Select Committee on Science and Technology

No.49 of Session 2005-06 27 June 2006



The Science and Technology Committee has found no evidence to justify the inclusion of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) in an EU Directive which could restrict the use of this valuable diagnostic tool in UK hospitals.

The use of new high powered MRI scanners for research purposes is also under threat. The Committee found that the Directive will, “at best, impose burdens on employers and, at worst, restrict the use of a valuable diagnostic tool for patients and inhibit important research”.

The Committee’s Report into Scientific Advice on the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) concludes that existing guidelines for the use of MRI were sufficient. It is part of the Committee’s wider inquiry into how the Government handles scientific advice, evidence and risk in policy making.

The NHS has recently invested around £100 million on 100 new MRI scanners, partly to support its Cancer Plan. These provide well-defined images of internal organs of the body and are used for diagnosis and increasingly for guiding invasive surgery. Yet the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council were unaware of the potential impact on MRI use in hospitals and for research until after the Directive was adopted in April 2004. The Committee welcomes the fact that research, albeit belatedly, is now underway to establish exactly what the impact will be.

The Committee found the consultation processes used by the Health and Safety Executive and the Health Protection Agency in order to provide advice on the Directive were flawed. The response of these agencies to concerns from the magnetic resonance community about the potential impact of the Directive was characterised by an “instinctive and dismissive resistance”. In addition, the HSE was found to be giving wrong information to the medical community on its own policy for a prolonged period, revealing “quite astonishing failings in management and internal communications”. The Committee did note, however, that ministers acted swiftly to investigate the concerns when they were finally alerted to them.

The medical research community itself was also slow to appreciate the full potential impact of the Directive and politically ineffective in raising their concerns.  The Committee recommends that the Office of Science and Innovation, in consultation with the Research Councils, should review their horizon-scanning activities in respect of EU legislation and that this activity ought to be better ingrained into the policy making process.

Phil Willis, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

“This case study has revealed some extraordinary failings in the policy process and highlighted  the potentially serious consequences of ignoring scientific advice. We now face the prospect of new treatments at Guy’s Hospital being prevented and the cutting edge research of a Noble Prize winner, Sir Peter Mansfield, at Nottingham University being severely curtailed.

“I am pleased that we now have Chief Scientific Advisers in most departments. But if they are not involved in the policy making process in areas dependent on scientific advice and involving huge public expenditure, I can’t see how they are doing their jobs properly.”

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Previous press notices and publications are available on our website.

Notes to editors:

• The subject of  MRI was chosen by the Committee to look at the way the Government uses scientific advice to influence policy at the EU level. Concerns had also been expressed by the medical research community that the EU Directive could severely restrict the use of  MRI for both treatment and research.

• Copies of the Report can be obtained from TSO outlets and from the Parliamentary Bookshop, 12 Bridge Street, Parliament Square, London SW1A 2JX (020 7219 3890) by quoting the appropriate HC number from the day of publication. The text of the Report will be available via the Committee’s internet homepage:  from the time of publication.

• Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Science and Technology Committee is empowered to examine the “expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies”. The Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.

• This inquiry was announced on 9 November 2005 in Press Notice No 9 of session 2005-06.

• Evidence sessions were held on Thursday 11 May and  Wednesday 17 May 2006 when evidence was heard from: officials from the European Commission; and  the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Health Protection Agency and the Health and Safety Executive.

  Membership of the Committee

Mr Phil Willis (Lib Dem, Harrogate and Knaresborough)(Chairman)
Adam Afriyie (Con, Windsor)
Mr Robert Flello (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent South)
Mr Jim Devine (Lab, Livingston)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East)
Margaret Moran (Lab, Luton South)
Mr Brooks Newmark (Con, Braintree)
Anne Snelgrove (Lab/Co-op, South Swindon)
Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)
Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)