Openness and transparency
56. The Phillips Report sets out three simple lessons:
"- To establish
credibility it is necessary to generate trust
- Trust can only be generated by
- Openness requires recognition of uncertainty,
where it exists".
These lessons are strongly endorsed in the Government's
Interim Response. This states that the Government is committed
to a policy of open and transparent working, and recognises that
efforts to "build and sustain trust through openness cannot
succeed unless it is fully prepared to acknowledge uncertainty
in its assessments of risk".
The Guidelines 2000 emphasise that Department's procedures
for obtaining advice should be open and transparent; and the draft
Code of Practice expects advisory bodies to maintain high levels
of transparency during routine business and to publish appropriate
documents explaining their activities. We commend the very
significant steps which Government is making to increase openness
57. The Government's commitment to transparency is
very welcome. We note that there are limitations to this commitment.
The Government was not prepared to extend the provisions of the
Freedom of Information Act to factual information made available
to Ministers. The draft Code of Practice envisages that in some
circumstances the advice of advisory bodies will not be published.
Voluntary disclosure is not enough, if the public is to be
convinced that the scientific advisory system is truly transparent.
Furthermore, publication is increasingly taken to mean publication
on the internet. Many - perhaps most - advisory committees
now have their own websites, but some are very hard to locate.
We find that it takes time to find even major policy documents
such as the Guidelines 2000 and the draft Code of Practice:
we suggest that consultation documents, in particular, should
be clearly accessible. We note with approval the proposal in the
Government's Interim Report that there should be a centrally run
website providing access to information about publicly-funded
In addition to, or perhaps part of, this, we recommend that
there should be a website for the scientific advisory system,
with direct links to every advisory committee. However, there
is a need for caution. While we welcome the provision of government
information on the internet, it should not be an alternative to
publication on paper. Many people do not have access to a computer
and for them information published on the internet will not be
The role of the media
58. Efforts to sustain public confidence in the scientific
advisory system are not assisted by the inaccurate or sensational
reporting of scientific matters in the media. In our case study
on GM foods, we were very concerned by the quality of media coverage
of GM issues. We recommended that there be a Code of Practice
governing media coverage of scientific matters, and that breaches
be referred to the Press Complaints Commission.
In its response, the Government maintained that the newspaper
industry's existing Code of Practice covered alleged inaccuracy
in reporting, regardless of the subject matter, and that the BBC's
guidelines and the ITC's Programme Code required accuracy of reporting
in the broadcasting media. The Government saw no merit in a separate
code for scientific matters.
We note that the Royal Society has produced guidelines for editors,
calling for factual accuracy and balance in media coverage of
science. We endorse the recommendation of the House of Lords
Select Committee that the Press Complaints Commission should adopt
and promulgate the Royal Society's guidelines for editors.
59. The role of the media has been explored in depth
by the House of Lords Committee in its Report on Science and Society.
We commend this Report to the scientists and journalists. While
we continue to believe that inaccurate and unbalanced reporting
is unacceptable, we note the Lords Committee's conclusion that
scientists must learn to work with the media as they are. Scientists
must learn to communicate better and to present their case to
90 HC 887-I, paragraph 1301. Back
Cm 5049, paragraph 5.3. Back
Cm 5049, paragraph 4.26. Back
HC 286-I, paragraph 29. Back
Cm 4527, paragraphs 9-11. Back
HL Paper 38, paragraph 7.31. Back