Roles, responsibilities and remit

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The Code of Practise for Scientific Committees:

The Committee’s role and remit

11. The terms of reference for most scientific advisory committees are set by Government. It is Government’s responsibility to ensure that a committee’s remit is clear, and it is the committee’s responsibility to raise concerns if they believe there are ambiguities. As a general principle, any required clarification of a committee’s role should take place before a committee begins its work. Committees should create periodic opportunities for members to discuss the committee’s role, activities and resources, and review these for consistency with the formal terms of reference. Any necessary revisions should then be considered with sponsoring departments.

Responsibilities of chairs

22. Chairs of advisory committees have responsibility for:
- ensuring that the full range of scientific opinion, including unorthodox and contrary scientific views are appropriately taken into account;
- ensuring that the secretariat accurately documents the proceedings of the committee so that there is a clear audit trail showing how the committee reached its decisions.
- ensuring that any significant diversity of opinion among the members of the panel is fully explored and discussed and if it cannot be reconciled is accurately reflected in the report and in any other communications with sponsoring departments;
- ensuring that the committee acts in accordance with this Code.

Members’ rights and responsibilities

27. Unless specifically stated otherwise, members of committees complying with this Code are appointed as individuals to fulfil the role of the committee, not as representatives of their particular profession, employer or interest group, and have a duty to act in the public interest.

29. A member’s role on the committee should not be circumscribed by the expertise or perspective he or she was asked to bring to that committee. Any report belongs to the whole committee. Members should regard themselves as free to question and comment on the information provided or the views expressed by any of the other members, notwithstanding that the views or information do not relate to their own area of expertise. If members believe the committee’s method of working is not rigorous or thorough enough they should have the right to ask that any remaining concerns they have be put on the record.

30. All members and secretariats should regard it as part of their role to:

- consider whether the questions on which the committee offers advice are those which are of interest to the public and other interested parties outside the scientific community;
- examine and challenge if necessary the assumptions on which scientific advice is formulated and ask for explanations of any scientific terms and concepts which are not clear;

Role of the secretariat

36. The primary function of the secretariat is to support the committee by assembling and analysing information and recording conclusions. It should advise committees on the process and procedure. It should bring to the attention of committees and their members emerging issues of concern so as to inform the committee’s deliberations. The secretariat should arrange regular briefing meetings with the Chair.

37. The secretariat should provide committee Chairs with the induction required by Cabinet Office guidance and also provide them with the opportunity to undertake appropriate training in developing their skills in committee management and communication skills.

38. The secretariat should include, or have access to, people with relevant technical/scientific expertise.

39. The secretariat should be an impartial and disinterested reporter. It should at all times respect the committee's independent role. It should guard against introducing bias during the preparation of papers, during meetings, or in the reporting of the committee’s deliberations.

40. The secretariat should ensure that the proceedings of the committee are properly documented so that there is a clear audit trail showing how the committee reached its decisions.

41. The secretariat should, as far as it is aware, identify all relevant and appropriate scientific information and ensure that it is made available to the committee.

Role of other assessors or officials

44. Committee members should be aware of the role of Departmental representatives and other officials and advisers having contact with committees and/or attending meetings as observers, (or in any other capacity). Such officials should at all times respect the committee’s independence.

 

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

[Government, Minister for Science and Chief Scientific Officer - responsibility for proportionality]

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.

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.

[Advisory Committees - dissenting views, limits of responsibility, risk assessment and management]

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.

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".

 

Guidelines 2000: scientific advice and policy making:

4. The Guidelines apply to ... standing or ad-hoc advisory committees. However, it is particularly important that they are followed carefully where the issues are sensitive, for example where there is significant scientific uncertainty, a range of scientific opinion, or implications for public policy.

20. Scientific advice is only one element among the considerations which may need to be taken into account by decision makers, which might also include social, political, economic, moral or ethical concerns. Departments will need to judge how and at what stage the scientific and other concerns are to be brought together in the decision making process. Where it is intended that those offering the advice should take such concerns into account, departments should make it clear at the outset that this is the case.

21. When asking experts to identify policy options or to comment on policy options prepared by others, departments should respect the line between the responsibility of experts to provide advice, and the responsibility of departments for any subsequent policy decisions based on that advice.

26. Departments are individually responsible for the handling of advice commissioned by them, including its public presentation.

 

Office of Science and Technology: Implementation of Guidelines 2000

[Government Departments - compliance official]

14. All departments have now appointed an official to oversee implementation of both Guidelines 2000 and the forthcoming Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. This person will also handle any complaints from the public relating to implementation issues.

Annex A: The [Home Office] contact point for implementation of Guidelines 2000 is:
Alan Pratt, Deputy Director, PSDB, Sandridge, St Albans, Herts AL4 9HQ
Tel: 01727 816277.
alan.pratt@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk

[Chief Scientific Adviser - checking good practise in Departments]

30. However, there have been a number of issues raised, for example by the Phillips Report on BSE, which have highlighted the need for further clarification of some aspects of the way in which departments obtain and handle scientific advice. Many of these are too detailed to sit comfortably in a high level document like Guidelines 2000. To address these issues and to encourage greater crossdepartmental consistency in handling science policy issues I shall be setting up a system of "Chief Scientific Adviser’s letters" which can be updated as necessary. These letters, which will be addressed to departmental Permanent Secretaries, will set out good practice on arrangements for handling scientific advice and for managing research in their departments. Their publication will provide the wider public with the means to judge how well departments are measuring up to the latest benchmarks and also inform the work of other review machinery.