Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)
5 DECEMBER 2007
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 basewhich is simply superbthat
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
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 Cabinetand 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 departmentbut 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
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
winnersand 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 expansionour expectation
of having to plan for 9.5 billion people on the planet by mid-century
and the impacts of climate changewe 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 isand here
is a self-fulfilling circle in the Soil Association's argumentthat
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 evidenceand here I contradict
what the Soil Association is claimingof 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
Professor Sir David King: Through
their brilliant journalismI mean, the use of the word "Frankenfood"
by the Daily Mail I would have to say was a brilliant piece
of journalismthey 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 haveas 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 evidencenot no evidence, there is every bit of evidenceto
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 conclusionbut 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 outtoday 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 boundariesthat would be big rivers, ocean, large
motorwaysand soft boundariesso 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