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

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)



  Q40  Dr Blackman-Woods: Has the creation of DIUS, the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, been a good thing for science? Within government first of all and then perhaps more generally.

  Professor Sir David King: I think the answer is yes. I was a proponent for setting up the department. My suggestion was Department for Science, Innovation and Skills and it emerged as "Universities" instead of "Science", but then my justification for that is that my use of the word "science" is pre 1850. I regard science as "all of knowledge" but not many people see it that way. Yes, I was in favour of bringing together the university sector, the skills sector, the science sector, the innovation sector. In time I think this becomes a very powerful inducement for delivering from the strength of our science base—which is simply superb—that innovation and wealth creation agenda that we all want to see. A big part of that, by the way, is the skills sector. We need to concentrate much more on raising the profile of the super technician in the UK. My example of this would be Denmark, where, if you go to a university, the super technician has the same status as a professor and they really deliver. I would like to see the hands-on skills raised in status and profile. I think by bringing universities and skills together we have that opportunity. I think it is very exciting.

  Q41  Dr Blackman-Woods: You must know there is a great deal of concern within the scientific community about the loss of "Science" from the title of this department. How will we convince people that science really has not disappeared or in some way is not being valued as it was before?

  Professor Sir David King: It is interesting. I think there is a misunderstanding. When the Arts and Humanities Research Board approached us and said, "Would you take us on as a research council?" I was delighted. We now have all the knowledge base funded through RCUK, including particle physics. I think that was a very good move. I said to the AHRB executive, "Would you want us to change the name of the, then, Office of Science and Technology?" and they said. "Not a bit of it." They were perfectly happy to bring Arts and Humanities under the umbrella of science because they thought it would raise their profile not lower it. I am ashamed that we did not keep "Science" in the title.

  Q42  Dr Blackman-Woods: Do you have any concerns about the split between the Government Office for Science and the rest of the OSI?

  Professor Sir David King: The Government Office for Science is in an ambiguous position but so was the Chief Scientific Adviser's Office in the DTI. By that, I mean Government Office for Science is a very strong group of civil servants, about 87 of us, and we quite clearly are seen by DIUS as having a ring fence around ourselves. In one sense that is very good, because we have a cross-departmental function and because the Chief Scientific Adviser reports to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet—and of course I report also to the Secretary of State for DIUS as the spokesperson for science in the Cabinet but also as head of my department—but the confusion is then that DIUS is not quite sure what this beast is within its walls. I hope that the synergies that the Government Office for Science could develop with DIUS become developed over the near future, but at the moment it does not look like happening.

  Q43  Dr Blackman-Woods: Is there anything to be gained from replacing Government Office for Science within DIUS?

  Professor Sir David King: Yes, there is. Because the science innovation and wealth creation agenda is so important, I think to say that the Government Office for Science was not part of that would be to miss a very important part of the story. We have a tremendous piece to deliver into that agenda but at the same time I have to play this cross-departmental role. Your predecessor committee has always argued that the Chief Scientific Adviser's Office should be in the Cabinet Office. I think there is still quite a strong argument behind that. We are in a funny state now.

  Q44  Dr Blackman-Woods: Changing tack and going back to plastic electronics very briefly, I found what you were saying very interesting because it is of relevance to some research in my constituency. What can be done to raise this issue up the Government's agenda so that it understands the amount of money that has to be put into developing plastic electronics for the future? RDAs are funding some of this. I think you are suggesting that it needs to move to a different scale.

  Professor Sir David King: Yes. I think we need to recognise that a very significant level of funding is required to develop an enterprise which is entering a domain where hundreds of billions of pounds a year are being spent. We are talking about very big bananas here. To raise the profile, I have used this venue as a means of raising it. I have used many different venues. I think people are beginning to listen. The Technology Strategy Board's budget is currently only £200 million a year. I would like to see us look at our overall profile of Government purchasing and see if we cannot pare some of that off for supporting an enterprise of this kind. I think the payback would be so big. But there is a resistance, and the resistance, perhaps largely from the Treasury, is around this idea of supporting winners—and I am talking about the Treasury civil servants.

  Chairman: Talking about big bananas, GM obviously has to raise its head today and I am going to come back to Brian.

  Q45  Dr Iddon: You do not shy away from controversy: you have mentioned climate change already. I would like to ask you why you have chosen to re-enter the controversy on GM as almost your final battle as Chief Scientific Officer.

  Professor Sir David King: It is my penultimate battle, not the final one. Quite simply I think this is the opportunity to revisit the issue of GM in the UK and in Europe. We have had a further seven years of GM crop technology being used around the world. There is considerably more evidence there available on both the human health issues around GM crops and also biodiversity issues around GM crops. We have a much better information base. At the same time, it is becoming more and more apparent that because of population expansion—our expectation of having to plan for 9.5 billion people on the planet by mid-century and the impacts of climate change—we are going to have to develop new crop technologies. We need a third green revolution to manage to feed that growing population of people from our restricted planet. "More crop per drop" is essentially what is going to be required. GM technology can deliver that. We have the science, we have the technology, but we do not have a society which is accepting of that. On the one hand, we have considerably more evidence and, on the other hand, the nature of the problem to be tackled is very apparent. The problem is—and here is a self-fulfilling circle in the Soil Association's argument—that Monsanto is not particularly interested in doing work down this area of feeding the world. Monsanto makes a lot of money for itself but I do not see it doing the kind of research that would be needed to move us towards that third green revolution. It is British companies and British science that is potentially in the world lead in that regard. I think we have a massive opportunity. Molecular biology was invented here; we still have a top range of scientists in this field; and we could make a very big difference on the international scene. There is no evidence—and here I contradict what the Soil Association is claiming—of any human being suffering from eating food products from GM plants, and at the same time there is certainly plenty of evidence of people starving for lack of food. Let us get a proper perspective on GM as we re-approach that public debate. I am very, very keen to see that we reopen it. There is a massive opportunity there for Britain to make a big contribution.

  Q46  Dr Iddon: Do you think the GM Nation debate was worth doing? Did we learn anything from it or was it just a waste of money?

  Professor Sir David King: We learned how not to conduct debates of that kind. I mean that seriously because, as a result of the GM Nation debate, in my office we began a programme called "Science Wise" which is a proper mechanism for interacting with the public on high-profile issues. We have used the topic of nanotechnology to float that whole programme.

  Q47  Dr Iddon: What would you say to the media as a parting shot on issues like GM which the more sensitive media have handled quite carefully but, in general, the headlines for GM crops are "Frankenstein Food" type headlines.

  Professor Sir David King: Through their brilliant journalism—I mean, the use of the word "Frankenfood" by the Daily Mail I would have to say was a brilliant piece of journalism—they brought through all of the gut fears people have about tinkering with the genetic code and about these mad scientists in laboratories with bolts through their arms (which we all have—as you know). It brought through all those public fears and it played through so beautifully. Having a "Frankenfood Watch" in the Daily Mail: "We are watching out for these scientists producing these awful things". We have to say it was a brilliant campaign but to the editors of those journals and to John Humphrys: what a massive shot in the foot that was for the UK economy. It is probably costing us currently £2-£4 billion a year in lost revenues to companies like AstraZeneca and Unilever who are amongst the leading technologists in this area. They were going for third generation GM crops which would produce advantages to human beings. Not doing a Monsanto, they had carved out a particularly good niche. We have lost that. No congratulations to those campaigners in terms of the outcome they have achieved for Britain.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you.

  Q48  Dr Harris: When you came before us on scientific evidence you explained that there was a plan within government to try to talk to the media. You reported that you had had a meeting, it is not clear if it was lunch or a long lunch, but a meeting with the editor of The Guardian, and that there was some progress there, and I raised a question about whether you were working your way up to the Daily Mail. I was wondering how far that progressed and, again, whether you have the beginnings of some metrics to see whether there has been a change, whether due to the efforts of people like yourself and others working in this area or a change anyway?

  Professor Sir David King: I am writing down your phrase: "working your way up" you said "to the Daily Mail."

  Q49 Dr Harris: Yes, because they are the pinnacle. If you can convert them or change the way they do things, you will have achieved a lot. I agree with you there: superb journalism, but I sometimes think in the wrong cause.

  Professor Sir David King: I have had a private conversation with the editor of the Daily Mail since that time. The other campaign that the Daily Mail ran, supported by the Today programme, was on MMR vaccines. My charge there is that their highly successful campaign has potentially led to a situation where we could have 50 or 100 children dying of measles in the UK. That is still my expectation. If measles continues to develop in the way it is now, we could still see a significant fatality rate amongst children. There is every bit of evidence—not no evidence, there is every bit of evidence—to support the notion that the statistical probability of your child getting autism if they have an MMR vaccine is no different from if they do not have the vaccine. That is the basic message that every parent needs to get and I would love the Daily Mail to put a headline in the paper tomorrow morning admitting that. By the way, I would be very surprised if that should happen.

  Q50  Dr Harris: Indeed. Do you think there is a role for people who are charged by Parliament and, indeed, the Government with leading and providing scientific advice to be more proactive? For example, if a lot of MPs sign an early day motion that implies there is evidence that mobile phone masts cause harm or, indeed, misquote the Stewart Report, where the early day motion says, "The Stewart Report says that mobile phone masts should not be built near schools" which is not what the Stewart Report is saying, do you think someone from science or, indeed, the author of the report should write a polite letter pointing that out? Or should we just leave these members of Parliament or, indeed, the people who make statements in the media in ignorance of what scientists think about their views?

  Professor Sir David King: I think your proactive way must be the right way forward. There is a serious point here. I only have 85 staff in the Government Office for Science and keeping tabs on what every member of staff is saying is quite a tall order.

  Q51  Dr Harris: What do you do when someone like William Stewart himself, the Chairman of the Health Protection Agency, when it comes to a Panorama programme on wi-fi gives a view that at least is scientifically controversial and which most people would not share? What mechanisms are there for the Government and public scientific advisory regime to provide some counterpoint to that? Otherwise, it is just left there, and pressure groups can say, "The Chairman of the Health Protection Agency says that wi-fi is a danger to health or that something needs to be done"—and I do not want to misquote him.

  Professor Sir David King: My response to that could be that as Chief Scientific Adviser I would sit down and meet with the individual who had made the statement that I did not think was robustly supported by science.

  Q52  Dr Harris: Have you done that in this case?

  Professor Sir David King: In this case I have not, no.

  Q53  Mr Cawsey: Professor, I would like to ask you something about animal health. We discussed foot and mouth earlier in today's proceedings. Your work in that was widely praised, and rightly so, whereas your more recent work on badgers and bovine TB has been disputed as being politically motivated rather than being based on science. It is pretty much an open secret that when the ISG's report was received at Defra there were people in the department, perhaps politicians as well as civil servants, who were not best pleased by what it said and believed it had extended beyond its remit. Is it not the simple truth that, as a result of that, you had had your card marked and you were required to gather people around you to write a report that was more acceptable to the department?

  Professor Sir David King: Here is the position of the Government Chief Scientific Advisor: there is a major annual disease in the UK. This is our biggest endemic disease problem in farm animals in the UK today. If it was a disease that spread as quickly as foot and mouth disease, nobody would be even questioning the policy I am backing right now. In other words, we would move in with a cull policy because there are no vaccines available and we would be dealing with the issue. But it is spreading slowly. It has now taken 30 years to develop, since that time when the 1972 Badger Protection Act was enacted. The problem for the Chief Scientific Adviser is: if we ask an external body to oversee a group of experiments to establish whether or not badgers are responsible for some of the outbreaks of TB in cattle in the UK and that group then reports back saying, "Yes, definitely"—which is their conclusion: they say at least 40% of the herd breakdowns in TB derive from badgers: it is a very clear conclusion—but then the same body, I think stepping outside its domain of expertise, says: "However, we do not think badger culling should be used, we feel more intensive cattle culling should be conducted," and if I as Chief Scientific Adviser then said to you, "That is not going to solve the problem," why do I say that? It is very simple. Imagine yourself now to be a dairy farmer down in Devon or Cornwall and your cattle have had TB and one by one they are taken out—today we are taking out 20,000 cattle per annum at a cost of £80 million per annum and that number is growing year on year. Your herd is finally removed because the TB has become endemic in the herd. You know there is a badger set on your farm and you know from car accidents with badgers and the analysis of the badgers that have been killed in that way that there is bovine TB prevalence in the badgers in your area, would you restock your farm with dairy cattle? The reason I have asked the question in that way is because I think we are talking about the future viability of cattle farming in the UK. The National Farmers' Union, in response to my advice to government once it was published, came out with an analogy. They said, "Only culling the cattle and not dealing with TB in badgers is just like leaving the leaking pipe in Pirbright and just culling the animals with foot and mouth disease in the vicinity." I think that is a very good analogy because the reservoir of TB is the wildlife reservoir basically in badgers.

  Q54  Mr Cawsey: But the Pirbright pipe does not move, does it? That is the problem here, is it not?

  Professor Sir David King: That is also a problem.

  Q55  Mr Cawsey: The science says that if you cull badgers you cannot get them all and what is left moves on to a different area, spreading the disease still further. That did lead to the ISG saying badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.

  Professor Sir David King: That does not follow from their own analysis. If you look at their figures showing that if you increase the area of the cull to 300 square km, for example, then boundary effects become completely overwhelmed by the positive effects you have generated.

  Q56  Mr Cawsey: You would have to get every single landowner within that area to agree to that.

  Professor Sir David King: No, you do not. They have never had more than 70% uptake of landowners and they still found a 40% reduction in TB breakdown in cattle inside those areas. The second point of the advice I have given is: let us go beyond that and let us say that every area where we would take out not only cattle but also badgers should be bounded by hard boundaries—that would be big rivers, ocean, large motorways—and soft boundaries—so you could have arable farms where there are no cattle, so there can be no peripheral effect if there are no cattle on neighbouring farms. If you devise a policy like that, which would be up to Defra officials, then you would very substantially reduce the boundary effect. I am not saying you would eliminate it but you would reduce it. Now take a look at the report of the ISG, when they look, as a function of time, at the breakdown in cattle herds in the peripheral region. The biggest breakdown occurs in the first year of the cull of badgers. Basically, I do not understand the biology behind that, because TB is a very slow-spreading disease. How come in the first year of disturbing badgers they get the largest increase in the cattle? That is not discussed in the report. Scientists are saying, "That doesn't sound biologically sensible" but by the fourth year, the peripheral effect, according to their own data, has virtually dropped to zero. I believe there are subsequent data which will become available in those peripheral boundaries after the culling which will show that that zero peripheral effect continues for some time afterwards. The single first conclusion that may be read out of that report does not follow from the science that the report contains.

  Q57  Mr Cawsey: You must understand that for scientists who have spent many years working on this and peer reviewing their work, to have it taken apart by you on the back of a few weeks work with a few hand-selected people—

  Professor Sir David King: This is nonsense. This is utter nonsense. My whole function is to challenge scientists, as I said at the beginning. I do not believe that a group of scientists who had been at the coalface for seven years cannot be challenged from outside by a group of people coming in objectively analysing what they have done.

  Q58  Mr Cawsey: Of course they cannot but you can be challenged as well.

  Professor Sir David King: Let me look at another example of challenge: whether or not any of our sheep that were falling over with scrapie had BSE. Seven years analysis by an international team of scientists. They arrived here. I said, "Has anyone done a DNA test?" No DNA test had been conducted over that period of time. That was me asking the dumb question.

  Q59  Mr Cawsey: No-one is challenging your ability to challenge what has been said. It is just the basis on which it is being done. You will no doubt have seen what the ISG said with regards to your work to the EFRA Select Committee where they described it as using incorrectly interpreted—

  Professor Sir David King: Can you give me one example of criticism that they gave? One example.

  Mr Cawsey: I have several. Would you like to hear them?

  Chairman: Can I just allow Ian to ask his question.

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