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Science on top?

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REPORTS of inquiries by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are usually of interest, and its latest report — ‘Scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making’* — is no exception. The present Government has rightly made much of the vital importance of science to society and the need to incorporate scientific advice into decision making; the point was emphasised by the Prime Minister himself in a speech to the Royal Society in 2002, in which he drew attention to the many benefits of science and, expressing concern about a growing mistrust of science among certain sectors of the public, sought to place it in an appropriate context (VR, June 1, 2002, vol 150, p 673). The Government has also indicated that it is committed to pursuing an evidence-based approach to policy making on a whole range of issues, from the prevention and control of infectious disease to tackling obesity. The select committee's inquiry aimed to assess the validity of this claim and see how well the Government was applying its avowed principles in practice.

The report leaves no doubt that science is important and needs to be properly incorporated into decision making and, in this respect, the Government is making all the right noises. At the same time, the report makes clear that there is considerable scope for strengthening the arrangements for ensuring an effective scientific advisory system and making appropriate use of scientific evidence and advice. It calls for greater transparency in the decision-making process, with scientific considerations being distinguished from political and other considerations, and a more consistent approach across government departments. It points out that the uncertainties and long-term nature of scientific endeavour can be hard to reconcile with the certainties and sometimes short-term requirements of politics. It also points to instances where, if this is not properly understood, there is a risk of the whole process being abused.

The committee makes a number of recommendations for strengthening the role of the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser (currently Sir David King) in the decision-making process, suggesting, among other things, that the role should be split from that of head of the Office of Science and Innovation in the Department of Trade and Industry and placed in a department with cross-departmental responsibilities, such as the Cabinet Office. It further suggests that more should be done to ensure that all departmental chief scientific advisers are able to maximise their contribution to strategic decision making and policy development within their departments. Interestingly, it singles out defra as ‘an exemplar of good practice in terms of its scientific advisory system’, describing its decision to introduce an independent Scientific Advisory Council to support the work of its chief scientific adviser as sensible and one which should be emulated by other departments. Similarly, it describes the Food Standards Agency (fsa) as having ‘set the standard’ in terms of openness and transparency in decision making, suggesting that other advisory bodies might usefully follow its lead.

Some of the committee's most interesting comments concern the way science may be perceived in government and the position of scientists in the Civil Service. It says that departmental chief scientific advisers should have the opportunity to be fully involved in decision making, but suggests that an old Civil Service maxim — that ‘eggheads/boffins should be on tap, not on top’ — might still apply. Equally worrying are suggestions that, as a result of the reorganisations of recent years, there has been a decline in the scientific expertise within the Civil Service, and that civil servants may perceive specialist skills as a hindrance to career progression. The committee draws attention to the need to maintain scientific expertise within government, if only so that it is in a position to understand the issues and make proper use of outside expertise, and makes a number of recommendations aimed at rectifying these deficiencies, including the establishment of a Government Scientific Service.

Also of interest are the committee's remarks on how pilot studies, and terms such as ‘evidence-based’ and ‘the precautionary principle’ are being used, and in some cases possibly misused, by the Government.

While welcoming the use of consultations in policy development, the committee raises concerns about the purpose and conduct of some of these exercises and draws attention to the potential for bias. In addition, it questions the Government's increasing reliance on reports from external consultants, suggesting instead that there is considerable scope for making better use of the expertise available in learned societies and professional bodies.

All in all, there is much to consider in the select committee's report, and it will be interesting to see how the Government responds. Scientific advice and risk assessment and management are playing an increasingly important role in policy making, not just in the veterinary field, where examples have included tses, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and bovine tuberculosis, but in numerous other areas. However, as the committee points out, it is important that evidence is gathered, assessed and applied appropriately. It also needs to be made clear where the science ends and policy begins. Anything less could end up giving science a bad name.

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