Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)|
BEDDINGTON CMG FRS
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
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
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
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
Professor Beddington: I would
be against it.