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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 204 - 219)



  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 this session.

  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 guidelines—if 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 how—the Government has got a long history of innovating ways around procedures—we will not end up always in that situation when the political pressure is on.

  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 servants—or perhaps more senior civil servants—who 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 Roland?

  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 important—it sounds obvious—for 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 about that.

  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 scrutiny—for 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 on—and I am a great supporter of the Royal Society of Chemistry—with 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 this Committee?

  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 saying—and certainly this has been said—that 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 behind decisions?

  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 with—for example in that 2006 Report—they 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 that frustration?

  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 innovation—and that is economic innovation—on 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 done—the internal statisticians did not seem to be involved—and 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 with.

  Q217  Dr Harris: Does either of the two of you have a view on his treatment or are you not aware of the case?

  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 time?

  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.

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