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Consultation and advice

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Would be something delightfully ironic about the fact that the controversial sacking by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, of the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt, came just a few days after the Government had reaffirmed its commitment to evidencebased policymaking and making best use of independent scientific advice.

In August, the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (since renamed the Science and Technology Committee) published a report of an inquiry it had conducted into the role of science and engineering in government and the way in which the Government uses its advisers (VR, August 22, 2009, vol 165, p 217). In a response to the select committee’s report published on October 26, the Government said that it ‘fundamentally agrees with the importance of putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy’ and that it ‘remains committed to the formulation and delivery of evidence-based policy’. It also agreed with the committee that ‘the independence of science advisers is critical’; it said it was ‘committed to the provision of independent scientific advice, and to supporting the mechanisms and structures by which this advice is delivered’.

This wasn’t the first time that the Science and Technology Committee had looked at the way in which the Government uses science. In a previous incarnation in 2006, it produced a report on ‘Scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making’ in government (VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 725). In a detailed and thoughtful critique of the scientific advisory system, this memorably remarked that, despite the efforts being made to strengthen the arrangements, an old Whitehall maxim – that ‘eggheads/boffins should be on tap, not on top’ – might still apply. Sadly, the sacking of the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last week will do little to allay such concern.

The way in which governments obtain and make use of scientific advice is also relevant in the veterinary field, and has not been without controversy. Indeed, it was experience with BSE, along with food scares over salmonella and E coli, that, in the mid-1990s, led to the formation of the Food Standards Agency, which is often cited as a shining example of how scientific issues can be handled openly and transparently. Similarly, the experience of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 prompted Defra to strengthen its own scientific advisory system, to the extent that this was singled out for praise by the Science and Technology Committee in its report in 2006. Whatever the field, and whatever the government, transparency and trust are all important, and it is vital that these are maintained. In its more recent report, the select committee made the point that the arrangements must be based on the principle that ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’; experience has shown that the line between advice and policy can easily be blurred, but it is in everyone’s interest that the distinction is made clear.

As well as examining how science is used in formulating policy, the select committee considered the role of public consultations. While welcoming the use of consultations in policy development, its first report raised concerns about the purpose and conduct of some consultations and drew attention to the potential for bias. Its more recent report questioned whether the Government is making best use of consultations, discussing a consultation that had been undertaken on ‘science and society’ as an example. It suggested that, despite the effort involved and the large number of responses received, it was unlikely that this exercise would contribute to a new science strategy for the UK because ‘most of what has been said was either predictable or already government policy’.

Neither report discussed any examples relating specifically to the veterinary field, but it is interesting to reflect on the extent to which the committee’s comments might also apply to the many consultations that have been carried out in relation to animal health and welfare in recent years. For example, following its recent consultation on responsibility and cost sharing and proposals to establish a new body for animal health in England, Defra announced that it was setting up a working group to advise on taking the proposals forward just a week after the consultation closed (VR, July 11, 2009, vol 165, p 35). This can’t have left a great deal of time to assess the comments received. In the meantime, Defra has indicated that it hopes to publish a draft Bill for prelegislative scrutiny before Christmas, which leaves the working group little time to formulate its advice. Like obtaining advice, consultation is important. However, there can be little point in going to the trouble and expense of a consultation exercise, and people making the effort to respond, if ministers have already made up their minds.

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