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Science

Oral Answers to Questions — Innovation, Universities and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 29th January 2009.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:30 am, 29th January 2009

What steps his Department is taking to support evidence-based policy in scientific matters.

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

This is an important issue, and at my request, the Council for Science and Technology recently published a report with recommendations on how to improve links between the academic community and Government. The research councils provide advice to my Department; we used their expertise in developing our "Innovation Nation" White Paper. Across Government, the chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has created a group of departmental chief scientific advisers to give a sharper focus to the contribution that scientific evidence can make on major cross-cutting issues such as climate change.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but in the report to which he referred—the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills report published in December 2008—his chief scientific adviser appears to want not to promote evidence-based science in Government, but rather to defend Government policy, or explain the absence of clear Government policy. How does the Secretary of State intend to develop evidence-based science within Government if his own chief scientific adviser seems unable to do so?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

There are two important points to make. First, the whole point of having a Government chief scientific adviser—he is based in my Department because he has to be based somewhere—is that he is independent of Ministers. It would be quite wrong of me to suggest at the Dispatch Box that he is accountable to me for the advice that he gives. I appreciate enormously the work that he is doing to ensure that there is a chief scientific adviser in every Government Department where it matters, and to raise the status of that scientific advice. I have said this on record many times—I said it to the Select Committee recently—but I will say it again: the Government have got much better at using scientific advice, but they are not yet as good at doing that as they could be. I see it as one of my jobs to champion the matter among Ministers.

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Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation)

The DIUS Committee has severely criticised the Secretary of State's Department for its presentation of data, and partly for a lack of evidence-based policy making, so we were surprised to read this week in The Times that Lord Drayson wants to decide where Government research spending is allocated. That would be in direct contravention of the established Haldane principle. Does the Secretary of State agree with his Science Ministers changing Government policy?

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Photo of John Denham John Denham Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I made what I hoped was a reasonably important speech about the Haldane principle earlier this year. I made it clear that we respect the Haldane principle and that it is the research councils that decide who gets research grants. I also made the point, however, that Ministers and Government have a legitimate interest in the broad shape of research; for example, Ministers have encouraged the multidisciplinary programme across the research councils on living with environmental change, because we believe that that is one of the major challenges facing our society. That is quite different from Ministers deciding which research groups on which research issues should get funding. That is how I believe the Haldane principle should be interpreted in the 21st century, and I think there is a consensus on that among most, if not all, of the scientific community.

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