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

Letter from The Rt Hon Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Technology, to the Chairman of the Committee, 19 January 2010

  Thank you for your letter of 13 January 2010, raising a number of questions relating to the Government's draft Principles on scientific advice to government (the "Principles") published 15 December 2010. We are currently consulting on the draft principles and will give careful consideration to all relevant inputs before finalising the statement, including the recommendations made by the Committee in its report.

  I would like to assure the Committee that ensuring an effective relationship between the Government and those that provide independent scientific advice is an issue I take extremely seriously. I would not like to prejudge the findings of the Government's consultation on the proposed Principles by commenting in detail at this time, but I hope the points outlined below address your primary concerns.


  While I welcomed these principles, it is vital that all individuals involved in the provision and receipt of independent scientific advice to Government adopt the Principles. We therefore engaged representatives from the science community, science communicators and journalists, SAC chairs and colleagues across Government in the development of the draft Principles. It was necessary to amend the statement issued by Sense about Science to adequately reflect the requirements of these stakeholders. Indeed, our draft principles will be amended further to take on board responses to the consultation.


  The Principles apply to Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils, several of which have members with expertise outside of the sciences. They also apply to other independent scientific advice commissioned by the Government, including statistical and social advice.


  I believe that the fundamentals of "academic freedom" are encapsulated within the Principles but feedback from both yourself and the scientific community has highlighted the need to clarify this point in the final version.


  The importance of a healthy relationship between Ministers and Science Advisors was a point made consistently in the meetings I held before Christmas to discuss the proposed Principles. Those consulted were clear that this relationship must be based on mutual trust and respect, and that it is the responsibility of both parties to uphold that. However, I will consider how this might be better reflected.


  I am aware that the specific wording on "a shared position" has caused concern, and will review this in finalising the statement.

Applying the principles

  The Government invites Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs), Councils and government departments to consider the extent to which the Principles in this document are reflected in their operation and to make changes as necessary. The Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) provides further detail on good practice for SAC functions and working.

  Government departments and their independent scientific advisers should raise issues of concern over the application of the Principles, or other guidance, with the relevant departmental Chief Scientific Adviser. If the matter of concern cannot be effectively resolved or is especially serious CSA's should approach the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), and Ministers should approach the Minister for Science to escalate the issue to ED(SI).

  The Government welcomes views on these Principles, and on wider issues relating to the use of science and engineering advice by Government, as part of the consultation on the GCSA's Guidelines for the Use of Scientific Analysis in Policy Making (which runs until 9 February 2010). Views can be offered here.

  The Government will take forward work to address specific issues which emerged in consulting stakeholders (below). Following completion of the consultation on the Guidelines the Government will consider whether to initiate an early consultation on further amendments to CoPSAC:

    — SAC and Government working: the Government will take steps to strengthen relationships between government departments and SACs. Department Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) will meet regularly the Chairs of the SACs sponsored by their department. The GCSA will meet annually with SAC Chairs across government.

    — Role of Chair: the Government will consider whether additional guidance relating to SAC Chairs is necessary.

    — Media Support for SACs: the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) provides for the use of independent media support to SACs. Government will work to ensure SACs are aware of this right, and consider any related practical issues.

    — Media training for SAC members: the Government will consider how best to ensure that SAC members are equipped to engage with the media, to ensure that SACs are in a position to decide whether a media strategy is necessary before publishing advice.

    — Appropriate use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs): there are circumstances in which SACs are unable to publish the advice provided (because of national security, for example). The Government will consider whether guidance on the use of NDAs is necessary.

Transparency and openness

  Scientific advice to the Government will be published unless there are over-riding reasons (such as national security) for not doing so.

  The timing of the publication of independent scientific advice is normally a matter for the advisory body but should be discussed with the Government beforehand.

  The timing of the Government's response to scientific advice will demonstrably allow for proper consideration of that advice.

  The Government and its scientific advisers should make it clear whether they are communicating scientific evidence and analysis or conclusions and advice.

  Scientific advisers should indicate their level of confidence in the evidence base underpinning their advice by making explicit levels of uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance.

  The Government will explain the reasons for policy decisions, particularly when the decision appears to be at odds with scientific advice.

  If 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 with the chair to discuss the issue before a final decision is made.

Principles of Scientific Advice to Government

  The purpose of the high level Principles below is to ensure continued effective engagement between the Government and those who provide independent science and engineering advice. Following these Principles will not only result in a strengthening of the relationship between these parties and the public, but also of the policy-making process.

  The Principles primarily address issues relating to Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils, several of which have members with expertise outside of the sciences. They should also be understood to apply to other independent scientific advice commissioned by the government, but not to departmental Chief Scientific Advisers, or other civil servants that provide scientific advice.

  Issues relating to the function and working of scientific advisory bodies that are not reflected in these high-level Principles are or will be discussed in more detailed guidance such as CoPSAC or the Guidelines on scientific analysis in policy-making (to be updated in 2010).

Trust and respect

  The Government should respect and value the professional status and expertise of its independent scientific advisers.

  Scientific advisers should respect the democratic mandate of the Government to take decisions based on a wide range of factors and recognise that science is only part of the evidence that Government must consider in developing policy.

  The Government and its scientific advisers should work together to reach a share position, and neither should act to undermine mutual trust.


  Scientific advisers to the Government are free to communicate in a professional capacity within their field of expertise, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions.

  Scientific advisers to the Government are free to communicate relevant evidence and analysis, including when it is at odds with Government policy.

  Scientific advisers to the Government must be free from political interference with their work.

  Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils have the right to engage with the media and public independently of the Government and are free to seek independent media advice.

  Scientific advisers to the Government should make clear in what capacity they are communicating, for example at conferences or in published papers.

The Rt Hon Lord Drayson

Minister for Science and Innovation

January 2010

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