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


3  The operation and application of the principles

26. It may be possible to devise comprehensive and impressive principles which government and members of scientific advisory committees can support but they will serve no purpose if the parties do not hold to them. In our view there are two prerequisites to the effective operation of the principles.

27. First, they need broad agreement, not just between the Government and scientists but also across the parties in the House. We therefore recommend that the Government put the agreed principles and the supporting protocols before the House for endorsement.

28. In this Report we do not examine the dismissal of Professor Nutt in detail but we consider that his case highlights a critical issue: the withholding and enforcement of the principles. In our view it is critical that the principles promulgated by the Government are fully implemented in the working arrangements of the Government and scientific advisory committees. We therefore recommend that, once a set of principles have been agreed, the Government:

a)  issue a statement setting out how the principles will be upheld and enforced and how disputes about their interpretation and applicability resolved;

b)  ensure that in their review of the Guidelines that it fully supports and implements the principles;

c)  ensure that the Code of Practice makes reference to the principles and is consistent with them; and

d)  consider incorporating relevant aspects of the principles into the Ministerial Code.

29. The circumstances leading up to Professor Nutt's dismissal highlight a number of issues that the principles and the arrangements underpinning them will need to address. We cite three areas: (1) the arrangements for obtaining definitive advice about the applicability of the principles in particular circumstances; (2) the role of, and duties placed on, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers in upholding and advising on the principles; and (3) the dismissal of a member of a scientific advisory committee.

Advice on the interpretation of the principles

30. For the principles to operate satisfactorily we consider that the Government needs to establish arrangements to allow members of scientific advisory committees and also those whom they advise to obtain consistent and clear advice on the interpretation and applicability of the principles. To enhance the independence of scientific advisory committees, the provision for this advice should be removed from departments and, to ensure consistency, there should be one source for the advice on the principles. We conclude that the Government Office for Science should be given responsibility for advising members of scientific advisory committees, government departments and ministers they advise on the interpretation and applicability of the principles.

Dealing with disputes

31. For the new arrangements to work they need to be capable of resolving disputes which will inevitably arise. The current review of the Guidelines needs to invite views on the arrangements which the Government should put in place to resolve disputes. We consider that the Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers and ultimately the Government Chief Scientific Adviser could be given responsibility for ensuring that the Government upholds the principles and should have a responsibility for dealing with disputes between the Government and members of scientific advisory committees. We recommend that in reviewing the Guidelines the Government bring forward arrangements for resolving disputes between members of scientific advisory committees and government departments and ministers.

Dismissal of members of scientific advisory committees

32. We recognise that the Government has the right to dismiss members of scientific advisory committees—for example, for failure, for no good reason, to attend meetings. We further accept that breaching the principles or the Code of Practice are grounds for dismissal. But the dismissal of Professor Nutt highlighted a problem. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering said in its memorandum to us:

When the Home Secretary removed Professor Nutt from the ACMD he established a new precedent that scientific advisers can be summarily dismissed by ministers. Both the Principles document and the Code of Conduct for Scientific Advisory Committees need to have a statement that gives clarity to ministers and advisers about how and why an adviser can be removed from their position. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser must be consulted prior to a scientific adviser being dismissed from their position by a minister.[28]

[…] The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) has a critical role in ensuring that the ministers appreciate and adhere to the guidelines, codes and principles that govern the scientific advisory system. At the bottom of the Principles document should be the GCSA's name and number. The GCSA should be consulted by ministers when there are issues with science and engineering advice in government. The GCSA should take a more active role when there are issues between ministers and scientific advisers, especially if a minister wants to dismiss a scientific adviser.[29]

33. We consider that, where breach of the principles or the Code of Practice are being cited as grounds for dismissal, there needs to be procedures in place, to assess and judge the alleged breach. In our view it should be the responsibility of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser to assess and report on alleged breaches of the principles and Code by members of scientific advisory committees. We recommend that in its review of the Guidelines the Government bring forward arrangements governing the dismissal of a member of a scientific advisory committee for breach of the principles or the Code of Practice.

Rejection of a scientific advisory committee's advice

34. We have commented previously and reiterated above (see paragraph 23) that the Government should be free to reject the advice of its scientific advisory committees on the grounds that scientific evidence is only one factor that policy makers have to consider.[30] Where, however, the Government rejects the scientific advice itself, that is a different order or rejection which would cast doubt on the competence and purpose of a scientific advisory committee.

35. In the light of the representations we received on the dismissal of Professor Nutt and our consideration of the case, we conclude that in any case where the Government in formulating policy rejects expert scientific advice from a scientific advisory committee there needs to be arrangements that both the Government and the scientific advisory committees follow. To some extent these arrangements are set out under principle 3 (proper consideration of advice) in the 6 November statement but we consider that the arrangements need to be set out in more detail. We recommend that, where the Government rejects the advice of expert advisory committees, it makes clear in writing to the chairman what part of the advice it is rejecting: scientific advice or other kinds of expert advice. Regarding scientific advice, the Government should only reject an expert committee's assessment of the scientific evidence in exceptional circumstances, and in these circumstances its reasons should be clearly laid out.

Press Office

36. The Code of Practice stipulates that "Scientific advisory committees should decide on who should represent them to the media e.g. departmental press officer, independent press officer".[31] In effect, this means that scientific advisory committees have at their disposal two options: using their home department's press office or using an independent press office, like the Science Media Centre.

37. In Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, we identified the ACMD and Home Office as an example where a scientific advisory committee being represented by a departmental press office had proven problematic.[32] We did not suggest that this example was representative of all the scientific advisory committees' experiences, but used it as an example of potential problems. We are assured that there are other examples where representation by the home department has been problematic, but the speed with which we have published this Report has not made it possible to corroborate these claims.[33]

38. The second option, an independent press office, which is suggested in the principles, may be problematic too. We have received evidence from the Health Protection Agency and the Wellcome Trust that an independent press office is "probably unnecessary"[34] and would not be "an appropriate use of resource".[35] It would certainly be expensive to set up a permanent independent—i.e. outside government—press office for scientific advisory committees, or even to provide additional resource to an existing independent press office, like the Science Media Centre, to enable it to take on the additional work load.

39. It was for these reasons that we recommended that a small press office be set up within the Government Office for Science, to serve the press needs of GO-Science and all the scientific advisory committees across Government.[36] This recommendation was a half-way house between an independent press office (that is independent of government) and a departmental press office. A press office in GO-Science would still be a government press office requiring little additional resource, but it would be free of direct departmental control. It would also have the added benefit of strengthening the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and GO-Science as the common point of contact for all scientific advisory committees.

40. We reiterate the recommendation we made earlier this year that a small press office be set up within the Government Office for Science, to serve the press needs of GO-Science and all the scientific advisory committees across Government.


28   PR 16, para 9 Back

29   PR 16, para 10 Back

30   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 69 Back

31   Government Office for Science, Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, 2007, p 25 Back

32   HC (2008-09) 168-I, paras 85-86 Back

33   PR 15 [Sense About Science], para 4 Back

34   PR 19 [HRA]  Back

35   PR 06 [Wellcome Trust], para 8 Back

36   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 86 Back


 
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Prepared 14 December 2009