Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)|
BEDDINGTON CMG FRS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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