Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1-19)


  1. Professor King, welcome to the Science and Technology Select Committee. You have been in post for a few weeks now and we have followed your appointment with great interest; we have followed your activities with very considerable interest, too. It is only sad that we have not been able to meet you before now; we had hoped to do so, and at the time when we were first hoping that we would meet you in some capacity or other you became very involved with the foot and mouth problem, and we thought it would be unwise and unfair to invite you to come and see us at that particular time. You might say that it is unwise and unfair for us to invite you now, but rumours are that our time is short and we thought it was better to get you before this Committee in this Parliament rather than not. I have read, late this morning, the transcript of the evidence that you gave to the Agriculture Select Committee, and when someone asked you why you were not involved in the policy of carcass disposal you made a reply to the effect that you had barely a moment of your life to spare and that you had not been asked to get involved in that, and in any event you had no spare time at all at the moment, and that we can well imagine. So, because of that, we are particularly grateful that you have found a few moments to be with us this afternoon, and thank you very much indeed. I wonder, perhaps, although we do know your background, if you could start by giving us, just very quickly, a summary of your career, and then perhaps telling us what the priorities are that you have had since taking office, and perhaps what they might have been if they had not had foot and mouth overarching? Professor King.

  (Professor King) Chairman, I am delighted to be here, and in more ways than one. One is to get my head, my body and everything else out of foot and mouth for at least a couple of hours. I have just come from a meeting of the Foot and Mouth Disease Group, and it is still the case that much of my time, most of my time, is taken up with the foot and mouth outbreak. But I am delighted to be here, and I could say that if I had not been so taken over by FMD I would have used that time better, hopefully to have met members of the group more informally than I am able to; appearing before you in this way first is perhaps not ideal. You want a little autobiography.

  2. Most of it I know, because I have seen your CV; if you just tell us the position you held in academia before you became Chief Scientific Adviser?
  (Professor King) I am a graduate of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, where I did my PhD, and I was a temporary lecturer there for a year, before coming over to Imperial College as a post-doc. in 1963. My field of research has always been the boundary between physics and chemistry. I am an experimentalist who also uses state of the art computational theory, so putting experiment and theory together is what I do. In terms of the career development, I went from Imperial College to the same place that Ian Gibson went to, the University of East Anglia, where we met up, I went there in 1966, he was already there as an old hand, and from UEA, I was a lecturer in chemical physics there, I went on to Liverpool, as the Brunner Professor of Physical Chemistry, in 1974. In 1988 on to Cambridge as the 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry, and subsequently I became Head of Chemistry there, and Master of Downing, both of which posts I have now relinquished in favour of the current post.

  3. Remind us of the precise date that you became Chief Scientific Adviser?
  (Professor King) The precise date is October 1, but I have always to stress that the job offer came quite late in the day, Chairman, and I was unable to withdraw from all these positions I held in Cambridge until the end of December, so I was really on one or two days a week until the end of December.

  4. And then how have you found the contrast between the work you do now and academia, and apart from the contrast there must be some similarities; is it more contrast than similarity, or vice versa?
  (Professor King) There is a massive difference, massive, Chairman, yes. I think that the biggest difference is that I was totally embedded in a research and teaching atmosphere, and so, although I did have time taken up with administration, I would say that 70 per cent of my time was still engaged directly in doing research. I have a large research group there, and everything was tuned in to that research and teaching atmosphere, even the fund-raising activity, whatever activity else there was, was always peripheral to that very clear objective. Within Government, quite clearly, the objectives are very diverse and the cultural atmosphere is very different, Chairman. I do not think I could have imagined the weight of briefing notes I might be faced with.

  5. I had heard, rightly or wrongly, that you had attempted to keep your research work going at Cambridge, thinking possibly there might be some time for doing that; but then I had heard that you were not able to because of the total commitment in this job, and that was before foot and mouth I heard that.
  (Professor King) Chairman, could I just say, no, I have kept my research going. I have got 15 current PhD students and I do see them, they have been very good about coming in on Sundays and at weekends.

  6. And have you been able to set priorities? I dare say all your priorities have been swept aside at the moment, with the present foot and mouth, but were you in post long enough before foot and mouth to start to set priorities?
  (Professor King) Yes, I think, quite clearly, my initial priority was to get to know how the Office of Science and Technology itself functioned and what its role was with respect to Government Departments, with respect to our European effort, with respect to our international effort generally, and the relationship with the Science and Engineering Base. So the initial phase was just to see how it was all functioning; and, clearly, I also have in mind how I might like to advise that it could better function.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Dr Gibson

  7. I am quite interested in how it all began for you. There you were, having a quiet honeymoon period, easing your way in, finding out what was going on, and suddenly something happened. Could you just kind of outline in general how it moved during this period, how you got involved, in the first place, in the issue of foot and mouth?
  (Professor King) Initially, my response was to keep a wary eye on foot and mouth disease but from a distance, because it seemed to me that if I got involved in asking questions within MAFF too soon I would simply pull them away from their major effort in dealing with the disease. The concern grew because the outbreak continued to grow at quite a high level, and John Krebs had been talking to groups of modellers and had got them together at the Food Standards Agency. And he called me in to a meeting on 21 March, when I heard the output from the modellers, and various people from MAFF were there as well, and two things were apparent to me then, immediately. That (a) with the control measures then in place the epidemic was out of control; and (b) the control measures that were required to bring it under control could be determined by detailed discussion with these modellers, in other words, we could vary the parameters in their models so as to optimise how best to bring the epidemic under control. So on the very next day I began discussions with the modellers with this in mind, and at the same time wrote to the Prime Minister saying that I intended to get involved. Before my letter had actually been sent from my office the Prime Minister had decided to call together a meeting, and so Sir Richard Wilson contacted me and a meeting of the Permanent Secretaries was called; that first met on 23 March, in the morning, and I attended that meeting. The Prime Minister was in Stockholm. He arrived on 24 March, I think, it was the first meeting of COBR that he chaired, and immediately he asked me to set up a Foot and Mouth Disease Science Group to advise COBR, on a day-by-day basis, on bringing the epidemic under control. From that moment on I was completely taken over by foot and mouth disease, and my diary just had to be swept aside.

  8. My next question would be then, what happened? There we were, used to Jim Scudamore on the television telling us what was going on, so what was your position relative to him at any point in this movement, in your role, and David Shannon, of MAFF, and also the Minister for Science, who it seems to me has been extremely quiet on this issue? I wondered where they fitted into the whole process, if they did, or were they moved aside, or what? In your opinion, what went on?
  (Professor King) Can I deal with the last point first, because the Minister for Science within the DTI, I think, never saw this as something for him to deal with, it was rather seen as a MAFF-related affair, and my movement into it was through my position as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet; so it was not wearing my hat as a member of DTI that I moved in there. In terms of the position of Jim Scudamore, I think it is relatively straightforward, that the modellers that I was now discussing matters with, in fine detail, were responding to my Group, and so, immediately, the policy, which became known as the 24-/48-hour policy, was determined from the scientific input that came from my Group. And when it came to talking to the media, it was quite clear that it was the scientist leading that aspect of it that should be presenting it to the media; and I think that that is the only reason. I think the vets who are putting in crucial input on the virology and the development of the disease and the control of the disease in the animals were one part of the input to the scientific advice that I was giving.

  9. A member of this Committee who is an ex-Minister for Science, and continually tells us he was, in this Committee, told me once that in the BSE saga he was kind of isolated from the whole thing, too, as MAFF took it on. Do you not find it strange that a Minister for Science is not right in the centre of all this, even in the sense of being at the meetings just to hear what is going on? It is for the Minister for Science to answer that, I guess, in some ways, but, generally, do you not think the Minister for Science should be involved with it? It says a lot about his, or her, role in the process of science and its impact in this country, if they are either isolated deliberately, or they are just not told, or they do not want to get involved, whatever the reason. It does seem strange to me, would you not agree, that they are not involved?
  (Professor King) I am an adviser and not part of the political process. I think you are asking me a question that should be directed to the Minister for Science. But I did not find it strange, to be honest.

  10. I mean, I could not turn the television on, or turn a radio on, without hearing your dulcet tones, or seeing your pretty face.
  (Professor King) I apologise for that.

  11. But was it not strange that you became the high media profile of this whole campaign; do you think that is the role for the Chief Scientific Adviser? And, skilled as you are in PR, do you think that is the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser, or is it just an accident that you could do it well and efficiently?
  (Professor King) I think I was concerned about, and still am concerned about, overexposure on foot and mouth disease. I would not like to be known as the Chief Scientific Adviser/FMD person. On the other hand, it was clear at the beginning that the clearest advice was coming from the FMD Science Group, and I think it was the manner in which that advice was given that got through to COBR very quickly, it was the clarity of the message, and it was felt by the people who were running the media that that clear message ought to go straight out to the public. So I was not playing for that media role at all, but, nevertheless, I could understand why I should be the person doing it.

Mr McWalter

  12. If I could just check something through with you, Professor King. In early March, Nick Brown said, at a meeting I was involved in, when he was asked about how the disease would evolve, and he was very irritated with people wanting very precise answers to that, at that stage, not unnaturally, but he actually said, "This is a biological phenomenon, not a mathematical one," and yet, of course, precisely it was a mathematical problem, in terms of, as it were, treating it as epidemiological. So was it the case that he was actually being really rather badly advised, from late February and early March, and it was not until some guys, like you, who understood the problem rather better, as a mathematical and not merely, as it were, a biological problem, that really the policy started to get on the rails?
  (Professor King) Mr McWalter, I think that you raise a very important issue, because even today there is a tension between the scientists who are concerned with modelling the epidemic and those scientists and vets who are concerned with the disease in the animals, the virologists; and, I think, within our FMD Science Group, that has been a very creative tension. The modellers have disagreed with each other on the details of input and output, but together they can all see the point of the mathematics. Then these are questions that are asked from the other side. And let me just phrase it in this way. The key question is, if I have a causal relationship between an infection in one animal and infection spreading to another animal then, surely, what I need is to understand that causal relationship, how does that disease go from one to another, and if I understand it and I am smart enough to do the detective work I can do the tracing of contacts and killing off the animals as I discover the tracings, and that is the essential approach of the virologist. The mathematician says, "Hang on, this is too complex a process for me to deal with this on a causal, case-by-case basis, I can use statistics, I can do a stochastic analysis and then that analysis can be used to tell me, with rather a broad brush, what action I should take." Now those two approaches have produced quite a dynamic.

Lynne Jones

  13. It is quite clear, from what you have just said, Professor King, that the expertise to deal with this problem was not within MAFF itself and it needed to bring in other people. What concerns me is that the Chief Scientist in that Department did not seem to realise that, and it was only when John Krebs brought you in that this wider involvement was discussed. Should not the Department itself have recognised its needs and had the capability actually to seek out that additional help? Why did not MAFF take the initiative?
  (Professor King) Can I respond by saying that within MAFF there is a good modeller, his name is John Wilesmith. John is the person who put his finger on the connection between BSE and meat and bone-meal and is a very smart scientist. So MAFF does have a modeller of their own; and so there is the expertise in-house, to a certain extent. I think you were asking me?

  14. I feel that the Chief Scientist in MAFF should have been alert to the need for outside help?
  (Professor King) I think this is a very good question to ask, in terms of, when this is all over and we look at all the lessons to be learned, we are going to have to go back to this. And, I will be absolutely honest, I have had one motivation, and one motivation only, and even as I sit here today that is the motivation, and that is to get this epidemic under control and out of the way with the smallest number of animals dead at the end of the exercise. And I have not spent any time analysing how we got to each position on the way. I came into it on 21 March, and since then I have been looking forward and not backward.

Dr Kumar

  15. My question follows on very nicely from the question Dr Jones has asked. You said to Dr Gibson that you are an adviser; now, to the Agriculture Committee, last week, you said, as an adviser, Scientific Adviser, you were not involved in providing scientific advice on the disposal of carcasses. Well, tell us why not; would it not have been sensible, from your point of view, as an adviser, which you claim you are, and we respect that, to have an overall view of the scientific advice, which you had been brought in to carry out, rather than getting so involved in one particular aspect of the Government policy?
  (Professor King) I am glad you have asked that question, because the initial part of your comment indicates that my response to that question in the last Select Committee was poorly phrased; it is not what I meant at all. I meant to say that I was completely absorbed by the epidemiological side of what I was doing, and I was very pleased to see that the Environment Agency and the Department of Health had put forward a very good approach, in my view, to the problems of disposal at the point where disposal had mounted into an enormous problem. Now, having said that, I attended almost every meeting of COBR; initially, COBR met twice a day, we met through weekends, and through my attendance at COBR I did get totally involved in the question of human health aspects of disposal. I have got involved in other aspects as well; so, for example, the question of vaccination and milk and meat products from vaccinated animals, and looking at the food standards question on that side of it. So I have involved myself in every aspect of this campaign, but my special effort has gone into bringing the whole thing under control.

  16. Professor King, your advice seems to have played a very major role in the decision to extend the cull to neighbouring uninfected farms. Were you involved in the recent decision to relax this policy in certain areas, which led to the saving of Phoenix?
  (Professor King) I am also grateful for that question. First of all, in terms of extending the cull, what my policy stated was very simple, bring down the rate at which you cull the infected premise itself to less than 24 hours, was the primary thing; the secondary aspect was to remove neighbouring premises within 48 hours. These are not necessarily uninfected animals, if we knew they were uninfected there would be no point in doing that. The point is that there is a statistical probability, and we measured this at around 0.17, that each of those farms would be infected, and it is better to take them out before the infection develops to showing symptoms, because by that time the animals are infecting the next farm on the chain. Now you asked me whether my advice was altered and was altered in any way or manner related to Phoenix. I had been arguing, I think, for about seven to ten days, on COBR, for an alteration—


  17. Can you spell out COBR for us, please; or, if not, tell us what it is?
  (Professor King) Cabinet Office Briefing Room, which is the acronym that has been given from the very beginning to the committee that has been operating across Government Departments for the control of this disease.

  18. Thank you. You were leading to Phoenix?
  (Professor King) I had been arguing that we ought to refine the policy, for the simple reason that it was effective but only if implementable, and it was proving difficult to implement, particularly with dairy farmers and particularly with the Cattle Vets Association, who felt that their animals should not be culled unless they actually showed the symptoms of the disease. So I went up to Cumbria, I travelled around and met many farmers and vets, and it was quite apparent that they were very concerned about this. To bring them on board, we designed a better definition of a contiguous premise, which meant, essentially, that, if cattle had been overwintered, for example, in sheds more than 50 metres from a contiguous boundary and no animals had moved between boundary and sheds, for all purposes, this should not be considered to be contiguous; in other words, you would allow that element of discretion on a contiguous cull. I was present with the Minister for Agriculture, and we met, I think, at half-past six on the evening of 25 April, and we worked until, I think, about nine, half-past nine, that evening on this modified cull policy, and at ten o'clock that evening, to my complete surprise, Phoenix emerged on the television. And the next morning it was in the papers and people were surmising that this change in cull policy had been directed by Phoenix.

  19. I do not think this Committee is suggesting that. This Committee accepts, I am sure, that Phoenix was a happy coincidence.
  (Professor King) An unhappy coincidence.

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