The Work of the Committee 2008-09 - Science and Technology Committee Contents

3  Other activities and innovative practices

45.  As we explained in last year's report, the former Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee's remit covered "Innovation"[57] and we aim to be innovative in our own practices. We continued to look for ways to innovate during the 2008-09 session and we intend to continue this practice as the Science and Technology Committee. As we did last year, in this Report we have allotted space to individual Members to contribute their thoughts on the year passed and looking to the session ahead.


46.  A significant innovation—as we noted in the previous chapter—was our "Subjects for scrutiny: have your say". On 11 February we invited topics suitable for an oral evidence hearing in Westminster. We laid down some ground rules for suggested topics, in particular, they had to:

i.  be within our remit (at that time, a matter within the responsibility of DIUS);

ii.  not already be under examination by the Committee as part of another inquiry;

iii.  be capable of being covered in two hours of oral evidence, with two panels of witnesses (the second panel normally being Ministers or officials, with no more than four witnesses on any panel);

iv.  be timely; and

v.  not be related to individual cases or any matters before the Courts or Tribunals.[58]

47.  The Committee received nearly 50 suggestions from organisations and individuals. The choice was not easy but after careful consideration we selected the topic from the 157 Group, which represents 26 of the largest colleges in England. It asked us to investigate what had happened to the Learning and Skills Council's (LSC) capital programme, arguing that "the hearing would add value in giving clarity and transparency to an important issue which needs perspectives, debate and insight from a range of angles to facilitate sector and public confidence in how this issue is being dealt with".[59] We are confident that our Report, Spend, spend, spend? - The mismanagement of the Learning and Skills Council's capital programme in further education colleges,[60] did just that.

48.  It was our intention to select a topic for a second "Subjects for scrutiny: have your say" inquiry. In the event the machinery of Government changes which abolished DIUS overtook our plans. We would, however, commend the exercise to other select committees and hope that our successor committee, the Science and Technology Committee in the next Parliament, will return to it. We have, however, in formulating our programme for the 2009-10 Session had regard to the list of suggestions and we were able to include one suggestion—on synthetic biology—within the terms of reference of our forthcoming inquiry into bioengineering.


49.  As we noted in the previous chapter, we became conscious early in the Students and Universities inquiry that individual students were not responding to the traditional methods that select committees use to gather evidence. As we explained, we used an e-consultation and had a student panel that gave evidence twice. In addition, as we outlined in our Report on the 2007-08 session,[61] we continue to encourage Members to act as rapporteurs to collect evidence. During the Students and Universities inquiry the Chairman made a visit as a rapporteur to Imperial College London to meet students and staff. Before taking oral evidence in formal session, a group of Members also met students from Liverpool Hope University and the University of Liverpool informally. Having shown the notes of the meetings in draft to participants we published them with the evidence to the inquiry.[62] During our visit to the University of Oxford, we had to make an adaptation to this process. The university authorities arranged for us to meet 23 students for an informal discussion on the main issues of the inquiry. In the time available and to ensure each student had direct discussion with Members, we arranged the students into groups of four to six with the Members attending moving from group to group every 12 minutes. Each Member asked questions on a theme and was accompanied by a note taker. This approach to taking evidence, which has been compared to "speed dating", worked well. Participants were able to express their views directly to Members. We assembled good evidence[63] from this and the other informal meetings, which we used in our Report.


50.  One of the case studies that we examined in the Report, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, was geoengineering. The case study included an oral evidence session in which one of the participants, Professor Klaus Lackner from Columbia University, on a panel of four on 10 November 2008 gave his evidence via a video link from the USA.[64] The arrangement worked well and there was no time lag in the signal to impede the flow of oral evidence, as sometimes happened on similar sessions previously. As far as we were aware, the section of our report which dealt with geoengineering may have been the first time that a legislature examined the use of activities specifically and deliberately designed to effect a change in the global climate with the aim of minimising or reversing man-made climate change. Geoengineering has important implications for the whole planet.

51.  During our visit to the USA in April 2009 we met Representative Bart Gordon, Chairman of the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee. Mr Gordon suggested that we examine a topic for collaborative work between our Committee and the House Committee. Contact continued during the summer and we are pleased to report that both Committees have agreed to collaborate on inquiries into geoengineering. The House of Representatives has launched a major inquiry into geoengineering[65] and on 5 November we announced an inquiry, building on our earlier work, on the international and national regulation of geoengineering. A subject such as geoengineering which potentially affects the whole planet is, in our view, an ideal subject on which to work collaboratively with the US House of Representatives. We have agreed to coordinate our work as far as the constraints of the UK and US legislative timetables allow. We intend that the submissions we receive will be published on the internet and passed to the US Committee and that our published conclusions and recommendations will inform the wider US inquiry into geoengineering. Similarly the House of Representatives' evidence[66] will be considered by us during our inquiry. Speaking in London on 2 November 2009 to a science conference, Mr Gordon said:

Geoengineering is [a] topic that will need international collaboration. Any actions could have repercussions that reach well beyond any individual country's borders, and there are many areas for potential collaboration in trying to understand the necessary research. To that end, the US Congressional Science and Technology Committee has agreed with the UK's S&T committee to have parallel hearings into the national and international implications of geoengineering projects. And we intend to develop a roadmap for our executive branches to move forward, both in research, and in treaties. We hope to publish a report next March, and would welcome any other assembly committees to join us in this effort.[67]

52.  We hope that both Committees will find the process productive through not only sharing their knowledge and findings on geoengineering but also learn lessons for future collaborative work. It is our intention to report on the collaborative aspects of the work in the report we expect to produce on geoengineering.
At a time when Parliament itself comes under greater scrutiny so the role of Select Committees must too. Whilst the overwhelming level of support from the science community for the return of the Science and Technology Select Committee was hugely rewarding, the challenge is to make the committee relevant. The fact that the new committee would only have six months to prove its worth was a spur to action and despite the relatively small but hugely dedicated membership we have certainly laid out our stall. Two key themes run through our work—the use of evidence in policy making and innovation. Our drive to constantly seek from government clear evidence to support policy saw us take on DCFS over its literacy programme and Health over its support for Homeopathy. Other evidence checks will be regular features of our work. As for innovation we have encouraged public engagement with our ground breaking "Subjects for Scrutiny—Have your say" scheme and set up a joint think tank with the leaders of the science community. However our initiative to set up the first UK-US Science and Technology scrutiny initiative with the US House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee looks like being a real winner and something for our successor committee to build on.

Phil Willis MP, Chairman


53.  A theme running through our work for many inquiries over the years has been the need to encourage young people to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics[68] and at the start of our inquiry, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, we took oral evidence from a panel of young engineers. We took this one stage further this session when in March 2009 four members of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee answered questions on science issues in a select committee-style meeting from pupils aged between 11 and 13 from Park View Academy's science club (in London). Questions covered the future of science funding, the use of human embryonic stem cells and obesity. The event was part of the "Big Bang Fair", which aimed to promote science and engineering, and to inspire students. We were delighted to take part in this imitation committee session and to engage directly with school children about these issues. The pupils were enthusiastic and assertive and did not shy away from tackling controversial and complex subjects.

September visits

54.  As in previous years, during the summer recess the Chairman with other Members, conducted a series of September visits, continuing a practice first started by the former Science and Technology Committee. These are instrumental in building relationships between the Committee and stakeholder communities. They are also a useful way of following-up previous inquiries, though this year with the Science and Technology due to be re-established on 1 October they focused on areas that the new Committee might wish to examine.

Use of new electronic media

55.  In the past year we have noted an exponential growth in the use of electronic media such as Twitter. Some of the members of our Committee "tweet" and in a recent case, Lord Drayson publicised the fact that he had provided the Committee with supplementary evidence on Twitter. During the seminar on 21 October with leading members of the scientific community, the Chairman posted the questions under discussion on Twitter and invited responses.

Other work

56.  The Committee continues to publish a quarterly update on its work in the magazine Science in Parliament.

57   HC (2008-09) 49, para 37 Back

58   "Subjects for scrutiny: have your say", Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Press Notice No 15, 11 February 2009 Back

59   HC (2008-09) 530, para 3 Back

60   HC (2008-09) 530 Back

61   HC (2008-09) 49, para 41 Back

62   HC (2008-09) 170-II, Ev 156, 158 and 160 Back

63   HC (2008-09) 170-II, Ev 161 Back

64   Professor Klaus Lackner, Columbia University on 10 November 2008 Back

65   "Geoengineering Research Needed, Members Hear", House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee, News Release, 5 November 2009 Back

66 Back

67   Transcript of a speech given by Congressman Bart Gordon, Chairman of the US House of Representatives Science and Technology, at Queen Mary College, London 2 November 2009 Back

68   Reiterated in HC (2008-09) 50-I, para 317 Back

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Prepared 15 December 2009