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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Response to 'Principles of scientific advice to government'

On Friday 26th March 2010, Sense About Science and CaSE responded by writing a letter to Lord Drayson and Professor Beddington:

Dear Lord Drayson and Professor Beddington,

Thank you for your letter of the 24th March setting out the finalised Principles of Scientific Advice to Government.

As you know, the original principles drafted by the scientific community and the reports by the Science and Technology Committees of both Houses of Parliament sought a constructive way forward from the ACMD experience and the wider concerns about independent scientific advisory committees which address contentious policy issues.

Specifically, the aim was for the Government to articulate explicitly the principles of independent scientific advice and how Government demonstrates respect for them. This would have been reassuring to scientists who have been concerned by the experience of the ACMD over the past two years and would have provided a sound basis for the Government to continue to be able to obtain advice from those who are concerned to protect their independence and academic freedom. It would have helped new ministers to understand why the independence of scientific advice is important, particularly if accompanied by an entry in the Ministerial Code.

We welcome the sections that set out the principles relating to independence of operation and transparency and openness, which very much meet the aspiration to move forward constructively. However, the first section on roles and responsibilities includes a point which undermines the other points within the Principles: “Government and its scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust”.

“Trust” is not a principle. Trust by a minister in an adviser is subjective and, as we have seen in some case is unavoidably affected by media coverage and the views of political advisers. The section on Applying the Principles indicates that this can be grounds for sanction. It would open an independent scientific adviser to the risk of arbitrary sanction from a minister while having abided by the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC).

Unless steps are taken to mitigate the inclusion of the "mutual trust" point, the finalised Principles will institutionalise the very situation we sought to guard against. It will also create greater uncertainty about whether independent scientific advisers can exercise academic freedom and independence whilst working within the constraints of CoPSAC.

We have engaged constructively in this debate since it began and hope that you will give serious consideration to our suggestion that the application of the Principles is revised to make clear that scientific advisers can be sanctioned only for breaching the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees.

After the general election we will be asking the Prime Minister to include relevant sections of the Principles that pertain to the actions of ministers in the Ministerial Code. It would be inappropriate to make a blanket reference to the Principles or a specific statement about “mutual trust” within the Ministerial Code.

We would appreciate meeting with you to discuss this. 

Yours sincerely,

Tracey Brown Nick Dusic
Sense About Science Campaign for Science & Engineering

CC: Endorsers of the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice and Chairs of Science and Technology Committees in the House of Commons and House of Lords