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

Annex 2: Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making

The former Science and Technology Committee commented on the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government in its Report, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making.[39] The conclusions and recommendations which the Committee considers to be most relevant are set out below.

Phillips Review

The Committee set out a selection of Lord Phillips' conclusions in Box 1.

Box 1: Some lessons highlighted by the Phillips Review

Departments should retain 'in house' sufficient expertise to ensure that the advice of advisory committees, and the reasoning behind it, can be understood and evaluated.

Government departments must review advice given by advisory committees to ensure that the reasons for it are understood and appear to be sound.

The proceedings of the [scientific advisory] committee should be as open as is compatible with the requirements of confidentiality.

The public should be trusted to respond rationally to openness.

Potential conflicts of interest should not preclude selection of those members otherwise best qualified, but conflicts of interest should be declared and registered.

When giving advice, an advisory committee should make it clear what principles, if any, of risk management are being applied.

Contingency planning is a vital part of government. The existence of advisory committees is not an alternative to this. The advisory committees should, where their advice will be of value, be asked to assist in contingency planning.

When a precautionary measure is introduced, rigorous thought must be given to every aspect of its operation with a view to ensuring that it is watertight.

It is not always clear in practice where responsibility rests as between ministers, officials and advisory committees for advising, determining policy and taking key decisions on medicines. This should be clarified, so as to ensure that important policy decisions are taken by, or approved by, ministers, whether those decisions are to take action or to take no action.

The progress of research and the implications of any new developments must be kept under continuous and open review.

External sources of advice

DEFRA's decision to introduce an independent Scientific Advisory Council to support the work of the departmental CSA is sensible and should be emulated by other departments. It is critical that these Advisory Councils are independent and are seen to be so. (Paragraph 68)

Government response:

Accept in principle. This is a matter for individual departments and their DCSAs in the light of their particular situations. However the use of independent, high quality scientific advice and challenge to departments through SACs, both in specific areas and department-wide, are in many cases important means of helping the DCSA carry out his or her role effectively. CSAC will review and discuss the use of SACs across Government during 2007, to promote best practice.

Wherever possible, the secretariat of scientific advisory committees should include secondees from appropriate scientific establishments, to both enhance the specialist knowledge within the secretariat and safeguard its independence. (Paragraph 69)

Government response:

The Government welcomes secondments to SAC secretariats to provide specialist knowledge. OSI recently hosted a workshop for secretariats of SACs, aimed at networking and sharing best practice. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) Secretariat has set up a cross-departmental networking group for SAC secretariats. The membership of this group has doubled in two years.

We recommend that the revised Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees provide explicit guidance on how the performance of these committees should be monitored. It should give departmental CSAs clear responsibility for overseeing the performance of scientific advisory committees sponsored by their Department and advise them to commission light-touch independent reviews every five years to ensure that committees are functioning as required and to identify innovations in working practices that could usefully be applied by other committees. (Paragraph 72)

No specific response.

Evidence Based Policy

We applaud Sir David King's efforts to integrate fully science into an evidence based approach. Government should also be clear when policy is not evidence-based, or when evidence represents only a weak consideration in the process, relative to other factors. [...] Where there is an absence of evidence, or even when the Government is knowingly contradicting the evidence—maybe for very good reason—this should be openly acknowledged. (Paragraph 89)

No specific response.

We agree that ministerial decisions need to take into account factors other than evidence, but this is not reflected in the Government's oft-repeated assertion that it is committed to pursuing an evidence based approach to policy making. We have detected little evidence of an appetite for open departure from the mantra of evidence based policy making. It would be more honest and accurate to acknowledge the fact that while evidence plays a key role in informing policy, decisions are ultimately based on a number of factors—including political expediency. Where policy decisions are based on other such factors and do not flow from the evidence or scientific advice, this should be made clear. (Paragraph 90)

No specific response.

39   HC (2005-06) 900 Back

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