Examination of Witnesses (Questions 204
MONDAY 16 MARCH 2009
Chairman: We welcome our second panel
for this afternoon on the inquiry into putting science and engineering
at the heart of government policy; we welcome Tracey Brown, Director
of Sense about Science, welcome to you Tracey, Sir Roland Jackson
of the British Science Association, welcome to you, and Professor
Ian Haines of the UK Deans of Science, a distinguished second
panel. I am going to ask Evan Harris if he would like to open
Q204 Dr Harris: Good afternoon. What
mechanisms might the government put in place to ensure adequate
and independent scrutiny of scientific evidence and whether it
is being used appropriately in policy formation? What sort of
structures do you think do exist or ought to exist or ought to
be beefed up? I do not mind who starts.
Ms Brown: We have seen a period
of quite unprecedented innovation and focus on that concern. The
Committee has noted the installation of chief scientists in departments,
the rewriting in 2005 of the chief scientist guidelines and, from
the point of view of evaluating the quality of the evidence that
is used in policy-making as much as the content, it is something
that Sense about Science has promoted, and we have been delighted
to see things like peer review discussed much more widely in government.
However, there is potentially a procedural limit on these sorts
of questions and I detect quite a strong push towards wanting
to have a set of questions or procedures that enable you to make
good, evidence-based policy. In fact, there are two problems with
this. We have got great guidelinesif you look at the chief
scientific adviser's guidelines they are very good but one of
the problems is that they do not stand up to political pressure
and in fact what you get is policy-driven evidence in those circumstances.
They have co-existed with quite a number of cases where we have
had policy-driven evidence and I do not think they are strong
enough to stand up to that. In fact, without the kind of scrutiny
that parliamentary committees offer I cannot see howthe
Government has got a long history of innovating ways around procedureswe
will not end up always in that situation when the political pressure
Q205 Dr Harris: You do not think
there is anything internal that is strong enough.
Ms Brown: No.
Q206 Dr Harris: Could a Chief Scientific
Adviser who was prepared to be firm actually prevent the Government,
doing something or do you require that to be publicised in order
for that to be effective?
Ms Brown: It would be an odd thing
to hang an approach around the personality of an individual anyway
but surely the position of those individuals could only be strengthened
by having external scrutiny. There is always going to be this
problem of having to engage with awkward evidence and people giving
you awkward advice who may well be the chief scientist at times.
The need to engage with them would become much stronger if you
felt that you would be called to account for the decision-making
process and for whether or not you listened to that advice, and
indeed that the chief scientist would be called to account for
whether or not that advice was being taken on board.
Q207 Chairman: Professor Haines,
can we bring you in?
Professor Haines: I very much
agree with what Tracey has said. There is a real difficulty in
suggesting that one person, working within Government, can possibly
have the power and knowledge to make these decisions. One of the
points that we made in our evidence, which we did not know, was
the proportion of civil servantsor perhaps more senior
civil servantswho have science and technology backgrounds;
if the Chief Scientific Adviser is going to have the extent of
advice internally there would need to be some very serious overview
of the extent to which there were scientists and technologists
working within the department under that person.
Q208 Chairman: A constant theme for
this Committee is to get the answer to your very question. Sir
Sir Roland Jackson: The point
I would make, which we made in our evidence, which is very much
related to this is that it is really importantit sounds
obviousfor government to be clear when it is consulting
and when it is communicating, to be clear about that. I can imagine
from all sorts of points of view it is occasionally helpful to
maybe be a little bit unclear about that, but certainly looking
at it from a public perspective it really does risk increasing
distrust in the political process if government is not specific
Q209 Dr Harris: All of you have said
that there is a need for the external scrutiny to be tough and
you have mentioned parliamentary committees which we can come
on to, but are there any other mechanisms that could be introduced
to make sure that there is effective external scrutinyfor
example, using the learned societies in a more formal way?
Professor Haines: It depends on
where you are looking for scrutiny. One of the things that concerns
me is the way that policy gets developed. The term "great
and good" has already been used once today and there is this
danger that the same people come and say the same things in whatever
consultation exercise there is. There is a consultation for the
future of higher education at the moment and a certain group of
individuals have been asked to write reports and statements about
their view of the future. I would actually like to see, just once,
somebody being willing to take up the nettle and saying "We
are going to invite, almost randomly, under 35 year old scientists
to come to a meeting and discuss where science should be going
in the future" and not keep on looking at the great and good
who, no matter who they are, have got their own interests. In
terms of professional bodies, the professional bodies will always
tend to grind onand I am a great supporter of the Royal
Society of Chemistrywith their own particular interests.
Deep down inside, the under-35s have got new ideas, radical ideas,
which we really ought to be getting to tap into.
Q210 Dr Harris: Professor Haines
has mentioned in his evidence the need for there to be a Science
and Technology Committee as of old, recast in some way, in order
to have that scrutiny of science across government. Does either
of the other two agree with that?
Ms Brown: In some form. Actually,
if you go back to the Science and Technology Committee's 2006
Report on the Government's use of evidence it wrote the mandate
really for how that Committee should evolve. It is not quite the
same remit perhaps because there is a difference. One of the problems
we are talking about when we are talking about science policy
is are we talking about the science wow and how or are we talking
about science as in UK Plc and the investment strategy and the
research base or are we talking about scrutiny of decision-making?
Although those things overlap quite a lot there are distinctions.
Q211 Dr Harris: You think that Mr
Willis is not doing a good enough job on the last of those with
Ms Brown: There is a loaded question.
The scrutiny of decision-making is actually the most valuable
role that a scrutiny committee could play. It opens up questions
about how decisions were reached and the evidence on which they
are based in the way that the public actually has a way of getting
hold of, and indeed scientists more widely have a way of getting
hold of. We experience a lot of people saying to us that they
have got frustrations, as many scientists had with, for example,
the Physical Agents Directive, for over a year, not knowing where
to take them because there was not an open consultation that asked
those kinds of questions at that moment in time. The existence
of the Committee created that option, but I would be really cautious
about the idea of a further panel of experts that scrutinises.
One of the other sides to having a parliamentary committee is
its democratic accountability and there is a lesser problem, one
that fewer people raise, of the scientisation of politics and
elevating the role of the expert above the role of the elected
officer. Having parliamentary scrutiny is actually quite a healthy
thing from that point of view as well.
Q212 Dr Harris: It is in the remit
of this Committee to do what you have just described but are you
sayingand certainly this has been saidthat because
the remit also covers innovation, universities and skills, therefore
there is not enough time for this Committee to do what the old
Science and Technology Committee did. Or do you think it should
be just a higher-level priority for us to do it ? Or should there
be a new committee to do it which means we would on this Committee
not do it?
Ms Brown: As I understand it the
sub-committee functions at the moment.
Q213 Dr Harris: There are fluid sub-committees.
As I understand it it is in our remit so sometimes we could look
at a decision across government or in a government department
if we had the time, and we could do that in the sub-committee
or not, so the sub-committee is not a material point. Obviously
there are always priorities; the question is, is there merit in
that work being done by the same committee that has responsibility
for looking at the role and the work of the Science Minister and
his/her department, or does that not matter and you could have
a freestanding scrutiny committee looking at the evidence base
Ms Brown: The second option is
probably the most important one and I am not necessarily best
placed to know whether it would be possible to combine that entirely.
As a cross-cutting role of the Committee I just cannot see how
you could possibly not have a cross-cutting role of the main Committee
if you have Chief scientists in every department. In fact, if
you look at the sorts of examples that the Science and Technology
Committee dealt withfor example in that 2006 Reportthey
were not all concerned with the department that the universities
and skills base were in.
Q214 Dr Harris: Sir Roland?
Sir Roland Jackson: I do not think
I have a great deal to add except to comment that this Committee
has taken a lot of interest in this particular area. This inquiry
has been running for quite some time now and indicates that you
can address these issues over a length of time and in the way
in which they evolve and, clearly, things have evolved quite substantially
in the past year.
Q215 Chairman: Can I just interrupt?
One of my concerns here about this particular exchange is that
in order to be able to scrutinise something effectively you have
to have a body of information presented to you which is capable
of being interrogated. In terms of this inquiry, which is about
science and engineering policy, we seem to have had a number of
speeches made which indicate a change of policy, and actually
getting to grips with that is incredibly difficult. Do you share
Professor Haines: Absolutely.
The three speeches and the difficulty of working out quite where
the balances were were summed up very well at the earlier discussion.
Can I come back to this business of should there be a separate
committee for science? In our evidence we suggested there should
be; it is not the suggestion that the Chairman is not doing his
job, nor is it the suggestion that the members are not doing their
job, it is just that we feel that the Committee is too broad.
From innovationand that is economic innovationon
the one hand, right the way through to skills of all kinds of
an undescribed nature, it is too big. I just happened to look
at a few of the evidence sessions that you had in January. I looked
at three: there were no more than six members able to be present
and at two of them there was not even a contributor from each
of the three main parties. That I do not think is sufficient support
for the business of questioning what the Government is doing and
what the departments are doing outside DIUS.
Q216 Dr Harris: I want to change
to a specific area which is to work out if there is any role for
internal scrutiny to protect scientists giving advice. I want
to take the Home Office as an example because it has been in the
news with regard to its misuse of statistics, which it has admitted,
and where there does not appear to have been any civil service
intervention before that was donethe internal statisticians
did not seem to be involvedand then there is the whole
business of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. There
are two issues there and I want to focus on the second of these:
First is the fact that the Government rejected the advice of its
advisers while still trying to claim that it was evidence-based
policy and, secondly, is the treatment of the adviser himself,
Professor Nutt, where he was castigated publicly for publishing
in a scientific journal some of his work. Was there a role for
the Home Office chief scientist? Who should have come to his defence
within the department because, as far as we know, no one did?
Ms Brown: At the time that it
happened I suspect that the Home Office chief scientist was not
aware of late night phone calls. There is a serious issue in terms
of the knock-on effect of this as well. It is something on which
you have to absolutely 100% back the independence of the people
you have asked to come in and give independent advice. We have
over 3,000 scientists working with us on a whole range of projects
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 sometimes and it relates to something
that Roland raised actually, which is not just the need for consultations
and the use of expertise to be clear about whether it is communicating
or consulting, but also what the status is that that is being
given. Are you submitting something that is going to be the basis
of a policy or are you just throwing your lot in the pot? That
is often not clear to scientists and academics who give their
time for free. That has a serous implication and unless you want
to see all the work that has been done since the Phillips Report
on improving the contribution made to policy-making, then that
is something you are going to have to take really serious issue
Q217 Dr Harris: Does either of the
two of you have a view on his treatment or are you not aware of
Sir Roland Jackson: I am aware
of the case and I would echo the way that Tracey saw it.
Q218 Chairman: Do you think there
are scientists that you know of, even the great and the good,
who might be more reluctant to provide expert advice to government
in case the government disagrees with them and they get a hard
Sir Roland Jackson: I do not personally
have any evidence to that effect and I certainly know that a lot
of scientists who give evidence would still be perfectly prepared
to go ahead and do so, but it does not help the climate.
Q219 Chairman: Can I move on? Tracey,
you told us that debate on science and policy engagement tends
to only make "euphemistic reference" to the existence
of misconceptions. What do you mean by that?
Ms Brown: What I mean is that
where there is a problem in the way that an issue is portrayed
in public it would be quite useful if consultations actually spelled
that problem out.