Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Special Report


The Science and Technology Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—



Our activities in 2001

1. The Liaison Committee 2000 Report "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive" directed departmental select committees to provide annual reports, reporting on progress on past recommendations, difficulties encountered in Committee work and examples of good practice.[1] In response, we published a Special Report in December 2000, outlining our activities since the beginning of the Parliament.[2] Now that the date of Dissolution of Parliament has been announced, we think that it is timely to update that Special Report, outlining our activities over the past 5 months and also reflecting on the Parliament as a whole.

2. During 2001 - and since our last activity Report - we have published seven Reports and two Special Reports. We have published the Report of a short inquiry on research and development at Corus plc.[3] We have completed our long-standing inquiry into the Scientific Advisory System, publishing a Report on our final case study (Scientific Advice on Climate Change) and a Report on our overarching inquiry.[4] We have concluded our inquiry into the impact of the 1993 Science White Paper, Realising Our Potential, which we extended to take into account views on the 2000 Science and Innovation White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity, and the Science Budget for 2001-02 to 2003-04.[5] We have conducted and completed two new inquiries in 2001: on Genetics and Insurance; and on Wave and Tidal Energy.[6]

3. During 2001, we have held seven oral evidence sessions. As well as the five oral evidence sessions we held in our inquiries on Genetics and Insurance and on Wave and Tidal Energy, we have held two single evidence sessions: on 7 March, with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, on the Science and Innovation White Paper and the Science Budget; and, on 2 May, with Professor David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, on the work of the Chief Scientific Adviser, including his role in the current foot and mouth outbreak.[7]

4. During 2001, we have made two informal visits within the UK: to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency's Chemical and Biological Defence establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire on 1 February; and to the Genome Campus at Hinxton Hall, near Cambridge, on 6 February. We have had informal meetings in London with representatives of the BioIndustry Association and the Chemical Industries Association. And - to offer a modest example of innovative practice, which we commend to other committees - in advance of a formal evidence session, we invited three wave and tidal energy companies to give us informal presentations of the technologies they were developing.

Government Replies

5. In our First Special Report, we reported our concern about the variable quality of Government replies.[8] We were not satisfied by the Department of Trade and Industry's initial response to our First Report of this Session, on Corus plc - Research and Development, and asked the Department to resubmit. We have published their second, more comprehensive, response, together with a response from Corus plc, in our Third Special Report of this Session.[9]

6. More positively, in March 2001, we were delighted to receive from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions a progress report, one year after publication of our Report on diabetes and driving licences.[10] It is the first time that a Department has proactively provided for us an update on progress made in relation to our recommendations. We have commended the DETR's example to other Departments, and hope that they will follow suit.[11]

Eureka Conference

7. In our First Special Report, we reported that each year we, together with the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, had contributed Members to the UK delegation to the EUREKA Inter-Parliamentary Conference.[12] EUREKA is a network for Europe-wide industrial R&D collaboration. We regret that we are unable to send representatives to this year's conference, as it is to take place during the Dissolution of Parliament.

Joint working with the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology

8. As we reported in our First Special Report, one of the unique features of the Science and Technology Committee is that we have a parallel Committee in the House of Lords.[13] Our relations with our counterparts in the Lords have been cordial and we have now held a number of informal joint activities. (We were pleased that Lords colleagues were able to join us in our visit to Porton Down in February, for example.) But, until recently, we had no power to meet formally. In December 2000, we published a Special Report asking for the power to meet jointly with the Lords Committee.[14] We are delighted that the Leader of the House responded positively, by tabling a motion to extend our powers. On 29 March 2001, the House ordered "That the Select Committee on Science and Technology shall have leave to meet concurrently with any Committee of the Lords on science and technology or any sub-committee thereof, for the purpose of deliberating or taking evidence, and to communicate to any such committee its evidence or any other documents relating to matters of common interest". We hope that our successor Committee will find occasion to exercise this power in the next Parliament.

Committee Specialist and Specialist Advisers

9. During the Parliament, we have been greatly assisted by having a Committee Specialist, with scientific expertise, attached to our small team of staff. We have also benefited greatly from the expertise of the specialist advisers who have advised us during the Parliament: Professor Janet Askham, Mr Roger Baker, Professor Michael Brady, Professor Ian Bryden, Professor Derek Burke, Professor John Chesshire, Professor Brian Clarkson, Professor Michel Coleman, Dr Helena Earl, Professor Michael Elves, Sir David Harrison, Dr John Hassard, Mr John Ivinson, Professor Peter Liss, Professor Alan Malcolm, Dr John Pyle, Dr Geoffrey Robinson, and Ms Julie Sheppard. We are grateful to all our advisers for the assistance which they have given us.

Reflections on the Parliament

10. The Science and Technology Committee was first established, as a departmentally-related select committee under Standing Order No. 152, in 1992, to scrutinise the newly established Office of Science and Technology.[15] In 1995, the OST was moved from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry, and there was some suggestion that the Committee's brief might be subsumed within the Trade and Industry Committee (as had happened to the Energy Committee in 1992). We are grateful for the decision of the House, and for the agreement of the Government, that a separate Science and Technology Committee should continue to exist.[16] We believe that it is very important that there should be a Committee of the House of Commons dedicated to science and technology - and to engineering. This has been particularly important during the period of this Parliament, given the rapid and wide-ranging developments which have occurred in many fields of science, engineering and technology (most notably, the explosive growth in genetics), and, at the same time, the growing public distrust of science and scientists and the Government's use of scientific advice. In our view, it is essential that the House maintain oversight of these developments.

11. In this Parliament, in total, we have, published 24 Reports and 12 Special Reports. A list of all our Reports in this Parliament, and of the Government Replies, is printed as an Annex to this Special Report. As this list shows, our Committee has had a productive Parliament, and our inquiries have covered a wide range of areas. How effective our work has been in influencing developments is a judgement best left to others, but we believe that in a number of areas we have had a marked effect on government policy.

  • Our 1998 Report on the Dearing Report helped to place science and technology at the forefront of policy development on higher education.[17] It was followed by a significant increase in funding for science and technology in the universities, and by the announcement of the Joint Infrastructure Fund.

  • In our inquiry into the Scientific Advisory System and Genetically Modified Foods in 1998-99 we opened to public scrutiny the scientific debate about the safety of GM organisms, a debate which still continues as politicians, regulators and scientists struggle to accommodate the new expectations and concerns of the public.[18] We identified the need for openness and transparency in the working of the Government's scientific advisory bodies in this and other areas, and for these bodies to include lay members. We are pleased to note that our concerns in these matters are now being met in many respects.[19]

  • Our Reports on the Biotechnology Industry in 1998 and 1999 contributed to the better regulation of this important young industry.[20]

  • Our 1999 Report on the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts helped to ensure that NESTA's freedom to operate was not constrained by short-term financial objectives.[21]

  • Our substantial and long-running inquiry into Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation in 1998-1999 drew attention to the UK's poor ability to exploit new knowledge in these fields.[22] We highlighted concern that the higher education institutions were not producing sufficient well-trained scientists and engineers to provide the future R&D workforce in companies and researchers in the universities. We welcome a number of government initiatives designed to encourage the successful exploitation of innovative UK science and engineering.

  • Our 1999 Report on Mobile Phones and Health highlighted uncertainties about the health effects of mobile phones and their associated base stations and the inadequacy of the Government's research programme in this area.[23] During the course of our inquiry, the Government established an Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, whose findings ("the Stewart Report") very largely incorporated our own recommendations.[24]

  • Our case study Report on Scientific Advice on Diabetes and Driving Licences, in 2000, led to a significant change in government policy, and to an end to the automatic bar on diabetics driving small lorries.[25]

  • Our 2000 Report on Government Expenditure on Research and Development drew attention to concerns about the declining levels of investment in science and technology within government departments and recommended that this be halted and reversed.[26] We also emphasised the importance of government investment in the Science Base if the UK is to remain a good place for companies to conduct their R&D operations.

  • Our 1998 and 2000 Reports on the Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham merger, and our 2001 Report on Corus, underlined the importance of private sector R&D in the UK and the threats which face it, and the consequences for the long-term economic vitality of the UK.[27]

  • Our 2000 inquiry into Cancer Research was instrumental in the formation of the National Cancer Plan, and a spur to the creation of the new National Cancer Research Institute.[28] It contributed to the weight of evidence which persuaded the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) to approve the cancer drugs Taxol and Taxotere - which have proven efficacy in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer - within the NHS.

  • Our recent Report on Genetics and Insurance has been widely welcomed. Our findings have been swiftly endorsed by the Human Genetics Commission and noted positively by the Secretary of State for Health in a speech on 19 April 2001.[29]

12. On a few occasions, the very announcement of an inquiry appears to have inspired change.

  • The announcement of our inquiry into Year 2000 computer compliance spurred Government into action on that matter, assuring compliance.[30]

  • During our Genetics and Insurance inquiry, several insurance companies changed their policy on the use of genetic test results during the course of the inquiry.[31]

  • Our evidence sessions on the siting of the Synchrotron in 1999-2000 clarified the issues, thus assisting in the Government's decision.[32]

  • Our recent inquiry into Wave and Tidal Energy appears to have engendered immediately a more positive attitude to these technologies in the Department of Trade and Industry.[33]

13. It is, of course, often impossible to say whether we have brought about changes of policy or influenced them, or whether we have simply anticipated such changes. Whichever, it matters little; what is important is that policy has been changed for the better. We hope that our successor Committee will continue to monitor progress in respect of the recommendations we have made, as we have followed up the work of our predecessor (for example, on human genetics, and on research on climate change). To be effective, scrutiny must be maintained.

14. In our work this Parliament, we have set out to be forward-looking. We have not just scrutinised existing or past policy, but have sought to initiate change. We have tried to be policy formers, rather than policy critics. We welcome the increasing importance that Government attaches to science, but it is still not at the forefront of all departments' thinking. The Government has, for the most part, responded positively to our Reports, but consideration of science and technology issues is not yet systemic in Government. We believe that we have had some success in raising the profile of science, engineering and technology, in Parliament and in Government, but there is much for our successor Committee still to do.

1   First Report of the Liaison Committee, Session 1999-2000, Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive, HC 300, paragraphs 51-55. Back

2   First Special Report, Session 2000-01, The Work of the Science and Technology Committee 1997-2000, HC 44. Back

3   Second Report, Session 2000-01, Corus plc - Research and Development, HC 110. Back

4   Third Report, Session 2000-01, Scientific Advisory System: Scientific Advice on Climate Change, HC 14; Fourth Report, Session 2000-01, The Scientific Advisory System, HC 257. Back

5   Sixth Report, Session 2000-01, Are We Realising Our Potential?, HC 200-I. Back

6   Fifth Report, Session 2000-01, Genetics and Insurance, HC 174; Seventh Report, Session 2000-01, Wave and Tidal Energy, HC 291. Back

7   Minutes of Evidence, 7 March 2001, The Science and Innovation White Paper and the Science Budget, HC 274-i; and 2 May 2001, The Work of the Chief Scientific Adviser, HC 420-i. Back

8   HC 44, paragraph 9. Back

9   Third Special Report, Session 2000-01, Responses from the Government and from Corus plc to the Committee's Second Report on Corus plc - Research and Development, HC 421. Back

10   See Fourth Report, Session 2000-01, HC 257, Appendix 2. Back

11   HC 44, paragraph 13. Back

12   HC 44, paragraph 12. Back

13   HC 44, paragraph 16. Back

14   Second Special Report, Session 1999-2000, Joint Working with Lords Science and Technology Committee, HC 980. Back

15   There was a Select Committee on Science and Technology from 1966 to 1979. Back

16   See Official Report, 7 November 1995, col 752. Back

17   First Report, Session 1997-98, The Implications of the Dearing Report for the Structure and Funding of University Research, HC 303-I. Back

18   First Report, Session 1998-99, Scientific Advisory System: Genetically Modified Foods, HC 286-I. Back

19   See HC 257, Session 2000-01, eg paragraph 60. Back

20   Fifth Report, Session 1997-98, British Biotech, HC 888-I; Fourth Report, Session 1998-89, The Regulation of the Biotechnology Industry, HC 535. Back

21   Second Report, Session 1998-99, The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, HC 472. Back

22   Second Report, Session 1999-2000, Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation, HC 195-I. Back

23   Third Report, Session 1998-99, Scientific Advisory System: Mobile Phones and Health, HC 489. Back

24   See Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, April 2000. Back

25   Third Report, Session 1999-2000, Scientific Advisory System: Diabetes and Driving Licences, HC 206-I. Back

26   Fifth Report, Session 1999-2000, Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look, HC 196-I. Back

27   Third Report, Session 1997-98, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham: The Merger Proposals, HC 627. Fourth Report, Session 1999-2000, Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham, HC 207-I. Second Report, Session 2000-01, Corus plc-Research and Development, HC 110. Back

28   Sixth Report, Session 1999-2000, Cancer Research - A Fresh Look, HC 332-I. Back

29   Fifth Report, Session 2000-01, Genetics and Insurance, HC 174. See also HGC press release 1 May 2001, The use of genetic information in insurance: interim recommendations of the Human Genetics Commission: Speech by the Secretary of State for Health, at the Institute of Human Genetics, International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, 19 April 2001. Back

30   See Second Report, Session 1997-1998, The Year 2000 - Computer Compliance, HC 342-I. Back

31   HC 174, paragraphs 26 and 75. Back

32   Minutes of Evidence, The Proposed New Synchtrotron Facility, 15 December 1999, 19 January 2000, and 24 May 2000, HC 82-i to iii; and Volume of Memoranda, HC 82. See also HC 274-i, Session 2000-01, Q 1. Back

33   HC 291, paragraph 63. Back

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Prepared 11 May 2001