Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 252-259)


17 JANUARY 2007

  Q252 Chairman: Good morning, and good morning to you, Minister. Welcome for your first appearance, and can we congratulate you on your appointment as Minister for Science. In particular, could we thank you for agreeing to continue with Science Question Time. We are very grateful to you for that and we wanted to put that on record. Could we welcome again, too, an old friend of the Committee, Professor Sir Keith O'Nions. I gather you have had a slightly difficult journey this morning.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Yes, and I would say to Evan Harris that our campaign to improve the train services from Oxford has only been partially successful!

  Q253 Chairman: Welcome. Minister, in your first speech as Science Minister you referred to the role of science involved in the knowledge economy and the knowledge democracy. What is your vision for the role of science in society, and what practical implications will that have for the vision?

  Malcolm Wicks: Chairman, good morning to you, and colleagues. As you recall I came before the Committee wearing my hat as Energy Minister on one occasion, so something of a warm-up talking about nuclear energy and so on, and it is a pleasure to be here. It seems to me obvious that one can argue rationally that science is important and always has been to this country and our planet, by definition, but I think, to use the overused term, "my vision" is one where science and the application of science, innovation, starts to move centre stage in economies like the United Kingdom. If I recall my Latin, and my Latin master is not here to check, the Latin word for knowledge is "scientia", and so I think when we talk, as we increasingly do, rightly, about the need for Britain to become a knowledge economy, in some respects what we are saying is that science and innovation has to be centre-stage to Britain's economic future. Also, incidentally, it needs to impact more on not just the economy but other sectors like the welfare state, social policy and so on. Now I think the good news is, although we should not be complacent, that the UK happens to be very good at science, and I see part of my role—and I suspect part of yours, sir—being to trumpet that rather more. We need to remind our people that we are very good at science. Traditionally the argument has always been we have not been so good at the application: others have often done that better—the Japanese, the South Koreans, et cetera. I think that is becoming a slightly old-fashioned story, now, although, I repeat, I am not complacent, we need to do a lot more, and I am impressed two months or so into the job with just how well we are beginning to do in application with technology strategy boards, knowledge transfer networks and so on. So I want to see science centre-stage. Now, you picked up the phrase I use, maybe slightly pretentiously, talking about a need for "knowledge democracy".

  Q254  Chairman: Yes. What do you mean by that?

  Malcolm Wicks: What I meant by that is first, if we are going to maintain and improve our position in terms of science and innovation we need more people in society who are skilled at science, so I was partly thinking about skills and the education agenda and I want to work closely with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills on that, but I also meant that given that many of the crucial issues facing us in Britain and Europe and, indeed, globally have a very important science dimension—global warming/climate change which I learned a lot about in my former post, some of the new technologies, some of the controversies around energy and the future, and we have discussed nuclear before, some of the big issues around pharmaceuticals and medicine, some of the ethical issues about stem cell research and so on, the way we can use science and technology to help us be more secure in a very insecure world, how we tackle the age old problems of a lack of pure water, and hunger, in places like Africa. Science is central to these, and it seems to me that, if you like, it is too important to leave to the scientists or elites who know about these things. 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.

  Q255  Chairman: You seem to be indicating in terms of your vision as the Science Minister that you will not be concentrating perhaps as much on the knowledge economy and using OSI very much as an economic driver but, in fact, broadening that remit. Is that a fair analysis?

  Malcolm Wicks: It is early days, as it were, and I am still listening and learning. I do not think it is about taking our eye off the economic ball. The knowledge economy, the way in which science and innovation can drive our economy and our service sector manufacturing is absolutely vital, and although you can point to many good examples there are still sectors of industry and businesses, often small ones, where innovation is not at present the name of the game, so that is a major focus, and it is no surprise that the Chancellor talks a great deal now about science and innovation when he is talking about the future of our economy. It seems to me as a newcomer, however, that this is not just about the economy or just about business but about the application of science in, for example, the National Health Service and, I suspect, other areas of social policy, which may—and I need to learn about this—have been neglected by what science and technology has to offer.

  Q256  Chairman: So would you expect some changes in OSI to reflect that broadening agenda?

  Malcolm Wicks: I think it is too soon to talk about changes. What I would say is that I think I want to open up dialogue and conversations with some departments and some sectors which we may not have had so many discussions with in the past.

  Q257  Chairman: Now, Lord Sainsbury has moved now to a new role with his review of science across government. How do you fit into that, or is he still the spectre at the feast?

  Malcolm Wicks: He remains a great man at the feast. People tell me every day what a difficult act he is to follow—and I thank him for that!—but truly I think it is important that we use his experience, and I was genuinely very pleased when I heard the Chancellor and the two Secretaries of State had asked him to undertake this work coming up to the CSR. It is an important remit, in any case, to advise the Chancellor and senior colleagues on this aspect of science and innovation and, frankly, it makes use of a great deal of experience.

  Q258  Chairman: But clearly you are aware that there have been some rather derogatory comments made that, in fact, Lord Sainsbury is continuing to run science from the Treasury. How do you stake your own claim when he has access to the Chancellor, where all the power is—allegedly?

  Malcolm Wicks: We will not discuss where power is located—

  Q259  Chairman: But you are happy with that relationship?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am very relaxed about that relationship. Of course I am. This is central, as we were discussing a few minutes ago, to the Government's agenda and I would have been disappointed, frankly, if we had not been able to make use of David Sainsbury's experience in this crucial period. It is a very relaxed relationship. We have discussed the review, and we will discuss it again.

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