Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 454 - 459)


Professor Dame Julia Higgins DBE FRS FREng, Dr Peter Collins and Professor Brian Hoskins CBE FRS

  Q454  Chairman: Welcome. First of all, I want to say a few opening things before we actually get into it. The first thing is just to remind you that everything that is being said is on public record and as of a few weeks ago will go out on an Internet feed, certainly from an audio point of view and, as they keep on reminding me, the microphones are sensitive. Secondly, we are going to try for about an hour and a half really as far as timing is concerned, to give you some sort of measure on that. The way we do things is that the members of this Committee spread the questions out between us and we have our Clerk, Rebecca Neal, here and our Special Adviser Professor Sands as well. Perhaps we could start off if you were to introduce yourself and tell us exactly what you do. Professor Higgins, perhaps we can start off with you first.

  Professor Dame Julia Higgins: Julia Higgins, I am the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society which is the context in which I am here. I am a Professor at Imperial College London in the Chemical Engineering Department, who incidentally pay my salary.

  Q455  Chairman: So you may be known to one or two members of this Committee?

  Professor Dame Julia Higgins: Indeed, yes. On my right is Professor Brian Hoskins, who is from Reading University from the Department of Meteorology. He is a Royal Society Research Professor and for the context of this particular meeting he is the Chair of the Royal Society Global Environmental Research Committee, so he has a lot to do with international agreements, particularly in the range of climate control for example, so he has a lot of experience. On my left is Peter Collins, the Director of Science Policy at the Royal Society and therefore he has an overview of all our work in this area.

  Q456  Chairman: Particularly as far as this Committee is concerned we are looking most of all at the process so far as international treaties are concerned. We do look at other issues as well but that is one of the key aspects of it. Can I start off by asking the first question: do you believe that the Government and international treaty bodies consider technological and engineering issues to a sufficient degree when collating scientific information?

  Professor Dame Julia Higgins: The answer is of course never enough. In particular, we are worried about the timing. We do not think scientific advice is brought in early enough quite often. We also are particularly keen on the fact that the scientific advice and policy people should interact with each other. It is rather important also that it is not a one-way flow and that therefore a discussion can be set up. We are particularly worried if a particular piece of advice is given and filtered through many stages before it gets to the people who make the policy, so it is a question of timing for the people who are giving advice to the people attempting to put policy together in order to get it into international treaties.

  Professor Hoskins: It may come up under another question or we can handle it now. It is under your question 7, I think, on whether we saw consistency in treaty agreements but I am happy to tackle it now. In terms of the process—and it is something we see in weather forecasting I think, which is something I look at now and then—increasingly rather than someone deciding this is what the probability of an event happening you try and give more raw scientific information to the person making the decision so the policy-makers and scientists have to be able to rub shoulders and share the nuances of the science and say "Could I say this", and then say, "This is interpreted in a certain manner." It is not a question of science finishing there and handing something on and someone else handing it on and then the policy; it is bringing the two together, which is something which we see as very important.

  Q457  Lord Hunt of Chesterton: Can I just say that I was unhappy about the questions that everybody was asked because there is an omission which is that what is very important about agreements is there is an agreement and then there is the question of how it is implemented afterwards. The question that went out for evidence did not in any way reflect the fact a United Nations body and others have got to collate and implement and manage the data. They focused on the formulation of the treaty and that is only 10 per cent of the job; 90 per cent of the job is making sure people understand it and implement it. I wondered if you may say something in your responses—and we have agreed in Committee that that is a relevant part of this Committee's work so if you have any thoughts about that, that would be very relevant.

  Professor Hoskins: I think we agree totally that setting up the agreement in the first place is one thing and no doubt we will come on to it. We believe that the Royal Society can give useful advice at that stage but then having got something set up and the scientific technology assessment process that is where I was really talking of bringing scientists and policy-making together. I agree with you that there is a build-up stage and then the assessment procedure which is a review assessment and review process and then decisions in terms of policy, and they are rather separate parts of the process.

  Professor Dame Julia Higgins: We did in our evidence raise one issue of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Treaty which seems to have been set up with no continuing scientific input and advice. People are beginning to attempt to address this and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is beginning on a discussion with the scientific community. That is a clear case where there is no mechanism for getting the advice in subsequently nor any international organisation which has the responsibility or capability for doing it currently. So that is one particular issue. Most of the other treaties we dealt with we could see who were charged with the responsibility and had the potential at least to ensure continuing advice. In that particular case we highlighted that in our evidence in response because we were particularly worried about it.

  Chairman: Any further comment on that, Lord Hunt, or are you happy?

  Lord Hunt of Chesterton: Sure.

  Chairman: Question 2, if you could.

  Q458  Lord Hunt of Chesterton: To what extent is a body such as the Royal Society able to provide the Government with a broad range of views as to the science on a particular matter? Should it be the function of the Royal Society to provide a clear view, or rather a range of views? If the latter, how should the Government proceed where there is scientific uncertainty? If I may amplify that. To what extent is the Royal Society acting as a co-ordinator/facilitator of a very broad range of other British scientific bodies and to what extent is it, as it were, just reflecting the views of its own fellowship and officers? I have been in some correspondence with the President about this.

  Professor Dame Julia Higgins: In general, we were slightly worried by this question because it seemed to imply that there was a view that could be presented or even a sensible view that could be put together. We wanted to distinguish very clearly between presenting the science and providing a channel for the science to be presented, and perhaps providing the experts who could advise, but we are quite clear that it is the policy makers who make the decisions on policy. The scientists cannot be expected to get the politicians off the hook in making a decision and therefore we were slightly worried by this question about views or a view. We can provide the information, we felt, and a range of possible actions as a consequence but the decision-makers are the people who are the politicians who make policy. We were slightly perturbed by the implication that the science could provide the answer. I think I have reflected our views.

  Professor Hoskins: Could I pick that up in terms of the role of the Royal Society, and perhaps the scientific view comes out of that and again we felt that the Society could give input to the Government on international agreements and setting these up and, where necessary, helping set them up and then if there is an assessment panel we felt in the nature of that assessment panel again the Royal Society could be involved in providing advice on them. Then at that point we felt the Royal Society could be very useful in terms of getting names for the assessment panel, not providing the view perhaps but saying, "These are UK scientists who we think would be very good to have on such a panel." Then if it works, as the panels I know do, as an assessment panel, some sort of draft would come back to the United Kingdom for the UK to review and then we believe the Royal Society could play a very useful role at that review stage in helping provide a good scientific review of the draft and could input to the United Kingdom review and maybe if there is an International Academy view then it could input to that. Finally, I put one aspect that may not be quite so usual. I feel myself, having got close to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that when you do mix scientists with policy then the special interest groups can put tremendous pressure on individual scientists. It is useful for the academies to provide a supporting role for colleagues who otherwise are seen as just an individual against a powerful lobby group. I am not sure any of those is providing the scientific view. We feel it is a very good place for getting views on what should be there, on names to put forward for assessment on reviewing data, and on supporting the scientists.

  Dr Collins: If I can pick up what I took to be a different aspect of Lord Hunt's question about the Society reflecting a broad range of views or only its own views. We put together groups of expert scientists for each task in hand. They are chosen from wherever one finds the relevant expertise and over the work of a year well under half the people that we involve in the groups preparing reports or evidence or whatever will be Fellows. We go wherever the expertise is to put together our comments on some issue.

  Q459  Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My understanding of this question was not about when there is not a scientific consensus about a topic; it was much more if there were different scientific points of view, whether you then attempt to bring them together into a consensus of some sort and whether you believe that the scientists that you suggest should be asked should be left to argue amongst themselves or whether you actually try and co-ordinate in some way the views and tablets of stone and so on.

  Professor Dame Julia Higgins: There is a later question that reflects this question of uncertainty too, number 7 again. We have thought about this. It seems that what we can do and we ought to do is to make it clear where uncertainty is and why there is uncertainty and where it is coming from. I do not think any academy would say we can resolve the uncertainty in every situation, but what one has to have is a clear view of whether it is one person against the many, as has been the case in one or two issues recently, or whether it is a genuine division, and whether it is partly politically inspired because scientists from some country would have a particular view of how important it is and how close it is to resolution. I do not think we could provide the resolution nor personally (but I think we agree) do I think should we be attempting to resolve it.

  Professor Hoskins: In general, I would see the international assessment panel trying to resolve that as much as they can rather than perhaps the Royal Society trying to resolve it or the National Academy of Sciences trying to resolve it. Then it is much better to have one's peers review the science and it is better to get the peer review body from the countries to actually provide one assessment of that.

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