Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)


17 JANUARY 2007

  Q260  Dr Turner: Can I change the topic slightly? You have already made a passing reference to stem cell research and that is one of the shining lights in the British scientific picture at the moment. Do you have a view on whether the decision of the HFEA not at present to license the creation of chimera embryoes for purely research purposes is likely to undermine that? Do you have a personal view on stem cell research and your role as Science Minister in influencing it?

  Malcolm Wicks: I think where we are at the moment is that the regulatory body, the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, are conducting work; they are absolutely the right body to lead that public debate on a very important issue; they have the track record to do that. We need to engage scientific opinion; we need to get the best evidence about the potentiality of this newer form of stem cell research and yes, we need to engage a well-informed public opinion in what is proving to be a controversial area. More generally the Government, Britain, is of course enthusiastically committed to stem cell research. We are a world leader in this field: it helps us to enhance our reputation as a good place to do science, and the potentiality is obviously enormous. None of us I do not think could put a time period on it, but I sense we are within touching distance, historically, through science such as stem cell to tackle some of the most debilitating conditions that affect hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people in this country alone and which are a feature of most extended families. So I want to see stem cell research continue; we need to get the best scientific opinion on that; and, as I say, we need well-informed public debate. Well-informed public debate is not always the same, of course, as just seeing one lobby coming at you and having a well-organised campaign, so I emphasise a well-informed, rational public debate about this important area.

  Q261  Dr Harris: I have one question on this subject. We are conducting an inquiry and I hope your Department, because of the relevance to innovation and the future of the health of the sector and inward investment, would consider providing evidence on that aspect of not necessarily the policy but the impact of the policy to us, but can you comment on the impact that there would be, regardless of the merits of the policy decision, on bioscience in this country and investment and the place where we would like to be, or DTI has previously said we would like to be, in respect of a good place to do this research, from a negative outcome, whether that be delay or a ban on this sort of stem cell research? Regardless of the merits of the policy, do you see that there is an impact on investment?

  Malcolm Wicks: If I was not aware already, and I think I was, I became very well aware of our being a centre of excellence when a leading institute in California came to see me and told me just that, that because of Governor Schwarzenegger's more liberal, rational approach, they wanted to collaborate with British researchers because we are so good at this. Now, you asked me to comment notwithstanding the merits but the merits, it seems to me, are important, are they not, because if this is a useful line of scientific inquiry, using these hybrids, then we should do it. Now, I must not fall into the trap, and I am not equipped to, of suddenly making out I am an expert in all aspects of science that I am asked about, and I am certainly nowhere near that in this area. We need now a period of quiet reflection, I do not think that needs to take too long, however, where we get the best scientific views on this and, as I say, we engage public debate, but I want to see Britain maintain its position as a global centre of excellence in terms of stem cell research. If certain lines of enquiry are not pursued that has to be on rational scientific grounds; it must not be for other factors which lack rationality.

  Q262  Graham Stringer: I do not want to push this too far because we are having an inquiry on it, but your answer is really in two parts—that we have to take the public with us on these issues and we also require more scientific evidence. I am rather sceptical about the last point, Minister. Do you really think that we are short of evidence as to whether to continue with this research on chimeras at the present time, or is it the weight of public debate that is really pressing?

  Malcolm Wicks: A great debate is starting and leading scientists and others are writing to the newspapers and putting forward their views. I think we need this period of quieter reflection now so that the regulatory authority can assess the overall weight of scientific opinion and look at anyone dissenting from some of the views that we have heard, so I think that is genuinely required in this, but public opinion is also important. I am confident that, when presented with appropriate evidence about climate change or other things one can think of, which can be very controversial territory, the need for animal experimentation in carefully regulated territories, when presented with proper evidence one can win over public opinion to whatever seems appropriate based on the science, and I have some confidence about this.

  Q263  Bob Spink: There are three key factors that make us a centre of excellence in the world on stem cell. One is the welfare stem cell bank, and we have a number of American lines in that bank; another one is, of course, the regulatory framework, which is ethically based but flexible and sensible and rational and we must do nothing to damage that, and it seems we are taking a step back on that at the moment or considering that which is very worrying to us; and the third is, of course, the excellence of the people who work in stem cell research in this country. What are you doing, Minister, to make sure we get pushed forward into the public view the lobby groups representing those millions of people around the world who suffer from these very debilitating diseases, like childhood diabetes and other degenerative diseases, so they can help to change public opinion because they have done that very successfully in America—better than the politicians or scientists could ever do.

  Malcolm Wicks: I must not repeat myself too much but I think that is what I mean by "well-informed public debate". Public policy should never be determined by the equivalent of a Radio 4 Today poll where "allegedly", as they say on these occasions, lobbies can put in the votes to fix the result, and I think most of us as politicians can see a lobby coming from a mile away, can we not? You have mentioned other groups that will likely have a different perspective on different areas of research, and it is important that they can present their views. Now, I have to be careful, Chairman, because Department of Health appropriately lead on this aspect of it but clearly, as it were coming from the Science Ministry, the DTI, we will be fully involved in these discussions and I will be having discussions with my opposite numbers in the Department of Health.

  Chairman: We are very pleased to hear that, because we do feel this is an issue of science at the end of the day.

  Q264  Dr Turner: We had the pleasure yesterday of witnessing some of this stem cell research in progress at one of our leading public sector research establishments, and OSI last year conducted a survey of the sustainability of public sector research establishments which suggests that there was serious concern about the future of some of these research institutes. What responsibility as the Minister do you feel for the future of public sector research establishments and their role in the future of British science?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am just wondering if you are thinking about any particular establishment?

  Q265  Dr Turner: I might be, but it is intended as a question of general principle.

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes. Clearly much of the research that government enables, and we know we are now spending a good deal of money on science compared with where we used to be, is spent perfectly appropriately at arm's length through the research councils, the MRC and the rest, and through the universities, and that is absolutely appropriate. In terms of closer-to-home public sector institutes, would you mind, Mr Willis, if I asked Sir Keith to tackle that?

  Q266  Chairman: No, because I think Sir Keith knows the particular institutes that we are most concerned about.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: If you would like to name the institute I will use fewer words.

  Q267  Dr Turner: There are two institutes immediately that come to mind, the NERC CEH Institute, and NIMR for the MRC.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: The general statement is that OSI, of course, has a responsibility for gaining evidence—and I will not say very much, we had a long conversation recently—on the sustainability of public sector research establishments within government. The two that you particularly mention we have an ownership of in DTI. CEH, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is a NERC institute and NIMR, of course, is a Medical Research Council institute. My advice to the Minister on both of these is that they are key institutes; they undertake research that is appropriate for a public sector research establishment. With the CEH restructuring funds were provided to NERC to reach international excellence, which is the benchmark, and I believe that is well on track. With NIMR there is a pencilled-in commitment to invest in sustaining that as a world class institute. To repeat what I said a few weeks ago, we are awaiting the business case and the value for money case on options in the normal way, but my advice to the Minister is that we maintain a very high commitment to both of these institutes; I think they are crucial to the future of the science programme.

  Q268  Graham Stringer: I think it was last month you said that this country used to be Third Division North when it came to the application of knowledge—

  Malcolm Wicks: I should have said Third Division South, sir, should I not!

  Q269  Graham Stringer: Where do you think we are now? I am not sure what sort of historical perspective you were using, whether it was the early 1960s—

  Malcolm Wicks: On innovation?

  Q270  Graham Stringer: On the application of science.

  Malcolm Wicks: It is very difficult, is it not, to pursue the football comparisons. I think we are certainly now in the premiership league, but I do not think we are yet Chelsea or Manchester United.

  Q271  Graham Stringer: So the bottom half of the premiership?

  Malcolm Wicks: Yes, but I think we are the one to watch and we use global players where necessary! I cannot quite put a position on it but my sense is, as I said earlier when the Chairman asked me, that—and it is becoming an old story—Britain is the place that is good at science but not its application. You only have to look, as you know, at some of the spin-out companies, the commercial companies being established in our universities. That used to be very rare, and more and more of those are being developed. I saw that at the University of Surrey recently with their company on small satellites. The establishment of the Technology Strategy Board with a budget to pursue innovation; the Treasury's commitment to R&D, the tax credits, et cetera—all of those things show that we are moving ahead really pretty well at the moment.

  Q272  Graham Stringer: Is there anything else that we should do as a government, as a country, to become Manchester United?

  Malcolm Wicks: Or Arsenal?

  Q273  Chairman: And is Sir Keith the special one?

  Malcolm Wicks: The Technology Strategy Board has been there for a while but now it is becoming an executive board, and I think that is institutionally a major step in the right direction. We have to find ways of talking about R&D in the sectors which are not taking it seriously at the moment. I suppose that is a broad generalisation but some of the top 100 companies take it seriously, some of the smaller ones do not, so how do we get R&D innovation into some of the smaller and medium-sized companies? I think there is another aspect to this, by the way, which is slightly different, which is what concept of R&D do we have in some of the service sectors, because most of us would recognise R&D if we went to an engineering company or aerospace company, we would know what it looked like, but given that 80% of the economy is now in the service sector, and many of those service sectors are excellent—retail, financial services, music, advertising, world leaders—what does R&D look like there and are we measuring it? Are we doing ourselves no favours by not measuring some of the R&D that makes some of those service sectors excellent?

  Q274  Graham Stringer: Is departmental structure going to be helpful in improving our situation? You are stuck, locked in the middle of the DTI, science has been in different departments. Would it be better if it was a free standing department? Gordon Brown has been heavily leaked as saying he will set up a free standing science department. Will that help? Is it a good idea?

  Malcolm Wicks: I do not consider myself, nor do my colleagues, and I can speak for them I am sure, stuck, "locked" in the DTI. We are in a warm embrace in the DTI, and even more seriously, clearly I do not have to preach to you, Mr Stringer, about the links between science, technology and trade and industry. There is obviously a fit there. But I do think these issues about, in a sense, how we slice up the cake of governance are ones which Alastair Darling was saying to the Committee you can argue to and fro. I do not think there is ever an absolutely perfect right answer and that is true with most of the ministries I have had some involvement with. So, to use the hackneyed expression, "we are where we are", and it will be up to the Prime Minister whoever he or she might be in the future, to make judgments about that.

  Q275  Graham Stringer: While we are on the DTI, what role do you see for regional development agencies in encouraging and enabling technology transfer, particularly in the regions? Because I think there is a spatial problem in this country about where research and science is located. Are regional development agencies important?

  Malcolm Wicks: I think they are very important and I think that question reminds us all that while you have a lead ministry on these issues these questions about science and application innovation are not niche commodities. They are a range of institutions and we need to take them very seriously, starting in our schools, the sector skills councils, the learning and skills councils and then you hit on the important regional dimension. Clearly, by definition, it will be the RDA that best understands its part of the country, its economic base, what the future trends are likely to be, and where there is a need to push things on. It will be the RDA that understands businesses and service sectors in that area, so it is important that regional development agencies have this role.

  Q276  Graham Stringer: Is there anything more that your section in the DTI can do to improve this? Could the relationship between regional development agencies and science and research be improved?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am sure it could, but would you mind if I turn to Sir Keith at this stage? It may not be orthodox but I do not think I want to pretend after eight weeks that I have totally become the expert.

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: I agree totally with the Minister's response to you. All I would add is to look at the trend. RDAs do now play a very big role in a regional context, and an increasing role, and that is not only true of the North West and the North East which have got larger finances but all of them. Without question there is a bigger role that they can play and, I think, wish to play, and some of that will depend I think on how their finances are structured and what remit they are given into the future, but they are an extremely important part of what we are doing. Let me give you one example. The Technology Strategy Board recently launched its first innovation platform on intelligent transport, and this is in the area of national challenge type funding, which I think is going to be a very exciting way forward for the Technology Strategy Board. The contributors to the pot were DTI, Department for Transport, South East Development Agency and a research council. We are seeing more and more situations where the regional development agencies are moving alongside and really adding value, so I think it is a very rapidly changing situation.

  Malcolm Wicks: I would only add that, given the importance of the university in this story, particularly, as I say, as more and more universities have spin-out commercial companies often still located within the university, the RDA has a particular role to play in engaging with universities to make sure that the economic opportunities for universities are seized.

  Q277  Graham Stringer: Minister, you are clearly an enthusiast for science and science education, using science to grow the economy and innovate. What do you say to those commentators who fundamentally disagree with your position—which is my position as well, as it happens? I am talking about people like Simon Jenkins, who say that probably the most scientifically well-educated, literate country in recent times is the Soviet Union but actually they were hopeless at innovation and science transfer, and we are spending rather too much time, energy and money, worrying about scientific literacy. What would you say to people like that?

  Malcolm Wicks: I think I would say that they are wrong, and I would want to explain what you understand, as I do, about globalisation, that the winners or the losers economically in the future are very much about how we embrace science and innovation; that we have to add value to our manufacturing products to compete globally; that we have to add value to our service structure, and in all sorts of ways that involves good science including basic, pure research, but also increasingly its application and its innovation, and if we are to do that, more of our labour force needs to be not just scientifically literate but scientifically skilled at a range of levels, post-doctoral but also at the technician levels; there is a huge agenda about education which this Committee will be very familiar with; and I think it does relate to what I called perhaps rather pretentiously the need for a knowledge democracy, so we take the public with us in recognising where we are going as an economy and what kinds of strengths we need to develop and what skills our people require.

  Q278  Dr Turner: Just quickly coming back to innovation, since my time on the Committee a lot more effort has gone into improving the British record on innovation but still one outstanding problem remains for spin-out technology companies on development which is that the British venture capital industry will not invest until the product is just about staring them in the face and they can see the bottom line in the black, so these companies have to cross what is commonly known as the "valley of death". Do you feel in any position to encourage moves in the DTI to improve the capital situation for these nascent companies?

  Malcolm Wicks: I am certainly familiar with the concept of the valley of death. You will recall that we discussed this, Dr Turner, when I was Energy Minister, given your interest in some of the marine technologies, how we enhance wave and tidal power, and how we have very good but often quite small, quite fragile companies in the UK, and in that particular area, of course, my department in the DTI are quite significant funders to enable those ideas to move to the application stage and I think that is looking relatively successful. So there is certainly a need for funding of that kind. I think the R&D tax credits regime is very relevant to this and I think, Sir Keith, the new Technology Board is also, is it not?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: Very much so. This issue of venture capital and early stage investment is important. I think I have said before anecdotally that this is improving, and I think we are all looking forward to the Sainsbury Review. The published terms of reference of that and the items he wanted to look at show that he is going to visit that area of venture capital, and I think it will be helpful to us to see what he discovers in his conversations with that.

  Q279  Adam Afriyie: I would like to focus on the re-organisation that led to the creation of the Office of Science and Innovation, and I think Sir Brian Bender announced on 28 February 2006 that this review had taken place, and it was a surprise to the Chairman and a surprise to us that the review had taken place, and there was an outcome to this review when there was not an official announcement of the review. My question to you in your first couple of months in the job is what feedback have you had on the creation of the OSI, on the reorganisation, and do you regard it as a success based on that feedback from the scientific community?

  Malcolm Wicks: This is a little bit like the earlier question about where should the Ministry of Science be located; there is obviously a debate here but I think the feedback I am getting from people in business in particular is that it is important, and some would argue vital, that science and innovation are located together and, as it were, hang together for the reasons we have been discussing, and I am certainly impressed as a new Minister in this section of the Department by the commitment of all the colleagues in OSI, not only to science but to the innovation agenda, so I feel very relaxed about this. In some respects, and Sir Keith will give a view, it is still relatively early days, but I do think with the Technology Strategy Board which we have mentioned once or twice we are seeing important developments already. Could I ask Sir Keith to add to that?

  Professor Sir Keith O'Nions: You sought my opinion on this fairly soon after OSI was created and it is my job to be positive about it. Having said that, I am extremely positive about it, and I think there are some really tangible benefits. Given the juxtaposition of the business defined technology strategy opportunities and the more scientifically defined opportunities in the science base, shaping that whole from basic research through to its application and take-up in business is an easier task to pull off, and also it is enabling us to focus in the innovation area on some issues which have not received focus from within DTI to the extent that maybe they should have in the past. That is things like the relationship of intellectual property and patents, and metrology, which translates as the National Measurement System and the National Physical Lab, Standards and how this also fits together as part of the support of the environment where the innovation takes place. So bringing it under one roof does have demonstrable merits. All I can say is when I visited the States they say: "My God, you people are lucky having what is, in effect, part of the Department of Commerce linked with what would be the National Science Foundation linked with what would be the National Institute of Health and one or two other things" in a place where you have a minister able to look after the policy of that whole entity.

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