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House of Commons Science and Technology Committee - The Legacy Report Parliament 2010-15

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into the work of the committee over this parliament and the 29 reports they have published. Details for the inquiry, along with the Terms of Reference can be found on the government website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 10 November 2014

  1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 11,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.
  2. We would like to congratulate the committee on an interesting, useful and well-received programme of inquiries throughout the current parliament, that have been both broad and detailed in their scope and have built on the successful early work of this committee in the previous parliament. The committee has taken on important, complex issues and carried out pertinent inquiries that have been revealing for all involved and we hope it will continue to build on this work in the next parliament. 
  3. While the committee has shown signs of a more innovative approach to its inquiries, much of the work of the various committees across the House of Commons and House of Lords is still done in isolation which may limit their effectiveness. We regularly work with a number of select committees including the Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee on cross-cutting topics where scientific advice has an important role to play. This is demonstrated in the list of inquiry and consultation responses we have submitted during this parliament, which can be found at Annex A. There is scope for a lot more joined-up working and communication across the committees and the remit of the Science and Technology Committee means that it is in good position to forge these relationships and take advantage of potential synergies across inquiry topics and committee member expertise. A more joined up approach to inquiry issues will also help to reduce duplication of effort by responding bodies with limited resource.
  4. The Society responded to a number of Science and Technology Committee inquiries during this parliamentary session which are included in the list at Annex A. We focus below on three inquiries where our observations exemplify the broader points made in this submission. A challenge of reviewing the efficacy of the committee’s work is that developments in specific areas (such as Strategically Important Metals) can be hard to attribute to the effect of a single inquiry, so relevant developments may be incorrectly attributed or omitted.

    Practical Experiments in School Science Lessons and Science Field Trips, 2011

  5. In our submission to the inquiry on Practicals and Fieldtrips, we set out our concerns regarding the decline in opportunities to expose learners to education in the outdoors. The submission focussed on the skills required in the Earth sciences that are gained through experience in field work. It also recognised the importance of practical experiments (such as laboratory work) and fieldwork within all sciences as a vital element for developing high level cognitive and practical scientific skills.
  6. For our part, we have continued to expand the role we play in supporting teachers. We have been developing our programme of activities aimed at school teachers and their students including through our School’s Affiliate Scheme ( and we have now been running our Geoscience Education Academy ( for several years. This is an intensive week of training aimed at those who are not specialist geology teachers; an important aspect of the training is to develop teachers’ skills and confidence in fieldwork.
  7. The committee has shown sustained interest in this area long beyond the timeframe of the initial inquiry, and has continued to hold Government and others to account. The committee’s approach to this topic, particularly in responding to Ofqual’s announcement that it does not intend in future to include practical work as part of A Level assessment, has been innovative. There was also a notable effort to engage with a variety of stakeholders to try to find ways to fairly and effectively test practical work. We welcome the committee’s novel approach of organising (and filming) workshops to discuss solutions to this challenge, and we look forward to such approaches being used more widely.

    Climate: public understanding of climate change, 2013

  8. In our submission to the inquiry on Climate, we discussed the alternative narrative for communicating climate change that is provided by the evidence in the geological record. We raised the point that there is currently an overreliance on one specific framing of the evidence for climate change which focuses largely on atmospheric science and climate modelling. Subsequent to responding to this inquiry we published an addendum ( to our 2010 Climate Change Statement which further underscored the robust and useful nature of this independent evidence base. The addendum included new climate data which further supported the conclusions of the earlier climate change statement that CO2 is a major modifier of the climate system and that human activities are responsible for recent warming. Further studies on the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a past warming event 55 million years ago which is a useful analogue for current warming, helped to underline the point that adding CO2 to the atmosphere in large amounts warms the climate, raises sea-level, makes the ocean more acidic and diminishes marine oxygen concentration. These changes during the PETM significantly reduced biodiversity and undoubtedly restricted the ability of plankton at the bottom of the food chain to construct carbonate skeletons (just as is happening today). The PETM is not an exact analogue for today because geological evidence indicates that it progressed more slowly, which should make us doubly concerned about what we are now doing to the planet.
  9. The narrative of climate change which is communicated to the public by government and many others is dominated by a limited scientific framing, making it vulnerable to attacks on these aspects of the science. The geological evidence base and the geoscience which it underpins are entirely independent of atmospheric modelling and data from the recent past, but they lead to the same conclusions. As such, they constitute a very useful tool for strengthening public acceptance of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and understanding of its likely impacts. We encourage the committee to highlight the importance of such multiple independent lines of evidence when discussing the effective communication of climate change.
  10. The committee’s report noted that there is little evidence of any significant co-ordination across Government to communicate the relevant science to the public. We agree that a more joined-up approach would be beneficial, but we also think that this inquiry is one where cross-fertilisation with other committees such as the ECC Committee could have strengthened the inquiry. We have engaged extensively with the ECC Committee on inquiries such as Shale Gas and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), where we have raised similar points about geological understanding of climate change. As a result, the ECC Committee now have a much better understanding of the contribution that geological evidence can make to the argument. With regard to the recommendation to the Government that they work with the learned societies and national academies to develop a source of information on climate science, we would be pleased to assist with this in any way we can.
  11. The Geological Society is committed to helping to communicate to a wide range of audiences the geoscience relevant to contested issues such as climate change, CCS, radioactive waste disposal and shale gas. In June 2014, the Society took a novel approach to these topics by organising a meeting entitled ‘Communicating Contested Geoscience’, aimed at sharing and improving strategies for communicating such science. This ‘town-hall’ style event predominantly focussed on dialogue rather than the standard presentation and questions format, to encourage open and wide-ranging discussion. This approach generated much fruitful debate among the delegates. We encourage the committee to consider this as a model for gathering evidence on potentially contentious topics in future, and we would be pleased to discuss this topic further, if required.
  12. We encourage the committee to continue diversifying its approach to inquiries and evidence gathering. The transparency of the process may benefit from organising more meetings in open fora away from the parliamentary estate both in London (as the House of Lords Arctic Committee did in July 2014 in holding its inaugural meeting at the Geological Society) and around the country (as with the ECC Committee which met in Sheffield in January 2014). This type of activity improves the transparency of the work of the committee, heightens visibility, and provides opportunities for public and stakeholder engagement.  

    Strategically Important Metals, 2011

  13. This inquiry was a timely and in-depth look at a complex issue and it provided a valuable opportunity for dialogue between the committee and scientific communities with relevant expertise. Professor David Manning provided oral evidence to the committee on behalf of the Geological Society, further to our written evidence. We were pleased to see other critical materials such as Phosphorus and Helium addressed in the committee’s report particularly as the original Terms of Reference were limited in scope to metals, a somewhat artificial framing of critical raw materials. We welcomed the emphasis both on the need for a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach to product design and the re-use of critical materials, and on the need for continued mineral exploration and extraction. The committee also recognised the economic and resource security potential of unexploited deposits of some strategic metals in the UK.  
  14. Subsequent to the completion of this inquiry, there have been a few developments in the area of critical materials. In 2013, NERC launched a research programme on the ‘Security of Supply of Mineral Resources’ (, comprising 13 catalyst grants. The European Commission has continued to develop its raw materials initiative ( Most recently, it held a US-Japan-EU trilateral workshop on the subject in December 2013. 

  15. The Geological Society also produced a briefing note on Rare Earth Elements (REE) ( which discussed the geological abundance and location of many critical materials, along with other factors which influence supply. Our conclusions were that while there is no absolute shortage of REE, the fact that most known large deposits are outside the EU and the concentration of global production in a very small number of mines may cause concern about security of supply in the medium-term. It may be useful here to draw a distinction between resources and reserves. Resource is the amount of a given material in the ground, while reserve is the amount that can be produced economically – that is, which we can realistically expect to extract from the ground given current technological, economic and social/regulatory constraints. While resources of critical materials may not be short, reserves may be much more limited, and further pressure on security of supply may result from geopolitical constraints. While it is reasonable to think that markets will ultimately respond to shortages of critical materials, establishing new mining operations requires very significant capital investment and a long lead time (as much as 10 years). Long-term strategic planning is essential to avoid a long lag time where the market may be more prone to shortages. Improved planning also has other benefits, allowing for a more strategic approach to stakeholder engagement. It is important that any new mining activity gains ‘social licence to operate’ – that is, public willingness to accept mining activity in their environment – both at a local and wider level.
  16. The Society is also involved in a new initiative being organised by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) entitled ‘Resourcing Future Generations’ ( which is aimed at ‘securing the mineral, energy and water resources required by future generations’. Building on the success of the Strategically Important Metals inquiry, there would be great benefit in the committee working with others to address this defining issue for our times, not just in the UK context, but across a wider, international landscape. Critical materials policy is being developed and implemented at a global and EU level, but it is not attracting the attention it needs in the UK. The sustainable resourcing of these materials is critical not only to the future well-being of the world’s population – especially its poorest people – but also to the research and development of high-tech engineering applications which Government has identified as crucial to the UK’s economic development. Drawing attention to these links could raise the profile of the issue among Government departments.

    Broader comments and looking to the future

  17. The various committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords have conducted many valuable and well-executed inquiries during the current parliament. However, although we understand that there is some dialogue between committees regarding planning of inquiries, viewed from the outside they appear to work in a rather insular way. There are opportunities for synergies between many of the committees, not just regarding strategic planning of inquiries but to work across committees’ remits and to capitalise on their diverse expertise and experience. As noted above, there is scope for the Science and Technology committee to work more closely with the ECC Committee, for instance on climate change. Similarly, the knowledge gained from the Strategically Important Metals inquiry could have been useful to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in its inquiry on the Extractive Industries. Activities such as fossil fuel exploration and extraction in the Arctic need to be balanced with effective protection of what remains a near-pristine environment.  Increased activity in the Arctic from exploration and the opening up of shipping routes could result in pollution.  Effective monitoring of the impact of development on the Arctic will require comprehensive baseline surveys of background concentrations and emissions of key pollutants; this will help to provide a robust approach to environmental management.
  18. As a Society, we have done much during the course of this parliament to collaborate with other organisations in presenting geoscience as an input to policy making. Organisations that we have worked with (a list of which can be found at Annex A) include the Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments, the Science Council, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain. We encourage others to adopt this more collaborative, holistic way of working.

  19. There may also be opportunities to engage better with those who provide evidence and the wider science community by improving the communication and transparency of the process for identifying inquiry topics. One possible approach would be to allow ideas for inquiries to be submitted via a webpage, so that the science community could contribute to the identification of inquiry topics. It might also be beneficial to circulate draft Terms of Reference of an inquiry ahead of the launch so that stakeholders could comment on its content and scope. More dynamic engagement could also be achieved by using social media to elicit expert and stakeholder input, or through ‘town-hall’ style meetings to stimulate open debate on an issue. We encourage the committee to share its thinking on such models of working, and to indicate whether evidence from a coherent disciplinary community is more helpful than submissions from separate independent bodies, where this can be achieved.
  20. The Geological Society shares the committee’s commitment to improving the effective communication of science, to support effective development and implementation of policy. If there is anything we can do to assist this process, or ways that we can better work with the committee and other stakeholders, we would be pleased to discuss.