Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)|
5 DECEMBER 2007
Q1 Chairman: It is a great pleasure to
welcome Professor Sir David King, the Government Chief Scientific
Adviserfor 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 partiesor
certainly from two partiesvery 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 paperand
I certainly feel thisthe 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
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
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 onceand we will probably come across
that, because it is very topicalwhere, 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
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 enemywhich 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 lowbut 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
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
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 invitedthis
is the high pointby 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
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
expertiseand there is an interesting story underlying thisin
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 Citycome 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
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
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
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"