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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 20-39)


24 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q20  Ian Stewart: I am a process person. This is a matter of power. Notwithstanding natural justice, agreed procedures, law, is the power to dismiss a shared power between somebody in the Chief Scientific Adviser's position and the minister or does the power lie with the minister?

  Professor Beddington: Very clearly I have no power on that. My power, such as it is, is as an adviser, but it would be reasonable to actually pose the question in a situation where I provided advice to a minister but I did not believe, for example, that the basis on which he believed trust had gone down constituted in my view a reasonable basis for that decision, then I would provide that advice to the minister and it would be available for him under appropriate rules of availability. As you well know, I am prepared to write to ministers and indicate what my advice is and although I would not determine it and the minister has the judgment, the judgment would be in the light of my advice, which may be against that.

  Q21  Ian Stewart: The power lies with the minister.

  Professor Beddington: Absolutely. I am an adviser not an executive.

  Chairman: Can I again urge the Committee that we are terribly tight on time and ask our witnesses to be as brief as possible but as clear as possible.

  Q22  Dr Naysmith: Lord Drayson, in the original proposal for a set of principles one of the headings was "Academic Freedom" and yet when the Government's draft proposal went out for consultation academic freedom had disappeared. What happened to it in the draft version?

  Lord Drayson: The Government's draft of principles was as a result of a process within the whole of government. It was very much a first draft, put out for consultation, and the objective was to get a clear sense, both within government and within the community, of what would do an effective job of setting out these rules of engagement. The fact that "academic freedom" as a phrase is not in there was because the point that was made in relation to the original draft was that it was not just about the freedom of academics, it was the freedom of all advisers—some of the members of the committees are not academics. However, we recognise that not having the phrase "academic freedom" specifically is something which has been raised as a concern by the academics and, therefore, that phrase we do expect to see back in the document.

  Q23  Dr Naysmith: That is a very good answer; we would be very pleased with that. The role of independent unpaid scientific advisers and government paid advisers has sometimes been conflated in various ways, sometimes by some key individuals. Do you agree that the code of conduct should differentiate clearly between these two sets of advisers and what can you do or what have you done to try and explain to people outside just what the difference is?

  Professor Beddington: As you are aware I had a consultation out on these procedures and that ended on the 9th; we are synthesising the evidence at the moment. The idea is that when the principles are published—and the intention is to publish them relatively soon and they would then subsequently be incorporated as part of the guidelines—there will be some preamble text in the principles which will reflect the differences between people like myself or chief scientific advisers or paid advisers and those advisers who are unpaid and are members of those advisory committees.

  Q24  Dr Naysmith: Are you clear about the differences between the two?

  Professor Beddington: I think so. There are different obligations, contractual ones, where an adviser has been commissioned to do a piece of work which will be different to those that would apply to unpaid advisers from a scientific committee. Similarly, those chief scientific advisers who are employed as civil servants have different obligations from those who are unpaid and do not have those. We will make a distinction and I think we will try to bring those details of that distinction out in the guidelines, but it is work in progress.

  Q25  Mr Boswell: It is self-evident if they all have professional obligations.

  Professor Beddington: Of course, yes.

  Q26  Dr Naysmith: What are the limits on what independent science advisory council members or chairs can say in public regarding government policy where it overlaps with their professional role? Is it easy for them to differentiate between the two?

  Professor Beddington: The key thing here is that they first of all clarify that that advice and their scientific views are done in their role as an independent scientist or academic, and then I see no limit. The appropriate issue is not whether in fact advice has been accepted by government but, in fact, the necessity of academic freedom is that they should be allowed to specify exactly what their advice is and what their views of a scientific situation is, so I see there is no basis for a constraint on that. However, what is absolutely important is that they should put it into context and indicate in what role they are making that comment.

  Q27  Dr Naysmith: Why have you included a requirement for advisers, when they speak in public, to declare in what capacity they are speaking? Is that not already covered in the code of practice?

  Professor Beddington: It is indeed.

  Q28  Dr Naysmith: Why does it have to be there?

  Professor Beddington: It is already covered, but the point about these principles is we are trying to encapsulate something. The guidelines are a substantial document, having these principles, which will arguably go over two pages, and will encapsulate these freedoms and these responsibilities.

  Q29  Dr Naysmith: Are you quite happy with all these questions, Lord Drayson?

  Lord Drayson: Yes. The idea behind the principles is, in a sense, a sort of Hippocratic Oath which can be almost memorised because it is so clear and short but has within it all those elements which are fundamental to this working well.

  Q30  Mr Boswell: They do not diverge from the guidelines at all, they encapsulate the guidelines.

  Lord Drayson: They are the underpinning bedrock of those guidelines, absolutely.

  Professor Beddington: The guidelines, if I may, Mr Boswell, will elaborate a lot of detail which will not be in the principles, so people will say "What if?" and we hope the guidelines will answer those questions.

  Q31  Mr Boswell: The guidelines will be drawn explicitly from the principles.

  Professor Beddington: That is right, yes. We would expect and we will try to ensure that the guidelines are completely compatible with the principles, and vice versa.

  Q32  Chairman: Can I ask you as a rider to this that if, in fact, I, as the chairman of an advisory committee, will be making a speech in my professional capacity which by definition will be critical of government policy—because it goes contrary to what government policy is—I go and I ask for clearance, I make it clear I am speaking, would I be stopped from speaking?

  Professor Beddington: I would be very surprised if you were. This seems to me to be a very unlikely event. I have not encountered it, nobody has ever raised it with me and I would think it would probably go against the principles, so I would expect it not to happen.

  Q33  Chairman: Provided under the code that ministers are informed or their offices are informed that such a speech is being made, you can then make a speech which is highly critical of government policy provided it is done in your professional capacity rather than as someone who is merely commenting on elements of a policy?

  Professor Beddington: Yes.

  Q34  Chairman: You are agreeing to that.

  Professor Beddington: Yes, very much so.

  Q35  Chairman: That is an important distinction, is it not?

  Professor Beddington: The only caveat I would make, Chairman, is that it would depend on the content of the speech, but it would need to be based on evidence and on opinion in the professional way.

  Q36  Chairman: Yes. If I do some research in a particular area and my findings are totally against what the Government's policy is, there is nothing to stop me doing that.

  Professor Beddington: No, I see no reason.

  Q37  Dr Naysmith: It is interesting that one of the select committees I attended was one of the Health Select Committees where Liam Donaldson announced to the Committee that he was in favour of banning smoking in public places, totally against what the minister was about to introduce. He said he considered resignation, but he was not sacked for pointing it out in the minister's presence.

  Professor Beddington: He has done so subsequently too on alcohol.

  Q38  Dr Iddon: The last bullet point under the "Trust and Respect" section, one of the principles says this: "The Government and its scientific advisers should work together to reach a shared position and neither should act to undermine mutual trust". I would like to ask you first of all, gentlemen, where that notion of shared position between ministers and independent scientific advisers came from.

  Professor Beddington: My comment on this is that I do not think that is appropriately drafted. The issue of mutual trust should be taken separately from a shared position and in terms of all the commentary I have had and in my own views I do not think a shared position is remotely appropriate in this context.

  Q39  Dr Iddon: Lord Drayson, do you agree with that?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, I do.

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