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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 394)

MONDAY 18 MAY 2009


  Q380  Mr Boswell: At the other end of the spectrum, there has been some concern expressed about the capacity of government departments to carry out their own science research, which in a sense may be more related to the immediate purposes of government, or to competitiveness. I think what I am feeling after is whether you need a more articulated approach with lots of curiosity-driven at one end, and a bit more development at the other. Do you see this as a difficulty, and is it something that you as Science and Innovation Minister can drive and get changed?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, I think this is an area for concern, that whereas I have expressed my confidence with regard to the centrally funded science ringfenced budget, I am concerned about some of the trends which we have seen in terms of science funding within government departments. I think this issue was recognised some months ago. We have addressed that through the mechanism of the new science and innovation Cabinet sub-committee, which I chair, of which John is a member, where we have been reviewing departmental plans for research, we are going through a process whereby we are requiring each government department to be updating the committee on its future plans, and we have been in particular addressing a clear deficiency, which I have highlighted to the Committee previously, around the mechanism within government for cross-departmental scientific research projects, and I think we have made some good progress on that.

  Q381  Mr Boswell: And you will keep a degree of transparency on that, within the normal limitations of government?

  Lord Drayson: Yes.

  Q382  Graham Stringer: If I can just go back very briefly to Evan's first questions about scientific controversy and what your reaction was with Professor Nutt, in a sense I am more concerned about where there is not public controversy, when the government has used pretend science, and how you intervene to say, "This really does not have a proper scientific or evidence base to make future policy". I can give you one example, possibly others. When the government announced its Every Child a Reader programme, I cannot quite remember the title, they did some research which essentially put quite a lot of money into remedial teaching of literacy, and there were no control groups. Having put however many million pounds into that in however many schools, they said after that, the children read better, therefore we know how to proceed. That is not scientific, without control groups and comparisons, that is just wasting money on things we already knew. Not for the children involved, but as the basis of an experiment. When you see an obvious misuse of science like that, how do you intervene?

  Professor Beddington: Well, it is an example I am not familiar with, I should say at the outset.

  Q383  Graham Stringer: It is in the literature.

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I understand. I was explaining that I am not familiar with it. I can become so. I think that where science appears to be done badly, it is important that I should draw the attention in this case to the chief scientific adviser in the appropriate department and say, "This looks to be rather poor". I have not done so, because I have not looked at it, but I am more than happy to raise this, and I think the issue is really one that is quite important, and one of the reasons why it is important, I believe, to have chief scientific advisers in every department is that where bad science is done, we can actually raise that issue with the chief scientific adviser of the relevant department, because that is where the responsibility lies, but ultimately responsibility lies with me, but if these things happen, and this particular one I was not aware of, I think it is important to say this research is not adequate to justify the policy.

  Q384  Graham Stringer: That begs the question, does it not, what mechanisms have you set up to find out where there is pretend or bad science going on?

  Professor Beddington: One of the key things we have done is to set up these science reviews of different departments, and they were rather long ones where we looked at a lot of examples, and indicated bad or good practice, and indicated where we were concerned about how scientific advice was being developed and used. Those reviews are going to be much quicker now, and I am hoping to cover all of the main departments within the next two years. So that is one mechanism. I do not have a mechanism for looking at all science developed in government, I see that as devolving to the responsibilities of the individual chief scientific advisers, but I would think if something which, as you characterise it, is a rather gross omission of sensible scientific practice, then it needs looking at. It is obviously in the area of social statistics, and Paul Wiles is the government chief social science adviser, but he sits on my advisory group, and it seems to me that is the sort of area where we should actually be doing it. I certainly would not try to defend the idea, or use it to defend that there are some areas that we do not have the time to look at. We have to deal with that.

  Graham Stringer: I take it then that you will look at that.

  Dr Gibson: Can you just take two points, Graham?

  Q385  Graham Stringer: When the Committee was in the United States, we asked the questions that we had been asking the government for some time about regional science policy, whether there should be, as part of the grant allocation to scientific bodies, an understanding about poverty or deprivation in the region they are going to, whether that was relevant. The government has come back each time and said we allocate money according to the Haldane principle. What we found in the United States was a completely different system, where they had a block of money that they gave to the scientific elitist states, the Massachusetts and Californias of this world, and then another block of money, nearly as large, which they gave to those states that had universities doing scientific research, but were not the Harvards and Caltechs of this world. Would the government relook at considering the Haldane principle against that evidence?

  Lord Drayson: No, I think is the direct answer to that question. I think that when one looks at the productivity of UK research and the strength of science in the UK, considering the size of our country, the resources which we put into it, we believe that the principle of funding the best possible science, excellence in science, wherever it is regionally, is the fundamental pillar which has led us to the very strong science base that we have. So changing our policy in the way in which you suggest, whilst recognising that that is the way in which the United States, for example, pursues it, that is not, we believe, the right way to go for the UK.

  Q386  Graham Stringer: But do you not think that in those circumstances, and we have had this debate before, I do not want to push it too far, you are just intensifying the concentration of excellent research in the south-east triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, the golden triangle, at the expense of the rest of the country, where there is good research done, but it gets increasingly difficult to compete with ever increasing amounts of money going into scientific research in those three areas?

  Lord Drayson: I recognise the concerns, and as you say, this is something which has been part of national debate around science for some considerable time. I believe that we as a country cannot really afford to be competing internally within the United Kingdom. We are competing internationally, we need to generate the strongest possible research communities based around excellence here in the United Kingdom, and the way in which we have seen excellence prosper within our universities, the fact that we have such a disproportionately large number of universities in the top ten, for example, in terms of global rankings, reflects the effectiveness of our policy.

  Q387  Graham Stringer: In debate with the Committee about the Haldane principle, John Denham in April 2008 said that one of the safeguards of guardians of the independence of science and academic freedom was the research councils. Professor David Edgerton when he came to the Committee said he thought that was curious, and did not really believe it was the job of the research councils, that independence and academic freedom came from academic societies, universities and individual academics. The job of the research councils was to allocate funding. Do you not think, when there is debate both about the regional allocation of funding and what the Haldane principle means in the allocation of funds, that government should not take another look at the Haldane principle, and have an open debate and discussion about it?

  Lord Drayson: I think that there has been considerable debate about the Haldane principle, the mechanism by which this government, in the context of other government policies, makes decisions about allocations of science funding, but I agree with the point that academic freedom is also in the hands of the learned societies, academics themselves. But I do believe, and my experience as Science Minister certainly reinforces that belief, that the independence of the research councils are an important contributor to this, and therefore the so-called Haldane principle is alive and well and effective in these changing economic circumstances. The fact that we have gone from a period of very high growth to one which is presenting the country with really quite significant but different challenges, and that we are confident that the principle by which research funding allocations have been made remains effective in that, I think speaks to the effectiveness of these principles.

  Q388  Dr Gibson: The last question is about the science and society consultation. I seem to have spent years listening to all of this. Is there anything different coming out of it or is it just money down the drain in your opinion? What have we learnt about the recent consultations?

  Lord Drayson: I think the most interesting new information from this consultation is the general view that there is a greater role for Government, and I would say that is probably counterintuitive, and therefore surprising, but that is indeed the feedback. In other words, the community whilst, absolutely as one would expect, sharing the need to develop a scientifically literate society and raising the profile of science made the case pretty clearly that there was an expectation that Government would be more involved in ensuring co-ordination and some consolidation of activities. I would say the primary feedback, which we are and will be acting upon, is to try and get greater synergy between the myriad of schemes that exist to promote science and develop a scientifically literate society. We have had the example of that in terms of the Big Bang Fair promoting science and engineering to young people. We are encouraging a number of different organisations to work together which had been separately trying to promote science and engineering to children at school and I would say this is going to be, if you like, the overriding theme of the output from the science and society consultation.

  Q389  Dr Harris: Professor Beddington, when you have been with us before we have talked about the role you may play in scrutinising the scientific rigour of other departments, as you know. I just wanted to come back to your and my favourite topic, which is homeopathy. Do you think it is right that homeopathic treatments for which there is no evidence that they are effective should be allowed to claim that they are effective and have that claim approved by none other than the MHRA which is responsible on a fact-based judgment, it says, for ensuring that "We license safe" obviously, I do not think there is any question about homeopathy there, "and effective medicines"? What is going on?

  Professor Beddington: What is going on at the moment is, first of all, I did write to the Chief Medical Officer about this indicating that I was concerned there was a misunderstanding between the Committee and I that you appeared to think in some comment that I was defending the use of homeopathy, which I was not, and I hope that has been clarified. I indicated to the Chief Medical Officer that I had real concerns that homeopathy which had no scientific justification of its mechanisms was being used. He wrote back to me to indicate that he believed this was a decision to be taken by individual health authorities and individual physicians. He indicated to me the scale of the problem—and I cannot quote the exact figures—was something of the order that in 2007 the cost of homeopathic medicines to the National Health Service was about £390,000. Clearly that massively underestimates the amount that is being spent by individuals, but in terms of a cost to the National Health Service and their bill it is £390,000 in £8.4 billion or something of that sort. Subsequent to that I have taken this issue up with the Director General who is dealing with these matters, Professor Harper, to say can we explore this further, and we have had one meeting on this issue. If we had not then had swine flu arrive we would be continuing to follow this through. I am also in the process of reading Trick or Treatment by Singh and Ernst, which I am thoroughly enjoying, and am looking at these issues. There are some difficulties, but I certainly recognise that this is an issue I should look at that.

  Q390  Dr Harris: I am grateful for that but my question was about the MHRA issuing a licensing for Arnica and the label will now read: "A homeopathic medical product used within the homeopathic tradition for symptomatic relief of sprains, muscular aches, bruising or swelling after contusions". Professor Ernst, who wrote that book, published a trial—it may have been a systematic review—in 2003 that showed no benefit from Arnica in the prevention of pain and bruising after surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, but with more adverse events in the Arnica group, if you can believe it, than in the placebo. Yet there is an MHRA stamp saying this has an indication "for the symptomatic relief of sprains, muscular aches, bruising or swelling after contusions". What is the MHRA now? This is not about the NHS now; it is just about giving advice to consumers, vulnerable consumers, people with pain and bruising. What is the MHRA now, is it a marketing aid to the homeopathic industry?

  Professor Beddington: I do not know. I was not aware of this particular instance that you have cited but I will look at it.

  Q391  Dr Harris: I will send you the details. Can I just say that the first reader's comment to the Pulse article from an advocate of homeopathy says: "The age of homeopathy has arrived. The higher vibration of homeopathics resonates with new information and knowledge of quantum physics and the nature of water". It must be a happy day for the MHRA to have that endorsement.

  Professor Beddington: I think you will expect my comments to be along the lines of your own.

  Q392  Dr Gibson: Let us move on a little to think about scrutiny on behalf of the public again. Do you think there is a need for a parliamentary scrutiny of science and engineering across departments? I know you have organisations looking at this, but I guess many of us think we are missing out on these areas by having DIUS doing many different things. Do you think we need a science and technology scrutiny committee again? What is your experience? In both the Commons and the Lords they both did play their part.

  Lord Drayson: The House of Lords has a Science and Technology Committee that does an excellent job. The scrutiny of science and engineering and technology within Government is incredibly important and becoming only more important in the future, but matters relating to the way in which that is put in place by the House of Commons is not a matter for me to comment on.

  Q393  Dr Gibson: Do you think there is a dimension missing in this without proper overall parliamentary scrutiny in the Commons as well as in the Lords? Do you think we suffer for it?

  Lord Drayson: I have not had an experience in my six months as Science Minister to lead me to that conclusion.

  Q394  Dr Gibson: Are we doing a good enough job for public accountability? Dr Harris has mentioned that homeopathy is getting away with treason.

  Professor Beddington: Certainly I have not found this Committee a pushover in the sense that I feel when I come before this Committee you ask me sensible, pertinent and, on occasion, quite difficult questions. Whether, in fact, the brief of the Committee, which goes significantly wider than science and technology, constrains you, I cannot judge that I am afraid. I have only experienced this since I actually arrived.

  Dr Gibson: I think that concludes this session. Thank you both very much indeed for giving us your time.

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