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

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)


12 DECEMBER 2007

  Q40  Ian Stewart: Would you see any sense in your having a dialogue with the trade unions in the same way?

  Professor Beddington: I think it could very well be extremely helpful and certainly I would be very pleased to be able to have a discussion and get that input in.

  Q41  Dr Gibson: Do you not think that the problem of engineering might be that it is sub-divided, that there are so many sub-divisions of them that they do not even talk to each other? They nurture their rather large empty buildings in London for some future El Dorado, but they never talk to each other as engineers and say, "What can we do as a profession?", and they see themselves as a series of sub-professions.

  Professor Beddington: I have attended meetings in many of these large empty buildings, so I am aware of their existence. I do not know, Dr Gibson. I think that the main one at the top is the Royal Academy of Engineering and as to the extent to which each of the individual civil or chemical engineers defend their territory, I just do not know. It is a thing that needs exploring, but obviously it would be an awful lot more attractive if you actually had that degree of united fronts, as it were, but the subtleties of that I am ignorant of at present.

  Q42  Chairman: It would be an excellent inquiry for this Committee to do, would it not?

  Professor Beddington: I think that is for the Committee to decide.

  Q43  Dr Turner: I suspect Sir David feels rather miffed that it was Al Gore who got a Nobel Prize for promoting public awareness of climate change, given all the very serious groundwork and effort that David put into this, and it was clearly one of the major hobby horses that he rode to great effect. Will you be continuing to major on that issue and, if so, how do you see your role in it?

  Professor Beddington: First of all, I cannot comment on whether David is miffed or not. In fact, I was at a meeting that the Chairman was at at the Foundation for Science and Technology where one of the speakers in the valedictory made exactly the point that you have just made of how disgraceful it was that Al Gore had got it and Sir David King was not alongside him because David has done a tremendous job in publicising the issue of climate change, there is absolutely no doubt about it.

  Q44  Dr Gibson: And many others too—

  Professor Beddington: Indeed, there are many others.

  Q45  Dr Gibson:—because they discovered it.

  Professor Beddington: Indeed, but in terms of doing it, I feel in a sense that part of the problem has been solved in the sense that now it is recognised as a serious problem worldwide and it is not insignificant that all the presidential nominees are all essentially saying, "Yes, we should be taking this very seriously", and indeed they are saying, "We shall be looking, as the US Government, to sign up to a successor to Kyoto". In terms of the role, I would not see that it would be identical to David's, it would not be appropriate to follow him, but I think the areas that I really would like to get involved in myself are really thinking about, for example, the engineering solutions, thinking about how you can mitigate it, thinking about how one can, with engineering solutions, persuade some of the key countries, because, as we all know, the key countries are going to be essentially China, India and the US and, to a lesser extent, Brazil for different reasons, that these need engineering solutions and economic solutions. It is very difficult to see how that, following on from essentially posing the problem that climate change is still a major issue, will get us very much further other than producing new pressure to produce the appropriate investment, and that is the area that I would like to focus on.

  Q46  Dr Turner: Can I discuss that line further because you are absolutely right, we have got at least to the starting point whereby we have got people sufficiently scared to realise that there is a genuine problem and you can no longer bury your head in the sand and ignore it, with the honourable exception of George W who has still got his head in the sand, but, as you rightly point out, we now have the difficult bit of actually addressing the problem, and a large part of that has to be engineering and technology solutions. You have just referred to our Energy Technology Institute, the public-private partnership which is being developed because, to put that into context, the old CEGB, as I remember it, had on its own an R&D budget of the order of £1 billion before it was privatised, so do you think that this effort is in fact enough in view of the scale of the problem that we face? Are we going to have to do a lot more than that, do you think?

  Professor Beddington: I think the question answers itself really. Clearly this is attractive and £1 billion is not peanuts over 10 years, but it is still manifestly not enough. I think that such work, as is being done, on trying to produce not just innovative technologies, but actually apply proven technologies is going to need enormous amounts of investment. I think the Stern Report was indicating the proportion of GDP that would be required to actually meet different reduction targets, somewhere between two and three and a bit per cent of GDP, and that is manifestly an enormously increased investment to meet those challenges. If I might expand a tiny bit, I think that the area one is really looking at for investment also is probably to do with linking in with China and India because both have enormous reserves of coal, so clean coal technology, therefore, invested both by other countries to actually, perhaps arguably, subsidise investment in China and India of these technologies may well be the most cost-efficient way of doing it. I cannot judge. It is not an area I have worked in closely, but I think about it a lot and I will be working on that quite closely over the next few months.

  Q47  Dr Turner: Do you have any preliminary view as to whether we are approaching, for instance, CCS in the most effective way because, you are absolutely right, it is going to need to be deployed as fast as possible? Is the way that we are doing it with a single post-combustion competition the most effective way, given that there are a lot of projects on the shelf not all of them post-combustion, but some pre-combustion which will not necessarily be going ahead as a result of following the single competition route?

  Professor Beddington: I have not really thought about that. You are raising a key question and clearly the obvious answer is that it is silly to have a single competition because you are only going to get one solution to it. There may be technicalities that I do not understand.

  Q48  Dr Turner: This almost flies in the face of normal government behaviour, certainly as exemplified by the old DTI which, I am sure, carries over into DBERR, that the Government does not pick winners when clearly there is not going to be one winner, but there are going to be lots of winners and we have got to find them and we have got to be careful that we do not end up backing losers instead which we have a history of doing in the past to a degree.

  Professor Beddington: I think the point you make is a good one. I think that industry, we will hope, will innovate because that is the way they will make money and that is the way they will actually improve their profitability for their shareholders, and I think that industry is going to be keen to develop this. I think the appreciation of a big and potentially profitable market out there is really now apparent. I think the ETI is, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, or I hope it is anyway.

  Q49  Dr Turner: Now, where do you stand on the nuclear argument? Do you feel that the science and engineering arguments for a new generation of nuclear power stations are compelling and how do you see the balance in the end between providing for a low-carbon future through nuclear and renewables?

  Professor Beddington: It has got to be a mix and the mix will depend on a whole lot of factors, obviously economic and, to a degree, social. I think that the challenge of actually meeting a reduction of carbon-related gases and so on is such that you are going to need a mix of solutions. I think it is unimaginable that there will be one solution and nuclear is not the answer, certainly not the answer worldwide and probably not the answer in the UK, so I think you will need a mix. Exactly what that mix is, I do not think you can design it, but I think that will evolve and one will look at different problems as they are addressed.

  Q50  Dr Turner: But there are many people who are worried that once you put nuclear into the risk, it is a little like a cuckoo laying an egg in a nest. Because it sucks in so much resource, it could be at the expense of getting the full deployment of renewables which we might get in the absence of nuclear, so you could end up, instead of having nuclear and renewables contributing, with something of an and/or situation. Do you have a view on that and how we can avoid falling into the and/or trap?

  Professor Beddington: I think there is an impetus on renewables which is already there, but I think that impetus is unlikely to carry us through to a situation where essentially the UK could be dependent entirely on renewables; I just do not think that is feasible. This is not an area I have worked in, but it seems highly unlikely. There is an issue there and it seems to me to be hard to imagine a situation where you would actually solely have nuclear as a solution to the UK's needs and I think it will be a mix. Exactly what proportion of mix, I do not know and, as you say, if nuclear comes in, it is very large and growing and potentially could be a major answer, but you are looking at timescales for that, big, long timescales for builds of those power stations, and renewables have the opportunity to develop anyway and there is a fair bit of impetus going into that.

  Q51  Dr Turner: There has been a debate obviously about the UK emission targets as appearing on the face of the Climate Change Bill and there is increasing debate as to whether the 60% and the interim targets are sufficiently ambitious, and the suggestion that advanced industrial, advanced ex-industrial almost, countries like our own should be setting more ambitious targets than 60% if the world is going to achieve 50% as an average. Do you have a view on the targets?

  Professor Beddington: No, I do not, not at present. It is too technical a question at the moment for me to answer; ask me in two months' time.

  Q52  Dr Iddon: One issue which got the press excited last week when we had Sir David in front of us was the issue of GM technologies and research into those technologies. Are you as convinced that we have lost out in this country as Sir David obviously was last week? Do you feel strongly that Britain should try to turn the position around now?

  Professor Beddington: I think there is little doubt that GM technology has real potential for increasing food production in a friendly way, but we clearly do need some fairly serious controls. The fact that GM crops have been eaten for a rather long period in America without, as far as I am aware, any major litigation in a highly litigious society indicates that they are relatively safe, I would say, taking an evidence-based view on that, but where we have lost out, I cannot judge. They are difficult, technical issues to do with whether in fact manufacture would have done it and it is a lot of "what ifs" and I could not judge on that, but I think, if we are looking forward to a future, there is no doubt that there is a need for looking at alternatives and food production is going to be an imperative. There has been a period over the last 20 years or so where distribution was felt to be the key issue and I am not entirely sure that is going to be the key issue over the next 10 or 15 years. You only have to look at the increase in wheat prices, for example, in the UK and they are up by a factor of three compared with 18 months ago and that is pretty much driven by special things, droughts in Australia and so on, but that sort of drive is being driven by essentially demand in China and India, and we are going to need technologies to actually address this gap, unless there are going to be some problems. Now, that being so, there have got to be proper safeguards. There is no doubt about it, that people have quite reasonable concerns about safeguards on genetically modified crops. I think one of the issues of course is that they vary. If we were looking, for example, at salt tolerance or we were looking for drought tolerance in particular crops, that probably is a reasonable thing to be doing with the downsides that are rather less than in other types of genetically modified organisms, but it is a case-by-case study and I do not think you are going to come out with a slogan, saying, "GM is good and non-GM is bad". I think what you will come out saying is that particular GM crops should be explored on a case-by-case basis both for their environmental impact and their potential benefit.

  Q53  Mr Marsden: Professor Beddington, I am interested, and relieved frankly, to hear you say what you just said about a case-by-case basis because one of the things that I think was interesting about Sir David King's evidence last week to the Committee was that he did not mention the word "biodiversity" once, and that is clearly an issue still in this area. The other perhaps is the whole issue of what I can only describe as the "ethics of choice". Of course, you might say a starving person has no choice and, therefore, that is an argument the other way, but is it not the case that, if we are to look at some of these issues in terms of renewing the GM debate in the UK, we have got to give proper emphasis to the ethics of choice, to the issue of terminator seeds and to the role of commercial groups in swaying some of the decision-making processes which have taken place in the US?

  Professor Beddington: I think in terms of choice, I would imagine that in any legislation that was brought in for the use of GM foods, it would have very clear labelling on it to indicate that it had been sourced in this way, so that would serve to an extent consumer choice, but I think on a case-by-case basis one would need to actually look at it on a case-by-case basis. What are the downsides? Let us take biodiversity as an example. If there is an issue that there appeared to be highly competitive strains of plants that were actually going to drive down biodiversity of hedgerows and so on, then that would be a clear downside against the introduction of those crops in the country.

  Q54  Mr Marsden: Of course before the Government declared a moratorium which it has had in this area, there were a number of trials and various conclusions, not all the same, were drawn from those trials. Do you consider that the trials which took place were robust enough to make the decisions which were made at that time?

  Professor Beddington: I could not judge, I have not worked in the field.

  Q55  Mr Marsden: If I can ask one final point on this question and I am sorry to put a philosophical question to the Chief Scientific Adviser, but it is quite a philosophical question because you said earlier on that there were sometimes other imperatives beyond the scientific. You also talked, and my colleague Evan Harris, about evidence-based decision-making, but is it the case that the scientific evidence is always neutral and definitive? Disraeli famously said that there were lies, damned lies and statistics and is it not the case sometimes, however unconsciously, that scientific evidence or the selection of any particular form of evidence can be influenced by presuppositions on the part of scientists just as any other group of people? After all, evidence does not always point one way, does it?

  Professor Beddington: Of course you are right. I think the only thing I would say about the scientific process is that peer review is central to proper scientific process. If you want to be philosophical, in my early days at the LSE, I used to go to lectures by Sir Karl Popper and criticism was the key to the development of science. People put up ideas, they stand by them, but then they are challenged and they are criticised and I think that is probably, to a degree, the safety valve of the natural prejudice that scientists have for saying, "I'm right", so I think that peer review and the use of criticism of particular positions are essential for that. That does not mean that it will not ever happen, but it is probably the underlying safety valve.

  Q56  Dr Iddon: It seems that we have lost the public trust in respect of the GM debate and the GM consultation process was not successful. We do not seem to be very good at public consultation on controversial issues, and I cite the current controversy that is going through the Houses of Parliament at the moment which is the embryology debate. Do you have any comments to make on how you feel that Parliament should consult the people in the country on key issues like the two that I have mentioned, for example?

  Professor Beddington: I do not have any sort of suggestions of how to do it better. Certainly I think that you have to have public consultation on these issues where people have well-formed views and have well-formed concerns, but in terms of what is the best way to do it, I am afraid I do not have any suggestions at present.

  Q57  Dr Iddon: Well, the media of course play a very important role, the printed media as well as the rest of the media. Will you be very proactive in your engagement with the media in trying to ensure that they report the true scientific facts rather than the myth?

  Professor Beddington: I see this as a central role. I think that it is not necessarily easy to actually ensure that you get appropriate reporting in the media of scientific results, but I think it is essential that I should try to ensure it and I certainly will be proactive in talking to the media about particular issues and that is part of the job. I am in a slightly odd position at the moment because, with Sir David in post and my not being in post, I have actually taken the view that I will not talk to the media until January despite, shall we say, a number of requests.

  Q58  Dr Harris: Let's hope they are not here!

  Professor Beddington: Indeed.

  Q59  Mr Marsden: You are talking to some of them now!

  Professor Beddington: Indeed, some of them are here, but this is a slightly different forum than a one-to-one, so in January I will engage with the media. It is absolutely essential; it is part of the job.

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