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

Memorandum submitted by Prospect (SAGE 11)


  1.  Prospect is a trade union representing 122,000 scientific, technical, managerial and specialist staff in the Civil Service and related bodies and major companies. Our members are professionals, managers and specialists across a diverse range of areas, including agriculture, defence, energy, environment, communications, heritage, justice and transport.

  2.  We welcome the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry. Many of Prospect's members work in areas of public science that are often unrecognised except in times of emergency. So, whilst it is interesting and useful to highlight case studies, we would also point out that such contributions are drawn in practice from a wider base of scientific expertise. This is often located in institutes that have also been subject to detrimental decision-making, for example about site closures, transfer of functions and significant cuts in funding streams—with no central knowledge by government of the location, functions or specialist expertise it employs. Hence there is no clarity of what capability is being lost or whether retained capability will be sufficient to cope with future demands.

  3.  We would draw the Select Committee's attention to our submission in the previous Parliamentary Session on "The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research". A hard copy of this submission is enclosed with this evidence, but it can also be accessed at The issues raised in this submission remain valid and, in the run up to October's Spending Review, needed to be addressed with added urgency.

  4.  Further, in any assessment of resilience to provide timely scientific advice and evidence we would urge the Select Committee to give high priority to the need attract the best and brightest graduate talent. The case of one Prospect member provides a stark illustration of the challenge faced by the Government in delivering this objective. The member concerned is a physicist involved in the design of particle accelerators, including the New Light Source accelerator and the new Swedish light source. He is also involved in commissioning the UK's only test accelerator suite. This member has degrees from Edinburgh and Durham and has worked at postdoctoral level in the USA, but is still paying off a student loan at a rate of £125 per month for the undergraduate degree he started in 1995. His partner is on maternity leave currently and, taking account of eligibility for additional benefit payments and mortgage interest relief, when his partner's Statutory Maternity Pay ends they would actually be better off if he was out of work and on Jobseekers Allowance until she returns to work. This contravenes Ministerial statements recognising the importance of STEM skills to the UK economy and is a powerful disincentive to individuals to dedicate themselves to developing important specialist expertise.

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

  5.  A good example is the Integration and Maintenance of Expertise project (ED1043) led by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA), though similar arrangements will apply at organisations like the Institute for Animal Health. This project provides Defra with expertise that can be mobilised during a disease outbreak and/or other emergencies. It is not restricted to, but in practice does focus on, disease outbreaks such as FMD (foot and mouth disease), AI (Avian Influenza) and BT (Blue Tongue). The main activities of the project currently include:

    — Veterinary epidemiologist training, including workshops, on-the-job training at Defra and disease outbreak exercise participation.

    — A peacetime duty veterinary epidemiologist role, where CERA (Centre for Epidemiology and Risk Analysis—of VLA) vet epis (once trained) will participate in the Defra rota maintained by FFG (Food and Farming Group—of Defra). This ensures that trained and experienced veterinary epidemiologists are available every day in case of urgent queries and in case of emergency.

    — Ongoing epidemiological advice and consultancy, eg survey design, participation and advice for expert working groups, eg Foot and Mouth and Blue Tongue.

    — Running, developing and maintaining in-house models, such as Exodis-FMD, so that the model, and the staff running it are fully current and outbreak prepared.

    — An intelligent customer function providing modelling consultancy to Defra on all matters modelling in peacetime.

    — Developing a cross-cutting modelling conference to include participants from Defra, VLA, Animal Health (AH) and others from the UK modelling community, the aim being to improve and harmonise modelling expertise in order that outbreak responses and modelling are optimal.

    — An information support service which includes data management, database development and management and ongoing training and involvement with Defra and AH on the requirements of the NEEG (National Emergency Epidemiology Group) and NDCC (National Disease Control Centre) during an outbreak.

    — Development and maintenance of the VIRDO (Veterinary Information Required During an Outbreak) database, which would be used in conjunction with MOSS II, across Defra in an outbreak.

    — Project management of all activities within the project during peacetime and development of expertise in outbreak processes; during an outbreak this would extend to the project management of the NEEG and would co-ordinate and support the provision of all of the above activities and expertises to the NEEG and feeding into the NDCC.

  6.  The current year's work programme does not include GIS, risk analysis and risk communication but this expertise is also readily available within CERA and during an emergency this expertise, and the expertise developed within the project could, and would, be used to provide epidemiological data, GIS modelling, risk analysis and project management to Defra and to the Government. For example, during the swine flu pandemic and the volcanic ash eruptions some or all of these specialisms could have been called upon.

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?

  7.  Prospect would highlight two key obstacles: funding and expertise.

  8.  As indicated in our submission on the impact of spending cuts, there are now many examples of decisions being taken for short-term financial reasons that will impact on UK scientific capacity. Another specific example arises from cuts in the Environment Agency. If an incident or emergency requires a national response, the Environment Agency will often provide expert support to Defra or DECC as appropriate. One consequence of reduced grant-in-aid is that the provider of groundwater advice during emergencies, for example on issues such as emergency burials following animal disease outbreaks, has been designated as a redeployee and nobody else has been identified to take up these responsibilities. This gap was highlighted during a recent FMD exercise, and is symptomatic of a wider concern that funding cuts at the Environment Agency are likely to reduce technical resilience and ability to support emergency response.

  9.  Another area of concern relates to perceived lack of urgency in the Home Office, again apparently linked to budgetary pressures, to evaluate the possible effects of chemical, microbiological and radiological agents that might be used in a terrorist attack. Over several years, a handful of these agents have been evaluated to identify exposure standards to be used for protecting the health of first responders at incidents and of the general public and working groups will meet later this year to assess further agents. However, there are no plans to identify exposure standards for the majority of substances on the Home Office list. Instead, the intention is that the methods used for setting exposure standards for those substances that have been evaluated could be used for other substances should they be used in a terrorist attack. Of course, it is not be possible to predict precisely what agents might be used in a terrorist attack. However, our understanding is that this would involve commitment of modest resources (a few weeks of the time of a handful of experts already employed by government departments) into evaluating all of the dozen or so chemicals on their list. By contrast under the preferred approach, although the working group meetings to assess the substances have taken a couple of days, it takes many weeks to collect and collate the data for the working groups to evaluate. Thus, in the event of a terrorist attack, it could take an unacceptably long-time to fully evaluate the risk from exposure to the agent used. Instead safety evaluators would need to make rapid decisions based on the data readily to hand, with the result that the emergency services and the general public could be exposed unnecessarily to health risks as a result of hasty judgements made on the basis of incomplete information.

  10.  Professor David King very quickly found a lack of in-house expertise after his appointment as Chief Scientific Adviser at the onset of the FMD crisis. He noted that an "enormous" amount of work was needed to build this expertise and to strengthen the evidence policy for policy making. Subsequently a great deal of work has been done, including through the new code on use of scientific advice in policy-making and the establishment of the Government Science and Engineering Community of Interest (GSE). However progress takes time—scientific expertise cannot simply be turned on or off at will—and advances to date are now threatened by widespread funding cuts. Ironically, disingenuous use of the term "frontline" often results in deprioritisation of scientific advice that will be absolutely vital at the "frontline" in times of emergency.

  11.  There are also broader cultural challenges: Prospect has responded to previous inquiries by the Select Committee, for example on "Putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy" (December 2008), illustrating the lack of specialist expertise in departments. Another problem is that scientific advice to government is generally filtered through relatively inexperienced generalist civil servants in policy roles without technical/scientific qualifications. Further, it may not be challenged at senior levels since scientists and engineers are significantly under-represented in the Senior Civil Service. This is not a question of devaluing the contribution of staff without STEM qualifications, but the reality is that many of the most pressing challenges that currently face government are of such a technical and complex nature that such expertise is essential to ensure appropriate advice and decision-making.

How effective is the strategic co-ordination between government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?

  12.  Although the previous Government's "Ten Year Framework for Science and Innovation" demonstrated a welcome appreciation of the essential and underpinning role of science and technology, it fell short in delivering strategic co-ordination:

    — Decision-making is largely devolved to departments and research institutes that proceed to cut or close facilities on the basis of business cases that have no regard to the impact on national scientific capability. Nobody in government has been prepared to take on this key responsibility of care for the national science base.

    — The level of core funding for research institutes leaves many of them highly vulnerable to shifts and reductions in competitive funding that owe more to changes in short-term priorities than to the quality of work being undertaken.

    — The Government simply does not know how many scientists it employs, let alone their areas of expertise. It therefore cannot make any credible assessment of its own capability to meet future needs.

  13.  In Prospect's view a strengthened Government Office for Science could help to address these deficiencies through:

    — Exercising effective powers of scrutiny over proposals to close research institutes or facilities and publishing its findings on a timely basis.

    — Establishing and maintaining a database of public sector scientific capability.

    — Collating and analysing annual returns from all government departments, agencies and non departmental public bodies of scientists in their employment, their location and areas of expertise.

  14.  Such initiatives would enhance the UK's ability to respond quickly and effectively to immediate needs for advice and expertise, including during emergencies. It would also facilitate better longer-term planning of skills requirements.


September 2010

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