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

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-80)



  Q60  Mr Cawsey: It incorrectly interpreted the significance of statistical competence intervals; excluded important data about justification; failed to consider ecological data which supported ISG's conclusions; called for badger culls in areas which are too small to be beneficial without finding scientific evidence to support the advice. And Professor Mollison described your work as inexpert, unbalanced, one-sided, muddled, wrong, untrue, inadequate as a basis for government action and said, "Had you had the courtesy to discuss your concerns with the ISG scientists themselves you would have generated more light and less heat." That is fairly strong stuff.

  Professor Sir David King: It is very strong stuff but there is not one word in there that I would say, if I had written a paper on this—as I have done—that it came back as a referee's criticism that I could respond to, because it is only throwing mud, it is not throwing light.

  Q61  Mr Cawsey: Why did you not therefore think it was appropriate to discuss your concerns with the people who had done the work?

  Professor Sir David King: I am sorry?

  Q62  Mr Cawsey: Professor Mollison said that you should have had the courtesy to discuss the ISG work with the scientists themselves.

  Professor Sir David King: I did discuss the work with the scientists themselves and this was before the ISG report was published. I am about to see them again. I will then write back to the EFRA Committee by giving my response to those criticisms. But let me say for your benefit here: if you read that conclusion and also read it in the light of the report itself, you will see that I am not challenging the basic tenets of the science in that report. I am not doing that. I am saying to you that their own plots indicate that the peripheral effect is substantially reduced over four years and there is no explanation for why there was a high peripheral effect in the first place. Secondly, their own plots demonstrate that if you simply increase the area then the beneficial effect completely wipes out the peripheral boundary effects in terms of the overall benefit. Thirdly, there is the use of hard boundaries and soft arable boundaries. That is the argument. I want to hear if anyone objects to what I am suggesting is a way of handling the biggest endemic disease in farm animals in Britain to date. If somebody else has an alternative plan, please come up with it. But the Chief Scientific Adviser needs to advise government on how to handle this problem.

  Q63  Mr Cawsey: What would you say in response to the leader of last month's Nature, which, under the subheading "A government that asks for independent scientific advice best be ready to take it" says, "The mishandling of this issue by David King, the UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, is an example to government of how not to deal with such advice once it has been solicited and received." It concludes: "It would be a good idea if Defra had based its policy on the unfettered advice offered by joint committee. This would be deeply appreciated not just by badgers but by scientists in all spheres who choose to participate with painstaking and vital processes in the earnest belief that their advice will actually make a difference to government policies."

  Professor Sir David King: Would you give me the courtesy of also reading out at the same length my reply that was published in Nature.

  Q64 Mr Cawsey: I do not have that.

  Professor Sir David King: I see. That seems like you are taking up a position.

  Q65  Mr Cawsey: No, I am giving you the opportunity. You are here, they are not. You have the key seat, not them.

  Professor Sir David King: What you would see if you read the following issue of Nature is a full copy of the letter that I gave in response to that with an apology from Nature following it. I need you to look at that issue in Nature.

  Q66 Mr Cawsey: So you do not agree with the comments that they make in that.

  Professor Sir David King: If you read my reply you will see that I do not agree. There was not one piece of science contained in that editorial attack. It was a purely personal attack and they have apologised for that.

  Q67  Mr Cawsey: I have obviously taken out most of that. I have just relied on the bit where they say that governments which seek independent science advice, if they want to keep the confidence of the science community ought to make use of it.

  Professor Sir David King: Let me deal with one detailed point. They say that the key part of the ISG report had been published in Nature and of course they had therefore subjected it to good refereeing. I agree with that. There are two points, however. Because a paper is published in a journal, even a journal with the standing of Nature, does not mean that it cannot be challenged. Scientists continually challenge published work that has been refereed. The second thing is that the conclusion that you read out from the ISG report was not published before. That conclusion has never been challenged through the referee process. Nature misunderstood the nature of my own challenge—and, by the way, it turns out that they had not read my own paper before they wrote their own story.

  Q68  Mr Cawsey: The general principle was, basically, that, if governments go to the length of bringing in independent scientific advice, to then toss it out of the window is not good for the science community.

  Professor Sir David King: I was not throwing the science advice out of the window. I was throwing out the piece that goes beyond the science advice. That conclusion goes beyond the science advice.

  Q69  Mr Cawsey: If we try to be more positive, then, it is true to say that you will now subsequently to publishing your comments be discussing it with the ISG.

  Professor Sir David King: I will be discussing it with the ISG. I would like to find out what further data the ISG have because I believe there is further data which, again, does not support the conclusion.

  Mr Cawsey: I feel I am starting to exhaust the patience of the Chairman if not yourself.

  Q70  Chairman: Not at all. I think you have demonstrated the importance of something which this predecessor committee was constantly trying to assert; that is that if you are making policy you should in fact have an evidence base on which to make that policy. It does not necessarily follow that there could not be two policies as a result of looking at the same evidence. That is the point you were basically trying to make. I am trying to be friendly to everybody, hopefully.

  Professor Sir David King: Thank you for that comment, but could I also leave you with this thought: we have a spreading disease that began in the peninsula of Devon and Cornwall. It has spread through Herefordshire, it has spread up into South Wales, and it is going to spread east and north across the country until we bring it under control. If we want to bring it under control, we will have to take more measures than simply removing cattle. Of course we have to remove cattle but I simply do not understand the argument that says, "Stop there" because it will continue to spread.

  Chairman: I am sure we will return to that. Could we turn to avian flu.

  Q71  Mr Cawsey: You spoke earlier about being driven by scientific evidence and I think you mentioned avian flu. Do you think the UK are doing enough now to contain and prevent further outbreaks of avian flu?

  Professor Sir David King: And we are staying in this question with avian flu, not the human version of it?

  Q72  Mr Cawsey: Perhaps you could tell us something about both.

  Professor Sir David King: In terms of avian flu, H5N1 is what we are all concerned about. The vector for distribution of the virus is very largely wild bird driven. The recent case in Norfolk was a case that looks as if it is wild bird driven because it matches wild birds in Germany that have been found with avian flu. One would have to conclude that it is highly likely that it was a wild bird arriving with the disease that spread it into local poultry. At the same time, wild bird surveillance continues in the UK and we have found no evidence for H5N1 in wild birds, so it might have been one wild bird that arrived and unfortunately brought the disease. There is no way we can stop wild birds arriving in the United Kingdom. We need a rapid response every time there is an outbreak in the UK. I think the response has been very well contained in each case. I think we have a good policy in place. Should this virus become an H5N1 human to human virus; in other words with a high infectivity rate between humans, then, wherever it happens in the world, within three months we would have a worldwide pandemic and the pandemic may well have the fatality rate of the 1918 so-called Spanish flu outbreak, which, as everyone knows killed more people than the First World War. We are planning for a fatality rate in Britain of around 300,000 over a three-month period and that three-month period occurring within three months of the first signal going up by the WHO that this has begun. The disruption to our economy and to other economies would be likely to be substantial. The disruption to life in Britain would be very substantial. I believe it is a low probability event that it becomes an H5N1 virus, but, nevertheless, because the outcome is so dramatic, the Government is treating it as our number one risk and so we have spent considerable time on the science of our defences. I have certainly spent a lot of time working with mainly the Department of Health officials on this, but also on exercises: exercises dealing with mortuaries and dealing with how we handle the fatality rate; exercises dealing with whether or not children should continue to go to schools; and what the consequences are for maintaining supermarkets so that we have normal service. All of those exercises are being conducted in government. Quite simply, on the scientific side we have examined in fine detail—and the Cabinet Office has recently published our analysis—the three levels of defence that we are looking at closely. One is stockpiling antivirals. The use of antivirals is likely to cut down on the fatality rate but antivirals are a medicine: they are only good as long as you are taking them. Therefore you have to use them carefully. They have to be applied very early on in exposure and the disease beginning for any individual, but, on the other hand, if you take them as a precaution, if there is an outbreak you may lose your stockpile of antivirals before people become ill. The use of antivirals themselves has to be very carefully governed. The second is preparing pre-pandemic vaccines. This is using the avian version or one of the clades of the avian version of the H5N1 virus as a means of generating a vaccine using the very modern development of adjuvants, so that the vaccine has a broader impact on the virus, so as the virus changes this vaccine may still have efficacy in defences for the people being vaccinated. This would be a question of preparing to apply pre-pandemic vaccine to the entire British population. The third level of defence is to place orders for a pandemic vaccine. It is likely that the first wave of the pandemic would hit our shores before the pandemic vaccine itself had been developed, so we need those other two lines of defences, but a second wave may come along and, by that time, we would hope to have had the actual pandemic vaccine.

  Q73  Mr Cawsey: Do you think we have got better at the work we need to do at looking at these sorts of diseases that may be coming our way; with blue tongue being the fairly obvious one that came this year? I met some horse owners this week who were telling me dire things about African horse disease which may be moving towards our shores. In your time in the job, have you found that we have improved our ability to prepare for these events?

  Professor Sir David King: I think this is the area where we have improved our ability probably more than any other. For example, during the foot and mouth disease epidemic in 2001, COBR sort of stuttered into existence only a month after the epidemic began. For foot and mouth disease in 2007, COBR was called within a day of the outbreak. Several of us who had just gone on holiday were flown back in. I think that is exactly the right response. In other words, the entire government system is brought to bear on a problem early on. We stopped animal movements around the United Kingdom very quickly so all of the measures were taken to see that it was globally contained and that was successful.

  Q74  Dr Turner: In your valedictory lecture to the Royal Society last week you said that science has the ability to address climate change effectively but of course there are many question marks as to whether that will happen. Clearly the political process has tremendous question marks surrounding it. Another question which I really want to get your view on is whether the technology relating to the science is there in sufficient quality and quantity to deploy any if the political will is there to do it.

  Professor Sir David King: The answer to your question is that if we had acted rapidly after Kyoto 1997 and taken action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I think we could have managed this scientifically and technologically by moving to low carbon technologies and that might have been the end of the story. It is too late for that now. We still need to mitigate. We need all of that aspect, as it were, but we are already flirting with dangerous climate change events. My worry is that it is going to get very difficult to manage the impacts from climate change around the world as we move forward in this century. I think the inertia in the political systems around the world—and perhaps it is not surprising—has left us now in a very difficult situation. This is the week of Bali, so it is very appropriate that we should be thinking: "What are we expecting out of Bali?" My own thinking is that we really need to be aiming to keep our gross overall global emissions down to the level where we do not exceed 450 parts per million if we want to reduce the impacts that we are going to have to manage to their minimum. If we are going to get that, we need action even before 2012. It is good that the European Union is acting. It is good that Britain is acting, but the real action is required from China, the United States and other countries. We are almost bound to be disappointed by Bali. Bali is going to set up a process. It is talks about talks, if you like, and that process is to provide by 2012 a replacement of 1997 Kyoto. But, hang on: how much has 1997 Kyoto reduced emissions? A reality check would be: let us go beyond the process and ask what we have done to manage the problem? To date the record is very poor. We need a sea change in political understanding of what needs to be done. I have been travelling around the world as unofficial ambassador for the Prime Minister on this issue and I would have to say we need a big move in the position of Japan, the United States and China to see that we can begin to manage this problem. Politically, we still need considerably more science and technology "can do".

  Q75  Dr Turner: But we already have increasing scientific evidence that even the difficult to achieve target of 60% by 2050 reduction in the Climate Change Bill is inadequate, and that the advance industrial nations like ourselves will need to achieve at least 80%. You have been criticised for sticking with the 60% target in public so far. Are you reviewing your position on that?

  Professor Sir David King: I have been criticised by George Monbiot and his criticism has been picked up as if it was the Bible. Let me take this opportunity to say that the Government's policy has been 60% but in any presentation I have given on this—anyone who has heard me will verify this—I have always said, "We have policies in place to reduce our emissions by 60% by 2050 but I expect that as international agreement comes into place we would need to turn that around into an 80% reduction." I think it is perfectly reasonable for the British Government to take a leadership position by announcing 60% reduction, but let us see the rest of the world come on board and then we turn this into an 80% reduction. More recently the Prime Minister has also indicated very clearly that we will need to move on to a 70% to 80% reduction, meaning, I believe, that if our partner nations come on board we will accept this greater responsibility.

  Q76  Dr Turner: You support that position.

  Professor Sir David King: I do. And always have done.

  Q77  Dr Turner: I know. We have talked about this privately. I am also well aware that, while not necessarily a proponent or advocate of the role of nuclear power in moving to a low carbon economy, you nonetheless support the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK. Do you think that the scientific argument for that is compelling, especially given the timescale? They will not be making any contribution before 2020.

  Professor Sir David King: The scientific argument is absolutely compelling. As we move to 2050 and we have this now more ambitious potential target of reducing by 80%, we will certainly not manage that without nuclear new build. I cannot see how we could manage that. Compare the position of Britain and France in terms of emissions of carbon dioxide per person per annum. For Britain it is 11 tonnes per person per annum and for France it is 6 tonnes per person per annum. What is the big difference between the two countries? It is the amount of electricity produced from nuclear. France is 80%, we are now down to 19%. That is the difference. Let us take the second argument—and to me this one is just as important as the first. We have enough plutonium and uranium stockpiled up in Cumbria as a result of reprocessing to provide all of our fuel needs with nuclear-fission power for at least 50 years. If we do not reprocess, it would fuel three one gigawatt power stations operating for 50 years—that is the uranium and plutonium. If, however, we convert the uranium and plutonium to MOX—in other words, set up a MOX manufacturing station—we not only remove plutonium from its condition that it can be used in nuclear weapons—you cannot unmix MOX and recreate plutonium for nuclear weapon use, so you remove that problem—but you also then generate waste from high-level activity plutonium and uranium, which means that we can manage that large stockpile. Not only do you get free fuel for at least 50 years but, if you reprocess, you could generate virtually all of our electricity requirements from existing fuel stocks in the UK for the next 50 years. You either treat the plutonium and uranium as waste, in which case it is going to cost billions of pounds to manage, or you treat it as a fuel, in which case you save billions of pounds and you generate relatively carbon-dioxide free energy. I do not think there is much argument against building new nuclear power stations.

  Q78  Dr Turner: There is a residual concern, of which I am sure you will be well aware—and the technological case you make for it is pretty sound, although the timescale is a problem—and that is the potential for nuclear build and nuclear investment to displace renewables, so that, instead of having renewables and the nuclear contribution, there may not be an "and" but to a degree an "and/or", so we may not achieve the full contribution which renewables potentially can make. Would you agree that there is a potential conundrum there? What would you advise we do to avoid getting into that situation?

  Professor Sir David King: I would say that the Government is precisely avoiding the need for that situation. We have a renewables obligation on the grid and renewables do not include nuclear, and that obligation runs at the moment through to 2023. There is no question that the obligation to the utilities to place renewables on the grid exists out to 2023. That also is an obligation from the EU position of 20% renewables on the grid of all the EU countries by 2020. We have a guarantor for renewables coming on the grid. By the way, that is providing the public is accepting of the further generation of wind turbines around the UK, so we do have a planning problem there. Secondly, we are not going to manage this problem unless we look at it holistically. We need to look at transport; we need to look at the built environment; we need to look at generating combined heat and power systems; we need to look at micro-generation. I think we need every tool in the bag if we are going to manage a massive turnaround in our dependence on fossil fuels. There is no easy solution. To stay with nuclear for a second: one form of travel depends virtually entirely now on electricity. That is rail travel. If we can generate much of our electricity from nuclear, then we have a big part of our surface transport system which is non CO2 producing as well. I think there are some very real advantages in taking the nuclear new build situation to quite a high level, by which I would mean 30% to even 40% of maximum demand level. I would not go beyond that on the grid.

  Q79  Dr Turner: One of the tools in the box is hopefully going to be marine energy, not just offshore wind but wave and tide at sea particularly, which is very slow to develop and to deploy. Also marine science and marine ecology is a very important part of the science of climate change. We have looked at that in the past and recently and decided it needs more support. Both of those things need a lot more support. Could you tell us of your involvement in these areas as Chief Scientific Officer, adviser to the Government, and whether you plan to work to promote these areas in you are new role as director or the institute.

  Professor Sir David King: Thank you for that question. When I came into government, I set up a group to look at the current state of energy research in the UK. That was back in the year 2000. We discovered—no surprise now—that energy research in the UK had collapsed as a result of the privatisation process of the gas and electricity boards. Immediately we realised that we need to rejuvenate, re-energise the whole process of energy research in the UK. The outcome was that I formed the Energy Research Partnership, which continues, in which government members and all the players, such as the Carbon Trust, meet with the private sector to discuss how we need to tackle this very problem of generating low carbon energy sources and all the associated problems, carbon capture and storage and so on. The most successful outcome of the Energy Research Partnership—which, by the way is co-chaired between Paul Golby and myself, and Paul is the Chief Executive of E.ON UK—has been the establishment of the Energy Technologies Institute, which is a £1 billion venture. The person who is currently Technical Director at Rolls Royce is going to take over as Director of the Energy Technologies Institute. It is going to be initially established on a site at Loughborough University and by next summer this will be up and running. That institute is going to be market-facing. That is the point in having half of the funds coming from the private sector. They need to take these new energy technologies out to the market-place. For those small companies developing tidal energy, wave energy that you were referring to, the idea is to pick the best of them and pull that through to the market-place using the Energy Technologies Institute. Let me give my own view: tidal, very good; wave, very dilute. It is going to be quite difficult to generate a significant amount of electricity from wave. That is not to say we should not try.

  Q80  Chairman: On that note, I am going to leave the rest. We could have gone on for some time, Sir David. Could I thank you for your forthright responses to the Committee this morning and wish you well with the institute at Oxford. Thank you again for your contributions to the Committee.

  Professor Sir David King: Chairman, I am going to miss this Committee. It has been absolutely tremendous to work with it and the members of the Committee.

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