House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology
The Scientific Advisory System

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1. In March 1997, Sir Robert May, then Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government and Head of the Office of Science and Technology (OST), published Guidelines on The Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making.

2. The May Guidelines were issued against a background of heightened public concern about scientific advice to Government. The scientific advisory system was not new: scientists have been advising Government for many years. But there was increasing concern about the way it operated. In March 1996, ten years after the first identification of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and after ten years of maintaining that it was safe to eat beef, the Government acknowledged that BSE had probably been transmitted to humans. There was widespread concern that several expert advisory committees, over a number of years, appeared to have failed to alert the Government, or the public, to the risks of eating beef. Worse, it was suspected that scientific uncertainty had been covered up by politicians and civil servants in order to prevent a food scare. The scientific community was blamed too: science, and the scientific advisory system, appeared to have failed to protect the public. Something had gone seriously wrong.

3. At the same time, there was mounting concern about standards in public life, on the one hand, and on the way in which government quangos operated, on the other. The Nolan Committee had felt the need to restate the general principles which should underpin public life, and had called on all public bodies to establish Codes of Conduct.[9] Public confidence in the integrity of Government was at a low ebb.

9. Scientific advice to Government is under even greater scrutiny now than it was in 1998. Public confidence in the efficacy, and even the integrity, of the scientific advisory system has been sadly eroded. Recent government assurances on the safety of the MMR vaccine, for example, which have been based on the views of the overwhelming majority of scientific and medical opinion, have met with widespread scepticism or downright disbelief. Similarly, anxieties about the use of depleted uranium have been fuelled by suspicions about the scientific information available to Government on its safety. There is now a climate of public opinion which is distrustful of authority. The Government, in its use of the scientific advisory system, has to recognise this social change and respond to meet it.

PART I - SCIENTIFIC ADVICE TO GOVERNMENT

Sources of scientific advice

THE COUNCIL FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

14. The Council for Science and Technology is described by OST as "the Government's premier advisory body".[30] Its purpose is to advise the Prime Minister on the strategic policies and framework for Science and Technology in the UK. The Chief Scientific Adviser acts as Deputy Chairman, and there are currently 15 independent members drawn from academia and industry. The full Council meets quarterly with more frequent meetings held by sub-groups. The new Council has to date published one "annual report", in March 2000, on its work in 1998-99, and three substantive reports:

— a review of Science and Technology matters across Government (July 1999);

— a report on the exploitation of Science and Technology by UK business (February 2000); and

— a report on Science Teachers (also February 2000).

Its website publishes membership, work schedule, and minutes of meetings.[31] The Council appears to be active, yet its public profile remains low. It has attracted little attention in even the technical/scientific media. As we discuss in paragraph 44 below, it is also unclear what influence the Council's reports have had on government policy. We recommend that the Government give more prominence to the activities of the Council for Science and Technology and respond to its recommendations.

THE CHIEF SCIENTIFIC ADVISER AND THE OFFICE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

15. The Government's Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is responsible for advising the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on science and technology matters, and for the quality of scientific advice within Government. As Head of the Office of Science and Technology he is responsible for its transdepartmental functions, advising Ministers and co-ordinating strategy on science and technology matters across Government. In this, the CSA is supported by the OST's Transdepartmental Science and Technology Group (TDSTG).

16. Sir Robert May, CSA since 1995, was replaced by Professor David King in October 2000.

18. As we concluded in our 2000 Report on Government Expenditure on Research and Development: The Forward Look, "the co-ordination role of the OST and the CSA should be enhanced, with a more explicit remit to intervene, where necessary, with departments".[35] It is important that Ministers in all relevant Departments should support the OST and strengthen it in its role of co-ordinating science policy across Government.

CHIEF SCIENTISTS IN DEPARTMENTS

20. A number of Departments have their own Chief Scientist or equivalent, whose role within their department is analogous to that of the CSA - primarily to ensure the quality and effectiveness of the research commissioned by their department.[37] They also have responsibility for ensuring that their Department's procedures are consistent with OST guidelines. Departmental chief scientists meet together regularly as the Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee (CSAC), with the CSA in the Chair. CSAC's remit is to discuss Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) policy and spread good practice; and also to provide advice to Ministers, primarily through the Ministerial Science Group.

21. As we stated in our Report, "bureaucratic conventions about lines of reporting should not stand in the way of allowing Chief Scientist unfettered access to the CSA on matters of departmental concern".[40] It is essential that Chief Scientists in Departments should have direct day-to-day access to the Chief Scientific Adviser.

THE DIRECTOR GENERAL OF RESEARCH COUNCILS AND THE RESEARCH COUNCILS

22. The DGRC advises the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the allocation of the Science Budget to the seven Research Councils [44] and sets the broad framework within which the Research Councils decide what science to fund and how. In setting this framework the DGRC must ensure that the Government's existing, and future, needs for scientific research and advice are able to be met.

PUBLIC SECTOR RESEARCH ESTABLISHMENTS

24. The Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) are, in OST's words, "a key element in the Government science and technology advisory system".[46] There are over 50 of these establishments, sponsored either by the Research Councils or directly by Government Departments.[47]

GOVERNMENT ADVISORY COMMITTEES

26. The Government also receives scientific advice from a wide variety of departmental advisory bodies. These are committees or groups of outside experts (and, in some cases, civil servants) of many different kinds, and of widely varying purpose. The OST's memoranda distinguish three categories of advisory bodies:

— those which advise Government on the current state of play in specific areas of science;

— those which advise Government on policy more generally but where science and scientific advances are still a paramount consideration or driver; and

— those whose work is primarily to science and technology support programmes or its funding.[48]

27. Our inquiry has focussed on the first category. The OST memorandum lists over 50 of these scientific advisory committees.[49] The largest number, 23[50], are sponsored by DETR, which helpfully divides its advisory committees into those advising on science at a basic level; those building on advice, to provide a risk analysis; and those building on advice and risk analysis, to make policy recommendations.

STRATEGIC ADVISORY BODIES

30. Since we began our inquiry, the Government has created three new "strategic" scientific advisory bodies:

— the Human Genetics Commission (HGC),

— the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and

— the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC).

Although often grouped together, each of the three bodies has a different status.[55] The HGC and AEBC are advisory commissions established by the Department of Health and the Cabinet Office (and the three devolved administrations) respectively. The FSA, on the other hand, is a non-Ministerial Government Department, established by Act of Parliament: it has a statutory basis and a range of executive functions, as well as an advisory role. The status accorded different advisory bodies at present appears haphazard.

31. The three new bodies are not just committees of scientists: they include in their membership journalists and representatives of consumer, green and other interest groups. They are therefore much more political, in the widest sense, than traditional advisory committees. Their role goes beyond assessment of the science: they are to look at the "big picture", taking ethical and social issues into account, as well as the science.[57] All three bodies have made a good start. They have made a point of engaging with the public: the HGC, for example, has recently held a public information-gathering and discussion day on genetics and insurance. They have adopted high standards of openness and transparency: their easily accessible websites contains the minutes of their meetings, registers of interests and workplans.[58]

32. The Science and Innovation White Paper states -

"These Commissions face a challenging task, bringing together widely difficult views on very difficult issues and working under public view. If they are successful, they will provide models for the future. The Government will watch their work closely to see what lessons can be translated into other areas.".[59]

We welcome the new strategic advisory bodies and, like the Government, will be watching their work with interest. However, it is essential that Ministers do not hide behind these bodies on issues of policy, for it is Ministers who are responsible for policy decisions.

INTERNATIONAL ADVICE

33. We welcome the Government's assurance that it is working to ensure that the principles underlying good scientific decision making are adopted by international bodies.[61] We support the recommendation of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that the Government should press for guidelines on scientific advice across the board, along the lines of the OST guidelines, to be adopted at European Commission level.[62]

34. We reiterate the recommendation made in our climate change case study Report, that the Government actively promote the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] model of scientific advice in other policy areas of global significance in which there is scientific uncertainty.

35. Even where policy is being decided within the UK, it may well be useful to obtain advice from abroad. We are fortunate that the UK science base is broad, but there is often much to be gained from a wider perspective; and international involvement may increase public confidence in the advice provided. The Government should make full use of scientific experience abroad, and include experts from abroad on advisory committees, where appropriate. This has rarely been the case in the past.

THE LEARNED BODIES

36. The OST's memorandum states that "the Government works closely with a range of other organisations as appropriate", including the Learned Bodies (the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Professional Institutions etc) and independent bodies of experts (for example, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety).[65] The Learned Bodies, however, think that the Government fails to pay them sufficient attention. The Royal Society recommended that "the Government should make much more use of independent, external sources of advice", and pointed out that advice from "independent bodies of international reputation ... brings with it the endorsement of internationally recognised peers".[67]

37. In our view, the Learned Bodies are an invaluable source of authoritative scientific advice, and it is surprising that Government Departments appear not to consult them as a matter of routine. They are particularly well-placed to advise on the selection of scientists to serve on advisory committees, and to advise which disciplines it would be appropriate to include.

39. The Learned Bodies and professional institutions regularly act proactively to produce reports on subjects they regard as important and of interest to policymakers. Government must take proper account of these reports - and be seen to be taking account of them. We note that the Home Affairs Committee has recently elicited and published a full response from the Home Office to the Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the Runciman Report).[72] We should be pleased to act similarly, if circumstances require it. Government should be aware that we will consider using our powers to insist on a memorandum from the Government responding in full to the recommendations made in reports by the Learned Bodies.

40. Involving the Learned Bodies more closely in the scientific advisory system would be a straightforward way of demonstrating its independence.

The Government's role

IDENTIFYING THE NEED FOR ADVICE

4. All advisory committees should be allowed to operate more proactively, monitoring developments in scientific research in their field and alerting the Government to relevant change.

42. A key issue for Government is to ensure that there is a sound research base on which advice can be based. In all our case studies we have found that there are serious gaps in research.[75] We have also found that where issues cross departmental boundaries - as they do on GM foods, mobile phones and climate change, for example - there is frequently inadequate co-ordination of the research being commissioned by the different Departments, and insufficient cross-fertilisation of ideas. We welcome the Government's commitment to joined-up work and policy development, and its proposal "to use increased openness to help identify areas of potential weakness in the research map".[76] It is vital that research is adequately co-ordinated, and that any gaps in research needed to inform policy are identified and addressed, with funding made available. The research programme must do more than meet policymakers' current needs for information: it must try to anticipate the advice required in future years.

43. Of course, anticipating the needs of policymakers years ahead is far from easy. Departments must ensure that they have enough well-qualified science and engineering personnel in-house who are in touch with their professional communities. Departments should also encourage the Research Councils and the Learned Bodies to provide them with foresight of potential scientific developments. And it should be made clear in the terms of reference of advisory bodies that it is their role to look ahead and advise Departments of issues which may face policymakers in years ahead.

ASSESSING ADVICE

44. It also falls to Government to assess the advice it receives. One of the lessons identified in the Phillips Report is that "Departments should retain "in house" sufficient expertise to ensure that the advice of advisory committees, and the reasoning behind it, can be understood and evaluated".[77] The Government must take steps to ensure that there is sufficient scientific expertise within the civil service, so that Departments may be "intelligent customers" and have the capacity to interpret and understand the advice they receive.

45. The Phillips Report recommends that advice should normally be in writing, in terms that can be understood by a layperson, should state the reasons for conclusions and any underlying assumptions, and where appropriate should set out the different policy options and the implications of each.[80] It is incumbent on advisory bodies to present their advice in a way which is clear and comprehensible, while identifying any uncertainty and dissent as well as their consensus view.

USING ADVICE IN POLICY-MAKING

46. The purpose of the scientific advisory system is to inform the Government of scientific matters relevant to policy decisions. How Government uses advice in policy-making is therefore a test of the effectiveness of the scientific advisory system.

Scientific uncertainty and the precautionary principle

47. A central issue for Government is how it handles scientific uncertainty and risk. This has been a recurring theme in our inquiry, and is one of the central issues of the Phillips Report. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, in its Report on Science and Society, addressed the problem of communicating uncertainty and risk, and concluded that there were no easy answers.[82] In our climate change Report, we commend the formula for expressing degrees of uncertainty which is adopted in the IPCC's summaries for policymakers, and suggest that this could usefully be adopted by other advisory bodies.[83] We believe that the public is well able to understand uncertainties, if they are clearly presented.

48. When faced with scientific uncertainty, the Government may be required to apply the precautionary principle. In the Government's words, the precautionary principle "holds that absence of scientific proof should not delay or prevent proportionate measures to remove or reduce threats of serious harm".[84] The precautionary principle, or approach, is frequently applied by policymakers. Sadly, the precautionary principle was not applied by Government in relation to policy on BSE. As the Phillips Report finds, "the importance of precautionary measures should not be played down on the grounds that the risk is unproved". We welcome the Government's commitment to applying the precautionary principle where appropriate.[85] We recognise, however, that whether to apply the precautionary principle in a particular case is essentially a political decision, and rightly the responsibility of elected Ministers. While scientists can offer useful advice about the magnitude of the risks involved, public opinion plays a major part in persuading Government to apply - or not to apply - the precautionary principle.

49. Firmly linked to the precautionary principle, however, is a principle of proportionality. The Government should take that action which is proportionate to the risk. In its Interim Response to the Phillips Report, the Government states that its approach is "to make available to the public sufficient information about a risk, in a form that is easily understood, so that individuals can make their own choices"; but that where "the risks are taken involuntarily, affect vulnerable groups, such as children, or where the hazard is widespread the public expects government to ensure that measures are in place to protect them". The Government acknowledges that "a balance needs to be struck between intervening too much ... and failing to help protect them sufficiently from actual or potential hazards".[86] In our Diabetes Report, for example, we concluded that the outright ban on insulin-treated diabetics from driving heavier road vehicles was an unjustifiably severe application of the precautionary principle.[87] The Government must ensure that its response is proportionate to the potential threat. The Minister for Science, through the Chief Scientific Adviser, should ensure that the precautionary principle is properly understood, and applied where appropriate, across Government.

Intragovernmental co-ordination

50. In a number of areas we have found that communication of advice between Government Departments, and even within Departments, is inadequate. The Government must ensure that scientific advice is disseminated effectively amongst policymakers.

PART II—QUALITY OF AND CONFIDENCE IN SCIENTIFIC ADVICE

Establishing the quality of advice

51. The Government has to establish that the advice it receives is of a high quality. It has to ensure that its sources of advice are good and operate effectively, and it has to have ways of checking that the advice it receives is valid.

52. The most effective way of ensuring the validity of advice is to open the advice to peer review. Peer review may be formal - by asking other experts to review the advice - or informal, for example by opening the advice to public scrutiny. It is important to ensure that formal peer review is independent and rigorous. There is a risk that reviewers may be too close to those they are reviewing to be critical or to offer a significantly different perspective. This may be regarded by a hostile public as incestuous. It is, therefore, important that formal peer review be supplemented by wider scrutiny. Many advisory committees are already in the practice of publishing their advice to Government, and the commitment to transparency for all advisory committees will facilitate scrutiny greatly. But for this wider scrutiny to be effective the Government must offer clear channels for scientists of other disciplines to offer their alternative perspective.

53. A key question in our inquiry has been whether the Government is sufficiently aware of those independent scientists whose views diverge from the profession's mainstream: dissident or even maverick voices. It should be the clear responsibility of advisory committees to draw dissenting views to the attention of Government.

54. One of the difficulties for Government is to establish whether an approach is coming from a sensible, if dissident, scientist, or simply from someone who is peddling an unsubstantiated view. We have seen examples where scientists have been manipulated by the media, who have given quite disproportionate and uncritical coverage to their research. Scientists who are unused to media attention may be seduced to voice views way beyond their scientific knowledge. Government must ensure that dissident scientists are heard, but not give credence to those who, with media encouragement, are voicing unsubstantiated theories.

Public confidence

55. There is no doubt that there has been a loss of public confidence in the scientific advisory system. This is only partly a reflection on the scientific advisory system itself: it is part of a wider public distrust of the political process and possibly a decline in respect for authority. As we stated in paragraph 9, the Government, in its use of the scientific advisory system, must recognise this social change and respond to it. Public opinion plays a major part in forming Government policy, whatever the scientific advice. New developments need to have public support. It was public opinion, not scientific advice, which led to policy changes on GM foods, for example. Restoring public confidence in scientific advice is essential, but it will be a hard, and slow, process.

Openness and transparency

56. The Phillips Report sets out three simple lessons:

"- To establish credibility it is necessary to generate trust

- Trust can only be generated by openness

- Openness requires recognition of uncertainty, where it exists".[90]

These lessons are strongly endorsed in the Government's Interim Response. This states that the Government is committed to a policy of open and transparent working, and recognises that efforts to "build and sustain trust through openness cannot succeed unless it is fully prepared to acknowledge uncertainty in its assessments of risk".[91] The Guidelines 2000 emphasise that Department's procedures for obtaining advice should be open and transparent; and the draft Code of Practice expects advisory bodies to maintain high levels of transparency during routine business and to publish appropriate documents explaining their activities. We commend the very significant steps which Government is making to increase openness and transparency.

57. The Government's commitment to transparency is very welcome. We note that there are limitations to this commitment. The Government was not prepared to extend the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to factual information made available to Ministers. The draft Code of Practice envisages that in some circumstances the advice of advisory bodies will not be published. Voluntary disclosure is not enough, if the public is to be convinced that the scientific advisory system is truly transparent. We note with approval the proposal in the Government's Interim Report that there should be a centrally run website providing access to information about publicly-funded R&D programmes.[92] In addition to, or perhaps part of, this, we recommend that there should be a website for the scientific advisory system, with direct links to every advisory committee.

The role of the media

58. Efforts to sustain public confidence in the scientific advisory system are not assisted by the inaccurate or sensational reporting of scientific matters in the media. In our case study on GM foods, we were very concerned by the quality of media coverage of GM issues. We recommended that there be a Code of Practice governing media coverage of scientific matters, and that breaches be referred to the Press Complaints Commission.[93] In its response, the Government maintained that the newspaper industry's existing Code of Practice covered alleged inaccuracy in reporting, regardless of the subject matter, and that the BBC's guidelines and the ITC's Programme Code required accuracy of reporting in the broadcasting media. The Government saw no merit in a separate code for scientific matters.[94] We note that the Royal Society has produced guidelines for editors, calling for factual accuracy and balance in media coverage of science. We endorse the recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee that the Press Complaints Commission should adopt and promulgate the Royal Society's guidelines for editors.[95]

59. The role of the media has been explored in depth by the House of Lords Committee in its Report on Science and Society. We commend this Report to the scientists and journalists. While we continue to believe that inaccurate and unbalanced reporting is unacceptable, we note the Lords Committee's conclusion that scientists must learn to work with the media as they are. Scientists must learn to communicate better and to present their case to the media.

PART III—THE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY SYSTEM

Operation of the advisory committees

60. As the Science and Innovation White Paper states -

"Expert scientific advisory committees are absolutely essential to our society. Without the knowledge and wisdom of the people who give up their time to serve on them, we would not be able to identify or manage the risks from science, or gain the benefits of scientific advances. We all owe them a debt of gratitude."[96]

TERMS OF REFERENCE

61. It is essential that all scientific advisory bodies should have clear terms of reference. As the Phillips Report states, "the areas of advice that are required from the advisory committee should be identified as precisely as possible before the committee is set up" and "consideration should be given at the outset to the manner in which the committee will contribute to deciding policy".[97] It must be clear whether committees are simply to advise on the science, or whether they are also to advise on the policy options. It must also be clear where the limits of their responsibility, in the latter context, lies.

62. We are concerned that the distinction between risk assessment (properly the role of advisory committees) and risk management (principally the responsibility of Departments) seems frequently to be blurred. We note that the new strategic advisory bodies have responsibility for both: they advise and they recommend policy, although ultimate decision-making remains with Ministers. Some of the advisory committees too are asked to advise on policy options. As Phillips notes, "if a committee is asked to advise which policy option to adopt, there may be little alternative but to follow that advice".[98] Whatever the role of the advisory body, it must be clear that responsibility for decision-making lies with the Department, and that accountability for these decisions lies with Ministers. Advisory bodies must not be used as a device by Ministers to shirk difficult policy decisions.

63. We welcome the commitment by the Government to improve both risk assessment and risk management procedures. The Government has established an Inter-departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA).[99] The Treasury has recently published a broad framework for managing risk ("the Orange Book"[100]), which sets out the principles of good risk management. The Government recognises that guidance alone will not be enough, and that officials will need to be thoroughly trained in its application. Advisory committees will also need clear guidance. The Phillips Report found that "where a committee is asked to advise on risk management, it will normally be helpful to follow a formal structure based on recognised principles of risk assessment".[101] The Government has agreed that this should be made clear in the Code of Practice.[102]

RECRUITMENT

64. Since 1998, appointments to advisory committees have been subject to the Public Appointments Code. This is very welcome. As Phillips has stated, advisory committees should include experts in the areas of the advice that is likely to be required. This may seem self-evident but it has not always been the case. It is not always clear, particularly to the non-specialist, exactly which disciplines will be relevant, and this may change over time. The Royal Society of Chemistry felt that "governments have an incomplete view as to whom it is appropriate to consult on a given issue, which may be based on an insufficient appreciation of the interdisciplinary nature of modern science".[105] The Guidelines must stress the importance of including all relevant disciplines on advisory committees, and the Learned Bodies could give invaluable advice here.

LAY MEMBERS

68. There have been lay members on some advisory committees for many years. Our case studies have convinced us of their value. As the Phillips Report states, "a lay member can play a vital role on an expert committee, and in particular can ensure that advice given by the committee addresses the concerns of, and is in a form that is intelligible to, the public".[109] The Government has stated that it agrees with this finding.[110]

69. There is some uncertainty about the definition of the term "lay member". It does not necessarily mean a non-scientist; indeed, some scientific background may be very useful. The Guidelines 2000 state rather vaguely that, in obtaining advice, Departments might draw on "lay members of advisory groups, consumer groups and other stakeholder bodies". The Guidelines should clarify that "lay members" can include scientists of other disciplines.

70. We recommend that the norm be for at least two lay members (depending on the size of the committee) to be appointed to scientific advisory committees. The Guidelines should make this explicit.

POTENTIAL CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

71. Our case studies have also convinced us of the importance of involving scientists working for industry in advising Government, even when they may have a financial interest in the matter in which their advice is sought. In our GM report, we rejected the suggestion that employees of biotechnology or food companies should be barred from serving on GM advisory committees, and stated that "It is vital that appointments to scientific advisory committees should continue to be made by selecting people with the most suitable and relevant expertise".[116]

72. We recommend that the revised Guidelines require all advisory committees to publish registers of members' interests.

73. It is not only those employed by industry who may have commercial interests: academic and public sector scientists may well have links to commercial organisations, or even be dependent on them for funding. The revised Guidelines should make clear that the requirement to declare interests extends to those in all sectors.

COMMITTEE SECRETARIATS

75. It is important for the effectiveness of advisory committees that they be properly staffed. In most cases, advisory committees are staffed by a small secretariat of civil servants drawn from the sponsoring Department(s), and located within the Department. While this may give rise to questions as to their independence, it allows good communication between the Department and the committee. The Phillips Report found that "it will often be desirable to draw the secretariat from the commissioning Department(s) in order to provide a two-way channel of communication". It noted, however, that "the secretariat must be careful to respect the independence of the committee".[123] We welcome the Government's undertaking that these concerns will specifically be taken into account when the next draft of the Code of Practice is issued.[124] While we accept that close links with the Department concerned can be useful, we suggest that it would be beneficial for at least some of a committee's staff to be brought in from outside (for example, on secondment from the Research Councils or the Learned Bodies). It is essential that the staff of an advisory committee appreciate that they work for the committee and not for the Department.

76. In our GM inquiry, we were concerned by the evidence of the Chairman of ACRE that insufficient resources and staff were allocated to the support of his committee, and that this was causing "serious problems". We recommended that the Government looked closely at the staffing arrangements for scientific advisory committees and committed itself to providing large enough secretariats to ensure their efficient working.[125] The Government does not appear to have reviewed the staffing arrangements more generally, as we recommended. In our current inquiry into Genetics and Insurance, we have been told by a member of the former Human Genetics Advisory Commission that its staff resources were "barely adequate" and that on occasion this caused difficulty for members.[127] We believe this to be a widespread and continuing problem. We recommend that the Government ask each advisory committee to report on the adequacy of its resources, and to make a case for an increase, if they think this necessary. Advisory committees must have the resources they require to operate effectively.

Rationalisation of committees

77. It is clear from the OST's list of advisory committees, that a lot of committees have grown up over the years, and that they are not in any rational pattern. We believe that the usefulness of a committee should be reviewed, by an external body, at least every five years. If there is no longer a clear need for a committee, it should be disbanded. In addition, we believe there is a need for a review of the whole network of advisory committees to establish whether there is any overlap or duplication which suggests the need for rationalisation. We recommend that the Government carry out a review of the advisory committee network and thereafter establish a system of five-yearly reviews for individual committees.

Impact of change in Public Sector Research Establishments

78. As we discussed in paragraph 25 above, the PSREs have been subject to increased competition for funding. It has to be said that, in this inquiry, we have encountered little evidence of significant problems so far. It is too soon to say how the research base, or the scientific advisory system, has been affected by the moves to encourage commercialisation in the Public Sector Research Establishments.

79. It is in our view unsatisfactory for the Government to be dependent for advice on just one source of advice, particularly if that source of advice is not perceived to be independent of Government. The Government must avoid dependence on single sources of advice.

LIST OF RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS

4. The OST should be more active in encouraging consistency of standards in science policy across Whitehall. ... It is important that Ministers in all relevant Departments should support the OST and strengthen it in its role of co-ordinating science policy across Government. (Paragraph 18)

6. It is essential that Chief Scientists in Departments should have direct day-to-day access to the Chief Scientific Adviser. (Paragraph 21)

7. We recommend that Government publish an annual list of scientific advisory committees, with details of membership (including registered interests) and terms of reference, perhaps in the annual report on the implementation of the Guidelines. (Paragraph 29)

10. The Government should press for guidelines on scientific advice across the board, along the lines of the OST guidelines, to be adopted at European Commission level. (Paragraph 33)

11. We reiterate the recommendation made in our climate change case study Report, that the Government actively promote the IPCC model of scientific advice in other policy areas of global significance in which there is scientific uncertainty. (Paragraph 34)

12. The Government should make full use of scientific experience abroad, and include experts from abroad on advisory committees, where appropriate. This has rarely been the case in the past. (Paragraph 35)

14. The Government must allow a reasonable time for outside bodies to respond to consultation. Furthermore, to demonstrate that the consultation has been genuine, we recommend that the Government adopt the practice of publishing a summary of the results of consultation. (Paragraph 38)

15. Government should be aware that we will consider using our powers to insist on a memorandum from the Government responding in full to the recommendations made in reports by the Learned Bodies. (Paragraph 39)

16. The Government could also commission reports from the Learned Bodies, where appropriate. (Paragraph 40)

17. Involving the Learned Bodies more closely in the scientific advisory system would be a straightforward way of demonstrating its independence. (Paragraph 40)

18. If advisory committees are not asked the right questions, important scientific information may never be brought to the Government's attention. ... All advisory committees should be allowed to operate more proactively, monitoring developments in scientific research in their field and alerting the Government to relevant change. (Paragraph 41)

19. It is vital that research is adequately co-ordinated, and that any gaps in research needed to inform policy are identified and addressed, with funding made available. The research programme must do more than meet policymakers' current needs for information: it must try to anticipate the advice required in future years. (Paragraph 42)

20. It should be made clear in the terms of reference of advisory bodies that it is their role to look ahead and advise Departments of issues which may face policymakers in years ahead. (Paragraph 43)

21. The Government must take steps to ensure that there is sufficient scientific expertise within the civil service, so that Departments may be "intelligent customers" and have the capacity to interpret and understand the advice they receive. (Paragraph 44)

22. It is incumbent on advisory bodies to present their advice in a way which is clear and comprehensible, while identifying any uncertainty and dissent as well as their consensus view. (Paragraph 45)

23. We believe that the public is well able to understand uncertainties, if they are clearly presented. (Paragraph 47)

24. We welcome the Government's commitment to applying the precautionary principle where appropriate. ... Whether to apply the precautionary principle in a particular case is essentially a political decision, and rightly the responsibility of elected Ministers. While scientists can offer useful advice about the magnitude of the risks involved, public opinion plays a major part in persuading Government to apply - or not to apply - the precautionary principle. (Paragraph 48)

25. The Government must ensure that its response is proportionate to the potential threat. The Minister for Science, through the Chief Scientific Adviser, should ensure that the precautionary principle is properly understood, and applied where appropriate, across Government. (Paragraph 49)

26. The Government must ensure that scientific advice is disseminated effectively amongst policymakers. (Paragraph 50)

27. The Government must offer clear channels for scientists of other disciplines to offer their alternative perspective. (Paragraph 52)

28. We repeat the recommendation made in our report on Climate Change, that clear and transparent channels should be available through which scientists who hold dissenting views can readily communicate their ideas to policymakers and can have confidence that they have been heard. It should be the clear responsibility of advisory committees to draw dissenting views to the attention of Government. (Paragraph 53)

29. Government must ensure that dissident scientists are heard, but not give credence to those who, with media encouragement, are voicing unsubstantiated theories. (Paragraph 54)

30. There is no doubt that there has been a loss of public confidence in the scientific advisory system. ... Restoring public confidence in scientific advice is essential, but it will be a hard, and slow, process. (Paragraph 55)

31. We commend the very significant steps which Government is making to increase openness and transparency. (Paragraph 56)

32. Voluntary disclosure is not enough, if the public is to be convinced that the scientific advisory system is truly transparent. (Paragraph 57)

33. We recommend that there should be a website for the scientific advisory system, with direct links to every advisory committee. (Paragraph 57)

35. We endorse the recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee that the Press Complaints Commission should adopt and promulgate the Royal Society's guidelines for editors. (Paragraph 58)

36. Scientists must learn to communicate better and to present their case to the media. (Paragraph 59)

37. The advisory committees do an enormous amount of valuable work, for little or no reward. We firmly believe that the advice which they give to Government is for the most part of a very high quality. Significant improvements have been made in recent years in the way they operate. Implementation of the new Code of Practice will improve matters further. (Paragraph 60)

38. Whatever the role of the advisory body, it must be clear that responsibility for decision-making lies with the Department, and that accountability for these decisions lies with Ministers. Advisory bodies must not be used as a device by Ministers to shirk difficult policy decisions. (Paragraph 62)

39. We welcome the commitment by the Government to improve both risk assessment and risk management procedures. (Paragraph 63)

40. The Guidelines must stress the importance of including all relevant disciplines on advisory committees, and the Learned Bodies could give invaluable advice here. (Paragraph 64)

43. It should be clear that the role of the lay member is to bring an alternative perspective to the committee and not to represent an interest group. ... The Guidelines should clarify that "lay members" can include scientists of other disciplines. (Paragraph 69)

44. We recommend that the norm be for at least two lay members (depending on the size of the committee) to be appointed to scientific advisory committees. The Guidelines should make this explicit. (Paragraph 70)

45. While an interest should not be a bar to membership, there should be clear guidelines for disclosure. (Paragraph 72)

46. We recommend that the revised Guidelines require all advisory committees to publish registers of members' interests. (Paragraph 72)

47. The revised Guidelines should make clear that the requirement to declare interests extends to those in all sectors. (Paragraph 73)

48. We welcome the Government's commitment to a policy of appointments being limited to five years, and being renewable only once. (Paragraph 74)

50. It is essential that the staff of an advisory committee appreciate that they work for the committee and not for the Department. (Paragraph 75)

51. We recommend that the Government ask each advisory committee to report on the adequacy of its resources, and to make a case for an increase, if they think this necessary. Advisory committees must have the resources they require to operate effectively. (Paragraph 76)

52. We recommend that the Government carry out a review of the advisory committee network and thereafter establish a system of five-yearly reviews for individual committees. (Paragraph 77)

54. The Government must avoid dependence on single sources of advice. (Paragraph 79)

CONCLUSION

81. It is clear from the Phillips Report, and from our own case studies, that all is not well with the scientific advisory system. Many improvements have been made, but much remains to be done. Much of the scientific advice delivered to Government is excellent - and we pay tribute to those who provide it - but faults, in the way that the advisory committees are set up, staffed and operate, mean that it is not always as good as it needs to be. The Government does not always seek advice when it needs it, nor ask the right questions. It is not always effective in assessing the advice when it gets it, and does not always apply that advice in policy-making. The distinction between the role of scientific advisory bodies and Government Departments in policy-making is not always clear-cut. These are systemic problems which must be addressed. We welcome the Government's constructive response to the BSE inquiry and acknowledge the very real progress which has been made, particularly in openness and transparency. But there is still some institutional complacency, and a misplaced belief that the problem lies with public perception rather than with the structure and use of the scientific advisory system itself. Reform of the scientific advisory system is required if public confidence is to be restored.

 

[Background]

The Science and Technology Committee is appointed to examine on behalf of the House of Commons the expenditure, administration and policy of the Office of Science and Technology (and any associated public bodies). Its constitution and powers are set out in House of Commons Standing Order No. 152.

The present membership of the Committee is as follows:[1]
Dr Michael Clark MP (Conservative, Rayleigh)[2]
Sir Paddy Ashdown MP (Liberal Democrat, Yeovil)[3]
Mrs Claire Curtis-Thomas, (Labour, Crosby)[2]
Dr Ian Gibson MP (Labour, Norwich North)[2]
Dr Brian Iddon MP (Labour, Bolton South East)[4]
Mr Robert Jackson MP (Conservative, Wantage)[5]
Dr Lynne Jones MP (Labour, Birmingham Selly Oak)[2]
Dr Ashok Kumar MP (Labour, Middlesborough South and East Cleveland)[2]
Mr Ian Taylor MP (Conservative, Esher and Walton)[6]
Dr Desmond Turner MP (Labour, Brighton Kemptown)[2]
Dr Alan W Williams MP (Labour, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr)[2]

All correspondence should be addressed to
The Clerk of the Science and Technology Committee, Committee Office, 7 Millbank, London SW1P 3JA.
The telephone number for general inquiries is: 020 7219 2794;
the Committee's e-mail address is:
scitechcom@parliament.uk