Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  Q260  Mr Boswell: You did say carefully that you have never been rung by ministers, but are you given a line to take from time to time by senior officials when they are aware that you are going on the Today programme, or whatever?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I cannot remember actually. I cannot recall such a thing happening.

  Q261  Mr Boswell: Certainly you would not be seeking advice?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No.

  Q262  Mr Boswell: You go with your own brief.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Yes.

  Q263  Mr Boswell: You would not be seeking to concert your advice with the official line before you went on it?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, I am much more anxious to give the line of the committee that I am chairing.

  Q264  Chairman: Professor Gaskell.

  Professor Gaskell: I think, while not in the same league of Radio 4 appearances as Sir Michael—

  Dr Gibson: Your time will come!

  Dr Harris: It is a new performance measure!

  Q265  Chairman: After this appearance before the committee they will be after you all the time.

  Professor Gaskell: Thank you very much. I will look forward to it. I did want to, I think, emphasise that we do genuinely feel independent. I think this an interesting point. You will find there is a difference from some other science advisory councils. We report to the Chief Science Adviser; we do not report to the Minister. Our advice to Defra is very clearly through him.

  Q266  Dr Gibson: Through Bob Watson.

  Professor Gaskell: Through Bob Watson and Howard Dalton before him. Indeed, it was Howard Dalton who was the prime mover in establishing the Council in the first place, because he recognised that with the broad brief that the department has, for any one person to assume they had the scientific advice at their fingertips would have been inappropriate, and so he very specifically, and we have been very robust in this, decided that he needed independent advice and challenge, and if you talk to Bob Watson, as you may do, he places great emphasis on our capacity to challenge and to say things that may well be inconvenient. Science is occasionally inconvenient and it does not always provide the answers, and that is true in Defra.

  Q267  Dr Harris: A couple of quick questions. Your SAC is different from the committee that exists at the Home Office, I think, where they have the chairs of all their advisory committees in a committee which I think they call their Scientific Advisers Committee, but that is different from your beast.

  Professor Gaskell: It is different from our beast. Our beast is a committee of experts, it is not an expert committee, which I think is an interesting distinction. In other words, we are not put together to answer one specific set of questions around one specific area.

  Q268  Dr Harris: So is their Home Office committee.

  Professor Gaskell: Yes, but though we do much of our work through sub-groups which members may well chair, we do not come together as a group of chairs to form one overseeing committee, which you are saying is the model elsewhere, and I think Dame Deirdre may wish to comment on that in the context of the FSA as well. We come together as a group and are appointed under Nolan rules with the objective of providing broad experience.

  Q269  Dr Harris: This Nolan appointment: you are still appointed, you are still nominated by a minister, are you not?

  Professor Gaskell: No. We have just been through a process of renewing the committee as some members come to the end of their tenure, and it was put out to open advertisement and, with a member of the selection committee from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, myself and Bob Watson, we then interviewed people who applied through open advertisement.

  Q270  Dr Gibson: So it takes three people to apply.

  Professor Gaskell: No.

  Q271  Dr Harris: Dame Deirdre, were you appointed in that way?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I was. I replied to an advertisement, I filled in a form, I was interviewed twice and then the recommendation went to ministers, who agreed it.

  Q272  Dr Harris: If someone like you is not renewed, is that Lord Nolan saying he does not think you have done a good job, or is it you not expressing an interest, or do the ministers say, "We want to re-advertise"?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I have quite a strong view that it is a good idea for regulators, which I consider myself, only to do one turn because then it enhances your independence. If you are asking about my personal decision not to stand again, it was that I have been there four years and done most of the things I set out to do.

  Chairman: I would really like to get back to Dr Gibson.

  Q273  Dr Gibson: It used to be said by John Krebs that they did not have enough scientists in the FSA to begin with. That suggests that the original recruitment process did not identify the areas in a targeted way that were necessary to function at a 100% level. They just took who came along and who was interested and applied in the early days of the FSA. I know it has changed. Is that true? They have gone through a process?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: We have certainly gone through a process, and I am assuming you are talking about the board here.

  Q274  Dr Gibson: Yes.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: As Chairman I would look at the skill-set that we have on the board and decide what else we need. Out of 13 members at the moment we have five board members with a range of scientific backgrounds, so I think it is pretty well catered for, and within the staff itself, just under 50% of our staff are scientists and 67% of them have higher postgraduate qualifications.

  Dr Gibson: What about lay people? How valuable are they? How necessary are they? Does it give credibility to your committee to have them? Do they function? Are they any good? Do they shut up all the time? Tell us your experiences.

  Q275  Chairman: Can we have an answer from all of you, please, as well?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: We have lay people throughout the organisation and on the board, but if I start with the board, we absolutely have lay people. I regard them as extraordinarily important, because what we do in the agency is that the risk assessment is provided by the scientists and we have a very robust scientific governance methodology for making sure that that is good independent science, but the role of the board is to do risk management, which is about blending that science together with the concerns of the public and various other issues like the economics. So the role of lay people is extraordinarily important in highlighting actually what the real issues are for the public in terms of their acceptance of risk. We have lay people on each of the scientific advisory committees and the importance there is that they will help frame the questions that the scientists look at right at the beginning of the process. We try to blend those societal interests with science the whole way through the agency's operation.

  Q276  Dr Gibson: Do they cut the scientists down to size, in your opinion?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I do not think they cut the scientists down to size at all; I just I think they help them do a better job.

  Q277  Chairman: Do they get paid, Dame Deirdre?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: Yes.

  Q278  Chairman: Do lay members and the other members of the committee?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I was about to say, yes, firmly, and I realise I am not quite sure. I think they are paid a daily allowance. Can I just have a minute? They get their expenses and an allowance, but are they paid a salary? No.

  Q279  Chairman: Professor Gaskell, the same question.

  Professor Gaskell: I will just pick up on that issue. All members are paid a daily rate, exactly the same, irrespective of the expertise they bring. We would regard lay members as bringing in expertise. The problem with the term "lay" is that it can be used pejoratively and it is not a pejorative term; it suggests another skill-set which is of value to the committee or council on which they sit. You might be interested to look at the evidence (and it is on the website under the Science Advisory Council) that we provided to the consideration of the review of the Code of Practice for SACS. We put together a number of paragraphs around our perspective of the role of lay membership. We feel they do have a role to play; they do bring a different perspective. I think the degree of importance that they have will, of course, vary with the type of committee. In our committee, as I said, which is a committee of experts, in many senses many of the people there are lay for 80-90% of the time because it is the main issue of the day which somebody else has got the FRS in and they have not: so another perspective, but one could argue that that is, nonetheless, a scientifically trained perspective. What lay members often bring is a capacity to ask the awkward and inconvenient question and to bring another perspective. We have a number of social scientists on our Science Advisory Council and, of course, they will bring a different perspective from the natural scientist. So I think the term "lay" is encompassed by a range of inputs across the council, and we are very clear that we are expecting council members to contribute to the business of the Council even when it is not their specialty area and in that sense act as a lay member.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has a very broad membership, about 35 people, ranging on the one hand from judges, very senior police officers to pharmacologists, psychiatrists, psycho-pharmacologists, to social workers, people with experience of delivering services to substance misusers in the voluntary sector. So it is a very broad group. It also has a technical committee, which is chaired by the Professor of Pharmacology from Oxford, Les Iversen, and that does a lot of the detailed work for the council but it is the council that makes the decisions and gives the advice at the end of the day.

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Prepared 23 July 2009