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Government science advice should rest on trust

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  1. Terrapinzflyer
    For the first time since the 2009 sacking of David Nutt the government is updating its official Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC). The document sets out how the relationship between government and expert, unpaid advisers on a range of issues - from radioactive waste to forestry - should work. The consultation process is just ending, and we're expecting the new document to be finalised over the coming weeks and months.

    Historically CoPSAC has been a little-regarded set of guidelines sitting quietly in the background, but it was thrown into the spotlight when a government minister unfairly sacked a scientific adviser.

    At the time, home secretary Alan Johnson insisted that he had "lost trust" in Nutt, and that he therefore had to go - but it was never demonstrated that Nutt had been in breach of CoPSAC at any point. Still, the fallout from the events of 2009 means that there is a new interest in making sure CoPSAC is fit for purpose.

    Over the past month the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has met and been closely engaged with the Government Office for Science (GO Science) within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) as they update CoPSAC. Here were our main asks:

    Openness and the media

    Transparency must be at the heart of the agenda for a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC). As well as informing government policy, their output must allow the public to hold the government of the day to account. As far as practicable, the reports and recommendations of the committees shouldn't just be freely available, but actively disseminated.

    This means that the scientists and engineers who sit on SACs - who shouldn't be expected to be media or politically savvy - need to be given support to make their findings public. This means that they need independent press officers. Right now they have to use government press officers, who are ultimately accountable to Downing Street and have been known to put political priorities above getting the best and most effective coverage for a SAC's findings.

    While it would certainly cost money to outsource the media relations for SACs, it would also free up departmental press officers - so the overall cost needn't be prohibitive. To promote evidence-based policy, we need accountability. Therefore the price of media advice needs to be seen in the context of the enormous cost of potentially inefficient and wasteful government policies - to say nothing of the damage that can be done by scientific crises like BSE or foot and mouth.

    Principles and quangos

    The aftermath of the sacking of David Nutt saw the publication of The Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice, intended to clarify the duties of ministers with respect to scientific advice. This was subsequently incorporated into the Ministerial Code, the official handbook for government ministers.

    More recently we've seen the "bonfire of the quangos" - a list of bodies that the government wants to scrap or scale back, which included reference to many SACs. Some SACs have been maintained on grounds such as the need for impartiality, independence, or technical expertise, whereas others are being reconstituted as internal departmental committees. As we made clear to the House of Commons, this suggests that the "reconstituted" committees don't have to be as impartial as the fully independent SACs.

    The new CoPSAC needs to take account of both of these events. Its relationship with the Principles needs to be clarified, but it also needs to introduce safeguards to make sure that the standard and independence of scientific advice across government is ensured.

    Trust

    One of the unfortunate aspects of the Principles is that the final draft was changed by politicians to include a line saying that neither ministers nor advisers "should act to undermine mutual trust". This is a heart-warming sentiment, but in reality there is no such thing as an objective "trustometer" which sits in a minister's office. It is all too easy for a politician to claim they have "lost trust" in their adviser in order to dismiss him or her. This line in the Principles should be removed or amended.

    Two-way street

    CoPSAC shouldn't be thought of as a code of practice setting limits on how expert advisers should behave. It needs to also explicitly set out the limits on ministerial or departmental interference or pressure on scientific and engineering advisers.

    For instance, there needs to be a clear procedure for what happens when an adviser and a minister come into conflict, and that procedure mustn't simply end with the minister using their political and constitutional clout to get rid of the scientist.

    Finally, CoPSAC should make clear that seeking advice and evidence shouldn't be an optional extra for ministers and departments. CaSE has argued that where an evidence-based analysis can be sought, it should be sought. When we're spending taxpayers' cash, and a science and engineering perspective could help provide value for money, there has to be a presumption that ministers will seek out that advice. This isn't just about respecting science and engineering - it's to ensure that the public reaps the benefit of the nation's scientific expertise.


    Imran Khan is Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering
    2 February 2011

    http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/thesword/2011/02/government-science-advice-shou.html

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