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

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)


12 DECEMBER 2007

  Q60  Mr Marsden: On this issue of the media, we talk about the media, but of course there are enormously different types of media and one of the issues, I think, is sometimes the reporting in the specialist scientific media and related issues and the way in which that connects with the general media, the newspapers that most people pick up every day or the TV programmes that they turn on, that there is not always a beneficial flow between those two areas. Do you think that your big job is in talking to, if you like, the specialist media or is it in talking to the generalist media?

  Professor Beddington: I think you have got to get both right and, even within the generalist media, there are obviously hierarchies, or "hierarchies" is too pejorative, sorry, but there are differences. Yes, you have got to engage at that level, but what you are trying to seek is a consistency of message and I think that is what I will try to seek. Whether I achieve it, that will depend, but I will certainly try and I certainly see it as a really important role.

  Dr Iddon: Do you consider yourself to be a scientist who is able to communicate rather complex scientific and technological issues to the media? It is a skill and you have obviously been selected possibly with that in mind.

  Q61  Ian Stewart: I dare you to say no!

  Professor Beddington: I do not know why I was selected obviously, but I have had experience of trying to convey relatively complex ideas in a simple form over a number of years and I hope I can be good at it, but I guess time will have to tell in this new role.

  Q62  Dr Gibson: But you are not like Alex Ferguson who tells the media to get stuffed and survives, so it is not imperative that you have to talk to the media all the time and you can sometimes say, "Not today".

  Professor Beddington: I think it is a good point, Dr Gibson, although I do not think I will adopt the Ferguson approach.

  Dr Gibson: What a shame!

  Chairman: Well, we hope you do not too, but one of the issues that the media are very interested in and this Committee are very interested in is badgers and you know that you could not possibly get away this morning without giving us your heartfelt views about badgers and this is an area that Dr Gibson is going to examine.

  Q63  Dr Gibson: I was not going to start with badgers and somebody else might do that. I was going to ask you if you knew anything about nanotechnology which is difficult to define, but it is certainly there. There are many new technologies and they are all coming from Imperial. There are many people who describe themselves as "nanotechnologists" and it is a technology which needs interaction with the consumer. How do you feel about that? Do you think they could go ahead with this kind of technology without considering the consumer, rather like GM really?

  Professor Beddington: I think there are some safety issues associated with it which have only been partially explored and I think that needs to be done. I do not think the consumer really knows about the safety issues. It appears, and again this is not an area I have worked in, that it is an area which does seem to have tremendous potential, but there are issues which need to be explored. I see it as analogous actually to GM crops in which you need to look at things on a case-by-case basis, but stopping research in it would seem to me to be extremely unwise, given the potential.

  Q64  Dr Gibson: Well, will you look into the vast amounts of money that have been invested in this country into that kind of technology? The public does not know about it, we do not know about it, nobody seems to know about it, but there is a task force out there looking at it. It might be worth looking at because a lot of taxpayers' money goes in that area. Let me now come to badgers. Do you like badgers?

  Professor Beddington: It is a case-by-case basis!

  Q65  Dr Gibson: You like the black and white ones, do you?

  Professor Beddington: When there was the drought three years ago and I was watering my flowerbeds and the badgers found the only piece of wet ground that they could actually dig up, I have to say, my fondness for them was undermined somewhat. To be a bit more serious, this is, oddly enough, actually quite a complicated ecological question, it is not simple. I heard the discussion with Sir David in this Committee last week and I am very pleased to understand that he is actually meeting with the ISG group tomorrow and will be hopefully agreeing a common ground on where essentially agreements exist and where they do not exist. I am actually seeing Sir David on Monday to discuss the results of that meeting and, for the moment, I am a sort of agnostic on it. When I was Chairman of the Defra Science Advisory Council, at the request of Sir Howard Dalton, a group of the Council was set up under John Shepherd to actually look at that issue and, to an extent, that sub-group agreed with the ISG results. I think Sir David has raised some interesting questions and it will be resolved, I hope, in a way in which essentially the science and the policy become clear.

  Q66  Dr Gibson: Why do you think he intervened? It was nothing to do with him, was it? John Krebs had done all the hard work.

  Professor Beddington: Well, there are three questions there. Why did he intervene? Well, I understand that he was asked to intervene and to look at the issue which is perfectly appropriate for him as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. If someone asked me to do it, if a Minister asked me to do it, I would do it, I would look at it, so that is the answer to that question. In terms of John Krebs, I think he chaired the committee which suggested the trials which will run for 10 years as a way of actually resolving what is a very difficult issue, and I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing to have done. The trials have had some difficulties and we had a foot and mouth disease outbreak halfway through them, but I will hope to have a view on badgers in some detail once these various consultations have taken place.

  Chairman: Well, we wish you every success.

  Q67  Mr Marsden: Again without wanting to make it sound like a scientists' "lobbython", I am pleased to hear what you said about reserving your view on it until we have taken things further because I think one of the things that people might say is that our great members, sometimes they have significant flaws and it is not necessarily helpful, is it, to make statements which contradict, as my colleague was at pains to point out last week, the results of a nine-year experiment, but I want to move on from that and just ask you a broader question on this issue of bovine TB and badger-culling. It is very interesting that the debate has been about to cull or not to cull, and avian flu is another question, but the broader question, if we continue to have these sorts of outbreaks, as to whether culling should always be the weapon of first choice rather than last choice does not really seem to have had too much of a look-in. I just wondered whether in this area and in other areas we should not, as part of the scientific process, be looking at other solutions?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I think very clearly the issues are about vaccines and alternative methods of control. I think that we need again to look at individual diseases. Let us take blue tongue. There seems to me to be no way that culling will help in controlling blue tongue. It is passed by gnats. Depending on over-wintering temperatures, we may well have blue tongue outbreaks next year due to an over-wintering in that population which actually has it, or we may get new infections which come across from the Continent. It seems to me that in sorting the blue tongue problem, it has to be vaccines. There is no way that culling will make any difference. Also there is partly an animal welfare issue because there is quite a lot of suffering with animals, particularly sheep, that actually get blue tongue. In the case of avian influenza, I think culling is probably a sensible thing at present. We do not have a vaccine for H5N1 which will work in avians, but I think that we have probably got to question quite how wide that level of culling is going. The issue of avian influenza is so horrific and, when you go to south-east Asia, the possibility of some form of mutation resulting in human-to-human transmission is enormous, but that actually is not an issue in the UK. The number of people involved is sufficiently small that the probability that avian flu will occur in humans in the UK is tiny, but it is still an important economic issue for the poultry industry and that is, I think, where the difference is. In terms of foot and mouth disease, I think some of the retrospective studies of the way the outbreak was treated in 2001 indicated that vaccination within a cull would actually have been a probably more effective method, but that is 20-20 hindsight. At the moment, the outbreak that occurred around the Pirbright installation was properly dealt with, I believe, by culling and in fact the studies that I saw when I was on the Defra Science Advisory Council did indicate that a vaccination process would not actually have mitigated anything at all in the relatively small numbers of animals that were involved there.

  Q68  Mr Marsden: Again, what you have said there has very helpfully and widely underlined the question I wanted to ask. Given that you are indicating in a whole range of areas in the future that the issue of vaccination or alternative methods to culling may become a real and very sensible option, are we doing enough in terms of scientific research and in terms of scientific biology to explore those areas? Again, I think there is a public dimension here, leaving aside the animal welfare issues. After all, we have significant numbers of people going around all the time carrying particular diseases, but we have not, as far as I am aware, yet had any suggestion that we should cull all of them in case they infect other members of the human population. You might think that is a trite example, but the point I am trying to get at is that we need, do we not, if we are going to go down these alternative routes of vaccination, to win over public support and public understanding of when vaccination is necessary and when culling is necessary?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I think technically some of these problems are really quite difficult. Clearly it would be extremely attractive to have a vaccine that was workable for foot and mouth disease, to have it available. Whether it was used, that would be essentially a commercial and technical decision, depending on the type of outbreak. With blue tongue, I would say it is essential. Blue tongue has the potential to cause serious problems with our livestock industry, particularly sheep, and I think that investment in vaccination there seems to me to be the only way that you actually have a hope of coming to grips with this disease. Avian influenza is slightly more problematic because at the moment we have had three instances, we have had a swan, we have had the Bernard Matthews outbreak and the most recent one, and in all cases there does not seem to be the secondary outbreaks, apart from the immediate vicinities, so culling seems to be working there, but as a hypothetical situation, suppose you actually had 85 outbreaks in East Anglia rather than essentially two or three isolated farm incidents, how would you deal with that? I suspect you would have to deal with it in a rather different way. Apart from anything else, it is just things like the volume of birds that you would actually have to get rid of and some of the culling policies which have been developed in Germany and the Netherlands have had to be really quite draconian, but it is a difficult problem.

  Q69  Dr Gibson: But the turkeys are safe until Christmas?

  Professor Beddington: As far as I am aware, but I cannot be certain.

  Mr Marsden: Not necessarily safe from members of this Committee!

  Q70  Chairman: We have had enough with badgers without starting on protecting turkeys! Professor Beddington, yesterday there was this announcement of the science research budgets and significant additional resources going into research, and we have certainly seen that particularly since 1999, this doubling of the research base. Do you think our research base is strong enough to be able to cope with all the issues which my Committee have raised this morning with you? It is a huge range of different challenges which the Government is facing up to. Do we have a science community that is sufficiently well resourced, sufficiently trained and with sufficient people coming through with the right skill sets in order to be able to meet those challenges?

  Professor Beddington: It is an enormous question which I think you will understand why I would not answer in any real detail. I think we have lots of reasons for hope. We have an extraordinarily able science and engineering community. In terms of their publications and their international prestige, they lie second only to the USA and are way ahead of many countries that one would think to be as competitive, so I think in terms of the, as it were, personnel, I think we do. I think we do train very well and I think we produce excellent scientists and engineers. In terms of resources, it is an extraordinarily complex game and how you actually allocate resources, where the priorities lie, where you actually put in for blue skies research, what proportion you allocate into strategic things to address a particular problem, it is terribly difficult. I do not think there are generalities about it; I think that there are things that need to be worked through on the detail. What is the proportion of money that you spend with the MRC, what is the proportion you spend with the NERC; again they are terribly difficult questions, and, in a sense, it is almost a political process for deciding that. In terms of the overall level of scientific input, in terms of overall resources, of course it is never enough, and when scientists say that, people will say, "They would say that, wouldn't they?" but I think the answer is it is difficult. What is encouraging is that the spend is going up in difficult times.

  Q71  Chairman: But the process yesterday appeared to break down in the sense that when the allocations came in the particle physics community felt that they were basically being culled as a result of the allocations. Does that not either indicate there is a flaw in the system or that really we are trying to do too much?

  Professor Beddington: I cannot comment on that in any detail because essentially I have just read the newspapers like you. You may have more information than I do on that. My understanding of it is that that particular community actually got an increase in budget but the increase was rather less than they had expected because there was some sort of clawback of over-spend in other areas. I do not know the detail but that sort of thing can happen. I do not think it means that necessarily the process is fundamentally flawed but there will always be problems like that around. The MRC budget has gone up and there are concerns about claw-backs, particularly having to subsidise the use from MRC products and so on. There will always be issues like that around the fringes. By and large, I do not have a feeling that the thing is fundamentally flawed.

  Q72  Chairman: Would you see it as your job to challenge that?

  Professor Beddington: I think my job has got to be involved in it, which is one of the attractions of being within DIUS that I referred to earlier because research council spend is essentially within Sir Keith O'Nions' orbit at the moment with consultation across, and I would hope to be able to be closely involved in these discussions.

  Q73  Dr Gibson: Would you interfere with a university if it was closing a department?

  Professor Beddington: I do not think that is necessary.

  Q74  Dr Gibson: At that budget level?

  Professor Beddington: At that budget level I think that is probably at a lower level. If one were thinking about every physics department or every chemistry department in the country closing, then manifestly that would be a real issue of very significant proportions.

  Q75  Dr Harris: The DIUS science budget is going up by 2.7%, the average science base across government is 2.5%; by simple statistics what does that tell you about the non-DIUS science spend increase?

  Professor Beddington: I think we can both deduce that.

  Q76  Dr Harris: Just for those—

  Professor Beddington: If the DIUS budget has gone up by 2.7 and the other has gone up by 2.5, there has been a sum transfer of resources into the DIUS budget.

  Q77  Dr Harris: The point I am trying to make is there was clearly a reduced level of increased spend, or possibly in some departments a reduction in spend on the science base, for the average to be 2.5 but DIUS to be 2.7, whether it is a transfer or whether it is just a policy decision. Given that your responsibility goes across government, do you think you are going to be particularly interested in the justification for any reduced spend or low levels of increase, for example in departments which have clear links to some of our research institutes, like the Defra science spend for commissioned research and indeed indirect funding of research institutions?

  Professor Beddington: There are some real problems where you have a reduced spend whether you have flat funding or indeed a straight reduction. There will be structures and so this small reduction can actually pose particular problems. There have been some issues with Defra's spending changes on BBSRC institutes, which I was aware of when I was chairing Defra's Science Council. In terms of getting involved, yes, I think that if there are serious problems then I should be getting involved in looking at those issues. I should emphasise that for example taking Defra, that there is a chief scientific adviser in Defra whose job it is to look at that primarily. If I felt that there were issues that I should become involved in, I would, but the primary responsibility for that sort of activity and concern is the chief scientific adviser in the particular department concerned and how they interact with their management board.

  Q78  Dr Harris: You are a scientist; are you generally in favour of the trend to open access publication where the author pays or do you prefer the existing publication model?

  Professor Beddington: Open access publication is an interesting idea and philosophically I probably would support it, but there are some quite difficult technical issues involved with funding and so on associated with it, but philosophically, yes, I am in favour of it.

  Dr Harris: How would you feel as Chief Scientific Adviser about the children in our schools being taught creationism as a valid theory to explain the diversity of life?

  Q79  Dr Gibson: Can we try anything now, Chairman?

  Professor Beddington: I would be against it.

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