Department of Trade and Industry

Estimates, 2007-08 – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 9 July 2007.

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[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 900, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, and the Government response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2006-07, H C 307. ]

This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making (Resolution of 2nd July).

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31st March 2008, for expenditure by the Department of Trade and Industry—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £4,098,506,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 438,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £3,294,715,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.— [Liz Blackman.]

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee) 4:28, 9 July 2007

May I begin by welcoming the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, Ian Pearson, to his new position? I wish him every success in what promises to be a challenging time for the science community.

I should also like to put on record my support for the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, or DIUS. The move to bring together our universities, research communities and the Office of Science and Innovation, underpinned by the emphasis on the development of skills, makes good sense and puts science and scientific method right at the heart of the new political agenda. As ever, the devil will be in the detail; but given the widespread support from the scientific community for the new Department, it would be disappointing if between us we could not make it work effectively.

I should also like to put on record the appreciation of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which I chair, of the work of the Office of Science and Innovation. We had an excellent relationship with the OSI during its time within the Department of Trade and Industry. We have greatly valued the support that we have received from Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific advisor, and Sir Keith O'Nions, the director general of the OSI. It is perhaps a testimony to the success of Sir David King, Sir Keith O'Nions and the OSI that science is now at the heart of a new Government Department.

I have two initial concerns, however, and I am sure that other hon. Members will expand on these themes. The first relates to the fact that the word "science" does not appear in the title of the new Department. The widely held view in the science community that this is a significant omission was summed up by the president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, who said:

"we would have preferred the word 'science' to have appeared in the new department's title."

Indeed, there is concern that the new Department will be dominated by the university agenda, including the inevitable political battles over student fees, and that the focus on science and innovation may be diminished. I trust that the Minister will have time in his closing remarks today to assure the House that science will be the key driving force for his role and for the Department as a whole.

My second concern is about the future of parliamentary scrutiny of science. Alone among Select Committees, the Science and Technology Committee has a dual role, for departmental and cross-government scrutiny of science, yet it appears that although departmental scrutiny may be accommodated within a DIUS Select Committee, the important scrutiny of science across government will disappear.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

I am slightly confused. The hon. Gentleman began by welcoming the new Department, yet his subsequent remarks have raised the same doubts that I have—namely, that science will be relegated under the new system. Indeed, I think he is about to make the point that this could mean the end of the Science and Technology Committee. I would share his great dismay, if that were to be so.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee)

Given that the new Department was set up only last week, it behoves all of us to have a little patience while we see how the Minister and the Secretary of State approach the issue of science. I tried to make it clear earlier that it must be right to bring together the research councils, the universities, the Department and the Leitch skills agenda. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I share the views expressed in that agenda. I am disappointed that "science" is not in the title of the Department because this does not reflect the central position that the Prime Minister, when still the Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave to science when he devoted two Budgets to it.

On my second issue, scrutiny is extremely important. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) are in their places today. There is no doubt that they—along with other members of the Select Committee who have served for a long time and been strong devotees of science, together with many members of the scientific community, including the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society—feel that the scrutiny of science is crucial for moving forward. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us his thoughts on that later.

The main focus of today's debate is the report of the Science and Technology Committee's report on scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making, as part of our consideration of the estimate relating to the trans-departmental science group within the Department of Trade and Industry, headed by the Government's chief scientific adviser. This is slightly redundant because the DTI is no longer. The structures of government may have changed, but the relevance of our report is by no means diminished.

Scientific advice and risk management play a key role in policy making. Indeed, many of today's most high profile policy issues are critically dependent on the input of scientists. Those issues include: securing the economic development of the UK through the knowledge economy; protecting the population of the country against avian influenza and other epidemics; mitigating and adapting to climate change; safeguarding the UK's energy supply; detecting and averting terrorist threats; and tackling obesity. In each case, effective policy development requires both an effective scientific advisory system and the appropriate use of evidence and advice on science by the Government.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to qualify the science, particularly on avian influenza, it would have been really helpful if the Government had had a proper investigation into how the Hungarian strain of avian influenza arrived in East Anglia?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On two occasions, the Science and Technology Committee—and, indeed, other Select Committees—have looked into the Government's preparedness for avian flu and its arrival in the UK. When we met the Government's chief scientific adviser, we were certainly satisfied that appropriate policies were being put in place to ensure that we remained ahead of the game. I do not believe that the position has changed significantly since then. What we are at times trying to do is avoid scaremongering over what are, quite frankly, small and isolated outbreaks. The efforts made at the Bernard Matthews farms were excellently handled by all the relevant agencies.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Deputy Chairman, The Conservative Party, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, however good the science and however much it is evidence based—it is right that that sort of science should influence Government policy and the legislation that comes before the House—we sometimes see trigger words being used and subjects falling prey to the tabloid press through lack of understanding? That problem is holding us back from delivering scientific advances that could benefit so many people, not just in this country but around the world.


What a totally dishonest and misguided thing to say, far from the truth is it that certain words are used by [unknowns] that do/have/will cause the gov to not unleash scientific marvels solutions that will not only benefit us poor uk citizens/ but SAVE THE WORLD. From what ive seen it is the gov itself that are...

Submitted by stinky will Continue reading

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee)

The hon. Lady makes a wholly valid point. I pay tribute to organisations such as Sense about Science, which try to bring about a good public understanding of science. I shall return to the point in some of my later remarks, but what happened over MMR—measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations—or genetically modified crops, for example, was media-led. The Government and Government agencies did not take a sufficiently strong scientific lead, but left it to the media. I believe that that is a genuinely important task for the Government and, quite frankly, we need to spend a great deal more time applying our efforts in that regard.


Yes what happened with genetically modified crops,,,. I would like to evidence of "what happened with gm crops"!!!!!!!!!!!!and also proof of "what happened" with gm crops being media led, GM crops/food/seeds are not unique to uk alone, but have had a deeply negative affect on the ability of peoples far from here to be and live in such a way as to not be at the mercy of and dependant on...

Submitted by stinky will Continue reading

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

I congratulate the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee on his work. I was particularly interested in paragraph 67 of the section of the report dealing with risk and communications, which states:

"We believe that the Government's communication strategy would benefit from the adoption of a higher public profile by departmental CSAs on policies with a strong evidence or science base."

That is indeed correct, but does the hon. Gentleman agree—if I may take him back to his previous occupation—that we need to do some of that work in the classroom in order to get a better understanding of risk throughout society?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee)

The hon. Gentleman makes two excellent points. In respect of departmental chief scientific advisers, it was largely as a result of the work of the previous Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Norwich, North that the expansion of departmental CSAs became a major thrust for the Government. What we say in our report—the hon. Gentleman has picked up the relevant paragraph—is that if the departmental CSAs are to be effective, they must have an independent voice. That is so important when it comes to communicating science.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention what happens in our schools. When it comes to the calculation of risk, our society is incredibly bad at it. It is important that we get realistic risk management in schools. If I may digress a little, my wife took a group of children to the Twenty20 cricket at Headingley last week and I helped her fill in the risk assessment forms. Quite frankly, it was like writing a thesis—just to take a group of school children in a bus to watch a game of cricket. Apart from analysing the bus chassis and establishing whether it was roadworthy, virtually every other conceivable question had to be answered. We have to get away from that and have proper assessment of risk—but I digress.

We need to ensure that there is an emphasis in the new Department on improving the use of scientific advice, management and risk assessment in the use of evidence to support policy. There are, of course, many different ways in which scientific advice reaches policy makers—whether it be through formal scientific advisory committees, departmental chief scientific advisers, the Council for Science and Technology, or scientists and engineers within the civil service.

Since 1992, numerous measures have been introduced to ensure that scientific advice reaches policy makers and is then used appropriately. In 1997 Sir Robert, now Lord, May produced guidelines on the use of scientific advice in policy making, updated recently by the Government's current chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. In 2001 the Government issued a code of practice for scientific advisory committees, and I am pleased that they have accepted our recommendation that it too should also be updated.

We note that the Government issued a consultation on the code on 25 June, and we are pleased to see that the new code addresses our concerns about monitoring of scientific advisory committees. However, it does not state the Government's position on lay membership of such committees, an issue about which our Committee was particularly vexed. Given that it was an area of disagreement between the Committee and the Government, I should be interested to hear from the Minister what the code will say about lay members.

The year 2002 saw the introduction of chief scientific advisers in Departments that use or commission significant amounts of research. We welcomed that step. I reiterate our belief that whenever possible, there should be external appointments of people who have occupied senior positions in the scientific community. Curiously, the one Department with no scientific adviser is the Treasury. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether, now that the former incumbent of the Treasury has moved to a new post, the Government have any intention of remedying the omission.

There is little doubt that the Government have taken the right steps in creating departmental CSAs, but the Committee was concerned about the more general decline in scientific capacity in the civil service. That concern was highlighted by Sir David King's comment that many civil servants hid their scientific skills or qualifications because they saw them as an impediment to promotion. Disappointingly, there are no accurate figures for the total number of scientists and engineers in the civil service, despite a recommendation in the 2002 cross-cutting review of science and research. May I ask the Minister whether the common employee record will be used to collect data on qualifications to ascertain the number of engineers and scientists in Government?

The Government said that their skills "sub-department" was conducting a sector needs analysis to identify skills gaps. Given that skills are the key responsibility in the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us its findings in relation to science and engineering.

Without the capacity to be an intelligent customer, able both to frame the questions and to analyse and interpret the responses, the Government are potentially at a huge disadvantage. A classic example of the way in which things can go badly wrong was the Health and Safety Executive's response to the EU Physical Agents Directive relating to MRI equipment. The HSE's failure to understand that the directive could potentially halt the use of MRI for research and use in invasive procedures from 2008 was missed. I can report, however, that following the publication of our report "Watching the Directives" and a frank recognition by the Government that errors were made, there has been a significant change of heart in the European Commission, and an amendment to the directive increasing the limits for use of MRI is now highly likely.

In past years, the Government could have relied on a steady stream of highly qualified scientists and engineers working in their own laboratories for advice, but the changing status of Government scientific facilities such as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the Forensic Science Service and QinetiQ means further loss of capacity. Given those different factors, we recommended two solutions to the Government. The first was the establishment of a Government scientific service along the lines of the Government Economic Service. The Government told us that they recognised the need to create an effective structure to support the integration of scientists in Government, but were not convinced that formalising a single system across Government was the right action to take now. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether now is the right time, and whether the Government have reviewed their decision not to create a Government scientific service, particularly given the emphasis on the new departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

I am intervening because I was the science Minister who took the decision that we should change the status of the National Physical Laboratory and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, and I am well aware that that moved the scientific echelon of the civil service out of the civil service. I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, and I hope that the Minister will be supportive of the idea that we should re-establish the science and technology aspect of the civil service.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee)

I was not in any way trying to make a political point; I was merely musing that there had been a huge loss in capacity. During the hon. Gentleman's time as Minister, the Government could go to such organisations and command that they delivered responses; that has been lost.

The second proposal, which we felt was very important, is that there should be greater involvement of learned societies in peer review and the assessment of scientific evidence that comes to Government. That would have the added value of possibly reducing the Government's dependence on external consultants. To that end, we recommended that the Government discuss with the learned societies whether aspects of the scientific advisory system in the United States could be adopted in the UK. The Government said that they would "reflect further", and I would be interested to learn what reflections there have been.

I wish at this point to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the body representing physics and the other learned societies which regularly give evidence of the highest quality to our Committee. Such evidence could be made available to the Government in exactly the same way it is to a Select Committee. Without their evidence, it must sometimes be difficult for Government to form conclusions of the kind that our Committee is capable of reaching.

Scientific capacity is important, in terms of both social sciences and the physical sciences. If Government policies are to be evidence based—which the Government claim is the case—they need good scientific capacity. Since 1997, the Government have increasingly emphasised the importance of evidence-based policy making. In 1999, the "Modernising Government" White Paper and the Cabinet Office report "Professional policy making for the 21st century" emphasised the importance of the use of evidence in policy making. I also note that the National School of Government now runs analysis and use of evidence courses. Policies are thus increasingly promoted as evidence based—I am glad it appears that the Minister is nodding from a sedentary position. Unfortunately, however, few outside Government were prepared to accept the term "evidence based" as an accurate description of Government policy and we did not have to look far to find examples of a stark disconnect between evidence and policy. The former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Ruth Kelly, had almost no evidence when she announced her ban on junk food. Sir John Krebs, former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, was scathing. He claimed that

"the policy was developed with no evidence that it would work; no scientific definition of junk food; no cost benefit analysis; and no public engagement."

The policy announcement broke every one of the Government chief scientific adviser's rules of engagement. Yet despite the presence of a departmental chief scientific adviser within the then Department for Education and Skills, the policy was allowed to run unchallenged.

If the Government cite evidence in support of a policy, we believe that it should be able to bear robust scrutiny and that it should be communicated convincingly to the public. If there are problems with the evidence base, the consequences for public confidence can be grave, as was the case with MMR—measles, mumps and rubella—or damaging to scientific progress, as was the case with genetically modified crops, or potentially disastrous, as with the weapons of mass destruction issue and Iraq.

In our report, we highlighted four key issues on the use of evidence. First, the Government should take steps to strengthen the evidence base by establishing a cross-departmental fund to commission independent policy-related research. Will the Minister tell us whether he will set up such a central fund for independent research? We also acknowledge that it is not just a question of money, especially for academic researchers who are struggling to put together publications in time for the next research assessment exercise—or RAE. Indeed, for that reason we recommended that the Government work to rectify the situation in which the RAE acts as a disincentive to engagement by the scientific community with policy. The Government responded that the new metrics will achieve that and I would be interested to know how they will measure the success of the new metrics-based RAE in that regard in terms of public policy.

Secondly, the Government should ensure that the evidence they use is of the highest quality. The use of evidence and its quality should be peer reviewed. We recommended that the Government commission pilot reviews of the extent to which policies are evidence based. The Government accepted that recommendation, and it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether such pilot reviews have taken place.

Thirdly, the Government should be gathering evidence to inform their future policy and undertaking horizon scanning. We recognised the excellent work of the foresight programme and the horizon scanning centre, but note that horizon scanning should be embedded within the policy-making process. It is no use if foresight produces excellent reports, but no one takes up the findings. Professor Paul Wiles, the Home Office departmental CSA, clearly stated to our inquiry that

"doing horizon scanning is one thing, getting an organisation to actually lift its head from immediate problems and think ten or twenty years ahead and use that horizon scanning is sometimes a challenge".

It is a challenge, but it is a necessary challenge.

Finally, we were concerned that when the Government undertake pilots or trials or runs consultations, the results should be published and their effect on the policy-making process made clear. We have looked at the trials of biometric technology for identity cards and emphasised to the Government that if those trials raise any doubts, the policy should be amended accordingly. Similarly, the Government need to ensure that the purpose and remit of consultations are clear and that feedback is given to those who have contributed. Problems such as the recent consultation over civil nuclear power undermine public confidence, not just in the consultation process but in the use of evidence in policy making more broadly.

I understand that the Cabinet Office has recently launched a consultation on consultations. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there is any early feedback from the process. As with scientific advice, it is important that the Government are open about the evidence underlying policies and we believe that evidence should be published and reviewed. That will ensure that evidence is not misused or selectively published in order to prop up policies.

It was deeply disturbing to hear the allegations from Professor Tim Hope of Keele university that the Home Office had actually interfered with the publication of research. He said:

"It is with sadness and regret that I saw our work ill-used and our faith in government's use of evidence traduced".

It is essential that the policy-making process and the use of evidence is fully transparent, and that where policy is not based on evidence, that should be made clear.

We acknowledge, and make the point strongly in our report, that not all policy needs to be evidence based. The Government have every right to promulgate policies that are not evidence based. Some policies have a mainly political or ideological basis. We accept that. The Government should acknowledge openly the many drivers of policy making as well as any gaps in the relevant research base or where policy is made despite the evidence. If the Government promote the idea that all policy is evidence based, they are undermining those policies on issues such as MMR, GM and climate change, where it is crucial that there is public confidence in the evidence.

Furthermore, if the Government change their mind about a policy as a result of a poor pilot or on the basis of new evidence, the Opposition—I include my party and the Conservatives—should not use that as an opportunity for political point scoring. Changing policy on the basis of evidence, pilots or research should be seen as a political strength, not a failing.

The third main plank of our inquiry into these cross-cutting areas was the management of risk. We did not attempt to deal with individual areas of risk, but focused instead on the communication of risk to the public—the issue that Angela Browning raised. Successive Governments have attempted to deal with risk and it has risen up the agenda. We have seen green books, orange books, a Treasury guide on management of risk to the public, appraisal guidance and a risk management assessment framework; there have been lots of them. There is a long way to go, but I welcome the progress and urge the Government to continue to seek ways to sustain and improve risk assessment in policy making.

During the inquiry, we looked at the ways in which risk is communicated to the public and considered good examples, such as nanotechnology, which was communicated well to the public, has been widely accepted and is being well used, and bad examples, such as GM. The way in which risk is communicated to the public is crucial, particularly given the weak scientific and numeracy culture in this country. We recommended that the Government develop a scale of risks that could be used by all Departments. Rather than saying that the risk was very low, or one in 100,000, one could say it was as likely as being murdered. People understand that. If one wanted to express a negligible risk, such as one in 10 million—that means nothing to most people—one could say it was as likely as being hit by lightning.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely good point. Did his Committee look at the fact that the public see risks imposed by the state and organisations such as the railways differently from the risks they take themselves? For example, we see the numbers of people who happily expose themselves to excess doses of sunshine, when that occasionally occurs. It would be crazy for the Government to suggest the banning of package holidays to Malaga, but risks from the railways, which are much lower, are higher up the agenda from the public's perspective.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill (Joint Committee)

This is not an easy area and the Committee is not suggesting that. Our conclusion was that it is important to communicate risk in a way that people can understand, and we compared different types of risk in that way. The problem that the Government and all political parties have is the compensation and litigation culture that has come into this area. Small risks are now built up into major things; for instance, one cannot play conkers—a use for horse chestnuts, I say to the Minister—within school grounds because of the risk. We need to get that into balance.

The Government said in response to our report that they would have discussions with the media to try to maximise public understanding. I would be grateful if the Minister explained what that meant and what the Government have done in this area. The Government also told us that they were establishing an expert resource centre for public dialogue on science and innovation to help all parts of Government to enable public debate on science and technology-related topics. As far as we are aware, this is still just a Government plan. If so, when will it become a reality?

Finally, may I return to the impact that the machinery of Government changes will have on the scientific advisory system within Government? The chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, was situated within the DTI as head of the Office of Science and Innovation. He therefore had a dual role combining a cross-departmental co-ordination and advisory function with the post of head of the OSI. We were concerned that these roles did not sit comfortably alongside one another and that the GCSA was unlikely to have time to develop both his cross-departmental role and his administrative functions within the OSI. It seems that these roles have been reviewed and that the changes are much more far-reaching than we suggested. We suggested that the GCSA should have a desk in the Cabinet Office and a seat in the Treasury. For him to sit with the Government's chief economic adviser, who also has a seat in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, would be a strong bolstering of the independence of the Department.

Obviously, the DTI has been split, and what was the OSI has been moved into the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. We understand that there will be a new office for the Government's chief scientific officer within that Department and that the OSI will cease to exist. Will the Minister clarify what the remit of that office will be? Will the chief scientific officer focus solely on trans-departmental scientific advice, or will he continue to have administrative responsibilities within the Department? The whole issue of scientific advice is important, and it should be at the heart not only of the new DIUS but the whole Government. I welcome the Government's response to our report.


"Small risks are now built up into major things; for instance, one cannot play conkers"

Typical misinformation - whatever happened to research?

Submitted by Stoker Stoker

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North 5:00, 9 July 2007

I congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, Ian Pearson, on his new appointment, and wish him luck in the battles ahead. I also congratulate Mr. Willis, as Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, on building on the work of the past eight years in this area. He has taken it on rather well.

Before we discuss scientific advice, we must address the question whether science is important. That battle has still to be won, not only in this country, but in large sectors of the rest of the world. If we cannot win that battle, we can give all the advice we want, but no one will listen to it or want it. Most hon. Members present can probably cite many occasions on which science has contributed to the betterment of the world or of health. For example, there is a lot of hyperbole around the science of stem cell research at the moment, but there are also great hopes and wishes that something will come out of the research. The evidence might not always be there, but people have a right to try to obtain it to improve conditions for people on this planet.

I confess that I am a member of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, which was set up by Sir Richard Sykes and various other people, such as Jon Moulton, for whom the Treasury Committee does not have much time at present. The foundation can raise £90 million almost overnight from its connections, and it wants to make a connection with the Medical Research Council to ensure that work is done in this country, and goes all the way from blue-skies thinking to product formation in this country, so that we do not see, for example, antibodies being developed in the States. That culture is beginning to take off.

There are problems with academics and researchers in general. Having been one myself, and still knowing many, I know, as other hon. Members present might confirm, that there is a great latent suspicion regarding the media and the communication of science. I have scars on my back from my frequent appearances on Radio Norfolk as a science adviser. I once tried to explain how a microwave oven works, and when I went back to the lab I was pulled apart by people who not only knew more about it than I did, but said that trying to explain a difficult concept to the public was simply a waste of time. That problem still exists. When I see my friends at meetings, as I did this weekend, they say things like, "The public will never understand; it's much too complex." We still have that battle to fight in this country.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

As an amateur scientist—the hon. Gentleman is a professional—I sometimes get frustrated when I have to defend science, because many scientists do not explain or defend it. It is a big frustration that, too often, scientists in this country do not engage in public appreciation exercises, although they really should if they want their sector to flourish.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to say a little more about how we might address that problem. But, certainly, words such as "arrogance" come to mind, and there is perhaps a lack of humility in communicating with the public among some scientists whom I know, and I am sure other Members know as well. I saw that at first hand during the whole genetic modification debate, which some of us battled through, against friends on both sides of the House, a few years ago, when scientists arrogantly sat round dinner tables and said, "No need to talk to the public about it; they'll accept what the scientist says." That was a factor—not the only factor, but an important one—in the determination of this country and its people to walk away from GM crops and GM food. Indeed, a whole industry disappeared. Many of us learnt the lesson about that, but many scientists still have not done so.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Deputy Chairman, The Conservative Party, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

As someone who, in a former existence, licensed the first GM food in this country, I recall being given advice at the time that it was better to put up a scientist on the television than a politician, because the public would trust the scientist rather than a politician. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman's thoughts are about that, in the light of what he has just said.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

My answer would be that there are scientists and there are scientists. There are scientists who work for companies such as Monsanto, whom I, and, I am sure, the hon. Lady, would not trust an inch, whereas independent scientists from a research institute or university are slightly better—let us put it that way—and unlikely to mess up the data or the communication. For example, I remember John Krebs once talking about food and quite blatantly saying to John Humphrys, "I don't really know; none of us knows." That is not the kind of answer that is expected in the media, where people are told, "Say it in black and white—yes or no?" That is the Paxman-Humphrys school, which does not always go down well with the public.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

The hon. Gentleman mentions the media, and I want to question whether he is right to say that the problems of GM acceptance were due to scientists sitting around at dinner parties and not doing anything else. It seems to me that once the media had decided to treat GM as they did, nothing could have been done. Although some preparatory work could have been done, the problem lies much more with the media than with a failure of scientists in that case.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I was a member of the John Innes Centre council at the time, and I remember a dinner party where Derek Burke—who was blatantly savaged by Prince Charles for defending GM—and I talked to the scientists who were doing the work in this country. They said exactly what I said before, "There's no problem. It's actually going to happen." Then one of them appeared in public. I sent him out to a small village in north Norfolk on a dark night. The village hall was packed out, Lord Melchett was there, and he was savaged to death—and will never speak again. He has got so bad at his science that he has gone to Cambridge as a professor of genetics, in dismay at having had to interact with the public on that kind of subject. He would much rather go into a sort of industrial environment in a department in Cambridge.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Have not the British media damaged the British industry? Compared with the American, Chinese and Indian industries, we have lost out because the British media have damaged the British industry.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It was not just the scientists in the British media who purveyed the idea of "Frankenstein foods" and so on; the political people often did so, too. I remember that The Guardian spent all its time talking not about the value of the foods, but about Lord Sainsbury's share interests. The political editors of the newspapers provided the focus, and the scientific editors were pushed aside. So a concerted campaign was going on—which, of course, scientists are not used to. They are used to purveying what information they can, and having arguments and so on; they are certainly not used to discussing who has more shares than someone else.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am curious about the issue, because obviously, I was not part of the debate at the time. When a Minister has such a high-profile role in the wider debate, what is the hon. Gentleman's feeling about that sort of message coming from those in politics and Government towards the general public, and then their understanding of science?

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

People's hands must be rather clean. Of course, there are mechanisms for people working in this place, whereby they can filter some of their shares to offshore islands, such as Jersey and Guernsey. I do not think that that is any better, but it is quite legitimate, and if we are opening up transparency in this country, we should look at it carefully. In the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, the individual did not try to defend the situation as much as the papers attacked him, and other people were defending the Government's position.

The learned societies, too, were far from brilliant. Instant rebuttal was something I grew up with in the Labour party. Peter Mandelson was excellent at it with his team. Instant rebuttal meant 10 or 20 minutes. The Royal Society's idea of instant rebuttal was a long tome of 50 pages, which took six months to produce—by which time it was too late and the battle was over. So, there were lots of lessons to be learned by different functionaries in the scientific and technological movement in this country.

I am not entirely sure that the Science and Technology Committee report—excellent though it is—goes into things in the depth that some of us would like. I know that there was a previous report and that this report moves the debate on, but there should have been a wider examination of the structure of science within Departments. The model that has been put forward is very like the model that we live with, but we could have been a little more radical in looking at the position of Ministers in the new Department. We do not just have one Minister with responsibility for science. There is also a senior Minister, who is in the Cabinet. That is something some of us would have died for: to have at the Cabinet table somebody who can put scientific arguments at first hand, and from the point of a view of a Department that is looking at innovation, higher education and science. I welcome that kind of initiative.

The interaction between science and innovation is extremely interesting, and is an area in which we are still learning things. That interaction will take place within the Department. We have seen the first flurry of activity in higher education, with top-up fees and so on. We are all suspicious, but that has been an attempt to address a lingering problem. Things are beginning to happen. I have spent a lot of time listening to people who talk about blue-skies research, and I also talk to bio-entrepreneurs—in fact I presented prizes to some of them last week at Lancaster house. I was really glad when the first person who came up to speak was somebody to whom I had presented a prize the year before, who had set up a small company to make antibodies, outside Cambridge university. It was a spin-out company. Within a year of the conference, he had been bought out by GlaxoSmithKline for something like £1 billion. I am sure that none of us will ever see that kind of activity, but I was glad to hear that young person say that the work that he and his team of 12 had been doing had suddenly blossomed and attracted the interest of GSK.

All the other people winning prizes live in the hope that the brilliant scientific ideas and innovations that they come up with will eventually be picked up by bigger companies. That may not be the best model. We might have to look again at smaller companies just developing into medium-size companies. The talent of individuals in this country is second to none, but I am not yet convinced that we have the structures to make sure things happen, although the openings are there for things to move on. We may need a lot more in the UK Trade and Investment area to make sure that those bio-entrepreneurs develop their particular skills.

I often ask whether we need a chief scientific adviser. I am always worried that we have been given a set system. Is a one-on-one situation with the Prime Minister, involving direct interaction, the best way to get science across? I am not entirely convinced that that is not just a reaction to a situation. The current chief scientific adviser did a brilliant job—unheralded—with the foot and mouth outbreak when he showed the curves illustrating how it was going to disappear after a period of time. That demonstrated real ingenuity, and it came from a knowledge of the scientific community, who were doing that kind of epidemiological modelling.

The new Department has many openings with Ministers and so on. There will be an arena of people in the Cabinet and across Government involved in the whole thing. I always say that a department where people drink coffee together and take part in other activities is where things happen. The success of the Medical Research Council laboratory at Cambridge—where Nobel prizes have been won—was helped by the café on the top floor. People could sit with Crick and Watson and argue and talk to them about research until the cows came home. It was brilliant. I tried to institute something similar in Norwich; I set up a café where people could interact across the boundaries, and forget what they called themselves, whether they were zoologists, botanists or molecular biologists. It was great that they got together and talked in an interdisciplinary way, but as soon as I disappeared the café was closed and people were put back into their silos, and their own professors became the bosses of the coffee club.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that a couple of weeks ago I hosted a meeting in the Members Dining Room, in which General Motors gave a presentation about future vehicles. Its plea was for Government to sit people from the component parts of what was the Department of Trade and Industry around the same table, so that we could produce the interaction necessary to help develop ideas.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I thought for one second that he was about to talk about Fairtrade coffee; I was sweating somewhat. Nevertheless, he makes the point that intercollegiate interaction is important these days, as science moves on. Old titles disappear, and new subjects are born overnight. Take nanotechnology, for example—although I am not quite sure what it means in detailed terms. There is an excitement about the new technologies brought about by physicists, chemists and biologists, and that brings them together. That is the way forward, and we have to do a lot more in that respect. I welcome the new Department for the chance that it gives people in different arenas, such as innovation and education, to work together and talk and argue in an interdisciplinary, collegiate way.

I am sure that I will be forgiven for saying it, but the civil service is, in the main, scientifically illiterate. That is what we have to deal with. If we come together and bring forward new, sparky ideas, they will be the civil service's ideas tomorrow.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is it not the case that eminent scientists, particularly research scientists, often come up with diametrically opposed conclusions, and does not that engender interest, not just among Departments and the civil servants whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but among the general public and schoolchildren? It shows them that science is an area for ideas, and that sometimes there is not a definitive response to a problem.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I share the hon. Lady's sentiments entirely. I know eminent virologists who do not believe that AIDS is caused by a virus, and who argue about it at conferences. That is the nature of involvement in science; one never knows what one might find out, and what we think today may turn out to be subject to another explanation tomorrow. That is the excitement of it, and that is why young people deserve a better education, as the hon. Lady says.

I want to speak about risk. Points have been made about how hard it is to define it, and to get people to take it seriously, but I read that Natalie Angier, the science editor of The New York Times, has written a book called "The Canon—A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science", which she believes sets out the minimum knowledge required by an educated person. A similar thing has been done in this country in a book by Bill Bryson; it is an amazing read. The Royal Society of Chemistry, bless it, gave one to every school in the country. It addresses the basic questions that young people ask, such as "How do you weigh the Earth?" and "Why is the sky blue?" Some hon. Members will have heard that question asked the other week. The most eminent scientist in the country could not answer it, so narrow are the specialities. But that is the nature of science: one cannot know everything, but by interacting, we can share information.

Angier mentions an issue that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised: how can we define risk in terms simplistic enough to give people an idea of what is meant? She says:

"You would have to fly on a commercial aircraft every day for 18,000 years before your chances of being in a crash exceeded 50 per cent."

Let us not mention the effect that that would have on climate change; that is another issue. That quotation brings the subject into perspective. She goes on to raise many other points.

I have made the point that the question of how one goes about getting evidence is important. The issue of stem cells has been discussed in this Chamber and in the other place, and I remember those occasions well. Some hon. Members who are present in the Chamber today thought that we might lose the vote on the subject. There was concerted action not to argue the science in a peripheral way but to make it clear, and to involve patient groups and others. I did not see many civil servants or people from other Departments. What really won the argument was the parliamentary process interacting with people outside who ran patient groups. That was a real phenomenon, but it is not always picked up. For several weeks, we made the arguments, and we won the vote. It delighted many scientists in this country that Parliament made a decision that put us in the leading frame on this type of research. Of course there was, and is, no guarantee that stem cell research will deliver the cures for motor neurone disease and so on, but it is the chance to get the evidence that is important.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Does my hon. Friend find it rather strange that Galileo was prevented from making progress by the religious people of his day, and that the stem cell scientists have almost been prevented from making progress by the same group of people?

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am very aware of that, given that I serve on the Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who also chairs the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which produced the report before us today. We have met religious groups, and nothing very much has changed since those late nights that we spent as students arguing for Darwin's explanation of phenomena against the religious explanation. Yes, the issue is still there, and the battle will continue. Science never sleeps, and the battle to make sure that its voice is heard will continue.

Evidence comes from all corners of the world—science is global. Lots of people interact, not only at the academic level, but in terms of getting information. People will have noticed that The Observer on Sunday includes part of The New York Times, and the science is rather good, explaining issues in terms that anybody with some kind of scientific literacy could understand. The situation is getting better, and it will get better still.

People are suspicious, however, that much of the research undertaken to obtain that evidence is done behind closed doors. There are companies that do private research. We know about the falsifying of the stem cell data in Korea and so on, and other countries—even the United States—are privatising research. There are also conflicts of interest. Scientists are very keen on intellectual property rights. When I go to meetings—I went to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence the other week—I have to sign a document that says, "Anything you hear must not appear in the newspapers tomorrow." I find it rather foreign to communication across the scientific endeavour that we cannot have open and transparent discussions because there may be a commercial interest involved.

Convincing politicians will be extremely difficult. I often ask myself why that is so. Lawyers do not care whom they defend; they will defend the victim or the alleged perpetrator of the crime—it is a job, it is money, it is what lawyers do. Scientists do not behave like that; they have a belief, a determination to be honest and an ethical code, and they talk to each other at meetings and behind the scenes—and that is curtailed only by the intellectual property phenomenon that is now with us.

As regards the stem cell debate, we should also remember that the company's commercial interests immediately create suspicions among members of the public. There is huge, scathing distrust and a belief that certain companies that do the science hide the data to get amazing profits.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Deputy Chairman, The Conservative Party, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the opposition to a scientific development, particularly when it is translated into legislation and argument in this Chamber, is sometimes very much influenced by very well-resourced lobby groups? The money that they can call on to mount a campaign against such developments should perhaps sometimes be balanced against the commercial interests involved in developing something that would not otherwise be developed if there was no commercial benefit to it.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I thank the hon. Lady. That is another truism. Many people are put under pressure subtly or quite openly. Most hon. Members find it difficult to say no to someone who wants to talk to them about a problem, such as a drug that they cannot get commercialised or get approved by NICE. That makes life difficult for us. To advise us, we need a grouping that is not subjected to such pressure. I do not know whether that exists anywhere in the world, but we ought to try to achieve it.

The first hour of the meeting that I attended at NICE was spent with people talking about their commercial interests. Either the laboratory had been funded by the company that wanted the drug to be approved, or some social benefit had been offered, such as a trip to Florida. It is hard to resist that, even if one feels neutral. In the decision-making arena, such pressure can influence the way one considers the evidence. I hold my hand up and say that sometimes I do not speak out when I should because I feel some empathy with the people presenting the evidence. It is disgraceful, and having been a boy scout, I should know better.

NICE is an organisation that is finding its way forward to assess the evidence and to try and restore confidence in certain areas in medicine. If any group that scrutinises medical developments does not get it right, that damages the research and the patients. Scientific endeavour generally gets a bad name, and public funding with public support can quickly disappear. I was amazed how quickly the support for GM disappeared. We lost the argument day by day, until there was little left to fight for, although I remember slanging matches with friends of mine in this place who were against it from the beginning.

Evidence that comes forward often raises expectations. Scientists should be careful about that. The hyperbole that is sometimes associated with certain types of science gives rise to the kind of scary stories that discredit science. There may initially be disagreements, but ultimately there will be agreement about issues on which the evidence is not solid. Somehow that gets in through the media or the public domain, and is believed. A friend of mine, Ben Goldacre, writes a column in The Guardian every Saturday exposing that kind of phoney science, especially in the food industry, and some of its claims.

Many people would feel let down if there were too many stories like that. Science is not precious, but we must fight to maintain its independence and integrity. The slanging matches that go on when topics are discussed must take place in the open. The public must know that there is an argument, as well as a consensual view.

Controversial areas such as stem cells need to prosper, but only in an environment where the scientists are self-critical. Science is not just about certainty; it is also about uncertainty. I mentioned the case of Krebs saying, "I don't know." I have never met a scientist—this may be a parallel with scientists' so-called arrogance—who could be absolutely sure that they had done every experiment and every control necessary to achieve certainty. That is what is exciting in schools—teaching young people to be critical, to do experiments, to think things through and to ask questions, and giving them the opportunity to develop some understanding and some interest in science.

Universities have a long way to go in how they teach science. Some of what is taught there is boring, rather than radical. I question whether the PhD is taught properly now, and whether post-doctoral fellowships are the way to do science, not necessarily because they are one-year or three-year contracts, but because in many quarters post-doctoral students are still beholden to the boss of the laboratory, who gets all the credit and the kudos from research exercises, whereas a vast amount of the work that is done in this country is done by postgraduate and post-doctoral students. We should remember that we need them, although the administrative work is done by the senior member of the team. In schools and in universities, there is so much more to do to advance a subject that is very exciting.

We do science because we want to make life better for people and to have information that we can put into the system, not just in health but in other fields too. It is not always possible to devise good experiments, but we should give people the right to do that, and we should finance them to allow it to happen.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton 5:30, 9 July 2007

I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I start by congratulating the Science and Technology Committee, of which I used to be a member, on its excellent work in producing the report. A lot of effort and consideration has gone into it, and it is a valuable contribution to our debate.

I welcome the Minister to his new position. In my view, it is the best job in Government, although he does not have quite as much of it as I will recommend he should have had. Nevertheless, as Minister with responsibility for science, he will find dealing with these subjects very stimulating.

Before the Minister gets too excited by his promotion, let me give him a warning. During my period as Science and Technology Minister, the BSE crisis was suddenly launched upon us. On the very day that the information had been revealed, there was an evening reception at Downing street. The Prime Minister was saying nice things in welcoming various Ministers until he got to me, when he said, "Oh yes, you're the science Minister, aren't you? Look what a mess you've made of this." The Minister must remember that he will get the blame for crises in science that other Ministers do not want to know about. One of the problems is that although science is at the heart of decisions in virtually every Department, most Ministers are either ignorant of, or do not wish to know about, the implications of science and evidence-based decision making. That is one of the subjects addressed in the report.

During the past year, I have been producing for my party a report on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is remarkable just how buoyant those subjects are in our universities. I want to make the Minister understand, in his new departmental role, that it was a mistake to put science in just with the universities, which are much broader institutions that do not just concentrate on science. I hope that he has more than his fair share of debates within the Department and that he influences other Departments, particularly the Treasury. It is critical to the future of this country that we not only do excellent science and punch above our weight in publications and citations but capture the benefits of that science as they emerge.

One difficulty is that although we as a country are brilliant at providing ideas for the rest of the world, producing 9 per cent. of publications and an even bigger percentage of citations from a very much smaller percentage of population, other countries capture those ideas. The other day, I heard that one of the key people in the development of the new Apple iPhone was at Northumbria university—a Brit—but the innovation has been captured in the United States of America. As we begin to compete in this world, even more so at the knowledge-based industry level, we will have to capture more of the ideas that come out of our science base. To put it crudely, we need to have the same esteem for engineers as we have for scientists, because engineers capture the discoveries of scientists and turn them into applications.

My plea to the Minister is that he should not get corralled within the Department. When I was Science and Technology Minister, I claimed and exercised trans-departmental responsibility mainly because I had the full backing of the then Deputy Prime Minister. If the Minister is to make science count in Government, he will need an ally in Cabinet Committees.

Other speakers have already mentioned the fact that some key decisions that we have to take in the years to come are very science oriented. There are disadvantages to that. Dr. Gibson mentioned the importance of considering the evidence on which a decision is based. The difficulty is that politicians often have to make quick decisions without the evidence. The BSE case was a good example. It was difficult to get scientists to give evidence to the politicians—one of whom was me—who wanted to make speeches in the House of Commons in favour of this country being a leader in stem cell science. We must understand that there are pressures on politicians to which scientists have to respond, rather than just saying, "We will do it in our own time and the evidence will eventually emerge."

Another difficulty in the relationship between scientists and politicians is what I might call the absolute statement. When in trouble, a politician is desperate to say, "I'll do what the scientists tell me." It is very rare that scientists will tell a Minister exactly what he should make a judgment on.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of the general public are laymen in scientific terms? It is difficult for them to know what to believe. They read daily in their newspapers dire warnings, particularly about food science, the causes of global warming and treatments for illegal drug use. Very often, there is conflicting information, and it is difficult for them to know whether something is just the opinion of one scientist or a definitive fact on which they can rely.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

I entirely agree, and that applies not just when it appears that fairly disreputable people in the science community are saying something, as in the confusion over MMR, where the scientific evidence was all weighted on one side and a lone operator was questioning it. The press, however, gave equal balance to him.

It is difficult for the public to know quite where to stand, and it is difficult for Ministers. The report is important because it deals with the advice given to Ministers and the form in which it is given. As I said, that process affects virtually every Department.

Energy is an area of great importance and food science is critical. We excel at food science in this country, but the public are increasingly concerned about it. If evidence is given in the wrong way, the scare is already in the Daily Maila newspaper that I would ban if I were a dictator, because it does more harm to public opinion than anything else. That probably means that I shall get a bad sketch. Actually, I will not, because there are no journalists present—even if I could see them. That is typical of the interest shown in scientific matters.

The report's key point is that we not only have to make Ministers more literate, but that the advice to them must be more independent and should be perceived as being so. I intervened on Mr. Willis about this. I would like to claim that the 1997 election was just a matter of the public overwhelmingly deciding that I should not continue as science Minister, but the reality is that leaving the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the National Physical Laboratory and many others outside Government meant that the concept of a technical civil service went with them. We should consider that area carefully.

Recently, I published a proposal that was widely unread because it was a press release from a Conservative Back Bencher, but it said that there should be a Department for science and innovation, with a Secretary of State responsible for it in the Cabinet. I know that the Secretary of State to whom the Minister reports is in the Cabinet, and the same applied under the previous Conservative Government: the Minister for science was not in the Cabinet, but the Secretary of State asked for briefings just before Cabinet meetings, in case something interesting came up.

I will go further. Science is now so central to Government that a department for science and innovation should be responsible not only for the things for which the Minister is already responsible, but for the co-ordination of a technical civil service, and it should work with various scientific advisers in the Departments. When Ministers are dealing with an issue—the environment, defence or transport—such a department should be a central resource whose advice is respected within Government. I would have included technology in that department, which has been put in another Department under the Prime Minister's reforms, because the two go well together.

I have also advocated a move to smarter public procurement, which is another responsibility that could have been included in the Department. Sadly, I do not have the ability nowadays to do much more than issue press releases. However, I hope that the Government absorb some of the message that I am trying to convey because although, as a Conservative, I should like a Conservative Government in the near future, in the national interest, we cannot continue to wait.

That takes me back to the intervention of my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson. The public are ill informed. It is not their fault—in a way, it is ours. Successive Governments have never grasped the need for more scientific literacy in schools. We are still struggling. Even according to the Government's figures, we are doing much worse than we should be in ensuring that every school child has some understanding of basic science and mathematics—by that, I mean making our children numerate as well as literate. We do not enable them to understand risk, and then we are surprised when, as adults, they are not scientifically literate and cannot evaluate.

I did not think that anyone remembered that something had happened before 1997, but I am flattered because I suddenly noticed that the report quotes me. Paragraph 190 states that, as science Minister, I

"proposed a scale of risk which would provide 'a series of common situations of varying risk to which people can relate'."

I called it a scientific Richter scale. We have a Richter scale in a different context; why not have one for science?

The report goes into considerable detail, which I have no time to repeat, but we must find a way of communicating to a currently scientific illiterate public the way in which they should react in a set of circumstances. Let me make a crude comparison, which is contemporary rather than the best example. When the car bombs, which thankfully did not explode in London recently, were announced to the public, there was no panic because somehow, at the same time, the extent of risk that they should assume was communicated to them. Although the risk was high, other factors meant that there was no panic.

We are lucky that, so far, a biological or chemical attack has not taken place in London. The public will not understand degrees of risk in something so invisible and difficult to grasp. Tragically, we know about car bombs and the damage that they can do, but we are ill educated about the consequences of a biological or chemical attack in this city. We must start preparing the public in ways they can understand about how to react without scaring them. It is a complex art and I do not claim that I have an instant solution, but we must start thinking about it.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Deputy Chairman, The Conservative Party, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Does my hon. Friend agree that educating the lay public is not simply about putting complex scientific evidence and information into language and a perspective that people understand, but has a psychological element, which is perhaps not easy to pin down? For example, anyone who is prescribed medicine and takes the trouble to read the accompanying bit of paper, could decide never to take the medication because of all the possible side effects. I have thought that myself. However, as the medication has been prescribed by a doctor for a specific purpose, the vast majority of people will ignore the huge risks that might be included on the accompanying bit of paper and take their medication as prescribed. Psychologically, they know they need it, and a doctor—somebody whom they trust—has prescribed it. It is difficult to get a balance between raw basic science put in a simple form that people understand, and the psychology of the risks that people are and are not prepared to take.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, but in some ways people are unpredictable in what they determine to be an acceptable risk and what they will not accept. I agree that some of those instructions make one's hair stand on end—I do not have enough to stand on end—and that if people read them, they would be confused or terrified about the possible side effects.

The person whom one has trusted—the intermediary—is the doctor, or perhaps even the chemist, if one gets the drugs from a pharmacy. I am not inviting the Minister to wear his doctor's or pharmacist's cloak whenever he goes out, but there must be some trust between the Government and the public in communicating risk whenever it might occur.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for being generous and giving way again. Does he recognise that the lay public's understanding of scientific matters can also have a commercial knock-on effect? For example, tons of blueberries have been sold over the past couple of years, because they were thought to be a super-food that counteracted free radicals. More recent information suggests that they perhaps do not do that. One can envisage sales of that product plummeting and the commercial market being affected.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

My hon. Friend is right that food scares can create shifts in the market. When I was a Minister, I had to react to a headline that said something to the effect that "Grapefruit is a killer". Not surprisingly, grapefruit sales plummeted. I looked into the matter and found that grapefruit is a killer if one has just had all one's internal organs operated upon and some of them removed—apparently it is not terribly wise to have grapefruit in the week after major internal surgery. That might be specific to the patient who has had such a serious operation, but it is not a general risk to the public. Grapefruits eventually came back when the public realised that they were perhaps not at risk if they had not major internal surgery. It is difficult to get that message across, particularly if a newspaper headline has already done the damage, as has been said. The work then is reactive, rather than about putting a constructive case to try to explain the issue.

My point, which I am sure colleagues will share, is that we must assume that things will go wrong in that way. We must therefore prepare ourselves constantly to try to explain the situation and put a positive aspect on it. More scientists should take into account the benefits of the public's appreciation of science in, for example, being awarded research grants. I give due credit to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering for increasingly encouraging and perhaps even pressuring their fellows to do that.

We are all in this together. If we want active stem cell research and, ultimately, commercial applications for the benefit of the public, we must defend stem cell research in this country. We have the salutary example of what went wrong in the United States, where the Christian right decided that stem cell research was a cause célèbre and President Bush supported them, rather than science. Slowly that work is being restored in the United States, albeit at the state, rather than the federal, level.

We must all be on our guard and we must all be positive. We must increase the amount of science education in our schools. This debate is not about that, but we must never forget that it is crucial. We must do more to encourage our universities to maintain science. The Higher Education Funding Council recently improved grants to universities for science teaching, but the funding is still not enough. I have proposals on that, but the nation will have to wait until my report is published to learn of them.

Those are serious collateral issues in the context of scientific evidence, which we cannot take in isolation. This debate and the Science and Technology Committee's report are timely and, for the Minister, an object lesson. The euphoria of his appointment is now balanced by the burden of attempting to persuade his ministerial colleagues that he is the most important man in the Government.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Before I call Dr. Iddon, perhaps I should remind the House—without being invidious to him or to the Front-Bench speakers to follow—that there is another debate after this one, for which there is no set dividing time. Speeches have averaged 27 minutes so far, and that might put the other debate at some peril.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 5:50, 9 July 2007

It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Taylor. I also congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend Ian Pearson, on acquiring the role of Minister responsible for science and innovation. I am sure that that is a great privilege for him.

The report on which the debate is founded is based on three separate inquiries undertaken by the Science and Technology Committee. The first was on the ABC classification of drugs, and it has already been debated—in a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate on 14 June. The second was on identity card technologies, and I hope that we have contributed to that ongoing debate. The third inquiry, on which I shall say more in a minute, was on the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive, which is a bit of a mouthful.

The Science and Technology Committee was particularly interested in how the Government use the scientific advisory system as a whole to form their policies. As the Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Willis, pointed out, the Government claim to base their policies on the evidence provided to them. I should stress that we also considered the application of social science, as well as of the natural and physical sciences.

I would like to say a few words about the Select Committee. Last Thursday morning, I was at the parliamentary affairs committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry at Burlington House. I am one of its parliamentary advisers, and a fellow of the society. Representatives of all the great learned and professional societies around the city attended that meeting, as well as representatives of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I want to convey to the House their utmost concern about the possible future of the Science and Technology Committee, to which the Chairman has already referred. They want me to tell the House that it would be almost a calamity if the Select Committee disappeared as a separate-standing, cross-cutting Committee which looks at all science, technology and engineering across Departments—a truly cross-cutting Committee like the Public Accounts Committee. They would prefer to see it survive in its present form, rather than be subsumed into the departmental Committee of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether, if we were subsumed into the departmental Committee, we could still enjoy a cross-cutting role? I do not think that we could, but he might have a different view.

Some of the greatest problems that the Government are facing today need advice from our scientists. They include food scares; E. coli; foot and mouth disease; bovine spongiform encephalopathy—BSE—in cattle and its transmission to man as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria; HIV/AIDS; the threat of avian influenza; substance abuse, in which I include alcohol and tobacco; the threat of terrorism and crime in general; the supply of energy; and climate change. These are all examples of policy areas that have required, and will continue to require, a scientific input. The current review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 is another example of the importance of scientific advice in advising the Government on the way forward. In a recent session with the chief medical officer, I got the distinct feeling that scientific research was ahead of even his thinking in this policy area.

In March 2007, the then Government chief scientific adviser, Lord May, published his "Guidelines on the Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making", which was updated in 2000 and 2005. In March 1998, the then Select Committee on Science and Technology published a major inquiry into the scientific advisory system, which we have followed up, as my hon. Friend Dr. Gibson has already mentioned. A number of reports, such as Lord Phillips' report on BSE and CJD in October 2000, Government reports such as the White Paper "Investing in Innovation" published in 2002, and the Government's 10-year investment framework for science and innovation have strongly influenced the application of science in Government policy making during the time of this Government.

The Committee has always taken the view that the Government's chief scientific adviser should be seen to be as independent of Departments as possible. Indeed, our report recommends that the CSA should sit in the Cabinet Office with a seat on the Board of the Treasury, rather than in the Office of Science and Technology or, now, in the new Department. We shall wait with interest to see whether the new arrangement will give a greater focus to science, engineering and technology, although I am disappointed, as are others, that the word "science" does not appear in the title of the new Department. Significantly, the head of the Government economic service, Sir Nicholas Stern, has his base in the Cabinet Office, but retains a desk in the Treasury.

We have recommended that the Government's CSA work closely—perhaps more closely than in the past—with the head of the Government economic service and with the three social science chiefs of profession. The Committee has always taken the view that there should be a chief scientific adviser in all the major State Departments. We believe that we were particularly responsible for persuading the Department for International Development to employ a CSA. He has been active and forward looking in his advice to that Department, and I believe that that has had an effect on its work.

Departmental CSAs have been appointed both from within State Departments and by secondment from positions outside. Those appointed from outside usually work on a part-time basis, for three or four days a week, as well as continuing to work for their former employer, which is often a university. The evidence that we have collected suggests that there are advantages in seconding people to those positions from outside the great State Departments. They bring in a lot of outside experience, and they can also go back and work with their research students, enjoy discussions and raise questions about their work in government with their colleagues in academia or industry.

Such outside appointments have traditionally been short fixed-term appointments, which has resulted in quite a turnover, and quite a range of advice coming into the major State Departments throughout the secondments. Our report commends the Department for Transport's model. Its CSA has been, and still is, an outside appointment, but a deputy has been appointed from within the Department to advise the externally appointed CSA on the advice available in the Department. We feel that it is important to run CSAs and their deputies in that way, and we recommend that other Departments adopt that model.

The Committee also believes that departmental CSAs should be "on top" and not "on tap", as the report put it, which means that they should be involved in all major policy decisions in their Department. We have collected evidence that things can go wrong if that is not the case. I shall come to the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive in a moment. In that case, things went terribly wrong because there was not full consultation. While departmental CSAs are directly answerable to their permanent secretaries, they should also be allowed to interact freely with the Government's CSA, and with their equivalents in other Departments, so that there is a free flow of information across government in the scientific advisory service.

In my youth, there was a Government scientific service—indeed, I almost joined it—and the Committee strongly believes that it should be re-established. We have collected evidence that those scientists who are employed by the Government—we cannot find out exactly how many there are across the Departments—tend to hide their scientific role, because they feel that if they display their scientific background, they will not be preferred for promotion, which is rather sad. The civil service appears to prefer generalists to specialists, but we are dealing with some pretty specialist policy advice. We feel that State Departments need scientists to display their scientific ability freely.

In recent years, the science base of the civil service has been weakened by loss of the laboratory of the Government chemist, by the transformation of the Forensic Science Service, by the creation of QinetiQ out of the Ministry of Defence, and perhaps in other ways too. There is a Government social research service, a Government economic service, a Government statistical service and a Government operational research service, so why, I ask the Minister, do we not have a Government service for the natural and physical sciences, engineering and technology?

In all its inquiries, our Committee has always been influenced by the evidence, both written and oral, that we have received from a plethora of professional and learned societies and organisations. In engineering, for example, there are more than 40 professional organisations representing the different kinds of engineers across Britain. As I have already said, I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It has become clear to the Committee that the advice of all these bodies is not being utilised to best effect by Governments. The professional organisations are there. They carry out many inquiries themselves, and all this advice—from the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and hundreds of others—is available to Governments. I know that the Royal Society of Chemistry was extremely pleased last year when its council was invited to 10 Downing street for a discussion on the future of energy supplies.

A number of other external agencies also advise the Government. We should mention the Council for Science and Technology—the top-level advisory board on science and technology that was re-launched in 2004. Just the other day, our Committee was questioning the present chief scientific adviser about the past and present CST and its role. No doubt a report will appear in the next few days. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is frequently cited as an exemplar of good practice in respect of its scientific advisory system on account of its establishment of an independent scientific advisory council comprising 16 members to support the work of the departmental CSA.

Implementation of the Gershon review appears to have increased the Government's reliance on external consultants as sources of technical and scientific advice. Sometimes the Government's own agencies—and even in-house expertise—are ignored, while external appointments are made, which cost Departments a small fortune. For example, between 6 April 2005 and 18 April 2006, the Home Office paid PA Consulting £14,248,799.21 for its work on the identity card programme. I sometimes have nightmares wondering what the 21p was spent on!

My own professional society, the RSC, has expressed concern over

"the use of private consultants by Government which has had the effect of undermining the traditional willingness of the scientific community to contribute to the formal consultation process".

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Can my hon. Friend enlighten me about the number of scientists or outside groups that advised the Government on the recent avian flu outbreak at the Bernard Matthews plant in Suffolk? Were all those groups united, different or what—and who came up with the idea that it was a wild bird that brought in the flu from Hungary?

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

My hon. Friend asks me a difficult question, which I cannot answer, but I am sure that the advice came from a plethora of organisations. I have forgotten exactly which one was responsible for the advice about the bird coming from Hungary.

As I was saying, the RSC was critical of the lack of expertise in State Departments, which often led to a lack of competency to frame the right questions to outside organisations or consultants, to recruit the right advice or to understand the answers provided. The Royal Society has fellows working worldwide in every discipline of science and engineering. What a resource for the Government to tap into! Sometimes the Government do, but even the Royal Society feels that it has much more advice to offer. In the USA, the National Research Council was established specifically to provide scientific advice to the Government through the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

Obviously, good advice is related to good research. In key policy areas—for example, supporting the ABC classification of controlled drugs—we collected evidence that the research was inadequate to support Government policies and that the Government were not investing in much needed research in key policy areas. Academics will not engage in research for the Government if they are prevented from publishing it within a reasonable time frame. We also collected evidence that Departments were not publishing all the research data amassed, but only such that supported Government policy. Much of it was not published at all, which is clearly unacceptable. I should point out that academics are often inhibited from collecting detailed advice for the Government, particularly when they are not able to publish it rapidly, because they operate under the constraints of the research assessment exercise. Perhaps that is why the Government do not receive much research from academia

Much of the legislation—a very high percentage of it—affecting our constituents is now formulated in Brussels. Personally, I do not believe that our Government are very good at scrutinising EU legislation. During our Committee's inquiry, we came across a good example of a European directive—I have already referred to it—that will have an adverse effect on the use of magnetic resonance imaging equipment in clinical practice and research into disease diagnosis. I refer, of course, to the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive. If implemented without change, it will cause great damage in those areas.

The directive was adopted by the European Parliament in April 2004 and was originally scheduled to be enshrined in law in member states by April next year. In preparing it, the European Commission was heavily reliant on only one source of advice—namely, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, or the ICNIRP. However, significant uncertainties still appear to exist around the scientific basis for the guidelines that were published on the use of electromagnetic frequencies.

To produce an image, MRI requires the body to be placed in a static magnetic field while it is irradiated with a time-variable radiofrequency. That causes electromagnetic frequencies to be emitted in three different frequency ranges. The directive sets EMF exposure limit values, but EMF from static fields was excluded—subject to a review in 2009—because no agreement could be reached on static fields. Although the EU advisory committee on health and safety was asked to consider an exemption from the directive for MRI, the request was initially rejected.

In the UK, the National Radiological Protection Board advised the Health and Safety Executive on the directive, urging that the HSE should take note of the ICNIRP guidelines on which the directive was founded. A regulatory impact assessment was prepared by the HSE, but despite the fact that it was aware of the possible impacts of the directive on the MRI community, it failed further to explore its consequences. We could find no evidence that the HSE had consulted its chief scientist, the CSA at the Department of Health or indeed the medical royal colleges. In that respect, both the HSE and the NRPB acted in contravention of the guidelines laid down by the Government chief scientific adviser.

Effectively, as a consequence of the lack of consultation with the MRI community and the failure of that community itself to recognise the significance of the physical agents directive on its work, the directive was cleared by the European Parliament for approval and implementation next year. As a result, if implemented without amendment, most MRI procedures will become extremely difficult or even illegal throughout British hospitals. Let us just imagine that. The European Commission was not fully aware of the work going on in the MRI community and believed that the directive would have little effect on the use of MRI in hospitals. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. Ironically, MRI uses non-ionising radiation, which is a lot safer than the ionising radiation technique that it has largely replaced—namely, the use of X-rays.

The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the directive's impact some two years after its adoption reflects poorly on the influence of scientific advice on the policy making process in Brussels, to which we are subject to a great extent. Lord Hunt argued to the Commission that the ICNIRP guidelines were widely accepted and followed. He told our Committee:

"We felt that there was no need for the directive because we already have these guidelines."

Well, we have got the directive. I am, however, pleased to report the latest news—which I received only today—that it is now unlikely to be implemented before 2009, or even 2010. Two recent studies have demonstrated that the limits set by the European Commission are much too low, and are being routinely broken by MRI scanners in clinical and research settings throughout our hospitals. The results of the study commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive showed the problem to be more extensive than anyone had expected. As a result, the European Union's advisory committee on health and safety will propose an amendment to postpone the directive's implementation date.

That is just one example—a very serious example—that our Committee encountered showing that if policy makers do not take scientific advice from as wide a spectrum of scientists as possible, legislation may be extremely faulty. However, I am pleased that the Commission has accepted that the directive itself is faulty and will probably now amend it.

It is a given that the Government can no longer ignore the advice that is available from all our scientists, engineers and technologists, especially at a time when Britain is increasingly reliant on their discovery of products that are, by their very nature, highly technical in production and highly sophisticated in operation. It is also a given that the Government must improve the structure of the way in which that advice is gathered—a point made strongly in our report. The Government's response to most of our 69 recommendations is quite positive, but changes will be needed in future.

Although we believe that Government must consider the evidence provided for them, we accept that the final policy outcome is likely to take other factors into consideration, which will depend on timing in the political cycle. Ministers will still make their judgments with the political consequences in mind, but we hope that they will rely increasingly on scientific advice as well.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills 6:12, 9 July 2007

I welcome the Minister to his new brief. I think he will find it very exciting, and I look forward to discussing scientific matters with him both formally and informally. I have been my party's science spokesman for some years, during Lord Sainsbury's time and that of the Minister's predecessor, Malcolm Wicks, who was in post for only eight months. He had made an excellent start but sadly, just when he felt that he had conquered the subject, he moved on. That is the nature of reshuffles. However, I wish the new Minister well.

I must declare an interest. As well as being my party's spokesman I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, and I was involved in this inquiry. I also have an interest in evidence-based policy making and in the outcome of the inquiry's recommendations. The inquiry itself was lengthy and extremely thorough, and our detailed report contained a number of recommendations. It was introduced very well today by my hon. Friend Mr. Willis in a clear, succinct and focused speech. I think that all members of the Committee, and indeed all hon. Members, are grateful for the work that he has done so far. We also recognise the contribution made to the whole debate by his excellent predecessor as Chairman, Dr. Gibson.

As we have heard, the report spun off three smaller reports on drugs policy, MRI and identity cards. Unfortunately we do not have time to discuss them all in detail, and some have already been discussed in Westminster Hall debates, but one problem that the Committee identified was an occasional difficulty with terminology. Select Committees take evidence, but it is not always scientific evidence on which we would want policy to be based. That produces the sort of confusion that arose in relation to the drugs report.

Of course, not all policies are liable to be decided on the basis of scientific evidence. There may be no evidence at all when an issue that is relatively nebulous nevertheless requires Government and political parties to make policy. Sometimes economic considerations are overriding, sometimes ideological considerations are overriding, and sometimes there is a manifesto-based policy. Those who have made a commitment to do something must have very good reasons not to do it. As the report points out, however, in all those circumstances it is necessary for policy makers—both in Government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, in Opposition parties—to be clear about their reasons when they do not follow scientific advice. It is then incumbent on those debating in the political process to respect what has been said, as long as it is transparent.

As the report makes clear, if a policy is made on the basis that it is in line with scientific evidence and such evidence is not published, insufficiently published or selectively published, or does not appear to back up the policy, Government and, indeed, other political parties can be criticised. Policy must be introduced with a statement that is honest and transparent about the extent to which it relies on science. I have caused trouble in my party by requiring such statements.

I look forward to policy announcements from the Conservative party. I believe that the reclassification of cannabis from C to B will be flagged up in a forthcoming policy document. I should be fascinated to know what evidence there is that such a reclassification will do anything to reduce consumption and improve matters. All the evidence suggests that if cannabis is to be criminalised, it belongs in class C. There was no increase in cannabis use when it was reclassified from B to C, and that reclassification allowed policy to become more rational and more easily understood by those with whom we needed to communicate.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is a good example of the need to be careful about the quality of scientific advice. What concerns us is not the toxicity of cannabis but the message that is conveyed to members of the public, particularly those who are unwise enough to use such substances and who may not have the hon. Gentleman's wisdom and experience based on genuine scientific evidence.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the health risks of cannabis, but the classification of drugs is not based solely on health risks. Otherwise, as our report makes clear, we would have had strong words to say about alcohol and cigarettes. However, the message to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be assessed scientifically. Our report, which I commend to him, makes it plain that there is no evidence that classification sends a message, or that any message it does send has an impact. We could find no such evidence, and nor could the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. While it is a nice thought, it is not good enough to criminalise to such a degree the behaviour of so many people in a way that is counter-productive, in the hope that a message will be sent, let alone received.

Both the Science and Technology Committee and the Joint Committee on the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill, also chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, are looking closely at scientific evidence. I believe that reports should benefit from science checks of that kind. The Joint Committee will consider the policy of removing anonymity from gamete donors, which is a very contentious issue. I hope that its report will make it absolutely clear whether the evidence suggests that it would have any benefit or whether it seems likely to be counter-productive in increasing secrecy and damaging gamete supply, in which event people would not be able to be treated and no child would benefit in the long run.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Is it not important that any evidence that is relied on has been peer reviewed? Some years ago, I was involved in attempts to ban high-dose supplements of vitamin B6. In that case, there were merely one or two publications of non-peer reviewed research.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

The hon. Gentleman has detailed knowledge of that subject, and is probably the leading expert on it in the House. He is right to highlight that it is important that when the Government or any other policy maker produce a policy and publish the evidence, there must be a statement as to the adequacy and strength of the evidence. In many health care guidelines, grades of evidence are now attached to recommendations, rather than simply a reference. That practice was not addressed in the report, but the Government might want to learn from it.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the ability to repeat data is an essential aspect of science? One piece of published work is not enough; there must be several different attacks on a problem, and several, possibly contradictory, papers must be produced. In such situations, the problem arises of whose evidence is better than whose. That is often part of the nature of science.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

I was going to say that that is part of the nature of science: the situation is never clear because there are always new publications that refine the current view. That is not well understood by the public and the media. However, we need not despair and blame scientists that it is not well understood; it is inevitable that many people who are not scientists do not understand that science is, almost by definition, about a lack of certainty. Non-scientists can often be identified as such by the fact that they are certain. Some religious beliefs will never change, regardless of what evidence is provided. However, the report rightly argues that we should expect the civil service to have an understanding of science and scientific technique, and that it should not be a disadvantage to have such understanding—on the contrary, it should be shared. I was delighted that the Government response accepted the broad thrust of the recommendations and recognised that it was necessary to continue and expand the work that is being done to ensure that civil servants who do not have a scientific background understand the nature of scientific inquiry and evidence.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North raised the religion issue in respect of stem cells. People with religious views bring something valuable to the table: an ethical perspective. I also have an ethical perspective, which happens not to be religious. People can debate matters such as stem cell research, and where we stand on them will be determined by our principles and ideology. However, I urge the Government to be cautious about people who dress up their ideological views—both religious and not religious—as science, such as those who argue in respect of stem cells that everything can be done through adult stem cells and therefore we do not need to work with embryonic stem cells. That is simply incorrect. Such people must be asked, "If it turns out that work on adult stem cells is shown not to work or not to be effective, would you then support the use of embryonic stem cells?" Their answer is usually no. There is a danger of pseudo-science being promulgated to dress up what are perfectly valid ideological, religious or moral views. Such views have a place in these debates, but they should not be confused with science.

The Government have been fortunate in having benefited from the last two excellent chief scientific advisers—Lord May and Sir David King. Their reputations in the science community and among the media and the broader public have done much to underpin the Government's credibility on science matters.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

For the avoidance of ambiguity, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is referring to government with a small "g", thereby including the last Conservative Government to which Lord May—as he now is—was chief scientific adviser, and with whom I worked closely?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

Indeed, I am happy to do so. We in this House benefit from having the experience of Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who have been involved on the front line of science policy—Members who have served on the Select Committee and, as in the hon. Gentleman's case, have also been Ministers with responsibility for science and have therefore received advice from such people as my constituent Lord May.

I wish to raise with the Minister a couple of issues that were addressed in the report. There was a recommendation to do with the double-counting of non-scientific opinion. Scientific responses to consultations often put forward the science and then also say—as the Royal Society recently did in responding to the Government consultation on embryology, and especially inter-species or hybrid embryos—"This is the science, but we must of course bear in mind the fact that there will be public worries about it, so perhaps we should be cautious." However, the anti-science or non-scientific evidence—I do not use those terms pejoratively—often does not give any credence to the scientific side and says, "We say 100 per cent. that we must not do this as it is wrong." Therefore when the scores are added up, there are one and a half bids for caution and only one bid for going ahead on the basis of the science. When there is considerable lay membership on scientific advisory committees, there is a danger that we get diluted scientific advice instead of pure scientific advice. So when the Government consider such advice along with that of other stakeholders—which is the right thing to do—the result is a dilution of the scientific message. The Government recognised that that was a problem and undertook to do something about it. Do they have any further thoughts on that?

I wish to reinforce points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and Dr. Iddon, which were supported by Mr. Taylor, about the future of the Science and Technology Committee. I should make it clear that some Members present have an interest in the subject as we are members of the Committee in question. However, there is a twofold danger in relying solely on a departmental scrutiny-type committee, regardless of how well it is chaired and does its work. First, there will be a tendency for it to be dominated by the university agenda, which is highly political. It is right that that should be so, as that is an important sector of public policy; it will flex its muscles both politically and in the media and by means of the institutions themselves. Secondly, and crucially, as with the Public Accounts Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee, in terms of science and technology there is a case for cross-departmental scrutiny of Government and Government agencies because that cannot entirely be invested in one Department. I hope that the Minister has established, and will develop, that important cross-departmental role. I ask him to share his thoughts on this matter—as far as he can, as it is subject to negotiation. Does he recognise the importance of there being a cross-departmental scrutiny role in respect of science and technology?

I also seek elucidation from the Minister on the Government's policy on publishing evidence. Page 17 of the Government's response addresses the Science and Technology Committee's recommendations 34, 35, 37, 50 and 51. The Committee's report made it clear that evidence underpinning policy should be published. The Government response states that they will publish that except in respect of freedom of information and data protection legislation exemptions. If those exemptions cover advice to Government, that could catch all, or much of, the evidence that one would hope would be published when the Government produce a policy. To be fair, it should be added that the Government say that it is final advice to Government that would be caught by freedom of information legislation. The Government's response states in paragraph 25 of the introduction:

"Inputs other than evidence...will influence policy outcomes"— we have already accepted that. It continues:

"Nevertheless, where possible, the Government agrees that processes should be transparent and the balance of evidence exposed. Transparency may not be possible in reserved areas. Examples of reserved areas include advice that precedes a final policy outcome".

It is not clear to what extent that covers the evidence or the view taken of that evidence by a departmental chief scientific adviser, because the evidence is collected, the DCSA considers it and makes a recommendation to Ministers. It would be unfortunate if none of that process could be seen, especially the crucial latter stage. It is not clear from the Government's response what their plan is in that regard.

I shall not go into the areas of the report covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I strongly support his concern about the loss of capacity and, therefore, the need for a Government scientific service. I also support what he said about trials and pilots. It is welcome that the report made it clear that there is an onus on Opposition parties not to attack the Government for responding rationally to a pilot or trial that does not work. If a pilot or trial is ignored, it becomes early implementation followed by roll-out, and that could lead to a great waste of money.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North made several important points about the need for the scientific world to be quick on its feet. There is a dilemma between the need for rapid rebuttal and the need to ensure that the scientific process is not compromised by a rush to comment. The role of the science media centre has filled that gap to some extent, because it has experts on tap who, within the limits of their expertise and with care, can make a rapid response to a scare story, so we do not have to rely on the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences to set up a six-month working party to produce the definitive statement long after the story has taken off. The science world has understood that and that is why it funds the science media centre—it can redress the balance.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton made some important points about scientific capacity in the civil service, the understanding of risk and the way in which the media behave. The first newspaper I buy every day is the Daily Mail, because it is an excellent newspaper. Although I usually disagree with it on issues of policy and ethics, it transmits its message effectively and one can understand what is going on. Of course, its interest, and that of other papers, is in selling copies, and it will never have scientific accuracy as a priority. Nor will it be willing to recognise the problem that if there is one maverick with whom 99.9 per cent. of the scientific world disagree, the broadcast and the print media will tend to give both sides, which suggests to the public that there is a more even split.

Politicians are in a privileged position, because they can think, take advice and try to find the scientific consensus on an issue. They do not have to jump on a bandwagon. MMR was handled correctly by the Government and I was pleased to support them 100 per cent. at the time. Some Conservative Front Benchers at the time—and I exclude the hon. Member for Esher and Walton—did not handle it correctly, because on public health issues there can be a high price to pay for political opportunism. Little could be done other than embark on the slow process of trying to explain to the media that the evidence for MMR causing autism simply was not there. While we cannot say that anything is 100 per cent. safe—and the Government were right not to try to claim that, because that is also a dangerous thing to say—the approach had to show that the evidence base was clear. The fact that Andrew Wakefield is now up before the GMC on charges of serious professional misconduct in connection with his research is an extra factor, albeit many years later, that suggests that those of us who considered the overall scientific picture—and not just the newspaper headlines—were right on that issue.

The report mentions the precautionary principle and the problem of risk. We came to the view that the precautionary principle was an unfortunate phrase. Indeed, the chief scientific adviser said in evidence that the word "principle" seemed to imply some rule that whenever there was a potential risk, the Government had to respond. The Committee were right to applaud the use by the Government and the chief scientific adviser of the term "precautionary approach" and to make it clear that scientific progress must not be stopped because of a small potential risk. The report went further and said that the Government should lobby within the EU to change the terminology and approach taken by the EU—from the misunderstood term "precautionary principle", which means different things to different people, to a much more fleshed-out view of what we mean by a flexible precautionary approach. I was disappointed that the Government's response effectively was to give up, saying that it was in too many international agreements and we would have to live with it. I think that the Government should advocate change in that area.

In conclusion, I applaud the work by the members of the Committee, not including myself in this case. I also thank the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for going into so much detail and clarity about the particular example of MRI, which was a good example that the Committee chose to take up. I hope that this important report will be one of a series of reports that the House will continue to receive from a cross-cutting Science and Technology Committee.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:36, 9 July 2007

I welcome the Minister to his new role. I shall endeavour to keep my comments brief, as I represent a rural constituency and the next debate will be of great importance to my constituents. I very much enjoyed listening to hon. Members' measured tones, and I especially enjoyed the introduction of Mr. Willis. I also welcome the report. I am especially grateful for the inclusion of this sentence:

"We have argued that the phrase 'evidence based policy' is misleading and that the Government should therefore desist from seeking to claim that all its policies are evidence based."

That is absolutely right, and I am delighted to see it in the report. I am sure that the new Minister will try to ensure that the Government take that advice.

It has certainly been my experience that when a change in policy has been science based, the Opposition have not accused the Government of a U-turn. The example I have in mind is the decision that the Minister for the South West, Mr. Bradshaw, took as an environment Minister to stop the reactive culling of badgers with tuberculosis, because the independent scientific group research showed that it was making the situation worse. Nobody criticised that decision: indeed, we welcomed it and it was the right thing to do, given the scientific evidence. Unfortunately the ISG did not go on to give the science-based evidence that Ministers need to make a decision on that biological problem, but it illustrates my point that Opposition parties will not jump on the bandwagon when the Government make a correct decision.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the report was the Krebs report, and that the culling was based on scientific evidence?

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right: the initial report was on the Krebs trials, which was followed by the independent scientific group.

I was also interested in the comments by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough on biometric identity cards and genetically modified crops, and principles as opposed to use. That is an area where science has played an important part.

In my experience, one of the areas in which the Government ignore the science is fishing quotas. Just before Christmas every year, there is a difficult conflict for Ministers to resolve between fishermen who want to catch more fish and the report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, saying that fish populations are too low and that it would be dangerous to continue fishing. If the scientific evidence being given to the Government is inadequate and they are ignoring it, they should try to ensure that the scientists look at the right things to give them evidence that they need. That is not happening at the moment. It would help our fishing industry, and others such as sea anglers, if the Minister, who was formerly at DEFRA, got that message across.

Dr. Gibson talked about stem cells, and I was sympathetic to his comments. When people get emotional about this matter, they forget the medical benefits that could accrue to their children, parents or grandchildren. He was right to talk about the need to keep science and research in the UK instead of exporting it as a result of an unhelpful climate here.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his ability to explain the microwave and about whether the public understand science when it is presented to them. He is right; this is a problem. We should not underestimate the general public. By and large, when they care about a subject, they are eager to learn about it, they want good information, they will take the scientific evidence at face value and they will believe it. It is only when there is conflicting scientific advice that there is a problem.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we need a chief scientific adviser. I do not know the answer at this stage. There is always an urge to have a high priest-like figure to advise the Government and give the best information; the difficulty is whether that is a role for a single person. The hon. Gentleman's speech was interesting and I can only encourage him to go on spreading coffee shops across the scientific community.

My hon. Friend Mr. Taylor was an eminent science Minister. I regret missing some of his speech, which I am sure was every bit as good as I imagine it to have been. He talked, importantly, about the role of science in schools and how it is important for schoolchildren that more science be taught and that it be taught as well as possible.

I noticed that the Government have three Departments covering scientific work: Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform; Innovation, Universities and Skills; Children, Schools and Families. Sadly, not one of those has the word "science" in its title. My hon. Friend talked about the importance that science should be accorded in government, with perhaps even a Minister in the Cabinet. I do not know whether that is essential, but his message was that the Government need the best quality information. That applies equally to those in opposition. He also talked about bioterrorism—a subject that will continue to worry people and needs the best possible brains to ensure that we are adequately protected.

Dr. Iddon talked about the future of the Select Committee, and I hope that he is right and that it will continue its excellent work. He also talked about the role of scientific advisers and their involvement in all dimensions of departmental decision making. That sounded eminently sensible and I am sure that they play a vital role. He also talked about all the different types of science and countered his earlier argument when he said that there were 40 different types of engineer. I felt that demonstrated the problem; if we want the best quality information, how do we find the man or woman who has it when there are so many to choose from? He talked about scientists not being used enough, and he was right.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East was asked a difficult question about the infected bird from Hungary. I intervened to say that we need a clearer picture of how an infection, which could have had more serious consequences for human health, could be spread around Europe quite so easily. The Government handled the matter very well, considering the facilities that were available to them. We need all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle if we are to qualify that opinion and to judge whether the Government handled it right.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East then went into a frenzy of mnemonics. He talked about the MRI community; I thought that was all about scans, and I was right. He then talked about the ICNIRP and the HSE and the consequences on the MRI community. I thought he had finished, but he then brought in the NRPB as well. I congratulate him and I am delighted to hear that the MRI scan is safe and that people can be reassured. I was also delighted to hear that the European Commission has reviewed its faulty directive.

Dr. Harris talked about policy makers being clear in respect of muddling scientific evidence with ideological evidence, which we strayed into in discussing cannabis. My hon. Friend Mr. Simpson was on the Committee that dealt with the matter and he assures me that the hon. Gentleman was right: the downgrading of the message was not the key; there was an important medical issue. A debate that improves the quality of the public's understanding might protect people to some degree and, by definition, the Select Committee's report is helpful, successful and useful; I look forward to reading it.

The hon. Gentleman talked about MMR. My children were born at a time when it was extremely difficult for parents to decide what to do. One of the problems that we faced with GM crops, and perhaps to a lesser extent with MMR, is the confusion that the public, parents and customers of GM crops face—who to believe. Why should the Government get involved in the debate, and what is their ulterior motive? That was particularly difficult in the debate on GM crops, as Lord Sainsbury was a key funder of the Labour party. All politicians are faced with the accusation, "Well you would say that, wouldn't you?" But that fact made it harder for the science to come through, and it continues to this day.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view about Lord Sainsbury, but the allegation, "You would say that, wouldn't you" could equally be made against Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. As membership organisations, one of their issues is to expand their membership by campaigning. Even a scientist speaking for those organisations has a huge vested interest in taking the line that they take. That accusation should be identified not only with industry and investors, but with pressure groups and NGOs.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not agree; there is a difference between the trust one places in NGOs and the trust that one is obliged to place in the Government. The focus of today's debate has been the need to ensure that the Government receive the best possible advice. Ultimately, they have the power to decide and we have to live with the results. When the Government make a decision, it is essential they get it right. If the Government are thought to be influenced by ulterior motives, it makes it harder for people to support their argument. That is an important consideration.

I do not know whether the Daily Mail is right, whether Lord Sainsbury is right or whether the GM debate is right, but I do know that if one observes the debates it is difficult to understand them at the right level. I watched a programme on medical research and genetic modification. It was clear that GM technology has a vast role to play in improving the health of all people, particularly those in less-developed countries. I thought it a shame that we had not had that debate on GM crops. The crop that was licensed in the end was cattle maize. Why were we fighting a battle about cattle food when we should have been fighting about tobacco plants being modified to produce a cure for AIDS, about different types of antibodies being produced in cattle, or about liver transplants using GM sheep? That life-or-death science is much more important, but it was denigrated because the whole battlefield and area of debate was trivialised and, possibly, influenced by Ministers. That was a great shame.

We must be careful about mixing scientific and ideological views. I might have muddled things, and I expect that I shall be bombarded with irate letters, but it is important that we make those differences clear, so that people—the general public or the Government—can get the best possible information. I hope that the Government will take careful note of the helpful report, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills 6:50, 9 July 2007

I begin by thanking all the Members who expressed their good wishes to me in my new role as Minister for science. I am grateful to Mr. Willis for introducing the debate, and thank him for his warm welcome to the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills—DIUS. I understand that Dius was the Roman God of oaths; I express a personal oath that science will run through and be at the heart of the new Department's policies. The hon. Gentleman will not find us lacking in making sure that science is regarded as being of the utmost importance to our Department.

I am also grateful to other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I acknowledge that there is always room for improvement and that there are always lessons to be learned, so we welcome the scrutiny of the Science and Technology Committee. Before I respond to the important points that have been raised, I shall set out our general approach to the Government's use of scientific advice; I want to give a clear sense of the considerable progress that we have made as a result of the contribution of scientific evidence to departmental policy making in the past 10 years.

We have a long record of commitment to the UK's science base. In the 2002 spending review, we announced the largest sustained growth in science expenditure for at least a generation, and that growth continues. We have strengthened departmental use of science and research by appointing chief scientific advisers in most Departments. We have strengthened the use of scientific analysis in policy making through the publication of guidelines that set out how evidence should be sought and applied, and through the code of practice on scientific advisory committees. We are now working with Departments to ensure that the value of those approaches is recognised and applied.

Most Departments have published or are publishing their own science and innovation strategies. My former Department, DEFRA, has gone further by bringing together all its analytical inputs as its evidence and innovation strategy. That valuable step could usefully be developed across other Departments. We continue to review how Departments identify their science requirements and how they commission new scientific advice and science in general. We have completed and published reviews of the HSE, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, DEFRA and the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as a first-stage report on the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Reviews of the Department of Health and one other Department are also planned for this financial year, and we remain committed to completing reviews of all the main science-using Departments in the next few years.

The foresight programme, which moved into its second phase in 2002, creates and explores challenging visions of the future in areas where science could offer new economic and quality-of-life opportunities for society or contribute directly to Government policy development. The programme reinforces cross-government working, uses rigorous independent peer review throughout its analysis and has a clear policy focus, and there are agreed departmental responsibilities for implementing the results. The recent report of the Select Committee on Public Administration, "Governing the Future", commended the work of the foresight programme and its ability to undertake systematic strategic thinking to advise the Government about future threats and opportunities.

The horizon scanning centre's programme, which was launched in March 2005, examines future threats and opportunities that might have an impact on Government policy and feeds the evidence into strategy and policy making. Its work encompasses the full range of evidence, including science and technology, and I was pleased that the Science and Technology Committee commended its innovative work.

Looking to the future, we are developing a framework to measure Government performance in managing and using scientific evidence alongside other analytical disciplines. A framework of evidence on emerging science and technologies developed by our horizon scanning centre is embedded in the Treasury's comprehensive spending review analysis of long-term challenges and opportunities in the UK. As part of the CSR, we have worked closely with the Treasury to identify emerging technology clusters that have the potential to disrupt or enhance policies.

I now move on to the individual recommendations of the Select Committee report, starting with the code of practice for scientific advisory committees, which we see as a key vehicle for developing the role of advisory committees. We are committed to reviewing and updating the code and seeking its wider adoption. We will take into account the Committee's recommendations, but I would also welcome Committee members' proposals for further changes. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, the public consultation was launched on 25 June and will close on 16 September. We will then publish the results and reissue the code before the end of 2007.

We believe that Sir David King's adoption of the role of head of the science and engineering profession presents another opportunity to drive up appreciation of the value of scientific evidence across Government. In response to the Committee's recommendation, we are preparing plans for the chief scientific adviser to lead a campaign across Government to promote good practice and wider awareness of the value of scientific and engineering evidence in policy making across Whitehall. On a broader front, we are working with other heads of analytical professions to gather examples of good practice across all disciplines in government and agree ways of taking that work forward.

We continue to deliver a programme of workshops and events to support improved performance in areas of particular concern; it includes more widespread use of horizon scanning, scientific peer review and engaging the scientific community. We have also worked closely with the National School of Government to develop the scientific element of the "analysis and use of evidence" core skill and to embed horizon scanning concepts in the "strategic thinking" core skill.

The creation of DIUS will have a significant impact on the delivery of that important agenda. I am ambitious for the success of the new Department alongside the other machinery of Government changes. It will provide a strong, integrated voice across Government for effective investment in research, science, innovation and skills, embedding them into the heart of the Government's competitiveness strategy. The creation of the new Department will not mean any loss of momentum in the areas that we have discussed today. On the contrary, it is a positive development. Driving up the Government's management of scientific advice, risk and evidence remains at the heart of both the Government chief scientific adviser's remit and Government policy making.

The route from science to innovation and economic performance will not be lost. It needs to be strengthened and more focused at every stage. There are opportunities for us to do more in those areas. I anticipate strong working relationships not only with the other two new Departments—the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Children, Schools and Families—but more widely across Government. That has to be done within an appropriate regulatory framework that safeguards the environment and health. In developing that framework, we must listen to the public's concerns. It is important to get that balance right.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised several points in his opening comments. All Members referred to the future of the Science and Technology Committee. Let me put on the record the great value that the Government attach to the work of the Committee and the positive and constructive spirit in which its work has been conducted under the leadership of both the hon. Gentleman and his distinguished predecessor. Whatever arrangements are proposed through the usual channels, I hope that value will be recognised and reflected in future arrangements, and that there will be the opportunity and ability for science to be examined right across government. I believe that that is important, but I would direct hon. Members to the usual channels.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's reinforcement of the importance of scientific evidence and risk management in high-profile areas, such as human pandemic influenza and climate change, and they are central to my own thinking.

Turning to the lay membership of scientific advisory committees, which were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and Dr. Harris, the current public consultation on our review of the code of practice for scientific advisory committees will take account of the Select Committee's views, alongside those of research being undertaken by the university of Liverpool to address this very question. That consultation will also give us the opportunity to consider the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough for the wider adoption of DEFRA's scientific advisory council model, with which I obviously have a great deal of sympathy, because I have seen it working well in practice. However, it would be inappropriate for me to prejudge the genuine consultation taking place at the moment.

The position regarding a scientific adviser inside the Treasury remains unchanged since the evidence given before the Select Committee by Sir David King. I am sure that he and my Department will continue to have a very good relationship at all levels with the Treasury. The key point to make is that successive science budget settlements in tight spending rounds have made clear the real value that the Treasury places on science and its importance in creating the knowledge and innovation economy for the future.

The hon. Gentleman also sought improvements in our understanding of the size and nature of the community of scientists and engineers. Although the common employee record can be extended further, my Department is also independently considering how it can work with other Departments to improve such data. It is too early to answer questions about the sector skills review, but I should like to draw attention to the experience of my new permanent secretary, Ian Watmore, who has spent five years on the board of E-Skills UK, the sector skills council for IT and telecoms. He is a former member of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, and Business in the Community. I am sure that this subject will receive a lot more attention from him, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will from me as well.

Recommendation 17 of the Select Committee's report states that we should establish a Government scientific service. Again, that was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. The idea is that there is a need to provide a stronger professional identity and focal point for specialists in government from across the physical and natural science and engineering spheres. In our response in February, we acknowledged the reasoning behind that proposal, but we did not feel persuaded that setting up such a service was necessary to address the Select Committee's concerns. That remains the position today. We still feel that those concerns could be properly addressed through the actions that we are pursuing in connection with professional skills in government and the role of the head of the science and engineering profession, where we are making significant progress. However, we will keep that recommendation under review, and as a new science Minister, I want to do exactly that.

The hon. Gentleman returned to the question of a central fund for research. The chief scientific adviser has been actively engaged by the Treasury in considering cross-cutting policy issues and how they can best be addressed in the future. In some cases, such as research and development to support counter-terrorism, that is likely to involve funding streams that support several Departments' objectives, and we need to bear that in mind.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the research assessment exercise and the potential for new metrics to inform its operation. We see such things as evolving over time. Again, it is right that they be kept under review. The position on the use of pilot schemes has not altered since the Government's response to the Select Committee, but we will work closely with other Departments in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the rather strangely named Cabinet Office "consultation on consultations". As he is aware, that will come to an end in September, when we should be clearer about how that work has progressed. Certainly, communication and consultation are fundamental to the Government.

In response to hon. Members who made valid points about how the media report science, I want to say that it is not for the Government to tell our free press what to write on science issues, but I welcome the activities of the independent Science Media Centre, which arranges media access to real scientists who can provide authoritative independent comment on topical science issues. That is a helpful development in promoting a good debate on science issues that is accessible to the public.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough asked for an update on how we are working with the media. Since the Government's response to the Select Committee's report, through the media emergency forum, we have continued to discuss with the media a range of risk-related issues, including pandemic flu, the fuel and power industry, and business continuity. The Sciencewise programme, which was set up in 2005 by the then DTI to develop public engagement projects that support key policy areas, has already committed to 13 projects, with a value of £1.5 million, on a range of critical science challenges, including brain science, stem cell research, nanotechnology and a range of new emerging technologies identified by the horizon scanning centre. Building on the success of the existing programme, DIUS is now developing an expert resource centre for public dialogue on science and innovation. As announced by the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report in November 2006, it will be launched in April 2008, as part of the future Sciencewise programme.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

The Minister mentions the success of the current programme. Can he say—he might not be able to do so now—how that was evaluated? What criteria were used to judge whether it was successful? Or is it simply a hope that it was successful—or is that his own view?

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The programme is going on at the moment; it will be fully evaluated, and no doubt all the findings will be published.

I want to make a point about the Sciencewise strategy group, chaired by Professor Kathy Sykes from Bristol university, which is providing advice on the objectives and scope of the new expert resource centre. We expect to have completed its specification in the autumn. I would find it helpful if members of the Select Committee wanted to have a dialogue with my officials, and perhaps with Kathy Sykes and some of the others who are advising us. Again, we want to capture and disseminate best practice, and I am sure that we can learn a lot from members of the Select Committee.

My hon. Friend Dr. Gibson talked of two battles: that of making the importance of science more readily apparent to the British public and that of communications. I agree with him that there are lessons to be learnt from some of the debates, on issues such as stem cell research and GM, where different public perceptions are all too clear. He talked about bio-entrepreneurs and gave the good example of a business spinning out and then being bought out by a major pharmaceutical company. Of course, that is one of the routes by which we can commercialise the new ideas that we need to encourage in our science base and ensure that they are not lost—a point made by Mr. Taylor.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the interaction between academics. Often, cross-disciplinary interaction can provide the stimulus to achieve breakthroughs in knowledge. Some of the interaction that we have at ministerial level, however, just seems to me to be like having meetings, and getting the balance right will be crucial.

My hon. Friend also made a number of points that touch on the ethics of research, its transparency, the potential for commercial interests to get in the way, intellectual property and how ideas can be transmitted. In response, I should like to say that throughout history there have been examples of people jealously guarding their ideas rather than transmitting them to the public, but there is a real issue and it should be the Government's role not only to be a staunch defender of intellectual property where it has been validly demonstrated, but to transmit new ideas openly across boundaries, across disciplines and across borders, and getting that balance right is important.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the important role that Parliament has played in developing the UK's approach to stem cell research, which has allowed us to play a leading role in that critical area. That is a good example of public debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Esher and Walton for his kind words and his sagacious advice as a distinguished former science Minister. He raised a number of points about boundaries between the new DIUS and the two other new Departments, and other Departments and the Treasury. I assure him that I will not get corralled in DIUS. I fully agree that science policy needs to go right across Government. He also made some valid points about procurement; that is another important area in which I want to play a role as the Minister with responsibility for science. He also raised the issue of how we can improve scientific literacy. I agree that that is an important area, but I want to highlight the fact that we also need to improve financial literacy and literacy in general. One of the great strengths of the new Department is that it will bring the skills agenda together with the innovation agenda, to produce benefits for all.

My hon. Friend Dr. Iddon talked at some length about the lack of scientific evidence behind some EU legislation, particularly with regard to the physical agents directive. I do not want to respond in great detail, but I agree about the importance of ensuring that the policy-making process in Brussels also takes full account of the scientific evidence, which has not always been the case in the past. From my experience as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am aware of examples where I do not think that decisions are being taken that fully recognise the scientific evidence. My hon. Friend also talked about the role of departmental scientific advisers, and I hope that what I have said about the importance that the Government attach to the role will provide him with some reassurance.

My hon. Friend also said that he thought that the civil service preferred generalists to specialists. I have heard that view expressed by others, but it certainly was not my experience when I was Minister for Trade in the Department of Trade and Industry and we wanted real specialists. Nor was it my experience when I was Minister for Climate Change and the Environment in DEFRA, where, again, the role of specialists in policy making was fully recognised. As I mentioned, DEFRA's science advisory council plays an important role and works very well.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon talked about the nature of scientific inquiry and evidence, and the dangers of pseudo-science. I agree with what he had to say on those subjects. He raised the issue of double counting and referred to the fact that scientists, by their very nature, sometimes express degrees of caution, whereas other people responding to consultations perhaps do not feel quite so constrained. It is the role of Government to make mature judgments based on the evidence that we receive in consultation exercises. We have to weigh the various elements in the balance, looking at the scientific evidence and public opinion.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of freedom of information and whether the Data Protection Act might prevent us from publishing full details of the evidence behind policy decisions. As Minister with responsibility for science, I intend to ensure that I publish in full the reasoning behind all key decisions and publish as much information as possible, without infringing people's rights or the legislation. There should be a general presumption of openness and transparency in all that we do. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the precautionary principle, which I agree is often misunderstood by many people. I want to come back to that, and perhaps we will want to discuss it in more detail on another occasion.

Bill Wiggin is to be congratulated on his change of role. I look forward to continuing to joust with him, just as we jousted with each other from time to time across the Chamber when he was the Opposition spokesman on DEFRA. He summarised a number of contributions that were made during the debate. I take full account of what he has to say about science, the fishing industry and the importance of evidence-based policy making. Again, getting the right balance between the science—where there is some uncertainty and a level of dispute, as he well knows, in the fisheries industry—and mature policy judgments is what it is all about.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of comments about Lord Sainsbury. I want to make it absolutely clear to the House that David Sainsbury completely absented himself from all policy decisions in Government on the issue of GM. Indeed, I shall go further and say that Lord Sainsbury is widely recognised by all who know him as having been an excellent science Minister. He played a leading role in the development of the 10-year science and innovation framework for the United Kingdom and was instrumental in ensuring that the science budget grew massively over the past 10 years. I do not believe that anyone who has met him or talked to him would ever think that he would be influenced by ulterior motives.

When the Science and Technology Committee published its report "Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making" in November 2006, it included 69 recommendations. At the time, the Government welcomed its conclusions and recommendations, and that remains the case today. There is still more to be done. We are not complacent and we want to do more to ensure that science is managed and used to best effect by Government. We have made a great deal of progress over the past 10 years, and we have made further progress since the Committee published its report last year. We are determined to continue making progress. As a Government we remain firmly committed to continuing to improve our use of scientific advice, our management of risk and our use of evidence to support policy. I look forward to the continuing scrutiny of how we do that by hon. Members.

Question deferred, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54(4 ) (Consideration of estimates ).