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

Memorandum 36

Submission from the Biosciences Federation (BSF)


  The Biosciences Federation (BSF) is a single authority representing the UK's biological expertise, providing independent opinion to inform public policy and promoting the advancement of the biosciences. The Federation was established in 2002, and is actively working to influence policy and strategy in biology-based research—including funding and the interface with other disciplines—and in school and university teaching. It is also concerned about the translation of research into benefits for society, and about the impact of legislation and regulations on the ability of those working in teaching and research to deliver effectively. The Federation brings together the strengths of 45 member organisations (plus nine associate members), including the Institute of Biology which represents 39 additional affiliated societies (see Appendix). This represents a cumulative membership of over 65,000 individuals, covering the full spectrum of biosciences from physiology and neuroscience, biochemistry and microbiology, to ecology, taxonomy and environmental science. The Biosciences Federation is a registered charity (no. 1103894).

1.  Whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council for Science and Technology put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making and whether there should be a Department for Science

    i. The Biosciences Federation welcomes the creation of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation, which was long overdue, and urges the Cabinet Office to ensure that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is represented on this Committee in the future. It is too early to say how effective the Committee will be in ensuring integration across government departments. ii. The Council for Science and Technology has produced some excellent reports in recent years. However, the mechanisms used to identify both future studies and the individuals/organisations from whom evidence should be gathered, remain unclear. The website needs a radical overhaul to allow sufficient engagement with stakeholders.iii. The Biosciences Federation believes that creating a Department of Science is currently unnecessary and risks orphaning science, rather than integrating it across government departments. Focus should be given to ensuring that science is fully embedded in relevant departments, and that these departments have the capacity within them to put science at the heart of policy-making.

    2.  How Government formulates science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)

    iv. The installation of departmental Chief Scientific Advisers has seen a major improvement in the quality of scientific input into the decision-making process. However, we urge the Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee (CSAC) to be more transparent in its workings and outputs. We also strongly support continued detailed evaluation of departmental policy procedures under the Government Office for Science's Science Review Programme but wish to see more visible outcomes.v. Good policy making depends on a strong scientific culture within Departments. Departments must ensure that they employ well-qualified scientific staff, and that these staff maintain and extend their competencies and their awareness of current scientific issues. We are not confident that any departments are fully developing capacity in this area. Anecdotal evidence suggests that examinations for entrance into the Civil Service Fast-Track Scheme put more value on economic knowledge and drafting ability than scientific literacy.

    vi. The Biosciences Federation warmly welcomed the 2007 update to the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, particularly the recommendation that Scientific Advisory Committees should aim to hold regular meetings in open session. The Food Standards Agency has given an exemplary lead in opening its proceedings to scrutiny.

    vii. In its response to the former Science & Technology Select Committee's report on "Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making", the Government claimed to directly seek advice from Learned Societies. We see little evidence of this which suggests that expertise is not drawn from a sufficiently wide "pool".

    viii. The Biosciences Federation is concerned about skills shortages in specialist scientific areas and research funding for basic research. Government must strengthen its links with sector skills organisations such as SEMTA and recognise that much good and fundamental research does not drive economic growth in the immediate term. A long-term view is needed to develop the evidence and capacity that is vital to the formulation of sound policy-making.

4.  The case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs updating

    ix. The Haldane principle remains sound and does not need updating, but rather adhering to! The principle still allows Government to ring-fence some monies for strategic overarching priorities, but scientists must be free to direct the detailed research agenda. This is essential both for the protection of vulnerable areas of research and to allow the development on new research fronts, particularly in areas of basic research which may not be immediately applicable to the formulation of public policy.x. The Biosciences Federation believes that there must be an overarching national science policy which is delivered on a regional basis in order to use local strengths to meet local needs. Regional science will also be important in reinforcing national policy. Our concerns over scientific literacy within the Civil Service also apply to the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs).

5.  Engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy

    xi. The current consultation procedures are largely passive in nature and do not actively engage the public in the decision-making process. Mechanisms of engagement should be implemented to ensure that public opinion is proactively sought, for example by making more use of citizen's juries. However public opinion alone must not be used to determine Government policy. The role of public engagement in policy making is discussed further in the BSF response to the DIUS consultation on "A Vision for Science and Society".[146]xii. The recent RCUK/DIUS report "Public Attitudes to Science" found that the public subscribe to the "Haldane Principle", showing a preference for scientists and their professional bodies, rather than Government, to regulate science and engineering.

3 & 7.  Whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy; how government science and engineering policy should be scrutinized and how the success of any consultation is assessed

    xiii. It is the knowledge of the scientific community, rather than its views, that should be used to inform government policy decisions. We are not confident that government departments build up their contact base sufficiently to allow them to draw on a broad pool of expertise. The importance of Learned Societies to science and engineering policy formulation should be better recognised by Government. Our organisations offer a wealth of expertise, through our members, who work at the forefront of research and innovation. Learned societies are well placed to deliver impartial, non-partisan, advice to Government based on the best available scientific evidence.xiv. The former Science & Technology Select Committee was well placed to scrutinise science-based policy across all Government departments. Its new siting risks that the Committee's recommendations will only apply within DIUS. The Government Office for Science must strengthen its role in scrutinising science policy with more visible outcomes.

    xv. Although the evidence gathering process is clear, it is not often clear how this evidence has been used in policy formulation. For example, the analysis of the 2007 consultation from the FSA on the options to increase folate intake in young women was conducted in "tick box" manner and so nuanced positions were lost. Government departments and agencies should look to the Environment Agency as a model of good practice where detailed responses, showing how and why evidence has been incorporated or rejected, are routinely provided.

    xvi. Where new evidence has a radical impact on existing bodies of evidence, it is essential that this evidence is shared with, and replication sought by, experts in the relevant knowledge base. Changes in policy should only occur after thorough consideration of all the evidence and a detailed risk assessment.


  This response was written by a BSF Task Force comprising Dr S Ahmed (Institute of Biology), Dr E Bell (Physiological Society), Dr F Bhatti (Royal Society of Chemistry), Dr R Dyer (Biosciences Federation; Chair), Dr L Fielding (Society for Applied Microbiology), Dr C Kirk (Biochemical Society), Dr B Knowles (Institute of Biology), Ms C Margerison (British Ecological Society), Dr R Prince (British Pharmacological Society), Dr E Thomson (Royal Society of Chemistry), Dr C Wallace (Biosciences Federation) and Dr J Wilbraham (AstraZeneca).

January 2009

146   Available at http://www.bsf.ac.uk/responses/ScienceAndSocietyOct08.pdf Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 23 July 2009