Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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 principlesthis
is a most important pointI 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
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 impressionand I absolutely accept
what John has said about the feedback that he has had from the
chief scientific advisersthat 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 principlesand
these are just smaller order things but significant neverthelessyou
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
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
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
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 chairsbefore this became a very high profile
issuethe 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
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
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
Lord Drayson: It is a pleasure,
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.