Examination of Witness (Questions 80-89)|
BEDDINGTON CMG FRS
12 DECEMBER 2007
Q80 Dr Harris: You would be against
Professor Beddington: Yes.
Q81 Dr Harris: Right. There is an
argument that it is okay as long as they are taught that it is
a valid scientific theory in RE lessons and not in science lessons.
Do you see a distinction between the two?
Professor Beddington: Between
religious instruction lessons and science lessons?
Q82 Dr Harris: They are taught that
it is a valid scientific theory but in RE lessons not in science
lessons. Do you think they just should not be taught that at all?
Professor Beddington: I do not
think it should ever be argued that it is a valid scientific theory
because it just is not a scientific theory. Scientific theories
are well-defined, they have testable consequences, and if those
testable consequences can be assessed, they are either refuted
or they are actually corroborated to an extent until a refutation
comes along. That is a well-defined distinction. I would not say
that creationism, by any of those characteristics, would be a
Q83 Dr Harris: I have got a note
here to ask about scientific fraud which I am keen to do. I was
going to ask about nanotechnology but that has already been asked.
Do you think that there are enough measures in place to a) prevent
and b) detect a serious case of scientific fraud which might undermine,
at least in the public's mind, the reputation of the UK science
base or indeed the government scientific advisory systems which
rely on outside scientists?
Professor Beddington: Looking
worldwide there have been quite well-documented cases of scientific
fraud and there have been no well-documented cases in the UK in
recent times. I do not think any system would be perfect. I think
the Code of Ethics for science that has been developed and pushed
by Sir David into the science community is sensible. The thing
we have to rely on to detect scientific fraud is peer review.
If somebody comes out with results of an experiment and says "these
are the results", and somebody repeats them and does not
get the same answers, then that is the basis for detecting fraud.
There are some problems, for example in ecological experiments
where field studies are really quite difficult to mimic, so there
are difficulties there. I would say for example it would be quite
possible that someone who is very determined could rig field experiments
and it would be a while before they were detected, but I believe
ultimately they would be detected by the peer review process.
Q84 Dr Harris: I wanted to ask you
about peer review because you mentioned it several times and I
share your view that it is critical. The Wakefield paper on the
alleged link between MMR and autism went through the peer-reviewed
journals and that has all fallen apart. Do you think there is
scope in the way that peer review works at the moment for it to
be looked at and revised in some areas, or at least best practice
being replicated both in terms of the publication and of course
in grant allocations? Do you think there is a role for you as
the head of government scientific advice to ensure that that process
is done if you think it should be done?
Professor Beddington: Again I
will refer to my experience in Defra because that has coloured
it. When I first became Chair of the Council in terms of grant
applications, a relatively modest proportion were peer reviewed,
in terms of allocating the grant but also in terms of the product.
Under Sir Howard Dalton that has improved enormously so that is
not actually the case at the moment. I think the peer review process
is essential. It is not going to be perfect and there are ways
you can actually improve it. For example, there are dangers of
having a situation where peer reviewers lose their anonymity when
there is pressure at some stage in a number of areas to lose that
anonymity and that is potentially unhealthy. I think an anonymous
peer review can also have its faults. Somebody can hate the guy
who has written the paper and therefore the peer review is written
in a way that is, shall we say, not the most objective.
Q85 Dr Harris: A knowledgeable smile
from Dr Gibson there for the record!
Professor Beddington: Have I answered
Dr Harris: Yes.
Q86 Dr Gibson: Before you get into
the guts of the research paper, in the material and methods they
always talk about the organism or they talk about the cell line.
It is coming out that a lot of the cell lines, for example in
the cancer field, one will be a colo-rectal, one will be a brain
cell, are not that anyway, they are just cultures that have been
obtained in the lab and they are not checked out, so the peer
review process misses that at the very beginning. Meadows actually
wrote a whole book at one time about the way papers are written
up. Do you feel that that is right, that it is worth looking at,
that it is serious? In your own field of population biology is
the organism that they say they are working on the real organism
or have they got the subspecies wrong?
Professor Beddington: In my own
field I am not aware of any instances of that. Meadows's book
is very interesting and I think that continued challenge is part
of the peer review process. Sir David pointed out here last time,
on the issue of scrapie and BSE, the fact that nobody checked
to see whether these things were sheep or cattle. That challenge
function is very, very important. Whether it is something that
should be my central role, I do not think it is because one has
to rely on the cadres of people who work in these different fields
to actually pose these questions. Scientific progress operates
at different levels. There is working within paradigms and then
you get a paradigm shift, and I think it is those paradigm shifts
where these sorts of problems really quite quickly come out.
Q87 Dr Gibson: Do you hate the Research
Professor Beddington: You hate
it and you love it; it is a mixture. I think something like it
was necessary. I hated it when I was head of department having
to spend enormous portions of my life doing it, I cannot say it
was a thing of love, but actually allocating funds on the basis
of some criteria of quality has got to make sense.
Q88 Dr Gibson: Do you accept then
that sometimes people do daft experiments just to get the paper
out quickly and risk losing out on a certain type of experiment
because they know that it is not an instantly publishable thing
within the RAE timespan?
Professor Beddington: I think
that is less of a problem, but one of the problems that is thereand
I think is recognisedis that applied research is somewhat
downgraded in the Research Assessment Exercise as is multi-disciplinary
research, both of which are really valuable. If there is a problem
there with the RAE it lies more in that area than this.
Q89 Chairman: Professor Beddington,
thank you very much indeed for a canter around the subject. Can
I say that Dr Turner had to go off to another Committee meeting
so he was not being impolite. Can I thank you very much indeed
for coming this morning and can I say on behalf of the Committee
that we wish you every success in your role. We have no doubt
that you will be as noteworthy as your immediate predecessor and
indeed the one before him too. Thank you very much indeed.
Professor Beddington: Chairman,
thank you very much. I appreciate the Committee's time in asking
me these questions. I was slightly startled to be asked to come
here before I had actually taken up the job, but having had it
I am delighted to have had this opportunity and I look forward
to meeting you all again.