Government must ensure enough experts to advise during emergencies

05 April 2017

The Government needs to check its lists of experts who can provide scientific advice during a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear ('CBRN') incident to make sure the UK is ready for such emergencies, according to a Science and Technology Committee report.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown

The Committee of MPs was warned by Dr Dame Sue Ion, a member of the emergency science advice group set up to respond to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan in 2011, that many of the UK subject matter experts involved in providing advice during that incident have since retired.

The report explores the mechanisms for drawing on science advice to plan for and respond to potential disasters ranging from industrial fires to major toxic spills and chemical attacks. It found a "confusing landscape of organisations and acronyms which has been difficult to navigate".

The Committee also investigated how the communication of science could be improved during an emergency, and calls for a dedicated independent scientific press officer to be appointed to all future emergency advice groups (known as SAGEs).

Getting accurate science to the public

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

"Getting accurate science to the public during a chemical or nuclear incident is absolutely crucial. It’s natural that the first duty of the scientists involved in responding to an incident is to brief the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office, but having a dedicated press officer as part of the expert group could help make sure the public are properly briefed too.

A lack of good scientific information during a disaster means that others will speculate and try to fill in the blanks. That could cause panic and misinformation to spread. There are lots of scientists in Government agencies that could help, and they need to be given permission to speak to the media."

Government should produce basic guidance

The Committee was also concerned that there was a lack of basic understanding of radiation amongst the public that could hinder their response during a disaster. Stephen Metcalfe said:

"I'm worried that public understanding of radiation is low. It's natural that people will have a deep fear of something that they can't see and don't understand, but that can be tackled through education. The Government should produce basic guidance on what to do during a nuclear emergency, and use this as an opportunity to explain the science behind radiation."

Further information

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