Principles of Scientific Advice

Lord Drayson has published the government’s draft Principles of Scientific Advice to Government. Drayson has been true to his word in producing a response to the dismissal of Professor Nutt before Christmas. The government’s Principles have been developed from the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice organised by Sense About Science and supported by CaSE.

For the most part, the government’s Principles are a step in the right direction, especially when it comes to independence and openness. However, there is a big concern about this statement under trust and respect:

The Government and its scientific advisers should work together to reach a shared position and neither should act to undermine mutual trust.

This is not workable because, as the government’s Principles make clear, ministers have a democratic mandate to take on a wide range of factors beyond scientific evidence. Asking scientific advisers to come to a shared position with government could undermine the independence of the advisory process by blurring the boundaries between policy and scientific advice. The point on a shared position has to be changed in the final version if the government is going to protect the independence of scientific advice.

The other point that needs to be included in the final version is about the dismissal of scientific advisers. In the original Principles document there was this point:

In the context of independent scientific advice, disagreement with Government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees cannot be grounds for criticism or dismissal.

The government’s Principles states that scientific advisers can communicate relevant evidence and analysis, even when it is at odds with Government policy. However, there is nothing explicit about protecting scientific advisers from criticism or dismissal when they do. When added with the statement that mutual trust is dependent on fostering a shared view it is a recipe for future conflict. The only hope, at the moment, is that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Science Minister are called in to help sort things out before an adviser is summarily dismissed again.

The government is now consulting on the Principles document as part of its wider consultation on Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policymaking. Send them your thoughts by 9 February 2010. CaSE will be responding.

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