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Rules of engagement

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With the Government committed to evidence-based policymaking, the way in which scientific advice is obtained and used is all important. This is as true in the veterinary field as in any other. 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 held up as a shining example of how scientific issues can be handled openly and transparently. Similarly, the experience of foot-andmouth disease in 2001 prompted Defra to strengthen its scientific advisory system, to the extent that, in 2006, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee suggested that this provided an example that other government departments should follow (VR, November 26, 2006, vol 159, p 725).

Advice may be given, but it is not always taken, so it is also important to make clear where the giving of advice ends and deciding on policy begins. Experience has shown that the line between advice and policy can sometimes become blurred, which, as well as causing difficulties in practical terms, can make it difficult to identify who is responsible if something goes wrong. The arrangements should be based on the principle that ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’, and should leave no room for doubt about where responsibilities lie.

Despite its stated intentions, the Government continues to run into difficulties, as demonstrated most recently, perhaps, by the controversial sacking last October by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, of the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt. This happened just a few days after the Government had reasserted its commitment to putting science at the heart of policy and making best use of independent scientific advice (VR, November 7, 2009, vol 165, p 545). The controversy surrounding Professor Nutt’s departure rumbles on but, in the meantime, the Government has just published a set of principles setting out the rules of engagement between government and those who provide independent scientific advice. Produced after consultation, the new principles* are intended to provide the foundation on which independent scientific advisers and government departments should base their operations and interactions. They set out roles and responsibilities, and cover issues such as independence, transparency and openness. The aim, the Government says, is to clarify the relationship between advice and policy, and strengthen the public’s and scientists’ trust in this process.

Many of the principles set out in the document make good sense, and should be welcomed by all concerned. For example, with regard to transparency and openness, they state that scientific advice to government should be made publicly available unless there are overriding reasons, such as national security or the facilitation of a crime, for not doing so; that government should not prejudge the advice of independent advisers; and that it should publicly explain the reasons for policy decisions, particularly when the decision is not consistent with the advice it has been given. On roles and responsibilities they state that government should respect and value the academic freedom, professional status and expertise of its scientific advisers, while the advisers, for their part, should respect the democratic mandate of the Government to take decisions based on a wide range of factors. Regarding independence, they state that scientific advisers should be free from political interference with their work, free to publish and present their research and free to communicate publicly their advice to government, including when it appears to be inconsistent with government policy, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions; they should also make clear in what capacity they are communicating.

While many of the recommendations seem fairly unambiguous, others, such as ‘Government and its scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust’, are open to more than one interpretation, and this particular recommendation has already sparked some concern. Trust, generally, is something that has to be worked on and earned, and it seems likely that, despite its best efforts, it may be some time before the Government can dispel suspicions that the old Civil Service maxim that ‘eggheads/ boffins should be on tap not on top’ might still apply. The Government is right to seek scientific advice, and to attempt to clarify the rules of engagement, but just as important is how well the rules are applied. One suspects that this will always be a difficult area, and that, as with BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and, more recently, misuse of drugs, this will be particularly true for issues which are very much in the public eye.

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