UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 490-i

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE

 

 

OST SCRUTINY 2005

 

 

Wednesday 19 October 2005

LORD SAINSBURY OF TURVILLE

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 31

 

 

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Science and Technology Committee

on Wednesday 19 October 2005

Members present

Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair

Adam Afriyie

Mr Robert Flello

Dr Evan Harris

Dr Brian Iddon

Mr Brooks Newmark

Anne Snelgrove

Dr Desmond Turner

 

________________

Witness: Lord Sainsbury of Turville, a Member of the House of Lords, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Science and Innovation, Department of Trade and Industry, examined.

Q1 Chairman: Could I first of all thank you, Lord Sainsbury, for coming before the Select Committee to answer our friendly and helpful questions, and indeed to thank members of the public for also joining us this morning. Can I say that the process is that we have given Lord Sainsbury a series of questions which we would ask him to give the briefest of responses to before members of the Committee then take up supplementary questioning. I am going to read the question out so people know exactly what the question was, we will ask Lord Sainsbury to respond and then we will get into the questioning. I hope that is okay. The first area is about new nuclear build and the question is: when will the Government publish proposals on new nuclear build in the UK?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The Prime Minister recently announced that we will be reviewing our energy policy next year. That is part of our general policy to focus on climate change, reliability of energy supplies and affordability to the customer and, of course, that will include an assessment of civil nuclear power.

Q2 Mr Newmark: I guess my first question has to do with what has changed in your mind since before the Election to persuade the Government to tackle this issue now? For example, have there been significant improvements in the technology of nuclear reactors just to make them more economically viable?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, I think the issue is to what extent have things changed since the energy policy report of 2003. I think a number of things are changing, as will always be the case in this. I believe strongly that the absolutely fundamental point of energy policy is that you keep the options open and you review it constantly in the light of changes in technology, changes (in the case of nuclear) in the safety of nuclear stations, and also costs. I think it is a good moment to come back to those issues, given the changes in prices and other factors.

Q3 Chairman: Can you give us a specific change?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Clearly are getting closer to a solution on the question of waste, which I think is absolutely fundamental if there is going to be a change on that. I think there is a change on how quickly we can get into renewables and then also the question of how far do you want to go on renewables before it becomes tremendously expensive. If you go much above 20 per cent on renewables it is quite clear that costs go up dramatically so that is going to affect one's view about how much further one can go on renewables.

Q4 Adam Afriyie: As a relatively new Member, it seems to me there is a lot of dithering going on. I cannot see how it can take seven or eight years or even since the White Paper two and a half years to make a decision in principle on the general future of nuclear energy in Britain. Why is the Government dithering so much on this?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We have not dithered. We have made a very clear decision in that Energy White Paper on what that decision was. We said then we would review it in due course and we are now reviewing it. There is no dithering. We made a very clear decision in 2003 that we would not change our policy but we would keep that option open.

Q5 Adam Afriyie: Could you refresh our memories as to what that decision was, that you would proceed with nuclear?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, it was that we would not be changing our policy, we would not be pursuing nuclear but we would keep the nuclear option open so that if we wanted to come back to it we had the skills and research being done to make that possible.

Adam Afriyie: It does not sound like a decision.

Q6 Dr Turner: Can I just take up the assumption you have just stated that if renewables exceeded 20 per cent of the mix, the costs would start to escalate too much.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: That is wind. I should have said that would be if it was wind.

Q7 Dr Turner: Right, because you must agree it is potentially a totally different proposition if marine renewables come to the fore?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes.

Q8 Dr Turner: Right, so it is not set in stone then that there is an upper limit to the contribution that renewables can make?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, it would be simply where you have variability and if the variability within wind means above 20 per cent, it begins to get much more expensive.

Q9 Dr Turner: So long as you have scarcity and unpredictability. However, if you have marine resources which have a much higher load factor and which are totally predictable, then they can fulfil the same role that nuclear has traditionally done in providing reliable base loads (that is reliable if they do not have an outage)?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Absolutely, but as at the moment the main renewable source which is within the realms of being economically feasible - and this might change quite quickly - is wind.

Q10 Dr Turner: Is it not also fair to say that the timescale in which marine renewables will, I hope, come to pass at sufficient level and economic viability is not very different from even the most optimistic timescale that it would take to deploy the alleged ten nuclear reactors?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think that is probably right. We do not know what is the timeframe on tidal so they are both likely to be in that kind of timeframe.

Q11 Anne Snellgove: Just very briefly I wanted to press you a little further on changes that have happened in the past few years that have made possible the recent statement, as you said, by the Prime Minister to look into new build. I ought to declare an interest here in that I worked for the nuclear industry for three years. Surely one of the issues at stake which the Government has got to have a handle on is the structure of the nuclear industry, in particular bringing in the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency to drive down costs in the industry. Has that made a difference, do you feel, to the way that the industry could be prepared for new build?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, that clearly is going to give us better information on the cost of decommissioning it and that obviously has to be one of the considerations in the nuclear new build, what is the overall lifetime cost of that option, so to that extent, yes, it gives us further information about the cost side.

Q12 Mr Newmark: Is the Government prepared to put more funding into nuclear fission R&D?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: What we have been doing is increasing that. It was run down very badly and we have now started bringing that figure up so in a whole series of ways. We have got the research councils' Towards a Sustainable Energy Economy initiative, and that is 6 million has been made available over fours years to keep the nuclear option open, and we are also putting money into UK participation in international research on the advance reactor systems, including Generation Four, through the international forum JIF, so we are moving that up. Of course there is debate as to whether we are yet at the right level or whether we should be putting more in.

Q13 Chairman: Lord Sainsbury, is not the reality of what you have said this morning that you have told us that absolutely nothing new has happened since three years ago when the Energy Review took place, that the reason the Prime Minister is looking at the nuclear option is that renewables will not fill the gap and that by the time our coal-fired power stations go out of operation the Government has got to find a new energy source and the only one on the table is nuclear?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think things have changed. One of the issues of course is a key issue here - and this has not changed but perhaps there is more focus on it now - and that is we go on down the current course two things will become clear. One is that by 2020 we will have run down our nuclear power stations, which are currently producing 20 per cent of our electricity. My own judgment is it is difficult to see any way that renewables will have got to 20 per cent by 2020. It is not impossible but it is going to be very unlikely. So over the first 20 years of this policy of dealing with climate change we would have made no indent into the problem. We would probably, if anything, have gone backwards. So I think that is a consideration. Then I think there is the consideration, where again perhaps there is more focus on, are we really certain about energy security when we go to 60 or 70 per cent of our requirements coming in the form of gas into this country? I think those are two strategic issues which have to be very important in any consideration of the Energy Review. The point of doing a review is one asks those questions and tries to find what is the right strategy.

Q14 Chairman: I suspect we will come back to this in future sessions but we are interested in the issue of scientific publications and the way in which the Government is going to lead in that area. What is the Office of Science and Technology's view of the Research Council UK's proposed policy on scientific publications?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Well, as far as the question of the "author pays" model or "subscriber pays" model our view is that neither of these models is clearly better than the other. We think there are advantages and disadvantages of both models and so our approach is that we should have a level playing field as between those two publishing models. As far as RCUK's policy is concerned their latest consultation closed on 31 August. I think the policy they have put forward did require some further development on it. The issue here is what they said effectively is we want you to publish it as soon as you can, subject to reaching agreement with the publishers as to when that would be. That seems to me to put researchers in an impossible position, ie, every individual researcher has got to start negotiating with the publisher as to what that means. I urged them and the publishers to get together to see if they can formulate a policy as to what that in practice means. Those discussions are taking place and I hope we will soon reach agreement on that.

Q15 Dr Iddon: Lord Sainsbury, you must sometimes feel a bit like King Canute on this issue in that the Wellcome Trust is acquiring a repository now, Liverpool University is certainly going in that direction, and a lot of organisations now are welcoming open access publishing, whatever model is chosen. Do you not think the Government ought to take a much stronger lead on this and have you had any conversations internationally on this particular issue because things are happening abroad which might wash over you eventually?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: First of all, I think King Canute is a much maligned figure because he was the person who said "if I sit here and I command the waves to go back they will not", so he was rather a good guy. I do not feel at all like him. If you look at this internationally and in this country, I think we have seen a peak in the enthusiasm for open access publishing and a fall-off in people putting forward proposals for it because some of the difficulties and costs are now becoming clear. The question of institutional repositories is a slightly different one because I think there is a role for institutional repositories, but in rather specific circumstances, which is there is a whole series of fields of research where the people like publishing their papers and what they are doing before they send them to the journals, and this is a very good way of communication between research communities. The question here is what is the requirement or the desire for people to publish them alongside publishing them in the actual journals? I think that is for individual universities to decide for themselves as to whether that is a cost that they think is justified subject to whatever agreement is reached with the publishers on what is the proper thing to do.

Q16 Dr Iddon: Have you had any conversations with the learned societies? I accept what you have just said that there seems to be a peak but if that peak is reversed and open access publishing - and this is my feeling - does take off, it could wreck some of the learned societies in that they gain a lot of their income from publishing. So I repeat my question: have you had any conversations with the learned societies on this issue?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I have not recently but what I said about RCUK having conversations and discussions with the publishers also includes the learned societies because I think the same issue is here. The basic issue is it is very difficult to have a model which makes sense for the publisher if you say we require people to publish on an alternative basis alongside that. Either you have an alternative kind of publishing or you say there is some agreement whereby a publisher has some period at least when it is not published in another form. I think that is perfectly reasonable while you require the users of publishers to produce the journals and all the mechanics and infrastructure.

Q17 Chairman: Could we move on to question three, Lord Sainsbury, on avian influenza.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The OST is obviously heavily involved in central government's contingency planning but that is led by and funded by the Department of Health and Defra. Where we have responsibility obviously is looking longer term where we are, among other things looking at new ways to deliver and develop safe, effective vaccines which can be delivered in short timescales. The Institute of Animal Health and the Rosslyn Institute are developing a joint research programme into avian flu to build on the scientific expertise in their respective institutes. The MCR has recently issued a highlight notice specifically encouraging high-quality research proposals from the research community on emerging infections with epidemic or pandemic potential. MRC has also reviewed its research needs and opportunities in areas of emerging infections, and that has been facilitated by Professor Andrew McMichael, who is Chairman of the MRC Infection and Immunity Board and Director of the MRC Human Immunology Unit in Oxford. In fact, it was that review which led to the highlight notice.

Q18 Anne Snellgove: Experts have been aware of the threat of avian flu for some time. There have been some criticisms of the Government's response in the last few weeks to the expert scientists. Do you think what the Government has done is too little too late?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Again, there are two quite different issues here. One is the contingency planning, and I think questions on that should go to the Department of Health and Defra. In terms of long-term research I think there has been on-going research in this area. We of course have in the MRC a World Influenza Centre at the National Institute of Medical Research, one of the four WHO centres that monitors changes in the influenza virus and indeed advises the WHO on the composition of the influenza vaccine. That of course is a world-class research centre. In fact, they were the people who recently did identify the 1918 flu epidemic being based on avian flu that had mutated. There has been on-going research on this. The question was what more is being done in these current circumstances and it looks to me as if MRC and BBSRC have responded on the long-term things, as well as being heavily involved in the contingency planning and working with countries like China and so on.

Q19 Dr Turner: Clearly there are some difficulties in producing vaccines to this virus. The first one produced by sanofi-aventis is not very practical because it requires such high doses and there is not enough manufacturing capacity in the world to produce enough vaccine for it to be that useful. Also, to date the virus has not mutated so we do not know the nature of the virus that the human vaccine is needed for. This is a very difficult challenge for immunologists. Have you any inside knowledge of the progress that they are making under these difficult circumstances?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, but these are obviously the questions that have been looked at by this research. It is looking at both how you can produce new anti-virals (because as there are problems you need to produce those) and also how you can more quickly produce the vaccines in response to a particular mutation taking place. This is the work that is going on. I am not familiar enough with the details of the research to be able to say what progress they have actually made on that.

Q20 Dr Turner: The other big point is that there is a question mark over the world's capacity to produce vaccines in sufficient quantity and we are dependent entirely on the drug companies at the moment to do this work. Do you think there is a case for a government-funded reserve or extra capacity in vaccine production to meet future pandemic crises?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Again, I think this is another question. That question is really about contingency planning and work that must take place between not only our government but governments worldwide on the question of vaccine capacity. I think that straightforwardly is a Department of Health question which you need to direct to them really.

Q21 Chairman: Question four, Lord Sainsbury, is on industrial research and development.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, of course we have had a very significant number of important initiatives which are about increasing the amount of R&D investment because we think that this is absolutely fundamental to economic performance. Indeed, we have had the R&D tax credits which are worth about 600 million per annum to businesses, and we have had the Higher Education Innovation Fund which is running at 110 million for knowledge transfer from universities into industry. I should point out in the light of this morning's letter in the Financial Times that we have had a version of the SBIR in America, we call it the SBRI. That has been in place for a number of years and, in fact, we have not had as good a performance we want, which is why the Chancellor made it a mandatory system by the Treasury in the last Budget. On that basis that is why we do not think it is necessary to have a private Member's bill on this because we already have it in place and it is mandatory. We have of course business support programmes such as the grant for R&D, the grant for investigating innovative ideas. We have set up the Technology Strategy with the Independent Technology Strategy Board where we will be putting 317 million into the technology programme and we of course have the 19 highly successful Farraday Partnerships which we have now migrated into the new Knowledge Transfer Network. Of course, I should point out that while industrial research was in a continuing declining as a proportion of GDP it has now bottomed out and is beginning to grow, although rather modestly against what I would like to see happening.

Q22 Chairman: You speak with more enthusiasm on this than nuclear power. I do not want you to answer that.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: It turned round in 1998 which is when I became Science Minister.

Q23 Dr Harris: Minister, in that long answer you did not make the point, although I think you hinted at it at the end, that the Government is failing to reach its target of the 2.5 per cent share of GDP invest in R&D. In fact, the latest figures show a growth rate in your own annual report against the ten-year Science and Innovation Framework of just 2 per cent, which is below the GDP trend growth. So is it now time for the Government to recognise it is failing in order to try something else?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: We were aiming for the 25 per cent target in 2014 so we do have some time to go yet.

Q24 Dr Harris: It is going backwards at the moment because you say you are bottoming out at best, so is it not important to try something that you are not doing because what you are doing at the moment is not having the effect that we would all want it to have.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The point is if you look at the period over which we have introduced these measures it has, in fact, gone up as a proportion of GDP so it has been going up faster than GDP growth and inflation. So the percentage of GDP has gone up.

Q25 Dr Harris: It says UK business investment in R&D rose by 2 per cent in real terms for 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, but needs to rise faster than trend GDP growth if the Government's long- term ambition is to be achieved. Hear, hear!

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: That is one year. If you look at the trend over the period since 1997-98 the trend has been upwards. It has stopped going down, it has bottomed out, and it is marginally going up again.

Q26 Chairman: Question five is on strategic science provision, Minister.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: In terms of the number of students taking science engineering technology degrees in fact the numbers of people taking science at first degree level has increased by 34 per cent over the period since 1997-98. That compares with an overall increase of 22 per cent. So the proportion of science and engineering graduates is marginally going up as a percentage of the total. Of course, in total numbers terms it is going up very significantly because the number of graduates is going up. However, of course there are issues around certain key subjects in engineering and physical sciences and we are working with bodies like the Royal Academy of Engineering, the DGB and the APBI to get a closer look at where the specific areas are and then we can take action to focus on those particular areas.

Q27 Dr Iddon: And the growth is in subjects like astronomy and forensic science where perhaps the demand, particularly for forensic scientists, is not as great as the demand for chemists or physicists trained in the hard sciences. Whilst there has been an increase this year, we appear to be relying more and more on foreign students coming to Britain and there is some controversy about whether the strategic science provision will be maintained by the number of foreign students. Some say the numbers have declined from, for example, China and some say we have plateaued in terms of the numbers of foreign students coming to British universities. My question is how can we increase the attractiveness of the British universities compared with the attractiveness of universities, for example, in Germany for foreign students?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: I think that is a different question. Can I just answer the first point which is everyone keeps saying it is all about forensic scientists: it is not totally about forensic scientists. You have got the biological sciences doing very well, you have got computer sciences doing very well.

Q28 Chairman: Not physics, chemistry and engineering?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Even physics and chemistry. The physical sciences have remained rather constant at about 50,000. It dipped down to 47,000 and has then come back to 50,000 and interestingly the mathematical sciences have gone from 15,000 to 22,000, a very substantial increase. These are the figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. I think it is extremely important we do understand these figures and there are questions about rather minor classification changes and also the question of foreign students. I have got the statisticians in the DTI doing a study and we will produce a paper in which we set out exactly what is happening in this field, how much is due to foreign students, whether there are any classification changes. A first look shows that it is not due to foreign students and classification changes do not affect this. We will have a look at that and produce a paper and then look at whether what we are producing really meets the needs of the economy, as far as we can judge.

Q29 Chairman: I will have to stop you there, Brian, I am sorry. The last question is on public engagement.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: The Science Innovation Investment Framework made a very clear commitment on early and on-going dialogue on issues arising from new and emerging science and technology. As part of that we have instituted the Sciencewise Programme which is about projects in particular areas where we do want to increase public dialogue and we will have Sciencewise funding of about 1.2 million over the two years 2004-05 and 2005-06. We also are doing two very interesting exercises in public engagement. One of the requests which we had was to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on nanotechnologies. I asked them to produce a report on whether there were ethical, health, safety and environmental issues involved in nanotechnology and whether there were any regulatory changes we should make. I think that was a very successful exercise and we are now working across government to look at areas where we might need to do more research or change specific regulations coming out of that report. Of course, following on the Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs Foresight exercise we have asked the Academy of Medical Sciences to do a similar project in that area. I think overall we are pushing forward that agenda on public engagement pretty strongly.

Q30 Mr Flello: Whilst welcoming the Sciencewise and also the nanoscience nanotechnology/opportunities and the certainties report, I would say with public concern in the past year over things like crops, mobile phone masts, overhead power lines and similar issues, can you tell me please, Lord Sainsbury, how the Government now monitors the effectiveness of policies for enhancing public engagement?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Where we have particular projects we look at the evaluation of them. I think the most valuable index we have is the MORI surveys we have had carried out into opinion on science and what people think about it, which is interesting because, by and large, they are very positive about it. Their concerns tend to be focused on these new areas of technology and whether the science is moving too quickly and whether the Government has control of it, which is why we have now the Sciencewise programme. The latest figures suggest that people are growing in confidence in these areas but feel even more strongly that people should be consulted. So I think we are making progress on that from the low point which we had with BSE.

Q31 Mr Flello: Just turning that point perhaps on its head, is it possible that excessive concerns for broader social and ethical issues can actually stifle scientific investigation and perhaps compromise independence?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No because I think it is very important the way that we structure these consultations. They are not consultations about whether a technology is a good technology or a bad technology. They are consultations about whether there are ethical, environmental, health and safety issues which are raised by them. I think that is a perfectly proper area which is where governments should be involved. I feel very strongly that scientists should take the lead in those public discussions so it does not turn into scientists versus the public. I think it is important those kind of dialogues happen early up-stream so that people can have confidence that those issues will be considered.

Chairman: Lord Sainsbury, thank you very much indeed for the time you have given us this morning. We hope to see you again in three months if not before.