Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Spokesperson for Innovation, Universities and Skills 3:37 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for introducing a rich and fascinating debate. I have learnt much from it. The title it was given was,

"to call attention to the celebrations of the bicentenary of Charles Darwin".

Although mention has been made of them, I should say how great the various exhibitions and celebrations are. Whether it is the huge exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which merits nearly a day's visit, or some of the smaller exhibitions at local galleries and museums, it seems that everyone is trying to come in on the celebrations—and rightly so.

I have been enormously impressed by the breadth of coverage. Perhaps I should also mention the coverage on the BBC, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. If ever one is looking for public service broadcasting at its best, one should see some of the programmes that have been or are about to be shown on the BBC. We benefit in this modern age because, if you cannot get to an exhibition or if you miss the BBC programme, you can go to a website where you can see much of the exhibition and commentary on it, and if, for that matter, you miss a programme, the BBC iPlayer enables you to see it. We benefit enormously, there is so much there to be seen and rightly we should call attention to these celebrations.

I should like to call attention to the programme that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned. I refer to the project at Kew Gardens, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, to provide materials to schools to develop their understanding of the theory and processes of evolution. As the noble Earl mentioned, every primary school—23,000 of them—is receiving a treasure box which mirrors the one that Darwin took on the "Beagle". There was a presentation about this in the Jubilee Room last week. The box contains a plant press, magnifiers, a plant identikit, a mini seed bank and all kinds of experiments that the children can do. They are all encouraged not only to do these experiments but to participate in the great plant hunt. I believe that, among other things, this will provide Kew with the best collection of daisy seeds possessed by any country. All primary school children are being encouraged to collect the seeds and to send them to Kew. We shall see what emerges from that and how many species of daisy can be derived.

For secondary schools, the Wellcome Trust is sending round "Survival Rivals". This is a set of kits based on insects, bacteria and so on, and the children are encouraged to have a look at the whole process—to see hands-on, if you like, evolution taking place.

Both sets of experiments, at primary and secondary levels, are encouraging students actively to participate with hands-on experiments, which is so important in motivating young people to get involved in science. These days, science lessons are too often about watching videos or watching someone else do the experiments rather than doing them yourself. Indeed, the great plant hunt project, in part, encourages children to go out on "thinking walks". I thought about this when the noble Lord, Lord Lea, talked about the damp banks that came from the Origin of Species. In formulating his theories of evolution, Darwin went on thinking walks around Down House. With no laboratory, he used the grounds of his home to devise experiments and test his ideas. Therefore, the children are not only gaining knowledge about plants and the world around them but learning the importance of the systematic collection and collation of materials, and the detailed observation of changes over time. They are learning about the importance of drawing conclusions from those observations, which are the basis for theories, and then subjecting those theories to testing, retesting and discussion by others, which is precisely what Darwin did in developing his ideas. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells said, it is about introducing children to the common journey of wonder and mystery.

One of the books that I was given over Christmas and read with great pleasure was called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. It is about the contemporaries, and to some extent the predecessors, of Darwin—people such as Joseph Banks and Herschel. I thought that The Age of Wonder was a very good name for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, mentioned the importance of scientific method which came down to us from Darwin—of systematic collection, detailed observation, drawing conclusions from those observations on which to base theory, and testing those theories. Those form the basis of scientific method, and adherence to the strict tenets of that methodology has stood British science in good stead over two centuries. We are rightly proud of our achievements in science. Our Ministers boast of how we are second only to the United States in our contributions to world science, punching well above our weight in terms of highly cited scientific publications. Our universities and scientific institutions are sought after by the foremost young scientists in this world. It is interesting that in the past three weeks there have been three important speeches on science policy. The first was by the Minister for science, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson; the second was by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Mr Denham; and the third was by the Prime Minister himself.

The thrust of those three speeches was to question whether we have the current allocation of science funding appropriate to the challenge of meeting the recession. In particular, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, raised the issue of whether the Government needed to focus on certain areas more than others to increase the economic impact of the research base. It is not the place or the time to go into these issues, but I hope that some day we may induce the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, to come before the Chamber and debate science policy. To date, he has not answered one Question or one debate relating to his department.

In the year of the Darwin bicentenary it is worth emphasising one of the central tenets of scientific research and method. By definition research is about experimentation. If we undertake experiments, almost by definition we do not know what the outcome will be. Increasingly the Government are putting pressure on scientists to identify when putting forward project proposals what the economic impact will be. Yet, how can we know what that economic impact will be until we have completed the experiment? If the Government seek too rigidly to support science only when we can identify significant economic impacts, there is a very real danger that we will take up only low-risk projects that are well tried and tested, and for which we know the results, rather than the new creative ideas that come from the long patient process, as with Darwin, of collection, observation and being allowed to think outside the box. That is very important.