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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 318)

WEDNESDAY 1 APRIL 2009

PROFESSOR CHRIS GASKELL, DAME DEIRDRE HUTTON AND PROFESSOR SIR MICHAEL RAWLINS

  Q300  Dr Harris: If he did not like the advice you were giving, you would expect him not to support you?

  Professor Gaskell: What I would expect him to say would be that the reason I have a Scientific Advisory Council is to offer me advice and be challenging, and I may not always find that advice palatable and convenient.

  Dr Harris: Thank you.

  Q301  Dr Iddon: Just occasionally you are going to give some advice to government which is uncomfortable to the Government and it will create tension between your committees and the Government. I wonder if each of you could give us an example of that. I think Sir Michael has already given us one example, which is very well-known, that of cannabis classification. Sir Michael, could you give us another example which is perhaps not so well know where your advice has been uncomfortable?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: During the period I was Chairman of the ACMD that was the only occasion when the Government actually rejected advice, as far as I recall. Since, of course it has been in relationship to ecstasy. Of course governments have perfectly the right to reject the advice of a scientific advisory committee, but I think when they do so they should explain why.

  Q302  Dr Iddon: We are coming to that in a minute. I am just looking for the examples at the moment. Professor Gaskell.

  Professor Gaskell: I think there is a difference between uncomfortable and unacceptable. For example, we gave them uncomfortable advice, I think, around their use of social science, but they took it on the chin and said, "Yes, you are right. We agree. We have got to do something about this", and we are following up how they are responding, but they accepted the uncomfortable advice. There have been some examples, I would have to say relatively minor, where they have not accepted what we have said, and they have been things that have been both scientific and also around the process. For example, we recommended that in order to protect the scientific reputation of the department, press releases should undergo some science scrutiny before they go out, and that was rejected on a workload basis. It has since been accepted because subsequent experience suggests that that probably was actually quite a good idea. We have also, for example, challenged them on the availability of data from the last foot and mouth outbreak, and the response that we have had we regard as unsatisfactory and we are pressing that. We say that we do not see the scientific validity, notwithstanding the fact that it is in EU regulations, for the three and ten kilometre exclusion zones around outbreaks of exotic diseases. That is uncomfortable. They are hearing what we say about that, but we will continue to press it. So we have a formal mechanism of requiring the CSA to respond to our recommendations within six months, and then we will follow up at a year to see whether the good words, or not, of six months have come into place. There are other examples I could give you.

  Q303  Dr Gibson: Migratory birds: they get blamed for everything!

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I preface it by saying that we give advice to ministers in public, so it is known what our advice is. It is absolutely the prerogative of ministers not to accept that advice if they want to. I suppose in the early days of the agency—I give you two examples—there were some differences of opinion around GM foods and organically produced crops. More recently, we gave advice to the department on the fortification of bread flour with folic acid to prevent neurological defects, and the Chief Medical Officer took the view that he wanted to wait for further research. Those are a few examples.

  Q304  Dr Iddon: I go back to Sir Michael now. When you have given this kind of advice which causes some excitement, do you get a chance to enter into dialogue with the Government and to ask them why they have rejected your advice? Is it a two-way process after the initial decision?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, not really. On that occasion not really, no. It was quite clear after a few days, well it was quite clear actually before we produced the report that the Government was going to reject the advice. The Prime Minister had said what he was going to do because he said it was the right thing to do.

  Chairman: What is the point in having you then?

  Q305  Dr Iddon: I was just going to ask. How did the members of your committee feel about that? They are giving their time without--

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Without any remuneration.

  Dr Iddon: I felt the last time your advice was rejected that you might resign as Chairman.

  Q306  Dr Gibson: You are not a quitter, are you, Michael?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, and I do not think resigning is the thing to do unless it is a really major point. On that occasion I think the Government should have explained much more clearly the basis. There was a suggestion that it was doing it because it would send out a signal, although we had made abundantly clear in the report that the classification system is not designed to be a signal, it is not legally supposed to be a signal, it has a totally different purpose and that it was the right thing to do, and I am afraid it was not the right thing to do.

  Professor Gaskell: To back up the point made by Dame Deirdre, I think we accept on the Science Advisory Council that we are offering evidence that forms part of the total evidence base that goes towards policy and that on occasions there will be other issues that ministers have to take into account when making a decision on policy. Indeed, the policy-makers themselves may have a series of inputs in the advice they give to ministers. So while of course we would not wish to underplay the importance of core scientific evidence, I think scientists should not become so precious that they regard themselves as the only authorities in what is essentially a political policy decision at the end of the day.

  Q307  Chairman: Would you agree with Sir Michael, because I think Sir Michael's comment was that if, in fact, the scientific evidence is being rejected in favour of some other decision, and we accept as a committee that ministers have every right to do that, they should make it clear what are the grounds on which it is being rejected?

  Professor Gaskell: I think that is right, and as part of our process we require an explanation of why advice has not been accepted. No, I think it is a key issue. As I said, I do not think scientists should be over precious in thinking that theirs is the only evidence. The other point I would make about science evidence (and this is something we have discussed): where it is particularly irritating is where policy, or the explanation of policy, is supported by the cherry-picking of science advice; in other words, only taking that science advice which supports your particular policy decision. I think if a policy decision runs against the science, it should be explained in the context of all the science evidence, not just the bit that may be convenient.

  Dr Gibson: This seems to be the kind of thing you settle before you take a job: "Sometimes, Prime Minister, I will find something out which does not fit in with your view about the science in the developing world as against the same science in Britain." That is a genuine debate. "I would expect you to tell me that. Do you agree?" Do you not negotiate that, or are you too frightened to ask for that, when you start your job? I would not take a job, certainly not, unless you could define these issues. It is not rocket science to see that coming up as an issue. That happens to everybody in a job. You have just got to clarify at it at the very beginning so that your relationship its open with the people that you have to work with. Is that fair?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I think the great protection for the agency lies in its transparency. Clearly, if we have put in the public domain that we believe a particular course of action is right and the Government wishes to do something different, generally speaking the Government will explain why, and I think that is entirely sensible of them to do so, not least because our reasoning is also in the public domain. I do not find it a problem if government decides to do something else, I would say they have a right to do so. I would be troubled, I suppose, if I felt they were doing it on an entirely erroneous basis, and I guess that there could be circumstances under which, probably not I, but my board would wish to discuss the nature of that.

  Q308  Dr Harris: Briefly, to show my independence, may I just finish the question I was asking you. You said something interesting, Dame Deirdre, that in order better be independent you believe in one term. I was a bit confused. Does that mean that if you go for a second term you need government approval for that second term? Otherwise, how would it make difference? I do not disagree with you; I am just seeking to understand what the relevance of a second term is to independence.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: Can I just emphasise that that is a personal view, but I think that if any regulator or any other public appointee goes for a second term, yes, that second term, in my experience, has to be approved.

  Q309  Dr Harris: By the Government?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: Yes; you do not automatically do a second term.

  Q310  Dr Harris: While we have got you on the subject, one thing I noticed from your annual report was, although you are funded by the Treasury, you are funded by the Government, they cut the FSA's funding in real terms when the rest of health was not cut, in fact it was in increased.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: Yes.

  Q311  Dr Harris: Did you ask why that was, whether it was a sign of disapproval, or was it just a random act?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: We had quite a lot of negotiation with the Treasury and, to be honest, we are a very small government department and not key in the Treasury's thinking about public spending, certainly in the terms we are thinking about it now. We certainly had negotiations with the Treasury, but I think also the position we took, and the position I felt quite strongly, was that the Food Standards Agency has been incredibly well funded from the beginning. We had reserves which we could usefully use and, since this was public money, it also would become us to run our organisation very efficiently and we felt we could absorb that.

  Q312  Dr Harris: So it is not a question of your independence being undermined by the threat of a real-terms funding cut?

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: No.

  Q313  Dr Harris: Coming back to the line of questioning that Brian Iddon was asking, Sir Michael, when you were Chairman of the ACMD one of your senior medical academic members wrote an article for a journal that was published some months later when you were no longer Chair but he was, and he was attacked by the media, was not defended, as far as I know, by the Chief Scientific Adviser, the Home Office Scientific Advisory Committee made up of chairs, he was attacked also by the Minister in quite strong terms for the views he expressed in that paper. Do you think that might have an impact, if that happened, on the willingness of people (a) to serve on committees and (b) to give views, even as an academic, that might be criticised in strong terms by ministers?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: In some ways I do not think one can really compartmentalise one's life into academic and being a member of an advisory committee; I think it is all one great blur. On the particular issue, I never saw the article before it was published, but I would say this. 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, which is widely used in the social sciences to look at the public's approach to benefit and risk more generally, and all sorts of examples are used. I have not brought it with me, but there is a well-known book called Acceptable Risk, published in 1981, which tabulates the numbers of days of life lost over the years, including days of lives lost from cigarette smoking but also illegal substance misuse, so the principle is well established.

  Q314  Dr Harris: I am going to explain this carefully because I do not want a generalisable answer. In this case, this man who published this article in a peer review journal, which you thought was a reasonable thing to publish, was phoned up in the middle of his out-patient clinic and told to apologise publicly and the fact that she asked him to do this, the Home Secretary, was then publicised, and MPs laid into him, and no-one came to his support from the department as far as I know. Given that that happened, do you think that someone who is an independent adviser might decide they are not going to run the risk of being an independent adviser if that is going to happen or them, or people will not volunteer if they feel they are either going to be constrained for self-preservation or they are going to be publicly traduced?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Yes, I think it depends on the circumstances. 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 and everywhere right across the board. It was not an inappropriate thing to do and he was not trivialising—

  Q315  Dr Harris: Tracey Brown, who spoke to us about science in an oral session earlier, said that she had heard that a number of scientists were now dubious about providing independent advice because they felt that if the Government disagreed with it they might have the same treatment. Is that a fair concern?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I think, if that was to happen, it would ill serve the country.

  Q316  Dr Harris: Do you think there is a problem with advice being trimmed, any of you, because people are worried that if they do not give advice either that the Government agrees with or that the Government likes the style it is done in, they are going to hold back, and how consistent is that with the Philips' Report approach about the importance of ensuring that scientists are totally independent and do not have the pressure or the worry about having these things happen to them. We all have to live with The Daily Mail, but a phone call from the Home Secretary and then abuse in Parliament.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I think our scientific advisory committees are reasonably insulated from government pressure because they report to the agency and to the agency's board, so I have no discomfort about worrying about whether they are feeling themselves deeply under pressure, and, as to the board, I would expect all my board members to be sufficiently robust to withstand pressure of the sort you describe.

  Professor Gaskell: It has not been an issue for us, and I would agree I would expect and hope, and from the present membership know, there is degree of robustness there, but we have not been challenged in that way. If we were and it did put people off, I think that would be a shame. We have just recruited, and had a large number of applications for, places on the Science Advisory Council. Whether there was a cohort of people who did not apply because they were nervous, I do not know, but that is not the impression we have got.

  Sir Michael Rawlins: I think the members are sufficiently independent that they just would not stand for anything like that. I never tried to put it on them and I would not want to.

  Dr Harris: He apologised for his academic article.

  Q317  Dr Gibson: There is another view that we have not touched on, this independence thing has taken over the conversation, but is it not naive or arrogant of scientists to think they are independent of the political process? Perhaps they are not dependent on that pressure from Prime Ministers and being told what to do, but when they come into this job and take on the advisory role they are interacting in a social environment and they must know there is going to be political pressure at some level. Even within the same committee people have divergent views, and you have admitted that yourself, so they cannot be naive about this. It is silly to think of being independent outside this big world because you are part of it and when you take the job on you have to realise you have to swim with the current or swim against it.

  Professor Gaskell: As with all the decisions we make there is undoubtedly an element of pragmatism and, therefore, while challenge is proper, unreasonable challenge is improper. Most of our committee, and the others can speak for their own, is drawn from academia. One can scoff at it, but the element of academic freedom and the culture in which academics exist does give them a premise of independence and they are using that in their advice to Government leavened with pragmatism.

  Dr Gibson: Until they are looking for a grant from a business!

  Chairman: We will not move into that. We will leave that hovering in the air.

  Q318  Graham Stringer: There is an alphabet soup of quangos and non-departmental public bodies and non-ministerial departments giving scientific advice to Government. Are there too many bodies giving advice to Government, not enough or is it a Goldilocks situation, it is just about right?

  Professor Gaskell: In the context of Defra that is an interesting question and one we have just asked. At our next meeting we will be reviewing the alphabet soup of advisory bodies that are available to Defra and we will be looking at that. Against that, certainly for the Department with its history in MAFF, it was and is important for Defra to be seen to be using external advice and external advisory bodies and not, as it was sometimes criticised for, thinking it had all the answers and all the expertise needed within the Department.

  Dame Deirdre Hutton: I sense no appetite in government departments for taking back the role of food safety. On the whole, I think they are very happy that it is done at arm's length. There are other smaller NDPBs, or whatever they are, that can be incorporated, and post the Hampton Review there was a degree of incorporation. For example, we took over the Wine Standards Board, which seemed entirely sensible.

  Sir Michael Rawlins: I have never scoped the landscape, but I would hate to see a situation where we merged food and drugs like the Americans have into one massive bureaucracy.

  Chairman: On that note, can we thank Dame Deirdre Hutton, Professor Chris Gaskell and Sir Michael Rawlins. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence this morning.





 
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