House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES AND SKILLS COMMITTEE
Wednesday 12 December 2007
PROFESSOR JOHN BEDDINGTON CMG FRS
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee
on Wednesday 12 December 2007
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Mr Gordon Marsden
Mr Desmond Turner
Witnesses: Professor John Beddington CMG FRS, Government Chief Scientific Adviser designate, gave evidence.
Q1 Chairman: We very much welcome Professor John Beddington, the Government's new Chief Scientific Adviser, to this first session with the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee. We are delighted, Professor Beddington, you have been able to come and meet us very early on, and can I assure you that this is a very good-mannered, polite committee who simply want to find out the truth from our witnesses. I wonder if I could start by asking you, how did you get the job?
Professor Beddington: First of all, Chairman, thank you for your kind remarks. I should slightly correct your opening remarks because I am not actually in the job yet. On 31 December, Sir David will leave his office and fairly shortly after that I will take it over, so at the moment I actually work for Imperial College. Obviously since the announcement in October, Sir David has been rather generous with the time of his staff, so I have been reading into the job and getting briefings and so on, which has been very helpful, but rather challenging, to say the least. In terms of how I got the job, I am assuming by that you do not mean to say that I was approached by the following head-hunters who asked, sort of thing?
Dr Turner: Yes!
Q2 Chairman: Yes, we do actually.
Professor Beddington: Well, I used to be the Chairman of Defra's Science Advisory Council and the head-hunters approached me to ask for my advice on who might be a new Chief Scientist at Defra.
Q3 Dr Gibson: What type of head-hunters were they who asked you?
Professor Beddington: They were from KMC and they approached me about that, so I gave some advice on that and then they raised the issue of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and asked whether I might be interested. I then gave it rather a lot of thought because I was not sure if I really wanted to do it, but the timing was good because I was just going on holiday with my wife, so we talked about it for a week and she said, "Well, you'll always be annoyed if you didn't go for it and I'll probably be annoyed if you do go for it, especially if you get it", but that is how it happened, and then there was obviously the series of interviews and so on with the appropriate panels.
Q4 Chairman: Previous Government Chief Scientific Advisers, particularly the last two, have been vocal and they have sometimes been controversial, but they have certainly been independently minded which is perhaps what one expects from a Government Chief Scientific Adviser. How will you approach that role?
Professor Beddington: I think the key thing here is to ensure, and I see it as my role, that the Government gets the best possible scientific advice, that where there is uncertainty, that is characterised, where there is risk, that is characterised, but I see my job as really trying to ensure that, when a new policy is made, it is based on the best possible scientific advice that is available at the time. Now, at some stages, there may well be contradictions between scientific advice and other policy imperatives, and that is taken as understood, but I think my central role is to do that and that is what I will try to do.
Chairman: But can we expect you to be outspoken? Is that your style? Are you a controversial figure in the science world?
Q5 Dr Gibson: Is your research controversial?
Professor Beddington: It is hard to know. Certainly I do not feel that I am a particularly controversial figure, but, on the other hand, I am not shy. I am certainly prepared to speak my mind and to sustain an argument if I believe it is correct.
Q6 Chairman: Obviously Sir David made his name in many ways by a number of crises that occurred and perhaps he was fortunate in that sense, that issues of climate change, foot and mouth and what-have-you came on. Can you actually create your own priorities or do you have to wait for an issue to come along like foot and mouth?
Professor Beddington: Well, I certainly have got some priorities and one of them is that I really feel there needs to be work done at the level of my role, which is head of profession in science and engineering in government, and actually to try and get some esprit de corps of the large number of scientists who actually work with government. I think that is one of the really key ones.
Q7 Chairman: Does that include the Civil Service?
Professor Beddington: Yes, indeed. In my role, just to explain, I am head of profession for science and engineering in government. A number of CSAs in individual departments are head of profession within their own departments, but in some departments, particularly larger ones, that head of profession role is one level down from the CSA. I think there is a real opportunity here and I think it is one of the things I would like to make a priority, to work with the community of CSAs and their colleagues to try to actually think about how we can build up the level of, as it were, the morale and the expertise of the science and technology profession in government. In particular, I would contrast, as it were, the science profession in government with the legal and economic professions and, to an extent, both the IT and the statisticians where I think there is much more coherence. It is unimaginable, for example, that a policy would be made without taking legal or economic advice and I would like to get into a situation where that same thing happened within science. Obviously science is more heterogeneous than the legal or economic professions, but that is a challenge and that is one of the priorities I would like to set fairly early on in my tenure.
Q8 Chairman: For that to be achieved, you have got somehow to persuade those departments who do not feel it is even valuable to appoint departmental chief scientific advisers to do so. Why will you be any more successful than Sir David King?
Professor Beddington: Well, I think I would give it my priority. In terms of actual persuasion, and obviously I was here last week listening to Sir David talk and discuss these issues with you, obviously certain departments have not chosen to have a chief scientific adviser as yet, but I think what I would hope to do is obviously continue the persuasion process, but actually try to understand why they are not doing this. There must be reasons and, if I can understand those reasons, maybe there is some way of mitigating them so that one can move on. In terms of an expectation of being more successful than Sir David, the honest answer is I do not know at the moment, but I shall certainly try.
Q9 Chairman: Do you think you should have the power to insist that a department has a chief scientific adviser in it?
Professor Beddington: Well, I do not think any adviser should have the power to insist on anything. I think you can advise strongly that you believe that to be the case, but I would not seek to have those sorts of powers.
Q10 Chairman: Just hazard a guess as to why they do not want them.
Professor Beddington: I really do not know, Chairman. I am not quite in the job yet and I need to understand it. Prima facie I can see no reason other than perhaps resources, but I really do not know and that is what I hope to explore early in the new year.
Q11 Chairman: Well, we wish you every success with that. The previous Science and Technology Select Committee were very, very keen to see champions for science, and particularly for areas of science where it is very important in terms of public perception as well and indeed for the science community that there are champions. One area that the previous Committee concentrated on was marine science where there was a lack of a real champion for marine science, despite its importance in terms of climate change and obviously the economic impact of the oceans and the seas. Do you see yourself taking on that role (a) as a champion of science and (b) will you consider giving a higher profile to marine science?
Professor Beddington: I have not decided on that. It is a difficult issue and there are other competing priorities but obviously marine science has, I think, been somewhat underplayed in the last year or so, but I think that the current proposals for changes to the way in which marine science is addressed seem to me to be worth exploring and also their interactions, and ocean acidification as a consequence of climate change is one which is really concerning and needs exploration, so I think I would want to look at that. In terms of being a champion of marine science, the short answer to that is I really do not know at the moment; it is too early.
Q12 Chairman: But you have not ruled that out?
Professor Beddington: No, I have not.
Q13 Dr Turner: I am sure your predecessors and others have probably given you lots of quiet advice, especially on the sorts of obstacles that you are likely to encounter in trying to carry out your role. What do you see as the most likely obstacles you will meet in the government system and how do you intend to approach them?
Professor Beddington: I think one of the obstacles is obviously a lack of understanding of science and I think that is rather important. I think part of the role that I want to try and grow into is actually to be a reasonable champion for science, but to put it into terms that do not seem bizarre, which are readily understandable and can be addressed, so I think a lack of understanding of truly what science is and, after all, we should be able to phrase the most difficult scientific questions into something that anybody reasonably well read can actually understand. It is almost perhaps going back to the 'two cultures' issue of CP Snow five or six decades ago, but I think that is one of the obstacles. The other obstacle of course is money and there are obviously real difficulties there and one has got to work within those constraints, but those are the two things that spring to mind. I do not think there is any deep prejudice against science, but I think there is a lack of understanding and appreciation of what it can do.
Q14 Dr Turner: It has been suggested that there is something of an anti-science bias in the Civil Service culture. Do you anticipate having difficulties with that?
Professor Beddington: I do not know. I heard Sir David speak on that a week ago in this room and he obviously thinks that is the case, but I do not think, for example, talking to Lord May, who was his predecessor in the job, that Lord May felt that that was a particular problem. I think the answer is I will wait and see. I have not encountered it and I have worked within different departments of government as an adviser for quite a long time and I have not encountered it in any sort of dramatic form, but I think let us wait and see and, if I encounter it, I will work out how to deal with it.
Dr Turner: And you will come and tell us what Sir Humphrey says!
Q15 Mr Marsden: Professor Beddington, I am very encouraged by what you said, that you saw one of your primary roles as getting across the best possible scientific advice in government, but of course, even with the best possible scientific advice, and we see this in the public sphere and the political sphere, the general public, particularly the media, are not always receptive to, exaggerate in some cases, or in some cases simply do not understand, the basis of the advice. One of the things I wanted to ask you was whether you saw part of your job as having, either directly to what you say or what you stimulate, a public education role about science? One of the issues that comes to mind with me, for example, is the risk:benefit analysis which I think is something which is very seldom understood when scare stories get into the media and things of that nature.
Professor Beddington: I think the use of probabilities, and essentially it stems from risk and uncertainty, is really one of the most difficult things to get over outside the scientific environment, but it is clearly enormously important. I think it is a difficult thing to do and one of the things I will seek to do is to try to enhance that discussion. I think, for example, taking your question slightly wider, obviously part of the role is actually to put over to the media what are the key issues, the key challenges and to correct the media and to challenge them if in fact their interpretations are incorrect, and I think that is part of the role and one that I will do to the best of my ability.
Q16 Dr Iddon: Professor Beddington, what do you think are the big issues that might face you in the near- to short-term future and do you think the Government is brave enough to tackle risk in science? We have had discussions in this Committee, for example, about putting a British astronaut on the moon, but the Government obviously backed off because of the cost. Do you think we are brave enough with our innovation and science in general?
Professor Beddington: I think there are some enormous challenges coming. Listening to Sir David here last week, obviously there are some key ones, climate change being the biggest, I would argue, but I think that there are needs that probably transcend risks. I think we have really got to take climate change extremely seriously and we have got to look for technological solutions. I think in a sense over the last five or six years, one has seen a movement from, "This is not a serious problem" to, "This is a really serious problem", and I think that is now recognised pretty much throughout the world, but the challenges and the risks that we need to take, I believe, are to actually try to develop technology and engineering solutions to actually mitigate these problems as soon as you possibly can. Now, that, I think, is actually quite a risky strategy, albeit absolutely necessary.
Q17 Chairman: Sir David told us last week, which was surprising a little, that his first duty was actually to the public and not to the Government. To whom will you be primarily responsible?
Professor Beddington: In terms of my primary responsibility, I report to the Prime Minister and Cabinet and that I see as being part of my job. Now, in terms of responsibility to the public, yes of course you would have it, as any civil servant would, and that is part of being a civil servant, that you have the responsibility both to your direct superiors, in this case Sir Gus O'Donnell and the Prime Minister, and in the case of appropriate ways to behave as a civil servant, you obviously have a duty to the public.
Q18 Chairman: But the Prime Minister comes before my constituents?
Professor Beddington: I think they are equally important, depending on the issue.
Chairman: You will become a politician!
Q19 Graham Stringer: You have touched on some of your experience in government. You are obviously going for a different position now, a more senior position. The Government is very big and it has a way of swallowing people up and changing them. Can you expand on your experience in government and, in particular, tell us what has been your most difficult or worst experience of working with government so far?
Professor Beddington: I first had work with government when I was actually asked by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take part in the development of a treaty dealing with the Antarctic ecosystem, and it is a complex system, lots of large mammals and birds and so on dependent on the fundamental food krill. I was involved at this time in actually negotiating what was essentially an international treaty which had to involve science and it had to involve science right at the depth of it. We were getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere in terms of people's understanding of what is a complex ecosystem interaction and people were taking simple fisheries models where you could take maximum yield which did not take into account the ecological interactions, and that is very, very difficult. We were getting absolutely nowhere, so in fact what we hit on was a device and we wrote a paper in Science, myself, Lord May and three others, in which we actually pointed out exactly what were the major problems of the Antarctic ecosystem and how this treaty needed to actually take into account interactions between species. Sorry, that is rather a technical answer, but that actually worked and the CCALMR Treaty, the treaty which set up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources, actually has for the first time these ecosystem interactions embedded in it, so that is the first one which was quite difficult. The second one was after the conflict with Argentina when I was asked essentially to develop relations with the Argentine scientific community because we have a number of such important shared fish stocks and that was extremely complicated because obviously it was a bit delicate and a very, very difficult political situation, so I found that hard. There are two or three other areas which I would briefly touch on, if I may, Chairman.
Q20 Chairman: Perhaps one more.
Professor Beddington: I suppose the other one that I would call to mind is that I chaired Defra's Science Advisory Council since 2004 and when I went there, I was very concerned about the contingency planning for animal disease, it is fairly fashionable now, but what I was able to persuade Sir Howard Dalton to do was to actually set up a group of that Council to actually examine the contingency plans that Defra had for dealing with foot and mouth, for dealing with blue tongue, dealing with avian influenza. That group that we set up within the Council, completely independent from the Defra scientific team, was able to actually come up and work very closely with Debbie Reynolds, who was then the Chief Veterinary Officer and her staff, to actually critically peer review these contingency plans for dealing with animal disease outbreak, I think, to a very significant benefit to the way that has actually operated.
Q21 Graham Stringer: So you clearly have experience and are distinguished in your own field of applied population biology.
Professor Beddington: Yes.
Q22 Graham Stringer: Do you think that there are any disadvantages of your specialism? Is it better to have a particle physicist or somebody from your background? What are the advantages and disadvantages to your specialism and experience?
Professor Beddington: I think the specialism is useful in the sense that you think analytically, that you understand a range of environmental problems and actually, because I have a background in some more mathematical areas, I find things, when they are expressed in mathematics, relatively straightforward to understand, but I would say the weaknesses that I have at the moment where I hope to improve is really to understand the jargon of biochemistry, the pharmacological areas. These are areas that I have not had any experience in. In other areas, by happenstance because of the jobs I have had in Imperial College, I am reasonably au fait with them. I ran a big department in Imperial College which had a mix of petroleum engineers, mining engineers, energy economists, a whole range of that, so I have had a fair bit of experience, but the area where in a sense I am probably weakest in my underlying scientific knowledge is in the sort of crossover from biochemistry into pharmacology. The advantage of being Chief Scientific Adviser is that you can ask people and you can approach people who will be willing to tell you and, as I think Sir David said last week, you can ask stupid questions, and I suspect I will ask in some fields some fairly stupid questions, but I feel confident enough that I actually will understand the answers.
Q23 Graham Stringer: Central to Sir Jack Cunningham's White Paper on modernising the Government, the Government said that it wants to make policy based on evidence. Do you think that it has kept up to that commitment and are there any areas that you have noticed or are aware of where the Government is not using evidence to make policy?
Professor Beddington: I am sorry, I really have not thought that through at all. I can see examples where there are issues. Perhaps genetically modified crops is one area where I think there is a need for a proper assessment of that and I think that is an interesting area. I think Sir David also pointed to the issue of the necessity or otherwise of a new build of nuclear power stations where I think the scientific evidence is pointing one way and I think genetically modified crops are pointing one way also, but there it is not clear that that evidence base from science has necessarily predominated because there are other issues and there are other imperatives beyond in fact the purely scientific.
Q24 Graham Stringer: I am not quite clear. How would you summarise your impression of how the Government is approaching evidence-based policy-making?
Professor Beddington: In part, and I recall Dr Harris asked Sir David some questions about this last week, my feeling is that there is a will to do it, but it does not always succeed and part of my job, as I indicated earlier in answering the Chairman's question, I really would like scientific evidence to be taken into account really at all policy levels where it is relevant, and I am not sure that happens all the time.
Q25 Graham Stringer: Advice on science, that is your job. Many Members of Parliament from the regions feel that, although the scientific advice is clear, in making that scientific advice, whether it is in medical science or particle physics, the South East gets a bigger bite of the cherry than the English regions in particular. Do you have any views on the spatial distribution of scientific investment?
Professor Beddington: It is an interesting question. I think in some of the discussions that you had in the precursor to this Committee you were talking about regional development agencies and my impression of the success or otherwise is that this has been mixed, but there are some areas where things work. I think there are difficulties on either side really. If I take the example of the movement of the Met Office down to Exeter where you had an acknowledged absolutely first-rate organisation in which, as it were, some people were really attracted by the idea of living in Exeter, but essentially the South East is a focus and they are having to come up to London two or three times a month, that can work, but there are potential downsides. In terms of actually doing it, I think you just have to look at our great universities and they are not simply concentrated in the South East. Manchester is an enormous area of science and scientific expertise with the new universities there and the attraction of moving out of London or the South East to Manchester is manifest; there is a tremendously exciting coherence there. Similar things, I suspect, will be happening if you focus on universities and centres of excellence you have a chance to actually get the best of both possible worlds, so I think the policy of linking research institutes and government research institutes locally in close proximity to universities works pretty well.
Q26 Dr Harris: Can I explore this treatment of evidence by the Government. We had a witness earlier this term who said, "I am convinced from all the evidence I have seen that a lack of student finance is not acting as a deterrent for young people applying to university", and I asked, as indeed the Chairman asked, what research had been carried out so that one could say one had looked at evidence as opposed to opinion. The response we got was, "We commission, and fund, student income and expenditure surveys which gives us all sorts of detailed information", but it was not what either the questioners meant as a research project respectively designed to ask the questions, to monitor the outcome and to see if one could have a control group and all those sorts of things. Do you see it as part of your role to ensure that people do not state that something, a policy, is evidence-based when in fact it is not evidence-based and it might just be based on ideology, on a Manifesto commitment, on economic priorities, but not on evidence?
Professor Beddington: Yes, I think I would see that. If there are issues in which there is a possibility of providing an evidence base for a particular question, then that should be pursued or, if it is not there, one says, "I don't know".
Q27 Dr Harris: What concerns me, and perhaps others, and this Government has done quite well actually in trying to talk about evidence-based policy-making, so I will use that as my starting point, but then the danger is that then politicians say something is evidence-based when it is not and that rather pollutes the language. I am just wondering whether you think there is a way that mechanisms within government can audit assertions of an evidence basis, so not just inspect the evidence, but monitor where assertions that something is evidence-based are appropriate?
Professor Beddington: Yes, I think that is an interesting question because I think it goes wider than purely science, and obviously there are the economics, the statistical professions, the social science professions in government. Nick McPherson is chairing the group, of which I will be a part, which is actually looking at issues like that and I think that there is the potential for looking wider than pure science into these issues because, in the example that you raised, essentially it is a social science statistical assessment linked to proper, appropriate controls and so on.
Q28 Dr Harris: Sorry, but we count social science, if it is properly constructed research, as part of the evidence base.
Professor Beddington: Indeed, as indeed do I.
Q29 Dr Harris: No, I was not making that point. I was not asking for the research to go wider than science. I am asking whether there is a way of monitoring the description of a policy as evidence-based when it is not evidence-based, in other words, when there is no proper research to back it up or the evidence is weak, and then you just get a corruption, if you like, of the language and the term "evidence-based" means nothing. I would like to stress that I think the same should apply to opposition parties as well, but we are dealing with government at the moment. I do not think your last answer was an answer to that question.
Professor Beddington: I am sorry, I thought I had, but clearly I did not express myself well enough. What I was saying is that I think that is an interesting question and it goes wider than science. In fact, the group that I was referring to would involve economists, statisticians and so on and I think that group and a discussion of that particular question, whether that is feasible, seems to me to be an interesting agenda item.
Q30 Dr Harris: I would like to ask you about stem cell research because the previous Prime Minister and, I think, this Prime Minister have always said that they are very keen on seeing Britain continue its role in stem cell research, its leading role in stem cell research, and indeed the Government has a very good record, in my opinion, on promoting this, so it is different from the problems the Government has had with GM technology and it is a very important issue. There is legislation going through Parliament which regulates this, and it is an unusual sort of science in the sense that it is quite heavily regulated through the old 1990 HFE Act, and there is new legislation. Is it your view from a scientific point of view that that measure should be as scientifically robust as possible founded on scientific evidence and as permissive to the science base as possible within accepted ethical and legal constraints?
Professor Beddington: My response to that is going to be very provisional. Prima facie I would agree with that proposition, but there is a lot of evidence and I really am not familiar with this field, so it is a thing I obviously have to get up to speed on when I take up the job in January. It is an area that I do not feel comfortable about answering questions on in great detail; I need to understand more the complexities of it and I would be very happy to come here and answer that question in due course.
Q31 Dr Iddon: Professor Beddington, are you happy that the creation of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills will promote science, and engineering of course, in a better way than hitherto?
Professor Beddington: I hope so. As you will appreciate, I have not been a civil servant and understanding how well departments work, I have got to explore this once I have taken up the new job, but I think it offers a real opportunity. I recall again this Committee in its previous incarnation made some suggestions, for example, that the Chief Scientific Adviser should be based in the Cabinet Office and that is an interesting question and I thought hard about it obviously when I was going for the job, but the thing that seemed to me to be overridingly attractive was the link with the Government Office of Science and the Innovation and Science Group under Sir Keith O'Nions at present. Having those two bodies under the same roof affords the possibility of regular interaction which a separation might not. In terms of DIUS and its aspirations, it seems to me to be attractive that you are working right through mainly from science down to higher education and the whole skills and innovation issue. Prima facie that seems to be really an attractive idea. How it will work, I do not know, but I will find out in due course.
Q32 Dr Iddon: I have got two answers for the price of one question! I was going to challenge you on the position that you occupy in government as Chief Scientific Adviser and whether you should be in the Cabinet Office, as we all believed in the previous Committee, but I think you have given an adequate answer to that one. Are you as disappointed as some members of this Committee who were on the previous S&T Committee that science and indeed engineering do not appear in the title of the Department? Do you think that is seen in the academic community and the business community to be downgrading science and engineering in any way?
Professor Beddington: I think it is fair to say that the science and engineering community would have welcomed it, but I do not think that this is really a serious issue. People know what DIUS is doing and they do not believe DIUS is going to ignore science because it does not have "science" in its title, and there are ways you can get round this. In the Government Office of Science or GO-Science, its acronym, it is pretty clear what we are doing and, albeit there is a sort of modest disappointment, I would not feel that this is a really serious issue for the community of scientists, technologists and engineers around.
Q33 Dr Iddon: Tomorrow we are going to have an away day and decide whether to have a sub-committee of this main Committee. That could be science and technology, it could be universities or it could be skills. What would your advice be?
Professor Beddington: I think I would say I do not know at the moment. I think the attraction is to have a sub-committee that deals with science and engineering and that would be an attraction because it would actually operate and link closely within my own sphere of operation and it would be very welcome to work with such a sub-committee, but I do not have enough knowledge at present to actually advise you.
Q34 Dr Iddon: When Sir David was in front of us last week and you were present, I tackled him on the question of long-term commitments in science and engineering that the Government has, such as earth observation studies and that was the example I gave him, but of course there are lots of other long-term commitments that each of the research councils has entered into at the moment and, following yesterday's announcement, they might be at risk again and this is an ongoing procedure. Every year we look at the science budget and it is always under pressure, and Sir David agreed with me that perhaps the right way forward is to take out these long-term commitments from the individual research councils and put them in a separate organisation and ring-fence that money. What is your feeling on that?
Professor Beddington: I think it is an interesting idea. Within my own field which obviously deals with population biology, the long-term ecological data sets are absolutely essential. I worked myself on some fish samples that were collected on Lake Windermere in the 1930s and we were able, for example, to test them for radioactive elements and, by actually using data that had been collected in the 1980s, we were able to pick up things like the effect of the Test Ban Treaty, the Windscale fire and so on. Those things are goldmines and the need for actually retaining long-term data sets in my own field, I think, is essential. Now, as you, I am sure, realise, this is not an attractive area of work because it is not exciting, it does not actually generate the excitement until somebody actually goes in there and mines the gold and the data. I think that there are real issues there and putting those long-term things, for example, in the collection of long-term data sets or indeed in long-term science, I think that is an interesting question and well worth exploring.
Q35 Dr Iddon: Do you think, in the light of the Government's putting science and engineering towards the top of their present agenda, that we should perhaps ring-fence the science budget in any way?
Professor Beddington: It is a very attractive idea from my perspective and I think that part of the job, as I see it, is actually to try as far as one possibly can to defend the R&D expenditure within departments. Ring-fencing, it would be attractive if it was there, but I am not so certain that it would actually happen in practice, so I think one would still actually have to vigorously approach the R&D budgets and try to ensure that as far as possible they are ring-fenced within departments, and I see that very much as part of my role.
Q36 Dr Iddon: The Government has set a target, I think it is 2.5 per cent of GDP, for investment in research and development. The Government is heading towards that target, but sadly industry is not. Do you have any feelings on that matter? Are you going to focus on that and try to encourage our industries to invest more in research and development to achieve that target?
Professor Beddington: Lord Sainsbury, I think, spoke to this Committee a few weeks ago and one of the odd things about the structure of British industry is that essentially the industries that we have that are very successful in the UK are relatively low in their expenditure on R&D, the exception being essentially the pharmaceutical industry and to a lesser extent, I think, perhaps the oil and gas industries, so I think there is a sort of structural difficulty there in terms of the way our industries operate. I think the development of the public-private partnership that is actually operating and which Sir David King developed with industry to look at energy research and development, which is going to be based at Loughborough, is a very attractive idea. The Energy Technology Institute seems to be an extremely exciting development which actually does bring industry into it. He gave you the cautionary note that the spending is less than that of Belgium or something of that sort, but I think it is a start and £1 billion over a ten-year period, which is what I understand the target budget is going to be, is very attractive, and it is bringing in industry and it is also bringing industry in with government in a way in which we are really approaching problems that are really important.
Q37 Chairman: One of your roles is to head the science and engineering profession and the word "engineering" is in that, but we hear very, very little about the engineering profession and about engineers within government, yet all the major challenges which we face both as a nation and indeed as a world will require engineering solutions. What do you think you could do, heading up this profession, to actually put engineering back at the heart of what we do rather than give this sort of notion that it is an outdated profession which does not fit in with the 21st-Century goals and ideas?
Professor Beddington: You speak to my heart on that. At Imperial, I ran a department which had a lot of engineers and it was the first time I had really encountered them and I generated an enormous respect for, as it were, engineering thought processes; it is very much a sort of 'can do' culture in solving scientific problems. What I am hoping to do, in fact early in January, I am hoping to meet with the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lord Browne and some of his vice presidents to explore the ways in which we can actually take engineering forward in exactly this way, and it needs a higher profile. The other aspect that I think is of interest is that trained engineers are in demand everywhere, not just as engineers, but the financial services industry are desperate to have quality engineers because they actually are able to solve some of the problems of essentially financial engineering in a way, so there is a real issue there because we are training extraordinarily able engineers at Imperial College where I am currently a professor, we have an excellent reputation for training very good engineers, and quite a lot of them do not actually do engineering, but they do financial engineering and there is an issue ----
Q38 Chairman: That is a good thing though, is it not?
Professor Beddington: It is very good, but what it means is that that training is very attractive, but we also need engineers to solve problems, for example, engineering solutions to clean coal technology and that is going to be very, very important. Perhaps the answer is that you just need to pay them a bit more.
Q39 Ian Stewart: Professor Beddington, just on the issue you are talking about now, if the role of GO-Science and your role is as you have just described it in relation to engineers, the next unit along in the process would be the implementation, the manufacture, the doing of work, the production of things. How do you intend to make the link between what is ring-fenced as your area of responsibility into that next box?
Professor Beddington: I do not know at present, I am too new in the job, or not yet in the job, but it is a very good question and one that actually needs to be addressed. What I can do initially, and in a sense I know how to do that, I can talk to the people who really understand how the engineering profession works in the country at the highest level, the Royal Academy of Engineering, I have got to talk to them, but I have also got to come to grips with levels below that, practising engineers that are actually working in the manufacturing industry.
Q40 Ian Stewart: Would you see any sense in your having a dialogue with the trade unions in the same way?
Professor Beddington: I think it could very well be extremely helpful and certainly I would be very pleased to be able to have a discussion and get that input in.
Q41 Dr Gibson: Do you not think that the problem of engineering might be that it is sub-divided, that there are so many sub-divisions of them that they do not even talk to each other? They nurture their rather large empty buildings in London for some future El Dorado, but they never talk to each other as engineers and say, "What can we do as a profession?", and they see themselves as a series of sub-professions.
Professor Beddington: I have attended meetings in many of these large empty buildings, so I am aware of their existence. I do not know, Dr Gibson. I think that the main one at the top is the Royal Academy of Engineering and as to the extent to which each of the individual civil or chemical engineers defend their territory, I just do not know. It is a thing that needs exploring, but obviously it would be an awful lot more attractive if you actually had that degree of united fronts, as it were, but the subtleties of that I am ignorant of at present.
Q42 Chairman: It would be an excellent inquiry for this Committee to do, would it not?
Professor Beddington: I think that is for the Committee to decide.
Q43 Dr Turner: I suspect Sir David feels rather miffed that it was Al Gore who got a Nobel Prize for promoting public awareness of climate change, given all the very serious groundwork and effort that David put into this, and it was clearly one of the major hobby horses that he rode to great effect. Will you be continuing to major on that issue and, if so, how do you see your role in it?
Professor Beddington: First of all, I cannot comment on whether David is miffed or not. In fact, I was at a meeting that the Chairman was at at the Foundation for Science and Technology where one of the speakers in the valedictory made exactly the point that you have just made of how disgraceful it was that Al Gore had got it and Sir David King was not alongside him because David has done a tremendous job in publicising the issue of climate change, there is absolutely no doubt about it.
Q44 Dr Gibson: And many others too ----
Professor Beddington: Indeed, there are many others.
Q45 Dr Gibson: ---- because they discovered it.
Professor Beddington: Indeed, but in terms of doing it, I feel in a sense that part of the problem has been solved in the sense that now it is recognised as a serious problem worldwide and it is not insignificant that all the presidential nominees are all essentially saying, "Yes, we should be taking this very seriously", and indeed they are saying, "We shall be looking, as the US Government, to sign up to a successor to Kyoto". In terms of the role, I would not see that it would be identical to David's, it would not be appropriate to follow him, but I think the areas that I really would like to get involved in myself are really thinking about, for example, the engineering solutions, thinking about how you can mitigate it, thinking about how one can, with engineering solutions, persuade some of the key countries, because, as we all know, the key countries are going to be essentially China, India and the US and, to a lesser extent, Brazil for different reasons, that these need engineering solutions and economic solutions. It is very difficult to see how that, following on from essentially posing the problem that climate change is still a major issue, will get us very much further other than producing new pressure to produce the appropriate investment, and that is the area that I would like to focus on.
Q46 Dr Turner: Can I discuss that line further because you are absolutely right, we have got at least to the starting point whereby we have got people sufficiently scared to realise that there is a genuine problem and you can no longer bury your head in the sand and ignore it, with the honourable exception of George W who has still got his head in the sand, but, as you rightly point out, we now have the difficult bit of actually addressing the problem, and a large part of that has to be engineering and technology solutions. You have just referred to our Energy Technology Institute, the public-private partnership which is being developed because, to put that into context, the old CEGB, as I remember it, had on its own an R&D budget of the order of £1 billion before it was privatised, so do you think that this effort is in fact enough in view of the scale of the problem that we face? Are we going to have to do a lot more than that, do you think?
Professor Beddington: I think the question answers itself really. Clearly this is attractive and £1 billion is not peanuts over ten years, but it is still manifestly not enough. I think that such work, as is being done, on trying to produce not just innovative technologies, but actually apply proven technologies is going to need enormous amounts of investment. I think the Stern Report was indicating the proportion of GDP that would be required to actually meet different reduction targets, somewhere between two and three and a bit per cent of GDP, and that is manifestly an enormously increased investment to meet those challenges. If I might expand a tiny bit, I think that the area one is really looking at for investment also is probably to do with linking in with China and India because both have enormous reserves of coal, so clean coal technology, therefore, invested both by other countries to actually, perhaps arguably, subsidise investment in China and India of these technologies may well be the most cost-efficient way of doing it. I cannot judge. It is not an area I have worked in closely, but I think about it a lot and I will be working on that quite closely over the next few months.
Q47 Dr Turner: Do you have any preliminary view as to whether we are approaching, for instance, CCS in the most effective way because, you are absolutely right, it is going to need to be deployed as fast as possible? Is the way that we are doing it with a single post-combustion competition the most effective way, given that there are a lot of projects on the shelf not all of them post-combustion, but some pre-combustion which will not necessarily be going ahead as a result of following the single competition route?
Professor Beddington: I have not really thought about that. You are raising a key question and clearly the obvious answer is that it is silly to have a single competition because you are only going to get one solution to it. There may be technicalities that I do not understand.
Q48 Dr Turner: This almost flies in the face of normal government behaviour, certainly as exemplified by the old DTI which, I am sure, carries over into DBERR, that the Government does not pick winners when clearly there is not going to be one winner, but there are going to be lots of winners and we have got to find them and we have got to be careful that we do not end up backing losers instead which we have a history of doing in the past to a degree.
Professor Beddington: I think the point you make is a good one. I think that industry, we will hope, will innovate because that is the way they will make money and that is the way they will actually improve their profitability for their shareholders, and I think that industry is going to be keen to develop this. I think the appreciation of a big and potentially profitable market out there is really now apparent. I think the ETI is, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, or I hope it is anyway.
Q49 Dr Turner: Now, where do you stand on the nuclear argument? Do you feel that the science and engineering arguments for a new generation of nuclear power stations are compelling and how do you see the balance in the end between providing for a low-carbon future through nuclear and renewables?
Professor Beddington: It has got to be a mix and the mix will depend on a whole lot of factors, obviously economic and, to a degree, social. I think that the challenge of actually meeting a reduction of carbon-related gases and so on is such that you are going to need a mix of solutions. I think it is unimaginable that there will be one solution and nuclear is not the answer, certainly not the answer worldwide and probably not the answer in the UK, so I think you will need a mix. Exactly what that mix is, I do not think you can design it, but I think that will evolve and one will look at different problems as they are addressed.
Q50 Dr Turner: But there are many people who are worried that once you put nuclear into the risk, it is a little like a cuckoo laying an egg in a nest. Because it sucks in so much resource, it could be at the expense of getting the full deployment of renewables which we might get in the absence of nuclear, so you could end up, instead of having nuclear and renewables contributing, with something of an and/or situation. Do you have a view on that and how we can avoid falling into the and/or trap?
Professor Beddington: I think there is an impetus on renewables which is already there, but I think that impetus is unlikely to carry us through to a situation where essentially the UK could be dependent entirely on renewables; I just do not think that is feasible. This is not an area I have worked in, but it seems highly unlikely. There is an issue there and it seems to me to be hard to imagine a situation where you would actually solely have nuclear as a solution to the UK's needs and I think it will be a mix. Exactly what proportion of mix, I do not know and, as you say, if nuclear comes in, it is very large and growing and potentially could be a major answer, but you are looking at timescales for that, big, long timescales for builds of those power stations, and renewables have the opportunity to develop anyway and there is a fair bit of impetus going into that.
Q51 Dr Turner: There has been a debate obviously about the UK emission targets as appearing on the face of the Climate Change Bill and there is increasing debate as to whether the 60 per cent and the interim targets are sufficiently ambitious, and the suggestion that advanced industrial, advanced ex-industrial almost, countries like our own should be setting more ambitious targets than 60 per cent if the world is going to achieve 50 per cent as an average. Do you have a view on the targets?
Professor Beddington: No, I do not, not at present. It is too technical a question at the moment for me to answer; ask me in two months' time.
Q52 Dr Iddon: One issue which got the press excited last week when we had Sir David in front of us was the issue of GM technologies and research into those technologies. Are you as convinced that we have lost out in this country as Sir David obviously was last week? Do you feel strongly that Britain should try to turn the position around now?
Professor Beddington: I think there is little doubt that GM technology has real potential for increasing food production in a friendly way, but we clearly do need some fairly serious controls. The fact that GM crops have been eaten for a rather long period in America without, as far as I am aware, any major litigation in a highly litigious society indicates that they are relatively safe, I would say, taking an evidence-based view on that, but where we have lost out, I cannot judge. They are difficult, technical issues to do with whether in fact manufacture would have done it and it is a lot of 'what ifs' and I could not judge on that, but I think, if we are looking forward to a future, there is no doubt that there is a need for looking at alternatives and food production is going to be an imperative. There has been a period over the last 20 years or so where distribution was felt to be the key issue and I am not entirely sure that is going to be the key issue over the next ten or 15 years. You only have to look at the increase in wheat prices, for example, in the UK and they are up by a factor of three compared with 18 months ago and that is pretty much driven by special things, droughts in Australia and so on, but that sort of drive is being driven by essentially demand in China and India, and we are going to need technologies to actually address this gap, unless there are going to be some problems. Now, that being so, there have got to be proper safeguards. There is no doubt about it, that people have quite reasonable concerns about safeguards on genetically modified crops. I think one of the issues of course is that they vary. If we were looking, for example, at salt tolerance or we were looking for drought tolerance in particular crops, that probably is a reasonable thing to be doing with the downsides that are rather less than in other types of genetically modified organisms, but it is a case-by-case study and I do not think you are going to come out with a slogan, saying, "GM is good and non-GM is bad". I think what you will come out saying is that particular GM crops should be explored on a case-by-case basis both for their environmental impact and their potential benefit.
Q53 Mr Marsden: Professor Beddington, I am interested, and relieved frankly, to hear you say what you just said about a case-by-case basis because one of the things that I think was interesting about Sir David King's evidence last week to the Committee was that he did not mention the word "biodiversity" once, and that is clearly an issue still in this area. The other perhaps is the whole issue of what I can only describe as the "ethics of choice". Of course, you might say a starving person has no choice and, therefore, that is an argument the other way, but is it not the case that, if we are to look at some of these issues in terms of renewing the GM debate in the UK, we have got to give proper emphasis to the ethics of choice, to the issue of terminator seeds and to the role of commercial groups in swaying some of the decision-making processes which have taken place in the US?
Professor Beddington: I think in terms of choice, I would imagine that in any legislation that was brought in for the use of GM foods, it would have very clear labelling on it to indicate that it had been sourced in this way, so that would serve to an extent consumer choice, but I think on a case-by-case basis one would need to actually look at it on a case-by-case basis. What are the downsides? Let us take biodiversity as an example. If there is an issue that there appeared to be highly competitive strains of plants that were actually going to drive down biodiversity of hedgerows and so on, then that would be a clear downside against the introduction of those crops in the country.
Q54 Mr Marsden: Of course before the Government declared a moratorium which it has had in this area, there were a number of trials and various conclusions, not all the same, were drawn from those trials. Do you consider that the trials which took place were robust enough to make the decisions which were made at that time?
Professor Beddington: I could not judge, I have not worked in the field.
Q55 Mr Marsden: If I can ask one final point on this question and I am sorry to put a philosophical question to the Chief Scientific Adviser, but it is quite a philosophical question because you said earlier on that there were sometimes other imperatives beyond the scientific. You also talked, and my colleague Evan Harris, about evidence-based decision-making, but is it the case that the scientific evidence is always neutral and definitive? Disraeli famously said that there were lies, damned lies and statistics and is it not the case sometimes, however unconsciously, that scientific evidence or the selection of any particular form of evidence can be influenced by presuppositions on the part of scientists just as any other group of people? After all, evidence does not always point one way, does it?
Professor Beddington: Of course you are right. I think the only thing I would say about the scientific process is that peer review is central to proper scientific process. If you want to be philosophical, in my early days at the LSE, I used to go to lectures by Sir Karl Popper and criticism was the key to the development of science. People put up ideas, they stand by them, but then they are challenged and they are criticised and I think that is probably, to a degree, the safety valve of the natural prejudice that scientists have for saying, "I'm right", so I think that peer review and the use of criticism of particular positions are essential for that. That does not mean that it will not ever happen, but it is probably the underlying safety valve.
Q56 Dr Iddon: It seems that we have lost the public trust in respect of the GM debate and the GM consultation process was not successful. We do not seem to be very good at public consultation on controversial issues, and I cite the current controversy that is going through the Houses of Parliament at the moment which is the embryology debate. Do you have any comments to make on how you feel that Parliament should consult the people in the country on key issues like the two that I have mentioned, for example?
Professor Beddington: I do not have any sort of suggestions of how to do it better. Certainly I think that you have to have public consultation on these issues where people have well-formed views and have well-formed concerns, but in terms of what is the best way to do it, I am afraid I do not have any suggestions at present.
Q57 Dr Iddon: Well, the media of course play a very important role, the printed media as well as the rest of the media. Will you be very proactive in your engagement with the media in trying to ensure that they report the true scientific facts rather than the myth?
Professor Beddington: I see this as a central role. I think that it is not necessarily easy to actually ensure that you get appropriate reporting in the media of scientific results, but I think it is essential that I should try to ensure it and I certainly will be proactive in talking to the media about particular issues and that is part of the job. I am in a slightly odd position at the moment because, with Sir David in post and my not being in post, I have actually taken the view that I will not talk to the media until January despite, shall we say, a number of requests.
Q58 Dr Harris: Let's hope they are not here!
Professor Beddington: Indeed.
Q59 Mr Marsden: You are talking to some of them now!
Professor Beddington: Indeed, some of them are here, but this is a slightly different forum than a one-to-one, so in January I will engage with the media. It is absolutely essential; it is part of the job.
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 ten 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 per cent, the average science base across government is 2.5 per cent; 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.
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.