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

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)


12 DECEMBER 2007

  Q1 Chairman: We very much welcome Professor John Beddington, the Government's new Chief Scientific Adviser, to this first session with the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee. We are delighted, Professor Beddington, you have been able to come and meet us very early on, and can I assure you that this is a very good-mannered, polite committee who simply want to find out the truth from our witnesses. I wonder if I could start by asking you, how did you get the job?

  Professor Beddington: First of all, Chairman, thank you for your kind remarks. I should slightly correct your opening remarks because I am not actually in the job yet. On 31 December, Sir David will leave his office and fairly shortly after that I will take it over, so at the moment I actually work for Imperial College. Obviously since the announcement in October, Sir David has been rather generous with the time of his staff, so I have been reading into the job and getting briefings and so on, which has been very helpful, but rather challenging, to say the least. In terms of how I got the job, I am assuming by that you do not mean to say that I was approached by the following head-hunters who asked, sort of thing?

  Dr Turner: Yes!

  Q2  Chairman: Yes, we do actually.

  Professor Beddington: Well, I used to be the Chairman of Defra's Science Advisory Council and the head-hunters approached me to ask for my advice on who might be a new Chief Scientist at Defra.

  Q3  Dr Gibson: What type of head-hunters were they who asked you?

  Professor Beddington: They were from KMC and they approached me about that, so I gave some advice on that and then they raised the issue of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and asked whether I might be interested. I then gave it rather a lot of thought because I was not sure if I really wanted to do it, but the timing was good because I was just going on holiday with my wife, so we talked about it for a week and she said, "Well, you'll always be annoyed if you didn't go for it and I'll probably be annoyed if you do go for it, especially if you get it", but that is how it happened, and then there was obviously the series of interviews and so on with the appropriate panels.

  Q4  Chairman: Previous Government Chief Scientific Advisers, particularly the last two, have been vocal and they have sometimes been controversial, but they have certainly been independently minded which is perhaps what one expects from a Government Chief Scientific Adviser. How will you approach that role?

  Professor Beddington: I think the key thing here is to ensure, and I see it as my role, that the Government gets the best possible scientific advice, that where there is uncertainty, that is characterised, where there is risk, that is characterised, but I see my job as really trying to ensure that, when a new policy is made, it is based on the best possible scientific advice that is available at the time. Now, at some stages, there may well be contradictions between scientific advice and other policy imperatives, and that is taken as understood, but I think my central role is to do that and that is what I will try to do.

  Chairman: But can we expect you to be outspoken? Is that your style? Are you a controversial figure in the science world?

  Q5  Dr Gibson: Is your research controversial?

  Professor Beddington: It is hard to know. Certainly I do not feel that I am a particularly controversial figure, but, on the other hand, I am not shy. I am certainly prepared to speak my mind and to sustain an argument if I believe it is correct.

  Q6  Chairman: Obviously Sir David made his name in many ways by a number of crises that occurred and perhaps he was fortunate in that sense, that issues of climate change, foot and mouth and what-have-you came on. Can you actually create your own priorities or do you have to wait for an issue to come along like foot and mouth?

  Professor Beddington: Well, I certainly have got some priorities and one of them is that I really feel there needs to be work done at the level of my role, which is head of profession in science and engineering in government, and actually to try and get some esprit de corps of the large number of scientists who actually work with government. I think that is one of the really key ones.

  Q7  Chairman: Does that include the Civil Service?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, indeed. In my role, just to explain, I am head of profession for science and engineering in government. A number of CSAs in individual departments are head of profession within their own departments, but in some departments, particularly larger ones, that head of profession role is one level down from the CSA. I think there is a real opportunity here and I think it is one of the things I would like to make a priority, to work with the community of CSAs and their colleagues to try to actually think about how we can build up the level of, as it were, the morale and the expertise of the science and technology profession in government. In particular, I would contrast, as it were, the science profession in government with the legal and economic professions and, to an extent, both the IT and the statisticians where I think there is much more coherence. It is unimaginable, for example, that a policy would be made without taking legal or economic advice and I would like to get into a situation where that same thing happened within science. Obviously science is more heterogeneous than the legal or economic professions, but that is a challenge and that is one of the priorities I would like to set fairly early on in my tenure.

  Q8  Chairman: For that to be achieved, you have got somehow to persuade those departments who do not feel it is even valuable to appoint departmental chief scientific advisers to do so. Why will you be any more successful than Sir David King?

  Professor Beddington: Well, I think I would give it my priority. In terms of actual persuasion, and obviously I was here last week listening to Sir David talk and discuss these issues with you, obviously certain departments have not chosen to have a chief scientific adviser as yet, but I think what I would hope to do is obviously continue the persuasion process, but actually try to understand why they are not doing this. There must be reasons and, if I can understand those reasons, maybe there is some way of mitigating them so that one can move on. In terms of an expectation of being more successful than Sir David, the honest answer is I do not know at the moment, but I shall certainly try.

  Q9  Chairman: Do you think you should have the power to insist that a department has a chief scientific adviser in it?

  Professor Beddington: Well, I do not think any adviser should have the power to insist on anything. I think you can advise strongly that you believe that to be the case, but I would not seek to have those sorts of powers.

  Q10  Chairman: Just hazard a guess as to why they do not want them.

  Professor Beddington: I really do not know, Chairman. I am not quite in the job yet and I need to understand it. Prima facie I can see no reason other than perhaps resources, but I really do not know and that is what I hope to explore early in the new year.

  Q11  Chairman: Well, we wish you every success with that. The previous Science and Technology Select Committee were very, very keen to see champions for science, and particularly for areas of science where it is very important in terms of public perception as well and indeed for the science community that there are champions. One area that the previous Committee concentrated on was marine science where there was a lack of a real champion for marine science, despite its importance in terms of climate change and obviously the economic impact of the oceans and the seas. Do you see yourself taking on that role (a) as a champion of science and (b) will you consider giving a higher profile to marine science?

  Professor Beddington: I have not decided on that. It is a difficult issue and there are other competing priorities but obviously marine science has, I think, been somewhat underplayed in the last year or so, but I think that the current proposals for changes to the way in which marine science is addressed seem to me to be worth exploring and also their interactions, and ocean acidification as a consequence of climate change is one which is really concerning and needs exploration, so I think I would want to look at that. In terms of being a champion of marine science, the short answer to that is I really do not know at the moment; it is too early.

  Q12  Chairman: But you have not ruled that out?

  Professor Beddington: No, I have not.

  Q13  Dr Turner: I am sure your predecessors and others have probably given you lots of quiet advice, especially on the sorts of obstacles that you are likely to encounter in trying to carry out your role. What do you see as the most likely obstacles you will meet in the government system and how do you intend to approach them?

  Professor Beddington: I think one of the obstacles is obviously a lack of understanding of science and I think that is rather important. I think part of the role that I want to try and grow into is actually to be a reasonable champion for science, but to put it into terms that do not seem bizarre, which are readily understandable and can be addressed, so I think a lack of understanding of truly what science is and, after all, we should be able to phrase the most difficult scientific questions into something that anybody reasonably well read can actually understand. It is almost perhaps going back to the "two cultures" issue of CP Snow five or six decades ago, but I think that is one of the obstacles. The other obstacle of course is money and there are obviously real difficulties there and one has got to work within those constraints, but those are the two things that spring to mind. I do not think there is any deep prejudice against science, but I think there is a lack of understanding and appreciation of what it can do.

  Q14  Dr Turner: It has been suggested that there is something of an anti-science bias in the Civil Service culture. Do you anticipate having difficulties with that?

  Professor Beddington: I do not know. I heard Sir David speak on that a week ago in this room and he obviously thinks that is the case, but I do not think, for example, talking to Lord May, who was his predecessor in the job, that Lord May felt that that was a particular problem. I think the answer is I will wait and see. I have not encountered it and I have worked within different departments of government as an adviser for quite a long time and I have not encountered it in any sort of dramatic form, but I think let us wait and see and, if I encounter it, I will work out how to deal with it.

  Dr Turner: And you will come and tell us what Sir Humphrey says!

  Q15  Mr Marsden: Professor Beddington, I am very encouraged by what you said, that you saw one of your primary roles as getting across the best possible scientific advice in government, but of course, even with the best possible scientific advice, and we see this in the public sphere and the political sphere, the general public, particularly the media, are not always receptive to, exaggerate in some cases, or in some cases simply do not understand, the basis of the advice. One of the things I wanted to ask you was whether you saw part of your job as having, either directly to what you say or what you stimulate, a public education role about science? One of the issues that comes to mind with me, for example, is the risk:benefit analysis which I think is something which is very seldom understood when scare stories get into the media and things of that nature.

  Professor Beddington: I think the use of probabilities, and essentially it stems from risk and uncertainty, is really one of the most difficult things to get over outside the scientific environment, but it is clearly enormously important. I think it is a difficult thing to do and one of the things I will seek to do is to try to enhance that discussion. I think, for example, taking your question slightly wider, obviously part of the role is actually to put over to the media what are the key issues, the key challenges and to correct the media and to challenge them if in fact their interpretations are incorrect, and I think that is part of the role and one that I will do to the best of my ability.

  Q16  Dr Iddon: Professor Beddington, what do you think are the big issues that might face you in the near- to short-term future and do you think the Government is brave enough to tackle risk in science? We have had discussions in this Committee, for example, about putting a British astronaut on the moon, but the Government obviously backed off because of the cost. Do you think we are brave enough with our innovation and science in general?

  Professor Beddington: I think there are some enormous challenges coming. Listening to Sir David here last week, obviously there are some key ones, climate change being the biggest, I would argue, but I think that there are needs that probably transcend risks. I think we have really got to take climate change extremely seriously and we have got to look for technological solutions. I think in a sense over the last five or six years, one has seen a movement from, "This is not a serious problem" to, "This is a really serious problem", and I think that is now recognised pretty much throughout the world, but the challenges and the risks that we need to take, I believe, are to actually try to develop technology and engineering solutions to actually mitigate these problems as soon as you possibly can. Now, that, I think, is actually quite a risky strategy, albeit absolutely necessary.

  Q17  Chairman: Sir David told us last week, which was surprising a little, that his first duty was actually to the public and not to the Government. To whom will you be primarily responsible?

  Professor Beddington: In terms of my primary responsibility, I report to the Prime Minister and Cabinet and that I see as being part of my job. Now, in terms of responsibility to the public, yes of course you would have it, as any civil servant would, and that is part of being a civil servant, that you have the responsibility both to your direct superiors, in this case Sir Gus O'Donnell and the Prime Minister, and in the case of appropriate ways to behave as a civil servant, you obviously have a duty to the public.

  Q18  Chairman: But the Prime Minister comes before my constituents?

  Professor Beddington: I think they are equally important, depending on the issue.

  Chairman: You will become a politician!

  Q19  Graham Stringer: You have touched on some of your experience in government. You are obviously going for a different position now, a more senior position. The Government is very big and it has a way of swallowing people up and changing them. Can you expand on your experience in government and, in particular, tell us what has been your most difficult or worst experience of working with government so far?

  Professor Beddington: I first had work with government when I was actually asked by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take part in the development of a treaty dealing with the Antarctic ecosystem, and it is a complex system, lots of large mammals and birds and so on dependent on the fundamental food krill. I was involved at this time in actually negotiating what was essentially an international treaty which had to involve science and it had to involve science right at the depth of it. We were getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere in terms of people's understanding of what is a complex ecosystem interaction and people were taking simple fisheries models where you could take maximum yield which did not take into account the ecological interactions, and that is very, very difficult. We were getting absolutely nowhere, so in fact what we hit on was a device and we wrote a paper in Science, myself, Lord May and three others, in which we actually pointed out exactly what were the major problems of the Antarctic ecosystem and how this treaty needed to actually take into account interactions between species. Sorry, that is rather a technical answer, but that actually worked and the CCALMR Treaty, the treaty which set up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources, actually has for the first time these ecosystem interactions embedded in it, so that is the first one which was quite difficult. The second one was after the conflict with Argentina when I was asked essentially to develop relations with the Argentine scientific community because we have a number of such important shared fish stocks and that was extremely complicated because obviously it was a bit delicate and a very, very difficult political situation, so I found that hard. There are two or three other areas which I would briefly touch on, if I may, Chairman.

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