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


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (SAGE 08)

  The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Science and Technology Committee's consultation on scientific advice and evidence in emergencies.

  The RSC is the largest organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of 46,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, its activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.

  This document represents the views of the RSC. The RSC has a duty under its Royal Charter "to serve the public interest" by acting in an independent advisory capacity, and it is in this spirit that this submission is made.

Royal Society of Chemistry

September 2010

  The Royal Society of Chemistry's response addresses only those questions which fall within its area of concern.

  The four case studies:

    (i) the swine flu pandemic in 2009;

    (ii) the Icelandic volcanic ash eruptions in 2010;

    (iii) the potential emergency situations that solar storms could cause; and

    (iv) the potential emergency situations that cyber attacks could cause.

1.   What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government for the emergency?

  The case studies cover a wide range of possible hazards, some of which are better understood than others. In most cases the hazards were immediately apparent, but there were conflicting views on the actual risks that the hazards posed. The causal agents in case studies (i)-(iii) are all natural phenomena, although life-styles and human activities can affect the consequences to a greater or lesser degree. Case study (iv), emergencies arising from cyber attacks, is a consequence of human activity and the deliberate misuse of technology.

  In case study (i), the swine flu pandemic, the hazards were principally to human health, but there was also a significant economic impact. The likelihood of a flu pandemic had been predicted for some time and the mutation of the virus in this case was detected relatively quickly because there is an international system in place to do this. For case study (ii) the hazards relating to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano were principally to air transport with consequences for economic activity eg tourism. The hazard was immediately apparent, but there were conflicting views on the risks because the possible effect of the ash on aircraft engines was not well understood. Hazard is an intrinsic property of a substance or situation. Risk differs from hazard, as it involves a consideration of the probability or likelihood of a consequence occurring as well as what the consequence might be1.

  Emergencies arising from toxicological and chemical disasters would be more within the scope of the RSC's interest and where it could call on its members' expertise. Plant failures can be a source of a major disaster, for example the escape of dioxins from an industrial plant in Seveso, Italy in 1976, or the release of methyl isocyanate at Bhopal, India in 1984. The Seveso incident was a major factor leading to the EU legislation concerning the control of major industrial accident hazards. The Bhopal incident demonstrates the need for relevant toxicological data being available; at the time of the incident there was just one substantial study available. Contamination of food and drink can lead to an emergency. For example the pollution of drinking water in North Cornwall in 1988, or the outbreak of jaundice following the contamination of food during storage in Epping, London in 1965. A useful classification of different types of disaster involving toxic agents, and more examples and discussion can be found in the book General and Applied Toxicology1.

  Assessment of potential hazards and risks will differ according to the type of disaster and the ability to move (or minimise) the population at risk. It depends on a source (knowledge of the size and duration of emission), a dispersion pattern (obtained from knowledge of eg meteorological conditions, river flows or food distribution systems) and an end-effect. In the case of toxic hazards, one needs to examine the likely toxicity of the materials involved, including the prediction of the amounts of toxic materials likely to cause these effects. There needs to be planning for the prevention, mitigating the consequences, and preparedness for the emergency response. In addition planning for post-event recovery should be in place.

2.   How does/did the Government use scientific advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?

3.   What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies? Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles? For case studies (i) and (ii) was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?

  In an emergency it is acknowledged that the gathering of sound scientific advice in order to make informed decisions will depend upon the time available and the pre-existing knowledge base. In many cases we can identify and anticipate an emergency and plan accordingly. In the event that an anticipated emergency occurs, scientific advice and evidence should already be in place. The issues which need scientific and engineering advice need to be identified early so that a wide range of expert advice sources can be drawn upon. The Government does have established processes through the Chief Scientific Advisor network, scientific advisory committees and councils, and the RSC supports the recently updated and published Government Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making, and the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government. The RSC further welcomes the key messages in the guidelines that an open and transparent approach should be adopted to the scientific advisory process and that the reasons for policy decisions should be explained publicly, particularly when the decision appears to be inconsistent with scientific advice.

  For case study (i), the swine flu pandemic, there was time to plan and the knowledge base was extensive. In an independent review of the UK response to the pandemic,2 the review comments that there were high levels of uncertainty regarding the nature of the virus, which meant that ministers were heavily reliant on scientific advice in order to understand the level of risk. The review recommends that key ministers and senior officials should be trained to understand the strengths and limitations of likely available scientific advice. The RSC supports this view and would go further to recommend3 that the presence of civil servants with a scientific background, not just subsequently-trained civil servants, is essential to allow speedy and informed decision making. Scientific training must be accompanied by experience and proven ability in interpreting scientific data. This would raise the scientific capacity of departments to identify issues quickly. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser's Guidelines recommends that departments should ensure that they have the capacity and capability to recognise where there is a need for scientific advice and the RSC endorses this view. There will always be emergencies that are unforeseen, and pertinent scientific information and advice, and the interpretation by decision makers of that advice, will need to be carried out over a short time frame. It is, therefore, all the more important that the scientific capacity of departments is raised from the present levels, so that scientific advice can be interpreted and decisions made quickly.

  For case study (ii), the Icelandic volcanic ash eruptions, the time for decision making was short and the knowledge base was incomplete. This specific case is an example of an emergency that was not anticipated, (although the general case had been anticipated). In hindsight, it could be argued that those responsible for air safety should have ensured that information on the possible effects of volcanic dust on aero engines was available; that is, that a pre-existing knowledge base should have been available to draw upon. Indeed later action took account of information on weather patterns and of monitoring effects on aero-engines.

  In an unanticipated emergency situation, it is not clear whether the provision of scientific advice has been adequately thought about. Although difficult to maintain, one might expect the relevant government committee to have a database of experts in relevant scientific areas. It would appear that in an unanticipated emergency situation there is a tendency to assume the worse-case scenario and respond accordingly. Precaution takes over from science in determining a first response. An alternative approach would be to take immediate scientific advice on the most likely outcome, while closely monitoring events and changing the response if necessary. Decision makers should be advised appropriately and be able to make a conscious choice as to which approach to follow. It is not clear whether this choice was available during the volcanic ash eruptions and precaution dominated.

4.   How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?

  Although the RSC is unable to comment on the past effectiveness of coordination between the various bodies, the RSC understands that strategic coordination is currently command led. The RSC believes that with such a "hub and spokes" model there is a danger that the "spokes" may have little understanding of where else information is being sought. It is not currently transparent whether there is a disseminated understanding of who is talking to whom. If the system is to be command led, then a better understanding of the mechanism and the identity of the "spokes" might help each individual spoke to identify interconnections and missing connections. During the volcanic ash emergency for example, it is not clear who was contacted for advice. Who were the "spokes" and how was information gathered and co-ordinated? The "spokes" need to be clear about how, and by whom, the information is to be processed, and who will make decisions based on the processed information. All scientific advice should be coordinated by the Chief Scientific Advisor.

5.   How important is international coordination and how could it be strengthened?

  International coordination is important, both for national and transnational emergencies. In the case of national emergencies, there is likely to be expertise elsewhere to call upon, and the best possible scientific advice should be sought irrespective of national boundaries. Transnational emergencies require coordination at the very least. All four case studies affected/would affect other countries than the UK. The call by John Beddington for more "brutal" scientific advice for European Commissioners and MEPs suggests that the current infrastructure within Europe is not effective at integrating science and engineering into policy making. The Commission draws on the Joint Research Centre when establishing scientific panels and experts working groups to deal with specific issues. However, there is currently no mechanism in place for more proactive scientific advice. The appointment of a Chief Scientific Advisor to the Commission will begin to address this issue, and help to overcome the current fragmented system. This needs to be supported by a wider network of scientific advisors that are aligned with EU structure. Similarly to the UK, this must be backed up by improved literacy amongst civil servants. The RSC welcomes measures designed to strengthen the network of scientific advice throughout Europe and internationally.

REFERENCES1  See Chapter on Toxicology and Disasters, General and Applied Toxicology 2009, 5, pp 3043-3076. H. P. A. Illing.

2  The 2009 Influenza Pandemic. An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic. D Hine, July 2010.

3  RSC response to the BIS inquiry on scientific analysis in policy making. February 2010.

Dr Susan Weatherby, MRSC

Programme Manager, Physical Sciences

Royal Society of Chemistry






 
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