Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


The Science and Technology Committee has agreed to the following Report:—




1. In March 1997, Sir Robert May, then Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and Head of the Office of Science and Technology (OST), published Guidelines on The Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making. The "May Guidelines" set out key principles for departments to apply in the use and presentation of scientific advice. They were that:

The Guidelines were widely welcomed, but the fact that the Chief Scientific Adviser felt the need to make explicit principles which seem self-evident is perhaps an indication that all was not well with the scientific advisory system at that time.[8]

2. The May Guidelines were issued against a background of heightened public concern about scientific advice to Government. The scientific advisory system was not new: scientists have been advising Government for many years. But there was increasing concern about the way it operated. In March 1996, ten years after the first identification of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and after ten years of maintaining that it was safe to eat beef, the Government acknowledged that BSE had probably been transmitted to humans. There was widespread concern that several expert advisory committees, over a number of years, appeared to have failed to alert the Government, or the public, to the risks of eating beef. Worse, it was suspected that scientific uncertainty had been covered up by politicians and civil servants in order to prevent a food scare. The scientific community was blamed too: science, and the scientific advisory system, appeared to have failed to protect the public. Something had gone seriously wrong.

3. At the same time, there was mounting concern about standards in public life, on the one hand, and on the way in which government quangos operated, on the other. The Nolan Committee had felt the need to restate the general principles which should underpin public life, and had called on all public bodies to establish Codes of Conduct.[9] Public confidence in the integrity of Government was at a low ebb.

Our inquiry

4. For all these reasons, it appeared to us that an inquiry into the Scientific Advisory System would be timely. We launched our inquiry in March 1998, with the following terms of reference:

5. In our inquiry, we have received 53 memoranda from a wide range of organisations and individuals.[11] We held one session of oral evidence, on 17 June 1998, with Sir Robert May, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government.[12] We visited Washington DC from 22 to 24 June 1998, as part of a visit to that city and to Boston made jointly for this inquiry and our inquiry into Engineering and Physical Sciences Based Innovation. An outline of this visit appears as an Annex to this Report.

6. We then decided to proceed by conducting a number of case studies. First, we examined the scientific advisory system in relation to genetically modified foods, reporting in May 1999.[13] Secondly, we examined the scientific advisory system in relation to mobile phones and health, reporting in September 1999.[14] Thirdly, we examined the scientific advisory system in relation to diabetes and driving licences, reporting in February 2000.[15] In our fourth, and final, case study we examined scientific advice on climate change. (Our Report on the climate change case study is to be published at the same time as this Report.[16]) Our purpose in choosing these case studies in particular was:

    (i)  to cover a range of Government Departments;

    (ii)  to cover topics both of wide public concern and of interest to particular groups; and

    (iii)  to examine various different models of advice so that comparisons could be drawn.

In this Report we draw together the lessons from the four case studies and the conclusions of our overarching inquiry.

7. We are grateful to all those who contributed to our inquiry by submitting evidence. We are particularly grateful to Sir Robert May both for his evidence and for his continuing interest in our inquiry. We are also most appreciative of the hard work of the two specialist advisers who have assisted us throughout this long inquiry: Professor Derek Burke, formerly Vice-Chancellor

of the University of East Anglia; and Professor Michael Elves, formerly Director of the Office of Scientific and Educational Affairs, Glaxo Wellcome plc.


8. Many significant developments have taken place during the course of our inquiry.

  • In July 2000, alongside the Science and Innovation White Paper, the OST published revised Guidelines, "Guidelines 2000 - Scientific Advice and Policy Making". The revised Guidelines extend to social science research, and place greater emphasis on stakeholder involvement and to openness and transparency, particularly in relation to uncertainty.[18]

  • In July 2000, the OST also issued a draft Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees for consultation. A second draft is to be issued for further consultation in March 2001, and it is planned to publish the final version later in the year.[19]

  • The Government has created three new overarching scientific advisory bodies: the Human Genetics Commission (December 1999), the Food Standards Agency (April 2000), and the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (June 2000).

  • The Government's White Paper on Modernising Government put forward a package of reforms designed to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of Government.[20]

  • In June 2000, the Chief Scientific Adviser's Review of risk procedures used by the Government's advisory committees dealing with food safety was circulated to all scientific advisory committees.

  • The Freedom of Information Act, which received Royal Assent in November 2000, provides a statutory framework for openness in Government, making disclosure of information the norm save in exceptional circumstances.

  • In October 2000, the report of the BSE Inquiry conducted by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers ("the Phillips Report") was published.[21] This includes a wide range of lessons to be learned on the use of scientific advisory committees, on the co-ordination of research, and on dealing with uncertainty and the communication of risk. The Government's Interim Response was published on 9 February 2001.[22]

  • In March 2000 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a Report on Science and Society addressing what it saw as a crisis in public confidence in science.[23] This includes a number of recommendations on communicating uncertainty and risk and on the openness of scientific advisory bodies.

9. Scientific advice to Government is under even greater scrutiny now than it was in 1998. Public confidence in the efficacy, and even the integrity, of the scientific advisory system has been sadly eroded. Recent government assurances on the safety of the MMR vaccine, for example, which have been based on the views of the overwhelming majority of scientific and medical opinion, have met with widespread scepticism or downright disbelief. Similarly, anxieties about the use of depleted uranium have been fuelled by suspicions about the scientific information available to Government on its safety. There is now a climate of public opinion which is distrustful of authority. The Government, in its use of the scientific advisory system, has to recognise this social change and respond to meet it.

Developments since our case studies

10. In the area of our case studies, there have also been a number of developments.


11. Since we reported the findings of our case study on GM foods, the regulatory framework has been changed significantly by the creation of the Food Standards Agency. In addition:

  • The OECD held a conference in Edinburgh in February 2000 on the scientific and health aspects of GM foods. The Chairman's summary proposes an international forum on GM technology, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  • The EU Commission has announced that it will propose a Commission Regulation on the labelling of GMO-free foods.


12. Since we published the findings of our case study on Mobile Phones and Health:

  • The Government's reply, published on 8 December 2000, announced a comprehensive research programme on mobile phones and health, with funding being provided 50% by government and 50% by industry.

  • The European Fifth Framework Programme for 2001 includes research on EMF radiation and cellular phones as a priority area.[26]


13. Our case study examined the Government's use of scientific advice in determining policy and practice in respect of medical fitness to drive for the condition insulin-treated diabetes mellitus. In response to our recommendations:[27]

  • The Honorary Medical Advisory Panel on Driving and Diabetes Mellitus has reconsidered its previous advice and recommended that individual assessment be introduced for category C1 (small lorries) applicants. Individuals with good diabetic control and no significant complications are to be treated as exceptional cases. Changes are to be introduced from early April 2001.

  • A programme of research into diabetes and driving has been initiated. The Panel will review its advice on other driving categories when this has been completed.

  • Term appointments have been introduced for all members of the Panel.

  • A suitable person, nominated by Diabetes UK, is expected to be appointed to the Panel before April 2001.

  • Panel meeting agendas and minutes are published on the internet. The Panel is to publish an annual report on the internet "shortly".[28]

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) has recently sent us, proactively, a progress report, one year after publication of the case study Report. (We publish this with this Report.[29]) We commend to other Departments the DETR's example of providing a one year update on progress on implementing the Committee's recommendations.

7   See Evidence HC 769-i, p 2, paragraph 2.6. References to the evidence in the footnotes to this Report are variously: to the oral evidence taken from Sir Robert May on 17 June 1998, HC 769-i of Session 1997-98 ("Q ..."); to the written evidence from OST printed with those Minutes of Evidence ("Evidence HC 769-i, p ..."); to the written evidence published in the Volume of Memoranda published in June 2000 as HC 465 of Session 1999-2000 ("Evidence HC 465, p ..."); and to the memoranda published with this Report ("Evidence, p ...").  Back

8   See Q 1. Back

9   First Report of the Committee of Standards in Public Life, May 1995. Back

10   Science and Technology Committee Press Notice No. 13 of Session 1997-98, 12 March 1998. Back

11   The Volume of Memoranda was published as HC 465 of Session 1999-2000.  Back

12   Minutes of Evidence, Wednesday 17 June 1998, HC 796-i, Session 1997-98. Back

13   First Report, Session 1998-99, Scientific Advisory System: Genetically Modified Foods, HC 286. Government Response: Cm 4527. Back

14   Third Report, Session 1998-99, Scientific Advisory System: Mobile Phones and Health, HC 489. Government Response: Cm 4551. Back

15   Third Report, Session 1999-2000, Scientific Advisory System: Diabetes and Driving Licences, HC 206. Government Response: Cm 4723. Back

16   Third Report, Session 2000-01, Scientific Advisory System: Scientific Advice on Climate Change, HC 14. Back

17   Available on OST's website: . Back

18   The Guidelines 2000 can be found at . Back

19   See Evidence, p 1, paragraph 4. The draft Code of Practice can be found via . Back

20   Modernising Government, Cm 4326, March 1999. Back

21   HC 887, Session 1999-2000. Back

22   The Interim Response to the Report of the BSE Inquiry, February 2001, Cm 5049. Back

23   Third Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 1999-2000, Science and Society, HL 38. Back

24   See First Special Report, Session 2000-01, The Work of the Science and Technology Committee 1997-2000, HC 44, Appendix 1. Back

25   Mobile Phones and Health, April 2000. Back

26   See First Special Report, Session 2000-01, The Work of the Science and Technology Committee 1997-2000, HC 44, Appendix 2. Back

27   See Evidence, pp 7-11. See also First Special Report, Session 2000-01, The Work of the Science and Technology Committee 1997-2000, HC 44, Appendix 1. Back

28   Evidence, p 10, paragraphs 21, 23. See . Back

29   See Appendix 2: Evidence, pp 7-11. Back

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