Science and Technology Committee - The Government Office for Science Annual Review 2011–12 - Minutes of Evidencehc 666-i

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 24 October 2012

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Caroline Dinenage

Jim Dowd

Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Mosley

Graham Stringer

Hywel Williams

Roger Williams

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Professor Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Good morning, Sir John. Welcome back-not, I hope, for the last time. As your tenure as Government Chief Scientific Adviser is drawing to a close, what are your priorities for the last few months of your term of office?

Sir John Beddington: There are quite a few things ongoing. I was just reflecting as you posed the question-it is a bit of a sad reflection on my time in government-that I now come here with an enormous file. The first time that I came before this Committee I arrived with a small piece of paper. That reflects something about my career, I suppose.

To answer your question, a number of things are ongoing and it is really quite important to make certain that they happen. Several Foresight reports will be coming out in the next few months. In fact, we launched one on computer trading only this week. We have one on disasters, and there is one on identity, which will be reporting before the end of the calendar year. We have started one-I will need to push this-on the future of manufacturing. We also plan-I have obviously consulted with Mark Walport-to start a project on the future of cities. Those are ongoing.

In terms of some of the other key activities, one that I am sure we will come back to later in the questioning is that I really am concerned about the sort of statistics that are coming out. They seem to be a bit of a muddle, and I would really like to try to get that resolved before I walk out of the door. You may remember that when I first came into this job I had the job of being head of the science and engineering profession in government, but I found that we didn’t know who the scientists and engineers were in government. I think that we now know that rather better. Some of the statistics in terms of research and development spending need to be bottomed out, and I am sure that we will come back to some questioning on that later.

Some other things are fairly important. Following the rather critical report on government R and D in nuclear, the Government charged me with chairing a nuclear R and D advisory board. That is ongoing. My aim will be to get a report out on that, if possible, by the end of this calendar year, which will set out both the R and D vision for nuclear in the United Kingdom but also a road map for where R and D should actually go in nuclear. That is ongoing, and I hope that it will be finished in the next few months.

Another area on which I would quite like to ensure that I leave things in a good state for my successor is the number of initiatives that have been coming out from the Council for Science and Technology. In particular, there are various ongoing reports; one is on algorithms, there is going to be one on STEM education and, indeed, one on the future of post-graduate training in medicine. Those are ongoing, and I would like essentially to bring them to a conclusion before the end of the period.

The other thing, which is a bit like painting the Forth road bridge, is the ongoing review of science and engineering quality in Departments. We are actually on our very last Department, which is the Treasury. We will be reporting on science and engineering evidence, and evidence more generally, in the Treasury as part of that review process, but that is going to be coming to an end. As I indicated, it is a bit like painting the Forth road bridge. We have done all the Departments now, but it is quite clear that the time that it takes to do the review in its current form, albeit that it is dramatically shorter than my predecessor’s reviews, still means that we are only reviewing Departments on a four or five-year basis. That is unsatisfactory, because things change.

One of the things that are ongoing is the development of a process to have, effectively, a simpler sort of self-assessment for Departments but with external commentators. It’s not in a sense the Department saying, "Our science and engineering performance is wonderful," ticking the box and moving on to the next one. We will have external assessors. We are in ongoing discussion with Sir Bob Kerslake about how we take that one forward.

The other thing, of course, which we may come on to, is to do with the overall CSA network. It is working pretty well, but we have some vacancies coming up. There is an agreement, which was reflected in recent correspondence between Sir Bob Kerslake and Lord Krebs, indicating how the Government intend to do it. Among other things, for example, the Government have agreed that I should be involved formally in the assessment of CSAs in each Department. We will need to work through exactly how that happens.

That is not all, Chair, that I shall be doing in the next three months.

Q2 Chair: It is quite a busy period.

Sir John Beddington: It is a fair old list already, I think.

Q3 Chair: Let us look backwards for a while. The Prime Minister is on record in responding to me at the Liaison Committee, saying that he ought to spend more time with his scientific advisers. How much time did he spend with you over the last 12 months?

Sir John Beddington: I have had a couple of meetings. I had a meeting with him at the CST in February 2012. We then had a very substantial seminar with him on the topic of advanced materials and how it might contribute to growth in the economy. Those are the two occasions when I have spent time with him; otherwise, none.

Q4 Chair: Are those the only issues that you have discussed with him over the last 12 months?

Sir John Beddington: Obviously, a lot of the Liaison Committee’s discussion of scientific issues goes through the Science Minister, who sits in Cabinet. I meet with David Willetts pretty much every week or so.

Q5 Chair: Thinking about your experience, what do you think the key objectives for the Government Office for Science ought to be?

Sir John Beddington: The primary objective should be to ensure that the best science and engineering evidence is used in the formulation of policy. Part of my brief is to try to ensure the quality of science and engineering advice generally across government. The second objective is to be proactive when looking into the future and trying to assess where both challenges and opportunities lie. In a sense, that is part of the Foresight and horizon-scanning work.

In parentheses, you may be aware of the decision that the Government are going to develop a much more comprehensive horizon-scanning system. It is to be led by Jon Day, who was second Permanent Secretary at the MOD and is now chairman of the JIC. Jon and I, jointly with Robert Devereux, have been developing plans for horizon-scanning across government generally.

The other aspect, which this Committee has reviewed in the past, is that it is really important-it is happening now, but I think that it should continue-that the Government Office for Science should be closely involved in assessing overall national risks and how we deal with risks in government. I am glad to say that, since this Committee’s report some while ago, that has pretty much happened; we are very much at the heart of looking at the overall assessment of government risk.

The final thing is relatively new but it is related. A report on humanitarian disasters by Lord Ashdown recommended to the then Secretary of State in DFID that I should be charged with thinking about how science and engineering could contribute in two ways to dealing with disasters. The first is relatively short term, which is to pull together an assessment across government thinking about two things.

First, we have a well-formed system of dealing with major emergencies, both within the UK and affecting the UK-the Cobra and SAGE advisory system. However, we do not have a system that looks at disasters outside the UK, but it has now been agreed that we should set one up. A classic example of something that we were not involved in but arguably should have been was the flooding in Thailand last year. This group would essentially be in a format that could advise relevant Ministers on the science and engineering implications of particular disasters. For example, we could well have been able to help much more by saying roughly what time the major floods would reach southern Thailand and what the level of problems might be in Bangkok in terms of the interruption to industrial production in the vicinity and so on. That is now happening.

In parallel, in a horizon-scanning way, we are going to meet every three months as a cross-government committee of chief scientists and other senior scientists in government to think where future disasters might happen. Some are fundamentally unpredictable, of course, such as earthquakes or volcanoes.

Graham Stringer: It happens.

Q6 Chair: It happens, but the courts seem to think otherwise.

Sir John Beddington: Yes; I wondered whether I might be asked about that.

Q7 Chair: Let us all agree that it was a pretty daft decision in the Italian court.

Sir John Beddington: I have put out a note to reassure the enormous number of scientific advisers that the Government use to say that it couldn’t happen here-that there is no hope of a criminal prosecution unless you can be shown to have been malicious or mad and that, if there was a civil prosecution, the Government indemnify all their advisers. I put that out via the science media centre this week. Lord May, my predecessor’s predecessor, was rather more fluid in his comments.

Q8 Chair: He used Australian language.

Sir John Beddington: Absolutely. He said that he had not seen such stupidity since the dark ages and the persecution of Galileo. In my current role, I feel that that sort of language is forbidden me.

On the idea of prediction, on the Greek island of Santorini there has been a fair bit of seismic activity, for example, and we are watching it. Indeed, I have had a group of senior scientists advising me on how we could deal with it. Other potential disasters are on a slightly longer time scale. For example, it is quite possible from weather patterns and the expectation of weather patterns to indicate whether we might be looking at some serious famine problems or serious long-term drought. This group will be meeting every three months or so and it will report back to Jon Day’s horizon-scanning centre, which will be part of it. It is quite a good process. It is saying that we have all this talent not only within Departments but institutions such as the Met Office, the British Geological Survey and so on, and we are trying to set it up. I think it will be a process that could be very effective.

The final thing on disasters is that I also commissioned a Foresight report, which will be reporting in the next week or so, on the way in which science and technology can deal with humanitarian disasters over the next 10, 20 or 30 years.

Q9 Chair: My final question before we move on is to look at the relationship between the Government Office for Science and the Comprehensive Spending Review. Is the Government Office for Science informing the spending review, or is it being informed by the outcomes of the spending review-in other words, driven by the Treasury?

Sir John Beddington: Obviously, the main person dealing with that historically was Adrian Smith. I hope that his successor will shortly be announced.

Q10 Chair: There are rumours floating around about possible names. You can’t tell us yet.

Sir John Beddington: I cannot, I regret. I had a rather tough time sitting on the appointment panel, because the final appointment panel was detailed when I was in Japan to talk about nuclear co-operation. I had a glorious day, getting off the plane at half past four in the morning, and finishing the interview by video link at midnight Japan time.

To focus more on your question, I obviously link in very closely with the Science Minister and Adrian Smith on this. It is absolutely essential that somebody in my role plays a role-and I did in the last CSR-of indicating what the evidence was about the importance of this to the economy and on the balance of spending, what the concerns were in the scientific community and, indeed, where the serious opportunities are. I would expect my successor and me to be very strongly involved in all of those discussions.

Ultimately, the decision is going to be about the allocation of money into BIS. As you are aware, we had a flat funding of £4.6 billion in the last spending round, which was ring-fenced. That looked rather good at the time, as inflation was running at less than 1%; I have to say that it doesn’t look so good now, but that is the issue. In short, yes, I will be involved.

Q11 Stephen Mosley: In February, the House of Lords Select Committee published a report on chief scientific advisers, which raised concerns about their status. What actions have you taken since publication of that report?

Sir John Beddington: I recently had a meeting with Lord Krebs, Sir Bob Kerslake and Nick Macpherson. On the basis of that discussion, Sir Bob has written to Lord Krebs to clarify some of the issues. The initial Government response appeared to reject something like eight out of 17 recommendations made by the House of Lords Committee.1 That has pretty much been clarified now. There was a debate on it recently, but I have not had the chance to read the details. However, as I understand it, there was one issue that the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee raised that was still a matter of concern. It was to do with how freely chief scientific advisers can talk. The Government response is that that is covered adequately, but the matter still needs to be resolved. I would probably seek to achieve that by altering the guidelines.

In terms of procedure and the status of CSAs, it has been confirmed in the letter from Sir Bob that CSAs will be appointed at no lower than director level and that some, depending on the Department, will be at director-general level. There are only two chief scientific advisers at permanent secretary level. They are the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, and me. Prior to that, the MOD’s chief scientific adviser was a permanent secretary, but that has been changed, as you are aware, to a director-general appointment. There was some real concern about that, which I shared, as to whether somebody at the rank of D-G would be adequate and able to do the job. I am glad to say that Professor Vernon Gibson, who has been appointed, is an eminent scientist. With early entry to the Royal Society, he is a chemist by background; he then moved to industry, where he was chief chemist for BP for a long time. In a sense, my concern about the downgrading of that role was whether we would get somebody good enough, but I am completely confident that, in appointing Vernon, we have done okay.

The other aspects of the House of Lords recommendations have been pretty much accepted by the Government. I mentioned in my earlier response to the Chair that I will now be responsible for the assessment of the performance of chief scientific advisers. However, the Government have also agreed that it will be absolutely mandatory that I should be involved in all appointments of chief scientific advisers. I will be on the panel for that appointment and involved in detailed discussions. For example, if a Department wants to make an internal appointment rather than an external one, I would be involved at all stages. That is now Government policy.

Q12 Stephen Mosley: On that particular point, the House of Lords report advocated bringing people in from outside the civil service. I know that recently there have been some appointments-for instance, Chris Sharrock at the DCMS-from the civil service. Do you think that there is an increasing trend to appoint from within rather than from outside?

Sir John Beddington: I would like to deal with the DCMS appointment. We do not accept that appointment as chief scientific adviser because it is below the level of director. The appointment is actually a deputy chief scientific adviser in DCMS. At the moment, the DCMS does not have a chief scientific adviser. It is a problem. It is a small Department with 350 civil servants, and I am in discussion with the permanent secretary to see whether there are ways in which we could integrate DCMS and its deputy into the overall CSA network.

The Department has three areas of responsibility that involve serious science. One is obviously the whole broadband issue. The second is to do with taxonomy; the Natural History museum has an enormous amount of highly qualified taxonomists. The third one is more to do with Home Office-related work. I am in discussion with Jonathan on how to do that, but there is also something new.

Q13 Chair: Doesn’t sport count as having a science-?

Sir John Beddington: Sport does. I am sorry, Chair. I omitted that while thinking about it. There is a lot of important sports science too, as you say.

What I am thinking about and will try to develop with the permanent secretary at DCMS is some form of mechanism so that we can have relevant chief scientific advisers who can link in and help. We now also have regular meetings of deputy chief scientists, which are chaired by Claire Craig, my own deputy, and the chap in DCMS attends those meetings.

Q14 Stephen Mosley: Do you think that all Departments fully accept suggestions that you or the relevant CSA make on how to improve the evidence base of their decisions, and are any Departments particularly bad?

Sir John Beddington: I was asked about this recently when I was speaking at the Academy of Medical Sciences. I was asked whether I could think of anything where Government policy was completely at variance with the science. The only one that I could think of was homeopathy; the science is completely clear that it has no scientific underpinning. I was a little unwise when asked what I intended to do about it. I thought it was a private meeting, but it’s now public. I said that I intended to continue being rude and unpleasant about it. That comment was on the front page of The Lancet the following day, so I am not betraying any confidences here.

That is not the only one, but the problem is going to be having a debate about some of the issues. One current issue is whether culling badgers will significantly improve the level of bovine tuberculosis in the country, and there is a debate about that. In a sense, I have said publicly that it is absolutely clear that Ministers need to have very clear evidence of what they might expect from such a culling regime. That, I am completely confident, is there. Then one has some potential discussions about the word "significant" or something like it. That, in a sense, takes us out of science, but that is what we would expect to be the level of reduction in bovine tuberculosis from badger culling.

Q15 Stephen Mosley: On that specific issue, have the Government got it right from your scientific position?

Sir John Beddington: It is extraordinarily difficult. It is quite clear that if you use statistics from a 10-year trial of badger culling, it will point to the fact that, for a token area of about 150 square km, after about nine years you get somewhere between 12% and 16% reduction in the level of bovine tuberculosis in herds. That is after nine years, so the effect is quite clear and reasonably well quantified. The thing that is problematic, to the degree that one could actually improve the situation by substantially changing the regulation of cattle movement, is whether you could improve the situation by farmers taking significantly more biosecurity measures. The answer is yes, you could, but it is not possible to quantify it at the moment.

Q16 Chair: I have no doubt that we shall come back to badgers. You touched on the Council for Science and Technology, which I understand has had some meetings that have involved the Prime Minister. What impact has that had on Government policy over the last 12 months?

Sir John Beddington: I shall step back a little. There was a significant refresh in 2011-12 in terms of new members. It is fair to say that one of the key changes has been significantly more involvement of industrial science and technology experts on the committee. For example, we have Colin Smith, who is the chief engineer at Rolls-Royce. We have Michael Lynch, the chief executive at Autonomy, a company that, as you are well aware, was sold to Hewlett-Packard. We also have Paul Golby, who was recently chief executive of E.ON, and we have Rowan Douglas, who works for one of the major reinsurance companies. That has been a change. We have a lot of very senior vice-chancellors.

Q17 Chair: Has the CST ever changed Government policy?

Sir John Beddington: Absolutely.

Q18 Chair: Please give some examples.

Sir John Beddington: Infrastructure. The CST made a significant recommendation in its report to the Government on infrastructure that was pretty much accepted; and the Treasury has taken over a major infrastructure report. The second was taken on when the current Prime Minister asked CST, at a meeting that we had with him, to look at the potential for using the national health service as an engine of growth. The report on that has been implemented in the new life sciences strategy. Those are two off the top of my head.

We are currently in the process of making a recommendation. We have written to the Prime Minister about how STEM education could be significantly improved. Indeed, I and Dame Nancy Rothwell, my co-chair, and others are meeting Michael Gove next week. It does have an effect.

The other thing is that it is an extraordinarily tough senior body. You have as ex officio members the presidents of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy. Then you have a set of senior vice-chancellors and very senior people from industry. It carries an enormous amount of weight with it. I put a fair bit of resources from the Government Office for Science into the secretariat that supports it. To be honest, I have regrets at leaving my job, but I really will regret not being able to chair that group, because it is so stimulating. Fortunately, for the last seven years my successor has been on the Council for Science and Technology, and I am sure that he will be taking that work forward.

It is quite exciting. Indeed, part of the thinking and discussions about the seminar on advanced materials that we put together for the Prime Minister came very much from discussions within CST. I am quite excited by the way that it is taking things forward. The latest issue that we are looking at, which has the real potential to produce some change, is the way in which post-graduate education operates in the field of health; there are real concerns about that, and we are reflecting upon them. Sir John Tooke, prior to becoming president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, produced quite a detailed report that showed a lot of flaws in how this has been done. Nothing much has happened, but I think that the CST will take it seriously, and Mark Walport has obviously been closely involved with that. That is going to be the next area where we hope to get a change in policy.

The final one-you asked me a leading question, Chair, and I am so excited about what the CST is doing-is that we are just about to write to the Prime Minister on the use of algorithms and mathematics as an engine of growth in the economy. We have some extraordinarily able people. For instance, Mike Lynch sold his company for several billion to Hewlett-Packard, but his company spun out of mathematical work done at the university of Cambridge. We also have Steve Cowley on the committee; he is head of the Culham lab for nuclear fusion. A report will be going to the Prime Minister saying, "We really think that the excellence that we have in mathematics and the writing of computer programs is underutilised as an engine of growth." That will be going to the PM quite soon, and certainly before the end of this calendar year.

I am sorry to bore you all about CST, but there is a lot going on there which is really exciting, and I am sure that Mark will be happy to answer questions after I have gone.

Q19 Stephen Mosley: Over the past year, you have produced three departmental reviews on International Development, Work and Pensions and Defence. After publishing such reports, do you do any follow-up work to make sure that your recommendations are being implemented?

Sir John Beddington: The key thing is that these reports are agreed jointly between the permanent secretaries and me. What you have is a buy-in from the permanent secretary to what the report says. Prior to that, my predecessor at the Government Office for Science would report, for instance, on the first one that I inherited-the Department of Health. There was then a long-term discussion about whether it would accept or reject the points. All the contents of current reports have been agreed with the permanent secretaries of the Departments concerned. We then have a mechanism, after three months and about six to nine months, to review how those things have been implemented. A report on that implementation will go on our website, so it will be up for scrutiny.

Q20 Stephen Mosley: You are portraying quite a positive view of the reviews. In that case, why are you changing it next year? What will the new system look like?

Sir John Beddington: It is the Forth Bridge problem. These reviews take a significant amount of time to do. I streamlined it quite a lot, but it has been a four-year programme to do the reviews because there are 16 or 17 Government Departments. If we do the review in the current way, it is highly likely that the next one-let’s say the Treasury, which we have just done-would not be looked at again for another four years. It is purely a question of resources and the question of the length of time that a review as comprehensive as this will take. We will be happy to share our proposals on a replacement system, which have to be developed with the civil service board and Sir Bob Kerslake.

Q21 Stephen Mosley: Can we have a quick, 30-second review of what the new system will look like?

Sir John Beddington: There would be a whole series of criteria about how evidence is used in policy. There would be criteria about how evidence is gathered. There would be the ability to do analytical work in the Department to answer questions. We would be looking for examples of where science and engineering have played a role in determining policy. We would then get an overall assessment of how well it is integrated within a Department. That would be done by a fairly small team internally within the Government Office for Science working within the Department, but it would also involve external people assessing it and being part of that review.

The current way, by contrast, is that a review team of typically four or five people works quite closely with the CSA and the permanent secretaries or the director-generals with the relevant responsibility for that. It takes four or five months. You have a fairly substantial report, running to 20 or 30 pages at the very minimum, and that is for a Department with relatively little science. It is a bit too cumbersome to operate on. If we had more resources it might be possible to retain that, but the reality is that we don’t, so we are going to make certain that the internal assessment is not just internal but that there is also external assessment of it.

Q22 Stephen Mosley: In terms of the follow-up work that you do, are the results of those reviews published?

Sir John Beddington: Yes. They go on the website.

Q23 Stephen Metcalfe: Good morning, Sir John. When we last met in September last year we encouraged you to publish the figures for the Government Office for Science, which you duly did. Thank you for that. They demonstrate that between 2009-10 and this year you have had an overall reduction of about £2 million.

Sir John Beddington: Yes.

Q24 Stephen Metcalfe: Will you outline what effect that reduction has had and what it is that you are not doing now that you might have been doing before?

Sir John Beddington: We are doing everything that we had said we would do but we are doing it slower. In a sense we have not sunsetted particular activities; we are just taking longer to do them.

In terms of the actual reduction, the programme that I was discussing with Mr Mosley-this is the one where we will be saving a significant number of senior and middle-level staff who work on the current assessment-is where we will be downsizing. Obviously, we are funded from within BIS, but my reporting responsibilities lie outside BIS. So the sort of arrangement that we agreed was that the level of cuts for the Government Office for Science would not be disproportionate to other aspects of the overall operation of BIS, which is a very large Department. We are a pimple on BIS, but it is fair enough that we should take our share of cuts.

Q25 Stephen Metcalfe: Looking at the figures proportionately under the admin heading, it is science in government that is taking a 50% reduction. How is that being managed and to what effect?

Sir John Beddington: The science in government group-I am sorry, but it is not a brilliantly informative title-includes the people involved in the assessment of Departments. That is one of the areas. My own private office was cut by one out of five, a 20% cut, and so on. They are relatively small numbers, obviously, because there are only 70 or so people in the whole Department.

If you look at our annual report and ask what we have been doing, I don’t see that anything we will be doing will be stopped; it will just tend to take a little longer. The only thing that will be stopped is the comprehensive assessment of individual Departments.

Q26 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you see any particular problems in moving forward with this? Will there be any other further reductions in budgets?

Sir John Beddington: We obviously don’t know what the next Comprehensive Spending Review is going to be, so the straight answer is that I don’t know.

You will be unsurprised to hear that Sir Mark Walport posed me a similar question. My expectation is that I don’t see anything dramatic in the immediate future, but it depends what the CSR does and how it works through. The line that I and, I know, Mark will be taking is how critical the Government Office for Science is for ensuring the best possible science and engineering advice in government. In the area of foresight, it really is important that the Foresight team, which is so successful, should, if possible take its fair share of cuts but certainly nothing that would be disproportionate.

Where we have made some savings, and looking to the future that may continue, is in the horizon-scanning centre, which we downsized and linked some of its work in with the Foresight work. As I indicated earlier in my response to the Chair, the fact that it is now going to be a cross-government horizon-scanning group may create the opportunity for some minor saving there, but we will have to explore that.

Q27 Graham Stringer: May I follow up on the other part of Stephen Mosley’s question? I think that everybody on this Committee would agree that homeopathy is a glaring example of Government spending money that is completely unjustified by the science. However, it is not just following policies that are justified by the science but the method of coming to policies that is often an issue. This Committee, in its report on dyslexia about three and a half years ago, criticised the Department for Education on its methodology in assessing how effective its methods were. I think you could look at the development of energy policy and what the facts are; it would be interesting to start with the outcome rather than looking at the details.

I would be interested to hear how involved you have been and what your assessment of those policies is in getting the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Education to use more scientific methods before they come to conclusions.

Sir John Beddington: I have not been involved in any detailed discussions on dyslexia. It was three and a half years ago, and I was relatively new in the job. However, I did a science and engineering review of how evidence was used in the Department for Education. It came out as one of the best users of evidence of all the Departments that were surveyed. The report on that is available on our website if you would like to have a look at it.

In terms of energy, which is so critical to the future-I am not saying that dyslexia is not-I have been involved at a number of levels. Clearly, some of the science and engineering advice that is going into DECC has, in my view, been a little bit flawed. I am therefore largely in agreement with the criticism that the House of Lords made of its work on nuclear. In fact, the Department has basically changed its policy. The original position was that, in a sense, all R and D on nuclear could be purchased from the companies that were going to build the new nuclear power stations, but that omitted so much-and the House of Lords detailed it. I think that the Government have accepted completely the recommendation of the House of Lords. So the work that I am doing on developing an R and D road map for energy is closely involved, and we will be reporting to the Secretary of State for DECC.

On the assessment of overall energy policy, one of the areas that has been guiding DECC is essentially the constraint of the Climate Change Act, which indicates a 34% reduction by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The way that they chose to do that was to develop a very comprehensive calculator, which is actually a large spreadsheet, to look at a set of energy options that would deliver those goals-how much nuclear and, if you don’t have nuclear, how much carbon capture and storage and so on. That was an interesting exercise. I was involved by pulling together a group of external scientists and people from industry to critique that work. We did that over a series of three meetings to get that as best we could.

In parallel, I involved the Energy Technologies Institute, which had been developing something relatively similar but I would argue a little more sophisticated. It was looking at ways to develop an energy pathway that was slightly more sophisticated in trying to optimise costs but which also looked at geographical variations. I arranged for those two groups to meet and then to provide an outcome and some degree of consensus from the two different approaches.

That is quite a lot, but it is very much work in progress. It is complex, and you have completely new things happening. The change of the situation with the development of unconventional gas supplies in the USA has completely changed the picture from two years ago. Gas is now at a very low price, and projections into the future will need some serious consideration.

The other thing in terms of unconventional gas, and one of the concerns raised about its exploitation in the UK was, for example, about earthquakes and so on. I thought that it was really important to have an independent assessment, so I spoke to the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society and asked them to do an independent study of what the environmental impacts of unconventional gas exploration and exploitation might be in the UK. That report is publicly available now, and the very clear message that comes from that is that one could do this in the UK subject to sensible and proper regulation. DECC will make a decision on the basis of that.

The other issue is whether DECC has enough scientists and engineers to address what are quite formidable problems. One movement against the trend, as it were, is that DECC has recruited rather more engineers than scientists. It has recruited a chief engineer and it has a deputy chief scientific adviser to David MacKay. I have been pushing on the personnel level, and that has been successful.

Q28 Graham Stringer: Thank you for that extremely comprehensive answer. I return to badgers. You said that you have communicated the uncertainties and evidence gaps on the effectiveness of badger culling. What are those uncertainties and gaps? Does more work need to be done? Would you find it helpful, and would the Department find it helpful, if this Committee did a short inquiry into the evidence base?

Sir John Beddington: In terms of the gaps and uncertainties, one of the problems has been how to estimate badger populations in a particular area. Some developments that have come out of FERA, which used mark-and-recapture methodology and using the hairs of badgers and DNA techniques, actually seems to have been quite successful. It has resulted in quite a significant increase in estimates of the abundance of badgers in those areas.

The uncertainties probably can’t be resolved immediately. One of the uncertainties is the methodology used in the badger trials, which involved cage trapping and killing the badgers. We know what that methodology was, we know over what period of time it was occurring and to what degree the badger population was reduced. All of that is pretty well documented. Natural fluctuations generate uncertainty, but that is a statistical sign.

The uncertainty that we have here is that the current proposals for night shooting use a different technology and a different technique from those on which the effect of badger reduction was done. It could mean that the effect on bovine TB is better-i.e. more reduction-or it could be less. There is nothing that we can do a priori on that unless one actually tries it.

In terms of your question on whether the Committee could provide some insight, that probably goes beyond my pay grade.

Q29 Graham Stringer: I was not asking for a decision but just whether it would be helpful to you.

Sir John Beddington: There is an awful lot of work going on about badgers at the moment. Because of the decision for a pause, announced by the Secretary of State yesterday, there will be at least eight months to look at some of these issues. In terms of whether it would be entirely helpful to DEFRA, you would have to ask them.

Graham Stringer: My apologies if I might have to leave early.

Sir John Beddington: Don’t worry, Mr Stringer. The question of whether a Select Committee should do something slightly puts it above my pay grade, I’m afraid.

Q30 Hywel Williams: As a Welsh MP, may I ask whether you or anyone else has looked at the experience of badger culling in Wales and the interplay between the scientific advice and the policy decisions taken and then retaken?

Sir John Beddington: The same evidence base is there, but identical evidence has led to different decisions on policy. In terms of my involvement, I spent a fair bit of time when the policy was being developed as a policy proposal in Wales with the chief vet and the chief scientific adviser, and we had a lot of fairly detailed discussions. I made certain that they were aware of the overall literature, which was fairly comprehensive. In a sense, it is an interesting question, because the scientific evidence base has not changed but a different decision has been taken on the basis of it.

Q31 Hywel Williams: It has; it has actually been in the other direction. You have been giving them advice. Are you aware of anybody taking notice of what has happened subsequently?

Sir John Beddington: The decision is taken by the Secretary of State. The evidence base is no different, I would say, to the evidence base available to the Secretary of State and DEFRA.

Chair: That was very diplomatic.

Sir John Beddington: I am learning.

Chair: You’ve only got a few months to go.

Q32 Stephen Metcalfe: You are the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. What would you advise the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to do, based on the evidence that you have seen on badgers?

Sir John Beddington: The answer is that this is the evidence and there are other issues. There is uncertainty in the evidence. The expectation about the level of reduction is reasonably well documented, subject to the uncertainties that I alluded to when answering Mr Stringer. I am not going to take a policy decision on the evidence. I just make certain that the evidence is available, and I am confident that the evidence that is there is available. In a sense, there are other considerations that go beyond pure science-economic, legal and political.

Q33 Chair: We are not doing a badger inquiry this morning.

Sir John Beddington: May I say that the very first question I was asked by this Committee occurred, when I was asked to come before the Committee prior to taking up my appointment, was about badgers? So, plus ça change, as it were.

Q34 Jim Dowd: I am sorry to be late. As a general matter of scientific interest on what you have just said, have you ever heard of a scientist looking at all the evidence and drawing a conclusion?

Sir John Beddington: Oh yes. That is a slightly unfair question. It is quite possible for a scientist to look at the evidence and, on the basis of that, to come to what the best scientific advice is.

Before you arrived, we alluded to the poor Italian scientists who are just starting a six-year jail term. I don’t have the detail of it, but any scientific evidence is going to have some degree of equivocation because there are always some uncertainties to do with it. In terms of the way that scientific advice is used in government, my job is to make certain that the scientific advice is the best that you can get, it’s not distorted or biased and it has been done with the best methodology. After that, I hand over to Ministers to take decisions using the scientific advice but also taking account of other considerations.

Q35 Caroline Dinenage: I take you back to another issue that you mentioned, which was the health issue and particularly homeopathy. As you know, our Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, originally had some unexpected views on homeopathy, but, latterly, however, he says that his views have moved on. I wondered whether the chief scientific adviser for health had had any impact upon that decision to move on in his view.

Sir John Beddington: I can’t answer that question because I don’t know. The chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health is also the Chief Medical Officer, and she and I have identical views on homeopathy. We don’t think that there is any scientific basis for it beyond the placebo effect. Previous Secretaries of State, when both she and I have discussed it, have said that they wished to preserve consumer choice or something like that. I don’t think there is anyone I have encountered within DH in a scientific area who would dispute any views that there is no scientific underpinning of this. Others outside write to me fairly often to say that I am mistaken, but I have yet to see any evidence against it.

Q36 Caroline Dinenage: Mr Hunt also indicated his backing for a 12-week limit on abortions. He said that his backing of the 12-week limit was evidence-based. Was that evidence from his chief scientific adviser? Was the chief scientific adviser for the Department consulted on the matter, or did Mr Hunt get his evidence from elsewhere?

Sir John Beddington: I don’t know. I am more than happy to raise that question with Dame Sally Davies and come back to you with her response, but I just don’t know.

Q37 Caroline Dinenage: Is it particularly difficult to make guidelines on health issues because there is a lot of emotion and personal belief? As with homoeopathy, which many people would swear blind works, is it difficult to make recommendations on health issues because of all those extra matters?

Sir John Beddington: I don’t know that it is any more difficult than in any other field, but the point you make is a good one that it is more emotive. In terms of this particular issue I just don’t know, but Sally Davies and I meet pretty regularly and she attends the Wednesday morning meetings of chief scientific advisers. I am more than happy in a sense to go back to her or maybe you might want to invite her to answer questions herself. Whichever you prefer, we can follow up afterwards. I can write to her and get her response or you may wish to discuss things with her.

Q38 Caroline Dinenage: To your knowledge, there hasn’t been any evidence produced on that subject?

Sir John Beddington: No. I don’t even know if there is such evidence, but I am more than happy to find out and come back to the Committee in writing.

Q39 Hywel Williams: May I ask about changes in the education system and the effect on science teaching-science learning? I think specifically of the E-bac and the development of free schools. What is your opinion of those developments and their impact? Again, as a Welsh MP, I wonder whether anyone is doing a compare and contrast, because it is an E-bac, not a UK-bac, we don’t have free schools in Wales and I don’t think they have them in Scotland either.

Sir John Beddington: The Chair asked me what I had to do before I finished. One thing that I want to do is to have some discussions about a whole series of overlapping responsibilities with the chief scientists in Scotland and Wales. Incidentally, there is some progress on appointing a chief scientific adviser to Northern Ireland, and the interim chief scientific adviser from Northern Ireland attended our chief scientists’ meeting about three or four weeks ago. That is work in progress.

In terms of mainstream education, I am happy to explore it, but I need to have discussions with the other chief scientists and also with Carole Willis, the chief scientist in the Department for Education, but that has not been done yet, Mr Williams, I’m afraid.

Q40 Hywel Williams: Do you know if the education chief scientific adviser was consulted about the proposed changes and the changes to the education system?

Sir John Beddington: I can’t answer that at the moment, I’m afraid.

Q41 Hywel Williams: It is a matter of detail, but are there requirements on free schools in terms of the science curriculum? You could write to us if necessary.

Sir John Beddington: As I said earlier, we have made some recommendations to the Prime Minister on the whole issue of STEM education. There are some really quite difficult problems here. For example, we know that there is an enormous under-representation of girls who study physics and, in consequence, an under-representation in engineering. What is the appropriate age to get people interested? The appropriate way in which one can ensure it is a hard problem and I don’t have any glib answer to it, but it is fair to say that it is a lot to do with inspiration.

We have quite a good system of putting STEM ambassadors into schools. We don’t know whether there is a causal mechanism, but there has been an increase in the number of students taking A-levels in cross-science subjects. There is an attempt to stimulate that through incentives to teachers to go in and do that, but I wonder whether there is not more that could be done. I am sure that there is definitely a Brian Cox phenomenon. The programmes that he made about the universe and so on are certainly temporarily correlated with the change in the number of people wanting to go on to do science at university.

The other thing is that, if one looks at the statistics, the decline in all students wanting to do science and engineering has stopped, and in some cases it has reversed. I was recently in Germany, where they have almost the same problem. I was in Australia about a week ago, and they have the same problem. They were saying to me, "Have you got any bright ideas about how we could reverse this trend?" I said, "Frankly, no." It is a difficult problem, and it has to be solved if we are going to move forward in an appropriate way as a country.

Q42 Stephen Metcalfe: There is a bit of a time limit-time marches on-but I have a number of questions. However, they all revolve around the value of chief scientific advisers, both to the public and to the Government, on how the Government form policy. This Committee expressed concern about the lack of involvement of the chief scientific adviser at the Home Office when the decision to close the Forensic Science Service was made. Do you believe that, during your period in office, that situation has improved, and that particular specific situation regarding the Forensic Science Service would not happen again?

Sir John Beddington: I couldn’t say that that wouldn’t happen again, but what has happened is that the profile of chief scientific advisers as a whole has risen up in government. Let’s think about some controversy-where there is, in a sense, a concern, such as climate change, for example. I would write to the Prime Minister about it and say that it was the completely consensus view of the chief scientific officers across government that climate change is happening, that it is being driven by man, and of course there are uncertainties and so on. That would be really useful.

The other thing is that these improvements go step by step. We now have John Perkins as a senior engineer in BIS. We have Rod Smith as the Chief Scientific Adviser in the Department for Transport. We have just appointed a new chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence. We are just recruiting a new chief scientific adviser for the Foreign Office. When I first took up this job, there was quite a lot of resistance to the ubiquitous nature of chief scientific advisers in all Departments, but that is now much easier.

In terms of the sort of agenda that happens, it is not very visible. Policies were always assessed in terms of their viability by economists and lawyers. We are relevant now; policies are pretty much assessed by the chief scientific advisers in the relevant Departments. As I say, it’s not that visible because these tend to be discussions among officials and so on, but, again, I can’t see any major act of policy where I felt that the scientific advice was either completely ignored or where a policy went against such advice.

Q43 Stephen Metcalfe: Other than the Forensic Science Service, presumably.

Sir John Beddington: The Forensic Science Service is debatable. What you have seen subsequently is that all the recommendations that Bernard Silverman made seem to have been accepted and that everything has been done in terms of ensuring the quality of forensic science. The decision to close it was taken, as far as I can remember, on the basis of finance. Neither Bernard nor I were consulted. I was told that it was happening. I asked, "If it’s happening, can you make certain of the following?"

Q44 Stephen Metcalfe: But the clue was kind of in the name-the Forensic Science Service. The scientific adviser should have been involved in that, if only to say, "I don’t see an impact on the science."

The other issue that I want to touch upon is this. When we did our investigation into the use of scientific advice in emergencies, we talked about a national risk assessment. Are you now more engaged in the process of a national risk assessment? There has been a period of time that it has taken to draw up the new guidelines regarding SAGE.

Sir John Beddington: Yes. The short answer is that pretty much all the recommendations of this Committee have been implemented. Indeed, Christina Scott and I were in front of this Committee some months ago and we indicated quite how we had done. That is actually happening. There is a clear process of interaction with individual departmental chief scientific advisers in developing the national risk assessment.

In addition, because of the way we are doing it-I am trying to do something rather more comprehensive and it won’t be finished before I leave office, but I am sure that Mark will follow on with it-we need to be rather more proactive. For example, if we have some emergency-the last one was the Fukushima issue-it was almost happenstance that I had been working in nuclear and was able immediately to pull together appropriate people to comment on the meteorology, the epidemiology and so on.

It would be very hard to do that for some of the risks on a national risk register on day one. In a sense, my officials are developing this in order to pull groups together. There are obviously key people within Government and key Government Departments and so on, but we are also looking to independent people from academe and industry that we would want to be able to call on for SAGE.

My idea is that we would, from time to time, have a tabletop exercise on that. For example, one of the new issues that have come on to the risk register is space weather events. I have been pushing that for some while, and it is now accepted and is now there as part of the national risk register. I ran a tabletop exercise on the timing if we were to have a space weather event and how we would mitigate it with the national grid. At the request of the Prime Minister, I am embarking on a rather larger tabletop exercise that, if there is a space weather event, how that would affect not just the electricity in the grid but also communications, air travel and so on. That is work in progress, but it was really helpful to have this Committee’s assessment because it posed the question. As soon as you said it, people said, "Yes, of course we should be much more involved." We now have that process in place.

The issues are quite fundamental. At the moment, I am launching the Foresight report on computer trading. Financial crashes happen, but can we mitigate them? Should a significant financial crash be on a national risk register? You wouldn’t necessarily have scientists and engineers, but should that be there? Should that be gamed? That is a question for a chief scientist at the Treasury or something of that sort.

Q45 Stephen Metcalfe: You mentioned Fukushima. The danger with communicating risk to the public is that they need a clear understanding of where the risks lie and what the dangers are.

We have just done a report on energy risks, and our conclusions there were that the communication of the risk was particularly good and that one named person was communicating this in a sensible and rational way. We made that recommendation to the Government in our report and they have kind of rejected that; they don’t see the necessity for one named person to take on the responsibility of communicating risk at a time of crisis. Do you agree with that, or do you think that there is a role for a single named person to take on this responsibility during a crisis?

Sir John Beddington: I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all here. Let me take the example of Fukushima. My job was to communicate risk essentially to the British community in Japan. I didn’t do that on my own. I was the named figure, but I had also somebody from the Department of Health and somebody from the Health Protection Agency with me on the phone calls and in discussions with the community, because they knew more about it and could answer in more depth. Communication there was better coming from a team of three than from John Beddington, who had been boning up on some of the health issues.

I have not looked at whether there should be a single person communicating risk in other areas. For example, on climate change, it probably should not be one person because of the scepticism that is rife in some quarters on that. You should have 10 or a dozen senior people saying, "Look, this is there. This is a problem. This is a risk." Just saying, "Who is going to communicate on climate change? It will be David MacKay because his Department is Energy and Climate Change" would not be anything like as good as having senior academics, people from industry and people from government like me communicating it. I hadn’t really thought about it, but that is my instant response.

Q46 Chair: There appears to be a difference in your thinking about the handling of an ongoing emergency versus a longer-term strategic issue such as climate change. Perhaps you would like to give some thought to the Government’s response on that and communicate it to the relevant people who wrote that response.

Sir John Beddington: I am unsighted on that; I must go back to my homework.

Chair: I appreciate that. Sir John, I am extremely grateful for your time this morning. We hope to see you again before your departure. I thank you very much for your very frank evidence this morning.


[1] The response accepted in full eight of the nineteen recommendations. Others were partially accepted.

Prepared 23rd November 2012