Principles of Scientific Advice

The government has published its final version of the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government. This morning Lord Drayson was up in front of the Science and Technology Committee for the final Science Question Time before the general election. The final Principles are an improvement on the original draft in that it says that government should respect academic freedom and it has removed the point that ministers and advisers should seek to develop shared positions. Dr Evan Harris picked up on the two key issues with the government’s Principles during the evidence session – “mutual trust” and the ministerial code.

The government has kept the following point, which CaSE and Sense About Science argued against in the original draft:

“Government and its scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust.”

During the evidence session Lord Drayson said that it was the Chief Scientific Advisers Committee led by Professor John Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who wanted this point included. The inclusion of “mutual trust” could undermine the rest of points in the Principles, because it is impossible to quantify. It would have been better, as Harris said, if the Principles said that an independent scientific adviser could be sanctioned if they breached the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. Drayson said that it would not be right for a minister to sanction a scientific adviser for mutual trust alone, that it would have to be something substantive. If this is the case, it would have been much better for the point not to have been included in the first place.

Since the Ministerial Code is updated after the general election all the parties need to say if they will include relevant sections of the Principles if they form the next government. This has been recommended by both the House of Commons and Lords Science and Technology Committees. If done properly including relevant sections into the Ministerial Code could reduce the problem of including “mutual trust” in the final version. The following points in the Principles should be re-drafted in the Ministerial Code:

  • Ministers should respect and value the academic freedom, professional status and expertise of its independent scientific advisers.
  • Ministers cannot interfere with the work of independent scientific advisers.
  • Ministers cannot constrain scientific advisers on how they publish and present their research.
  • Ministers cannot limit the ability of scientific advisers to communicate publicly their advice to Government, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions, including advice that appears to be inconsistent with Government policy.
  • Ministers cannot determine the timing of the publication of independent scientific advice as it is a matter for the advisory body, although the timing should be discussed with the Government beforehand.
  • Ministers should not prejudge the advice of independent advisers, nor should they criticise advice or reject it before its publication.
  • Ministers’  response to scientific advice should demonstrably allow for proper consideration of that advice.
  • Ministers should publicly explain the reasons for policy decisions, particularly when the decision is not consistent with scientific advice and in doing so, should accurately represent the evidence.
  • If ministers are minded not to accept the advice of a Scientific Advisory Committee or Council they should normally meet with the Chair to discuss the issue before a final decision is made, particularly on matters of significant public interest.

If all parties signed up to putting those points in the Ministerial Code than something positive would have come from the dismissal of Professor Nutt.

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