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We have recommended that the Governments CSA work closelyperhaps more closely than in the pastwith the head of the Government economic service and with the three social science chiefs of profession. The Committee has always taken the view that there should be a chief scientific adviser in all the major State Departments. We believe that we were particularly responsible for persuading the Department
for International Development to employ a CSA. He has been active and forward looking in his advice to that Department, and I believe that that has had an effect on its work.
Departmental CSAs have been appointed both from within State Departments and by secondment from positions outside. Those appointed from outside usually work on a part-time basis, for three or four days a week, as well as continuing to work for their former employer, which is often a university. The evidence that we have collected suggests that there are advantages in seconding people to those positions from outside the great State Departments. They bring in a lot of outside experience, and they can also go back and work with their research students, enjoy discussions and raise questions about their work in government with their colleagues in academia or industry.
Such outside appointments have traditionally been short fixed-term appointments, which has resulted in quite a turnover, and quite a range of advice coming into the major State Departments throughout the secondments. Our report commends the Department for Transports model. Its CSA has been, and still is, an outside appointment, but a deputy has been appointed from within the Department to advise the externally appointed CSA on the advice available in the Department. We feel that it is important to run CSAs and their deputies in that way, and we recommend that other Departments adopt that model.
The Committee also believes that departmental CSAs should be on top and not on tap, as the report put it, which means that they should be involved in all major policy decisions in their Department. We have collected evidence that things can go wrong if that is not the case. I shall come to the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive in a moment. In that case, things went terribly wrong because there was not full consultation. While departmental CSAs are directly answerable to their permanent secretaries, they should also be allowed to interact freely with the Governments CSA, and with their equivalents in other Departments, so that there is a free flow of information across government in the scientific advisory service.
In my youth, there was a Government scientific serviceindeed, I almost joined itand the Committee strongly believes that it should be re-established. We have collected evidence that those scientists who are employed by the Governmentwe cannot find out exactly how many there are across the Departmentstend to hide their scientific role, because they feel that if they display their scientific background, they will not be preferred for promotion, which is rather sad. The civil service appears to prefer generalists to specialists, but we are dealing with some pretty specialist policy advice. We feel that State Departments need scientists to display their scientific ability freely.
In recent years, the science base of the civil service has been weakened by loss of the laboratory of the Government chemist, by the transformation of the Forensic Science Service, by the creation of QinetiQ out of the Ministry of Defence, and perhaps in other ways too. There is a Government social research service, a Government economic service, a Government statistical service and a Government operational research service, so why, I ask the Minister, do we not have a Government service for the natural and physical sciences, engineering and technology?
In all its inquiries, our Committee has always been influenced by the evidence, both written and oral, that we have received from a plethora of professional and learned societies and organisations. In engineering, for example, there are more than 40 professional organisations representing the different kinds of engineers across Britain. As I have already said, I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It has become clear to the Committee that the advice of all these bodies is not being utilised to best effect by Governments. The professional organisations are there. They carry out many inquiries themselves, and all this advicefrom the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and hundreds of othersis available to Governments. I know that the Royal Society of Chemistry was extremely pleased last year when its council was invited to 10 Downing street for a discussion on the future of energy supplies.
A number of other external agencies also advise the Government. We should mention the Council for Science and Technologythe top-level advisory board on science and technology that was re-launched in 2004. Just the other day, our Committee was questioning the present chief scientific adviser about the past and present CST and its role. No doubt a report will appear in the next few days. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is frequently cited as an exemplar of good practice in respect of its scientific advisory system on account of its establishment of an independent scientific advisory council comprising 16 members to support the work of the departmental CSA.
Implementation of the Gershon review appears to have increased the Governments reliance on external consultants as sources of technical and scientific advice. Sometimes the Governments own agenciesand even in-house expertiseare ignored, while external appointments are made, which cost Departments a small fortune. For example, between 6 April 2005 and 18 April 2006, the Home Office paid PA Consulting £14,248,799.21 for its work on the identity card programme. I sometimes have nightmares wondering what the 21p was spent on!
the use of private consultants by Government which has had the effect of undermining the traditional willingness of the scientific community to contribute to the formal consultation process.
Dr. Gibson: Can my hon. Friend enlighten me about the number of scientists or outside groups that advised the Government on the recent avian flu outbreak at the Bernard Matthews plant in Suffolk? Were all those groups united, different or whatand who came up with the idea that it was a wild bird that brought in the flu from Hungary?
Dr. Iddon: My hon. Friend asks me a difficult question, which I cannot answer, but I am sure that the advice came from a plethora of organisations. I have forgotten exactly which one was responsible for the advice about the bird coming from Hungary.
As I was saying, the RSC was critical of the lack of expertise in State Departments, which often led to a lack of competency to frame the right questions to
outside organisations or consultants, to recruit the right advice or to understand the answers provided. The Royal Society has fellows working worldwide in every discipline of science and engineering. What a resource for the Government to tap into! Sometimes the Government do, but even the Royal Society feels that it has much more advice to offer. In the USA, the National Research Council was established specifically to provide scientific advice to the Government through the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
Obviously, good advice is related to good research. In key policy areasfor example, supporting the ABC classification of controlled drugswe collected evidence that the research was inadequate to support Government policies and that the Government were not investing in much needed research in key policy areas. Academics will not engage in research for the Government if they are prevented from publishing it within a reasonable time frame. We also collected evidence that Departments were not publishing all the research data amassed, but only such that supported Government policy. Much of it was not published at all, which is clearly unacceptable. I should point out that academics are often inhibited from collecting detailed advice for the Government, particularly when they are not able to publish it rapidly, because they operate under the constraints of the research assessment exercise. Perhaps that is why the Government do not receive much research from academia
Much of the legislationa very high percentage of itaffecting our constituents is now formulated in Brussels. Personally, I do not believe that our Government are very good at scrutinising EU legislation. During our Committees inquiry, we came across a good example of a European directiveI have already referred to itthat will have an adverse effect on the use of magnetic resonance imaging equipment in clinical practice and research into disease diagnosis. I refer, of course, to the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive. If implemented without change, it will cause great damage in those areas.
The directive was adopted by the European Parliament in April 2004 and was originally scheduled to be enshrined in law in member states by April next year. In preparing it, the European Commission was heavily reliant on only one source of advicenamely, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, or the ICNIRP. However, significant uncertainties still appear to exist around the scientific basis for the guidelines that were published on the use of electromagnetic frequencies.
To produce an image, MRI requires the body to be placed in a static magnetic field while it is irradiated with a time-variable radiofrequency. That causes electromagnetic frequencies to be emitted in three different frequency ranges. The directive sets EMF exposure limit values, but EMF from static fields was excludedsubject to a review in 2009because no agreement could be reached on static fields. Although the EU advisory committee on health and safety was asked to consider an exemption from the directive for MRI, the request was initially rejected.
In the UK, the National Radiological Protection Board advised the Health and Safety Executive on the directive, urging that the HSE should take note of the ICNIRP guidelines on which the directive was founded. A regulatory impact assessment was prepared by the HSE, but despite the fact that it was aware of the possible impacts of the directive on the MRI community, it failed further to explore its consequences. We could find no evidence that the HSE had consulted its chief scientist, the CSA at the Department of Health or indeed the medical royal colleges. In that respect, both the HSE and the NRPB acted in contravention of the guidelines laid down by the Government chief scientific adviser.
Effectively, as a consequence of the lack of consultation with the MRI community and the failure of that community itself to recognise the significance of the physical agents directive on its work, the directive was cleared by the European Parliament for approval and implementation next year. As a result, if implemented without amendment, most MRI procedures will become extremely difficult or even illegal throughout British hospitals. Let us just imagine that. The European Commission was not fully aware of the work going on in the MRI community and believed that the directive would have little effect on the use of MRI in hospitals. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. Ironically, MRI uses non-ionising radiation, which is a lot safer than the ionising radiation technique that it has largely replacednamely, the use of X-rays.
The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the directives impact some two years after its adoption reflects poorly on the influence of scientific advice on the policy making process in Brussels, to which we are subject to a great extent. Lord Hunt argued to the Commission that the ICNIRP guidelines were widely accepted and followed. He told our Committee:
We felt that there was no need for the directive because we already have these guidelines.
Well, we have got the directive. I am, however, pleased to report the latest newswhich I received only todaythat it is now unlikely to be implemented before 2009, or even 2010. Two recent studies have demonstrated that the limits set by the European Commission are much too low, and are being routinely broken by MRI scanners in clinical and research settings throughout our hospitals. The results of the study commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive showed the problem to be more extensive than anyone had expected. As a result, the European Unions advisory committee on health and safety will propose an amendment to postpone the directives implementation date.
That is just one examplea very serious examplethat our Committee encountered showing that if policy makers do not take scientific advice from as wide a spectrum of scientists as possible, legislation may be extremely faulty. However, I am pleased that the Commission has accepted that the directive itself is faulty and will probably now amend it.
It is a given that the Government can no longer ignore the advice that is available from all our scientists, engineers and technologists, especially at a time when Britain is increasingly reliant on their discovery of products that are, by their very nature, highly technical in production and highly sophisticated
in operation. It is also a given that the Government must improve the structure of the way in which that advice is gathereda point made strongly in our report. The Governments response to most of our 69 recommendations is quite positive, but changes will be needed in future.
Although we believe that Government must consider the evidence provided for them, we accept that the final policy outcome is likely to take other factors into consideration, which will depend on timing in the political cycle. Ministers will still make their judgments with the political consequences in mind, but we hope that they will rely increasingly on scientific advice as well.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I welcome the Minister to his new brief. I think he will find it very exciting, and I look forward to discussing scientific matters with him both formally and informally. I have been my partys science spokesman for some years, during Lord Sainsburys time and that of the Ministers predecessor, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), who was in post for only eight months. He had made an excellent start but sadly, just when he felt that he had conquered the subject, he moved on. That is the nature of reshuffles. However, I wish the new Minister well.
I must declare an interest. As well as being my partys spokesman I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, and I was involved in this inquiry. I also have an interest in evidence-based policy making and in the outcome of the inquirys recommendations. The inquiry itself was lengthy and extremely thorough, and our detailed report contained a number of recommendations. It was introduced very well today by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in a clear, succinct and focused speech. I think that all members of the Committee, and indeed all hon. Members, are grateful for the work that he has done so far. We also recognise the contribution made to the whole debate by his excellent predecessor as Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).
As we have heard, the report spun off three smaller reports on drugs policy, MRI and identity cards. Unfortunately we do not have time to discuss them all in detail, and some have already been discussed in Westminster Hall debates, but one problem that the Committee identified was an occasional difficulty with terminology. Select Committees take evidence, but it is not always scientific evidence on which we would want policy to be based. That produces the sort of confusion that arose in relation to the drugs report.
Of course, not all policies are liable to be decided on the basis of scientific evidence. There may be no evidence at all when an issue that is relatively nebulous nevertheless requires Government and political parties to make policy. Sometimes economic considerations are overriding, sometimes ideological considerations are overriding, and sometimes there is a manifesto-based policy. Those who have made a commitment to do something must have very good reasons not to do it. As the report points out, however, in all those circumstances it is necessary for policy makersboth
in Government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, in Opposition partiesto be clear about their reasons when they do not follow scientific advice. It is then incumbent on those debating in the political process to respect what has been said, as long as it is transparent.
As the report makes clear, if a policy is made on the basis that it is in line with scientific evidence and such evidence is not published, insufficiently published or selectively published, or does not appear to back up the policy, Government and, indeed, other political parties can be criticised. Policy must be introduced with a statement that is honest and transparent about the extent to which it relies on science. I have caused trouble in my party by requiring such statements.
I look forward to policy announcements from the Conservative party. I believe that the reclassification of cannabis from C to B will be flagged up in a forthcoming policy document. I should be fascinated to know what evidence there is that such a reclassification will do anything to reduce consumption and improve matters. All the evidence suggests that if cannabis is to be criminalised, it belongs in class C. There was no increase in cannabis use when it was reclassified from B to C, and that reclassification allowed policy to become more rational and more easily understood by those with whom we needed to communicate.
Bill Wiggin: That is a good example of the need to be careful about the quality of scientific advice. What concerns us is not the toxicity of cannabis but the message that is conveyed to members of the public, particularly those who are unwise enough to use such substances and who may not have the hon. Gentlemans wisdom and experience based on genuine scientific evidence.
Dr. Harris: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the health risks of cannabis, but the classification of drugs is not based solely on health risks. Otherwise, as our report makes clear, we would have had strong words to say about alcohol and cigarettes. However, the message to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be assessed scientifically. Our report, which I commend to him, makes it plain that there is no evidence that classification sends a message, or that any message it does send has an impact. We could find no such evidence, and nor could the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. While it is a nice thought, it is not good enough to criminalise to such a degree the behaviour of so many people in a way that is counter-productive, in the hope that a message will be sent, let alone received.
Both the Science and Technology Committee and the Joint Committee on the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill, also chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, are looking closely at scientific evidence. I believe that reports should benefit from science checks of that kind. The Joint Committee will consider the policy of removing anonymity from gamete donors, which is a very contentious issue. I hope that its report will make it absolutely clear whether the evidence suggests that it would have any benefit or whether it seems likely to be counter-productive in increasing secrecy and damaging
gamete supply, in which event people would not be able to be treated and no child would benefit in the long run.
Dr. Iddon: Is it not important that any evidence that is relied on has been peer reviewed? Some years ago, I was involved in attempts to ban high-dose supplements of vitamin B6. In that case, there were merely one or two publications of non-peer reviewed research.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman has detailed knowledge of that subject, and is probably the leading expert on it in the House. He is right to highlight that it is important that when the Government or any other policy maker produce a policy and publish the evidence, there must be a statement as to the adequacy and strength of the evidence. In many health care guidelines, grades of evidence are now attached to recommendations, rather than simply a reference. That practice was not addressed in the report, but the Government might want to learn from it.
Dr. Gibson: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the ability to repeat data is an essential aspect of science? One piece of published work is not enough; there must be several different attacks on a problem, and several, possibly contradictory, papers must be produced. In such situations, the problem arises of whose evidence is better than whose. That is often part of the nature of science.
Dr. Harris: I was going to say that that is part of the nature of science: the situation is never clear because there are always new publications that refine the current view. That is not well understood by the public and the media. However, we need not despair and blame scientists that it is not well understood; it is inevitable that many people who are not scientists do not understand that science is, almost by definition, about a lack of certainty. Non-scientists can often be identified as such by the fact that they are certain. Some religious beliefs will never change, regardless of what evidence is provided. However, the report rightly argues that we should expect the civil service to have an understanding of science and scientific technique, and that it should not be a disadvantage to have such understandingon the contrary, it should be shared. I was delighted that the Government response accepted the broad thrust of the recommendations and recognised that it was necessary to continue and expand the work that is being done to ensure that civil servants who do not have a scientific background understand the nature of scientific inquiry and evidence.
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