Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)|
5 DECEMBER 2007
Q20 Chairman: If you take this week's
announcement about the international league tables in terms of
literacy and numeracy, where suddenly we have gone down the league
tables, before there was any analysis as to why the use of computers
in schools was becoming the culprit for that happening without
any shred of evidence to support that. This is something which
frustrates ourselves as a committee. It perhaps says that at the
end of the day political imperatives outweigh the scientific evidence.
Professor Sir David King: Yes.
I would take it even a little further. People's gut reaction to
a situation is what they spill out immediately. A scientist, as
you have indicated, would sit down and analyse. And this takes
time. You do not get an immediate sound bite. If somebody comes
to me and says, "What are the issues underlying our fall
in this table?" I would say, "I will be able to give
you an answer in a year's time and certainly no sooner" and
so there is a little problem with time limits of response. The
Foresight programmes, which I am very proud of, take two years.
We work with a minimum of 100 scientists and engineers, social
scientists, et cetera, on each one of them in depth, producing
thousands of pages which are distilled down into an accessible
report. That is robust. That means that we have the best of evidence-based
analysis going forward. But two years is sometimes a long time
to wait. I have noticed that ministers seldom last the full two
Q21 Dr Turner: The Chief Scientific
Adviser's Committee includes all the departmental CSAs. What is
it intended to achieve? How effective has it been? Just as an
aside: Have you ever felt it necessary to go to the aid of a departmental
CSA when he is having difficulty with the rest of his department?
Professor Sir David King: The
answer to your final question is absolutely. I have done that
very often and I am still going to be doing it right up until
the last day that I am in office. The Chief Scientific Advisers
who have been parachuted in from outside government are a close-knit
group of nine people and I think we function very well together
and we help each other. We cover a broad range of disciplines.
That is, I would say, working very well. The first part of the
question was: Does the Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee work
well. The Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee includes those
nine people plus the Chief Scientist in every part of government.
For example, yesterday we met at the Food Standards Agency and
the Chief Scientist Andrew Wadge represents the Food Standards
Agency. By the way, I think he is doing a tremendous job. He produced
a Chief Scientist's annual report for the first time and I think
that is an exemplar for Chief Scientists in government departments.
It is a tremendous report. It is worth your Committee having a
look at it. Andrew Wadge has also begun to develop a public voice,
so he has had quite a bit of press recently on his various statements,
which have been very, very sensible, science-based statements
on food safety.
Q22 Dr Turner: You have referred
to the Foresight programme and also to the fact that ministers
tend to change before you have come to the end of the piece of
work, so there is a slight difficulty in translating the outcome
of Foresight's policy. How much has the political side of government
listened to the outcome of the Foresight work?
Professor Sir David King: That
is very, very important. The best case example is that of flood
and coastal defences. Almost immediately the sum of money spent
on our flood and coastal defence management in the Environment
Agency went up from £300 million a year to £600 million
a year. We are now at £700 million a year with a commitment
to go even further up. That is exactly what we said was necessary
in the Foresight report. We had floods this summer and there were
queries about whether we were moving fast enough. I am afraid
it is going to take quite a few years to manage the flood defences
of the UK. Basically, this involves re-jigging every city's sewerage
and drainage system. London will be complete by 2014. Going around
city by city is going to be a very lengthy exercise, but we are
on the road and we are the first country in the world to be dealing
with climate change impacts. That is the good example. There are
several examples that have not gone down so well. They are in
the area where we were looking for opportunities on the horizon
for wealth creation in the UK. Cognitive Systems and The Electromagnetic
Spectrum are two of those where we could see enormous strengths
in the UK, where there were real opportunities for wealth creation.
I would say the follow-through has been very good on the Research
Council side in establishing new ventures but almost non existent
on the old DTI side, where there is a difficulty with the notion
of not picking winners. I happen to think that that notion needs
to be seriously re-examined. In Britain we have a world-leading
position in a technology that could wipe out silicon chip technology
and could convert photo-voltaics into easily accessible materials
at a much cheaper price, and I am taking about plastic electronics.
We now have three companies in plastic electronics that have patented
almost every single electronic component of a modern PC. You print
the plastic components using an ink-jet printer in air; you do
not have to use ultra high vacuum. It is exactly the sort of disruptive
technology that will completely sweep aside existing technologies.
I would like to see Britain do what South Korea did with broadband.
A South Korean invented broadband and the government poured money
in to establish broadband technology in South Korea and now it
has become a massive winner for those companies. I feel it would
be tremendous to see us pick plastic electronics as a platform
to develop a UK area of expertise in an area of manufacturing
which would be high value-added but which would really take over
an enormous potential market.
Q23 Chairman: That is what the Technology
Strategy Board is for, surely?
Professor Sir David King: Yes.
The Technology Strategy Board, if it is going to go down that
route, would have to pick winners and not spread its money thinly
over a whole range of projects.
Q24 Dr Turner: Certainly the old
DTI had a long history of doing this, and this cannot be unconnected
with the long period of this country's poor performance in turning
innovations into reality.
Professor Sir David King: Just
to say one more word on that: picking winners was bad news at
the time when we were saving some of our car industries, and eventually
they went to the wall anyway. That was not picking winners; that
was picking losers and trying to sustain them. I am talking about
a new industry that really has the opportunity for being the big
break-through industry of the 21st century. We are talking about
big winners on the basis of current technology and what it can
Q25 Dr Harris: Sir David, has the
Government's use of evidence improved in the last 10 years?
Professor Sir David King: Yes,
I would have to say I think it has.
Q26 Dr Harris: What evidence do you
have to back up that statement?
Professor Sir David King: Why
did I know that Evan Harris would follow that up in that way!
I would like to give youand you might not accept thisan
Q27 Dr Harris: I will accept that
because I have some as well. We will swap them.
Professor Sir David King: I would
just run through a whole series of issues, starting with foot
and mouth disease Ithe two book-ends of my Chief Scientific
Adviser positionand foot and mouth disease II and the lessons
we learned from that. Avian flu: the preparation for a pandemic
very, very driven by the science advisory system. I could go on.
If we look at high-profile, high-risk issues, we have now embedded
science in that process. I would like to mention the post-9/11
preparations that we did. Immediately after 9/11 I formed a panel
who were taken through the security system so that we could receive
advice from the intelligence services. This was formalised as
the Science Advisory Panel for Emergency Response by the Prime
Minister and through that panel we have worked with all our intelligence
services. I think there is no question: they all respect that
we have raised the profile on not only what the CBRN sciences
can deliver but also the social sciences. Our greater degree of
robustness: all the way from the preparations of first responder
policewho are from now in almost every police forcewe
have been checking that all of these are in the most robust state.
Q28 Dr Harris: Could I respond with
a couple of other examples at the lower end, because I think there
is no doubt that when the risks are high governments take scientific
advice and it could be argued they do that more. Looking back,
would you say it is a satisfactory situation that, for example,
it took so long to persuade the Government and the Department
of Health to be permissive on the question of hybrid embryos (something
on which this Committee did a report)? Would you be happy that
now, for the first time ever, the Medicines, Health and Regulatory
Authority allows homeopathic provingswhich are no scientist's
version of evidenceto be considered as evidence of efficacy
for the regulation of those sorts of products? I am suggesting
that there are anecdotes from the other end that suggest in certain
departments things have not got that much better.
Professor Sir David King: I am
going to have to agree with you. The issue of homeopathic medicine
leaves me completely puzzled. How can you have homeopathic medicines
labelled by a department which is driven by science? There is
not one jot of evidence supporting the notion that homeopathic
medicines are of any assistance whatsoever; therefore, I would
say they are a risk to the population because people may take
them expecting that they are dealing with a serious problem. You
and I would agree that is the danger.
Q29 Dr Harris: Previously I asked
what process there was to analyse this in a more rigorous way
than the citing of exampleswhich is essentially what we
have been doingand you identified that your department-by-department
review of science was a good way of doing that. That is published.
But, in the interimbecause that is-department by-departmentI
asked you previously what is wrong with commissioning some outside
research which is at least as independent as that of the Chief
Scientific Adviser, to analyse whether policy that claims to be
evidence-based is indeed evidence-based and what the strength
of that evidence is and whether policy which should be evidence-based,
such as the regulation of medicines or the regime around embryo
research, at least as far as the science is concerned, is based
on evidence? Can you give me any comfort that that is something
which could be considered, which outside researchers might be
invited to do? Because they would need government co-operation,
obviously, would they not?
Professor Sir David King: I am
not rejecting your idea, but just in defence of the views of the
science in government departments I do bring in external assessors
to conduct those reviews. For example, we are currently doing
the Department of Healthyou may raise your eyes at that.
Q30 Chairman: That should be interesting.
Professor Sir David King: Of course
we will look at homeopathic so-called medicine. These external
advisers I think carry the weight of objectivity that you are
looking for in your idea.
Q31 Dr Harris: It should be possible
for a department's response to a report of the Science and Technology
Committeebecause I think the clue is in the titleto
be looked at for whether it makes assertions that are rationale
in scientific terms. The following example did not come from me,
our clerks have written it. When we said that there was concern
that access to abortion was delayed because of perceived barriers
such as the need to collect two doctors' signatureand,
in the context of people who will not help, conscientious objectors,
that might be difficultthe Government's response was as
follows: "Current evidence does not indicate that the requirement
for two doctors' signatures is causing delay: the latest data,
for 2006, show ... 68% of abortions taking place at less than
10 weeks, and 89% at less than 13 weeks." We had an interaction
in the evidence session with the minister where it was challenged
that that was not a response. Because it might be betterit
might be even better, essentially, we do not know, but that is
not an answer. That was challenged in evidence yet it is just
repeated here. I think that is embarrassing, in a response to
a science report, for that assertion to be made. They might just
say, "We don't know. There's no research. Sorry," but
instead they have contested it with a non-scientific answer. Is
there is a mechanism you would have thought ought to be in place,
so that these government responses to Select Committee reports
on science should be vetted in some way to pick out that sort
Professor Sir David King: I would
have to say that is thoroughly embarrassing. Of course the Chief
Scientist in the Department of Health needs a mechanism to see
that that sort of statementit is a non sequitur
that statementis not put up as a response. It is quite
Dr Harris: I will quit while I am ahead,
Q32 Dr Iddon: In May 2001 you expressed
concern about the scientific capability of government departments
and said that you were going to focus on improving their capability
to deal with scientific evidence and policy based on that. Have
you managed to do any of that?
Professor Sir David King: In terms
of raising the profile of science in government departments?
Q33 Dr Iddon: Making them more efficient
and giving them a greater capability to judge the evidence and
use the evidence in policymaking. Have we made a lot of progress
in your time?
Professor Sir David King: Enormous
progress in some departments. For example, in Defra there is a
complete acceptance that science plays a key role at the highest
level in that department. Successive secretaries of state have
developed a very good relationship with their Chief Scientific
Adviser and their Chief Veterinary Officer in a way that I do
not think existed before. In other words, the policy advisers
played that role but now we have the Chief Scientists playing
that very role. That is my best case example. DCMS has still not
appointed a Chief Scientific Adviser. In my view, unbelievable.
DCMS funds, for example, the Natural History Museum. That has
a very large R&D budgetI am sure issued well, but would
it not be good if the Government could mine into that knowledge-base
being developed in the Natural History Museum for its own benefit.
DCMS is not an intelligent customer of what is being done in most
of its NDPBs. There is an example at the other end, where I am
afraid I have not had the impact I would like to have had. I think
it will change but these things just percolate slowly through
the system. We have mentioned the Department of Health. I would
be surprised if the review that emerges was not critical of the
use of science in that department. For example, the R&D budget
in the Department of Health that is left once bedpans have been
purchased out of the original R&D budget is probably smaller
than the R&D budget for advising Defra on animal health. For
advising on human health, we probably spend less money.
Q34 Dr Turner: I think it was you
who instigated OSI reviews in the departments. I do not know how
many of these we have had now. I have certainly seen two or three.
Professor Sir David King: We have
Q35 Dr Turner: Have they been taken
seriously by the departments? Have those departments that have
been reviewed by OSI taken any notice of your criticisms?
Professor Sir David King: The
immediate answer has to be in terms of DCMS. We reviewed them
and did not have much success. For all the other departments we
have reviewed, which includes HSE, our review has been treated
Q36 Dr Turner: What do we do about
DCMS? Whose job is it to sort DCMS out? Is it the Secretary of
State, the Prime Minister, the Chief Scientific Adviser? Who is
going to check the situation there?
Professor Sir David King: The
Head of the Civil Service. I think it is an issue for the Civil
Service, the permanent secretaries.
Q37 Chairman: The Permanent Secretary
said he did not see a need for a scientific adviser, so how do
you overcome that?
Professor Sir David King: He and
I had quite a long chat in which it was quite clear we were never
going to agree.
Q38 Dr Iddon: You mentioned the squeeze
on departmental research development budgets. That happened in
Defra which you have already cited as one of the better departments
under your term. How do we stop departments using the scientific
budget, the research and development budget, as an easy way of
cutting their expenditure when they are under pressure from the
Treasury? Do we ring-fence the money?
Professor Sir David King: Yes.
I would seriously like to see the R&D budgets for each department
ring-fenced and each permanent secretary would seriously not want
the R&D budget ring-fenced. The permanent secretaries want
the freedom to use their budgets in order to achieve what their
secretaries of state appear to be driving them to achieve. In
that case, we are always led towards short-term solutions. The
argument that pressure for delivery means that we buy bedpans
rather than research that will feed back into much better delivery
of health services in the future is one that seems to swing almost
every time. There is an issue here with the political systemthat
is really what I am trying to say. The minister/secretaries of
state need to understand that short-term delivery may be the pressure
that they are under from the House but it can sacrifice a long-term
capability. To use the example again of Defra: the recent foot
and mouth disease outbreak was driven out of the Pirbright laboratory
which I think it is fair to say many of us feel should be rebuilt.
That will cost money. We need an up-to-date facility. We have
tremendous scientists at Pirbrightabsolutely superbbut
they are working under conditions which probably ought to be replaced.
Q39 Dr Iddon: Some of the departmentsDefra
putting money through NERC, for examplesupport long-term
research, like collecting data, now using satellites, earth observation
satellites. This Committee has been rather concerned about the
collection of that kind of data. Do you think that should be taken
out of the departmental budgets and run centrally in some way
so that there is the protection of earth observations? That is
only one example of several long-term commitments that the Government
in our view should be making.
Professor Sir David King: I think
there is quite a strong argument for creating a central pool fund,
which might even be to create a central laboratory for government,
in which you might have very large scale computing facilities,
for example. At the moment the Met Office no longer has a top
100 computerand it always used to be a top 10it
is not even any longer a top 200 computer, and this is the world's
leading weather prediction service and climate prediction service.
We need a central poolI believe there is a strong argument
for this and it needs to be examinedand quite possibly
a central laboratory that could serve all government departments.
We would then have the cross-cutting capability that we are all
looking for. The problem is that within government it is extremely
difficult to set something up that is not fixed within a department,
with one permanent secretary who is responsible for the budget.
At the moment it is a challenge too far but I think it is well
worth looking at.
Dr Iddon: Thank you.