Select Committee on Science and Technology

No. 9 of Session 2005-06 9 November 2005

NEW INQUIRY

SCIENTIFIC ADVICE, RISK AND EVIDENCE: HOW GOVERNMENT HANDLES THEM

The Science and Technology Committee agreed, at its meeting today, that it would hold an inquiry to examine the way in which the Government obtains and uses scientific advice in the development of policy.

The inquiry will focus upon the mechanisms in place for the use of scientific advice (including the social sciences) and the way in which the guidelines governing the use of such advice is being applied in practice across Government. It will test the extent to which policies are “evidence-based”.

The Committee will carry out this inquiry by addressing the questions below in a series of case studies.

The first three case studies to be addressed are:

1. The technologies supporting the Government’s proposals for identity cards
2. The classification of illegal drugs
3. The use of MRI equipment: the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive

In each case, the Committee will be addressing the process of policy development rather than the actual merits of the policies. Written evidence is invited to explore the following questions in respect of any or all of the case studies:

Sources and handling of advice

• What impact are departmental Chief Scientific Advisers having on the policy making process?
• What is the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser in the policy making process and what impact has he made to date?
• Are existing advisory bodies being used in a satisfactory manner?
• Are Government departments establishing the right balance between maintaining an in-house scientific capability and accessing external advice?

Relationship between scientific advice and policy development

• What mechanisms are in place to ensure that policies are based on available evidence?
• Are departments engaging effectively in horizon scanning activities and how are these influencing policy?
• Is Government managing scientific advice on cross-departmental issues effectively?

Treatment of risk

• Is risk being analysed in a consistent and appropriate manner across Government?
• Has the precautionary principle been adequately defined and is it being applied consistently and appropriately across Government?
• How does the media treatment of risk issues impact on the Government approach?

Transparency, communication and public engagement

• Is there sufficient transparency in the process by which scientific advice is incorporated into policy development?
• Is publicly-funded research informing policy development being published?
• Is scientific advice being communicated effectively to the public?

Evaluation and follow-up

• Are per review and other quality assurance mechanisms working well?
• What steps are taken to re-evaluate the evidence base after the implementation of policy?

Launching the inquiry, the Chairman of the Committee, Mr Phil Willis MP, said “We keep hearing from Government Ministers that policy is based on evidence. We want to test that, and find out what it means in practice to both the specialist communities and to the public.” 

General submissions on the above questions are welcome, as are suggestions for future case studies. It is envisaged that further case studies will be chosen on the basis of examples cited in the written evidence submitted. They will be selected so as to cover a range of Government departments and to include some issues of a cross-departmental nature. Some issues studied will be of widespread public interest; others will be of a technical nature of direct interest to a narrower field. Further written evidence will be invited on the chosen subjects. The deadline for written evidence is Friday 20th January. 

Guidelines for the submission of evidence

Evidence should be submitted in Word format, and should be sent by e-mail to [email protected] . The body of the e-mail must include a contact name, telephone number and postal address. The e-mail should also make clear who the submission is from.

Submissions should be as brief as possible, and certainly no more than 3,000 words. Paragraphs should be numbered for ease of reference, and the document should include a brief executive summary. Those submitting evidence are reminded that evidence should be original work, not previously published or circulated elsewhere. Once submitted no public use should be made of it, but those wishing to publish their evidence before it is published by the Committee are invited to contact the Clerk of the Committee to obtain permission to do so. Guidance on the submission of evidence can be found at http://www.parliament.uk/commons/selcom/witguide.htm

For further information please call Ana Ferreira, on 020 7219 2793. Previous press notices and publications are available on our website.


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.

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)
Dr Ian Gibson (Lab, Norwich North)
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)