Future programme: ‘My Science Inquiry’ Contents
Open call for proposals: ‘My Science Inquiry’
1.During this Parliament we have sought to widen our external engagement with the public as well as the experts and institutions who are usually involved as witnesses to our inquiries. Previously we initiated an ‘evidence check’ process which invited comments on the evidence behind various Government policies through an online forum. We also held an inquiry into Science communication, and this prompted us to reinforce our own strategy for public engagement.
2.In December 2016 we launched the ‘My Science Inquiry’ process, which invited the public to suggest potential inquiries for our future work programme. This process built on the Subjects for scrutiny: have your say exercise undertaken by our predecessor Committee in 2009 and provided an opportunity for the science and technology community and the general public to alert us to topics deserving greater parliamentary scrutiny.
3.We asked submitters to describe, in 200 words or a short video, the nature of the issue that might be explored, why it deserved attention, and how Government policy in the area could be developed or improved. The responses were numerous, of excellent quality and covered a broad range of potential subjects, spanning both ‘policy for science’ and ‘science for policy’. We received 78 written and video submissions, all of which are available on our website.
4.We shortlisted nine submissions on the basis of the potential of the subject matter, and invited those submitters to deliver a 10-minute ‘pitch’ to us, in public, on 1 February 2017. We published the transcript as formal evidence, so that their words could reach a wider audience beyond the Committee, and be entered into the permanent parliamentary record.
5.We have selected two of the ‘My Science Inquiry’ pitches as the basis for new inquiries. In the first instance, we will launch an inquiry into Algorithms in decision-making. Later this year we will launch an inquiry into Hydrogen and fuel cells.
6.We also intend to make use of the ideas pitched to us through other aspects of our work and liaison with other Committees:
- Human embryo research: Sandy Starr (Progress Educational Trust) suggested that we should hold an inquiry into extending the ‘14-day rule’—a limit on the length of time human embryos can be used for scientific research. He explained that when the rule was first proposed in 1984 no researcher had successfully kept a human embryo alive in a laboratory for much longer than a week, but recent scientific advances meant that it was now possible to keep embryos alive for up to and possibly beyond this limit. Some aspects of the ethical issues highlighted in this proposal are relevant to those in our current inquiry into Genomics and genome editing and we will look into these. The broader question of whether there should be a public inquiry on the 14-day rule on the scale of that conducted by Baroness Warnock in the 1980s would require more detailed consideration, however, so we will return to this issue once we have undertaken our work on Genomics and genome editing.
- Use of evidence by the Cabinet Office: Bob Ward (Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment) was concerned that the Cabinet Office was not considering an appropriate range of evidence when making major decisions, and was lacking a dedicated Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). These issues are relevant to our recent scrutiny of the Government Office for Science’s annual report and our subsequent correspondence with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser regarding existing CSA vacancies. We intend to write to the Cabinet Office to draw its attention to the issues raised specifically about its policy-making.
- The role for hydrogen and fuel cells in a holistic energy system: Amanda Lyne (UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association) proposed an inquiry to explore how the development of hydrogen and fuel cells could be better coordinated in order to provide benefits to the energy system. We have decided to undertake an inquiry into this subject later this year.
- Scientific research careers in UK universities: Dr Bryn Jones highlighted issues relating to research careers in the UK, including an imbalance in the number of PhD studentships compared with long-term academic positions, and an emphasis on short-term contracts for postdoctoral scientists. This topic will be kept in view during our ongoing inquiry programme planning.
- Algorithms: Dr Stephanie Mathisen (Sense about Science) proposed that we investigate the use of algorithms in decision-making. She highlighted issues such as the extent to which algorithms can exacerbate or reduce biases, and the need for decisions made by algorithms to be challenged, understood and regulated. We have decided to undertake an inquiry into this subject, and to incorporate the themes raised in the pitch on ‘Pre-emptive regulation of emerging and converging technologies’ (see below).
- Pre-emptive regulation of emerging and converging technologies: Professor John Finney (British Pugwash Group) highlighted the challenges of attempting to regulate new technologies whose implications or potential civil and military applications may not yet be fully understood. This will be incorporated into our new inquiry into algorithms in decision-making.
- Is Net-Positive Manufacturing a realistic goal? Professor Shahin Rahimifard (Loughborough University) told us that net-positive manufacturing involved ensuring that there was an overall benefit to the environment and society from the manufacturing process. He suggested that there was a need to understand better the scientific and engineering challenges associated with this. We have passed the material in this proposal to the Environmental Audit Committee, which has a significant ongoing interest in sustainable development issues.
- Early stage cancer diagnosis: Dr Michael Brand (Sensor 100) explained that early diagnosis of cancer was an effective means of improving outcomes for patients, and that funding for research into biosensors was needed, alongside commercialisation efforts. We will follow up this issue as part of our regular sessions with the UK Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies.
- Science research in schools: Professor Becky Parker drew our attention to the work of the Institute for Research in Schools, which facilitates school children undertaking science research themselves. The points raised will be incorporated into our ongoing inquiry into the STEM skills gap.
7.In addition, two of the original written submissions, from Jack Neville and Sarah Jakes, addressed issues around the increasing use of e-cigarettes. We have considered in the past whether to undertake an inquiry in this area. We have decided that the time is right to hold an inquiry into e-cigarettes. We will be calling for written evidence in due course.
8.We are grateful for all the written and video submissions we received, and will seek to incorporate the ideas contained in them in our work where possible. We have also sent details of all of the submissions to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology for possible use in their briefing papers for parliamentarians.