Interview with the Science Minister

The new Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts has given an interview to Mark Henderson of the Times, ahead of the Cheltenham Science Festival, on the importance of independent scientific advice in government. You can view the Times’ article here, as well as an extended version of the interview on Mark’s blog.

In the interview Willetts underlines his support for evidence-based policy making in Government and has pressed for ministers to respect independent advice. “To convey the seriousness of what we are doing and its credibility, it is really important where possible we do pilot, evaluate, publish evidence, have it tested,” he said. “We must also have sufficient confidence that when evidence starts coming in that something is not working, to be willing to change.”

Following discussions with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, principles that give expert advisers the right to disagree publicly with government policy have been incorporated into the code of practice for ministers, and will be published shortly. Speaking about the principles, Willetts said “It was important because the scientific community placed value on it, and that’s true, but it’s even more important because we all have an interest in good decision-taking.”

Willetts also spoke about the wider uses of the scientific method; ” I personally think that as society has become more diverse, with a greater range of religious and cultural traditions, evidence-based arguments drawing on scientific method are one of the most important ways we have of reaching common conclusions because it’s a universal.”

CaSE Director Imran Khan cautiously welcomed his comments, saying “Evidence-based policy-making isn’t just a philosophical approach; it’s a pragmatic one too, especially when money is tight. So it’s a great statement of Government intent for a senior minister to be advocating pilot schemes and evaluation of evidence wherever possible. CaSE will be asking Government to use exactly this approach if they change funding for research and development; any shifts in support need to be evidence-based and properly evaluated.”

“It’s also a welcome and vital step that the relationship between scientists and ministers has been codified. But there will still be concern that requirements for the nebulous quality of ‘mutual trust’ give politicians a carte blanche to unfairly dismiss their advisers.”

In the interview, Willetts also registered his support for next Tuesday’s science induction session for new MPs , run by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST), which he hopes will help develop an interest in science among the new intake of MPs.

The Science Minister will be taking part in a Science Question Time event tomorrow (Thursday 11th June) at 5pm, which Mark Henderson will also be taking part in.

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