House of Lords
|The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology|
Here you can browse House of Lords Information Sheet No. 16
Terms of reference and nature of enquiries
Reports of the Committee
The Committee's influence
Other bodies in Parliament concerned with scientific issues
List of Science and Technology Committee Reports
Appointment of the Committee
In 1979 the House of Commons reformed its Committee system by replacing a collection of Committees which had developed piecemeal with a comprehensive system of Committees to monitor the activities of government departments. Although the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee had been in operation since 1967, there was at that time no Department of Science and Technology - nor even, at the time, a Minister for Science - and so the Commons Committee was abolished. This was regretted by some members of the two Houses and soon thereafter in January 1980 the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology was first appointed with the aim of using the "great deal of expertise on science and technology" 1 of a number of members of the House to fill the gap.
Terms of reference and nature of enquiries
The Committee has very broad terms of reference, which are simply "to consider science and technology". In 1980 the Committee agreed - and re-affirmed 10 years later, in 1990 - an Aide-Mémoire on the Role of the Committee which set out its own interpretation of the terms of reference (annexed).
Over the past 15 years, certain usual features about the Committee's enquiries have emerged. They have:
(ii) mostly crossed the boundaries of two or more government departments (thus, incidentally, avoiding duplication of the work of the departmental select committees in the House of Commons);
(iii)tended to look at strategic and long term issues and incline to science policy rather than "hard technology assessment";
(iv) on the whole avoided short term, politically charged subjects;
(v) covered a wide range of science and technology. The only Government departments which have not yet been called to give evidence are the Law Officers' Departments, the Lord Chancellor's Department and Customs and Excise.
Most of the Committee's work is performed by its two sub-committees, which usually meet weekly when the House of Lords is sitting. These each consist of about half the members of the Select Committee, and on average two to three additional members, often with a relevant special expertise, are co-opted onto the sub-committees for specific enquiries. The Sub-Committees are chaired for the duration of each enquiry by the most appropriate committee member. The working methods of the Sub-Committees are mostly like those of any other parliamentary select committee investigating policy issues. The Sub-Committees receive both oral and written evidence, sometimes over a period lasting as long as a year, and on the basis of the evidence received agree a report, which is subsequently considered and approved for publication by the Select Committee and later debated on the floor of the House. Each report draws to the House of Lords' attention an area of science policy in which the Select Committee believes that Parliament should be concerned.
Whilst the Committee's reports invariably reflect the evidence received, the work of the Committee also reflects the interests and expertise of its members. Partly as a result of its unusual composition of hereditary and nominated peers, the House of Lords probably includes a larger number of prominent scientists and engineers than any other parliamentary chamber in the world. This fact is reflected in the membership of the Committee. Over the years many of these members have been appointed to the Committee; the first chairman of the Committee, for example, was Lord Todd, President of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. But Lords without special scientific expertise have always been included in the membership. Membership of the Select Committee is usually restricted to 15. Under House of Lords' rules, members are "rotated off" the Committee and Sub-Committees after a maximum of four sessions' service, but may be re-appointed after one further session. Each of the Sub-Committees has its own clerk (who is its chief administrative and procedural officer) and secretary, and the Committee also has a full-time Specialist Assistant - usually a post-doctoral scientist. The Sub-Committees also appoint part-time specialist advisers for individual enquiries on an ad hoc basis.
Reports of the Committee
The Committee's reports have consistently drawn attention to the fragmented nature of the Government's research and development policies, to the failure to develop adequate mechanisms for funding strategic research, and to the areas of science neglected at the interface of Research Councils' areas of interest. They have also frequently highlighted the need to improve British industry's record of application of science and technology and drawn attention to the damage caused to the prospects of improving this record by the short term horizons of city institutions.
Some of the Committee's reports have ranged widely over government science policy, such as the report on Priorities for the Science Base (December 1993). Others have been concerned with more specific subjects, such as the report on Regulation of the United Kingdom Biotechnology Industry and Global Competitiveness (October 1993). The report on the Defence Research Agency (July 1994) drew attention to the weak linkages between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry and to the consequent failure of defence research programmes to contribute as much as might be expected to national wealth creation and to the quality of life. The report on The Efficiency Unit Scrutiny of Public Sector Research Establishments (December 1994) drew attention to the recurring danger of further fragmentation of the United Kingdom science base, this time caused by attempting to achieve greater management efficiency, but without taking sufficient regard of the long term issues addressed in the White Paper Realising our Potential. Recent enquiries have included Forensic Science, Academic Research Careers for Graduate Scientists, Fish Stock Conservation and Management, and Decommissioning of Oil and Gas Installations.
The Committee's report on Information Society: Agenda for Action in the UK was published on 31 July 1996, and was the first Select Committee report from either House of the United Kingdom Parliament to be published on the Internet. 2 This report calls for an Information Society Task Force in the UK, similar to that which has operated successfully in helping create the Information Superhighways in the USA. The report recommends fundamental changes to the regulatory framework governing telecommunications and broadcasting in the UK. It recommends specific actions to be taken by Government, including the promotion of electronic publishing to facilitate widespread access to Government publications. The report also makes recommendations on the subjects of universal access; education; health care; environmental benefits; electronic publishing and archiving; encryption and verification; and grants.
While most of the Committee's enquiries have lasted for several months, from time to time the Committee has undertaken shorter enquiries, sometimes as a follow-up to previous work. The ability to follow up previous enquiries has been a feature of the Committee's work, and is assisted by a considerable degree of continuity in the Committee's membership. Lords do not lose their seats at general elections and, despite the rotation rule (see above), there is thus a strong element of continuity in the Committee's membership which has encouraged the Committee to persist with its recommendations.
On occasion, the Committee has taken evidence from Ministers on topical issues outside the framework of long enquiries. Thus on 24 January 1995 the Committee took evidence from the Minister for Science, then the Rt. Hon. David Hunt MP. Mr Hunt chose this occasion to announce the Wolfendale Committee on the role of researchers in improving public understanding of science, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Project Officer on Microbial Culture Collections, and initiatives from the new Office of Science and Technology Development Unit for women in science. On 1 November 1995 the Committee took evidence from the President of the Board of Trade, the Minister for Science, the Director-General of Research Councils and the Chief Scientific Adviser; this meeting provided an opportunity to discuss the controversial move of the Office of Science and Technology from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry.
The Committee's influence
Committee recommendations are directed at Government, industry, the professions and other public bodies. The response of Government to select committee reports is the most explicit, for obvious reasons of parliamentary accountability, but the responses of the other bodies should not be overlooked. The Committee has exerted influence on Government in three main ways:
(ii) The Government is required to respond in writing to all the Committee's reports, and usually does so in the form of a printed Command paper. During debates on the floor of the House further ministerial comment is made;
(iii) On occasion, amendments have been made to bills on the basis of Committee recommendations either by agreement or on division, eg Forestry Bill in 1981, Local Government Bill in 1985, Electricity Bill in 1989, Environmental Protection Bill in 1990; most of these amendments survived in the legislation enacted.
The Committee has had an influence in connection with the machinery of government and organisation of science. Recommendations to establish mechanisms to co-ordinate fragmented scientific work have also generally been accepted, for example in marine science, on climate change, in nature conservation and in the National Health Service. Recommendations involving considerable additional public expenditure, or which were in conflict with the Government's economic policies, have been accepted less often.
To take just two examples, following publication of the Committee's report on Systematic Biology Research in 1992, Lord Chorley intervened in the debate on the report in the House to say that the Natural Environment Research Council (of which he was a member) had decided to put £3 million into activities which had been recommended by the Committee and which had received further study. The effect of this would be to make closer links between universities and institutions with collections of international importance. A few weeks later the Wellcome Trust announced a similar grant relating to those collections of organisms having medical significance and during 1995 a further grant was announced. The Office of Science and Technology set up a special committee to look at microbial collections in the United Kingdom. Museums throughout the United Kingdom which hold collections of national and international significance have developed a "club" to assist co-ordination, as recommended by the Committee.
In 1988 the Committee reported that the National Health Service (NHS) was too passive in its partnership with research, in that it neither set a research agendum nor was successful in getting research findings into practice. A Minister has commented that this Report "acted as a catalyst for government action in this area". 3 In 1991 the Government responded to the Report's recommendations by appointing a Director of Research and Development for the NHS in England, and the NHS R&D strategy, the first of its kind in the world, was subsequently launched. In 1995 the Committee published a major follow-up Report on Medical Research and the NHS reforms. This Report discussed the NHS R&D Strategy and other matters including patient flow, rationalisation of urban hospitals, intellectual property, and clinical academic careers. The Government's response to the Report accepted most of its recommendations. The one major recommendation which the Government did not accept was the Committee's wish to see a major enquiry undertaken into the future of academic clinical medicine, which the Committee believed to be in crisis. Such an enquiry has since been set up by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
Other bodies in Parliament concerned with scientific issues
The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee includes amongst its members MPs, Peers, Members of the European Parliament, industrial companies, institutions and societies, major scientific and technical organisations and Research Councils, and universities. It acts as a forum for discussion on scientific issues and provides a link between academia and industry, the Houses of Parliament and the European Union.
For over a decade the House of Lords Committee was the only forum considering science and technology issues made up solely of British parliamentarians. With the re-establishment of the House of Commons Committee and the establishment of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), this is no longer the case. POST was established in 1989 on a trial basis by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and was adopted by Parliament in 1993. It provides information for parliamentarians in both Houses to assist with their understanding of the scientific and technological aspects of issues which come before them as legislators. The Director of POST is responsible to a Board which sets the policy and priorities for POST. The Board is made up of members of both Houses and distinguished scientists and engineers. The work undertaken by POST is approved by the Board, and comprises a number of publications ranging from four-page information notes to substantive reports.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was re-established on 13 July 1992 as a consequence of the re-organisation of Government following the general election of April 1992, when the Office of Science and Technology was formed. The Commons Committee was appointed to examine the "expenditure, administration and policy" of the Office of Science and Technology, and so its terms of reference are narrower than those of the Lords Committee. The two Committees keep in touch on a regular but informal basis to try to ensure that they do not cover the same ground. Essentially however, the rôle of the House of Lords Committee has remained the same. It continues to carry out enquiries and to report to the House on science and technology matters with which, in its view, Parliament ought to be concerned.
Further information about the work of the Select Committee and its Sub-Committees can be obtained from the Clerk to the Science and Technology Committee, Committee Office, House of Lords, Westminster SW1A OPW (Tel: 0171-219 6075: FAX 0171-219 6715). A free weekly notice of the business of all House of Lords Select Committees is also available from the Committee Office (Tel: 0171-219 6678).
Aide-Mémoire on the Role of the
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