Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report

7  Scrutiny of the Science Minister

67. 2006 saw the first change in the Science Minister in eight years when Malcolm Wicks MP, previously Minister of State for Energy, was appointed to the post. Lord Sainsbury was a hard act to follow, given the length of his tenure and the good relationships which he had established with the science community.

68. Mr Wicks began his own period in office with a speech in which he chose to stress the public or social aspects of science. He told the Research Base Funders' Forum plenary conference in November 2006 that, in addition to becoming a knowledge economy, "we need to become a knowledge society" and that the UK should become "a knowledge democracy … a scientifically literate society".[113] We asked him when he gave evidence to us to explain what he meant by "a knowledge democracy". He explained that he was "partly thinking about skills and the education agenda" but also partly about crucial global issues such as climate change, energy, medicine and water supply in Africa and how "we need a more knowledgeable democracy if we are to make the right decisions and get the balance right between what science can offer and public policy concerns and some of the moral issues".[114] He stressed that this focus was not intended to be "about taking our eye off the economic ball" and away from the emphasis on the knowledge economy, but instead to add to this "the application of science in, for example, the National Health Service and, I suspect, other areas of social policy, which may … have been neglected by what science and technology has to offer".[115]

69. We explored Mr Wicks' views on the role of science and technology within society and his vision for "science and the application of science, innovation, to move centre stage" in the UK.[116] Now that the Minister has been in post for four months, we hope that he has had an opportunity to develop his thinking on how to realise his vision a little further. We recommend that the OSI outline in its response to this Report the new dialogues and initiatives within the OSI established since November 2006 to encourage the creation of a "knowledge democracy" and spread the use of science throughout Government and beyond. We will watch developments in this area with close attention, as will many in the wider research community, and we look forward to regular conversations with the Minister on these important topics.

Science Question Time

70. Science Question Time was originally developed by our predecessors as a means of directly engaging with the then Minister, Lord Sainsbury, who was not available to answer questions on the floor of the House. Once a Minister from the Commons succeeded Lord Sainsbury, that particular justification no longer held, but the format had proved to be valuable and we were keen that it should continue. We were therefore pleased that Malcolm Wicks MP agreed to make the same commitment as his predecessor to appear before the Committee four times a year to answer questions on topical science issues. The precedent is now well established. We note that the value of this forum has been underlined in the current session in which the Minister for Science has been called upon to answer only seven questions during DTI question time, not all of which were science-related.[117] Until such time as a Science Question Time has a proper place on the floor of the Commons, we shall continue our own scrutiny of Ministers on science matters in this way.

113 Back

114   Q 254 Back

115   Q 255 Back

116   Q 253 Back

117   Commons Hansard, 20 November 2006, c1200, 1209; Hansard, 18 January 2007, c 898; Hansard, 22 March 2007, c 932-3, 935-6, 939-940; no science-related questions were reached on 22 February 2007. Back

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