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

Annex 3: Report of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy

Committee has commented on the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice provided to government in the Report of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy.[40] The conclusions and recommendations which the Committee considers to be most relevant are set out below.

Science Advisory Councils/Committees

SAC members should not be criticised for publishing scientific papers or making statements as professionals, independent of their role as Government advisers. (Paragraph 64)

Government response:

The Government agrees that the independence of science advisers is critical. It was precisely for this reason that the GCSA wrote to then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to express concern over her criticism, in Parliament, of Professor Nutt (Chairman of ACMD) with regard to an article he published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Since the then-Home Secretary's criticism of Professor Nutt, at least one SA Council, DefraSAC, has recruited a number of new members. As Professor Gaskell (Chair of DefraSAC) informed the Committee, applications were received from a large number of high calibre candidates.

The Government is not complacent, however, and as part of its annual monitoring of the health and functioning of SACs, all SACs, and their sponsor Chief Scientific Adviser, have been asked to report on succession planning and issues faced or identified in recruiting new members. Responses to this year's exercise are currently being collated and will be considered at the December meeting of the Chief Scientific Advisers Committee. The Government would be happy to report the findings of this exercise to the Committee.

It is important to safeguard the independence of the advisory system. In situations where the independence of a SAC chairman or member is or might be threatened for political reasons, support should be offered by the DCSA and/or the GCSA. (Paragraph 67)

We welcome the steps taken by the GCSA to deal with one incident that occurred between the Chairman of the ACMD and the Home Secretary. Further steps that should have been taken are: (1) the GSCA should have written or spoken to the Chairman of the ACMD, letting him know that support was being provided; (2) the correspondence between the GCSA and the Home Secretary should have been published immediately so that other SAC Chairmen and the public (including the science community) could see that support was being offered; and (3) the GCSA should have provided public support for the Chairman of the ACMD and for his right to publish. (Paragraph 68)

Government response:

The Government is committed to the provision of independent scientific advice, and to supporting the mechanisms and structures by which this advice is delivered. This is evidenced by its ongoing work to embed science and engineering advice in policy-making processes across government (through the appointment of CSAs and establishment of SA Councils, for example).

The Committee can be assured that the GCSA will take steps to support SAC Chairs and SAC members should he believe that their independence is being impinged upon. The Government does not, however consider it likely that instances of this occurring will be widespread or accept that the GCSA should routinely publish correspondence with SAC chairs, SAC members or Ministers. On the issue of public support, the GCSA will decide on the most effective action for dealing with any discord between the advice offered by SACs and the development of government policy.

The Government should seek specialist advice prior to making policy decisions, early in the policy-making process. Clearly the Government should be free to reject the advice of its SACs, 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 SAC, it should make clear its reasons for doing so. (Paragraph 69)

Government response:

The Committee correctly identifies that science (and engineering) evidence is only one of the factors that Ministers take into account when reaching a policy decision. As outlined in the Government's response to Recommendation 6 of this report, the Government has a long-held view that the evidence-base for any policy decision should be made publicly available and that, when the decision runs contrary to independent advice received (irrespective of the advisory structure), the reasons for rejecting this advice be outlined.

Guidance on when to seek expert science and engineering advice, and to publish this advice, is provided in the Government's Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy-making. The Government is currently acting to update this document and will be launching a public consultation on the guidelines later this year. The Government would welcome consultation input from the Committee.

We conclude that there would be value in being clear in the Code of Practice as to what 'independence' means. Members of Science Advisory Committees are likely to represent the views of their constituencies; what is important is that they have no conflict of interest with Government. Therefore, in the case of Science Advisory Committees, 'independence' should mean 'independence from Government'. (Paragraph 73)

Government response:

The Government agrees that when used in relation to SACs, 'independence' should mean independent of government. This is reflected in the current version of the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees which states that: 'committee's advice […] should be seen as independent of government'.

The Government will ensure that the independence of SACs from government is clearly reflected in the updated Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy-making.

We can see the logic and agree that it is important that SAC advice should be presented to Ministers in advance of publication, giving them sufficient time to consider a response. However, it is also clear that SAC advice should, when it is given to Ministers, be final advice, and not a launching pad for debate. On this basis, we recommend that the process of SACs providing evidence to Ministers should be as transparent as possible. SAC evidence that is presented to Ministers should subsequently be published in unaltered form, along with the date on which the evidence was presented to Ministers and the details of any requests for alterations or clarifications of the evidence. (Paragraph 84)

Government response:

It is the longstanding view of Government that all independent advice it receives be made publicly available as a matter of routine. This view is clearly laid out in the Government's Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy-making (see the Government's response to Recommendation 6 of this report), and, as set out below, in the Code of Practice for Science Advisory Committees (CoPSAC):

Advice should normally be made public by the scientific advisory committee at the time it is given or as soon as reasonably practicable thereafter. Where there are circumstances which justify giving advice in private, committees should consider whether the advice could be made public after a suitable time interval has passed. If so, they should publish the advice as soon as is reasonably practicable. Reasons for privacy should be consistent with the principles of Freedom of Information legislation [page 21].

We recommend 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 Science Advisory Committees across Government. (Paragraph 86)

Government response:

GO-Science receives press office support from BIS, with the GCSA and GO-Science being served by a dedicated press officer. BIS press office and GO-Science are soon to be colocated, and the Government does not consider a separate GO-Science press office to be warranted.

It is the Government's view that there is not a 'one size fits all' approach to be taken to the provision of media support to SACs. In general, SACs receive press office support from their sponsor department. Government departments and SACs have close working relationships, and the provision of press office support to SACs by their sponsor department is not contentious.

On the rare occasion that a SAC has requested independent media support this has been arranged. The Government is therefore of the view that, as is current practice, the precise nature of support required by a SAC should be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

40   HC (2008-09) 168 Back

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