Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


25 JANUARY 2006

  Q40  Mr Newmark: One of the biggest challenges that we seem to face is that, whilst there do seem to be some strides at least into achieving certain goals with auto transport, one of the big challenges actually is to do with air transport and, regarding air transport, there is a report, I think it is the Air Transport White Paper, forecasting that by 2030 CO2 emissions from UK aviation could amount to a quarter, 25%, of the UK's total contribution to global warming, so I am curious again, is there any focus on that particular area because that seems to be a major challenge today?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, I can only repeat what I said which is that I think transport is a much bigger part of this than sometimes it is given credit for and, therefore, doing actions to do with this is very important. I should say that there is now a lot of research going on in the aerospace industry, quite a large part of it supported by the Technology Strategy which is about finding or developing the environmentally friendly engine for planes in the future.

  Q41  Chairman: Just before we leave this section, you have talked about the Health & Safety Executive review feeding into the Energy Review. The Energy Review, according to Malcolm Wicks, is going to be completed by this summer, yet the HSE review in 18 months' time is due to report, so how can that feed into that Review to be effective for this summer?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I need to look exactly at the issue here. I think what has been looked at is simply the processes of pre-licensing, what the processes are which are involved in that. I may have been mistaken in saying that that would feed into the Energy Review itself, but clearly it is sensible to get on with looking at the question of what kind of processes you might have in that.

  Q42  Chairman: There is a major concern for us, Lord Sainsbury, that the Energy Minister has made clear that by this summer there will be a set of proposals being put to the Government in terms of our future energy policy. The Prime Minister and yourself have clearly said that the issues of dealing with waste in particular and safety are crucial, yet the Health & Safety Executive are not going to report for 18 months, so I do not understand those timescales and how one can inform the other.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, I think the Prime Minister has also, and we have always, made it absolutely clear that, if the Energy Review took the view that nuclear should be or ought to be looked at as part of our energy mix, there would still be a further process which would probably be a White Paper on the question of nuclear and that would obviously have to involve issues like safety.

  Q43  Chairman: Moving on to question 2, are you satisfied with the operation of current safeguards against the publication of misleading research?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In 1998 the Director General of Research Councils and the Research Council Chief Executive issued clear guidance on good practice which aims to ensure that misconduct is not tolerated. This places the principal responsibility for monitoring misconduct with the institution in which the researchers are based. Institutions must have procedures in place in line with this guidance and must investigate and report any cases of misconduct. An average of two or three allegations of misconduct a year have been reported to the research councils over the last 10 years. These have been investigated according to the established research council procedures and appropriate action taken where justified. There appears to be no upward trend, but RCUK have been reviewing the measures in place. Commercial publishers are of course responsible for the accuracy of the material they publish.

  Q44  Dr Iddon: Do you think there really is a need for a mandatory ethical code for scientists to be published?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think it is something worth looking at and the Council of Science and Technology have issued a document which the OST will be looking at. This is called Rigour, Respect and Responsibility. I think that is important in general terms, but I think the point I hope to make in my first answer is that I think the place to look at first is whether there appears to be a problem or not in what is actually going on. As far as I can see, there is no upward trend. There were a rather small number of allegations, and what I mentioned were allegations, not proven cases. To be quite honest, when one talks about scientific misconduct, there are only two issues: one is fabrication and falsification of data; and the other is plagiarism. I do not think there has to be a great deal of clarification of what is involved in these. In most cases it must be very clear to the perpetrators that they are falsifying or fabricating data or indeed plagiarising. However, I think we should look more closely at the particular allegations which have been made and see if there is any misunderstanding which needs to be clarified to scientists.

  Q45  Dr Iddon: In your answer, you put the onus on institutions, but can I put it to you that most scientists are members also of professional societies and most professional societies already have a code of conduct for their members. How do you see the institutions' role playing against the role of the professional societies to whom scientists might belong? In any case, we could make it mandatory for an academic to belong to his or her professional society.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, I think the position taken by the Director General of the Research Councils and the Research Council Chief Executive is the easiest way to do it, which is to put the responsibility on the institutions and, given that the system seems to work very well, I do not think there is any need to add anything to it. Indeed, the people on the spot are more likely to pick up and understand the issues involved.

  Q46  Dr Iddon: How can we stop ghost-writing which is a phenomenon largely used by the pharmaceutical industry?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think it is a rather difficult issue. I think this might be a case where clarification of the ethics of this should be established. I do not know what the ethical situation is or what code of conduct there is which covers this, but that might be a case where further ethical clarification was needed, and obviously that would be a Department of Health responsibility, I think.

  Q47  Dr Iddon: Do you think we are putting too much pressure on our academics these days by way of the research assessment exercise concentrating more and more research in fewer and fewer universities and, thereby, academics feel that they have to produce at the cutting edge in order to stay in the institutions in which they are working presently?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Obviously you can make a lot of ethical issues go away if you say to people, "You don't have to perform to very high standards in terms of scientific productivity", but obviously that has implications for scientific productivity. It is like the issue as to whether you encourage scientists to do work with industry, and obviously, if you do that, there is a bit more pressure on ethical standards. I think the way to do it is to require high standards of quality and scientific productivity, but make it very clear what the general issues of rigour and responsibility are.

  Q48  Dr Iddon: Regarding industry, I have two questions. Firstly, do you think we should make it mandatory for the name of sponsors to be published in a paper, the people who have sponsored the work, so that we know if there is any industrial affiliation which has led to that work being published? Secondly, should we not be worried about industrial sponsors, particularly in the light of what has happened with the drug, Actonel, in Sheffield where obviously the amount of money coming into that university has obviously put a lot of pressure on that university and has led to a difficulty in Sheffield of which I hope you are aware.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I am afraid I am not aware of that particular case. Again I think the issues to start with are whether we see any problems existing and, if there was any sort of upward trend or situation where there appeared to be more instances of misconduct, then one needs to look at whether one should take action to deal with this, but, as I say, from the figures we have, there appears to be no change in this position. Obviously if there appears to be a new set of problems occurring, we ought to look at it and see what should be done.

  Q49  Dr Harris: You are aware of the Wakefield study on MMR in The Lancet and the controversy around that and we have got a series of questions around that. Firstly, do you think there is a concern that a rush to publish controversial information leads potentially to the short-circuiting or the shortcutting of peer review? Secondly, do you think that The Lancet in that case, after the revelations came to light and it completed its investigation in five days and came to a judgment and only some time later was the article partially withdrawn by part of the authorship, do you consider that to be a satisfactory way of dealing with it or should we have a much more rigorous way of looking into these sorts of cases when the stakes are so high?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I feel very strongly, because of a number of incidents, that actually insisting that people do not publish things until they have been properly peer reviewed is extremely important and it is a message we need to make very clearly again. There will always be people who say, "Well, the information is so important that we must get it into the public arena", but I think this is a very dangerous attitude because, if it then turns out that the research is wrong or has been misinterpreted, that is a very serious situation.

  Q50  Dr Harris: Because the more controversial the research is, arguably the greater the scrutiny that needs to apply, not the less.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: That would be entirely the view I would take.

  Q51  Dr Harris: Do you think that the current approach through the Committee on Publication Ethics is working because you said there is some responsibility on the journals as well as the institutions, so do you think that system is working adequately or do you think there is a need for the system to look at that, and I am not advocating government action here, just your view?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, on the issue of peer review, I do not think there is again any lack of clarity that people should have things peer reviewed before they start making statements about them, so I think it is not a question of misunderstanding, but it is a question of people not abiding by the rules. I think it is a good question to look at, whether there are enough clear statements which everyone subscribes to that in these circumstances there should be perhaps more pressure that people do not make these statements before they are peer reviewed.

  Q52  Dr Harris: Let me finish with the specific suggestion to get your initial view on it. In clinical research, which is some of the most important research using patients, in order to get approval for the study, you have to submit a protocol to an ethics committee, a detailed protocol saying what you are going to do. It seems that, when you then submit the manuscript for publication, you do not have to, and it is not expected that you, submit the protocol so that they can check that you have actually conducted the research in the published version in line with what you said you would do when you got ethical approval. Certainly in my view and in the view of many others, that is what happened with the Wakefield case. Do you think there is an argument that journals should demand the ethical protocol so that they can check that everything that is said in the publication is pretty much in line with what they got ethical approval for?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, I think that raises a number of quite complicated issues. The issue we were talking about before is people communicating things before they have been peer reviewed, so that is one issue. The issue I think you are talking about is a different one which is that you have ethical approval for a particular protocol and getting a journal then to check that what research had been done was in line with that protocol—

  Q53  Dr Harris: As part of peer review.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: —again it might be a useful and important thing to do, but again I do not know of any examples and I do not know whether that is a real problem or issue. If it was, then obviously we should look at it and take action.

  Q54  Chairman: What consultations did you have with NERC, the National Environment Research Council, prior to the recent announcement of the closures at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: During the allocation process following the Spending Review of 2004, NERC indicated to my officials that providing the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology with a sustainable future was a high priority. NERC then examined options to achieve this in line with their responsibilities. This included the Strategic Review over last summer with stakeholders. OST was consulted about the proposals NERC then developed to put CEH on a sustainable basis. An allocation out of the science budget was then agreed in order to help achieve CEH's sustainability. NERC is currently consulting on its proposals with the public and the staff. CEH has seen a fall in contract research in recent years. I think it is to the credit of NERC that they are grasping the implications of this now, looking at their science priorities and developing a science programme for CEH which is of high quality and sustainable.

  Q55  Adam Afriyie: Are you personally content with the proposed closures and the handling of them by NERC?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think there are two different issues here. As far as the decision about consulting on the closures is concerned, I think that is totally the decision of NERC. We have, I think, a very strong tradition in this country which says that those kinds of scientific decisions should be made by the scientists and not by ministers. I think the responsibility I have and OST have is just to make certain that the way it is done and the way the planning of it is done is done in a responsible manner, and I am content that they are doing this in a very clear and responsible manner; they produced a very clear corporate plan and they are consulting on it.

  Q56  Adam Afriyie: During your consultations, what form of consultation was there and is there any circumstance in which you have steered the direction of the closures or nudged them in any way or recommended?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, we were concerned essentially with the process, that they had produced a proper plan, that they had consulted on this, that they seemed to be taking account of all the issues you should take account of and that they were doing it in a responsible manner.

  Q57  Adam Afriyie: So they initiated the idea to close it?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: This was their plan. They realised they had a problem in this area and they, therefore, developed a plan to deal with it. The only comment I would make is that I think it is to their credit that they are tackling this problem and trying to put it on a sustainable basis and not letting it continue in its present form.

  Q58  Adam Afriyie: I just want to be absolutely clear that it was NERC that initiated the idea of the closures.

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Absolutely. This was initiated by them because they realised that they had a problem here.

  Q59  Adam Afriyie: If there are no questions over the quality of the science coming from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, why was it cut back, do you think?

  Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think there are a number of issues here, and let me say something about the funding there. First of all, NERC is, like all the research councils, having a very substantial increase in its budget allocation. It has almost doubled since 1997 to £334 million a year, so it has gone up very substantially. Within that, of course there are changes in terms of what NERC consider the priorities to be where issues like climate change have become more important, although in this particular case, as far as I can see, NERC do not think there will be any reduction in their research portfolio in the fields of ecological and hydrological research. What is happening here, in common I think with a number of the special research institutions of research councils, is that they are coming under pressure because more and more there is an inclination to do basic research or blue-sky research in this sort of field as in other fields of science within universities because, by doing it within a university, you can access all the different disciplines, so there is a tendency to shift from institutes—

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