2006; and Malcolm Wicks MP, the then Minister for Science and Innovation on 21 March 2007.[25] In this session with Malcolm Wicks, we also discussed the DTI's decision in February 2007 to reduce the Research Councils' end of year flexibility by £68 million, an action that appeared to challenge the strict ring-fencing of the science budget. We subsequently recommended in our OSI Scrutiny Report that the DTI make an absolute commitment to observing the strict principle of ring-fencing the Science Budget in future.[26]

20. The Research Councils play a critical role within UK science. It is essential that scrutiny of these bodies is not lost amongst the pressures of other tasks falling to the new committee on innovation, universities and skills. We urge our successor Committee to set out at an early date how it will undertake scrutiny of the Research Councils.


14   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Work of the Committee in 2005-06, HC 202,
Box 1.  
Back

15   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Work of the Committee in 2005-06, HC 202; Science and Technology Committee, Second Report of Session 2003-04, Annual Report, HC 199; Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2002-03, Annual Report, HC 169.  Back

16   HM Treasury, DTI and DfES, Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014 (July 2004); HM Government, Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making, October 2005 Back

17   Lord Rees of Ludlow, "A scientific subtext", The House Magazine, July 2007, 14. Back

18   "Science select committee hangs in the balance", Research Fortnight, 18 July 2007 Back

19   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Work of the Committee in 2005-06, HC 202, paras 34-35. Back

20   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2005-06, Research Council Support for Knowledge Transfer, HC 995; Science and Technology Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, Research Council Institutes, HC 68; Science and Technology Committee, International Policies and Activities of the Research Councils, HC 472.  Back

21   Science and Technology Committee, Eighth Report of Sesson 2006-07, Chairman of the Medical Research Cuoncil: Introductory Hearing, HC 746 Back

22   HM Treasury, DTI, DoH, and DfES, Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, March 2006 Back

23   HM Treasury, DTI, DoH, and DfES, Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, March 2006 Back

24   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, The Cooksey Review, HC 204. Back

25   Oral evidence given on 20 June 2006, HC 490-iv. Back

26   Science and Technology Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2006-07, Office of Science and Innovation: Scrutiny Report 2005 and 2006, HC 203, para 37. Back


 
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