UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 10 52 -ii

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

science and technology Committee

WORK OF THE GOVERNMENT CHIEF SCIENTIFIC ADVISER

wEDNESday 24 APRIL 2013

SIR MARK WALPORT

Evidence heard in Public Questions 38 - 70

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 24 April 2013

Members present:

Andrew Miller (Chair)

Jim Dowd

Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Mosley

Pamela Nash

Graham Stringer

David Tredinnick

Hywel Williams

Roger Williams

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, gave evidence.

Q38Chair: Good morning, Sir Mark, and welcome here in your new role. You have been before us several times. You are coming before us in a fairly important week in terms of science. Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson and the work of Rosalind Franklin, about which I am tabling a motion this evening on behalf of a number of Members of the House. It is an anniversary that we ought to recognise because of the quality of British science that they established, which has been followed on by many other people since. There will be an early-day motion of some import-I hope you will agree on that-tabled this evening.

You have been shadowing Sir John for a little while, and now you have formally got hold of the reins. Perhaps you could start off by telling us why you wanted the job.

Sir Mark Walport: I wondered whether you would ask that question first. First, thank you for seeing me. I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor Sir John Beddington, who could not have been more helpful in providing induction and background during the transition between our roles.

The reason I wanted to do the job is that science, engineering, technology and social science-because that is where my advice is important-are integral to best policy making across all aspects of government. It is an important and challenging task, but it is one that I very much wanted to take on.

If it would be helpful, I could go on to set out what I think my five priorities are looking forward for the next few years.

Chair: Yes.

Sir Mark Walport: To amplify the point, I think everyone here would agree that science-I am going to use the word "science", but throughout I am referring to science, engineering, technology and social science-is important in almost all aspects of the things that are important to government. In terms of the economy, our well-being as citizens, which is critically dependent on our infrastructure-by which I mean both our human-made infrastructure and also our natural infrastructure, the environment-and in the management of emergencies, in every case science is absolutely crucial in terms of analysis and providing the best advice.

Taking those areas in turn, in relation to the economy, an important part of my role and the excellent Government Office for Science, which I inherit-I have been very impressed by the team working there-is to bring together science in industry, academia and government to make sure that we get the best pull-through from the very strong research base that you alluded to in your introductory remarks and to make sure that it has the maximum impact in terms of the economy and growth. In the case of our infrastructure, both human and natural, science is critical to that. If you look at our infrastructure-energy, communications, transport and the natural environment-science is very important, and I will be doing a lot of work on issues of resilience and making sure that we have an infrastructure that is fit for purpose.

Harking back to my previous job as director of the Wellcome Trust, one of the privileges of that was to work to support research in the developing world. You rapidly realise that one of the key differences between the developing and developed world is that, when you probe infrastructure, which we all take completely for granted, it is remarkably fragile. You see what can happen to sophisticated infrastructure when, for example, storm Sandy hit New York and hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. You see that those things that you take for granted break down very rapidly, so there is a big task there.

The third task is around emergencies, where, again, my predecessor set up very good structures for feeding advice into government through SAGE-the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. One of the things that I had the opportunity to take part in before I started the job was a national contingency exercise in which I saw how science is taken seriously during emergencies and the mechanisms through which it feeds into government.

There is then a fourth and fifth role. The fourth role is about making sure that both quantitative and qualitative analyses are used as effectively and rigorously as possible in government policy making and in the application of government policies. Fifthly, there is an important leadership role.

To finish my introductory remarks, I think that my role and that of the Government Office for Science is as strong as the advice we are able to receive. I am also impressed by the network of chief scientific advisers across Government Departments and, indeed, the interactions that I have with the outside community. Scientists in the learned academies have been extremely supportive-I have met with all of them-but also scientists across government. The Government Science and Engineering network, which Sir John Beddington did an enormous amount of work in setting up and is starting to build, is a very important resource, but then there are many scientists outside in both academia and industry. It is a big and challenging task, but I am looking forward to it.

Q39Chair: How you influence Ministers and the Prime Minister is an interesting relationship. Over the last couple of years in the Liaison Committee I have quizzed the Prime Minister a couple of times on his engagement with your predecessor. At the most recent one he is on record, in a quite helpful way, in agreeing with me that-I paraphrase-should there be a dispute between scientific advice and a ministerial decision on a policy matter, it was appropriate that the Minister should explain very clearly why they were taking a different line from the scientific advice. Going back to the Professor Nutt saga in the previous Administration, that would clear the air for a more honest and robust relationship between Ministers and chief scientists. When did you most recently meet the Prime Minister, and what did you discuss in terms of the science agenda?

Sir Mark Walport: I most recently met the Prime Minister in the context of the CST meeting held approximately six weeks ago, when CST business in general was talked about. I have a date in my diary to meet the Prime Minister in my new role in the next month, and I am looking forward to full conversations with him.

On the general question, I am very clear that the role of the government chief scientific adviser is to provide the best scientific advice, but ultimately it is for us to communicate that in a transparent way, and there may well be other considerations, including political considerations and others, which will determine how the political decision eventually goes. It is about establishing the dividing line between the scientific advice and the decision that is then taken. What you described before is a clear policy that emerged after the issue over the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. That is written down and codified; I hope that it will be taken very seriously, and I believe it will be.

Q40Chair: The most important word you used in that response was "transparency".

Sir Mark Walport: Yes. Scientific advice should be transparent as far as is possible. There will, of course, be circumstances in which that is not possible, for reasons of security and also sometimes when the advice is emerging and it is very important not to scaremonger. If one is working out what the reasonable worst case scenarios are, I think there is a timing question in the advice as well, but when the advice is mature, it should be exceptional that that advice is not made transparent.

Q41David Tredinnick: Sir Mark, moving on, in March of this year the Government announced the creation of a new network of evidence centres for social policy, based on the NICE model-the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence-to look at areas of crime reduction, local economic growth, ageing better and early intervention. How will these What Works evidence centres and the national adviser overseeing them work alongside you and the existing scientific advisory structure?

Sir Mark Walport: There are all sorts of operational institutions within and outside government that are conducting and leading some of the experimental work. The important thing here is recognition of experimental work in social science and that controlled trials can be applied to areas other than clinical trials, which is where they emerged in the first place. I welcome the fact that there is more systematic evidence being collected in support of the development of policy. That has to be a good thing. I have not met that team yet; I will be meeting them, but it makes complete sense. Ben Goldacre in the Department for Education has been providing advice on how controlled trials can be conducted in the field of education as well, and I welcome that. The more general point is that social science is an integral part of science advice. There are social scientists throughout the Government Science and Engineering network, and I am looking forward to continuing to support the social science agenda.

Q42David Tredinnick: One of Goldacre’s points is that evidence is often withheld in trials and there should be a very wide release of evidence. Is that something you have taken into consideration?

Sir Mark Walport: Absolutely. Obviously, my background has been in clinical work where the vast majority of clinical controlled trials are conducted. There is a strong move beginning to come from industry and the European Medicines Agency that is heading in the right direction.

Q43David Tredinnick: The Government have said it is the first time a national Government have tried to put evidence at the heart of decision making so visibly. Does the creation of these What Works centres indicate a failure of the existing scientific advisory system?

Sir Mark Walport: No, I don’t think so; I think it represents an evolution of it, actually. There are very many areas of policy that would be well informed by proper experimental studies, but one of the challenges and one of the things that medical research has illustrated is that doing rigorous controlled studies is demanding; it can take a long time to get an answer-in some cases years and years-and it costs a lot of money. It is not just a question of doing it; it is a question of doing it well. I will be looking at all of that because I am much more concerned about function than about form, and it is about making sure that all of these organisations do their work extremely well.

Q44David Tredinnick: Do we need a Government chief social scientist, and what should be their role?

Sir Mark Walport: The short answer is that we need a diversity of scientific expertise across the chief scientist network. This is something that I have discussed with Bob Kerslake. We have agreed that scientists, in a sense, have two roles. I brought with me photos of all the chief scientists. We have distinguished engineers, statisticians, chemists and medics, and among those we need someone who is a distinguished social scientist. We will work as a network of experts, and each of the CSAs will have a departmental role but will bring their expertise to bear across government. As a specific example, Robin Grimes, the newly appointed chief scientist at the FCO, is a very distinguished nuclear scientist, and I and my colleagues will rely on his nuclear expertise across government. That is the right way. We could end up with a chief this, chief that and chief everything else. Again, the issue is function and not form.

Q45David Tredinnick: You do not want too many chiefs and too few Indians.

Sir Mark Walport: You use that metaphor.

David Tredinnick: We are not allowed to use that any more.

Sir Mark Walport: I want a network of expertise with people contributing to their maximum ability.

Q46Stephen Metcalfe: The previous spending review was generally welcomed by the scientific community. Another one is looming large-indeed, coming over the horizon. What will be your role in that?

Sir Mark Walport: I have an important role, which I think is in bringing it all together. John O’Reilly clearly has responsibility for the research base, the research councils and TSB. Chief scientists in individual Departments have responsibility for their own R and D budgets-for example, Vernon Gibson in the MOD, Sally Davies in the Department of Health and Chris Whitty in DFID-but my role is to bring it all together. It is absolutely clear that, if we are to have the best evidence informing policy, we need adequate spending in terms of the basic science and also the feed-through of that science into the advice that individual Departments need for Government policy. That is about the R and D within each Department and the analysis. As you know, I have only been in the role for just over three weeks, but I am intending to explore in some detail not only the quantum of the R and D budgets but what they are used for.

Q47Stephen Metcalfe: That is an important point, and I will come back to it in a minute. You think that your role will be to bring people together rather than to champion and promote.

Sir Mark Walport: I will certainly be doing that. No, I certainly will be championing and promoting. My role is to be at one level catalytic and make sure it is all joined up and, yes, it is to present the overall case.

Q48Stephen Metcalfe: For a reasonable settlement.

Sir Mark Walport: For the best possible settlement that we can get.

Q49Stephen Metcalfe: You talked about the departmental scientific advisers. Do you have any role in influencing their spend and how that money is allocated?

Sir Mark Walport: The short answer is that I work closely with them. When asked, I will help them to prepare their case. If I see that there is an issue, I might challenge. I am very concerned that Departments have the R and D budgets that enable them to collect the evidence, and commission the evidence where it is lacking, to make the best policy. I will certainly be involved in the machinery behind all of this, but I want to understand what lies behind the numbers.

Q50Stephen Metcalfe: My final question is about the Haldane principle. There is a suggestion that that has been eroded. Could you comment on that? How do you see the Haldane principle working in your short time in role?

Sir Mark Walport: I have taken the precaution of reading the whole of the Haldane report, and the other day I bought a copy of it on eBooks. We will make the whole report available on the Government Office for Science website. It is an extremely interesting report on the machinery of government by the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1918. It is well worth reading because it sets out a lot of good principles about governance. It may take us to an area that we will come back to, which is that it is important to look backwards in order to look forwards, although it is very important not to separate the two.

The Haldane principle is reasonably clear. I am not sure that there is clear evidence that it has been eroded. The ring fence has been maintained. There has always been an interplay between the research councils and Departments. Having been involved in the leadership of a very independent research funding agency, I know that funding the best science always involves a mixture of top-down and bottom-up research. Obviously I will be very alert to the independence of the research councils being damaged in any way, but I do not agree that the Haldane principle has been subverted actually.

Q51Stephen Metcalfe: But you do see it as an important principle.

Sir Mark Walport: There is a very important principle that people should not delve into the ultimate decisions as to which grants should be funded. That is the key element of the Haldane principle; it is not about interfering in individual grants. In terms of programmatic support by research councils, there is always a dialogue between them as to how much should go to which research council, and there must be a dialogue as to what areas are supported. If one takes emerging scientific challenges-for example, influenza, which has been and will continue to be a big issue with H7N9 influenza emerging in China-it would be very odd if there was not some pressure to fund that as an area of science.

Q52Stephen Metcalfe: So the theming process is fine but not the maintaining of direct grant.

Sir Mark Walport: When it comes down to whether x or y should get a grant, that is where the Haldane principle is absolutely important. The decision has to be made absolutely on the basis of the quality of the investigator, and that is not something where people should interfere.

Q53Graham Stringer: What lessons have you learned from the MMR controversy?

Sir Mark Walport: MMR was about a very bad piece of science in the first place, and then it was about bad reporting. The core of it is to make sure that we are rigorous in the science we support but also, importantly, in the communication of the science we support. MMR illustrates some of the challenges of the best communication of science. The review of the BBC science reporting by Steve Jones was at least in part stimulated by that, and that resulted in new guidelines. It is somewhat poignant that we have an outbreak of measles in several parts of the country, and it is a very good illustration of how we easily forget when vaccines demonstrate what they are supposed to do, which is to protect the population against disease. If you stop using vaccines, those diseases recur, so again it is about excellent communication.

Q54Graham Stringer: You say it was bad science, and there is no doubt about it that it was bad science, but it was a journalist who exposed Wakefield rather than scientists via peer review. Are you not letting science off the hook? Is there not something to be learned about how the scientific community should have dealt with that bad science?

Sir Mark Walport: There was an enormous amount of scientific criticism at the time, so the community responded very rapidly. This could become a discussion on the peer review process. Indeed, I have probably talked to this Committee before about peer review. The issue of peer review is that it is no more and no less than expert review; it is about reviewing science before it is published to do the best one possibly can to make sure the science is well done, that the results are meaningful and that the conclusions are justified by the experimental evidence. Sadly, from time to time that will go wrong-it is as good as the people who do it-but the process is probably the best one can have.

I do not know whether we are going to get into open access, but the more openly science is communicated, the more the scientific community weigh in after science is published. That is one of the challenges. Peer review works pretty well before, but it needs to happen after the science is published as well. I do not think it is a question of letting the scientific community off the hook, because the scientific community exposed the fact that that science was wrong very quickly-pretty much within months after it was published. I do not think that was the issue.

Q55Graham Stringer: It did take The Lancet nearly 10 years to retract.

Sir Mark Walport: That is a different discussion. The scientific community had exposed the fact that those data were not supported by the evidence long before that.

Q56Graham Stringer: On a different point, there are problems with rare diseases and getting new treatments to be passed. I am thinking of Duchenne muscular dystrophy particularly, but it would apply to other rare diseases as well. Where there is such a small number of patients it is very difficult to get from phase II to phase III trials. Would you considering recommending that in the case of rare diseases you do not need the phase III trials?

Sir Mark Walport: There is a great deal of discussion about this. Dame Sally Davies is the CMO and this is primarily her policy area. I do happen to be a medic and I will comment on it, but my remit is across the whole of science. In that specific area two things are happening at the moment. First, there is a great deal of interest in rare diseases. They are important in their own right but also because understanding rare diseases tells one about common diseases as well. It is not that there is not a lot of research into rare disease.

There is also a great deal of discussion about modernising the licensing process, and quite a lot of work is going on on adaptive licensing. One of the challenges of a rare disease is that, because it is rare, you cannot do a phase III study of the size you would do with hypertension or stroke. We are moving in the right direction; indeed, therapies that have big effects do get licensed reasonably effectively. You identify an important problem and one that the community is working on actively, but I would encourage you to talk to the CMO about this as well.

Q57Graham Stringer: You have said some interesting things about climate change since you have been appointed. There are two questions, I suppose. First, what responsibility do you feel you have for communicating issues to do with global warming? Secondly, can you define "climate change" for the Committee? This is a real question. In a study we are doing at the moment we found it difficult to come to a definition.

Sir Mark Walport: The challenge is to distinguish between climate and weather, and that has been particularly challenging over the last month or two. To turn to your first question, I and my colleagues have an important role in communicating what is a difficult issue to communicate. During my first two weeks, I have already been to the Met Office and I visited the Hadley Centre. There is no question that the quality of the science at the Met Office and Hadley Centre is absolutely world class. I have had other meetings, so I am working on this and on communication.

Climate is the long-term atmospheric conditions under which the planet lives and everything else that goes with that. Weather is the fluctuation within that climate, which fluctuates in time and in space, as it were, geographically. The fluctuations in weather are very large indeed and, therefore, to some extent in the short term can considerably conceal long-term changes in climate. But I am absolutely clear that there are long-term changes in climate and that human beings have dumped carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in enormous amounts. The temperature is rising; sea levels are going up consistently; but, on top of that, there are major fluctuations in weather.

Q58Jim Dowd: You have referred to this already in response to the Chair and to Graham. You mention that you should provide the best scientific advice to Government and in the most transparent way possible.

Sir Mark Walport: Indeed.

Jim Dowd: Should the Government publish all the scientific advice they use in determining policy?

Sir Mark Walport: The answer is wherever possible. It should be exceptional that they do not publish it. But there are exceptional circumstances, and security would be an obvious example where it would be inappropriate to publish it. I have said this already, but it should be normal for that evidence to be published. The best way to communicate is if the evidence is symmetrically available so that everyone can scrutinise it.

Q59Jim Dowd: So we take the position that everything is made public except in extremis. You mentioned security.

Sir Mark Walport: The other qualification, which I made before, is about interim data. One does not want to put out things that turn out to be incomplete or wrong. Work should be allowed to be properly completed before it is published.

Q60Jim Dowd: But that is more about the veracity of the advice that is offered, and what you are saying is that you should not reach a conclusion before you have the evidence to support a conclusion.

Sir Mark Walport: Yes.

Q61Jim Dowd: That is a perfectly reasonable position, but would it inhibit the advice that you offer to Government, for example, were the default position to be that it will all be made public?

Sir Mark Walport: No, I do not believe so. There will often be circumstances in which I have to provide advice in the context of partial information. To some extent I will probably see some of that information in advance of its publication, but normally it should be expected that the scientific evidence will be made transparently available.

Q62Jim Dowd: One other related area is the use of information from medical records for research. The Government are proceeding on that with an opt-out for individuals, on whatever grounds they choose. First, do you think that is a reasonable approach? Secondly, if that opt-out were to be utilised widely, would it harm research?

Sir Mark Walport: I will give you the scientific answer, because I believe I can tell you the science and it is then for the politicians to work out the policy. The question is: what is the importance of the aggregation and use of medical records in collective form? The answer is that it is all about delivering better health care. If we want to deliver the best care, and analyse and hold the system to account as to whether people are receiving the best health care, the only way we can do that is by using clinical data.

It is extremely important that the privacy of individuals is respected. We would all expect that; I do not think any of us would be happy to find our medical records available on the internet, either legally or illegally. So that is extremely important, but the science enables much more effective pseudonymisation-in other words, key linkage-of records than was ever possible before. I previously produced a report for an earlier Government with Richard Thomas, the information commissioner. We recommended that safe havens be used as an environment, so not only would you code the data but you would make it available in a secure environment, and there would be severe penalties for people who abused the data. In terms of the opt-in/opt-out, I believe that ultimately that is a political decision. My advice stops at setting out the merits of the use of clinical information, and ultimately it is all about delivering the best care.

Q63Chair: I understand the point you are making. It is a political decision; it is also a leadership one within the medical profession, isn’t it?

Sir Mark Walport: Yes, I agree with that, and it is very important that the profession both understands and communicates the benefits of the best use of it. We are getting into a discussion about the best use of data for the development of policy. Clinical data is a subset of a whole range of datasets that are extremely important. The climatic datasets are extremely important as well. We have seen the downside of a lack of transparency, and we have moved to a much better position. We simply cannot have the best policy if we cannot measure what we are doing. So it is about accountability and the delivery of better standards of care.

For example, evidence from the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham shows that, by using prescription data in real time properly, they have been able to reduce prescription errors very dramatically. Why would we not use the best information? In Scotland, they have demonstrated that by integrating patient records between primary and secondary care in diabetes, they have reduced amputation rates and laser eye surgery by up to 40%.

Again, I do not want to get too tramlined into health. Health is an important part of my role, but it is not the only part. The more general point is that we have to be transparent about data and use it effectively. One important point about data is that people confuse it with information and knowledge. There is a big difference. Data without the metadata-the information that enables people to interpret it-is of minimal value. The challenge is to turn data into information that can be used to aggregate that information into knowledge, and then even that is not sufficient: we have to apply the knowledge.

Q64Stephen Mosley: Reading your CV, I was interested that you have quite a long history of interest in science education, including chairing the group in 2010 that produced the report "Science and Mathematics: Secondary Education for the 21st Century". How effective do you think the Department for Education is in listening to scientific advice? From your own experiencing in producing the 2010 report, were you listened to?

Sir Mark Walport: The short answer is that, if you look at all of the trends, they are moving in the right direction. If you take physics, where there are still some big challenges-I would not for a second say that the problem is solved-in 2009, 29,400 students did A-levels, and in the subsequent three years the figures were 31,000, 32,800 and 34,500, so there is a systematic tick-up in the number of people taking the rigorous, tough science A-levels.

There is a general sense that there has been much more public communication and engagement. Surveys show that young people are more interested in science than they ever were. In terms of the Department and evidence, Carole Willis, the chief scientist who is head of analysis in DFE, is having a substantial impact. The Department called in Ben Goldacre to give advice in the area of controlled trials. He has just reported, but I think his advice will be taken seriously. The evidence is that this is going in the right direction, but it is a work in progress and we have a lot to do.

I think everyone would agree that the scientific pipeline is absolutely crucial, and we have to act across a very broad sphere of activity. It is about communicating to young people the potential that careers in science give them-that science is a training for life. In many ways, you could argue that the two most important skills that come out of education are numeracy and literacy. If you are numerate and literate, most doors are open to you. Therefore, the challenge is to make sure that people get the best education, but there is a lot to do. It is ongoing, and it is an area where the Government Office for Science has an interest. The Council for Science and Technology has reported to the Prime Minister and met Michael Gove, Secretary of State, on the subject of science education and was well received.

Q65Stephen Mosley: Just this week we have had the announcement of the new technical baccalaureate. Is that a step in the right direction?

Sir Mark Walport: The Royal Academy of Engineering is working on the engineering side of that. It is about recognising that there is a very broad range of scientific careers. I cannot comment on the details of that, but, in general terms, the direction of travel is increasing the profile of STEM education. At the end of the day, it is about making sure that there are the best teachers and that they are able to work within a framework of a curriculum and examination system that allows them to provide the best education.

Q66Stephen Mosley: That neatly moves on to a question that we received from Twitter. We have had people tweeting in questions while we have been here.

Sir Mark Walport: While we have been here-gosh, real time!

Stephen Mosley: Do frequent changes in science education policy make it difficult for teachers and schools to focus on teaching?

Sir Mark Walport: We have to focus on the direction of travel and the seriousness with which science education is taken in the Department. We have to go in the right direction. It goes back to a point that I made earlier. When one starts doing proper, rigorous controlled studies-and education is an area where they can be done-they take time; they cannot be done overnight. Medicine realised very early on that, in order to be adequately powered, clinical trials had to be quite large. For example, I am aware there is a trial going on at the moment of science specialist input into primary education. It is a cluster randomised trial. It will take time to deliver its results, but the challenge for science education starts in primary school, where, sadly, there is all too little scientific expertise among the profession at that stage.

Q67Stephen Mosley: You seem to be reading my mind because another Twitter question that came in was-

Sir Mark Walport: That is not science, I don’t think.

Stephen Mosley: -how much difference would it make if primary schools had access to specialist science teachers.

Sir Mark Walport: There is a specific study looking to see whether adding specialist science input into primary education improves the outcome. It is an important question and it is being examined, but I think everyone would agree that people form their impressions of subjects and their enthusiasms for, or allergies to, subjects at a very early stage. There is nothing like good teaching to excite one, and I am afraid the corollary is true as well.

Q68Chair: During last week I was privileged to go to a public engagement lecture organised by the Engineering Professors’ Council Congress at which Jim AlKhalili spoke. He talked about some of the figures that you have just mentioned, for example, in physics. Putting it bluntly, he was basically saying it was not policy that made those figures go in the right direction but the cool image of some physicists. He mentioned the BBC’s use of great people like Magnus Pyke, all the way through to Brian Cox these days. He suggested that Brian Cox might have had more to do with those physics numbers than any policy did.

Sir Mark Walport: I would challenge Jim AlKhalili to provide the evidence that that is the case.

Chair: I would like to see the opposite evidence.

Sir Mark Walport: Let me make a more serious point. I think that attributing specific causes to policy effects is very difficult. There have been very broad interventions, ranging from the provision of continuous professional development through the National Science Learning Centre and the networks, so improving teaching. There has been a lot of work on this, and disentangling cause and effect is extremely difficult. It is about the charisma of the people who communicate the science, but at least as much of that is in the school and in the home. I am delighted at the impact and skill of our excellent science presenters in the media. The policy changes are in part attributable to that, but it would be challenging to provide rigorous evidence one way or the other.

Q69Stephen Mosley: On a slightly different topic, you mentioned the media when you answered Mr Stringer’s question about MMR and the argument in the press. One of my concerns is that the BBC, in particular, always seems to take a neutral stance on things. If you have an argument, it wants to put two sides-for and against. It almost treats those arguments as equal, even if one side might have a huge amount of scientific evidence and the other might not. Have you any thoughts or concerns about that?

Sir Mark Walport: The short answer is that I believe there has been a change. There was something Steve Jones picked up in his report, and I believe the BBC have responded to it. They have appointed a science editor in David Shukman. The quality of professional science journalism has become very much higher in recent years. I would pay tribute to the Science Media Centre, which has had a powerful effect as well. The quality of science journalism is very high indeed. Sometimes it goes wrong when it gets into the hands of journalists with other interests.

Q70Chair: Going on to another topic, you will have a very large responsibility in tying together some of the strands of Government thinking that impact upon the future science population. One important part of that is greater encouragement for women to join the science and engineering community. What do you see your relationship being with WISE, the Athena SWAN Group, ScienceGrrl and some of the more active groups working in this field? How do you see you can help them in their quest?

Sir Mark Walport: Through my previous work, I have had a lot of contact. It was an issue that the Wellcome Trust was very concerned about as well. It clearly is an issue. We have to learn from the successful examples as well. It is interesting, for example, that one school-Simon Langton-made such a major contribution to the entry of physics undergraduates from a girls’ school. Some of that must have been about the charisma and leadership provided. It is a multifactorial problem, and it is a very important issue. I applaud the work of all the organisations that are working in that field. I will support them. I think this is a very important issue.

More work is needed to understand what is going on as well, because the entry rates in terms of gender-there are all sorts of diversity issues-are improving in most of the hard sciences. They have quite a way to go in some fields compared with others. Biology is doing very well; chemistry is doing moderately well; physics is doing somewhat less well; and some branches of engineering are doing better than others. It is also about retention of that diversity after people have qualified, which is an important issue. We have to understand the motivations in terms of the choices people make.

Chair: Sir Mark, we are conscious that you have another engagement at the Cabinet Office, and we want to make sure that you keep science at the forefront there. Thank you very much for your attendance this morning. We look forward to meeting you again over your time in office, and we hope to have the kind of constructive relationship that we had with your predecessor. Thank you for attending.

Prepared 2nd May 2013