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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)



  Q280  Dr Gibson: I have some experience of lots of committees and the ability to keep dissidents off them seems to be number two on the first agenda, because they can slow things down, they have absolutely ultra views in terms of the establishment's view about scientists. If we think about the Human Embryology Authority, there were people on there who you would describe as dissidents in terms of the forward movement of human embryology research, and so on, but they always resisted putting them on there, and that created in the public a kind of suspicion of the organisation. Would you put a dissident on your committee, or allow them to go forward, or encourage them so that you had that view up there in lights, in front of the public, and you would argue it out open openly, or would you, like happens in a lot of arenas, try and keep them off? Do you agree that that happens?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I think there is a temptation for it to happen because it is easier to chair, but on the other hand, you have the broad views of a range of interests, and the ACMD is a classic example of police officers on the one hand, very senior police officers, judges and people in voluntary organisations at the other extreme, and it is very important for all those views to be heard. What the ACMD has never done, and I think, on balance, it is right, it has never had substance misusers as members of the committee as service users, if you like. It has been suggested, but it has never done that, and I think that is probably right.

  Q281  Dr Gibson: Chris?

  Professor Gaskell: I think it is important to be open as a Council, as I said earlier, to inconvenient views. We actually have debated this on the Council. The trouble is one personalises this if one is not careful, but we do have members on the committee who make a point of being contrary in order to demonstrate the debate, and we have also had the debate about how we represent uncomfortable views across the spectrum of science to the Chief Scientific Adviser in the advice we give him, because it is inappropriate and improper to provide a modified and sanitised view of the scientific evidence. If there are strongly held but sometimes minority opposing views, they need to be taken into account as well as part of the advice you offer up. I like to think that we are robust and that we do not shy away from inconvenient truths or inconvenient views.

  Q282  Mr Boswell: It is a bit like a Civil Service submission, is it, to a minister. It does say, this could be (a)—

  Professor Gaskell: But you should know ... ..

  Q283  Mr Boswell: —but you should know (b) and (c).

  Professor Gaskell: Yes.

  Q284  Chairman: You do not have any dissidents on the Food Standards Agency?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: We cover a broader range than embryology, for example, so it would be difficult to pinpoint the particular dissident that would be appropriate on the board, but I do, quite deliberately, as Chair, set out to make sure that I have people who are difficult, because actually it makes for a better debate and it challenges you and stops complacency. However, in any subject that we are dealing with which is current, you will almost certainly have working groups, or steering groups, or whatever it is, set up. We will always make a point of including "the opposition" on that, because it is much better on the whole to have that debate in-house and hear it and deal with it rather than to have people shouting over the barricades.

  Q285  Mr Boswell: Can we go to the question about how you determine the topics you are looking at as independent advisory committees and who sets the terms of reference for them? Perhaps I will ask that question first. If you start with a clean piece of paper, how do you fill it? What topics do you select, who marks your card as to what you should go on, and so forth? I will perhaps start with Michael, if I may.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: The issues come to the ACMD from mainly two sources. Ministers specifically ask specific questions, and that is quite right and proper, but also issues are raised through members, and they come from various sources. For example, the police may raise issues with us that are concerning them from their intelligence, and so on and so forth, and then we may use that as the starting point of a topic. It comes from a number of different sources but, broadly speaking, either from ministers or from the council members themselves.

  Professor Gaskell: Defra SAC is interesting in that it is an evolving Council with an evolving agenda, which I think is quite proper. When we were first established we were there, I think, to support as well as challenge, and perhaps the emphasis then was to support Howard Dalton as a relatively new breed of CSA coming in from outside, coming in from academia four days a week, carving out a niche with his own agenda. So, for example, we helped him look at issues like quality assurance of the science, how science moved through into policy—there were a number of issues there that we took on on his behalf—but the formal answer to the question is that the agenda is set for the Council by a mixture of advice asked of us by the CSA (Chief Scientific Advisor). Bovine tuberculosis would be an example where we have offered him advice.

  Q286  Mr Boswell: Just to be clear, because you were talking about your reporting into the CSA, you will not, as it were, get a ministerial fiat that says, "You will look at this", you will get a CSA request that you should.

  Professor Gaskell: We serve the CSA, and that is, I think, a point worth re-emphasising because it is not the model across the whole of government; but we will also set our own agenda and sometimes it will be a mixture of debate. For example, we have just done a significant piece of work on the use of social research, social science, within Defra. We were concerned, and we voiced these concerns, that Defra, in part, was seriously lacking in the evidence base around social science. Indeed, in some areas it was not even an intelligent customer, it did not even know what questions to ask, let alone how to use the evidence. So we forced that through and we have made a number of recommendations which, I think, have been very helpful to Defra. Recently an agenda that we are now picking up on is Defra's handling of data and its use of modelling. That is something that has emerged from the committee. We feel that we want to look at that and we have told the CSA that we are going to do it, and we will do it. Equally, I mentioned bovine TB, but in the past he has requested evidence from us around epidemic diseases in animals, around contingency planning, for example, and that has been a sort of symbiotic relationship of challenge and advice at the same time.

  Q287  Chairman: In terms, for instance, of the development of Pirbright and the need to have Level Four facilities for large animals, was that something that you have looked at?

  Professor Gaskell: We have looked at the way in which Defra has responded to the foot and mouth outbreaks, and we have challenged them in that context, and as part of our commentary on the management of the last outbreak, we talked tangentially about the need for there to be the strongest science base to inform the policy and the contingency plans. We have not been directly drawn into the debate between Defra and DIUS over the funding and the management of Pirbright and other science facilities around epidemic diseases.

  Q288  Chairman: Is that not rather sad? Is that not something you should be doing?

  Professor Gaskell: I have talked to the CSA off-line, as it were, about it, and I think there is a level of frustration, as there is quite widely, around the situation we find ourselves in, and I think it is not unlikely that the Science Advisory Council will be asking some questions of the CSA at its next meeting.

  Q289  Chairman: Dame Deirdre.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: We are just in the process of drawing up our next strategic plan for 2010 to 2015, and one of the activities we have been engaged in, in terms of food safety, is HACCP [1] for the whole food chain), that is a hazard analysis starting, effectively, with the pig and going to the sausage and working out where the difficulties are. If I give you one example, we have increasing levels of food-borne illness from campylobacter. If you look back up the food chain, you can start to see where that campylobacter emerges: it is a problem in poultry. So using that type of tool, we are trying to be very rigorous about, hence, where we put our resources going forward. So that is one approach. We have instituted a new scientific committee, which we call the General Advisory Committee on Science, which is chaired by Professor Colin Blakemore, and one of the functions of that committee is to do horizon scanning for us, both in the UK, but also in the science community around the world, to give us an indication of what might be important and what we should look at. Our chief scientist does an annual research report on research. It is difficult to pin down one way in which you decide what to do, but there is quite a robust process for gathering in information and disseminating it. We currently have out for consultation our strategic plan for that 2010/2015 period, and I would be delighted to provide you with a copy of it if you would find that helpful.

  Q290  Mr Boswell: I think it would be. Thank you. Probably in the interests of time, trying compress this a bit, can I try some shorthand on you and see your response? It seems to me from those three responses you are, in effect, moving from a responsive mode collectively, where you are reacting to ministerial or CSA requests, to one where you are striking out a little more on your own. Is that something you see as being proper and something you are resourced for? To put it another way, slightly following Ian's line of thought, rather than dealing with a dissident, if a minister was not happy with how it was going, would he make sure you had not got the resources to do the inquiry that you wanted to do? How do you feel about that?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: The first important point to make is we are funded directly from the Treasury, not through the Department of Health, which is a significant point. I would say that the Food Standards Agency has always been fairly proactive about the way in which it has chosen to do science. All that has happened, in a sense, is that we are getting better at the way we scope that out and the sources of information. It would be fair to say that the agency, as well as food safety, started working on nutrition some years ago, and that is a subject which has become of increasing interest to government. So, certainly in terms of our nutritional work going forward, we do co-operate with the Department of Health, because it would be very stupid if we were using public resources to do the same thing, but that is process of collaboration and making sure that our agendas are working alongside each other rather than being told what to do.

  Professor Gaskell: I think you are right in the sense that, as I said, we were evolving and that we see our challenge role as very important, as, indeed, I have to say, does Bob Watson. He is constantly challenging us to challenge him, which is a good relationship to have. I do not think we would ever see ourselves moving away from the mode of advice as well. If CSA wants advice, then he should be able to ask for it and we should be able to provide it or provide a mechanism for providing him with independent advice, independent of the advice that he may be getting from within the department. So he can do a sort of, "Can you let me know that what I am hearing inside the department is kosher, that it does stand up to external scrutiny?" That, I think, is a very important facet for him. The issue about resources is interesting. We are resourced from within the department. There have been occasions where resource has been tight, but then the department has been under the financial cosh anyway. That is not a continuing problem. I also think that it is proper for us to emphasise, and I think Defra accepts that there is enlightened self-interest in this for them, that they have enlightened self-interest in there being a perception that their science is good. That may be in part because of a historical reputational baggage that they had, but certainly I think Defra gains considerable pleasure from the fact that on occasions its SAC is held up in government, and it has been by the OST in reports on science within Defra, as a model for useful work.

  Q291  Mr Boswell: Sir Michael.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: During the ten years I was Chairman of the ACMD there was never an occasion where we were precluded from doing something because of lack of resources.

  Q292  Mr Boswell: That is very helpful. Thank you. I am just trying to wrap this bit up. I will ask two questions. One is evaluation of your impact. Do you have mechanisms for doing that? The second one—perhaps it is related—is the question of open meetings. Do they add value to your consideration and, perhaps going on from that, have you thought or, indeed, have you embarked on e-consultation about something ahead of considering or invited people's submissions as to what you should be considering?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: In terms of evaluation, it happens to us in quite a number of ways. The agency is currently part of the Go Science Review and we are expecting that report fairly soon. We are also evaluated by the Better Regulation Executive in terms of our approach to regulation. We have also just had a report produced from Consumer Focus, called Rating Regulators. So there is quite a lot of evaluation that goes on to us. We are also very keen on self-evaluation and we do an awful lot of it. After every major food incident, for example, we have an evaluation of how we did that. Do you want me to go on to the second question?

  Q293  Mr Boswell: If you can, quickly, yes.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: On open meetings, we are, I think, becoming increasingly transparent. For example, our board meetings are web-streamed and we find now that people are moving more to watching on the web than coming in person. We do constantly try to think of different and better ways in which we can do that. A further committee which we have established is an advisory committee on consumer engagement, which is composed of experts in that world, which is there particularly to tell us smarter and better ways of talking to consumers, for example electronically, we have set up citizens' juries, et cetera. So we are always looking for new ways of communicating.

  Professor Gaskell: In terms of impact, as I mentioned before, we have reviewed the percentage in crude terms of our recommendations that have been accepted, and we are comfortable with that. There are some that have not, and you might want to explore how we do or do not deal with that. There are other things where I think we have got a more subjective, though partly objective, interpretation of, impact. For example, we looked at risk, we looked at Defra's assessment of risk within its business and our report was well received and led to the establishment of a Centre of Risk Excellence and Development with EPSRC. We were glad of that in two contexts: that was a centre for risk, as we had suggested, but also it was working between research councils and Defra, which is always to be applauded. We have it on our agenda later this year to more formally audit our effectiveness by getting in external agents to assess and then report back to us on our effectiveness. Social science: there is an increased number of social scientists in Defra; I think we have made an impact there. So I think we are making an impact, and that is something you can test through others as well. Open meetings: one of our four meetings each year is an open meeting. We have had considerable discussion about this. It is an open meeting in the context that the public are allowed to come and observe the meeting. There are also question and answer sessions at the end of the morning and at the end of the afternoon, but they do not partake of the business itself. They have worked well in terms of feedback. We have had very good feedback. We have had well over 100 people and every time we have had an open meeting we have had more people than the last time; so we are impressed by the uptake of that and the feedback. Our last open meeting, if I am very critical, I do not think went as well as it should. We have reviewed that and we will work out why, but we do hold those open meetings and we think they are valuable. We have not had any e-discussions. It does raise the question (and we have discussed this too) as to what is our role in Defra's promulgation of its science? We do not see ourselves as part of Defra's science PR machine; we see ourselves just advising and challenging. People can come and watch us do that to get confidence in what we are doing, we publish everything that we do on the Web, but we are not there as part of the science PR machine for Defra.

  Q294  Mr Boswell: Before Sir Michael's response, perhaps I should say, I had the chance to come and sit in as a silent observer of a NICE meeting with a number of colleagues and found that very valuable and quite reassuring actually.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: The Home Office has undertaken evaluations of the ACMD. That will be the sort of tri-tarts(?). Of course, the much more important thing is what has happened over the last, nearly 40 years since the ACMD was established. On one view you could say it has been a disaster because, by and large drug, drug consumption has risen very substantially over the past 40 years—of course, it might have been worse if it had not been there—but some things have changed and it is tempting to think it happened as a result of what the ACMD did. The consumption of cannabis fell 30% after we made it Class C. You might think that is a perverse consequence, but actually there is quite a lot of evidence of social sciences that actually reducing the classification stakes made it much less attractive for young people. It is no longer cool to smoke cannabis because now it is only a Class C drug. It is perverse and it emphasises the dangers of thinking that the classification system sends out a message. Anyway, that is a bit of the by-the-by.

  Q295  Chairman: I think we might come back to that.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Open meetings have gone very well, and I think the Scientific Advisory Committee meetings ought to be held in the default position, they ought to be open, and there should be very special reasons why they should be closed. The ACMD has part-closed meetings, because ministers have asked that the decisions should be made in closed meetings so that they are provided to ministers before they get into the public domain. That is an argument you can have with ministers, but that was their request. The open meetings also have one other advantage in that it does allow you to use, as it were, the presence of the media to get messages across. For example, when we were discussing the use of anabolic steroids at the ACMD, I used that occasion very clearly so that the media could pick up the fact that anabolic steroids make the testes atrophy, produce male enlargement of the breasts. It is not all about getting a six-pack from anabolic steroids. I think one can use it that way too and so it has another advantage.

  Q296  Dr Harris: Just a quickie to Professor Gaskell. You say you report to the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser. Let us say, for some reason, I am sure it would not happen in your case, you were traduced, attacked in the media unfairly and they called you a nutter, or something, because of your declared view on something, would you expect the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser to issue something, assuming he agreed, saying that he disagreed with the criticism and you were a good chap and he had confidence in you, or would you be not surprised if no-one said anything from the people who you reported to?

  Professor Gaskell: I think, if that criticism arose as a result of a specific event, in other words an interview one had done or something one had written, it would depend on whether you had written that or said that in your role as Chair of Defra Science Advisory Council or whether, for example, as principal of the Royal Agricultural College, who are the people who pay my daily rate.

  Q297  Dr Harris: If you were attacked by the press, wherever it had come from, in your role as a Defra independent adviser.

  Professor Gaskell: I would not go bleating to the department saying, "I need your support here." I think in my role I may well be saying something that the CSA finds uncomfortable.

  Q298  Dr Harris: I understand, but if you are attacked by the media unfairly, do you think science speaks volumes if no-one from the department to whom you report comes to your aid and says, "Actually we still have full confidence in Professor Gaskell even though The Daily Mail has had a go"?

  Professor Gaskell: Oh, The Daily Mail. Yes; okay.

  Q299  Dr Harris: When I said media, I did not mean Nature, I meant The Daily Mail, a non-peer reviewed paper?

  Professor Gaskell: Yes, I think if the views that I was expressing were those that were being found useful and were being used and were in accord with the CSA's thinking, I think I would expect support, yes. I would not go desperately gasping for it, but, yes, I think one would expect, if it fitted in with the—

1   Footnote by witness: Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point: food safety management system Back

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