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

2  The content and terms of the principles

14. There was support from those who responded to our call for submissions on the terms of the principles, ranging from clear support[17] to those who considered that they formed the starting point for the formulation of a more considered statement of principles.[18] As we explain below the three principles in the 6 November statement are in step with the conclusions and recommendations that we made in our previous Reports and which we set out at Annexes 2 and 3. We endorse and support the three broad principles set out in the 6 November statement applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government: (1) academic freedom; (2) independence of operation; and (3) proper consideration of advice.

15. In the light of the submissions we have received we consider that the broad principles in the 6 November statement need some elaboration and refinement.

16. We are considering the recommendations in isolation, but it should be kept in mind that they should eventually be incorporated into the Guidelines, the Code of Practice and Ministerial Code.

Principle 1: Academic freedom

17. In its submission to us the Institute of Food Science and Technology made the point that:

Government must […] recognise and accept the principle of academic freedom. If scientists have given of their time and expertise, and their advice is not acted upon, they must remain free to express their views, based on their scientific expertise and assessment.[19]

The Academy of Medical Sciences also made the point that

There is now an increasing expectation upon scientists that they will take their work into public forums, as demonstrated by the inclusion of these activities in the 'Impact' criteria of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's recent Research Excellence Framework proposals for assessing the quality of UK academic research. It is vital that scientists do not feel that a government advisory role will compromise their freedom to continue active research and to communicate their work.[20]

18. It is important to recognise that many scientists would give a higher priority to their right to publish freely than the opportunity to advise Government and that without assurances on academic freedom there is a risk of finding that scientists do not come forward to fill positions on advisory committees. As we made clear in our recent Report, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, "the Government should seek specialist advice prior to making policy decisions, early in the policy-making process".[21] It is essential that the Government continues to have access to this advice and that minimal restraint is placed on the academic freedom of those willing to serve, for no remuneration, on scientific advisory committees. In our view Government should include in the revised statement of principles a commitment by the Government to uphold and protect the academic freedom of those providing scientific advice to government and an explicit and clear recognition that experts can comment on government policy.

19. We consider that the 6 November statement of principles strikes a good balance by placing the minimum necessary restrictions on a person serving on a scientific advisory committee speaking publicly on government policy, that is that the person should respect confidentiality, not claim to speak for the Government and should make it clear whether he or she is communicating on behalf of his or her committee.

Principle 2: Independence of operation

20. Similarly, in Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, we considered it critical that scientific advisory committees were independent and were seen to be so.[22] In our view this principle needs to be set out in the Government's statement of principles. We recommend that the Government's statement of principles state clearly that scientific advisory committees are independent from government.

Principle 3: Proper consideration of advice

21. We start from the position as summarised by the Institute of Food Science and Technology that "policy-making should be evidence-based and, therefore, if the issue is one which requires independent scientists to assess the scientific evidence in the light of current knowledge, and to provide advice based on such assessments, then it should usually be expected that the advice would be accepted after consultation with interested parties."[23]

22. In his memorandum to us Professor Iversen, a member of the ACMD, made the point that the Government appeared to have pre-judged some matters before the ACMD had stated its views.[24] Such a state of affairs would be reprehensible and would undermine the rationale of providing independent scientific advice to Government. We consider that the principles must ensure that proper consideration is given by the Government to the advice of scientific advisory committees. We recommend that the Government's statement of principles contain a commitment that the Government will not prejudge the work of scientific advisory committees and will give proper consideration to scientific advice from committees.

23. We explained in Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy that the Government should be free to reject the advice of its scientific advisory committees, "since scientific evidence is only one factor—albeit a very important one—in policy decisions: Advisers advise, Ministers decide. However, when the Government does take a different policy decision to that recommended by a [scientific advisory committee], it should make clear its reasons for doing so".[25] In its submission to us the Wellcome Trust pointed out that the Council of Science and Technology had recognised that

policy decisions involve difficult choices that need to take account of a very wide range of factors. Academics must recognise that where a particular view does not prevail, or where decisions are taken for political reasons, this does not mean the academic input was not valued.[26]

We agree with this point. We consider that the definition of the principle on the proper consideration of advice should include recognition that the Government can reject the advice of a scientific advisory committee but should explain why it chose not to follow the advice.

24. The Wellcome Trust also made the point that that the requirement in principle 3 that "Reports will not be criticised or rejected prior to publication" needed clarification to specify that it refers to criticism or rejection by Government alone.[27] We agree. We recommend that requirement in principle 3 that "Reports will not be criticised or rejected prior to publication" be clarified to specify that it refers to public criticism or rejection by Government.

Process for agreeing the principles

25. In order to secure broad agreement to the principles, we recommend that once the Government issues a set of principles in December, it should invite all interested parties, including all scientific advisory committees, to comment before they are finalised.

17   For example, PR 02 [The Physiological Society], PR 07 [The Society for Biology], PR 08 [Professor Iversen], PR 09 [Institute of Food Science and Technology], PR 12 [Dr Measham] Back

18   PR 05 [Professor Jones], para 15  Back

19   PR 09, para 7 Back

20   PR 14, para 4 Back

21   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 69 Back

22   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 68; see also para 73. Back

23   PR 09, para 3 Back

24   PR 08, para 2 Back

25   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 69 Back

26   PR 06, para 6 Back

27   PR 06, para 8 Back

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Prepared 14 December 2009