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

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)


12 DECEMBER 2007

  Q20  Chairman: Perhaps one more.

  Professor Beddington: I suppose the other one that I would call to mind is that I chaired Defra's Science Advisory Council since 2004 and when I went there, I was very concerned about the contingency planning for animal disease, it is fairly fashionable now, but what I was able to persuade Sir Howard Dalton to do was to actually set up a group of that Council to actually examine the contingency plans that Defra had for dealing with foot and mouth, for dealing with blue tongue, dealing with avian influenza. That group that we set up within the Council, completely independent from the Defra scientific team, was able to actually come up and work very closely with Debbie Reynolds, who was then the Chief Veterinary Officer and her staff, to actually critically peer review these contingency plans for dealing with animal disease outbreak, I think, to a very significant benefit to the way that has actually operated.

  Q21  Graham Stringer: So you clearly have experience and are distinguished in your own field of applied population biology.

  Professor Beddington: Yes.

  Q22  Graham Stringer: Do you think that there are any disadvantages of your specialism? Is it better to have a particle physicist or somebody from your background? What are the advantages and disadvantages to your specialism and experience?

  Professor Beddington: I think the specialism is useful in the sense that you think analytically, that you understand a range of environmental problems and actually, because I have a background in some more mathematical areas, I find things, when they are expressed in mathematics, relatively straightforward to understand, but I would say the weaknesses that I have at the moment where I hope to improve is really to understand the jargon of biochemistry, the pharmacological areas. These are areas that I have not had any experience in. In other areas, by happenstance because of the jobs I have had in Imperial College, I am reasonably au fait with them. I ran a big department in Imperial College which had a mix of petroleum engineers, mining engineers, energy economists, a whole range of that, so I have had a fair bit of experience, but the area where in a sense I am probably weakest in my underlying scientific knowledge is in the sort of crossover from biochemistry into pharmacology. The advantage of being Chief Scientific Adviser is that you can ask people and you can approach people who will be willing to tell you and, as I think Sir David said last week, you can ask stupid questions, and I suspect I will ask in some fields some fairly stupid questions, but I feel confident enough that I actually will understand the answers.

  Q23  Graham Stringer: Central to Sir Jack Cunningham's White Paper on modernising the Government, the Government said that it wants to make policy based on evidence. Do you think that it has kept up to that commitment and are there any areas that you have noticed or are aware of where the Government is not using evidence to make policy?

  Professor Beddington: I am sorry, I really have not thought that through at all. I can see examples where there are issues. Perhaps genetically modified crops is one area where I think there is a need for a proper assessment of that and I think that is an interesting area. I think Sir David also pointed to the issue of the necessity or otherwise of a new build of nuclear power stations where I think the scientific evidence is pointing one way and I think genetically modified crops are pointing one way also, but there it is not clear that that evidence base from science has necessarily predominated because there are other issues and there are other imperatives beyond in fact the purely scientific.

  Q24  Graham Stringer: I am not quite clear. How would you summarise your impression of how the Government is approaching evidence-based policy-making?

  Professor Beddington: In part, and I recall Dr Harris asked Sir David some questions about this last week, my feeling is that there is a will to do it, but it does not always succeed and part of my job, as I indicated earlier in answering the Chairman's question, I really would like scientific evidence to be taken into account really at all policy levels where it is relevant, and I am not sure that happens all the time.

  Q25  Graham Stringer: Advice on science, that is your job. Many Members of Parliament from the regions feel that, although the scientific advice is clear, in making that scientific advice, whether it is in medical science or particle physics, the South East gets a bigger bite of the cherry than the English regions in particular. Do you have any views on the spatial distribution of scientific investment?

  Professor Beddington: It is an interesting question. I think in some of the discussions that you had in the precursor to this Committee you were talking about regional development agencies and my impression of the success or otherwise is that this has been mixed, but there are some areas where things work. I think there are difficulties on either side really. If I take the example of the movement of the Met Office down to Exeter where you had an acknowledged absolutely first-rate organisation in which, as it were, some people were really attracted by the idea of living in Exeter, but essentially the South East is a focus and they are having to come up to London two or three times a month, that can work, but there are potential downsides. In terms of actually doing it, I think you just have to look at our great universities and they are not simply concentrated in the South East. Manchester is an enormous area of science and scientific expertise with the new universities there and the attraction of moving out of London or the South East to Manchester is manifest; there is a tremendously exciting coherence there. Similar things, I suspect, will be happening if you focus on universities and centres of excellence you have a chance to actually get the best of both possible worlds, so I think the policy of linking research institutes and government research institutes locally in close proximity to universities works pretty well.

  Q26  Dr Harris: Can I explore this treatment of evidence by the Government. We had a witness earlier this term who said, "I am convinced from all the evidence I have seen that a lack of student finance is not acting as a deterrent for young people applying to university", and I asked, as indeed the Chairman asked, what research had been carried out so that one could say one had looked at evidence as opposed to opinion. The response we got was, "We commission, and fund, student income and expenditure surveys which gives us all sorts of detailed information", but it was not what either the questioners meant as a research project respectively designed to ask the questions, to monitor the outcome and to see if one could have a control group and all those sorts of things. Do you see it as part of your role to ensure that people do not state that something, a policy, is evidence-based when in fact it is not evidence-based and it might just be based on ideology, on a Manifesto commitment, on economic priorities, but not on evidence?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I think I would see that. If there are issues in which there is a possibility of providing an evidence base for a particular question, then that should be pursued or, if it is not there, one says, "I don't know".

  Q27  Dr Harris: What concerns me, and perhaps others, and this Government has done quite well actually in trying to talk about evidence-based policy-making, so I will use that as my starting point, but then the danger is that then politicians say something is evidence-based when it is not and that rather pollutes the language. I am just wondering whether you think there is a way that mechanisms within government can audit assertions of an evidence basis, so not just inspect the evidence, but monitor where assertions that something is evidence-based are appropriate?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I think that is an interesting question because I think it goes wider than purely science, and obviously there are the economics, the statistical professions, the social science professions in government. Nick McPherson is chairing the group, of which I will be a part, which is actually looking at issues like that and I think that there is the potential for looking wider than pure science into these issues because, in the example that you raised, essentially it is a social science statistical assessment linked to proper, appropriate controls and so on.

  Q28  Dr Harris: Sorry, but we count social science, if it is properly constructed research, as part of the evidence base.

  Professor Beddington: Indeed, as indeed do I.

  Q29  Dr Harris: No, I was not making that point. I was not asking for the research to go wider than science. I am asking whether there is a way of monitoring the description of a policy as evidence-based when it is not evidence-based, in other words, when there is no proper research to back it up or the evidence is weak, and then you just get a corruption, if you like, of the language and the term "evidence-based" means nothing. I would like to stress that I think the same should apply to opposition parties as well, but we are dealing with government at the moment. I do not think your last answer was an answer to that question.

  Professor Beddington: I am sorry, I thought I had, but clearly I did not express myself well enough. What I was saying is that I think that is an interesting question and it goes wider than science. In fact, the group that I was referring to would involve economists, statisticians and so on and I think that group and a discussion of that particular question, whether that is feasible, seems to me to be an interesting agenda item.

  Q30  Dr Harris: I would like to ask you about stem cell research because the previous Prime Minister and, I think, this Prime Minister have always said that they are very keen on seeing Britain continue its role in stem cell research, its leading role in stem cell research, and indeed the Government has a very good record, in my opinion, on promoting this, so it is different from the problems the Government has had with GM technology and it is a very important issue. There is legislation going through Parliament which regulates this, and it is an unusual sort of science in the sense that it is quite heavily regulated through the old 1990 HFE Act, and there is new legislation. Is it your view from a scientific point of view that that measure should be as scientifically robust as possible founded on scientific evidence and as permissive to the science base as possible within accepted ethical and legal constraints?

  Professor Beddington: My response to that is going to be very provisional. Prima facie I would agree with that proposition, but there is a lot of evidence and I really am not familiar with this field, so it is a thing I obviously have to get up to speed on when I take up the job in January. It is an area that I do not feel comfortable about answering questions on in great detail; I need to understand more the complexities of it and I would be very happy to come here and answer that question in due course.

  Q31  Dr Iddon: Professor Beddington, are you happy that the creation of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills will promote science, and engineering of course, in a better way than hitherto?

  Professor Beddington: I hope so. As you will appreciate, I have not been a civil servant and understanding how well departments work, I have got to explore this once I have taken up the new job, but I think it offers a real opportunity. I recall again this Committee in its previous incarnation made some suggestions, for example, that the Chief Scientific Adviser should be based in the Cabinet Office and that is an interesting question and I thought hard about it obviously when I was going for the job, but the thing that seemed to me to be overridingly attractive was the link with the Government Office of Science and the Innovation and Science Group under Sir Keith O'Nions at present. Having those two bodies under the same roof affords the possibility of regular interaction which a separation might not. In terms of DIUS and its aspirations, it seems to me to be attractive that you are working right through mainly from science down to higher education and the whole skills and innovation issue. Prima facie that seems to be really an attractive idea. How it will work, I do not know, but I will find out in due course.

  Q32  Dr Iddon: I have got two answers for the price of one question! I was going to challenge you on the position that you occupy in government as Chief Scientific Adviser and whether you should be in the Cabinet Office, as we all believed in the previous Committee, but I think you have given an adequate answer to that one. Are you as disappointed as some members of this Committee who were on the previous S&T Committee that science and indeed engineering do not appear in the title of the Department? Do you think that is seen in the academic community and the business community to be downgrading science and engineering in any way?

  Professor Beddington: I think it is fair to say that the science and engineering community would have welcomed it, but I do not think that this is really a serious issue. People know what DIUS is doing and they do not believe DIUS is going to ignore science because it does not have "science" in its title, and there are ways you can get round this. In the Government Office of Science or GO-Science, its acronym, it is pretty clear what we are doing and, albeit there is a sort of modest disappointment, I would not feel that this is a really serious issue for the community of scientists, technologists and engineers around.

  Q33  Dr Iddon: Tomorrow we are going to have an away day and decide whether to have a sub-committee of this main Committee. That could be science and technology, it could be universities or it could be skills. What would your advice be?

  Professor Beddington: I think I would say I do not know at the moment. I think the attraction is to have a sub-committee that deals with science and engineering and that would be an attraction because it would actually operate and link closely within my own sphere of operation and it would be very welcome to work with such a sub-committee, but I do not have enough knowledge at present to actually advise you.

  Q34  Dr Iddon: When Sir David was in front of us last week and you were present, I tackled him on the question of long-term commitments in science and engineering that the Government has, such as earth observation studies and that was the example I gave him, but of course there are lots of other long-term commitments that each of the research councils has entered into at the moment and, following yesterday's announcement, they might be at risk again and this is an ongoing procedure. Every year we look at the science budget and it is always under pressure, and Sir David agreed with me that perhaps the right way forward is to take out these long-term commitments from the individual research councils and put them in a separate organisation and ring-fence that money. What is your feeling on that?

  Professor Beddington: I think it is an interesting idea. Within my own field which obviously deals with population biology, the long-term ecological data sets are absolutely essential. I worked myself on some fish samples that were collected on Lake Windermere in the 1930s and we were able, for example, to test them for radioactive elements and, by actually using data that had been collected in the 1980s, we were able to pick up things like the effect of the Test Ban Treaty, the Windscale fire and so on. Those things are goldmines and the need for actually retaining long-term data sets in my own field, I think, is essential. Now, as you, I am sure, realise, this is not an attractive area of work because it is not exciting, it does not actually generate the excitement until somebody actually goes in there and mines the gold and the data. I think that there are real issues there and putting those long-term things, for example, in the collection of long-term data sets or indeed in long-term science, I think that is an interesting question and well worth exploring.

  Q35  Dr Iddon: Do you think, in the light of the Government's putting science and engineering towards the top of their present agenda, that we should perhaps ring-fence the science budget in any way?

  Professor Beddington: It is a very attractive idea from my perspective and I think that part of the job, as I see it, is actually to try as far as one possibly can to defend the R&D expenditure within departments. Ring-fencing, it would be attractive if it was there, but I am not so certain that it would actually happen in practice, so I think one would still actually have to vigorously approach the R&D budgets and try to ensure that as far as possible they are ring-fenced within departments, and I see that very much as part of my role.

  Q36  Dr Iddon: The Government has set a target, I think it is 2.5% of GDP, for investment in research and development. The Government is heading towards that target, but sadly industry is not. Do you have any feelings on that matter? Are you going to focus on that and try to encourage our industries to invest more in research and development to achieve that target?

  Professor Beddington: Lord Sainsbury, I think, spoke to this Committee a few weeks ago and one of the odd things about the structure of British industry is that essentially the industries that we have that are very successful in the UK are relatively low in their expenditure on R&D, the exception being essentially the pharmaceutical industry and to a lesser extent, I think, perhaps the oil and gas industries, so I think there is a sort of structural difficulty there in terms of the way our industries operate. I think the development of the public-private partnership that is actually operating and which Sir David King developed with industry to look at energy research and development, which is going to be based at Loughborough, is a very attractive idea. The Energy Technology Institute seems to be an extremely exciting development which actually does bring industry into it. He gave you the cautionary note that the spending is less than that of Belgium or something of that sort, but I think it is a start and £1 billion over a 10-year period, which is what I understand the target budget is going to be, is very attractive, and it is bringing in industry and it is also bringing industry in with government in a way in which we are really approaching problems that are really important.

  Q37  Chairman: One of your roles is to head the science and engineering profession and the word "engineering" is in that, but we hear very, very little about the engineering profession and about engineers within government, yet all the major challenges which we face both as a nation and indeed as a world will require engineering solutions. What do you think you could do, heading up this profession, to actually put engineering back at the heart of what we do rather than give this sort of notion that it is an outdated profession which does not fit in with the 21st-Century goals and ideas?

  Professor Beddington: You speak to my heart on that. At Imperial, I ran a department which had a lot of engineers and it was the first time I had really encountered them and I generated an enormous respect for, as it were, engineering thought processes; it is very much a sort of "can do" culture in solving scientific problems. What I am hoping to do, in fact early in January, I am hoping to meet with the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lord Browne and some of his vice presidents to explore the ways in which we can actually take engineering forward in exactly this way, and it needs a higher profile. The other aspect that I think is of interest is that trained engineers are in demand everywhere, not just as engineers, but the financial services industry are desperate to have quality engineers because they actually are able to solve some of the problems of essentially financial engineering in a way, so there is a real issue there because we are training extraordinarily able engineers at Imperial College where I am currently a professor, we have an excellent reputation for training very good engineers, and quite a lot of them do not actually do engineering, but they do financial engineering and there is an issue—

  Q38  Chairman: That is a good thing though, is it not?

  Professor Beddington: It is very good, but what it means is that that training is very attractive, but we also need engineers to solve problems, for example, engineering solutions to clean coal technology and that is going to be very, very important. Perhaps the answer is that you just need to pay them a bit more.

  Q39  Ian Stewart: Professor Beddington, just on the issue you are talking about now, if the role of GO-Science and your role is as you have just described it in relation to engineers, the next unit along in the process would be the implementation, the manufacture, the doing of work, the production of things. How do you intend to make the link between what is ring-fenced as your area of responsibility into that next box?

  Professor Beddington: I do not know at present, I am too new in the job, or not yet in the job, but it is a very good question and one that actually needs to be addressed. What I can do initially, and in a sense I know how to do that, I can talk to the people who really understand how the engineering profession works in the country at the highest level, the Royal Academy of Engineering, I have got to talk to them, but I have also got to come to grips with levels below that, practising engineers that are actually working in the manufacturing industry.

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