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

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)



  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 years.

  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 offer.

  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 you—and you might not accept this—an anecdotal response.

  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 I—the two book-ends of my Chief Scientific Adviser position—and 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 police—who are from now in almost every police force—we 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 provings—which are no scientist's version of evidence—to 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 examples—which is essentially what we have been doing—and you identified that your department-by-department review of science was a good way of doing that. That is published. But, in the interim—because that is-department by-department—I 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 Health—you 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 Committee—because I think the clue is in the title—to 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' signature—and, in the context of people who will not help, conscientious objectors, that might be difficult—the 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 better—it 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 of area?

  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 statement—it is a non sequitur that statement—is not put up as a response. It is quite unacceptable.

  Dr Harris: I will quit while I am ahead, Chairman.

  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 budget—I 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 completed four.

  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 very constructively.

  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 system—that 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 Pirbright—absolutely superb—but they are working under conditions which probably ought to be replaced.

  Q39  Dr Iddon: Some of the departments—Defra putting money through NERC, for example—support 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 computer—and it always used to be a top 10—it 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 pool—I believe there is a strong argument for this and it needs to be examined—and 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.

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