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 60-79)


24 FEBRUARY 2010

  Q60  Dr Harris: They will have to because it would be a disaster, would it not, to have more resignations from the ACMD when you publish these principles?

  Lord Drayson: The sense that I get from the consultations we have had, the responses to the draft, is that I am right to be optimistic that this will do the job. I am not getting a sense that people are unhappy with the process that I am following, and when I publish these principles—this is a most important point—I will be publishing these on behalf of the Government, under collective responsibility. I am signing them off as Science Minister and binding the Government to this in doing so.

  Q61  Dr Harris: Non-disclosure agreements. It was suggested by Sense About Science and CaSE that "Any requirement for independent advisers to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements, for example for reasons of national security, should be confined to specific areas of committee work, objectively justified, publicly acknowledged and regularly reviewed." What is there in that to object to if it is a concern of science advisers?

  Professor Beddington: If I may, Dr Harris, I can answer that or at least provide some information. I raised this issue which Sense About Science had raised with us about non-disclosure agreements at the meeting I had with the science advisory committee chairs on the 22nd. None of them had raised any concerns whatsoever about non-disclosure agreements. We have checked on the information in our consultation process that has been submitted from scientific advisory committees and in none of that has anyone raised the issue that there is a problem with non-disclosure agreements. That is the evidential base, it is not worrying the chairs of the scientific advisory committees. I know about the Sense About Science concern and non-disclosure agreements are, as far as I am aware, sensible in the context of commercial confidentiality or in terms of national security. The issue is that they are not being overly used, they are not being used in a way that worries the chairs of the scientific advisory committees.

  Lord Drayson: I have no disagreement with any of that but it is important, because it has been raised to me, that there is a concern over the impression around non-disclosure agreements. If there is an impression—and I absolutely accept what John has said about the feedback that he has had from the chief scientific advisers—that in certain quarters there is a concern about this, then it is important for us to be alive to that concern and for me to say that the way in which you have described it seems perfectly reasonable.

  Q62  Dr Harris: In your principles—and these are just smaller order things but significant nevertheless—you say "The Government and its advisers should make it clear whether they are communicating scientific evidence and analysis or conclusions and advice." Do you think that is well-drafted at the moment because I find it hard to understand what that means, whether that is the right distinction? This is in the section under "Transparency and openness".

  Lord Drayson: You find it difficult to understand the distinction between the evidence and conclusions.

  Q63  Dr Harris: Is the scientific advisory committee communicating scientific evidence and analysis or conclusions and advice? When you look at the evidence you do not say "Here are all the papers, enjoy" you say "Our conclusion on the evidence base is this". The distinction might be between scientific evidence, analysis and conclusions about the evidence on the one hand and advice on the other, because I am not sure there is much merit in just sending a chunk of data as advice, you would expect as the minimum for conclusions to be drawn and presumably some advice, they are advisory committees. I just do not understand the distinction there.

  Lord Drayson: The thinking behind this and why it was felt that it was an important distinction was that it is important for scientific advisers to make clear in so far as they are able, based upon the data and the level of their analysis, their level of confidence in the conclusions that they are presenting. Therefore, as you say, they are not just presenting a collection of data but also making clear where they are communicating from their conclusions the level of confidence they have in those conclusions, based upon the certainty that their data allows.

  Q64  Dr Harris: But that is good practice anyway and it should be in the guidelines.

  Lord Drayson: Precisely.

  Q65  Dr Harris: Finally there is a distinction made in your draft of these principles where you say "If the Government is minded not to accept the advice of a scientific advisory committee or council, particularly on matters of significant public interest, the relevant minister will normally meet the chair to discuss the issue before a final decision is made." Can I say that I welcome that section of your principles anyway because there is clearly much more agreement on this than on some of the other areas, but who defines what matters of significant public interest are and is it wise to try and say that it might not apply in areas which the media are not interested in? It might be just as important that there is that discussion.

  Lord Drayson: You are concerned that there may be a matter which some people might have felt is not of significant public interest but it would be better practice for a meeting to have taken place beforehand anyway.

  Q66  Dr Harris: Because you are introducing subjectivity into the distinction unless you measure in column inches or something.

  Lord Drayson: That is a reasonable point but it is saying "particularly on matters" it is not saying "only on matters" of significant public interest.

  Q67  Dr Harris: The Chairman will be delighted to know that my final question goes back to this point where I was interrupted, quite rightly, to let Ian Stewart ask question 4. If you are an academic and you do your academic thing and you take on the job of an independent science adviser, when you speak in your academic capacity and you make clear you are not speaking as an independent science adviser, is it your view that you lose any of your normal rights to free expression, free speech and academic freedom compared to previously?

  Lord Drayson: No.

  Q68  Dr Harris: Professor Beddington?

  Professor Beddington: I would not say that you would.

  Dr Harris: Thank you very much.

  Chairman: The last word goes to the patient Tim Boswell.

  Q69  Mr Boswell: Can I turn finally to questions of communication? The first one is when you produce your principles after all this consultation and also there is an interaction with the ministerial code and with the guidelines on the other hand, you are going to have a lot of stakeholders involved, you are going to have ministers, you are going to have existing members of committees, potential members of committees and the general public. Have you devised or will you be devising a communications strategy to explain the very interesting issues that you have touched on today?

  Lord Drayson: Yes, we will.

  Q70  Mr Boswell: Can I turn then to the other side of this which is the role of SACs and their ability to communicate with the public, because this obviously goes back to issues about the free expression of views. You have yourself, Minister, said in the past that you are in favour of SACs having access to independent communication representation of some kind on some professional, contextually sensible, basis. What are you doing to bring that about?

  Lord Drayson: Firstly, the principles set out that that is a key aspect of what we regard as the good terms of engagement between science and the Government. We do not think that we should mandate that scientific advisory committees do this because it should be up to the scientific committees themselves to choose whether or not they need independent communication.

  Q71  Mr Boswell: They will have the discretion.

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely.

  Q72  Mr Boswell: Unfettered.

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely. It should not be that we are telling them what to do, they are independent scientific committees, but we are encouraging them, because we see the value of media advice, to take independent media advice. We do not believe that that media advice should be given by government press officers because that would therefore compromise, if you like, the independence of that advice.

  Q73  Mr Boswell: That would apply, if I can jog back to the old IUS Committee, to the suggestion that GO-Science should take this on.

  Lord Drayson: Absolutely.

  Q74  Mr Boswell: You are worried about there being some perceived clash of interest.

  Lord Drayson: Precisely. As in the title, it is the Government Office; therefore we think it would be more appropriate for that advice to be given totally independently and at a meeting that I attended before the dismissal of Professor Nutt where there was a discussion between myself and certain chairs—before this became a very high profile issue—the point was made to me that it is important for there to be a process whereby there is clarity in the presentation and communication of what is the advice from the scientific committee. Pause; digestion within the media; this is the Government's conclusion; presentation. That is central to what we have learnt over the last 20 years.

  Q75  Mr Boswell: It is a bit like the relationship between our Committee making a report and recommendations to you and you then responding.

  Lord Drayson: Yes. Pause, reflection, digestion is an important aspect of this.

  Q76  Mr Boswell: That is helpful. Just one final point: it is all very well giving them the licence to do that or indeed even the nod that they might wish to consider doing it and taking independent advice. They are going to need resources to do that; where are those resources going to come from and, indeed, anticipating the concerns you also expressed about using some government-branded body to do this, if you are paying for this how are you going to establish their independence in their use?

  Lord Drayson: There have been some very interesting and helpful suggestions which have been made as part of this consultation as to how such facilities could be put in place. The media, the scientific journalist community, have made some suggestions as to how they think this would be helpfully done and so these are things which we are going to be looking at.

  Q77  Mr Boswell: Just to summarise, and in a sense it goes a little wider than the narrow meaning: no gagging orders, no nobbling, no as it were shackling a committee which would not be able to express its views.

  Lord Drayson: That sounds very sensible.

  Q78  Chairman: On that very sensible note could we bring to an end this session and thank you in particular, Lord Drayson. You have had a long session this morning and we thank you for the very, very frank way in you have viewed our questions.

  Lord Drayson: It is a pleasure, Chairman.

  Ian Stewart: Absolutely.

  Q79  Chairman: This is likely, Professor Beddington, to be the last time we have the pleasure of you before our Committee. Could we thank you very strongly indeed for all the work you have done with our Committee and indeed your predecessors.

  Professor Beddington: Thank you.

  Dr Harris: We have a present for you: our Homeopathy Report.

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