Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)



  Q1 Chairman: It is a great pleasure to welcome Professor Sir David King, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser—for the first time in front of the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee, but an old friend of the Science and Technology Select Committee. Sir David, I would like to put on record our thanks to you both as a contributor to the select committee process, particularly to the Science and Technology Select Committee, but also for your work as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. We are, as a group of MPs from different parties—or certainly from two parties—very grateful and appreciative of the work you have done. I would like to put that formally on record. Thank you very much indeed.

  Professor Sir David King: Thank you for those very kind words.

  Q2  Chairman: Over the years you have obviously had a chance to redefine the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Has it changed much? Has the role as you have seen it, the one you accepted all those years ago, changed from what it is now to the role you are handing over to your successor?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes, I think it has. I think it would be fair to say that the role of Chief Scientific Adviser and the way it is carried out is going to be very dependent on the person who occupies the position. I have looked at how it has developed under different people over the last 25 years and I think it is fair to say that each individual has left their own imprint on the position. I have developed, perhaps more than has been there before, the challenge role. That is really the way I operate in my own research laboratory as a scientist: to challenge all of my post-docs and PhD students on each piece of their work, because the final result, if it sustains the challenge, is going to be more robust. I think it is fair to say that I have been utterly ruthless in challenging every piece of work if it is seen to be critical, from whichever part of government it emanates. Let me say something about the challenge: it has little to do with the status of the person you are challenging. Every scientist knows that when you have finished writing a paper—and I certainly feel this—the work that you have just finished writing is the best thing since sliced bread, then you send it off to be published and back come the referees' reports and that is the most sobering moment in a scientist's life, when somebody sitting in a more objective state than you have been for the last three or four years working up this piece of work has found a few flaws, a few things that do not quite match up. You are very close to the coalface; these people are standing back from it. No matter how bright the person, no matter how good the scientist, the challenge process is an essential part of seeing how robust it is.

  Q3  Chairman: Are you saying that depends on your personality, that you are able to do that across government? Should that not be a right of whoever is being GCSA, to be able to challenge robustly the evidence gathering and assimilation process wherever it occurs?

  Professor Sir David King: I think you are right. I would very much hope that this challenge function continues into the future. Within government there has always been a bit of nervousness about my appearing and seeming to be critically challenging, but that turned around, so that, for example, the Chief Veterinary Officer in Defra would herself come round to my office and say, "Could you please challenge me on this piece of work I have done?" In other words, people began to realise that there is a real advantage in having the challenge process check the robustness of a piece of work. There is another interesting point: I am probably better at challenging if it is outside my own direct area of expertise. That may sound a little bit contradictory but I have discovered that. For example, to take foot and mouth disease, as a chemical physicist I was fairly far removed from virology and epidemiology but I had to talk to the experts. They accept that I can ask dumb questions and, at the same time, I find that I can start challenging the experts, who probably have not stood back from their field for some time. When it comes to nanosciences, which is my own research area, I find that as soon as I am surrounded by experts they can all position me from my known published position in nanoscience, whereas when I am talking virology and epidemiology there is no prior history that I come in with and so I have a much more objective position.

  Q4  Chairman: Does that not lead really to the accusation that is sometimes made that you have become the story rather than the science: that you have become so powerful, if you like, in this challenge function that people stop challenging you and you become the story? Is that a danger?

  Professor Sir David King: I think that has only happened once—and we will probably come across that, because it is very topical—where, as a result, I have been accused of either being in the farmers' pockets or in the Government's pocket. I believe the scientific argument that I am making should always be examined. This should not be a question of personalities, it should be a question of: How strong is the argument that is being made on the simple rational science base?

  Q5  Chairman: When we interviewed you as a witness in our scientific evidence, the Government inquiry, we were very, very anxious in terms of asking those questions that, across government, the departmental Chief Scientific Advisers should in fact adopt a similar role to you of being able to speak out independently. Do you feel that has been achieved or do they wait for you to speak out?

  Professor Sir David King: We are now discussing the very sensitive position that any chief scientific adviser would be in: you need to keep the trust of the public. In my view, that is first and foremost the most important part of the role, but at the same time you need to keep the trust of the ministers, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet you are working with. Treading that line is the biggest challenge of the job. In other words, if the Chief Scientific Advisers went straight into the public domain being critical of other parts of government, maintaining the trust of the government system would become really problematic. At the same time, I do not want to duck your question. I think there is more to be done in establishing the independent voice of science from within government. I think you are on the right track.

  Q6  Chairman: You are going to School of Enterprise and the Environment, which is a fantastic new opportunity. Will that build on the core elements of your work as the Chief Scientific Adviser, or is that going to take you in very new directions?

  Professor Sir David King: It will certainly build on my work, both as a scientist and as a government employee and a scientist in government. The School of Enterprise and the Environment is, I believe, worldwide uniquely establishing for itself a niche around three areas: the private sector; government; and the environment. It is really a matter of moving away from marginalising environmental issues, of creating "green" as the adjective that appears in front of any environmental issue. The object is to mainstream environmental issues into all parts of Oxford, including economics, politics, et cetera; mainstreaming it all but, also, by bringing in the private sector, indicating that environmental issues are crucial to the private sector as well. We will certainly not be labelling the private sector as an enemy—which I think sometimes appears through green terminology. Mainstreaming the environmental issues for the 21st century is really the object of this school.

  Q7  Dr Gibson: We have known each other some time and I have always thought that your success in many things is because you are political. You are not just a chemist, you are not just the Chief Scientific Adviser to government, but you have politics written in your bones: you kind of understand how the system works and where the arrows might come from and how to fire them back. In that, you have had high moments and low moments and some moments where you cannot decide whether they were high or low—but that is how politics is. When was your highest moment and when was your lowest moment in terms of the job you did? How did you get into that position? Did it just creep up on you or was it spontaneous?

  Professor Sir David King: First of all, let me say I am flattered by your comments.

  Q8  Dr Gibson: Just take it, as it is there.

  Professor Sir David King: Thank you. I would have to say I have enjoyed every minute of this job and a very big part of that is the interaction with the political side: the interaction with this Committee has always been absolutely fruitful and energising and enjoyable and at the same time with ministers across government. In that sense, I must be a bit of a political animal. I really enjoy the atmosphere. The high moment would certainly be establishing a position within the Cabinet for science, demonstrating that science could deliver in real time a solution to a massive national problem. Of course I am referring to the foot and mouth disease outbreak, where the Cabinet was at a loss as to what to do. The outbreak was increasing exponentially: it began on Feb 20, 2001; on March 21 it was still climbing exponentially and 45 new infected farms were reported on that day. We produced computer models which showed exactly how to turn that into exponential decay. That was implemented because nobody else had come up with a solution, and the data points fell. It was a tremendous demonstration that complex phenomena can now be modelled, even in real time, with powerful computers, powerful understanding. In epidemiological modellers we had world leaders. They are considered now to be world leaders. We demonstrated what British science could do.

  Q9  Dr Gibson: Did the politicians you interacted with understand that?

  Professor Sir David King: Massively. I said, "It will bring it under control in two days" and in two days the curve followed through. And, of course, the Prime Minister declared an election date based on the computer printouts that I was giving. That was a first as well.

  Q10  Chairman: So it was not the The Sun that did it?

  Professor Sir David King: June 6 was chosen on the basis of a linear plot which appeared to be approaching zero but, of course, one infected farm a week is still quite a long way to go.

  Q11  Dr Gibson: Have you written that up?

  Professor Sir David King: No, I have not.

  Q12  Dr Gibson: You will though.

  Professor Sir David King: You asked me about the low point. I suppose the low point and, as it turned out, the high point, would have to be where I was invited—this is the high point—by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to deliver their plenary lecture at their big meeting in Seattle, the winter meeting of February 2004. Their magazine Science asked me to write an article to boost my lecture before it was delivered. In that article, buried in the article, was a sentence saying that global warming was a more serious threat to mankind even than global terrorism, and let us say that by the time I arrived in Seattle it was clear that some people in government thought I had overstepped the mark.

  Q13  Dr Gibson: Who was that?

  Professor Sir David King: In Seattle I certainly had the biggest audience I will ever have. I would imagine it was 3,000 or 4,000 people. I could see what a politician feels like when addressing a large crowd of people. The people came to listen. I think it was the most receptive audience I could have imagined. That was the plus side. But I was almost kept out of the media. There was an attempt to muzzle me. Who was that? That, it is well known, came from Number 10. That would be the low point and the high point as well, because that statement, let me remind you, before Al Gore began talking about this subject, raised the profile of the threats associated with climate change globally. I have since that time given 500 or 600 talks on climate change threats around the world, including to parliaments around the world. I have talked to parliaments as far afield as the Australian Parliament, the Rwandan Parliament and the Finnish Parliament on this subject by invitation. The result of that statement turned out to be also a high point but at the time it was not quite so good.

  Q14  Dr Gibson: If you write the book, how did you get the idea of climate change? Did you wake up screaming it in the night or did some PhD student in Cambridge talk to you in a pub? We know how ideas emanate in the intellectual world. How did you come to that conclusion that climate change was the issue? It has not always been up there in lights.

  Professor Sir David King: It was not up in lights. Quite simply, I was Head of Chemistry at Cambridge for seven years. The Chemistry Department at Cambridge had a remarkable expertise—and there is an interesting story underlying this—in the stratospheric ozone and ozone depletion. The remarkable story is that one of my predecessors won a Nobel Prize for work on this little molecule ozone which was of no interest to anybody, it was just an esoteric molecule. He did flash photolysis on it and won a Nobel Prize. But that meant that the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge was the residence of experts in ozone, so, when the ozone layer was beginning to be chewed up and we understood the threat, my department started modelling this. We became the experts for modelling the stratospheric ozone. A follow-through was then to look at climate change. There are 120 chemical reactions occurring up there and this was all modelled by these teams in chemistry at Cambridge. I was more than aware of this as a big problem. Certainly when I took the job, I told people I knew that this was the issue on which I really wanted to raise the profile. It was not quite an accidental meeting.

  Q15  Dr Gibson: For the record, do you remember a town called Cromer in North Norfolk which was once called "Ozone City—come and get your ozone here". They took the sign down.

  Professor Sir David King: Yes. Ozone in the lower atmosphere is very unpleasant but we need it in the stratosphere.

  Dr Gibson: Chemistry is quite useful. I am convinced.

  Q16  Dr Turner: I seem to remember that in some of the evidence which you gave to our predecessor committee you made the statement that you regretted the fact that many people with scientific qualifications and experience within the Civil Service felt it necessary to keep that background and expertise under wraps in order not to prejudice their chances of advancement. This would seem to say something rather unfortunate about the culture of our Civil Service and its upper echelons and presumably it is not conducive to good scientific involvement in government policymaking. In your experience, has that created difficulties?

  Professor Sir David King: Regrettably, I would have to say yes. I think that the position of scientists within the Civil Service is such that those people who are working in laboratories are in a perfectly satisfactory situation, but when it comes to rising up through the senior Civil Service and into positions, permanent secretaries ultimately, I think the pathways to promotion are bleak for scientists. I was referring really to that. The net result is that in the upper echelons of the Civil Service it is a constant battle to see that wherever possible the scientific evidence is put before the policy advice system. When I say it is a constant battle, I think my successor is going to have to continue to battle on with that process. Within government departments, I am afraid, it is also possible that Chief Scientific Advisers can be marginalised because the policy advisers feel uncomfortable with that side of it. There is a culture which I think is changing or may be going to change there. I began to get the respect of policy advisers on what science could deliver, so the culture is changing, but it is very slow and we are going to have to keep going at it. Really the best way forward is to co-ordinate all parts of the policy advisory system to accept that a firm knowledge base can be achieved from science, from social sciences, from economics and even from law, so it would bring together the sound aspects of the knowledge-based system. I think that would strengthen it enormously. We are also proposing to have a big campaign, which I am sure my successor will pick up and run with, to raise the profile of science advice within government departments in the way that has been done so successfully for law. The programme that raised the profile was called "The judge over your shoulder". That was a very good catchphrase and it was simply saying to every civil servant: "Think if law might be helping your advisory system." We need to get that idea into science as well. One of my challenges is: Please give me an example of government advice where you think science is not relevant. I still have not found an area where this is the case.

  Q17  Dr Turner: You have put yourself at the forefront of trying to achieve evidence-based policymaking.

  Professor Sir David King: Yes.

  Q18  Dr Turner: In so doing, where have you found most of the difficulty? Is it the senior civil servants? Are ministers more receptive or less receptive to scientific evidence-based advice?

  Professor Sir David King: Interestingly I think I would say that ministers seem to get very interested and very excited about what science can do. I run the Government's Foresight programme. Within that programme I must have worked with at least 30 ministers and each and every one of them, once they have discovered what it is all about, have become really excited about it. I do not wish to blame the Civil Service: it is a culture that does find science rather difficult. In other words, the culture seems to think that a scientist should be wearing a white coat and be in a laboratory and then there are the policy advisers who stand above this and lean into the laboratory and pick out the information they think is relevant. We have to take science out of the box. We have to have it right there, at the shoulder of the senior civil servants.

  Q19  Dr Turner: Do you think that perhaps what is missing in the culture is insight? Working scientists have an insight which is almost unique to the process of a working scientist. Would you agree with that?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes. I would also say, "Some people don't get it." Should we have a discussion about whether or not the earth is flat? It is probable that not many people around Parliament or the Civil Service would think is a worthwhile discussion to have, but on some other issues you would think they were "flat-earthers" really.

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