The Government's review of the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government - Science and Technology Contents


1  Introduction


1. This short report has been written in response to the Government's announcement that it would consider and issue, by the end of December 2009, a set of principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government ("the Government review"). The Government's decision to consider and issue a set of principles follows the dismissal by the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, of Professor David Nutt as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Following his dismissal we wrote to Professor Nutt, the Home Secretary, Professor Paul Wiles, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Home Office, and Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), to request memoranda on the dismissal of Professor Nutt on 30 October 2009; their memoranda[1] are appended to this Report and published as a separate volume as is a subsequent letter from Professor Nutt.[2]

2. This Government has invested considerable time and energy into improving the mechanisms by which scientific advice is fed through into policy. Former GCSA, Sir David King, set the ambitious goal of every government department having a Chief Scientific Adviser. Under Professor Beddington's tenure that has been realised, with the exception of the Treasury. The Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) system also has grown and there are now nearly 80 scientific advisory committees, including a number that advise government departments as a whole, rather than on single policy areas. Lord Drayson has been a very strong advocate for science in government, setting up the first Cabinet Committee on science and innovation, and becoming the first Science Minister to attend Cabinet. He is now working to develop the role of departmental Chief Technology Officers and is leading the Government review, which is the topic of this report. We welcome the Government's success in improving the mechanisms by which scientific advice can be fed through into policy. The network of Chief Scientific Advisers and scientific advisory committees has the potential to strengthen the UK's ability to make policy decisions that are based on the best available evidence and to make the UK Government's science advisory system an international exemplar.

3. This Report sets out our conclusions and recommendations on the content and scope of the principles that should apply to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government ("the principles") and on the arrangements for implementing the principles. In drafting this Report we have concentrated on the provision of independent scientific advice from scientific advisory committees.

4. We have taken scientific advice to include any evidence-based expert advice. We note the comments made by Dr Fiona Measham:

I am a criminologist rather than a chemist or pharmacologist. My specialist field is patterns of drug use, prevalence, motivations, consequences and policy implications. I would argue that in my field there is no neat division between science and politics. I cannot look at changing trends without looking at and providing a critique of changes in legislation, policing and enforcement[…] I think the position of a social scientist is particularly vulnerable to accusations of straying over the line from academia into politics.[3]

We consider that the principles should clearly cover evidence-based expert advice, including social science and statistics.

Background

5. The relationship between the Government and science advisers is codified by two documents. The Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees ("the Code of Practice") is for the use of scientific advisory committees and councils, their chairs, members and secretariats. It provides guidance "on the operation of scientific advisory committees and their relationship with government".[4] The way in which government departments obtain and use scientific advice is addressed in the Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making ("the Guidelines").[5] The Guidelines are currently under review by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

6. Following the dismissal of Professor Nutt, senior scientists and scientific advisers raised concerns about the Government's treatment of scientific advice and advisers. Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society, and other leading scientists issued a statement on 6 November 2009 ("6 November statement") "to enhance confidence in the scientific advisory system and help Government secure essential advice".[6] The statement contained three "Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice": (1) academic freedom; (2) independence of operation; and (3) proper consideration of advice.
Statement of Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice

Below is the statement of principles in full. The full text as published on the website of Sense About Science is at Annex 1.

1 Academic Freedom

·  Becoming a member of an independent advisory committee does not reduce the freedom of an adviser to communicate publicly, whether via scholarly publishing and conferences, through the general media or to parliament, subject to the restrictions in existing Codes of Practice, notably:

·  respecting confidentiality

·  not claiming to speak for the Government, and

·  making clear whether they are communicating on behalf of their committees

2 Independence of Operation

·  Independent scientific advisory bodies are protected from political and other interference in their work

·  In the context of independent scientific advice, disagreement with Government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees cannot be grounds for criticism or dismissal

·  Advisory committees need the service of an independent press office

3 Proper Consideration of Advice

·  Reports will normally be published and will not be criticised or rejected prior to publication

·  If the Government is minded to reject a recommendation, the relevant scientific advisory committee will normally be invited to comment privately before a final decision is made

·  It is recognised that some policy decisions are contingent on factors other than the scientific evidence, but when expert scientific advice is rejected the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly

·  The advice of expert committees does not cease to be valid merely because it is rejected or not reflected in policy-making.

7. The principles were drafted following several days of intense discussion across the scientific community and, according to Sense About Science, they "have attracted the support of a number of Chairs and other members of independent Scientific Advisory Committees" and they were "transmitted to Government for a response".[7]

8. On 23 November 2009 Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, said:

I am currently working with the Government's chief scientific adviser, colleagues across government and the wider scientific community to develop a set of principles to underpin the relationship between the Government and independent scientific advisers. […T]he particular circumstances in the case of Professor Nutt caused concern in certain parts of the scientific community. That is why it is so important for the Government to reiterate the importance of the independence of scientific advice, and to have clarity between the scientific community and the Government on the rules of engagement between the two. We regard the set of principles that have been proposed as an excellent starting point to look at this matter further and why we are consulting widely. We take this matter very seriously indeed.[8]

It is absolutely the case that the Government recognise the central importance of the independence of scientific advice, and where that advice is taken. If the Government decide to go against that advice, and unless there are grounds, say, in the case of national security, they should explain why they have come to a different conclusion. That is one of principles proposed and it is an aspect on which we are consulting further.[9]

The majority of the [6 November] principles are already enshrined in the code of practice which scientific advisers adhere to when providing advice to the Government[…] We believe that the principles provide an excellent framework. They again set out some important pillars that underpin the relationship between science and government, but we believe that they need to be taken further. That is why we are working on consultation and will be making a statement on those principles before Christmas.[10]

9. We welcome Lord Drayson's commitment to resolve the concerns. It is important however, that the principles that emerge from the Government review will become part not only of the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, but more importantly of the Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making and of the Ministerial Code. We consider that it is of equal importance that scientists offer expert advice and ministers respond to that advice in accordance with clearly defined protocols.

10. In the limited time available we decided to issue a call for written submissions seeking views on the principles in the 6 November statement and on the principles that should apply to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government. The submissions we received are appended to this Report.[11] We are grateful to all those who have replied to our call for evidence. They include four former or current members of the ACMD.[12]

Previous reports

11. The Committee has commented on the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government and the role and structures of science advisory councils in its previous reports and we set out at Annexes 2 and 3 to this Report the conclusions and recommendations that we consider to be most relevant to the Government's deliberations. We also include in the Annexes the Government's direct responses to these conclusions and recommendations. The Reports are:

a)  at Annex 2, the November 2006 Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making[13] and the Government's response;[14] and

b)  at Annex 3, the July 2009 Report of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy[15] and the Government's response.[16]

12. We would, however, commend the Reports in their entirety to the Government during its deliberations on the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government.

This report

13. We have divided our report into three sections:

a)  our conclusions and recommendations on the principles in the 6 November statement themselves at chapter 2;

b)  our conclusions and recommendations on the wider context of the operation and application of the principles at chapter 3; and

c)  wider issues at chapter 4.

Chapter 5 contains our general conclusions.


1   PR Letters 1-4 Back

2   PR Letter 1a Back

3   PR 12, paras 2-3 Back

4   Government Office for Science, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, 2007, p 2 Back

5   HM Government, Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making, 2005 Back

6   "Call for scientific advisers to be free from political interference", The Guardian, 6 November 2009 Back

7   www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/421 Back

8   HL Deb, 23 November 2009, col 127 Back

9   HL Deb, 23 November 2009, col 128 Back

10   As above Back

11   PR 01-20 Back

12   PR 03 [Dr Ragan], PR 08 [Professor Iversen], PR 12 [Dr Measham] and PR 17 [Professor Nutt] Back

13   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of 2005-06 Session, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, HC 900 Back

14   Science and Technology Committee, First Special Report of 2006-07 Session, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making: Government Response to the Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, HC 307 Back

15   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Eighth Report of 2008-09 Session, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, HC 168-I Back

16   Science and Technology Committee, Ninth Special Report of 2006-07 Session, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy: Government Response to the Innovation, Science and Skills Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, HC 1036 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 14 December 2009