Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents



7. We approached this question—is science and engineering at the heart of Government policy?—from two connected, but distinct angles. First, the use of science and engineering advice in policy making: does the Government have effective mechanisms at its disposal for feeding science and engineering advice into policy? And second, science and engineering's place in Government policy: what role do science and engineering play in the Government's vision for UK plc?[2] On both of these points, the Government has a good record. Regarding science and engineering advice, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, maintained a close relationship with the Prime Minister, providing crucial expert advice during the foot and mouth crisis and successfully raising climate change to the top of the political agenda. He also gained traction in his campaign for every department to have a Chief Scientific Adviser, something that the current post-holder, Professor John Beddington, is continuing to push.

8. Regarding the role of science and engineering in UK plc, the Government's reports on Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014[3] and Manufacturing: New Challenges, New Opportunities[4] have demonstrated a long-term vision. And funding has matched the promises: research funding has doubled in real terms over the last 10 years.[5] The science budget is ring-fenced and is set to increase to more than £6 billion per year by 2010-11. That commitment remains in place, with fresh enthusiasm from both the Science Minister, the Rt Hon Lord Drayson,[6] and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Rt Hon Lord Mandelson.[7]


9. When we began this inquiry, the organisational arrangements were somewhat different. DIUS existed as a discrete department for innovation, universities and skills, and it provided a home for GO-Science. In between the completion of evidence-taking and drafting the report there were machinery of Government changes. These resulted in the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The resulting super-department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), has subsumed the science aspects of DIUS wholesale, with no changes to the structure (yet). The figure below describes the structural arrangements as they were before the merger (Figure 1).

10. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), currently Professor John Beddington, oversees science and engineering advice across Government and is also head of profession for scientists and engineers in the civil service. The GCSA heads up the Government Office for Science, which has cross-departmental responsibility for science and engineering advice. The GCSA and GO-Science are situated within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)—formerly DIUS—rather than the Cabinet Office as both we and the former Science and Technology Committee have suggested.[8]

11. Each Government Department, except the Treasury, has a Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (DCSA). DCSAs are responsible for science and engineering advice in their departments. Not all DCSAs are necessarily scientists; for example, the DCSA for Ministry of Defence is an engineer (Professor Mark Welland), the DCSA for the Home Office is a social scientist (Professor Paul Wiles), and the DCSA for Department for Culture, Media and Sport is an economist (Anita Charlesworth).

Figure 1. The structure of science and engineering advice prior to the machinery of Government changes of June 2009. Taken from our Fourth Report of Session 2008-09, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, HC 50-I, p 72.

12. The DCSAs, along with the Health and Safety Executive Chief Scientist, the head of the Government Economic Service, a Treasury representative, the Director General of Science and Research, and the CSAs to the Devolved Administrations, all sit on the Chief Scientific Advisers Committee (CSAC). It meets quarterly to advise the GCSA (who chairs CSAC) on cross-departmental science and engineering matters.

13. There are also dozens of science advisory councils and committees that assist Government in collating and assessing scientific information and input independent advice into policy-making. The highest of these councils is the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Prime Minister on science and technology issues. It is co-chaired by the GCSA and Professor Dame Janet Finch, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University.

14. Also working under the broad heading of 'specialist advice' to Government are the National Statistician (Dame Karen Dunnell), the Government Chief Social Scientist (Professor Paul Wiles), and the joint heads of the Government Economic Service (Vicky Pryce, BIS, and Dave Ramsden, HM Treasury).

15. The Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, is the first Science Minister to attend Cabinet. In addition, he is in charge of research and procurement in the MoD and he chairs the Cabinet sub-Committee on Science and Innovation, which was established in 2008 "to consider issues relating to science and innovation; and report as necessary to the Committee on Economic Development".[9] The sub-Committee has been welcomed by the science and engineering communities.[10]

16. Working alongside the Minister for Science and Innovation is the Director General for Science and Research, Professor Adrian Smith, who is responsible for science and research policy, including the science budget allocations and public engagement on key scientific issues.

Why science and engineering are important

17. Before we consider the importance of science and engineering advice to Government policy, it is worth putting science and engineering in context. First, science and engineering contribute substantially to the UK's increasingly knowledge-based economy. We learnt during our engineering inquiry that nearly 30% of the UK's GDP is produced by the "SET-intensive sectors".[11] Given the importance of these sectors, the Government invests a great deal of money in supporting them. And for good reason:

    Research confirms that engagement between innovators and the science base creates real welfare benefit. An important recent study by the OECD found that 1% growth in public R&D leads to a 0.17% increase in total factor productivity in the long run. Moreover, this effect increases with the share of public science conducted in universities. Other studies confirm the positive contribution of academic research to economic growth.[12]

18. These facts have not been lost on other countries. In 2002, the European Council called for EU R&D investment to reach 3% of GDP by 2010. Among OECD countries, this has already been reached by Finland, Sweden, Korea and Japan (see Table 1). The UK has set a softer target of 2.5% by 2014.[13] It is currently spending 1.8%.

Table 1. 2006 Gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD)

% of GDP
% financed by
2.0 of GDP
4.0 of GDP
3.0 of GDP
3.0 of GDP
2.5 of GNP
1.0 of GDP for the public sector
5.0 of GDP
2.0 of GDP
South Africa
2.2 of GDP
4.0 of GDP
United Kingdom
2.5 of GDP
United States
3.0 of GDP

OECD in figures 2008,[14] and OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2008, p 72

19. Related to but separate from the economics are the social benefits that science and engineering provide. Our lives have been improved immeasurably because of science and engineering. Together, they have provided populations around the world with fast transport and communications, safe and comfortable accommodation, effective medical care, abundant energy, reliable and clean water and food, and infrastructures to support all these necessities. Science has helped us gain an understanding of how human activity is warming the climate, and what impact that will have on food and water security, and, crucially, what needs to be done to slow or reverse the warming trend. Engineering offers humanity hope to meet these challenges by developing clean energy sources and transforming our ageing buildings and transport technologies so that they are efficient and sustainable.

20. Science and engineering have combined to deliver modern medicine, which in the past few decades has—as in all other fields—surpassed expectations. Professor Raymond Tallis, the physician and philosopher, described the meteoric improvements in healthcare in his impassioned analysis of modern medicine, Hippocratic Oaths:

    The most direct measure of success is postponement of death, and on this medicine has delivered handsomely. Global life expectancy has more than doubled over the last 140 years. Nearly two thirds of the increase in longevity in the entire history of the human race has occurred since 1900. If we narrow our gaze for a while and look simply at the data for England and Wales in the first fifty years of the NHS, the news remains pretty extraordinary. Infant mortality fell from 39/1000 to 7/1000 for girls and 30/1000 to 5/1000 for boys; and the proportion of people dying before reaching 64 from 40% to 7%. Life expectancy at birth increased by nearly a decade—from 66 to 74.5 for men and from 70.5 to just under 80 for women—during the second half of the twentieth century. If we look at the last century as a whole, the changes are even more amazing. Whereas the proportion of deaths that occurred between 0 and 4 years of age was 37% in 1901, it was 0.8% in 1999; and while only 12% of deaths in 1901 were in people above 75, 64% of all deaths in England and Wales in 1999 were among people over the age of 75.[15]

21. He goes on to quell the implication that just science-based medicine is responsible for this change by acknowledging that "Increasing prosperity, better nutrition, education, public hygiene, housing, health and safety at work, the emergence of liberal democracies protecting individuals against exploitation and abuse, and social welfare policies have all played their part".[16] Science and engineering—and, crucially, public policies that have made use of scientific and engineering advice—have played a key role in all of these developments.

22. We are content that the Government is both aware of what science and engineering has to offer, and also eager to make the most of it. When we questioned Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, he told us:

    I think that we have made real progress over the last year in putting science and engineering more at the heart of government policy, and I think we can point to specific achievements which have helped to deliver that, but I do think that there is more that we need to do.[17]

23. We found this forward-looking perspective reassuring and were pleased to hear it echoed by Professor Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who identified engineering as "an issue where we really need to work harder".[18] It is in this spirit of recognition of the past successes of science and engineering, the Government's efforts to bring specialist advice into the policy-making process and a forward-facing view to improve the process further that we undertook this inquiry.

24. We were impressed by the Science Minister and Government Chief Scientific Adviser's frank assessment of how science and engineering advice is used in Government. We were pleased to hear that they have taken up those concerns we raised in the engineering report and that they have an appetite to improve the use of evidence in policy-making.

Previous recommendations

25. In our recent report Engineering: turning ideas into reality,[19] we made a number of recommendations that were pertinent to this inquiry. The Government has responded and is generally in agreement with our conclusions. We welcome the Government's response, and were pleased to receive a detailed account of the work that is underway to increase the number and recognition of scientists and engineers in the Civil Service. The Government did not agree with all of our recommendations, in particular to do with the structure of scientific and engineering advice (see Figure 2). We discuss two of these rejected recommendations.


26. We argued that Chief Scientific Advisers who were engineers and spent most of their time offering engineering advice should be called Chief Engineering Advisers. We offered eight reasons why this would be a good idea. These can be found in detail in pages 92-94 of the engineering report, but briefly they were:

a)  because engineering advice is distinct from other kinds of advice;

b)  because engineers are best qualified to set best practice in engineering advice;

c)  because the Government should recognise the importance of engineers and the appointment of Chief Engineering Advisers would be one simple way of doing this;

d)  because having Chief Scientific Advisers and Chief Engineering Advisers has proved successful in other organisations;

e)  three examples—(i) intra-departmental, (ii) cross-departmental, (iii) external communications—where it would be simpler to call engineering advisers Chief Engineering Advisers; and

f)  because the Government already recognises other specialists' expertise that it puts under the broad heading of 'science'.[20]

27. In its response, the Government does not answer these points in detail and explain, in the context of each point, why the status quo is preferable to giving accurate job descriptions. Nor does the Government separate out this recommendation from the next one, which is presumably why its argument for rejecting this recommendation makes no sense:

    The Government does not therefore accept the case for separate Chief Engineering Advisers at […] departmental levels. The Committee's proposals would involve additional management layers and complication which would likely be counter-productive and confusing.[21]

Figure 2. Our engineering report recommendations for the organisation of science and engineering advice.

28. To be clear, our recommendation was that "Some departments should have Departmental Chief Engineering Advisers (DCEAs), some Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (DCSAs), and some should have both".[22] It is hard to imagine how changing the title of staff to more accurately reflect the work they do would "involve additional management layers and complication" or be in any way "counterproductive" or "confusing". If the Government intended to dismiss only the part of the recommendation that some departments should have both a DCEA and a DCSA, it should have been clear that that was what it was doing. It should have also provided examples, if they exist, to counter the comments we received from Professor Christopher Snowden, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Surrey who was representing the Royal Academy of Engineering and the engineering institutions, who told us that in business, chief engineers and chief scientists can work very well together.[23]

29. We regret that the Government failed to answer the core reasons for having Departmental Chief Engineering Advisers. We urge the Government to give fuller consideration to our recommendation that "Some departments should have Departmental Chief Engineering Advisers (DCEAs), some Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (DCSAs), and some should have both."


30. We recommended a small change to the machinery of Government. We observed that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser has three main roles:

a)  he advises the Prime Minister on science and engineering matters;

b)  he oversees science and engineering advice across Government; and

c)  he is responsible for identifying emerging issues in science and engineering policy (foresight).

31. He fulfils these takes with the support of the Government Office for Science, which was based in DIUS and now has been moved to BIS. We suggested that these core tasks could be performed more effectively from the centre of Central Government: the Cabinet Office.

32. Our position is, we believe, logical. We note that there is another unit in Government which has almost identical roles to GO-Science; these are listed on its website as:

a)  to provide strategy and policy advice to the Prime Minister;

b)  to support government departments in developing effective strategies and policies; and

c)  to identify and effectively disseminate emerging issues and policy challenges.[24]

33. It is the Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit.

34. When we asked Professor Beddington where GO-Science would be best situated, DIUS (as it was then, now BIS) or the Cabinet Office he told us:

    I think there are merits on both sides, but I think the key one is the link with both the Science Minister and the Secretary of State for DIUS, but also with the Director General for Research Councils, Adrian Smith, and that whole team, which are responsible for so much of science funding. The fact that I can walk up a floor and find Adrian Smith and his team and talk on a day-to-day basis makes a tremendous difference, whereas if I was down in Whitehall, that would be rather more difficult to do.[25]

35. This is an interesting response. It supports our basic premise on two counts. First, location matters because it puts individuals in regular contact. In his current situation he is in contact with the people responsible for science. Second, location matters because it can put distance between individuals and groups, which makes it 'rather more difficult' for them to 'talk on a day-to-day basis'. While it is important that the GCSA has close working relationships with the Secretary of State and Minister responsible for science and the DG for Science, his relationship with the Prime Minister is even more important. If location can make a "tremendous difference", as Professor Beddington contends, it would be better for him to be based in the Cabinet Office. We note that the GCSA has seen the Prime Minister four times in the past year.[26] This level of access is woefully inadequate and supports our case.

36. We were told by Lord Drayson that "geography is not everything".[27] However, we note that the Government's response to our engineering report was prepared by "the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) with a major contribution from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)".[28] No mention of GO-Science. We also note that GO-Science did not produce its own annual report, but was covered in three pages of DIUS's annual report.[29] The location of GO-Science has resulted in an apparent merger with the then DIUS, now BIS.

37. The Government had an opportunity at the last reshuffle to move GO-Science as per our recommendation in the engineering report. That it did not, was a missed opportunity. As the Government Chief Scientific Adviser explained, location matters because it affords daily face-to-face interaction between colleagues in the same building; and as he further pointed out, he has only seen the Prime Minster four times in the past year. We therefore appeal directly to the Prime Minster, who is responsible for GO-Science, to bring it into the Cabinet Office alongside the Strategy Unit.

Policy examples

38. During the course of this inquiry, several examples were raised that highlighted different aspects of the importance of a competent and active scientific advisory service. (We dealt with the importance of engineering advice in our engineering report.) Here we briefly consider two such examples: the licensing of homeopathy by the MHRA; and literacy and numeracy interventions.


39. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is the government agency responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices are both safe and effective. In 2006, it started licensing alternative medicines under the Traditional Herbal Medicines Registration Scheme. The first such product registration was for an arnica gel, which has been traditionally used for the symptomatic relief of muscular aches and pains, stiffness, sprains, bruises and swelling.

40. In May 2009, the MHRA granted its first licence to a homeopathic medicine, for arnica 30c pilules. The product has been licensed under the National Rules Scheme, which means that it can make medicinal claims. The label will read: "A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for symptomatic relief of sprains, muscular aches and bruising or swelling after contusions".[30]

41. We asked Professor Beddington what he thought about the MHRA licensing products for which the best scientific evidence does not show an effect beyond placebo.[31] He was unable to comment on the specifics since he was not aware of this particular instance, but he did comment of the purchasing of homeopathy by the NHS:

    I did write to the Chief Medical Officer about this indicating […] that I had real concerns that homeopathy which had no scientific justification of mechanisms was being used. [… And] in terms of a cost to the National Health Service […] it is £390,000 in £8.4 billion or something of that sort. Subsequent to that I have taken this issue up with the Director General who is dealing with these matters, Professor Harper, to say can we explore this further, and we have had one meeting on this issue. If we had not then had swine flu arrive we would be continuing to follow this through.[32]

He also went on to say that he would "look at" both the purchasing of homeopathy by the NHS and the MHRA's decision to license homeopathic products.[33]

42. We are reassured to hear that Professor Beddington will take steps to look at the MHRA's decision to licence homeopathic products as well as the wider issue of the purchasing of homeopathy by the NHS. We hope that he will be able to bring scientific evidence to the centre of this complex policy issue.


43. Since 2005, the Government has supported a number of reading schemes. The Every Child a Reader (ECAR) pilot programme cost the Government £5 million (it was matched with charitable funding). The Every Child Counts (ECC) and Every Child a Writer (ECAW) national programmes cost £169 million over three years. Every Child a Talker (ECAT) cost an additional £40 million. (ECAR and ECC are controlled by the Every Child a Chance Trust; ECAW and ECAT are separate Government-run programmes.)[34]

44. In 2006, the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced the nationwide rollout of ECAR, only a year into the three-year pilot. This is problematic from an 'evidence-based policy' point of view, but even if the Government had waited for the pilot to finish it would have had little evidence to go on: the pilot only demonstrated that the ECAR interventions were better than doing nothing, because they did not include control groups conducting other kinds of reading interventions. As for the other projects, a recent Policy Exchange report commented:

    At least with ECAR, there was a developed programme ready to use, even if the evidence base was shakier than acknowledged. The Government's commitment to Every Child Counts (ECC) and Every Child a Writer is based on nothing at all […] It is little more than common sense that children who received extra support for at least three days a week for several weeks in a row from a trained numeracy specialist would show significant gains in their performance [… but] this does not demonstrate the superiority of ECC over any other programme nor does it tell us anything about the costs or benefits of the programme.[35]

45. We raised this issue with Professor Beddington, who was not familiar with it. He therefore answered in general terms:

    I think that where science appears to be done badly, it is important that I should draw the attention in this case to the chief scientific adviser in the appropriate department and say, 'This looks to be rather poor'. [… But] I do not have a mechanism for looking at all science developed in government, I see that as devolving to the responsibilities of the individual chief scientific advisers.[36]

46. Therefore, in our example, it was the responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families DCSA, Carole Willis, to notice that these pilots were not designed to determine the most cost effective or best way to improve literacy and numeracy. We have previously lamented the lack of scientifically trained civil servants in DCSF,[37] and this example provides justification for our concern. Either the DCSA did not recognise that these pilots were inadequate or she was not aware of their existence; neither situation is acceptable.

47. We call on the DCSF Chief Scientific Adviser to explain what advice she provided, if any, on the Every Child literacy and numeracy programmes and report it to the House.

48. We agree with Professor Beddington that Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers should have devolved responsibility for the quality of scientific advice in each department. On that basis, it is crucial that each DCSA has a tight grip on their departmental remits and have sufficient support so that problem policy areas can be identified and dealt with. The DCSA must challenge policy-makers to demonstrate clear evidence to support policy or to acknowledge that no such evidence exists. The GCSA needs to be advised by DCSAs of those instances where DCSAs have been overruled on such matters; and we further recommend that he publishes these in his annual report.

Science Advisory Councils/Committees

49. Scientific Advisory Councils/Committees (SACs; the terms 'council' and 'committee' are used interchangeably) assist Government by collating, assessing and making judgements about scientific information and providing expert advice to policy makers. The Council for Science and Technology's report on How academia and government can work together (October 2008) describes Science Advisory Councils as follows:

    SA Councils are independent bodies that support senior departmental policy-makers by providing a broad range of expertise within one body. They are recognised as wholly independent, which inspires public confidence, accountability and increases the efficiency of the use of academic input to a department as they can potentially respond rapidly to urgent enquiries as well as identifying issues themselves that need investigation.[38]

50. There are currently 75 SACs, ranging from the Administration of Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee to the Zoos Forum.[39] A number of departments have established Departmental Science Advisory Councils (DSACs), which reflect the needs of their parent departments and can comprise expert scientists (including social scientists), economists and technologists.

51. We took oral evidence from three advisory groups:

  • a SAC, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which is one of the specialist Home Office advisory committees—although it directly advises ministers, it also advises the Home Office Science Advisory Committee;
  • a DSAC, Defra's Science Advisory Council, which is the main advisory council to that department. It advises Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Bob Watson, and has a number of subject specific advisory committees feeding into it; and
  • a non-ministerial government department, the Food Standards Agency, which feeds into Department of Health (DH) policy and is itself advised by a number of advisory councils.


52. Judy Britton, Deputy Director of the Government Office for Science, outlined the role of DSACs in relation to policy scrutiny:

    On the scrutiny side of things John Beddington, before he was Government Chief Scientific Advisor, […] is championing the idea that there should be these kinds of councils throughout government departments—the Home Office has one which learned societies sit on as well as the chairs of their scientific advisory committees. The idea is that they take a view across the department at a strategic level and can see what is going on, critique it and challenge it. He thinks these are a very valuable form of more internal scrutiny than a select committee.[40]

53. GO-Science is working with other government departments to determine whether additional departmental Science Advisory Councils (SACs) might be usefully created.[41] Currently only the Ministry of Defence, Defra, the Home Office and the Food Standards Agency have departmental SACs. The Council for Science and Technology is in effect the Prime Minister's SAC.

54. We agree that departmental science advisory councils can provide a valuable form of internal scrutiny (a subject we return to in Chapter 5). Strong consideration should be given to increasing the number of departments that have Science Advisory Councils with a departmental remit. The Department of Health, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Transport are obvious 'top-of-the-list' candidates, with the latter two in particular needing high quality engineering advice.

Figure 3. The advisory bodies from which we took evidence.


55. A policy issue arose in relation to Science Advisory Councils during the course of our inquiry. It concerned a disagreement between the Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)—which makes recommendations to Government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, including classification and scheduling[42]—and the Home Secretary.

56. The ACMD is one of the better known Advisory Councils, because its advice to Government appears in the media from time to time, particularly when the Government is reconsidering reclassifying drugs. It has also received Parliamentary scrutiny in the past. The former Science and Technology Committee conducted a case study inquiry into drug classification as part of its overarching inquiry into scientific advice, risk and evidence in policy making.

57. In early 2009, a paper written some months previously by Professor David Nutt, before he was appointed Chairman of the ACMD, was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The controversial lines were:

    Drug harm can be equal to harms in other parts of life. There is not much difference between horse-riding and ecstasy. […] This attitude raises the critical question of why society tolerates—indeed encourages—certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use.[43],

58. On the weekend prior to the publiction of the ACMD ecstasy report, Professor Nutt was attacked in the media. A spokesman for ACMD quickly commented:

    The recent article by Professor David Nutt published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology was done in respect of his academic work and not as chair of the ACMD. Professor Nutt's academic work does not prejudice that which he conducts as chair of the ACMD.[44]

59. The then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, also criticised Professor Nutt. She told the House:

    I spoke to Professor Nutt about his comments this morning [9 February 2009]. I told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article. I am sure that most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug-taking. That makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy, and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs. I made it clear to Professor Nutt that I felt that his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect from him as chair of the ACMD. He apologised to me for his comments, and I have asked him to apologise to the families of the victims of ecstasy, too.[45]

60. We asked Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, former Chairman of the ACMD, what he thought about Professor Nutt's comments and whether he should have been criticised for them. He defended Professor Nutt robustly:

    Risk comparisons are widely made for all sorts of purposes. The ACMD does risk comparisons in shoe-horning substances into A, B and C. The public is often given risk comparisons: the numbers of people dying from tobacco consumption are equivalent to a jet airliner crashing once a week—this sort of thing—and the sort of thing that Professor Nutt was saying in that article is just one example of a widely-used technique of revealed preference […] If David Nutt had written an article saying he thought that heroin and morphine should be legalised, then his position as Chairman of the ACMD would probably be impossible, whatever his personal views might have been. On this particular occasion I do not think it was appropriate for him to be criticised. What he did and the sort of comparisons he made were widely used in social sciences.[46]

61. We identified support for Professor Nutt from other witnesses. Professor Lord Krebs told us that he thought it "quite wrong that the Government should criticise independent scientific advisors for publishing scientific work in the peer review literature".[47] And Professor Beddington wrote to the Home Secretary:

    indicating that I had real concerns that this affair had the potential of being used both widely and in the media more widely as a discouragement for people wishing to become members of science advisory committees. She responded to me in indicating that she felt that she supported the idea of independent advisory committees, and she felt this had been evidenced by her support of a number of individual recommendations of Professor Nutt's ACMD committee. I still feel that we need to be exploring this, because I think that where you have a publication which is in an independent peer reviewed journal, I think it is unfortunate for government to actually criticise that in Parliament. So I would concur with, for example, the comments that Lord Krebs gave you when you asked him about the same subject.[48]

62. The correspondence between Professor Beddington and Jacqui Smith is provided in the written evidence.[49]

63. We asked Professor Beddington whether he had provided public or private support to Professor Nutt. He told us:

    I did not write to or contact Professor Nutt, and I think perhaps in retrospect I perhaps should have done. I did not. So to that extent, I am more than happy to share my concerns with this committee. I think that it is important that people are allowed to publish in peer reviewed journals without being criticised.[50]

64. We agree with Lord Krebs and Professor Beddington: SAC members should not be criticised for publishing scientific papers or making statements as professionals, independent of their role as Government advisers.

65. The independence of scientific advisers is crucial. The most important aspect of any scientific or engineering advice is that it is politically and ideologically neutral; it must take into consideration all the relevant evidence and be presented fairly and impartially. Independence from Government is essential for advisers so that they are free to present the evidence without fear of prejudice or attack from those they advise. That is why independence is important.

66. But there is an additional consideration. After the Home Secretary criticised the ACMD Chairman, Professor Beddington noted that her actions against Professor Nutt might discourage people from serving on Scientific Advisory Committees. We received evidence that suggests his concern was not without merit. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, told us:

    There is a serious issue in terms of the knock-on effect of this as well. […] We [Sense About Science] have over 3,000 scientists working with us […] and we are already picking up a really negative reaction to that. There was already frustration about the number of people who feel that their time is misused.[51]

67. It is important to safeguard the independence of the advisory system. In situations where the independence of a SAC chairman or member is or might be threatened for political reasons, support should be offered by the DCSA and/or the GCSA.

68. We welcome the steps taken by the GCSA to deal with one incident that occurred between the Chairman of the ACMD and the Home Secretary. Further steps that should have been taken are: (1) the GSCA should have written or spoken to the Chairman of the ACMD, letting him know that support was being provided; (2) the correspondence between the GCSA and the Home Secretary should have been published immediately so that other SAC Chairmen and the public (including the science community) could see that support was being offered; and (3) the GCSA should have provided public support for the Chairman of the ACMD and for his right to publish.

69. The Government should seek specialist advice prior to making policy decisions, early in the policy-making process. Clearly the Government should be free to reject the advice of its SACs, since scientific evidence is only one factor—albeit a very important one—in policy decisions: Advisers advise, Ministers decide. However, when the Government does take a different policy decision to that recommended by a SAC, it should make clear its reasons for doing so.


70. All SACs are expected—although not required—to adhere to the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. The Code of Practice "promotes good practice in the operation of Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) and their relationship with Government".[52] The code was last updated at the end of 2007 in response to recommendations in the Science and Technology Committee's Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making report.[53] The 2007 updates, for which explanations are given in the Consultation on the update to the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees[54] document, include changes such as dropping the term 'lay' and encouraging Chairmen and secretariats to maintain clear records to assist scrutiny.

71. We are supportive of the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees and below make a number of suggestions that we hope might improve both the Code of Practice and the operation of SACs across Government. We appreciate that the Government has just updated the Code, and suggest that our recommendations, which amount to relatively minor alterations, should be considered at the same time as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser considers his Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making.[55]


72. Throughout the Code of Practice, the concept of 'independence' is key. We also received many submissions that put an emphasis on the independence of science and the importance of independent advice and advisers.[56] However, 'independent' is a slippery term. Most of the professional and learned societies offer 'independent' advice, but what does that mean? Independent from whom or what? What is clear is that 'independent', in this context, should not be confused with 'objective': professional and learned societies serve the interests of their membership or fellowship. (That of course does not detract from the fact that scientific or engineering knowledge has a special kind of independence that other kinds of knowledge do not possess.)

73. We conclude that there would be value in being clear in the Code of Practice as to what 'independence' means. Members of Science Advisory Committees are likely to represent the views of their constituencies; what is important is that they have no conflict of interest with Government. Therefore, in the case of Science Advisory Committees, 'independence' should mean 'independence from Government'.


74. Different SACs require different membership structures in order to maximise their effectiveness. This is well recognised and is manifested in the wide range of SAC memberships across Government. For example, the ACMD has 35 members and Defra's DSAC has 13 members. The ACMD is made up of people from academia, the police, social work, psychiatrists and so on. Defra's DSAC is mostly made up of academics.

75. When we spoke to Dame Deidre Hutton, Chair of the Food Standards Agency, she explained that the FSA has lay people on the board, on advisory councils and throughout the agency. She regarded them as "extraordinarily important" because they could highlight "what the real issues are for the public in terms of their acceptance of risk" and they could also "frame the questions that the scientists look at right at the beginning of the process".[57]

76. Professor Gaskell, Chairman of Defra's DSAC, framed the issue of lay membership in a different light. He was concerned that the term 'lay' "can be used pejoratively", but felt that instead it should be used to suggest "another skill set which is of value to the committee".[58] Although he argued that "they do have a role to play; they do bring a different perspective" and that "lay members often bring […] a capacity to ask the awkward and inconvenient question", he clearly felt uneasy with the term 'lay', preferring to focus on individual expertise:

    In our committee, […] in many senses many of the people there are lay for 80/90% of the time because it is the main issue of the day which somebody else has got the FRS in and they have not […] We have a number of social scientists on our Science Advisory Council and, of course, they will bring a different perspective from the natural scientist. So I think the term 'lay' is encompassed by a range of inputs across the council, and we are very clear that we are expecting council members to contribute to the business of the Council even when it is not their specialty area and in that sense act as a lay member.[59]

77. The Government shares Professor Gaskell's view. In its summary of the consultation responses on the Code of Practice, it stated:

    The Government supports the revision of the Code to drop the term 'lay' in favour of SACs developing a competence-based approach to accessing the required skills for each SAC through person specifications […] SACs can thereby retain some flexibility in shaping their membership and that of the secretariat in consultation with their sponsoring department to meet changes in circumstance.[60]

78. We agree that SACs should recruit members based on competencies. However, we are concerned that dropping the term 'lay' removes an expectation that specialist advisory councils should have non-specialist members. Additionally, we are not convinced by the argument that scientists from one subject are necessarily a 'lay' person in another scientific area. Whether or not they are called 'lay members', non-specialists do have a lot to offer specialist committees. The presumption should be that SACs have lay/non-specialist members.


79. The Code of Practice is very clear on the importance of transparency, stating that "Scientific advisory committees should operate from a presumption of openness".[61] This applies to both documentation—publication of agendas, minutes, programmes of work, final advice and annual reports—and the meetings themselves.

80. We found widespread support for transparency. Openness about the advice offered to Government is the best way to guard the independence of SACs, and to be seen to be independent, which is also important.[62] Open meetings were seen as both a way to communicate the work of the SACs and also to gain important feedback on their work.[63] SACs routinely publish their documentation online, and many hold open meetings. We noted Professor Rawlins suggestion that SAC meetings should be open "by default", adding that if meetings are closed there should be "very special reasons".[64]

81. Given the enthusiasm for open meetings, and the obvious benefits that are derived from improved transparency—particularly in terms of communication with the public and maintaining independence from Government—we are attracted to the idea of holding meetings in public as a matter of course. New media, such as webcasting, could also be used to extend further the reach of the advisory committees.[65]

82. We support the Code of Practice's emphasis on the importance of publishing documents relating to the work of science advisory committees. We would prefer a slightly different emphasis on open meetings. Rather than recommending that SACs "should aim to hold open meetings on a regular basis", we suggest that SACs "should aim to hold the majority of their meetings in public, making use of new media wherever possible".

83. One area in which transparency is important is the process of SACs presenting their advice to Ministers. A spectrum of options can be imagined where, at one end, SAC advice is published to the media at the same time as it is presented to Ministers: complete transparency. At the other end, SAC advice might be given to Ministers in confidence, several weeks in advance of publication, so that lengthy consideration can be given to the evidence, its policy implications and a communication strategy, and changes made to the evidence if necessary: no transparency (or independence). Neither of these options are desirable, and current practice lies in between. Professor Rawlins told us:

    The ACMD has part-closed meetings, because ministers have asked that the decisions should be made in closed meetings so that they are provided to ministers before they get into the public domain. That is an argument you can have with ministers, but that was their request.[66]

84. We can see the logic and agree that it is important that SAC advice should be presented to Ministers in advance of publication, giving them sufficient time to consider a response. However, it is also clear that SAC advice should, when it is given to Ministers, be final advice, and not a launching pad for debate. On this basis, we recommend that the process of SACs providing evidence to Ministers should be as transparent as possible. SAC evidence that is presented to Ministers should subsequently be published in unaltered form, along with the date on which the evidence was presented to Ministers and the details of any requests for alterations or clarifications of the evidence.


85. Connected to this is a problem about the way in which SAC advice is communicated to the media. SACs typically use their home department's press office. We received evidence that indicates that this sometimes causes problems. Using the example of the ACMD and Home Office, the Science Media Centre told us that:

    In both the cannabis and ecstasy cases the Home Office decided that the media launch of the evidence and recommendations from the expert group would coincide with the official reaction to those recommendations by the Home Secretary. This immediately transformed the media story from one about scientific evidence likely to be covered by science reporters, into a political story about a row between advisors and ministers covered by home affairs and political reporters. Even if there had been no disagreement, merging these two distinct events had the effect of doing the following:

    a) the scientists were denied the opportunity to brief specialist science reporters and focus on communicating the substantial scientific evidence which had informed their recommendations;

    b) the wider public and policy makers were also denied the opportunity to read the evidence as presented by the independent advisers, and so a key opportunity to inform this contentious debate with some scientific evidence was lost.

    Because the press officers for the ACMD work for the Home Office press office there was an immediate conflict of interest when key recommendations of that independent committee conflicted with government policy.[67]

86. When conflict between advice and policy occurs, there should be an opportunity for informed public debate about the reasons for disregarding or downgrading the importance of scientific advice. The Government may have very good reasons for disregarding scientific evidence, and it is entitled to use its press office to make its case. However, this should not impede the quality of press office service that SACs receive. Therefore, it is important that SACs have access to an independent press office. The obvious place for a small press office serving all the SACs is within the Government Office for Science. We note that GO-Science until recently shared a press office with DIUS, and presumably will now share with BIS. This raises similar concerns and we believe that it should have its own press capabilities in any case. We recommend that a small press office be set up within the Government Office for Science, to serve the press needs of GO-Science and all the Science Advisory Committees across Government.


87. In this chapter we have discussed a number of specific aspects of the science and engineering advisory system, from its structure to a detailed look at the Science Advisory Councils. To conclude this chapter we return to the broader issue of the place of science and engineering advice in Government. The latest changes to the machinery of Government have brought this issue to the fore and we welcome the opportunity to comment on them here.

88. Shuffling the body responsible for providing cross-departmental science and engineering advice from one department to another and then back again within the space of two years is the opposite of 'putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy'. It reduces science and engineering advice to, at best, a peripheral policy concern, and, at worst, a political bargaining chip. If science and engineering are to be successfully placed at the heart of policy, as the Government is keen to do, two things need to happen. First, the Government Office for Science (and Engineering, as we would have it) should have a stable home. We believe that this should be the Cabinet Office: the heart of Government. Second, there needs to be a Government Chief Engineer and a Government Chief Scientist, who are responsible for cross-departmental advice and coordination, freeing up the Government Chief Scientific (and Engineering) Adviser to advise the Prime Minister more closely and to act as a public figurehead for science and engineering in the United Kingdom.

2   The reader may detect more focus on science than engineering. There are two aspects to this. First, we recently produced a report on engineering that covered some of the topics in this report in detail. We therefore put more emphasis on science in some passages of this report. Second, when we talk about funding for science and engineering, we specifically are talking about those aspects that fall within the Committee's remit. For example, funding for engineering that falls within our remit includes research funding and FE/HE teaching, but excludes financial support for manufacturing. A larger part of the science policy area falls to this Committee. Back

3   HM Treasury, Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Education and Skills, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014, July 2004 Back

4   Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Manufacturing: New Challenges, New Opportunities, September 2008 Back

5   DIUS, The Allocations of the Science Budget 2008/09 to 2010/11, December 2007 Back

6   For example, Q 377 and oral evidence taken on 26 January 2009, HC (2008-09) 169-i, Q 19 Back

7   Speech given at the Science Museum, 9 June 2009, 'Science at the centre of Britain's future prosperity' (www.berr.gov.uk/aboutus/ministerialteam/Speeches/page51775.htmlBack

8   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2008-09, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, HC 50-I, para 313 (referred to in as the 'engineering report'); House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, HC 900-I, para 25 Back

9   www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/secretariats/committees/edsi.aspx Back

10   For example, Ev 151 (Royal Society); Ev 177 (Campaign for Science and Engineering); Ev 182 (Biosciences Federation) Back

11   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, para 7 Back

12   HMT, DTI & DfES, Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014, July 2004, p 149 Back

13   OECD, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2008, November 2008, p 72 Back

14   www.oecd.org/document/32/0,3343,en_2649_37417_41722336_1_1_1_1,00.html Back

15   Raymond Tallis, Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and its Discontents (Atlantic Books, 2004), p 22 Back

16   Raymond Tallis, Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and its Discontents (Atlantic Books, 2004), p 22 Back

17   Q 319 Back

18   Q 320 Back

19   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2008-09, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, HC 50-I Back

20   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, pp 92-94 Back

21   IUSS Committee, Fifth Special Report of Session 2008-09, Engineering: turning ideas into reality: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report, HC 759, p 22 Back

22   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, para 307 Back

23   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, para 303 Back

24   www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy.aspx Back

25   Q 355 Back

26   Q 343 Back

27   Q 354 Back

28   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report Back

29   Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Departmental Report 2009, July 2009, pp 22-24 Back

30   'Arnica pill the first homeopathic remedy to get MHRA licence', Pulse, 12 May 2009 Back

31   Enrst E & Pittler MH 'Efficacy of homeopathic arnica: a systematic review of placebo-controlled clinical trials', Arch Surg, vol 133 (1998), pp 1187-90 Back

32   Q 389 Back

33   Qq 389-390 Back

34   Rising Marks, Falling Standards, Policy Exchange, 2009, pp 37-38 Back

35   Rising Marks, Falling Standards, Policy Exchange, 2009, pp 40-41 Back

36   Qq 383-384 Back

37   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, para 278 Back

38   Council for Science and Technology, How academia and government can work together, October 2008, p 16 Back

39   www.berr.gov.uk/dius/science/science-in-govt/advice-policy-making/codeofpractice/page27719.html Back

40   Q 132 Back

41   Ev 69 Back

42   http://drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk/drugs-laws/acmd Back

43   DJ Nutt, 'Equasy-An overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms' Journal of Psychopharmacology, vol 23 (2009), pp 3-5 Back

44   http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7876425.stm Back

45   HC Deb, 9 Feb 2009, Cols 1093-94 Back

46   Qq 313-314 Back

47   Q 71 Back

48   Q 331 Back

49   Ev 293-295 Back

50   Q 338 Back

51   Q 216 Back

52   Government Office for Science, Consultation on the update to the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees: Summary of Responses and Government Response to consultation, December 2007, p 2 Back

53   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, HC 900-I, para 70 Back

54   Government Office for Science, December 2007 Back

55   IUSS Committee, Engineering: turning ideas into reality: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report,
p 16 

56   For example, Ev 152 (Royal Society); Ev 225 (Food Standards Agency) Back

57   Q 275 Back

58   Q 279 Back

59   Q 279 Back

60   Government Office for Science, Consultation on the update to the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees: Summary of Responses and Government Response to consultation, December 2007, p 6 Back

61   Government Office for Science, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, December 2007, p 14 Back

62   Qq 307 [Dame Deirdre Hutton], 330 [Lord Drayson] Back

63   Qq 293, 295 Back

64   Q 295 Back

65   Q 293 [Dame Deirdre Hutton] Back

66   Q 295 Back

67   Ev 290 Back

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