Memorandum submitted by the Save British
Today few, if any, policy decisions by Government
can be made which are free of scientific and technological implications.
Often the underlying scientific issues are complex and as the
rapid advance in science and its applications brings it into relevance
with increasing areas of importance to life and work, policy decisions
may have to be taken when knowledge is incomplete and uncertain.
The scientific evidence on which advice to Government
is based must be of the highest quality, authoritative and free
of any possible source of bias, political as well as commercial.
The same must apply in the formulation and presentation of the
advice to Government. After that it moves into the political domain,
has to be weighed together with other considerations and policy
The principle sources of independent scientific
advice to Government are the universities and public sector research
establishments (PSREs). There are 42 of the latter: 22 managed
by departments (the Government research establishments, GREs)
and 20 research council institutions (RCIs) which come under the
Office of Science and Technology (OST), a ring-fenced enclave
within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
In a continuous series of reviews
between 1988 and 1996, a number of former GREs became wholly or
partially privatised, and dependent on non-public, commercial
sources of income. These can no longer be considered unquestionably
disinterested sources of advice in areas where there is a significant
commercial dependence. A similar situation is developing in the
universities as growth in industrial funding of research is now
becoming strongly concentrated in some sectors, such as pharmaceuticals.
To ensure full public confidence all members
of independent advisory bodies should be required to state any
affiliations with commercial relevance to the topic under consideration,
including private consultancies and any significant dependence
on funding of their research.
The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has
a key role in co-ordinating science across departments and overseeing
the process of providing sound scientific advice to Government.
In March 1997 Sir Robert May issued a note on the use and presentation
of scientific advice in policy making "Science and Policy:
Key Principles". It is a set of guidelines for Government
departments to follow in ensuring access to the best research,
from their own and other sources, and in using the results to
formulate advice. It is a very clear and concise document. It
emphasises the need for openness at all stages, and especially
to build public confidence in the processes underlying the formulation
If one could be sure that within Government
the May guidelines would always be followed, there should be no
cause for concern. But the present structure, in which departments
manage laboratories responsible for a major part of the research
on which policy decisions are made, does not inspire confidence.
Recent events, notably the BSE crisis and its handling, cast doubt
on whether in practice and over time guidelines can be effective
in ensuring that:
research and its interpretation is
free of influence leaking across from the dominant political interests
of the department;
the best quality scientific help
and advice is always sought; and
long-term research programmes are
not starved by low budgetary priority for research and pressures
of immediate problems.
For these and other reasons, SBS suggests that
as the departmental Government research laboratories (GREs) are,
in reality, an important component of the national science and
engineering research base, their management and the budgets for
the main research programmes should be transferred to the control
of an enlarged, strengthened Office of Science and Technology
(OST) making them an integral part of the science base.
2.1 Political Pressures
The departmental laboratories have the task
of providing their parent departments with the information and
advice necessary to support departmental policy and actions. The
research programme will therefore be designed to be appropriate
to these needsin that sense properly matching a policy
Evidence that inappropriate influence can occur
has been revealed during the BSE inquiry, which has thrown a harsh
light on the research process in the Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food (MAFF). Sir Richard Southwood has remarked
on the "optimism" of the MAFF officials, and the Permanent
Secretary's wish that the Southwood committee would not put forward
any advice which would make it difficult for the department to
stay within its expenditure limits. If it is thought appropriate
so to influence a distinguished, independent committee, what pressuresinsidious
or directmay the department's own staff feel?
Observations that would have rung alarm bells
elsewhere seem to have been disregarded at first in a MAFF laboratory;
"optimism" and a reluctance to recognise potential "bad
news" for the department's agricultural interests?
As the May guidelines say in advocating early
sharing of data on a potentially serious issue with others of
the scientific community: "Scientific advance thrives on
openness and competition of ideas." The BSE case demonstrated
the reverse behaviour, important data was withheld for years and
in consequence contributed to the damage caused.
Scrapie, as a disease known only in sheep and
not a serious economic issue for farmers, was apparently not considered
an important research problem in spite of the fact that the nature
of the disease and its transmission were not at all understood.
As the MAFF expenditure on R&D declined in the mid 1980s resources
and staff were taken away from scrapie research.
When the BSE emergency broke, and the supposition
was made that BSE in cows was derived from scrapie, "new
money" was signalled for research. But staff had already
been lost, and the programme could only be re-started by taking
scientists off research in other areas. One of these was the study
of the possible consequences of the intensive dosing of "factory
farm" animals with anti-biotics. This is now, predictably,
one of today's major concerns
Perhaps it seems unfair to base the case so
far on the MAFF and the exceptional BSE crisis. But it was this
that led to the detailed scrutiny of MAFF and revealed failings
which might well lie hidden from view in other departments.
In spite of the obvious importance of maintaining
a strong research base in an area as vital as the provision of
food, and especially when the techniques employed in food production
are changing so fast, the MAFF appears to treat research as a
relatively low priority item in its budgeting. The research councils
have frequently suffered damaging withdrawals of MAFF funding
of research at short notice.
Except for a small £7 million (5 per cent)
jump in 1992, between 1986 and 1997including the "BSE
years"MAFF annual funding of R&D fell continuously
in real terms, reaching a level about 25 per cent lower by the
end of the period.
In 1997 the Department of Trade and Industry
(DTI) expenditure in its areas of responsibility was only one-third
of the value in 1986.
Total civil R&D, all departments (not including OST and Higher
Education Funding Councils (HEFCs)), halved over the period.
The consequences include increased financial
demands on the science base, through links with research council
programmes. For example, in 1993 the DTI suddenly ended the Advanced
Technology Programme and unilaterally withdrew from activities
being jointly supported with the Science and Engineering Research
Council (SERC). The SERC was left with additional demands estimated
at £40 million over two years.
Although the recent Comprehensive Spending Review
took a careful look at funding policy for the science basethe
research councils and the HEFCsthe rest of government funded
civil research, 33 per cent, was left out. Until the departments
have decided how much of their budget is left for research, the
figures will not be known and the Government's "Forward Look"
on R&D awaits the outcome. The recent, very welcome, increases
for the science base may well suffer erosion if departmental funding
When the then President of the Board of Trade,
the Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Cabinet Minister responsible for
science policy, was asked, by the House of Commons Select Committee
on Science and Technology, whether she had any powers over departmental
spending on R&D she was heard to reply "Sadly, no."
There is no government wide policy on science and the funding
4. A UNIFIED
SBS has long argued that the pervasiveness of
science and technology into almost all areas of Government policy
requires that formulation and management of science policy has
a central position in government, ensuring coherence across departments
and with the rest of the science base.
The Royal Society has suggested (March 1994)
that since the OST (then in the Cabinet Office) is alone among
Government departments in being a "supplier" of research
rather than a "customer", it "is uniquely placed
to hold responsibility for government research establishments
(GREs) across all fields."
SBS has proposed ("Policies for the Next
Government: Science and Technology" 1996) that all GREs are
brought into the control of an enlarged OST, with a transfer of
all the funds needed to cover infrastructure and operating costs,
including the base, or core, programmes of medium to long term
basic and strategic research. Departments could remain responsible
for commissioning and funding applied research specific to their
responsibilities, from the GREs managed by the OST or elsewhere.
Such an arrangement would give the OST the control
necessary to develop a coherent overall policy, including funding,
for government science and technology across the enlarged science
and engineering base. It should ensure:
a necessary degree of stability in
funding of forward-looking medium to long term research programmes;
coherence of the research programmes
of the GREs with the rest of the science base, leading to greater
collaboration and openness;
common procedures, such as peer review,
to ensure research meets high, international standards;
"the publication of all the
scientific evidence and analysis underlying decisions on sensitive
issues" as the May guidelines recommend; and
improved public confidence in the
impartiality of scientific advice through clear separation of
the basis of that advice from the political process of making
Such a separation of functions will necessitate
strong links to be maintained by departments with the relevant
former GREs in the new science base, and probably lead to new
associations. The concordats between departments and research
councils, like the one between Department of Health and the Medical
Research Council, provide a model for these links.
The departments will need to retain a Chief
Scientist supported by a number of experts: to help ensure effective
transmission of advice to Ministers including a proper understanding
of the significance of the research on which it is based; and
so that departments can act as informed "customers"
in the commissioning of applied research. Active, experienced
scientists on secondment from the science base for fixed terms
should be the major component of these teams. This structure would
lead to the development of an effective informal net-work of contacts
with the science base of great value to the Chief Scientists,
especially when the unexpected arrives.
The responsibilities of the Government's Chief
Scientific Adviser (CSA) and the OST in overseeing the functioning
of the science base and ensuring the quality and objectivity of
scientific advice from all sources would remain vital. The Official
Cabinet Committee on S&T (EASO) chaired by the CSA would continue
its important role guiding and facilitating cross-departmental
approaches to scientific issues.
31 "Next Steps Agencies", departmental "prior
options", "efficiency scrutiny", further "prior
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