Select Committee on Science and Technology Thirteenth Report

5  The future scrutiny of science in the House of Commons

35. The support that we received when faced with an uncertain future as a committee demonstrates, we believe, the importance of ongoing science scrutiny within the House of Commons. Our main concern is that, given its broader remit, the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee will be unlikely to continue the level of scrutiny undertaken by the current Science and Technology Committee (see paragraph 5). Although the OSI no longer exists, its activities continue under a different guise within DIUS. The work will still be taking place within Government, even if there is no adequate provision for scrutiny within the Commons. Indeed, it is likely that scientific activity within Government will continue to increase as more departments undertake science reviews of their activities, the recommendations of Lord Sainsbury's recent review are implemented and the Government grapples with issues such as stem cell research, the spread of viruses and nuclear power. In 1966, the House of Commons established a Science and Technology Committee with fourteen Members because science policy was rising up the political agenda. It is somewhat ironic that in 2007 the current Science and Technology Committee is being dissolved against a similar backdrop.

36. We believe that there will be a gap in science scrutiny when the current House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is dissolved. This gap will not, and indeed should not, be filled by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee or POST, both of which have different functions within Parliament. Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, makes the point that "The Commons should surely not be content to rely only on the expertise of the parallel committee in the Upper House."[42]

37. Even if the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee chooses to appoint a sub-committee, we are concerned that Members would be stretched by the membership and workload of, in essence, a second select committee. This issue was raised several times during the debate on the Standing Order changes. Theresa May MP, Shadow Leader of the House, said "the sub-committee is no replacement for a stand-alone specialist Science and Technology Committee."[43] Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House, echoed her view, stating "a Sub-Committee of another Committee - however good its members - is not an adequate substitute".[44]

38. Given the Government's focus on evidence-based policy-making and the wide consensus on the value of science in our society, we believe that this would be the wrong time to downgrade or reduce the scrutiny of cross-cutting science issues within Parliament. The strong view amongst the science community is that such scrutiny is best carried out by a select committee with a clear identity and a clear mission. Given the House's decision to replace the Science and Technology Committee with a departmental select committee, we hope that the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee will have the authority to work across Government rather than within the narrow confines of a single department. We believe that in the long term a separate Science and Technology Committee is the only way to guarantee a permanent focus on science across Government within the select committee system. We recommend that the House be given an opportunity to revisit the question of science scrutiny in the Commons at the end of session 2007-08.

42   Lord Rees of Ludlow, "A scientific subtext", The House Magazine, p 14 Back

43   HC Deb, 25 July 2007, Col 945 Back

44   HC Deb, 25 July 2007, Col 952 Back

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Prepared 7 November 2007