Written evidence from Campaign for Science
and Engineering (CaSE)
1. The Campaign for Science and Engineering
(CaSE) is an independent advocacy group which campaigns for the
scientific and engineering health of the UK. We are funded by
hundreds of individuals and over 80 organisations in the science
and engineering sector. We focus on the importance of science
and evidence in government, public funding for research, private-sector
research and development, and science, technology, engineering,
and maths education.
2. Independent scientific advice is a vital
tool for government. In an increasingly complex world, where science
and technology play more and more central roles, concepts such
as "risk" and "harm" are best assessed by
experts. This is true of a range of policy areasfrom health
to defence, transport to agriculture.
3. Government may well need to bear in mind
a range of considerations when making policy, such as public opinion,
cost, or manifesto promises. But good scientific advice is essential
for understanding the possible impacts of policies. When decided
policy conflicts with scientific advice, it should be clear and
transparent to the public what the advice nevertheless was, and
that other considerations were prioritisedas it is a government's
right to do.
4. The BSE crisis is often cited as an example
of poor interaction between scientific advice and politics. Without
scientific analysis, we may never have known the human impact
of the disease. If we had the analysis sooner, lives and money
may have been saved. Interpretation of such risk must be done
5. The episode also highlighted the importance
of such advice being politically independent. There may be occasions
when scientific advice is politically unwelcome, such as when
it contradicts government policy or statements.
6. The Government has an extensive network
of bodies, known as Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs), which
provide advice. Examples of these are the Committee on Radioactive
Waste Management, the Advisory Group on Hepatitis, the Advisory
Group on Microbiological Safety of Food, and the Advisory Council
on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).
7. Members of SACs are not employed. They
are usually eminent researchers or other figures who have extensive
experience of their field and choose to give their time and expertise
for the good of public policy while, in parallel, pursuing their
private or public careers.
8. SACs are supported and facilitated by
a secretariat. The activity and role of SACs is governed by the
Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC).
The Government Office for Science has recently launched a consultation
as part of its updating of CoPSAC. Individual SACs may, in addition
to CoPSAC, have their own Codes of Practice.
9. The role of SACs was highlighted by the
events of November 2009, when Professor David Nutt was asked by
the Home Secretary to resign from his post as Chair of the ACMD.
The resulting controversy was not primarily about the quality
or otherwise of Prof Nutt's work, but over whether it was appropriate
for a minister to publicly attack and dismiss an independent scientific
10. Many scientists, including those who
may have disagreed with Prof Nutt's assessment, were concerned
that the dismissal could set a precedent. If expert advisers can
be dismissed on the basis of their advice, then their independence
is undermined. They and their colleagues may feel pressured to
say what politicians want them to say, not follow potentially
damaging lines of inquiry, or be more or less forthright than
they otherwise would be in their statements. Independent-minded
experts may be less willing to serve on SACs, potentially harming
the quality of advice available to government.
11. In response, the Campaign for Science
and Engineering and Sense About Science, in concert with leading
scientists, drafted a new document: "The Principles for the
Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice". It was endorsed
by a large number of former or current scientific advisors, and
their names are available here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/421.
An altered version of the Principles was eventually incorporated
into the Ministerial Code earlier this year.
12. A number of SACs are being abolished,
reformed, or reconstituted. These include the Expert Advisory
Group on AIDS and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisations,
which are being reconstituted as a Department of Health/Public
Health Service committee of experts.
13. Many SACs are being retained. There
are three classes of justification given for such retention.
Retention on grounds of performing a
technical function (eg Animal Procedures Committee).
Retention on grounds of performing a
technical function which should remain independent of government
(eg Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs).
Retention on grounds of impartiality
(eg Administration of Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee).
14. It is not clear what distinguishes these
classes of committee from each other, or from committees which
are being reconstituted. The Government should clarify both of
these points, or risk an inference that committees which are reconstituted
will not be required to be as impartial, independent, or technically
competent as they formerly wereor as committees which are
being retained in full on such grounds. It should also clarify
the decision process by which these decisions are being made,
and who is accountable for them.
15. The further issue of whether CoPSAC
and The Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific
Advice apply to reconstituted committees also needs to be addressed.
This may partly be done through the ongoing consultation on CoPSAC.
Discrepancies in how CoPSAC and The Principles apply to different
SACs may create a multi-tier system of independence for expert
advisers, which could damage independence as well as confidence
in the system.
16. However, there may indeed need to be
additional regulations in place for any SACs which become internal
departmental bodies, as these committees are more at risk of informal
political pressure from their host departments (this highlights
the benefit of them having previously been NDPBs). The Government
should consult carefully with the scientific community and the
Chief Scientist over how it can ensure the actual and perceived
independence of these bodies is above reproach. It is vital that
the public sees independent advice from SACs as being truly impartial
in order to achieve continuing trust and acceptance of such advice.
17. Some SACs have responsibilities to more
than one department or government minister. If a SAC is being
reconstituted inside a single department, it is important its
access and lines of communication to other departments remain
open and available.