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Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report

November 2006

Conclusions and recommendations




Sources of advice and expertise

Chief Advisers and Heads of Profession

1.  We support the current arrangement whereby the Government Chief Scientific Adviser's remit encompasses the natural, physical and social sciences, as well as engineering and technology, but we note that it is a challenge for one individual to cover such a disparate range of subject areas and disciplines. It is therefore vital that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser works closely with the Government Chiefs of Profession in the social sciences, including economics, to establish higher profiles for these disciplines. (Paragraph 16)

2.  We recommend that the posts of Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Office of Science and Innovation be separated. The Director General of Science and Innovation at the DTI should become the new Head of OSI. (Paragraph 18)

3.  In view of the cross-cutting nature of science and the cross-departmental responsibilities of the Government CSA, it would make sense for the post to be based in a department with a similarly cross-cutting remit. (Paragraph 19)

4.  A long term solution is required for the post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser, not just one which happens to suit the strengths of present incumbent. On balance, we recommend the relocation of the GCSA's office to the Cabinet Office. In addition, the GCSA should be given a seat on the board of the Treasury to ensure that the crucial work of this department benefits from a scientific perspective at the highest level. The changes we have recommended seek to strengthen the influence and effectiveness of the GCSA. It is therefore essential that the resources available to the GCSA to support his work do not diminish as a result of these changes. (Paragraph 25)

5.  We are of the view that clear leadership can be valuable for improving accountability and providing a driver for implementation of good practice across departments. We recommend the Government clarify the lines of ministerial responsibility for the scientific advisory system. For example, whilst ultimate responsibility must rest with the Prime Minister, day-to-day responsibility might best be assumed by the Cabinet Office led by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. (Paragraph 26)

Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers

6.  We recommend that the presumption should be that all future departmental Chief Scientific Advisers should be external appointments who have occupied senior positions in their scientific community and command the respect of their peers. (Paragraph 31)

7.  We support the use of part-time and fixed-term contracts for departmental CSAs with the caveat that departments must provide adequate support and resources for these appointments. We recognise that appropriate staffing levels will vary between departments but it seems unlikely that a DCSA can operate effectively with just one or two officials. (Paragraph 34)

8.  We commend to other departments the Department for Transport's model whereby an externally appointed DCSA is supported by a senior scientist, drawn from the civil service, who acts as both deputy CSA and Head of Profession for Scientists and Engineers in the department. (Paragraph 35)

9.  The introduction of departmental CSAs has been most welcome but they must be able to contribute fully to strategic decision making and high level policy development within the department if their contribution is to be maximised. Departmental CSAs must be given the opportunity to play a full and active and yet independent role at board level, and be in a position to identify where their involvement is required, rather than being brought in where others have decided that there is a need for their input. DCSAs must be in the stream of policy development, not watching from the bank. The misconception that scientists in the civil service should be 'on tap, not on top' must be laid to rest once and for all. (Paragraph 39)

10.  We acknowledge the potential difficulty facing departmental CSAs in balancing the demands and expectations of their permanent secretary, minister and the Government CSA. DCSAs should report to the Secretary of State but retain the independence necessary not to restrict their freedom to speak out internally or publicly when required and to avoid any politicisation of their advice. (Paragraph 40)

11.  It is good that the Government CSA is able to go directly to senior officials and ministers in departments in cases where he believes his intervention is essential. In so doing he must be careful not to undermine the position of the relevant departmental CSA and recognise those areas in which their expertise should hold sway. He should, wherever possible, include the departmental CSA in his discussions with ministers and senior officials. By the same token, we believe that departmental CSAs should be free to publicly disagree with the Government CSA in instances where there is, for example, a difference in their interpretation of scientific evidence, but urge departmental CSAs and the Government CSA to co-operate closely to deliver an active network of scientific support and advice to every department. The scientific advisory system will be most effective when the departmental and Government CSAs work together collaboratively. (Paragraph 41)

Science in the civil service

12.  It is worrying and regrettable that there is a perception that not only has there been a decline in scientific expertise within the civil service, but civil servants perceive specialist skills to be a hindrance to career progression. We recommend that the Government implement the 2002 recommendation of the Cross-Cutting Review of Science and Research to maintain records on specialist staff in order to identify their qualities and experience and to investigate, and if necessary tackle, negative attitudes towards scientific qualifications. (Paragraph 45)

13.  The Government's failure to do enough to address the implications of the privatisation of Public Sector Research Establishments for the scientific capacity of the civil service has been damaging. Remedial action is now required to redress the effect of the loss of, and restriction of access to, expertise in establishments such as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, Forensic Science Service and QinetiQ. Future plans for changing the status of such Establishments must also take greater account of the potential detrimental impact of these changes on the scientific advisory system supporting Government policy making. (Paragraph 46)

14.  It seems to us necessary that all senior officials and policy makers should have a basic understanding of the scientific method, the role and importance of peer review, the relevance of different types of evidence, and the way to evaluate it. (Paragraph 48)

15.  We are encouraged by the emphasis in the Professional Skills for Government framework on the use and analysis of evidence. A basic understanding of the scientific method and the interpretation of different types of evidence, together with the development of an informed demand for scientific input and analysis amongst generalist civil servants, particularly those at senior levels, are important prerequisites for effective policy making. We recommend that the Government put in place the necessary reward systems and incentives to support its ambitions in this area. (Paragraph 51)

16.  In policy-making, scientific literacy must be given equal value to economic knowledge and drafting ability, while further reform of the civil service is essential to bring about a cultural shift: specialist skills must be given equal value to generalist skills and this should be reflected in rewards structures. It is also essential that more opportunities are created for scientists to progress to the most senior positions without being required to sideline their specialist skills. (Paragraph 53)

17.  We recommend the establishment of a Government Scientific Service. This would provide a stronger professional identity and a focal point for specialists from across the physical and natural sciences and engineering working within Government. (Paragraph 56)

18.  The proposed Government Scientific Service should take the lead in identifying good practice in professional development for scientists and engineers, including the use of secondments, and promoting its adoption across Government (Paragraph 59)

19.  Determining which expertise should be retained in-house and which sought externally is of critical importance (Paragraph 60)

20.  Departments must collect comprehensive data, in a manner which is consistent and comparable between departments, regarding the numbers of scientists and engineers which they employ. (Paragraph 61)

21.  We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser commission a study of the way in which departments should assess their need for scientific skills and determine whether these needs are being met. (Paragraph 61)

External sources of advice

22.  DEFRA's decision to introduce an independent Scientific Advisory Council to support the work of the departmental CSA is sensible and should be emulated by other departments. It is critical that these Advisory Councils are independent and are seen to be so. (Paragraph 68)

23.  Wherever possible, the secretariat of scientific advisory committees should include secondees from appropriate scientific establishments, to both enhance the specialist knowledge within the secretariat and safeguard its independence. (Paragraph 69)

24.  We urge the Government to update the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees and the list of code committees as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 70)

25.  We recommend that the revised Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees provide explicit guidance on how the performance of these committees should be monitored. It should give departmental CSAs clear responsibility for overseeing the performance of scientific advisory committees sponsored by their Department and advise them to commission light-touch independent reviews every five years to ensure that committees are functioning as required and to identify innovations in working practices that could usefully be applied by other committees. (Paragraph 72)

26.  We recommend that committees not designated as 'scientific advisory committees' but which play a significant role in the provision of scientific advice, or whose advice to Government relies heavily on scientific input, be required to comply with the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. (Paragraph 73)

27.  Industry members of scientific advisory committees can be important sources of expertise and experience but are frequently perceived to be less trustworthy than NGO representatives. This is unfair and illogical: the same standards and expectations should be applied to both categories of representative. (Paragraph 74)

28.  It is important not to allow the "double counting" of non-scientific opinion or advice. (Paragraph 75)

29.  There is an urgent need for greater clarity regarding the role of lay members on scientific advisory committees and the status of their contribution. Clearly, where a committee has been tasked with providing purely technical advice, it would inappropriate to give the views of lay members equal weight to advice from experts: scientific advice must be based on science. In view of the many potential problems identified in having lay membership of scientific advisory committees (as opposed to policy commissions where they play a vital role), we recommend that scientific advisory committees dealing with technical advice to Government should not routinely have lay membership. (Paragraph 76)

30.  The efficiency measures taken as a result of the Gershon Review have increased the Government's dependence on consultants as sources of scientific and technical advice. This gives cause for concern. The Government must have sufficient expertise to ensure that it both asks the right questions and does not become an uncritical, unquestioning consumer of the advice it receives. We believe that improved auditing of skills within the Government and a strong Government Scientific Service would enable the Government to make more efficient use of the existing expertise within the civil service and, ultimately, to obtain better scientific advice. (Paragraph 79)

31.  We find the institutional structure of the scientific advisory system in the US attractive and encourage the Government to discuss with the learned societies the extent to which similar arrangements could be adopted in the UK and the changes that this would necessitate. (Paragraph 81)

32.  There is ample room for greater involvement of the learned societies and professional bodies in the UK scientific advisory system. We recommend that the Government take up the offer by the Science Council to coordinate a scientific advisory network comprising all the professional bodies. (Paragraph 82)

33.  The situation, where the RAE acts as a disincentive to engagement by the scientific community with policy, must be rectified in the successor to the RAE. (Paragraph 83)

Evidence Based Policy

34.  We applaud Sir David King's efforts to integrate fully science into an evidence based approach. Government should also be clear when policy is not evidence-based, or when evidence represents only a weak consideration in the process, relative to other factors. Where there is an absence of evidence, or even when the Government is knowingly contradicting the evidencemaybe for very good reasonthis should be openly acknowledged. (Paragraph 89)

35.  We agree that ministerial decisions need to take into account factors other than evidence, but this is not reflected in the Government's oft-repeated assertion that it is committed to pursuing an evidence based approach to policy making. We have detected little evidence of an appetite for open departure from the mantra of evidence based policy making. It would be more honest and accurate to acknowledge the fact that while evidence plays a key role in informing policy, decisions are ultimately based on a number of factorsincluding political expediency. Where policy decisions are based on other such factors and do not flow from the evidence or scientific advice, this should be made clear. (Paragraph 90)

Research

36.  Departments need to evolve more effective mechanisms for identifying gaps in the evidence base for policy development which are capable of responding to new and emerging political priorities. (Paragraph 91)

37.  Commissioned systematic reviews of the evidence base should usually be considered as research for the purposes of publication policy. (Paragraph 94)

38.  We urge the Government CSA to investigate proactively any allegations of malpractice in the commissioning, publication and use of research by departments and to ensure that opportunities to learn lessons are fully taken advantage of. We would expect the results of any such investigations to be made public (Paragraph 96)

39.  We recommend that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser ensures that the publication of research underpinning policy development and evidence cited in support of policies is monitored as part of the departmental science reviews. (Paragraph 97)

40.  Research must, so far as is achievable, be independent and be seen to be so. We are not convinced that the current mechanisms for commissioning research deliver this objective. We have also made the case for greater investment in research to underpin policy development. We recommend the creation of a cross-departmental fund for policy related research to be held by the Government CSA in order to meet these dual aims (Paragraph 98)

41.  We recommend that where the Government describes a policy as evidence-based, it should make a statement on the department's view of the strength and nature of the evidence relied upon, and that such statements be subject to quality assurance. (Paragraph 101)

Trials and pilots

42.  Pilots and trials can make a valuable contribution to policy making but there is no point the Government initiating them if it is not going to use the output properly. In order to protect them from political pressures, pilots and trials should be carried out at arm's length from Government or at least be independently overseen. (Paragraph 104)

Horizon scanning

43.  We commend the Government CSA and the Office of Science and Innovation on their work aimed at strengthening horizon scanning in relation to science and technology across Government. (Paragraph 106)

44.  In the context of the electoral cycle and an era of 24 hour news coverage, it is not hard to see why politicians prioritise actions that can deliver short term benefits over those not likely to yield dividends until they have long departed from the Government. It is a major challenge for the Government to ensure that the results of horizon scanning are being used properly. The Government needs to put in place incentives to encourage departments to take a more long term view in developing policy. We recommend that it be a requirement for departments to demonstrate in all major strategic planning documents that they are using the results ofnot just conductinghorizon scanning and research. (Paragraph 110)

45.  The Government's current approach to policy making is not sufficiently responsive to changing evidence, making it hard to feed in results from activities such as trials, research and horizon scanning. We urge the Government, as well as the opposition parties, to move towards a situation where a decision to revise a policy in the light of new evidence is welcomed, rather than being perceived as a policy failure. (Paragraph 111)

Quality control

46.  It is useful that the Government CSA has issued guidance on the use of scientific analysis in policy making but it is disappointing that there has been so little monitoring of its implementation. Departmental CSAs should, in future, be more proactive in ensuring that the principles defined in the Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy making are adhered to within their departments. (Paragraph 114)

47.  To increase public and scientific confidence in the way that the Government uses scientific advice and evidence, it is necessary for there to be a more formal and accountable system of monitoring the quality of the scientific advice provided and the validity of statements by departments of the evidence-based nature of policies. (Paragraph 115)

48.  Peer review of the extent to which Government policies are evidence-based by learned societies, professional bodies and researchers can play a useful role in stimulating debate and refining policy makers' thinking and should, therefore, be welcomed by the Government. We recommend that the Government commission such reviews, on a trial basis, of selected key policies after a reasonable period of time as part of the policy review process. (Paragraph 120)

49.  We recommend that issue-based reviews be introduced as a means of auditing cross-departmental policies. These could be incorporated into the Science Review of the department which has been designated as lead department for the relevant policy. (Paragraph 123)

Transparency in policy making

50.  A strong emphasis on the publication of all evidence used in policy making, along with a clear explanation as to how it is used, should be one of the guiding principles of transparent policy making. (Paragraph 126)

51.  We recommend that departments make it a presumption that significant scientific advice from departmental CSAs as well as scientific advisory committees is published. (Paragraph 129)

52.  We recommend that departmental Chief Scientific Advisers monitor the extent to which their departments and associated advisory bodies are adopting best practice in terms of openness and transparency and seek to ensure that any deficiencies are addressed. (Paragraph 130)

53.  We recommend that Government guidelines be amended to ensure that, as a matter of good practice, some high level information about the progress of major projects through Gateway reviews is made public. (Paragraph 131)

54.  We recommend that, as a matter of good practice, each policy statement or legislative proposal which follows a public consultation make explicit reference to how the consultation influenced the policy, including an explanation, where necessary, as to why any views or proposals widely supported by contributors were rejected. (Paragraph 138)

55.  Whilst we accept that there can be legislative and political uncertainties which affect the policy making process, we recommend that public consultations generally be accompanied by an indicative timescale of resulting decisions. (Paragraph 140)

56.  We recommend that scientific advice be routinely used in drawing up the terms of consultations, in order to ensure the right questions are asked and to avoid any subsequent criticism of its terms. (Paragraph 143)

57.  We recommend that the Cabinet Office monitor whether departments are following best practice on consultations and act where repeated breaches of the code of practice for consultations occur. (Paragraph 145)

Risk and public communication

Cross-government work on risk

58.  We recommend that departments ensure that the Professional Skills for Government programme and other training activities provide comprehensive coverage of the principles and practice of risk management. (Paragraph 153)

59.  We welcome the progress the Government has made toward promoting proper risk analysis in policy making but are concerned about how this progress will be sustained. We recommend that the sub-Committee on risk continue to operate and that it ensure that the monitoring of departmental performance on risk management is maintained. (Paragraph 155)

The Precautionary Principle

60.  We can confirm our initial view that the term "precautionary principle" should not be used, and recommend that it cease to be included in policy guidance. However, we do see value in further work which seeks to clarify the terms and correct application of a precautionary approach as set out helpfully by the GCSA. We believe that it is best to use the term precautionary approach, but with a consistent explanation of the degree and nature of the risks, benefits and uncertainty and an explanation of the concept of proportionality. It should never be considered a substitute for thorough risk analysis which is always required when the science is uncertain and the risks are serious. It should not be used, in itself, to explain a decision or course of action. (Paragraph 166)

61.  We believe that further work should also focus on the practical application of risk management theories in circumstances of scientific uncertainty and the effective communication of the decision making process. (Paragraph 166)

62.  The term precautionary principle is in current use in other jurisdictions, including the EU, so it can not simply be wished away. However, both the Government's current use of the term precautionary approach rather than principle and the further work we are recommending to properly clarify, constrain and apply a precautionary approach is something that we recommend the Government invite the EU and other countries to consider and adopt. (Paragraph 167)

Risk and communication

63.  We welcome the public commitment to transparency in the handling of risk in policy guidance and the recognition by Chief Scientific Advisers of the need to improve public communication on risk. (Paragraph 171)

64.  We recommend that the Cabinet Office assume greater responsibility as the centre of excellence on risk communication within Government. It should have a leading role in collating and disseminating best practice on risk communication, commissioning further research as appropriate, in conjunction with other departments, and for monitoring performance in implementing guidelines. (Paragraph 174)

65.  We strongly endorse the development of alternative voices for the provision of information and advice of a technical nature. Given the issues of trust identified by research, the often instinctive reaction of departments to field a minister should be resisted. (Paragraph 175)

66.  We believe scientists, including departmental CSAs, should play a leading role in communicating to the public levels of scientific agreement, where necessary, and the degree of certainty in the scientific advice being offered. We recommend that common terminology be developed to be used consistently across Government in order to communicate these uncertainties. (Paragraph 177)

67.  We believe that the Government's communication strategy would benefit from the adoption of a higher public profile by departmental CSAs on policies with a strong evidence or science base. We recommend that the Government CSA explore with ministers and departmental CSAs how this might be best achieved and that the impact of this enhanced role be monitored. (Paragraph 180)

68.  We welcome the Government's attempts to liaise with the media on risk communication and its recognition that there is more work to be done on this front. We recommend that the Government continue to develop a strategic and pro-active approach to engagement with the media. The work started under John Hutton should be part of a structured programme, with attention being given to learning from recent examples of coverage as well as informing coverage of current risk-related issues. Newspaper representatives should be a priority for engagement. Government guidance should encourage a more aggressive approach to correcting inaccuracies or mis-interpretations in media coverage of risk, with departmental Chief Scientific Advisers playing a leading role when appropriate. (Paragraph 186)

69.  We recommend that the Government build on existing work to develop, subject to academic peer review, a scale of risks for use by all departments, as appropriate, when communicating levels of risks to the public. (Paragraph 194)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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