Submission from Sense About Science
PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART
1. We welcome the growing interest in evidence-based
policy making and initiatives to improve the use of scientific
advice and evidence.
2. Some initiatives suggest a procedural approach
to use of evidence; continued opportunistic or poor use of evidence
in policy making show that a procedural approach can be a hollow
substitution for more informed use of evidence and is open to
manipulation in the face of political pressures.
3. Parliamentary scrutiny of science and evidence
in decision making, on the other hand, can compete with
political pressuresindeed, it is one.
4. While the office of the chief scientist
introduces the potential for greater independence to science in
government, parliamentary scrutiny of use of scientific evidence
will underwrite the CSA's independence.
5. There are legitimate concerns about the
cult of the expert and scientisation of politics. Parliamentary
scrutiny of use of evidence can ensure that expertise is elevated
in policy, but at the same time that it is subordinated to democratic
6. Government science and engineering policy
is not the same as use of evidence in policy making but it is
closely aligned and should rationally be scrutinised by the same
7. The aim of public engagement is often
not articulated and seems to be wide ranging.
8. The public is interested in scientific
reasoning and the use of evidence. Sense About Science's experience
is that citizens are empowered by scrutinising evidence and its
use. This is democratic engagement rather than audience participation.
9. Since the Philips Report, scientific
advice to Government has improved. Instances where advice is disregarded
or the time of scientists apparently misused present a risk to
this that should be reviewed by the Committee.
("The Committee" refers to the
Science and Technology Committee, the IUSS Committee or proposed
1. THE USE
1.1 Improving use of scientific advice and
evidence in government
We welcome the growing interest in evidence-based
policy making and initiatives to improve the use of scientific
advice and evidence.
1.1.1 Since 2004, Sense About Science has run
a project to popularise understanding of peer review. We wrote
to the Committee in January 2006 about "the importance
of understanding and communicating the status of evidence in government
advice and policy development".
We have promotedand encouraged other organisations to promotethe
need to understand the status of evidence being used at all stages
of policy making. In particular, we noted that whether research
had been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal was often
seen as a technicality rather than crucial to the judgement about
how to use it.
1.1.2 The Government has taken steps to improve
the coherence and accessibility of its analytical services. There
are some indications that there is growing recognition of peer
review and the need to consider the status of evidence. We have
noted initiatives to provide training, such as the Civil Servants
Guide to Policy: Evidence Based Policy & Evaluation Workshop
held March 2009.
1.1.3 We note, however, that the quality
and peer review of evidence is still sometimes viewed as a technicality
when it should form part of the critical evaluation of evidence,
whether external or the result of commissioned research. We periodically
review how the word "evidence" is used across government,
in press releases, consultation documents and in Committee hearings.
Scientific evidence is perhaps sometimes muddled with other evidence.
DEFRA defines evidence: "We can say that evidence is any
information that Defra can use to turn its policy goals into something
concrete, achievable and manageable."
It goes on to explain different kinds of evidence with competence.
However, some statements from Government indicate that this opening
definition is confused with scientific evidence. We noted, for
example, the responses of Home Office Minister Mr Vernon Coaker
to questions about the Policing and Crime Bill in the House of
Commons General Committee, suggesting that publication of evidence
was a technicality.
Efforts by the Government to improve use of
evidence have tended be quite procedural. This is understandable
in view of the limited tools available to improve decision making
in a direct sense. However, the first problem is that ministers
and civil servants would be unlikely ever to develop a procedure
or guidelines that insulate decisions from poor use of scientific
evidence or expertise. In 2005, the Chief Scientific Adviser consulted
and updated the Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making
2000. Questions such as "How should we deal with 'breaking
news' where the new evidence might be radically different?"
showed the limitations of being able to establish procedures that
would deliver anything like the level of judgement and accountability
that will often be required in the use of scientific advice in
1.2.1 The second problem is that continued opportunistic
or poor use of evidence in policy making, for example the tendency
to think in terms of commissioning evidence rather than commissioning
research, show that a procedural approach can be a hollow substitution
for more informed use of evidence and is open to manipulation
in the face of political pressures. Innovating ways around procedures
has a long history in policy making!
2.1 It seems reasonable to conclude that
parliamentary scrutiny on the other hand, can compete with
political pressuresindeed, it is one. The Committee has
succeeded in correcting misleading presentation of evidence and
making significant correction to scientific mistakes. The current
remit of the IUSS committee should urgently be reviewed and consideration
given to establishing a committee where there is no risk of future
sidelining of its cross departmental scrutiny of the use of science
and evidence in government. We also note that the current IUSS
committee has a collective memory inherited from the SciTech committee
and suspect that the continued scrutiny of scientific evidence
in decision making could be lost with changes of personnel in
2.2 Accountability for the CSA and departmental
The Committee has welcomed and reviewed the
work of the CSA and departmental chief scientists; we welcome
the Committee's stated plans to do more of this and to continue
to review the cross departmental impact. While the office of the
chief scientist introduces the potential for greater independence
to science in government, parliamentary scrutiny of use of scientific
evidence will underwrite the CSA's independence in a fundamental
2.3 Democratic accountability of expertise
There are legitimate concerns about the cult
of the expert and scientisation of politics. Nor should we lose
sight of the risk that scientific evidence may be seen as a magic
policy potion. Rub it on and people who object to your idea won't
have a leg to stand on! It is easy to see how policy makers become
attracted to the idea that the evidence itself wrote the policy.
With the proliferation of scientific advisory committees, there
can be confusion about who is actually accountable for policy
decisions. Parliamentary scrutiny of use of evidence can ensure
that expertise is elevated in policy, but at the same time that
it does not supplant policy responsibilities (and so become overly
politicised) and that expertise is subordinated to democratic
2.4 Scrutiny of science and engineering policy
Government science and engineering policy encompasses
research funding and skills, which is not the same as use of evidence
in policy making but it is closely aligned and should rationally
be scrutinised by the same committee.
3. ENGAGING THE
3.1 The aim of public engagement is often
not articulated and seems to be wide ranging
Public engagement includes the promotion of
science in schools and science careers, "science, wow!"
activities, which possibly are assumed to contribute to acceptance
of research and new technologies but that is unclear, and consultative
government, which might have a variety of intentions. On what
terms would this be scrutinised? As the Committee is aware, DIUS
is currently looking at ways to evaluate public engagement activities
and must consider whether participation is for its own sake or
for some other purpose.
3.2 The public is interested in scientific reasoning
and the use of evidence. In our experience, people and organisations
who interact with the public are asking for help about a wide
range of science-related subjects, to sort through scare and hype
stories, to determine which products and practices are effective
or what might be a scam, and to come to conclusions about the
reliability of scientific claims and assess controversies. These
are the kinds of questions we are asked by the public.
Help me get to grips with it
Is this something parents should be worried
about? (midwife responding to news story on plasticisers in baby's
bottles). Can I get something from the scientists about
this? (Town councillor on WiFi radiation; AIDS meals on wheels
group about miracle diets and superfoods stories).
Is this another scare story? (Women's magazine
on skin absorption of make-up; allotment holders on stories about
growing food near main roads).
Is this something we should warn people
about? (Jobs agency hosting ads for clinical trials after Northwick
Do scientists do any work on this kind
of thing? (PTA on option to site wind turbine on school).
Is it the scientists or the companies
who say it's safe? (Parish council and local newspaper on mobile
How much do we know?
What do the scientists actually know
about this? (Local residents association on chemical residues
in brown-field site; gym instructor on steroid use). Can
I find out what tests have been done? (TV celebrity on homeopathy,
education writer on WiFi, mental health group on St John's Wort).
How sure are they that they're right?
(Most common call on vaccine safety).
Balance of scientific opinion
Do these people represent the majority
of scientific opinion? (UK's top advertising company responding
to TV programme on global warming; members of the public with
the same question; youth club on the effects of illicit drugs
following a Newsnight programme). How are the scientists
split on this? (Local horticultural society on GM "superweeds"
story, parenting magazine on 5-in-1 vaccine, a County Council
It says here it's from scientific researchhow
can I tell whether that's true? (Most common question about internet
adverts for health cures that people send to us).
Are they only listening to one group
of scientists? (Conservation group on fishing quota decision).
Have they talked to the scientists? (Parents
on decision to allow WiFi in schools).
How should we explain to helpline callers
what kind of studies these are? (Neurological diseases societies
on flurry of unfounded claims in media).
3.3 There seems to be a tendency in science
and policy engagement to be coy about the existence of debates
and misconceptions, making only euphemistic reference to them.
Unless there is clear response to what people are actually talking
and deciding about, they don't tend to notice or use it. We are
often asked questions by civic and community groups about the
chain of reasoning and what is supported by evidence about subjects
on which long reports and consultation documents are available.
It seems that if people (including journalists and other opinion
formers) can't see direct links to the debates and claims in public
life, they just don't see these materials. Or perhaps put another
way, what people are looking for is not a long route to understanding
but some short cuts to help them sift and decide where their concerns
lie. A review of public discussion at the outset of science-related
policy developments would also avoid situations where only the
views of hostile groups are given consideration.
3.4 Sense About Science receives many communications
from scientists and from members of the public who are frustrated
about misleading or poor use of evidence in policy but feel helpless
about it. One of the questions we are most frequently asked is
"Should I write to my MP? What could she do?" Sense
About Science's experience is that citizens are empowered by scrutinising
evidence and its use. This is democratic engagement rather than
audience participation. We would like the committee to look at
how far into the public consciousness it work is reaching and
what potential there is to engage people in the kinds of questions
that the committee is concerned with on the use of scientific
evidence in policy. We would like to write to you further on this
3.5 Sense About Science works with over
3,000 supportive scientists, to promote good science and
evidence for the public. Many of them have served on government
advisory committees and contributed to consultations in the development
of specific policies. Often, the time and energy they have contributed
has been substantial and this is often over and above their "day
job" as scientists. We have become aware of a degree of cynicism
among scientists about the value of doing this kind of work. It
has not been helped by cases where scientific advice has been
sought by the Government but then apparently disregarded, as happened
recently with the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the
Misuse of Drugs.
Sense About Science is very worried about this, from the perspective
of the public interest in good science. We feel that the Government
should recognise the risk of undoing some of the positive developments
in the use of science advice, and the willingness of the scientific
community to provide it, since the publication of the Philips
Report in 2000.
Some problems may arise from failure to identify the role that
scientific advice will play in the development of a specific policy.
It may also be exacerbated by instances when a political decision
is made to disregard evidence but this is not explained.
3.6 The Committee has previously made recommendations
aimed at providing "an active network of scientific support
We see an urgent need to review the way that the contribution
of the scientific community is used and to help the Government
to recognise the risks associated with the apparent misuse of
scientists' time and the implications that this has for seeking
advice in the future. In our experience, the scientific community
has greatly appreciated the work of the SciTech and IUSS committees,
and in particular the opportunity to raise problems at the Bill
stage of policy making and outside of the framework dictated by
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Analysis and Use of Evidence: Research and Analysis in Government,
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Evidence-Based Policy Making, www.defra.gov.uk Back
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ACMD: Cannabis: Classification and Public Health, 2008. Back
The BSE Inquiry Report, 2000. Back
Science and Technology Committee: Scientific Advice, Risk and
Evidence Based Policy Making, 2006 HC99-1. Back