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 40-59)


24 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q40  Dr Iddon: You both agree obviously that if we have that shared position in the principles it runs contrary to the independent advice principle.

  Lord Drayson: It is true to say we do not expect to see that phrase remain in the principles when finally presented.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you. I need not ask any more questions, you have shot my questions down.

  Q41  Chairman: Oh dear, that is terribly disappointing!

  Professor Beddington: I am sorry we agree with you, Dr Iddon.

  Q42  Dr Harris: Lord Drayson, I just want to pick up something that was said in answer to that previous question, that if an academic says "I am speaking from an academic perspective" and they are speaking on their subject, and they let the department know because it overlaps the subject that they are giving advice on, is there an issue about what the content is of that speech? I got the impression—it may have been a mis-speak—that the content of the speech would be important and that suggests that speeches given in an academic capacity would need not only to be pre-notified, which is in the code of practice, but to be pre-cleared. I am not sure that is consistent with academic freedom as I understand it.

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely not, the speech and the comments would not have to be pre-cleared.

  Q43  Dr Harris: As long as that is complied with. You may want to correct that then, Professor Beddington, or I may have misheard.

  Professor Beddington: No, I do not disagree.

  Q44  Mr Boswell: What happens if the language is embarrassing? An academic is perfectly entitled to take an academic view on his minister's position, but if this is accompanied with something that could be construed as personal abuse, is that the expression of academic freedom or is it an embarrassment? It begins to lean across into this issue of trust.

  Professor Beddington: It does indeed and that is probably where one needs to actually measure it and think about the evidence. It is the basic right of saying, "Look, these are the scientific results I have got, this is the evidence I have accumulated, this is the evidence I will present". If you go on to say something abusive about the minister then that is a very different matter and it is nothing to do with your academic freedom, and I would argue that that would undermine trust. That is why I believe trust is going to be important.

  Dr Harris: Would it not be better—I know this has been suggested to you—that the reference in this section should refer to professional courtesy, which people understand because that is what they have in universities as well? That is much clearer to understand, is it not, that you behave courteously and politely, as scientists generally do? Politicians do not, but that is asking too much I think, present company excepted.

  Chairman: We have doubts on that.

  Q45  Dr Harris: In order to tackle that point, which I personally think is a fair point, would that not be better language to just make clear that people are expected to behave in their role as an adviser and when they might be reporting as an adviser with professional courtesy? That has been suggested to you, I know, from the responses.

  Professor Beddington: We looked at that and I am not sure that we are minded to include it. The issue is really one which goes slightly wider than the issue of professional courtesy. For example, if we had a scientific adviser or a member of a committee giving a speech and then they associated that speech with, let us say, something rather strident and campaigning, but it was outside their speech, is that professional courtesy or is it not? It is not at all clear, whereas I think the wider catch-all which is more appropriate is actually talking about neither the minister nor the adviser should do anything to undermine mutual trust.

  Q46  Ian Stewart: I spent 20 years as a trade union officer presenting cases at industrial tribunals and in that time I came to understand the basic principles. One of the basic issues that could be raised in tribunal cases to determine whether a dismissal was fair or not was the breaking of the bond of trust. In the various organisations' suggested guidelines, like the organisation Sense about Science and in the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, there is no mention of the words trust or respect. Where did it come from?

  Professor Beddington: You mean why did the principles have trust and respect?

  Q47  Ian Stewart: Yes.

  Professor Beddington: It came from really a concern over what had actually been seen in the case of Professor Nutt where there was a clear breakdown of trust. That is why the Home Secretary chose to act and has clarified that as being a breakdown of trust. We felt that first of all that trust should be reciprocal, there should be trust from the scientific advisory committee in the minister as well as vice versa, and that there should be some principle which indicates that trust is important and undermining the trust in either way is an inappropriate activity. That is where it came from.

  Q48  Ian Stewart: Do not go on because I have other questions which you may have addressed without the question. You have heard me say that the issue of the bond of trust is well established. The issue of respect is a much softer and more difficult concept to deal with in terms of disciplinary procedures. How, for example, do you instruct people to trust or respect each other? How do you instruct an adviser and a minister to respect each other?

  Professor Beddington: That is probably why we need these principles, because they are setting out the basis on which those relationships are governed, and if we have those principles and those govern the relationship between the minister and his or her advisers then that trust should be there.

  Q49  Ian Stewart: Is it then a matter of guidance rather than a contractual obligation?

  Professor Beddington: The way the principles are, as Lord Drayson has characterised them, is they are the principles that should govern the relationships but they are not contractual.

  Q50  Ian Stewart: Like a code of practice is not the law; a code of practice can be used as evidence in tribunals but it is not the law, therefore it becomes guidance. Is that the same status that you are aiming for here?

  Professor Beddington: You are moving me out of my area of expertise, which is scientific advice, to something which is rather more legalistic than I feel comfortable answering, but my understanding, with that caveat, is yes.

  Q51  Ian Stewart: What would you expect to happen—and this is to both of you—when the bond of trust between a minister and an adviser is broken? Could that lead to dismissal?

  Professor Beddington: What we have discussed, and I have answered that in response to Dr Harris's questioning, is that what the principles are likely to contain, and what the first principles that we published before indicated is that where there is a particularly serious breakdown there would be a consultation process. That is really important and it is at that stage of the consultation process that discussion would occur between either the minister and myself or the minister and Lord Drayson, or whoever is Science Minister, on whether that is or is not grounds for dismissal. That would get advice and from the interaction between different ministers there may be a combined conclusion, but that is the process that I envisage.

  Q52  Ian Stewart: Would you like me, Minister, to repeat my question?

  Lord Drayson: No, that is not necessary. It is important that these principles do set out the expectations very clearly of the relationship and the way you have described them as a code of practice which is used in evidence in consideration of a situation which is going wrong is a very fair way of describing this. The fact that it is not legally contractually binding is one of the reasons why it is important for it to be in the Ministerial Code because the Ministerial Code does then add very significant weight to the importance of these principles being adhered to. Therefore, having a process, like in other aspects of the Ministerial Code, whereby if a problem has arisen there is a mechanism by which, firstly, the issue is raised within the Department with the scientific adviser and then is escalated to the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and then with the Science Minister, this is a process which should ensure that only in the most extreme case would we get to a position as you describe. The fact that the advice that the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser would be giving to the minister could then be made subsequently public is also an important aspect of this process of control. That is what is needed; the key to this is transparency and accountability based upon a clear set of rules which are understood and enforced.

  Q53  Ian Stewart: My final question: if these principles are agreed will they be cross-departmental or are they BIS, Science and Technology-specific?

  Lord Drayson: Cross-departmental, the whole of government.

  Q54  Dr Harris: Lord Drayson, do you agree with this assertion: in the context of independent scientific advice disagreement with government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees cannot be grounds for criticism or dismissal by government?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, I agree with that.

  Q55  Dr Harris: Coming to this question of trust, Professor Beddington identifies that he could be the arbiter on some grounds which should at least be his consideration of the evidence, even though they would not be set out in advance. Given that Professor Beddington cannot say at the moment what Professor Nutt did to undermine trust, what do you say to scientists who say, "In every other aspect of my job I know that there is an objective set of criteria, a code of practice, a contract of employment that will guide this and there will not be a presumably unappealable individual who will say, `I am satisfied on the evidence, even though I cannot point to anything, that there has been this behaviour that is sufficient to make the loss of trust by the minister a reasonable one'."? Are you comfortable with that situation and do you think advisers would be?

  Lord Drayson: I recognise, because we have done significant consultation with the scientific community and with advisers and the media who comment on this, that this lack of clarity and definition that you raise is of concern, but I say to the community that these principles aim to be as short and pithy as they can possibly be to be most effective in terms of setting out, as I described it, the so-called Hippocratic Oath. That is the best way I can think about it. They will then be the bedrock of the relationship upon which the CoPSAC and further description can then be defined as appropriate for the particular types of committees as the chairmen of those committees so feel. I do feel that it would be possible to come up with a firm definition of that point to the satisfaction of advisers to ameliorate any concerns in practice.

  Q56  Dr Harris: Because I am asking whether there will be something that is CoPSAC plus, undefined, that could in some circumstances—and Nolan plus because Nolan applies, and the universal ethical code for scientists and CoPSAC, all written down—allow for action to be taken, regardless of who gives advice to the minister, where you cannot point to a breach of any of those three codes?

  Lord Drayson: No. As Ian Stewart says it is an important code of practice which would then be used in evidence, and it is very important that it is seen like that.

  Q57  Dr Harris: There is a specific issue about chairs which I think needs to be picked up. Some have argued that it is especially important that chairs of advisory committees, who have the interaction with the minister, must not be fearful of giving advice that the minister does not want to hear. BSE is all about that.

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely.

  Q58  Dr Harris: If anything, chairs should have more "protection" than others. Are you envisaging having more limits on the academic freedom or freedom to speak as an independent science adviser when the Government has rejected the advice for chairs than anyone else, or do you recognise the need to give them extra protection to ensure that the people who are spokespeople are confident to be able to speak truth to power?

  Lord Drayson: It is very important for all scientific advisers, in particular chairmen of scientific advisory committees, to feel that they have absolute academic freedom and that they can, as you say, speak truth to power.

  Q59  Dr Harris: Is it your hope that when you publish your principles there will be no more resignations from the ACMD? Would it be a blow if those who are left on ACMD—and they are eight short at the moment—feel that their concerns have not been met?

  Lord Drayson: I really hope and expect that the job that we have done collectively—and I am grateful for the inputs that have been made, particularly the inputs that have been made by this Committee, for example, which have been very helpful in our understanding of this—leads to a position whereby we have really come up with something which enables a strong, clear relationship to be maintained between the scientific community and the Government. We have made huge progress over the last 10 or 12 years. There are going to be in the future some very difficult scientific challenges which have to be met and I am optimistic but realistic that these principles will meet the task which was set for us in November last year.

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