The Legacy Report - Science and Technology Committee Contents

3  Work this session

32. Since we re-convened as the Science and Technology Committee in October 2009 in preparation for the final session of this Parliament, the Committee has conducted eight inquiries. We have continued to take the approach of our predecessor Committees by being both responsive to current events relevant to our remit and also, we hope, forward thinking in identifying areas of policy that would benefit from scrutiny. A strong theme in our work this session has been to pursue the view, encouraged by the Cabinet Office, that policy development—and implementation—should be evidenced based.[45]

Inquiries on long term issues

33. We have published two reports this session on areas of emerging technology that have implications for current and future policies: bioengineering and geoengineering. We have also continued the Evidence Check series, started by our predecessor IUSS committee to examine the degree to which an "evidence based" approach to policy and decision making has been adopted across government.

Evidence checks

34. Evidence based policy has been a continuous thread throughout all our work and is embodied in our thematic "Evidence Check" series of inquiries. Launched in July 2009, these were conceived with the explicit aim of testing the rigour and pervasiveness of the evidence based approach across government and sought to ask two specific questions on each area: (1) what is the policy? and (2) on what evidence is the policy based? We discuss the rationale for the Evidence Check programme in Chapter 5.

35. Prior to launching our first inquiry, we wrote to the Government with a list of ten subjects, asking that in each case it detail its policy and the evidential basis. The subject areas we requested policy details on included: swine flu vaccinations, licensing of homeopathic products, "wind turbine syndrome", CCTV, literacy interventions, the teaching of "pseudoscience" in universities, dyslexia and Brain Gym (a programme taught in some primary schools).[46] Having considered the Government's responses we chose to carry three of these forward into two full inquiries: Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions—which incorporated two of the topics, literacy and dyslexiaand Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy—concerning the licensing of homeopathic products and NHS funding.

Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions

36. Our first evidence check inquiry focussed on early interventions into literacy problems.[47] This was divided into two parts: (1) literacy interventions and (2) the diagnosis and management of dyslexia. We received 36 written submissions and held oral evidence sessions on 4 and 9 November 2009, taking evidence from three panels, two on literacy and dyslexia and one composed of members of the Government.

37. In broad conclusion, we found that there was willingness from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to base its approach to early literacy interventions on the evidence. However, we discovered worryingly low expectations regarding the quality of evidence required to demonstrate the relative effectiveness and, in particular, the cost effectiveness of different programmes. The Government's policy that literacy intervention should take place early on in formal education and that this is cost effective, we found to be in line with the evidence. However, we found that the decision on which particular intervention to make was not based on the best quality sound evidence of either effectiveness or efficiency. We were particularly disturbed that the Government was setting its research priorities on the basis of the priorities of lobby groups.[48] We also set out the importance of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) in the development of social policy.

38. The Government, while accepting the broad thrust of our Report, did not tackle head on many of our criticisms:

  • We concluded that it was wrong to roll out Reading Recovery without making cost-benefit comparisons with other interventions.[49] The Government did not address this point.[50]
  • We were concerned by the low quality of data, specifically the preference for reading/spelling ages rather than standardised scores.[51] The Government responded that it is "committed to collecting robust data", which was not our point.[52]
  • We suggested that the Government's accepted definition of "dyslexia" was so broad and blurred at the edges that was difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.[53] This is particularly worrying as over emphasis on this vague definition could disadvantage other children with profound reading difficulties. The Government glossed over this point and simply maintained that a working definition was useful to enable the identification and management of dyslexia.[54]

39. We were disappointed that the Government failed to engage with our Report on early literacy interventions in a constructive manner. Either our concerns were right and the Government should have explained how it will take steps to improve its processes, or our concerns were misplaced and the Government should explain why. Avoiding important issues is unacceptable.

Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy

40. For our second evidence check we chose to investigate the Government's policy on the licensing and funding of homeopathic products and treatments. The motivation for this inquiry was the Department of Health's response to our request for details on the licensing of homeopathic products, in which it stated that the "consideration of scientific evidence" had no role in the formulation of its licensing regime.[55] This inquiry generated a large amount of interest and we received around sixty written submissions, and a considerable number of background papers. As we had preceded the inquiry with a written evidence request to the Government, we were able to make its responses available to interested parties for comment when we issued our call for evidence. We held oral evidence sessions on 25 and 30 November 2009, during which we heard from three panels consisting of witnesses with a wide range of relevant expertise in the manufacture and use of homeopathic products and in the research and practice of homeopathy. We also took evidence from Mr Mike O'Brien QC MP, Minister for Health Services at the Department of Health (DH), Professor David Harper, Chief Scientist at the DoH, and Professor Kent Woods, Chief Executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

41. This inquiry exposed a serious discrepancy between the evidence base for homeopathy and the Government's policy to allow its provision through the NHS. When asked directly if he considered that there was any "any credible evidence"[56] to show that homeopathy worked beyond placebo effect the Minister replied "the straight answer is no".[57] However, despite this admission, the Government was reluctant to address the ethics and practicalities of prescribing pure placebos and the implications for informed patient choice. We were concerned that, while permitting the spending of public money on a treatment it considered to be purely a placebo, the Government had no clear view on the matter. A key recommendation we made in our Report was that this be addressed by recognising that the NHS should stop routinely prescribing placebos.[58] Our inquiry also exposed weaknesses in the labelling and licensing system used for homeopathic products, finding that evidence-based approaches to licensing had been rejected and that the user-testing of labels, provided as justification for allowing products to make medical claims, was poorly designed and misleading. We recommended that as homeopathic products were not medicines, they should not be licensed as such. Overall, the Committee found a worrying inconsistency in the Government's declared stance on evidenced based policy making and its policy regarding homeopathy.[59] We also took the opportunity to set out in more detail what represents good evidence on matters of medical research and how best that evidence should be assessed.

42. The inquiry raised considerable controversy amongst both supporters and critics of homeopathy. The oral evidence sessions were much discussed online (on blogs and Twitter, for example) and the testimony of the witness representing Boots led to a mass protest against homeopathy in January 2010.[60] The fierce debate was amplified by the publication of our Report, which was covered by most of the national newspapers, radio and television, and also worldwide in countries such as Brazil, India and Australia. We received letters from the public and politicians, many criticising the Report and others praising our efforts. We expect the debate to continue and are pleased that our inquiry has made the Government and the public more aware of the importance of evidence based policies in healthcare provision and has stimulated debate on this subject.


43. On 4 November 2009 we announced our intention to hold an inquiry on bioengineering.[61] We chose this as an important area for scrutiny because, first, we were aware that the Government considered bioengineering to be amongst the strategically important technologies for the 21st century. Second, we examined bioengineering to see if the UK was learning from past mistakes and ensuring that investment in research and development was not lost in translation. In a previous report we had investigated plastic electronics engineering,[62] a technology where the UK had a competitive advantage, but despite making significant investments in the early development stage eventually lost the industry as the investment required for taking the technology to market ultimately came from overseas.

44. Our inquiry into bioengineering investigated the UK's international competitiveness in this field and sought to understand what factors had the strongest impact on the success or failure of bioengineering. We chose three areas for scrutiny: (1) the strength of the UK's research base; (2) how well research was being translated; and (3) how regulation impacted on research and translation. The scope of bioengineering was huge, so we decided to use stem cells, genetically modified (GM) crops and synthetic biology to inform our inquiry. We held three oral evidence sessions on 6, 20 and 27 January 2010, where we heard from four panels of witnesses from academia, industry, regulatory bodies and Government.

45. Overall we found that the UK has an excellent research base but is still failing to maximise its potential by translating research into wealth and health. Some areas of bioengineering, such as stem cells, have clearly benefited from strong Government leadership and support, backed up by generous levels of funding from both the public and private sectors. Others, such as genetically modified (GM) crops, are less well supported and funded. Regulation of bioengineering was complex and whilst generally sound in theory, did not always work well when put into practice. The researchers we spoke to during our evidence sessions reported that the operation of regulations around stem cells and GM crops inhibited the successful development of applied and marketable technologies.[63]

46. In the case of emerging technologies—such as synthetic biology—we found good indications that lessons had been learnt from past experiences. However, we were concerned that there was still not enough forethought regarding synthetic biology translation, a problem that, if not addressed, could well repeat the story of the UK failing to capitalise on a strong research base, thereby falling behind internationally.[64]

47. We recommended that the Government maintain basic research funding, invest more in the early translation stages of bioengineering and improve regulatory regimes both at home and in Europe. We also considered that, if the Government picked bioengineering as part of a strategic prioritisation exercise, crucial problems in translation would need to be addressed in order for the strategy to be successful.[65]


48. Geoengineering describes various activities that are specifically and deliberately designed to effect a change in the global temperature, with the aim of minimising or reversing human made global warming. These techniques largely fall into two main categories: those that aim to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, such as promoting the growth of oceanic algae that use carbon, and those that try to lower the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface, such as the injection of reflective particles into the stratosphere. We had previously covered this topic in a 2009 Report, Engineering: Turning Ideas into Reality,[66] and we were keen to follow this up in more detail. A further motivation for pursuing this inquiry stemmed from discussions we had with the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee during a visit we made to the USA in April 2009. Congressman Bart Gordon proposed that our committees holding parallel inquiries on a common topic. We later identified geoengineering as a topic that would benefit from such an approach. This joint working of a Parliamentary committee with its counterpart in another country is a novel and significant innovation and we discuss it further in chapter 5.

49. We decided that our inquiry would focus specifically on the regulatory aspects of geoengineering and we issued a call for evidence on this on 5 November 2009.[67] We held one oral evidence session on 13 January 2010, where we heard from three panels of witnesses. As three of our witnesses, Dr Jason Blackstock, Professor David Keith, and John Virgoe, were not in the UK, they appeared before the Committee via a live video link, which allowed them to participate simultaneously from their respective locations in the USA, Canada and Australia. We also took evidence, in the conventional manner, from Sir David King, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Dr Maarten van Aalst, a climate specialist, Joan Ruddock, Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Professor David MacKay, Chief Scientific Adviser to DECC, and Professor Nick Pidgeon on behalf of the Research Councils.

50. In our Report, The Regulation of Geoengineering,[68] we concluded that Government, and the international community, should begin to pay attention to geoengineering now and initiate work to establish an international regulatory framework. The global nature of geoengineering interventions means they have the potential to create not only cross-border benefits, but also disputes and problems. Having a pre-established regulatory system will be vital in minimising such issues. Opening a dialogue on these issues now, which we feel should take place through the UN, will also help to focus attention on geoengineering and promote the further research that is required to test the various methods and their impacts on the Earth.


Science Question Time

51. Since 2005 the science committee—either as the Science and Technology or the IUSS Committee—has been holding regular Science Question Time sessions with the Minister for Science (see paragraph 125). These follow a pattern that is derived from departmental questions on the floor of the House. Prior to a Question Time meeting we notify the minister of the topics we would like to cover during the session. We held two Science Question Times this session, on 14 October 2010 and 24 March 2010.

52. Our first science question time in October 2009 was also the first public meeting of our newly re-established Committee. On this occasion we made a slight change to the normal format by also inviting the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, to give evidence alongside the Minister for Science and Innovation, Rt Hon Lord Drayson. The topics we covered during this session were: the Government's actions on the recent swine flu outbreak; the role of science advice across government; research funding; and employment arrangements for academic researchers.[69]

53. Our next Science Question Time, with Lord Drayson as the sole witness, took place on the 24 March 2010 and was our last public session before the general election. In keeping with the previously established procedure we informed the Minister of the issues we would like to discuss with him beforehand. These were: the operation of the Ministerial Committee on Science and Innovation; an appraisal of the Office for Life Sciences; the recommendations made in a recent report on the UK's research base by the Council for Science and Technology;[70] and the Government's approach to encouraging green incentives in industry. We were also at this session able to question the Minster on the newly published principles of scientific advice to Government.[71]

Research councils

54. The previous Science and Technology Committees, and our direct predecessor, the IUSS Committee, maintained a strong interest in the management and operation of the Research Councils. On 2 December 2009 we held a one-off oral evidence session with Professor Alan Thorpe, the Chairman of Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella organisation for all the UK's Research Councils. We questioned Professor Thorpe on the how RCUK would respond to any future cuts to the science budget and how the Councils were preparing to negotiate and manage any funding changes.[72]

Responsive inquiries

Spending cuts to science and research

55. In his Pre-Budget Report published on 9 December 2009 the Chancellor announced an intention to cut £600 million from the budgets for higher education and science and research.[73] As this measure ran counter to statements often made by the Government on the economic value of investing in science and no explanation was given as to where the axe would fall, we decided to hold an inquiry into the issue of funding cuts on science education and scientific research. We announced our inquiry and call for evidence on 13 January 2010[74] and received 89 written submissions. We held three evidence sessions on 3, 10 and 24 February 2010, where we heard from five panels consisting of a total of 18 witnesses. These included representatives from all the major UK university groups, the Research Councils, practising academics, learned societies, and senior civil servants and ministers.

56. During this inquiry it became evident to us that, while the economic benefits of a strong domestic science base are widely acknowledged, the problems in producing a direct or meaningful quantification of this left the science budget in danger of being undervalued in Whitehall. Although, as mentioned above, the Government has often stated its belief in the value of investing in science, a strong case needed to be made for even maintaining the current level of spending. The prospect of cuts were not only at odds with the Government's previous statements but also with the actions taking by other countries such as the USA and France which have rightly identified investment in basic research as a tool to stimulate economic growth.

57. In our Report, The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research,[75] we expressed our concerns that the Government was taking the mistaken view that "applied" research could be strategically invested without a commensurate increase in the "pure/blue skies" research base that underpins it. Such a restructuring would not only be detrimental to the UK economy, but would also undo a significant portion of the benefits built up by a decade of strong investment in science. A large focus of our Report was on the concept of impact—the prediction of future economic benefit arising from a research project—and we were concerned that many researchers were seemingly under the impression that impact had a prominent role in assessing grant applications. In their evidence to us the Research Councils stated that this was not the case, and we advised them to address this misunderstanding.[76] Of greater concern to us was that measures of impact were being wrongly considered in Whitehall as a potentially powerful means of ensuring the highest level of pay-back from research funding, something we did not find any evidence for.[77] Although an impact assessment can be a useful and interesting exercise, it is an inappropriate first-order measure to use in the allocation of research funds.

58. The evidence we heard during this inquiry led us to conclude that, if the UK was to be a strong player in new technologies, a sector that will likely form a major part of our future economy, it is essential to have a broad base of more theoretical investigator-led research to support it. We concluded that maintaining a broad portfolio of excellent research should not be mutually exclusive with identifying and capitalising upon areas in which the UK has the potential for world-leading science.[78]

Principles on independent scientific advice

59. One of the defining science debates of the 2009-10 session has been on the relationship between the Government and its independent scientific advisers. The issue came to the fore following the sacking of the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor David Nutt, by the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP. This sparked a reaction from the scientific community, and on 6 November 2009 a group of senior scientists suggested a set of principles that it thought government ministers should abide by in terms of the treatment of independent scientific advice and advisers.

60. Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, accepted the principles in principle, and began a consultation on them with a view to the Government producing its own set of principles this year. Our December 2009 Report The Government's review of the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government was our response to that consultation.[79]

61. Since then, the debate has moved on apace. The draft set of principles were published on 15 December 2009 and we commented on them in a letters to Lord Drayson on 13 January and 3 March 2010. We raised four concerns—on academic freedom, the suggestion that advisers and ministers should reach a "shared position", the notion of respect and trust, and whether the principles will be enshrined in the Ministerial Code. The first two have been accepted in the statement of principles published by the Government on 24 March 2010. We are disappointed that the third has been rejected and the fourth is still under consideration.[80] We recommend that after the general election the Prime Minister enshrines the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government in the new Ministerial Code.

University of East Anglia

62. The unauthorised release of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in November 2009 lead to serious allegations of collusion in support of human made global warming and scientific misrepresentation by prominent climatologists. Following a correspondence between our Chairman and the Vice-Chancellor of UEA, we decided to hold a short inquiry. The terms of reference we decided on were designed to look into: the implications of the disclosures for the integrity of scientific research; an appraisal of the terms of reference and scope of the independent review, chaired by Sir Muir Russell; and the integrity of the other two international temperature data sets commonly used by climate science scientists.

63. Our call for evidence was announced on 22 January 2010 and we held an oral evidence session on 1 March 2010 during which we heard from nine witnesses spread across five panels.[81] Witnesses included: the scientist at the heart of the allegations, Professor Phil Jones, the Director of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA; UEA's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Edward Acton; Sir Muir Russell, the chair of the Independent Climate Change Email Review; Rt Hon Lord Lawson of Blaby, Chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation; Richard Thomas, the former information commissioner, and Professor John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

64. Any inquiry on this issue was going to raise a certain degree of controversy. We were clear from the start that we were investigating the specific events surrounding the disclosure of the e-mails and their implications, if any, on CRU's scientific integrity and not whether climate change was real or not. This was clarified by our Chairman in a statement issued on 1 February.[82]

65. Our Report reached three broad conclusions. First, that the focus on Professor Jones and CRU in relation to the science that they carried out was largely misplaced: most of the criticisms that could be levelled at them could be equally and more properly levelled at the climate science research community as a whole. Second, that the focus on Professor Jones and CRU in relation to the Freedom of Information requests was also largely misplaced: they did not receive sufficient or proper support from the University. Third, that climate science has a great responsibility in terms of providing the planet's decision makers with the knowledge that they need to secure our future and that this responsibility means that the knowledge on which these kinds of decisions are taken had better be right; the quality and transparency of the science must be irreproachable.


66. It has been an eventful session for our Committee, which was only re-established in its present form at the beginning of October 2009. We have published nine reports[83]—including this one—and have held 15 public evidence sessions since the summer recess. The proximity of the forthcoming 2010 general election, at which many of our active members will be standing down, has focused our minds to achieve as much as possible in the time we have had. Several of our Reports have received widespread media attention and two of our inquiries in particular—on homeopathy and the climate e-mails from the University of East Anglia—have been reported worldwide. In keeping with the traditions of our predecessor committees we have not shied away from controversy and have strived to take a reasoned and objective approach when tackling controversial subjects.

45   Cabinet Office, Modernising Government, Cm 4310, March 1999 Back

46   "Evidence Check" Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee press notice No. 56, Session 2008-09, 3 August 2009; Science and Technology Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2009-10, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy, HC 45, Ev 209-16 Back

47   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions, HC 44 Back

48   HC (2009-10) 44, paras 85-87 Back

49   HC (2009-10) 44, para 37 Back

50   Science and Technology Committee, Second Special Report of Session 2009-10, Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions: Government response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2009-10, HC 385, para 3 Back

51   HC (2009-10) 44, paras 39-40 Back

52   HC (2009-10) 385, para 4 Back

53   HC (2009-10) 44, para 71 Back

54   HC (2009-10) 385, para 10 Back

55   HC (2009-10) 45, Ev 60, Q 2  Back

56   HC (2009-10) 45, Ev 64, Q 174 Back

57   HC (2009-10) 45, Q 175 Back

58   HC (2009-10) 45, para 111 Back

59   HC (2009-10) 45, para 154 Back

60   "Sceptics' homeopathy 'overdose'", BBC news online, 30 January 2010, Back

61   "Bioengineering" House of Commons Science and Technology Committee press notice No. 12, Session 2008-09, 4 November 2009 Back

62   HC (2008-09) 50-I, ch 3 Back

63   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2009-10, Bioengineering, HC 220, Qq 52-54, 133 Back

64   HC (2009-10), 220, p 3 Back

65   HC (2009-10) 220, para 128  Back

66   HC (2008-09) 50-I, ch 4 Back

67   "The regulation of geoengineering" House of Commons Science and Technology Committee press notice No. 14, Session 2008-09, 5 November 2009 Back

68   Science and Technology Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2009-10, The Regulation of Geoengineering, HC 221 Back

69   Science and Technology Committee, Setting the Scene on Science and Engineering and Technology Issues Across Government: Oral and Written Evidence HC (2009-10) 1001-i Back

70   The Council for Science and Technology, A Vision for UK Research, March 2010 Back

7 71  1 Letter from Lord Drayson to the Chairman of the Committee regarding the impact of spending cuts on science and scientific funding, 22 March 2010; "Principles of scientific advice to government published", BIS Press Release, 24 March 2010 Back

72   Science and Technology Committee, The work of the UK research councils: oral and written evidence 2 December 2009, Professor Alan Thorpe, HC (2009-10) 102-i Back

73   HM Treasury, Pre-Budget Report: Securing the recovery: growth and opportunity, December 2009, Cm 7747, p 110 Back

74   "The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research", House of Commons Science and Technology Committee press notice No. 8, Session 2009-10, 13 January 2010 Back

75   Science and Technology Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2009-10, The Impact of Spending Cuts on Science and Scientific Research, HC 335-I Back

76   HC (2009-10) 335-I, para 34 Back

77   HC (2009-10) 335-I, para 35 Back

78   HC (2009-10) 335-I, para 41 Back

79   Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2009-10, The Government's review of the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government, HC 158-I Back

8 80  0 "Principles of scientific advice to government published", BIS Press Release, 24 March 2010 Back

81   "The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia", House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Press Notice No. 9, Session 2009-10, 22 January 2010 Back

82   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Press Notice 11, Session 2009-10, 1 February 2010 Back

83   Listed at the end of this report Back

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