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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)

MONDAY 18 MAY 2009


  Q340  Dr Gibson: I did not know, but Tim O'Riordan the other day, you probably know about coastal erosion, and he was saying similar things, that it was very difficult to say things because they had implications at a government level, so therefore you had to weigh it up.

  Professor Beddington: I am not aware of that, I am afraid.

  Q341  Dr Harris: It is a question of academic freedom, to a certain extent, is it not?

  Professor Beddington: Well, there is academic freedom, which is where you publish and peer review, and then there is an issue of a responsibility if you actually have a particular public position. I do not think in this case there is much one can do to explore this in any detail. This is a particular instance, but I think it is a thing that we have to watch, and I think if this happens again in another situation, I may choose to act in a different way. I felt this was the appropriate way to respond at the time, which was to write to the Home Secretary and express my concern.

  Dr Gibson: Let us move it along.

  Q342  Mr Boswell: We are moving along. It will sound like nuts and bolts, but I think you will realise that it is pretty cardinal to what we are looking at. First question to you, John, and I am not sure I know the answer to this, so I am not asking the question as if I do: you as chief scientific adviser, do you report directly to the Prime Minister?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, that is correct.

  Q343  Mr Boswell: In practice, who do you actually see more of? Is it John Denham, as Secretary of State, or the Prime Minister?

  Professor Beddington: I have seen the Prime Minister I think on four occasions in the last year.

  Q344  Mr Boswell: About once a quarter?

  Professor Beddington: Yes.

  Q345  Mr Boswell: Not regularly, not diaried in?

  Professor Beddington: Not at all. But I obviously see John Denham and Paul much more regularly. My line management within the civil service is to Sir Gus O'Donnell, who I see much more regularly.

  Q346  Mr Boswell: If you were to have a major concern, and I will not hypothesise what it is now, would you seek an appointment with the Prime Minister, to say, "This is cardinally important, I need to see you and brief you about this", rather than as it were going up the line?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I would.

  Q347  Mr Boswell: You would not be at all frightened of doing that?

  Professor Beddington: No, and indeed I have written to him on a couple of occasions about things that I felt were really important and should be treated as such.

  Q348  Mr Boswell: If we turn to the latest Council for Science and Technology report, which is the one on the relationship between academia and government, pretty central, who commissioned that? Would that have been John Denham or the Prime Minister?

  Professor Beddington: That was John Denham.

  Q349  Mr Boswell: But presumably Number 10 would have known about it?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, there is a group which meets regularly to deal with commissioning government reports, which also includes foresight, horizon scanning, work of this sort, as well as the strategy unit.

  Q350  Mr Boswell: Is that run by the Cabinet Office then?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, it is chaired by Jeremy Heywood, which is Number 10, I guess. Just to complete, I think the CST essentially see themselves as a body that if ministers of state ask them to do something, they will examine it, to see whether this is an appropriate thing to be doing. When the CST met with the Prime Minister last year, he specifically asked that the CST did a report on infrastructure going into the future, and they are working on that now. So it is a mix, and I think they are available to do it. Indeed, some come from their own agenda, which is important for independence.

  Q351  Mr Boswell: So it is not purely reactive? They can generate?

  Professor Beddington: Indeed they can, and for example, they did one on innovation in the water industry, which I think was generated entirely from themselves.

  Q352  Mr Boswell: Officials and advisory councils who are supposed to report to the Prime Minister, is it important that they actually physically report to the Prime Minister, rather than the report mediated through a Secretary of State?

  Professor Beddington: I think from time to time it is a very good idea that an organisation like the CST meets with the Prime Minister, and they certainly felt that, and they indicated to me pretty early on in my time with them that they felt that they would like to be more involved. I think you have had evidence from some of the members, not necessarily in this inquiry, but in a previous one. I think that is very much the feeling that I have, that this is a very well qualified body, I think that they can actually make a difference, and I think that there is real opportunity when they engage with the Prime Minister on a one to one basis. I can also say though that they also have a practice of having both ministers and senior civil servants to dinners, they have a dinner before each meeting, and people are invited. So, for example, Jeremy Heywood was invited to one, and Paul and John Denham were invited to another one, just some of the recent ones.

  Q353  Mr Boswell: I think some of us would say -- you may or may not wish to comment on this -- when we went to Japan, we were very struck by the analogous institution there, who were -- I will not say seeing the Prime Minister every month, but certainly had ready and frequent access in a way that I think is not historically applied here, although it may be coming. Do you have any comment on that?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I think we need to be thinking also about other analogies. I am going to America next week to see John Holdren and the PCAST ( DN spell out) group. Advising the president there has a different frequency, and I think one of the things that I am rather keen to see happen is that we actually engage and start to think what is best practice.

  Q354  Mr Boswell: This one is probably for Paul Drayson, although you may wish both to chip in. Do you feel now that GO Science might be better placed in the Cabinet Office?

  Lord Drayson: I think John is best placed to speak from GO Science's point of view, but from my perspective as Science and Innovation Minister within DIUS, it is really excellent having GO Science in the same building, it enables me to develop a good and strong relationship with the government's chief scientific adviser. So although geography is not everything, I think actually having GO Science together with DIUS has its advantages.

  Q355  Mr Boswell: John, do you want to add any comment?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I have answered this question before, and I think there are merits on both sides, but I think the key one is the link with both the Science Minister and the Secretary of State for DIUS, but also with the Director General for Research Councils, Adrian Smith, and that whole team, which are responsible for so much of science funding. The fact that I can walk up a floor and find Adrian Smith and his team and talk on a day-to-day basis makes a tremendous difference, whereas if I was down in Whitehall, that would be rather more difficult to do. I think that the other aspect of it, which is easily ignored, is also it is not just myself seeing Adrian Smith, but it is my officials seeing his officials on a regular basis, and I think that is the real advantage of this co-existence.

  Q356  Dr Gibson: Do you have spats together, or are you just chummy-chummy? Just to get a feel of the kind of meeting.

  Professor Beddington: Well, you have seen Adrian Smith, he is a tough man to have a spat with.

  Q357  Mr Boswell: You have frank exchanges though.

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I do not think we have disagreed fundamentally on anything, but we have, as you say, frank exchanges of views, and Adrian obviously sits on the group of chief scientific advisers that I have. One area which I did explore with him very soon on in his tenure was the importance of independent assessment of the science budgeting process, and he and I talked a lot about that. As I am sure he will have told you, his plan is to consult with a number of entities, including the Council for Science and Technology, obviously the Royal Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering, but also the team of chief scientific advisers. We talked long and hard about that, because one alternative might have been to actually have, as it were, a group of individuals who were charged with some degree of assessment of that science budgetary process, and I think that we evolved this as a solution, and I think I agree with it.

  Q358  Mr Boswell: Can you also express adequately the cross-departmental role of GO Science, given that you are located in, although I appreciate you are not formally part of, a department? This is partly, I think, a matter of substance, but it is also a matter of perception, in that if you are another department, be it the Home Office or DEFRA for example, are you seen as them and not part of us, if you see what I mean?

  Professor Beddington: I think I can probably do it by example. Quite a lot of the last two or three weeks has been spent dealing with swine flu. I went in and immediately discussed it with the Department of Health, and it was agreed I would chair an independent science advisory group in emergencies. I am co-chairing it with Sir Gordon Duff, who was chairing the independent group on influenza. So I chair now an independent group, I have co-opted independent scientists on to that, that is the group that independent of the Department of Health and HPA provide advice to COBR on this particular pandemic. So that is the role that I play there. In the case of other activities, for example I have been quite closely involved in providing advice on aspects of the CONTEST strategy, which is straight into the Home Office, and I have been involved in regular meetings, I sit on the CONTEST board and I sit on the science and innovation board of CONTEST, so there is a fair engagement with that. In the case of DEFRA, I have been making one of my agendas to be the importance of food and water in the future, and I think DEFRA are well aware of that, but I also chair the research panel of the food strategy taskforce of the Cabinet Office, and I go to -- sorry, I am going on and on, but I attend MoD's science advisory council, and so on.

  Q359  Dr Gibson: Do you ever get back in the lab at all? Do you ever talk to young people in the lab? David King used to say he did that on a Friday at Cambridge. Have you got a chance to do that, with all these committees?

  Professor Beddington: I certainly do not get a chance to talk to anybody in a lab because I have not been in a lab since I was about 17, wearing a white coat, but I certainly talk to modellers and people of that ilk at Imperial College. But you raise a good point, Chairman. I have been down to visit a number of laboratories, where I really think it is important to actually find out what people are doing, what they are thinking; you know, these are civil servants, and what excitement there is. So I have visited Rutherford Appleton, I have visited Culham, I have been to Pirbright, I have been to VLA, and so on.

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