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Science advice and the role of evidence in policy

George Monbiot is concerned about UK government Ministers sidelining scientific evidence, citing the Canadian and Australian experience as a warning. Monbiot’s piece raises some valuable questions, but ignores the Principles for Scientific Advice to Government, based on those drafted by consensus amongst the scientific community in 2009 following the sacking of the government’s chief adviser on drugs, Professor David Nutt. These Principles are now part of the Ministerial Code, which every Minister signs up to. Prof Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Adviser at DEFRA, also ignores these Principles in his intervention putting scientists back in their box.

Commentators, Ministers and their advisers need to be reminded of these Principles given the “chronically deep-seated mistrust of scientists” amongst government that Boyd complains of. More often than not it is government’s failure to stick to said Principles on the independence and integrity of scientific advice that leads to the breakdown of trust.

That was certainly the case when Professor Nutt was thrown out as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, with the same battles over evidence continuing to be fought – and frequently lost by scientists – on the classification of drugs or the science of climate change. There are as many, if not more, examples of dissonance between evidence and statistics on the one hand and policy as implemented on the other in areas of social policy such as education, crime, welfare and immigration. Policy that contradicts evidence isn’t necessarily the problem – of course elected policy-makers consider factors beyond scientific evidence – but policy-makers must at least be clear when and why they choose to set evidence aside.

It needn’t be this way. In 2006 a House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee report set out how government should deal with scientific advice and risk in evidence-based policy making. Despite its authoritative recommendations, and notable improvements in how evidence is regarded by some in government, troubling practice persisted. Professor Nutt’s sacking was simply a symptom of the wider contempt with which evidence was, and sadly still is, held by many in Whitehall and Westminster in particular. It was to avoid such a clash between civil servants, elected representatives and the scientific community that Sense About Science and the Campaign for Science and Engineering – consulting directly with scientists – formulated the Principles that are now part of the Ministerial Code.

Recent abuses of evidence – and Professor Boyd’s remarkable admonition to scientists for daring to dissent from what is politically palatable – suggest that scientists need to defend this hard-fought territory and re-state how scientific advice should be handled by politicians. Ministers and their advisers need to be reminded that the Code and its Principles for Scientific Advice are there to be implemented in letter and spirit, to better equip our elected leaders to make informed decisions in line with reliable evidence.

Professor Boyd has responded to Monbiot’s article – a response that leaves many questions about the relationship between science and government unanswered, and that repeats unhelpful themes from his op-ed in the journal eLife – that it is not scientists’ “job to make politicians' decisions for them – when scientists start providing opinions about whether policies are right or wrong they risk becoming politicised.” This is a straw man – nobody is arguing for scientists to do politicians’ job, but that it is right and proper that scientists explain evidence, and the implications of different policy choices in light of that evidence. To Boyd, scientists expressing any conclusive thoughts about policy goes unacceptably beyond “sticking to the scientific evidence and clearly explaining the risk associated with different policy options.” He consider this an “adversarial politicisation of science” – whereas most in the scientific community, and I daresay in politics, consider it an essential component of the way science relates to public policy. Indeed, the Ministerial Code is explicit on this: “Scientific advisers are free to communicate publicly their advice to Government, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions, including when it appears to be inconsistent with Government policy.”

A key principle Professor Boyd ignores is that of transparency: that if politicians retain the right to override scientific evidence, they should tell us – the voters who empowered them to govern – why they chose to do so. Failing to be honest on that count, and subjugating science as a secondary concern in the policy-making process, will carry a heavy political price amongst an electorate that increasingly expects well-grounded policy and accountability.