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

Examination of Witness (Questions 80-89)


12 DECEMBER 2007

  Q80  Dr Harris: You would be against it?

  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 scientific theory.

  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 your question?

  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 Assessment Exercise?

  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 there—and I think is recognised—is 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.

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