Setting priorities for publicly funded research - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Dear Lord Drayson

On 2 February 2010, the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords held a seminar on issues relating to the provision of independent advice by scientific advisory committees to Government. A range of views were contributed by both members of the Committee and invited participants, including those of senior scientists and former Ministers. The purpose of the seminar was not to consider the dismissal of Professor David Nutt although, inevitably, our discussion touched upon it.

During the seminar, in addition to the principles proposed by Sense about Science, the Committee considered your proposed principles of scientific advice to Government, published on 15 December 2009, on which you are consulting as part of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser's consultation on the guidelines on scientific analysis in policy making. We are aware also of the exchange of correspondence which you have had with the Phil Willis MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, about the principles. We share the concerns expressed in Mr Willis' letter of 13 January and welcome your commitment to respond positively to those concerns.

Whilst we do not propose to make further specific suggestions about the wording of either the principles or the guidelines, I hope that you will find of assistance the following, more general points which emerged during the seminar.

First, subject to the concerns raised by the Commons Science and Technology Committee (in particular, the points raised about the principles listed under "trust and respect" and also the importance of enshrining academic freedom), we see advantage in the formulation of high level principles. The present Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees and the Guidelines on the Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making are lengthy and, to a large extent, practical documents. The proposed principles provide an opportunity to set out in short, clear terms the fundamental elements of the relationship between Government and independent scientific advisory committees. We look forward to seeing the revised principles in due course, once the consultation has been concluded.

In addition, and following on from recommendation 13 (d) of the Commons Science and Technology Committee report (3rd report, Session 2009-10, HC 158), the Committee took the view that the most effective way in which to ensure that Ministers develop an understanding of the nature of the relationship between independent scientific advisory committees and Government would be to introduce a short provision into the Ministerial Code, cross-referencing the principles, the guidelines and the code, setting out the fundamental elements of that relationship.

Whilst not an exhaustive list, we suggest that the elements set out in the new provision should include:

  • that it is the responsibility of Ministers to decide on policy and of scientific advisers to advise
  • that policy-making should be evidence-based and informed by the best available scientific evidence and advice
  • that Ministers should ensure that they are informed by a range of scientific advice and, to that end, Ministers should, where appropriate, seek out dissenting opinion
  • that Ministers should ensure that the advice sought from independent scientific advisory committees should include an exploration of the inherent uncertainties associated with such advice
  • that Ministers should recognise the independence of independent scientific advisory committees and also of the individual members of such committees, and ensure that explicit conventions be agreed on the their right to express themselves publicly, whether orally or in writing
  • that Ministers should allow for proper consideration of scientific advice and, save in exceptional circumstances, should not make a policy decision in advance of receiving advice commissioned in respect of that policy decision
  • that, subject to exceptions (such as national security), scientific advice to Government should be published
  • that Ministers should explain their reasons for policy decisions and, in particular, where a policy decision is contrary to scientific advice Ministers should explain their reasons for not accepting that advice

where there are concerns about the conduct of a scientific adviser, a Minister should consult the departmental Chief Scientific Adviser and, where appropriate, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

We look forward to hearing your views.

In view of the nature of our recommendation, I am sending a copy of this letter to Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary, and also to Professor John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

Yours sincerely

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

10 February 2010

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