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Science at the centre?

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THE way in which the Government obtains and makes use of scientific advice is highly relevant in the veterinary field, as experience with BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and bovine TB has demonstrated. Indeed, it was experience with BSE, along with food scares over salmonella and E coli O157, that, in the mid-1990s, led to the formation of the Food Standards Agency, which is often cited to illustrate how scientific issues can be handled openly and transparently, to everyone's benefit.

Despite progress having been made, there is still some way to go, as highlighted a few years ago by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee which, in a report on 'Scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making' in government, memorably remarked that an old Whitehall maxim — that 'eggheads/boffins should be on tap, not on top' — might still apply (VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 725). As a result of structural changes in government the old Science and Technology Committee no longer exists, but the issue of the use of science in policymaking has recently been revisited by its successor in the House of Commons, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. In a report called 'Putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy', which was published last month, the committee re-examines the Government's commitment to evidence-based policymaking and a number of other issues besides.* As a result of further structural changes in government, this committee is itself about to be superseded - by a new Science and Technology Committee! Its report is timely, not just because the Government continues to change the mechanisms available for supporting science and acting on its findings, but also because, with current concerns about, for example, the impact of climate change and the need to safeguard future food supplies, there are clearly some important decisions to be made.

Among the recommendations in the report are that the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and his office should be moved right into 'the heart of government' — the Cabinet Office. Despite the Government's avowed intention of putting science at the centre of things, the Chief Scientific Adviser (currently Professor John Beddington) has, in departmental organisational terms, led a fairly peripatetic existence up until now: having initially resided in the Department of Trade and Industry, and after a sojourn in the short-lived Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), he has recently been shunted into the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The committee believes that it is time the Chief Scientific Adviser and his office had a stable home. It remarks, 'Shuffling the body responsible for providing cross-departmental science and engineering advice from one department to another and then back again within the space of two years is the opposite of putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy. It reduces science and engineering advice to, at best, a peripheral policy concern, and, at worst, a political bargaining chip.'

Although all government departments (except the Treasury) have their own departmental chief scientific advisers, the committee suggests that their effectiveness varies between departments, and makes various recommendations aimed at achieving greater consistency. It also makes some important recommendations regarding departments' use of scientific advisory committees with a view to safeguarding independence and improving transparency.

The committee questions whether the Government is making best use of consultation when formulating policy, discussing a consultation undertaken by the DIUS on 'Science and society' as an example (see VR, August 30, 2008, vol 163, p 255). It suggests that, despite the effort involved and the large number of responses received, it is unlikely that this consultation will contribute to a new strategy for the UK because 'most of what has been said was either predictable or already government policy'. The report does not discuss any other examples, but it is interesting to reflect on the extent to which that comment might also apply to the numerous consultations that have been carried out in relation to animal health and welfare in recent years.

The committee makes some useful observations on science funding and calls on the Government to clarify its intentions in relation to support for 'blue skies', translational and applied research. At this stage, it is still a little early to say whether the formation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills represents a positive or retrograde step, but it does seem important that the Government makes its position clear.

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