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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-70)


17 MARCH 2008

  Q60  Dr Gibson: Whose responsibility do you think that is to do it—and do not say it is the Government's because they will have deflected the responsibility, I am sure.

  Sir Bill Callaghan: There was an HSE commissioned report some years ago which recommended that health and safety should feature in undergraduate courses, not just in chemistry but engineering and so on. I have to say we did not get as far as we would have liked because ultimately the responsibility for courses lies with the academic institution.

  Q61  Dr Gibson: Suppose you got radical and said: "There must be in this course twenty lectures in this, and twenty experiences in practicals in that", what would happen in universities? Because as you know in schools when people talk about experiments they always say, "Oh, health and safety is a real pain. We cannot do things now because of health and safety". Would you get the same kind of reaction from the professionals, do you think?

  Sir Bill Callaghan: I am not sure. I can only speak with some knowledge of what happens I think at Imperial on civil engineering, where I think as part of the Master's course health and safety features very much in terms of the course and in terms of the practical work the students are meant to do, and that is welcomed by all concerned, but certainly when I was at HSE we would have liked to have seen health and safety featuring in all scientific degrees and, indeed, in MBA courses as well.

  Q62  Dr Gibson: Do you think there should be a certificate attached to it? That you pass something?

  Sir Bill Callaghan: I would not necessarily say a certificate but building that into undergraduate training I think is very important.

  Professor Griffin: There are ways to present it, of course. There are ways which are enabling rather than disenabling, and the way I would approach it is to say "I wish to enable you to work on these pathogens because"—and then I would try to enable people to do it, not disenable, and I know that is what my colleagues at HSE do when they visit laboratories.

  Q63  Dr Gibson: Lastly, what do you think of biological safety officers then, as a class or group? I remember quite clearly when they were brought in and I remember how difficult it was to recruit them. Usually the junior lecturer got the job if they could not recruit somebody. Health and safety was right at the bottom of the agenda when you were appointing heads of this, that and the other. Junior lecturers were told, "You'll do health and safety, won't you?"

  Professor Griffin: That is because it is seen as disenabling rather than enabling, Dr Gibson, and I think the concept of enabling and getting things moving is important to get over, and we have not done that.

  Q64  Dr Gibson: And you recognise the symptoms?

  Professor Griffin: Absolutely.

  Sir Bill Callaghan: That is why we say we welcome the moves towards a more professional status for BSOs and we would hope the Regulator will encourage that. Indeed, I think the recent reports probably will have enhanced the role of BSOs.

  Q65  Chairman: Finally, Professor Griffin, you talked very strongly when Ian Gibson began his questioning in terms of having a scheme which promoted good biosafety practice within all laboratories, not just simply Containment Level 3 or Containment Level 4 facilities. What you did not make clear is who should have overall responsibility for that. Should it be the institution, in which case is that a portable, if you like, certification or qualification or whatever you want to call it? Who should be responsible?

  Professor Griffin: At the moment it is the institution.

  Q66  Chairman: But should it continue like that?

  Professor Griffin: This is a very difficult question, with many facets to it.

  Q67  Chairman: You cannot have it both ways, can you?

  Professor Griffin: No.

  Q68  Chairman: You cannot say there are problems, because an institution could be quite lax in that way. We were in Germany two weeks ago and the Isle of Reims, which is arguably a very good facility, said: "We do not want people to be trained elsewhere; we need to train them when they get here in terms of our work", and that really puts a spanner in the works.

  Professor Griffin: Yes. Even if there were a list of basic competences which were ticked off and somebody came to my laboratory to work I would take them in the lab and watch them, not just depend on a certificate. A certificate is useful as far as it goes but, at the end of the day, there would have to be assessment.

  Q69  Chairman: So it is a starting point, really?

  Professor Griffin: It is a good starting point, and it could be—and I hate the word—a minimum level of competences which are essential in order to undertake this work, and they would be pretty minimal at the end of the day, but I think all of us who would have somebody working in a CL4 laboratory or P3 laboratory would wish to watch somebody very closely for a considerable length of time.

  Q70  Dr Gibson: What do you say to the problem that you are working on something but that is not the hazard? Suppose I was working on a cancer cell. That is not in itself—I hope—a problem, but the viruses that might be growing in the cancer cell or the bacteria certainly are. Now, we would never ask to screen for them; we would screen for mycoplasmas and things, but nobody ever assayed your cultures for viruses, and you know how cultures get mixed and all the problems and so on. So how do you handle that one?

  Professor Griffin: Now, because we know of oncogenes and so on, you would have to say you need a minimal level of safety and that minimal level of safety would cover the worst contingency, so you would not be going for CL3 but you would have absolutely minimal guide; you would have strong guidance on contact of body with cells, contact of body with biological fluids and exactly what to do if that happened, and you would not just ignore it.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Could we put on record our grateful thanks to you not for just coming today but for the excellent report you prepared following Pirbright. Everybody benefited from that and certainly, when we were abroad, people spoke in very strong words about the way that report had been put together. So thank you very much indeed, and the best of luck, Professor Griffin, in producing for MRC the sorts of guidelines which some may want to see and others may not. Thank you.

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