|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Lord, Lord, Crisp, emphasised the importance of the impact of the research on services and, more particularly, on the National Health Service. That is an important consideration not only for the services to be provided but for the architecture of services which need to be planned and developed over the next 10 to 20 years; indeed, there could be an enormous impact on workforce considerations. In visioning out where healthcare needs to be over the next 20 years, we need to take into account this and other kinds of research. In the past, we have not been able to do that as effectively as we might have. We must also ensure that the intelligence that we can get from the pharmaceutical industry is made available to the NHS as quickly as possible. It is important that we see how the current pipeline, which I am glad to report looks encouraging in an enormous number of areas, might impact on the way in which we run services in the future.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Rees, I am proud of our achievements in this country, for which quite a few noble Lords who have spoken today can take a great deal of credit. I say to my noble friend Lord Winston that I am not at all complacent. I take note of what he has to say about our research effort and the efforts of other countries to invest properly in research. The Government are not at all complacent about where we stand. I agree with the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady OCathain, and with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that we wish to support all types of stem cell activity and research. I have not moved one jot from the position that I expressed in 2001. We see these approaches as being complementary, and it is important that we say that again and again. If research in adult stem cells shows promise, I rejoice as much as the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, that we have to get the balance right with regulation. We have heard criticisms today of the way in which the regulator performs its functions but, as the noble Baroness, Lady DSouza, said so well, the principles underpinning the UK legislation have stood us in good stead; indeed, they have been replicated in one form or another by many other countries. We are, of
3 May 2007 : Column 1205
The target performance indicator for dealing with research licence applications is three months, excluding the time taken for peer review of applications. I understand that the HFEA hits the target rate for 75 per cent of applications and is seeking to improve that performance further. I will come on to deal with the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, but my hope is that the arrangements that we will introduce to create that body may enable decisions to be arrived at more quickly, albeit as rigorously as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that I understand the tensions that sometimes arise with local research ethics committees. However, they have expertise in dealing with wider research ethical issues and I believe that many of them have raised their game considerably in the past few years. I accept the challenge of the need to streamline the process so as to remove or reduce any duplication between the HFEA and the local committees. I understand that discussions are under way between my department, the HFEA and the Central Office for Research Ethics Committees to see how we can do that. My department is also planning to consult on the future role of LRECs generally.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, as a member of the HFEA, made a reassuring point on this. I echo what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said about ensuring that the regulatory framework provides reassurance to the public. The regulatory framework and the way in which the HFEA conducted its role were highly important in persuading noble Lords in 2001 to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, which allowed the regulation to go through but also established a Select Committee further to advise the House; those factors were a telling point in those debates.
I know that there are concerns about the nature of the proposals in the new human tissue and embryo Bill that we will bring before Parliament. First, let me deal with the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos. I say to those noble Lords who have expressed concerns that we want the best of the HTA and the HFEA to be brought together in the new regulatory body. That will provide a more cost-effective system of regulation. It will ensure that common principles and standards can be applied wherever appropriate. It will also ensure that the risk of overlap between sectors is minimised and that there is continuity at the interface between related areas, such as embryo research and cell therapies.
I fully take into account the issues that have been raised today about the importance of regulation, which we will ensure are carefully considered. We will publish a draft Bill, which will allow pre-legislative scrutiny. That will surely enable a lot of these issues to be teased out in a reasonable time further to inform
3 May 2007 : Column 1206
Your Lordships always rightly enjoy the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady ONeill. She made some profound remarks about the status of human cells. She suggested reasons why such research should be sanctioned and spoke of the ethics around egg donation. I know that a number of noble Lords agree with what she said.
That brings us to the question of public engagement. My noble friend Lady Kennedy, as chair of the Human Genetics Commission, made a telling point about the need to engage the public. She was right to say that the public have differing views; it is important that they are able to express those views, and that they are taken into account. They should not just be dismissed as oppositionist. We have to take those views into account and give them the respect they deserve.
That is why I noted with interest the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady OCathain, about public opinion and confidence. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, who reported on the Alzheimers Scotland survey that put forward such a positive view of the impact of research. He made the point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, that in order for the public to have trust, it is vital that we engage with them and that they fully understand the issue, and I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said that the Royal Society has produced a document to help them do so.
In echoing the remarks about the need for public engagement, we have to have sympathy for the way the HFEA handled the two applications that noble Lords have mentioned. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, importantly congratulated the HFEA on the judgment it exercised. It would be all too easy simply to dismiss the authority as putting off a decision, but it has had to exercise a very difficult judgment. Even if we disagree with it, it would be right to acknowledge the difficult role the HFEA has to play, and I hope the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will take that back to the board, alongside what I am sure are legitimate criticisms of some aspects of its performance.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, questioned whether the Government and the bodies responsible for allocating research were being unfair to adult stem cell researchers. He is rightwe do not list the different types of stem cell research. My understanding is that
3 May 2007 : Column 1207
The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, made an interesting point, asking where adult stem cell research has gone and what the delays are in translating that research into treatment. It would be fair to say that stem cells have in effect been used in bone marrow treatments and skin grafts for many years, but perhaps we are only now understanding which stem cells in these sources are important. I understand his frustration about the number of trials and the time it takes for trials to take place, but they are necessary to give us a better understanding of what is happening inside the patients body, the best way to treat and, of course, the safety and efficacy issues.
I ought to come to funding before my time is up. I understand the issues noble Lords have raised about resources. The Pattison report was very important here. It costed the total amount required over a 10-year period. My understanding is that the projected investment this year is around £45 million, which takes total funding since 2003 to approximately £109 million. Noble Lords have asked me to go on and state what the Government will do in the future, but they know I cannot do that; it depends on the CSR. I fully understand that noble Lords want to make sure that we invest as much as possible in this area, but it has to be seen in the context of overall funding. Recalling the past six or eight health debates in your Lordships House in which I have taken part, I remind noble Lords that if I were to total up the amount of money that noble Lords collectively wish to spend, it would be a huge figure indeedand I would add our debates on the Mental Health Bill to the total bill. This is not easy. We understand the priority and the need. The Government have produced a lot of additional resources, but there are other issues that require investment.
I pay enormous tribute to the charities under the umbrella of the Association of Medical Research Charities, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Turnberg. The work they have done has been very important in maintaining and encouraging public confidence in this kind of research. I hope the intention is that we work strongly together with those organisations to ensure that collectively the research amount is as high as possible.
On funding, I must remind noble Lords that the Chancellor, in his Budget, reinforced his commitment to science by announcing an annual average rate of 2.5 per cent in real terms over the CSR period. I would also say that, on a visit to the US to encourage more investment by its pharmaceutical industry in this country, I found that the quality of our science base is strongly recognised, and we need to do everything we can to enhance that in the future.
This has been a remarkable debate that has been extremely helpful to the Government in making the important decisions that must be made on the way forward. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his initiative and for the fine quality of his opening speech.
Lord Patel: My Lords, on behalf of us all I thank the Minister for his reply. It was not too convincing in all aspects, but we will have other opportunities to come back to this. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken. The debate has been good; it has been of the highest quality and informative.
I take note of the need for public engagement. I know not of a single scientist working in stem cell science in the United Kingdom who would not agree with that statement. The scientists wish to be involved in this public dialogue and to make it clear to the public in the simplest possible terms why they want to pursue certain kinds of science.
The holy grail for all stem cell scientists, if I might use that term, would be one day to be able to take a somatic cell from a patient suffering a disease, to deregulate it and be able to differentiate it again to behave like a pluripotent stem cell and differentiate it to the cell type required, and then to be able to treat that patient with healthy cells and replace the diseased cells. They are not wedded to embryonic stem cell research; it is the promise of that research to be able one day to use that technique of mass production of stem cells, using adult stem cells. I believe that cord blood stem cells will be the next advance before the embryonic stem cells, as some of the adult stem cells are today. That is the utopian dream, that is what the stem cell scientists want to work towards, and that is why we need to back them. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
There can be little that is more important to our nations economy and to its intellectual standing than the teaching of science. Everyone should have a basic understanding of scienceto ensure scientific literacy in society as a whole and because our industrial and financial competitiveness depends on the creation and
3 May 2007 : Column 1209
Joined to this debate is the debate on the report of the Science and Technology Committeewhich I chairedcalled Science Teaching in Schools, published last November. I take this opportunity to recognise the very valuable contribution that all the members of the committee made to the report. It focused on schools, of course, but this debate is broader in scope. So while I take our report as my starting point, I shall then range more widely and consider the state of science teaching in higher education.
The report observes that the number of young people opting for science subjects at the age of 16, especially the physical sciences, has remained more or less flat or has declined over the past decade. There have been modest increases in some subjects, such as biology, and worrying falls in others, particularly physics. But all these figures have to be seen against the backdrop of rising A-level take-up. Linked to this relative decline were difficulties in recruiting and retaining adequately trained science teachers and the quality of school science laboratories was poor. Since 2001, the Government have displayed impressive determination in attempting to reverse the decline in student numbers and to improve the supply of talented science teachers. Ambitious goals have been set, but the difficulties persist and more needs to be done.
With respect to the practical teaching of science, the Government have fallen short. They failed to deliver the £200 million promised for school science laboratories before the 2005 election, despite the fact that the lack of motivating practical science has been a key factor in the loss of interest by students, and they failed to take adequate advice in the design of practical laboratories. The difficulties in delivering exciting and interesting practical classes were made worse by the lack of adequate career opportunities for laboratory technicians. We need to ensure the future of practical science in schools and overcome the reluctance of teachers to make practical science exciting and relevant.
The committee called for a central website on practical science to help address health and safety fears, and urged the Government to improve their unsatisfactory exemplar designs for science laboratories by consulting more widely with experts in the field. The low quality of so many new and refurbished science laboratories is both regrettable and avoidable. We were mystified that the Government, in developing exemplar designs as part of the school labs of the future programme, failed to consult acknowledged authorities such as the Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science ServicesCLEAPSSand
3 May 2007 : Column 1210
We also criticised the Governments obsession with testing. Current tests focus on too narrow a range of skills and stop teachers using their own creativity to inspire students to study science. The preoccupation with testing at all school ages takes much of the fun out of studying science for many children and destroys teachers morale. It is difficult to take pleasure in ones actions and achievement with the heavy hand of government for ever interfering in everything one does.
On the critical issue of attracting and retaining talented science teachers, the committee recommended that schools should be encouraged to offer higher salaries to science and mathematics teachers. Schools already have some flexibility with regard to pay, as the Governments response points out, but these powers need to be made more explicit, and the Government should encourage schools to use them more widely.
The Government have accepted that the current situation is unsatisfactory. They have asked the School Teachers Review Body to advise on ways to improve the use of these powers. But this is an urgent problem, and rapid and effective action is needed. We also called for a better paid and faster route for those people with substantial expertise in science and mathematics in industry to allow them to gain qualified teacher status. Many scientists and engineers are attracted to teaching later in their career, and they should be encouraged to do so, rather than hindered by bureaucratic hurdles.
Science and engineering are highly dynamic subjects. Every day there are advances and changes, and those who teach modern science and technology need continually to keep up with these advances. The Government have attempted to link continuing professional developmentCPDto career progression, but the committee remains unconvinced that teachers will take advantage of the opportunities available. Indeed, they may be discouraged from doing so because of the cost of providing replacement teaching while they are studying. We therefore recommended that teachers, whatever their subject, be required to undertake a certain number of hours of subject-specific CPD each year. We further recommended that the Government provide schools with ring-fenced funding to cover the cost of the CPD and any replacement teaching. It is encouraging that the Wellcome Trust is in discussion with Government and industry to provide long-term support for CPD.
Let me return to the narrowness of our secondary education system. The committee felt that this was one of the factors leading to the decline in the number of students opting for science subjects. In many cases, students are being advised that to gain entry to science and engineering courses they should study only science and mathematics in their A-levels. In other words, they are being forced to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives at the age of about 16, which, as I have said is far too young. I do not know of any other country that does this.
The problem is compounded by the fact that science subjects are perceived to be more difficult, which in turn may jeopardise pupils' ability to obtain the high grades necessary to gain entry to the university of their choice. It is also not in the interest of the schools to encourage students to take science subjects, because it puts at risk their ranking. We recommended that the Government should replace A-levels over the long term with a broader-based syllabus such as the International Baccalaureate. We have noted that they are giving some support to the IB. We are not alone in recommending this type of change. The Tomlinson report reached similar conclusions, but no general proposals have come forward.
In their response to the report, the Government claimed that all A-levels were of equal difficulty, but data produced by the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at Durham University and reproduced in our report, suggested that this was not true.
The Durham University data showed that there were differences in difficulty that could lead to a two grade difference in predicted A-level results. Admittedly, the methodology used is not universally accepted, but no one seems to have proposed an alternative, so the Durham data remain the best available. In the absence of supporting evidence, the Government's constant refrain that all A-levels are equally difficult carries little weight.
AS-levels have also been introduced in an attempt to broaden the subject base, but in many cases, students just take more science and mathematics subjects not, for example, English and a foreign language, which would seem to be essential ingredients of a balanced school curriculum.
The fall-off in the proportion of students opting for careers based on the physical sciences and engineering is alarming and a matter of serious concern to industry and business. If we look beyond secondary to higher education, the difficulties of narrowness persist, leading to the need to rethink the way students choose their careers and the way in which we structure our university courses. Too many university courses are narrow and inward looking and constrained by faculty boundaries that have changed little since the middle of the last century. For example, an engineer today needs knowledge of a range of subjects many of which had little prominence 50 years ago. Examples are molecular biology, computer science and nanoscience.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|