My Science – what the committee may investigate

The Science and Technology Committee heard suggestions for areas of inquiry that could be undertaken by the committee. Below are the ideas that were pitched to the Committee for further investigation. 

 

Cancer Research UK

 

Dr Jyotsna Vohra, Head of the Cancer Policy Research Centre, Cancer Research UK, called on the committee to conduct an inquiry into the use of wearable app such as Fitbit and apps such as FitnessPal. The goal of the inquiry, she said, would be to identify how that technology could be harnessed to inform policies on reducing preventable cancers. The technology had great potential for supporting behaviour change, which was pivotal in preventing diseases.

 

Obesity was the second largest cause of Cancer, Vohra noted, arguing that there was an increasing obesity epidemic in the UK. Wearable technologies were one of the avenues to reducing preventable illness she argued. The inquiry should look at analysing data, to influence how polices were formed and targeted for the greatest impact, addressing behaviour change, sustainability and health inequalities.

 

Carol Monaghan MP (SNP, Glasgow North West) raised concerns regarding excessive and unhelpful data and questioned how that could be separated from useful data. Vohra responded that technology smartly linked to medical records, could better inform GPs and increased targeting.

 

Darren Jones MP (Lab, Bristol North West) what the outcome of the inquiry would likely be, beyond recommending more research. Vohra responded that the focus on the enquiry would be to collect evidence that could direct policy and regulation in the area.

 

Vicky Ford MP (Con, Chelmsford) asked whether the data would be biased as it would only be those groups using wearable health technology. Vohra said that there was potential for bias and that was why the evidence enquiry would be useful, to assess the use of that data.

 

Royal Astronomical Society

 

Dr Robert Massey, Deputy Executive Director, Royal Astronomical Society, argued for an inquiry into the Plan S research funding model. He argued that it was an unprecedented imposition of a new model for scientific publishing which could compromise the integrity of scientific research. The model places the responsibility of paying for publishing on the researcher, with unintended consequences, he said.

 

The Chair, Norman Lamb MP (Lib Dem, North Norfolk) asked whether it would take one evidence session or several to address the issue. Massey responded that at least one was needed, with evidence taken from both sides of the debate.

 

Stephen Metcalfe MP (Con, South Basildon and East Thurrock) questioned whether the issue was common to all sectors to which Massey responded that it affected all societies with a publishing arm, irrespective of size.

 

Martin Whitfield MP (Lab, East Lothian) what was the risk of the model for peer review was, to which Massey said that it could incentivise journals to accept lower quality work without peer review for financial gain.

 

Society for Applied Microbiology

 

Dr Chris Brown, Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Society for Applied Microbiology, said that microbiology had an important roll to play in the areas of health, environment and agriculture. The UK was a centre of excellence, he said, though other countries were quickly taking over, particularly in relation to microbial products entering the market.

 

Brown argued that an inquiry was necessary into better policy and regulation of microbial products, with a cross-governmental approach as was the case with the industrial strategy and sector deals. Other nations had coordinated plans for research and innovation, he said, arguing that the UK needed a road map to identify opportunities for new microbial technologies.

 

The chair questioned whether an inquiry should cover all the areas where the technology could be applied to which Brown responded yes. He argued it should act as a catalyst for the Government to form a national strategy.

 

Bill Grant MP (Con, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) asked what advantage an inquiry would have to which Brown responded that the UK had an excellent basis of research but that it needed to turn that into economic benefit through the implementation of new technology.

 

Earlham Institute

 

Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group Leader at the Earlham Institute, informed the committee that biotechnologies had significant potentials for agricultural and industry. She said that biotechnologies could produce stronger crops and crop yields without the need for chemicals and pesticides.

Genome editing meant that small targeted changes to a plant’s DNA had huge benefits with minimum cost and time. However, she raised concerns that the process was still regulated under GMO regulations though the process was completely different. That was stifling the sector and innovation that could be economically and socially beneficial. She asked the committee to conduct a review into the regulations.

 

Metcalfe asked whether objections to bio-mutation technologies were political and philosophical rather than scientific. Patron responded that there were only a small number of loud voiced individuals philosophically opposed.

 

Whitfield questioned whether there needed to be better education and understanding of the technology on how it differed from GMO.  There was a need for that, Patron said, and the committee could help through their evidence submissions.

 

Ford asked why it was important to conduct a review now to which Patron responded the EU had been behind the rest of the world on this matter and the WTO was looking at UK to be a leader in reform.

 

Grant asked whether there was an urgency in the matter due to population growth and climate change. Patron responded yes; noting to feed growing populations yield had to increase by fifty percent by 2050 and that biotech could achieve that.

 

Campaign for Science and Engineering

 

James Tooze, Policy Officer, Campaign for Science and Engineering, called for an inquiry into the Government’s guidelines on scientific and engineering advice in policy making. Her argued that there needed to be a greater roll for that advice and for greater transparency. He noted that some departments were better than others at considering scientific advice and that needed to be remedies. Tooze suggested the inquiry should look at how the guidance could be improved and the network of scientific research better utilised.

 

Whitfield asked whether it would be acceptable for policy makers to ignore scientific advice to which Tooze responded there were manner factors in decision making and scientific evidence was just one. He argued that it was important for that advice to at least inform decisions, even where the decision disagreed.

 

School of Psychological Science, University of Bristol

 

Dr Emma Williams, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow in Digital Innovation and Wellbeing, School of Psychological Science, University of Bristol, informed th committee that to ensure that digital innovation could be fully exploited it was vital that emerging smart tech products were secure.

 

The proportion of UK households with smart devises was rising considerably, she said, with societal benefits for healthcare and energy use. However, she argued that brought substantial risks; such as devices being hackable leading threats to personal safety and privacy. There were key barriers to the extension of the use of smart products Williams argued.

 

Currently, there were mechanisms to support the safety of products such as the General Product Safety Regulation 2015 but there was no legislation on the security of consumer products. She therefore called for an inquiry into producing wider regulations in the area to improve cyber security.

 

Sam Gyimah MP (Con, East Surrey) asked what other parts of the world were doing

Williams responded that the issue was developing, noting that Germany was particularly more advanced, but said that it was a quickly changing dynamic as threats and new technology were still emerging. She noted that a new voluntary approach was being taken but the UK should get ahead of the curve by exploring regulatory options.

 

Grant asked how regulation could affect technology designed and manufactured abroad. Williams said that the voluntary code was directed globally but that if regulation was to be designed it was a good time to discuss that with trading partners.

 

Nuffield Council on Bioethics

 

Catherine Joynson, Assistant Director, Nuffield Council on Bioethics informed the committee that the area of genomics had not been subject to the appropriate checks and balances. She said that the industry was burgeoning with people getting their genes tested by private companies. A review was necessary into the regulation covering that sector. The review would look at five areas, she suggested: whether the science backed up claims made by industry, whether people were adequately supported to receive the information being bought, what the impact was for the NHS and whether data held by industry was being used appropriately.

 

Whitfield asked whether there was concerns that people were giving out genetic data without knowing the consequences. Joynson responded that it was a concern and people were unaware of how their genetic data was being exploited by the private sector.

 

Monaghan asked whether there was a financial incentive behind offering as many tests as possible to which Joynson said yes. She added it was not on the radar of the government enough.

 

Keele University

 

Professor Toby Bruce, Professor of Insect Chemical Ecology, Keele University, said that there had been alarming loss in tools for protecting crops against pests and diseases jeopardising food security and viability of agricultural enterprises. He argued that environmental considerations and protections of food security had to be balanced. Pesticides were being banned more quickly that alternative solutions were being found. He therefore called for an inquiry into the sector; particularly on regulation which he argued was stifling innovation.

 

The Chair asked what could be achieved by an inquiry to which Bruce responded that it would make a difference to food security and the environment as it could encourage a balanced way forward through the use of smarter regulation.

 

Monaghan asked whether the UK was wrong to be concerned regarding the decline in pollinators. Bruce responded that it was right to be concerned and a way to make sure crop protection was compatible with safeguarding pollinators was needed.

 

University of Cambridge

 

Professor Rachel Oliver, Professor of Material Science, University of Cambridge, advised the committee that there was a need to increase the diversity of the STEM workforce. The sector had failed to reflect the diversity of the population, she said. Increasing diversity would open new talent, thinking and creativity. There was increasing evidence, Oliver argued, that gender and racial diversity lead to better science.

 

 

As such, she called for an inquiry to understand why there was a diversity deficiency and into the role that funding could play in addressing that deficiency.

 

The chair asked whether the focus should be on funding policies and culture around that or whether the scope should to be broader. Oliver responded that there was a leaky pipeline and that though there was great diversity in the early educational stages, as funding was limited diversity increased at every level.

 

Monaghan asked how funding could change industry as there was problem there too, not only in academia. Oliver noted that there was public funding in industry too but that the problem was in attaining a more diverse academic demographic, which would then impact and be reflected in industry.

 

UCL Energy Institute

 

Dr Gesche Huebner, Senior Research Associate, UCL Energy Institute, warned the committee that climate change was the largest threat to human health. She noted three areas affecting health: fossil fuels, a changed climate and atmospheric change. She argued these issues led to increased deaths, health problems and lower productivity and economic problems. She said an inquiry could address gaps in the research knowledge and improve standards and regulations for the future.

 

Whitfield asked what the engineering aspects were that would have to be looked at to which Huebner said a particular focus on buildings and homes was needed, such as retrofitting buildings better to reduce energy use and stop overheating.