Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Scientific advice and evidence play a key role in the prediction and assessment of risks as well as the resolution of an emergency once it occurs. We chose to examine science in emergencies using four case studies: (i) the 2009-10 H1N1 influenza pandemic (swine flu); (ii) the April 2010 volcanic ash disruption; (iii) space weather; and (iv) cyber attacks. These case studies provided focal points and real-life examples to draw upon.

The UK is regularly hit by national crises, or emergencies. Natural hazards that cause emergencies range from extreme weather to animal disease outbreaks and, more recently, pandemic influenza and volcanic eruptions abroad. In addition, man-made threats such as physical or cyber attacks have become increasingly likely over the past decade.

We have been left with the impression that while science is used effectively to aid the response to emergencies, the Government's attitude to scientific advice is that it is something to reach for once an emergency happens, not a key factor for consideration from the start of the planning process. This is not trivial: had the risks of volcanic ash disruption been assessed prior to the emergency, the Government would undoubtedly have been better able to cope with the situation that occurred in April 2011, when ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland resulted in the closure of airspace over Europe at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK economy. Our chief concern was the uncertain role that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) played in the National Risk Assessment (NRA)—the assessment of risks to the UK carried out by the Cabinet Office. We consider that science should be at the heart of the NRA process and have recommended that the GSCA has greater involvement. We urge the Government to do better at embedding scientific advice and an evidence-based approach in risk assessment and policy processes before emergencies occur.

We also looked at the mechanisms of science advice to Government during emergencies. For the swine flu pandemic and volcanic ash disruption Scientific Advisory Groups in Emergencies (SAGEs) were set up, with membership specific to the requirements of the particular emergency. We found that the SAGE, particularly for volcanic ash, tended towards an unnecessarily secretive way of working thus closing doors to the wider scientific community, and did not appear to adhere to any published guidance or code of conduct. A SAGE—which is, after all, a scientific advisory committee to Government—should not be given a carte blanche to operate however it pleases simply because an emergency is occurring and we have recommended that the Government clarify what codes, principles or guidance govern its operation.

The Government must communicate risk effectively to the public in an emergency; this is vital to prevent mistrust and anxiety. We examined this issue using the swine flu case study and had misgivings about the Government's communication of what it termed "reasonable worst case scenarios", that is, the worst situation that might reasonably happen. While such scenarios are useful for organisations preparing for, and responding to, emergencies, use of such scenarios led to sensationalised media reporting about the projected deaths from swine flu. We concluded that the Government must establish the concept of "most probable scenarios" with the public, in all future emergencies.

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