Select Committee on Science and Technology

No. 63 of Session 2005-06 8 November October 2006



The Science and Technology Committee today called for a strengthening of the role of Government Scientific Advisers so that Government can be sure of getting the best scientific advice possible when making policy.

In its report Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, the Committee welcomes the steps that the current Chief GSA Sir David King has taken to secure the establishment of GSAs in most departments and the commitment from Government to improve the risk advice the public receives.

However, the Committee says that more still needs to be done to ensure the level of scientific support required to consistently provide evidence based policy. Where that evidence base is not available, then that should be made clear.

The Committee recommends that the role of Government Chief Scientific Adviser be split from that of Head of the Office of Science and Innovation,  and would like to see the incumbent based in the Cabinet Office. The position of the GCSA should be further strengthened by giving him a seat on the board of the Treasury.

The Committee also recommends that all future departmental Chief Scientific Advisors be external appointments who have occupied senior positions in their scientific communities and command the respect of their peers.

A Government Scientific Service should also be set up to guarantee a high level of scientific expertise within the civil service. Specialist skills should not be seen as a hindrance to promotion within the civil service. The misconception that scientists in the civil service should be “on tap, not on top” must be laid to rest once and for all, says the report. 

The Committee also warned that the privatisation of Public Sector Research Establishments had implications for the pool of scientific expertise the civil service could draw on and warned that this issue has not been properly addressed.

The MPs want horizon scanning to be a fundamental part of the policy making process and they say a change of attitude is needed so that changing policy in the light of evidence should be regarded as strength rather than  weakness.

Recent major controversies, including BSE, foot and mouth disease and GM crops, have helped focus attention in Government on the importance of public communication of risk, said the Committee. It welcomes the Government commitment to transparency on this issue, But it would like to see a scale of risks adopted by all departments when alerting the public to levels of danger.

Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee Phil Willis said: “Science & technology play such an important part in so many policy questions today, they need to be better embedded in the policy making process. We have outlined steps to build on the progress made in this respect over the last 5 years.

"Of course, not all policies need to be evidence-based and the Committee recognises that political judgement is often exercised; but Ministers should not disguise conviction-based policies as evidence-based. Where policies are strongly based on evidence, the scientific advice and evidence underpinning them should be published.

“We need to be able to feel confident that when Government talks of ‘evidence based policy’, this is backed up by sound scientific research. At present this does not always appear to be the case.

“On risk too, the public needs to be given a clearer idea of the dangers particular issues throw up in order to make informed judgements. All too often this is left to the media and can result in a degree of scaremongering but if the public were given a scale of risk, they would be able to keep issues of concern in the proper perspective.”

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Notes to editors:

• Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Science and Technology Committee is empowered to examine the “expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies”. The Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.

• This inquiry was announced on 9 November 2005 in Press Notice No 9 of session 2005-06.

• Evidence sessions were held on Wednesday: 15 February when evidence was heard from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Government Social Researcher; on 1 and 22 March when evidence was heard from ACMD and the Home Office; on 26 April when evidence was heard from Experts and Lobby Groups; on 3, 10, 11(Thursday), 17 and 24 May when evidence was heard from biometrics and IT experts from industry and academia; the Food Standards Agency; officials from the European Commission; the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Health Protection Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and academics; The Royal Society, The Royal Society of Chemistry, Campaign for Science and Engineering, Biosciences Federation and academics; 7, 14 June when evidence was heard from the Head of the Government Economic Service and the Chief Scientific Advisers to DfID, Home Office and DfT, and Home Office Ministers, and on 5 July when evidence was heard from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and the Permanent Secretary at the DTI.

Membership of the Committee

Mr Phil Willis (Lib Dem, Harrogate and Knaresborough)(Chairman)
Adam Afriyie (Con, Windsor)
Mr Robert Flello (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent South)
Mr Jim Devine (Lab, Livingston)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East)
Margaret Moran (Lab, Luton South)
Mr Brooks Newmark (Con, Braintree)
Anne Snelgrove (Lab/Co-op, South Swindon)
Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)
Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)