Select Committee on Science and Technology Thirteenth Report

4  The effectiveness of the Committee

28. Since our appointment on 19 July 2005, we have published 19 Reports and pursued major inquiries into carbon capture and storage technologies; scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making; space policy, and marine science. We have achieved several notable successes and these are outlined in Box 1.

Box 1: Impact and results of the Committee's work
  • Following the publication of our Report on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, the Government launched a consultation on CCS that subsequently fed into the Energy Review. In this Report, we urged the Government to support a large-scale demonstration of CCS technology. The 2007 Budget announced that the Government would launch a competition in November 2007 to develop a commercial-scale CCS demonstration project.

  • Our inquiry into CCS technologies was held up as a case study of good scrutiny in the Centre for Public Scrutiny's Successful Scrutiny publication.[32]

  • We undertook an inquiry into strategic science provision in English Universities focusing on the University of Sussex's plans to close its Chemistry Department. Following the publication of our Report, the University of Sussex decided to keep its Chemistry Department open. In May 2007, the Government announced a proposals for a national campaign to promote STEM careers.

  • Our Report on Research Council support for knowledge transfer was warmly received and many of the recommendations were accepted by the Research Councils. In order to improve co-ordination of knowledge transfer activities, for example, the Research Councils have established at Knowledge Transfer and Economic Impact Group and have embarked upon at Knowledge Transfer Co-ordination project.

  • Our inquiry into the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive highlighted the potential impact of the Directive upon the use of MRI scanners. The Health and Safety Executive subsequently undertook research into impact of the Directive and confirmed our concerns that some procedures exceed the limit values set out in the Directive. The Commission has since announced that it will postpone implementation of the Directive for four years for further scientific reviews.

  • The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has accepted our recommendation in our Report on the classification of illegal drugs to improve transparency. It is holding its Council meetings in public and publishing its agendas and minutes on the web.
    • The Government welcomed our Report on identity card technologies and stated it "will endeavour to act on its recommendations". In response to our concerns regarding information and communication technology (ICT) within the identity cards scheme, the Government has expanded its Independent Assurance Panel to include ICT.

  • In response to our Report on scientific advice, risk and evidence, the Government "agrees with the Committee that there is much further still to go in ensuring that science is managed and used by Government to best effect." In response to our recommendations, the Government is beginning the process to update the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees.

  • We undertook an inquiry into the Government's proposals regarding hybrid and chimera embryos. The Government welcomed our report on "this scientifically complex and ethically contentious area of research". As a result of our inquiry, the Government is moving towards a more permissive regime and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has approved applications for work in this field. The Government said that "the Select Committee report has therefore very helpfully moved this debate forward". The latest announced Government position is in line with our recommendations.

  • The Government welcomed our space policy report and accepted the majority of our recommendations.

29. We have received positive comments from Ministers and government departments about our work. Government responses have described recent reports as "thorough and constructive" and "constructive and stimulating".[33] Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith QC, Attorney General, told us that our Report on forensic science was "enormously helpful. It has meant that a lot of key information has been shared across the agencies."[34] In relation to the same Report, Andy Burnham MP, the then Home Office Minister, said "the Committee is not celebrating its achievements enough…I do not believe that there has ever been so much scrutiny or focus in Parliament on such matters."[35] During a debate in Westminster Hall on our Report on drug classification, the Minister, Vernon Coaker MP, said "I welcome the Select Committee report. I hope that what I have said shows that what the Committee said in its report has led to changes in the Government's policy and practice and caused us to think about the operation of the classification system."[36] On 9 July 2007, when the future of the Committee was already in doubt, the Minister for Science and Innovation, Ian Pearson MP, said during a debate on the floor of the House, "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".[37]

30. Despite these comments, it was only when the impact of the machinery of government changes was revealed, that the regard in which the Committee was held, both within Parliament and beyond, became truly clear. Many organisations expressed support for the Committee by writing either to newspapers or to the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman MP. On 13 July 2007, a letter was sent to The Times by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Biology, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and the Geological Society of London.[38] This letter stated that:

At a time when the Government has brought science and innovation policy centre stage […] it would be a tragedy if its immediate parliamentary consequence was the abolition of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology […] this select committee has proved itself to be an outstanding vehicle for the examination of science across government as a whole.

On 20 July 2007, Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, Lord Browne of Madingley, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Dr Mark Walport, Director of The Wellcome Trust, Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), four Nobel Laureates and thirty other distinguished scientists wrote to The Guardian. They said that the Science and Technology Committee, "does a great deal of vital work scrutinising scientific matters and the use of evidence across government departments and agencies".[39] Professor Blakemore expanded upon this, saying "the MRC has not always had an easy ride from the science and technology select committee, but nevertheless I think it is really important that that kind of rigorous scrutiny exists."[40] Five days later, during the debate on the Standing Order changes, Harriet Harman stated that she had received representations from "the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, the Chemical Industries Association, Professor Derek Burke (a special adviser between 1995 and 2001), the Genetic Interest Group, the Royal Society, the Institute of Biology, the Association of Medical Research Charities and many more."[41] We would like to take this opportunity to express our thanks to the science policy community, not only for its recent representations regarding the future of the Committee, but also for its support in the forms of evidence to inquiries, and assistance with visits, throughout the existence of the Committee.

Inquiries affected by the Standing Order change

31. When we heard that the Committee was going to be affected by Standing Order changes, we had two inquiries planned for the period before Christmas 2007: scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967, and renewable energy-generation technologies. Due to time pressure, we decided to concentrate upon the inquiry into scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 in the period before the demise of the Committee at the end of the session. We focused upon this inquiry because we felt that the Committee had a role to play in helping to inform Parliament about the scientific developments in this highly contentious area, particularly in light of the anticipated presentation of a Human Tissue and Embryos Bill in the new session. We believe that our inquiry into the scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 demonstrates the value of a cross-cutting Science and Technology Committee within the House of Commons in complementing the work of Departmental Select Committees in informing the House about the scientific evidence base in areas of controversy or great significance.

32. We chose not to pursue the inquiry into renewable energy-generation technologies because we anticipated that this would be a major inquiry and did not feel that it would be possible to undertake it in the time available. We have published the written evidence that we received and hope that the inquiry will be taken forward by a committee of this House at some stage.

Treatment of evidence

33. It is normal practice for select committees to put out a "call for evidence" at the start of inquiries. Written submissions can be made by any organisation or individual and we often receive submissions from a variety of bodies ranging from Government departments to learned societies to interested individuals. Although we welcome all submissions, we recognise that whilst some submissions are firmly evidence-based, others are primarily opinion pieces. It is important that select committees distinguish between evidence-based submissions and other submissions, particularly when undertaking technical or scientific inquiries, that is inquiries where conclusions will be based on judgements of the strength of the available scientific evidence. Following our direct experience of this problem during our inquiry into the science underlying the Abortion Act 1967, we believe that organisations and individuals should be asked to declare potentially relevant interests when submitting evidence and also state expertise and experience when stating opinions about scientific matters. We encourage the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee to explore how the declaration of interests and expertise can be built into the inquiry process and urge the Liaison Committee to consider this approach for all select committees.

34. In the light of our Report on evidence-based policy making, we recognise the potential for confusion, when pursuing an evidence-based approach, caused by the term 'evidence' being used in its scientific/research sense and also as a description for submissions (both written and oral) to inquiries. We call upon the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee to explore the current terminology to avoid this confusion and whether there is merit in recommending that the Liaison Committee consider this issue.

32   Centre for Public Scrutiny, Successful Scrutiny, March 2007, pp 13-14. Back

33   Science and Technology Committee, Fifth Special Report of Session 2006-07, 2007: A Space Policy: Government Response to the Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2006-07, HC 1042; Science and Technology Committee, Second Special Report of Session 2006-07, Office of Science and Innovation: Scrutiny Report 2005 and 2006: Government Response to the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2006-07, HC635, p 1.  Back

34   Oral evidence given on 23 November 2005, HC 685, Q1 Back

35   HC Deb, 20 April 2006, col 179 WH Back

36   HC Deb, 14 June 2007, col369WH Back

37   HC Deb, 9 July 2007, col 1245 Back

38   "Science Committee", Letter, The Times, 13 July 2007, p 18.  Back

39   "Science needs its select committee", The Guardian, 20 July 2007, p 41. Back

40   "Scientists call for scrutiny panel to stay", The Guardian, 20 July 2007 Back

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

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