The role of scientific advice in policy making



The problem:

"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. 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. Public confidence in the integrity of Government was at a low ebb".
[House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology's The Scientific Advisory System, 2001]

Government action:

  • In October 1994 the Committee on Standards in Public Life (formerly the Nolan Committee) was established by PM John Major to tackle 'sleaze' - "to examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life". The Committee monitors the application of the Nolan Principles in Codes of Conduct for individuals & in Codes of Practise for Committees.

  • In June 1998 the Government published a report setting out its proposals to make quangos [Quasi-autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations] more open, accountable and effective: Quangos: Opening the Doors. The report concluded "The principle of openness is paramount: this can only make impropriety more difficult to hide. At the same time, a more informed and more involved public should mean that public confidence in NDPBs [Non-Departmental Public Bodies, = quangos] will be greatly enhanced".

  • In 1997 the current edition of the Code of Practise on Access to Government Information was published.

  • In March 2000 the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published a Report Science and Society addressing what it saw as a crisis in public confidence in science. The report summary says "people place more trust in science which is seen as 'independent'. There is still a culture of governmental and institutional secrecy in the United Kingdom, which invites suspicion". They recommended "that advisory and decision-making bodies in areas involving science should adopt a presumption of openness. This presumption should apply, in particular, to the reasons on which regulatory decisions are made, including all scientific information and advice".

  • In July 2000, alongside the Science and Innovation White Paper, the OST [Office of Science & Technology] published revised guidelines for Government Departments and scientific advisory committees, Guidelines 2000 - Scientific Advice and Policy Making. The revised Guidelines extend to social science research, and place greater emphasis on stakeholder involvement and on openness and transparency, particularly in relation to uncertainty.

  • In December 2001, the OST updated the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees after extensive consultation. The Code focuses on the need for openness and well-defined areas of responsibility.

  • In October 2000, the report of the BSE Inquiry conducted by Lord Phillips ("the Phillips Report") was published. This includes a wide range of lessons to be learned on the use of scientific advisory committees, on the co-ordination of research, and on dealing with uncertainty and the communication of risk. The Government's response, published in February 2001, said [para. 4.11] "the Government is committed to strengthening the implementation of Guidelines 2000 and ensuring that its scientific advisory committees follow the Code of Practice" and [para. 4.9] that consultation respondents "felt that the independence of committees was important and that emphasis should be placed on having clear terms of reference; operating openly; and using agreed risk assessment structures".

  • In November 2000 The Freedom of Information Act received Royal Assent. It provides a statutory framework for openness in Government, making disclosure of information the norm save in exceptional circumstances. From 1 January 2005, people will have the right to make a  request for any information held by a public authority and the authority will have to comply with the Act in responding.

  • In March 2001 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology published a report The Scientific Advisory System. Their case study Genetically Modified Foods said "the role of the scientific advisory system, its effectiveness and independence, are essential if Government is to fulfil its responsibilities". The main report concluded "all is not well with the scientific advisory system ... 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. ... 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".

Science and drug policy:

In July 2003 Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, stated in a presentation A Scientifically Based Scale of Harm for all Social Drugs that "social drugs ... are classified by the Misuse of Drugs Act as Class A/B/C, an inflexible system of classification that is based on a mixture of scientific evidence, familiarity with the particular drug, and the needs of the legal system" and that "it is biased by the novelty of drugs and by media attention and public opinion". He concluded that "the present classification of drugs makes little sense. It is antiquated and reflects the prejudice and misconceptions of an era in which drugs were placed in arbitrary categories with notable, often illogical, consequences. The continuous review of evidence, and the inclusion of legal drugs in the same review, will allow more sensible and rational classification, putting illegal drugs in context with those already accepted".
The Beckley Foundation - Society & Drugs: A Rational Approach