Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 60-65)

  60. Do you have a timescale in mind?
  (Professor King) There is more work needing to be done on this. A report is anticipated before the end of the year, Dr Iddon.

  61. That is helpful, thank you.
  (Professor King) But, I have to say, I am also planning to get very heavily involved, because I feel this is part of my biggest issue, which is dealing with science in Government, so I can assure you I will be getting closely involved in that.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you very much.


  62. Just before Dr Turner asks a supplementary question, we do realise that you are new in post, but could we just bring to your attention the fact that the Council for Science and Technology, in their report of July 1999, suggested that this review should take place, which is coming up for two years ago; so, perhaps, as a new broom, you will ensure that a little bit of cleaner sweeping does take place?
  (Professor King) I will give you that assurance, Chairman.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Dr Turner

  63. Firstly, will you be looking at the way in which science in Departments is organised between Departments, because, taking the example of science and the world outside Government, it is increasingly interdisciplinary, increasingly involves interdepartmental collaboration, and so forth? And there is a long-standing problem with Government, that it is very departmental, very difficult to join up Departments, and will you be looking to see if this is reflected in the way in which Government-promoted science in Departments is handled and looking perhaps for new ways of structuring interdepartmental research between Departments, because one can think of several examples where the same sorts of disciplines will be involved, and affecting several different Departments?
  (Professor King) I am entirely with the spirit of your question; so if I could answer this, first of all, from the university viewpoint. It is absolutely right that interdisciplinarity is the way forward in science. We have had a century of polarising and we are now moving rapidly into an era when the scientific edges are blurring, and this is really back to the point I started with, that we are able to look at complex phenomena in a very quantitative way, bringing mathematics and physical methods into studying biological phenomena, for example. And in the universities as well we have a problem, because there are empires and emperors, and that is what leads to a silo mentality. We also have professional institutes, which build up walls and barriers to maintain their separateness. So in society at large there is a reflection of the problem you referred to in Government. I have been fighting very hard for the last 15 years of my life in academe to remove those silo barriers and walls, and I can see that that is even more important in Government, if anything, than it is in the other institutions I have mentioned, and it may be even more difficult to deal with. At any rate, that is certainly absolutely the right question to ask the Chief Scientific Adviser. I do see that as a significant part of my role.

Dr Iddon

  64. I must declare an interest, I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, but I do not think this is just unique to that Society, but the professional societies have said to me, and that one especially, that they need engaging a little more in the Government's scientific processes; so I hope that you will take that on board?
  (Professor King) I take that point absolutely. I did read that in your report. Of course, I am also a Fellow of that illustrious Society. Interestingly, I do think that chemistry and physics are in a rather better position than the life sciences, in terms of societies; the life sciences, Ian, are rather Balkanised, are they not?

  Dr Gibson: That is absolute rubbish.


  65. We have come to the end of our session. Before I sum up, may I say that I, too, am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Professor King, thank you very much indeed for coming along to this Committee this afternoon and for giving us such an interesting session; it has been very worthwhile. I hope that you have not found it too much of an irritation, during your rather strenuous concentration on other matters, but life must go on, in the normal sense as well as in the special focus that you have at the present time. If the election is when we all think it might be, this is the last witness session of this Science and Technology Select Committee; we meet once more, this time next week, but it will be a private session to look at a report that we have written. So I think it is very appropriate that the last session of this Committee is with the Chief Scientific Adviser. None of us knows whether we will be on the Committee in the next Parliament; we do not know whether we will be re-elected; I know I will not be on the Committee because I am not seeking re-election, but others may or may not be on the Committee; they may have other things they wish to do. So it is very appropriate that, as we who have tried to pursue the scientific issue over the four years of this Parliament fade away, as it were, we have our last session with you, who are the rising star and the person on whom we are going to rely so much to ensure that science has a proper focus, proper funding and receives the correct level of attention from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. So may I thank you very much indeed for coming along this afternoon and helping us. May I also wish you well in all that you do; and, in particular, thank you for the major effort you are putting in at the moment on this terrible disease that has beset this country. Thank you very much indeed.
  (Professor King) Thank you very much.

  Lynne Jones: Chairman, before we finish, may I say just a few words to record the Committee's thanks for the work that you have done on the Committee and the very effective way in which you have chaired our sessions and kept us all together, and working, I think, very well together. We all wish you very well for the future, in your retirement, and we send your wife our very best wishes, too, for her health.

  Chairman: How very kind. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you.

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