Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report

6  Science across Government

60. One of the aims of the OSI is "to improve the quality and use of science and technology (S&T) advice across Government and increase public confidence in the Government's use of S&T".[102] A key aid in achieving this aim is the updated Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making which were published in October 2005 and which we examined in some detail in our Report on scientific advice, evidence based policy making and risk.[103] A second key document, also the responsibility of the OSI, the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees is currently under review. We expect this review process to address the concerns raised in our scientific advice report, and we look forward to examining the new Code when it is published.

61. The OSI is also directly involved in improving science within Government through its rolling review programme of the quality and use of science in individual departments. Each review focuses on ten broad areas in order "to assess how effectively government departments:

i.  Develop a clear, overall science strategy;

ii.  Horizon scan—to identify future science-related issues;

iii.  Review and harness existing research with a view to identifying gaps and opportunities for future research;

iv.  Commission and manage new research;

v.  Ensure the quality and relevance of department sponsored work;

vi.  Use research and scientific advice in formulating policy;

vii.  Publish results and debate their findings and implications openly;

viii.  Share, transfer and manage knowledge;

ix.  Have implemented Guidelines 2000 and the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees; and

x.  Use, maintain and develop scientific expertise (within the department itself and in the scientific community—capacity and capability building)."[104]

The general principles of each review are to: be external and independent; focus on the quality and use of science, not on value for money; be published; reflect departmental diversity; add value by identifying and sharing best practice across government departments; and be responded to.[105]

62. The work is carried out by staff from the OSI's Science Review Team, with a Steering Panel of senior academics and external experts and senior officials from Government departments overseeing each review. The process to be followed is set out clearly on the OSI website and includes discussing possible areas of focus with the department concerned at the beginning of the review, as well as discussing emerging findings and issues at an early stage, and consulting stakeholders such as the appropriate scientific community. A draft report is sent to the department under review for comment before the final report is published by the OSI. Departments are expected to issue a formal response to the Review, and to each recommendation, within three months. The OSI has undertaken to follow up on progress in implementing the Review's recommendations within "about 15 months" of the Department's response.[106]

63. The OSI website states that each review "will take approximately ten months from start … to publication of Report".[107] In fact the process takes much longer than this estimate. In the case of the first review, into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the review lasted from May 2003 until October 2004. When our predecessor Committee raised this issue with the OSI, they were assured that these teething problems would not affect the projected timetable for other reviews since consultants would be employed to carry out most of the fieldwork, and the department would impose clearer and tighter project management methods.[108] The Government assured the Committee that this change would "allow the [OSI] team to have up to three reviews running at any one time, depending on the size of the departments to be reviewed".[109] In fact, of the four reviews commenced since that date, only two (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [Defra] and the Health and Safety Executive [HSE]) have been published on the OSI website, and both of those took almost two years, from requests for comments from consultees in early 2005 to publication in late 2006. The only readily available information on the other two reviews are requests for submission of comments from stakeholders by 18 November 2005 for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (now the Department for Communities and Local Government) and by early January 2007 for the Home Office. We understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government review is in fact to be published shortly but this is a far cry from the original OSI aim of reviewing three to four departments each year and allowing ten months for each review.

64. Given the OSI commitment to publish the reviews and responses on the website, we are also concerned at the poor quality of the information available in this way. For example, we note that the information available on the "Work Programme" page of the OSI Science in Government website is unacceptably out of date, listing the published reviews on HSE as "underway" and on Defra as "just getting underway", and making no reference at all to the two reviews currently in hand.[110] We wonder whether this is not a further sign that the Science review team are overworked, although we make the general observation that the OSI website could be better designed and maintained.

65. We are concerned at the long time-lag in producing the reviews of departmental science. We believe that this is an excellent initiative but we agree with our predecessor Committee that "the programme will lose momentum and influence if there are not marked improvements to the process".[111] The DTI cites these reviews in their Annual Report 2006 in support of their contention that "Government continues to improve the quality of its science and scientific advice".[112] However, this judgement is hard to substantiate where so few reviews have been conducted and the there is so little public information on them. We recommend that the OSI again review the resources available to its Science in Government team, with a view to increasing the turnover and production of departmental science reviews. We also recommend that the OSI publish a more realistic assessment of timetables for each review and for the programme as a whole. In general, we recommend that far greater attention is paid by the OSI to updating its website. The OSI should be expected to set an example in communications and the use of IT to inform the public and stakeholders of its work.

66. It would be a pity if the poor standard of presentation were allowed to detract from the quality of the work itself in this field. We have had an opportunity to examine the outcomes of the review process in the form of the reports published so far and we are grateful to the OSI for drawing these to our attention as each appeared. In particular, we drew upon the review of Defra science in our recent inquiry into Research Council Institutes and we found it very useful as an external assessment of the departmental science programmes and use of science. We are aware that other departmental select committees have also shown an interest in these documents which could provide contribute to their work on departmental scrutiny or other inquiries. We recommend that the OSI adopt a policy of forwarding copies of departmental science reviews and subsequent responses upon publication to the relevant select committee in the Commons. We urge our colleagues on other select committees to make thorough use of these documents to inform their scrutiny of the departments under review.

102 Back

103   Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, HC 900-l, November 2006 Back

104 Back

105 Back

106 Back

107   Ibid Back

108   HC (2004-05) 8, p 28 Back

109   HC (2004-05) 453, p 7 Back

110 Back

111   HC (2004-05) 8, p 28 Back

112   Department of Trade and Industry, Technology Strategy Board, Annual Report 2006, November 2006, p 97 Back

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