Evan Harris calls for inquiry into five breaches of Government’s own code of practice within five days of publishing them.
While I respect the evidence-based conclusions of the ACMD regarding the dangers of Mephedrone, I remain extremely concerned at the way in which the Government – and the Home Office in particular – has acted in its treatment of the ACMD’s advice. Please see my letter to the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, copied below.
Responding to the publication of the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice by the Government, Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat Science spokesman and a leading voice in the campaign to protect independent science advice, said:
“This document imposes a brand new and nebulous requirement on scientific advisers to “maintain the trust” of politicians, and they can sanctioned on this alone regardless of whether they have abided by their pre-existing detailed Code of Practice. This will be unacceptable to those in the science community who recognise the need to protect scientific advisers from the fickle whims of political prejudice.”
“The imposition of these principles by the Government is worse than the previous situation, where the Code of Practice governed the activities of advisers. Under these new principles another incident like the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary, which was criticised at the time by the Science Minister, will be entirely within the Government’s new rules.”
“The Science community must resist these principles and should refuse to serve under them.”
1) Reference to academic freedom
“Government should respect and value the academic freedom…. of its independent scientific advisers”
While this is included, it is weaker than the original “The Government should protect or safeguard academic freedom”.
2) The Government document includes the principle that;
“Government and it scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust”.
Breach of this will be grounds for sanction and the document makes very clear that this is independent any breach of Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) (“Applying the principles: The matter will be examined against a clear set of criteria, which include a breach of the Principles or CoPSAC.”)
The problems are that
a) Trust by a minister in an adviser is a subjective, and inherently un-measurable, matter. This means Independent Scientific Advisers (ISAs) are immediately under pressure to be in favour with the minister otherwise they face sanction under the “trust” provisions.
b) There is no point in having an extensive Code of Practice agreed after consultation with ISAs if that is usurped by a new nebulous injunction, not to lose the trust of a politician. This essentially places the fate of the adviser in the hands of the media or political advisers to a minister.
3) There is a brand new principle
“Chairs of Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils have a particular responsibility to maintain open lines of communication with their sponsor department and its Ministers”.
· The duties of Chairs of Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) are set out clearly in CoPSAC. This is not among them. So this represents a brand new revision to CoPSAC which has not been the subject of consultation.
· It is again nebulous, undefined and impossible to measure and will allow Chairs of SACs to be sanctioned without knowing that they are doing anything wrong.
· The spirit of the Phillips Report is that Chairs of SACs must be especially free from political pressure and be able to “speak truth to power”.
· This is a principle which applies exclusively to advisers even though the Principles was envisaged as a document that would apply to Government, and be a reciprocation of CoPSAC.
4) The section “Applying the Principles” includes
“Government departments and their independent scientific advisers should raise issues of concern over the application of the Principles, or other guidance, with the relevant departmental Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). If the matter of concern cannot be effectively resolved or is especially serious CSAs should approach the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and Ministers should approach the GCSA and the Minister for Science.”
So ISAs themselves can not approach the GCSA even if they are complaining about the CSA.
5) The section “Applying the Principles” includes
“the matter will be examined against a clear set of criteria, which include a breach of the Principles or CoPSAC”.
This makes clear that sanctions can be applied for an alleged breach of the principles even when there has been no breach of the Code of Practice. There is little point of having a Code of Practice if it is not exhaustive. The Principles – in the matter of not acting to undermine trust – are not a clear set of criteria, nor is the requirement on Chairs to maintain open lines of communication with Government.
6) The Government appears to have reneged on their promise to enshrine the ministerial duties and responsibilities within these Principles into the Ministerial Code.
This was a recommendation of the Science and Technology Select Committee, appeared to have been accepted by the Government but is not mentioned in the Principles or the accompanying description
Responding to the announcement from the Editors of the Lancet that they are retracting the Wakefield Paper entirely, Dr Evan Harris, Lib Dem science spokesman who helped expose the ethical and methodological problems with the paper back in 2004, said,
“I welcome this, but it could and should have been done six years ago when Dr Wakefield was shown to have failed to declare conflicts of interest, was shown not to have proper ethical approval fro their study, and when it was shown that the scientific rationale of the study was entirely flawed.”
Dr Harris called for full retraction at the time and raised the matter in Parliament.
“I explained the non-scientific basis for the paper in person at the Lancet Offices before the scandal broke six years ago and was very disappointed that the Lancet did not retract the paper at the time instead settling for a partial retraction of part of the paper. Journals don’t need to wait for court or GMC findings of fact to retract obviously flawed or unethical papers. Lessons must now be learned. “
“The hospital ethics committee failed to protect the best interests of the children, and Royal Free failed them again when their peremptory investigation unbelievably found no ethical faults – in fact, they defended the ethics of the study and the Lancet paper.”
“There must now be an investigation of the Royal Free Hospital’s ethical oversight.”
1) Dr Harris called for a full retraction in February 2004 and repeated his criticism of the Royal Free “Investigation” in the House of Commons -
2) In that debate Dr Harris described the Humphrey Hodgson from the Royal free statement -
– was a whitewash.
3) Dr Harris was for many years a member of the BMA medical Ethics Committee and of the Central Oxford Research Ethics Committee.
Dr Ben ‘Bad Science‘ Goldacre and myself will be at the Oxford Union tonight, for an event on “AIDS denialists, MMR, Homeopaths, Gillian Mckeith, libel laws and the rest of the Daily Mail”.
We’re there from 8pm on Monday 1st February, and it’s a free event, so do come along – particularly if you’re never seen Ben speak before. It will be entertaining and informative at the very least.
If you’re not in Oxford, but know people who are, do pass along the invite. Union membership not required.
I was on Channel 4 News last night talking about the MMR Scare – up against Richard Halvorsen – which you might like to take a look at.
In the interview, I make a claim that Halvorsen personally profits from mistrust in the MMR vaccine – the reference for this is the price list of the company which Halvorsen runs, here;
In terms of the background of my involvement with all this, I attended the ‘showdown meeting’ at The Lancet with the investigative journalist Brian Deer the week before original allegations of conflict of interest were officially made. We identified the serious problems of medical and research ethics raised by the intrusive and burdensome procedures carried out.
Just before the findings were announced at the GMC yesterday, I made a press statement, saying; “If the GMC finds against Dr Wakefield on the major issues of research ethics involving children, I will be calling for the strongest sanctions to be imposed.
As well as being an MP interested in science, health, and evidence-based policy-making, I’ve been a long-standing member of the BMA’s Medical Ethics Committee, and at the time of Dr Wakefield’s research was a member of a leading Research Ethics Committee in Oxford, responsible for deciding whether or not to approve similar intrusive medical studies on children.
This article was originally published in Times Higher Education on December 18th 2009.
This week, the Government published its version of the principles for the treatment of scientific advice (
). Given that the purpose of the project is to try to fix the broken relationship between the Government and independent science advisers, it is remarkable and frankly depressing that the current proposals look set to make things even worse.
The original principles (
) were drafted by senior members of the science community and Sense about Science (who I, with others, advised directly on the matter), in the wake of the sacking of David Nutt by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. They were born as a response to the crisis of confidence caused by the Nutt affair and the Government’s treatment of both scientific advisers and their advice.
The unfair attacks in Parliament (
) on Nutt, a distinguished scientist and scholar, by Johnson and his predecessor, Jacqui Smith – neither of whom can be regarded as the Roy Jenkins of their own professions – were a further provocation to the science community.
Leading researchers felt they had better things to do than run the risk of being unpaid scapegoats for evidence-free tabloid-chasing government policies on drugs and knife crime.
The original principles had very sensible and specific headings such as “academic freedom”, “independence of operation” and “proper consideration of advice” – concepts that are key to a good relationship between advisers and ministers. The principles amounted to a short and cogent code of practice for ministers to complement the 110-paragraph Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees (CoPSAC) (
The principles recognised that governments do not have to take the advice they are given but that ministers have a responsibility not to “shoot the messenger” and to secure the best possible quality of advice. They were a sincere attempt to offer the Government a constructive way forward and persuaded me that it was more sensible to seek to promote a new understanding that secured academic freedom and proper independence than to urge more advisers to resign in protest or disgust, or to call for a boycott of advisory committees.
Stung by the two immediate resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in protest at Nutt’s treatment, the Government realised it had a problem. The resignation of three more scientists from the ACMD after a meeting with the Home Secretary that he described as “friendly and constructive”, albeit after Johnson had said publicly that he had no regrets over how he had treated Nutt, must surely have served to focus the rational minds within the Government even more sharply on the urgent need to restore the confidence of advisers.
Riding to the rescue (if the Government only knew it) came Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, who sent the principles – endorsed by 70 leading science advisers – to the Prime Minister. The Government seemed relieved to have the chance to announce it would consider them.
Yet after five weeks of deliberation, it ditched some of the key protections – such as the guarantee of immunity of proper academic activity from attack, sanction or dismissal, and the freedom to repeat rejected advice publicly – and inserted instead more nebulous concepts such as “trust” and “respect”. Out of ten mentions of “scientific advisers”, the adjective “independent” appears only twice in the Government’s paper.
Here is the ugliest part of its offering: “The Government and its scientific advisers should work together to reach a shared position, and neither should act to undermine mutual trust.”
In 2000, the report into the bovine spongiform encephalopathy disaster led by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers set down what was required to get the best scientific advice: avoiding collusion and the appearance of it was fundamental. So the proposition that those asked to assess the evidence base and give independent scientific advice without fear or favour should be required to work with politicians to reach a “shared position” is an absurd contradiction of the whole concept.
To publish a statement that so utterly contradicts Lord Phillips’ golden rule – that there must be a clear distinction between expert assessment of evidence and the production of policy based on it (or not) – either the very sane and sensible Science Minister Lord Drayson must have taken leave of his senses, or his hand must have been forced by more malign or Neanderthal forces lurking in the corridors of power.
The proposal that neither the Government nor the adviser “should act to undermine mutual trust” presupposes that all potential advisers respect and trust their politicians. I venture to suggest that at a time when the Government needs all the independent advisers it can get, to restrict its recruits to the subset who respect and trust the Home Secretary of the day is tantamount to casting the fishing net into a friendly puddle and ignoring the heaving seas.
In any event, respect for a minister is not a requirement for expertise in a scientific discipline and – until we have the George W. Bush approach to policymaking – it should form no part of the recruitment process for membership of advisory committees.
The other problem with a universal test of whether conduct or communication “undermines trust” is that it is wholly subjective and undefined. In stark contrast to the science community’s original proposal guaranteeing academic freedom and allowing advisory committee members to speak freely about the advice they have given even if rejected, this clause allows sanctions and the threat of sanctions to be wielded against advisers in an arbitrary way without a breach of CoPSAC.
The harm stems not only from the victimisation of advisers prepared, in the words of Sense about Science’s managing director Tracey Brown, “to speak the truth to power”, but also from the chilling effect on all the others.
On the question of how to get out of the hole it is in regarding scientists’ confidence in the way they are treated, my independent free advice to the Government would be to stop digging. Yet every public intervention it has so far made on this issue seems designed to deepen the chasm of mistrust and cynicism that now exists.
The Commons Science and Technology Committee, on which I sit, this week announced that it was endorsing the original principles. On the same day, I asked Johnson at the dispatch box whether, despite the resignations he had previously provoked, he would do the same thing again. “Absolutely, yes,” he said, while looking nervously across at the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, who has said he should have sacked Nutt even earlier – presumably for giving the wrong advice in the first place.
Well, absolutely yes, you can bully one scientist here and sack another one there, but do not expect to fill six vacancies on the main statutory Home Office Advisory Committee, which is currently moribund. Drug policy is thus likewise suspended since ACMD advice is a prerequisite to drug classifications.
It’s not too late for sense to prevail: the consultation on these principles is now open (
). We should all hope that the Government wakes up to the damage it is doing.
The original principles can be publicly endorsed at
Ultimately we will all suffer if politicians ignore expert advice and policy is evidence-free. Leading scientists would rather research and publish freely than have the “privilege” of advising ministers for free but losing their credibility and academic freedom in the process. The Government needs the service of scientists more than scientists need to serve the Government: ministers would do well to remember that.
Evan Harris is now, newly, on Facebook. If you’d like to show your support, please visit the page here:
I’ve just heard that three more ACMD members have resigned, after the Council met with Alan Johnson.
The latest resignations represent a deepening in the crisis of confidence of scientists in the Government – in particular, in the Home Secretary. That they come after Alan Johnson met the ACMD demonstrates that he just doesn’t get it when it comes to the importance of respecting the academic freedom and integrity of independent, unpaid, science advisers.
Ministers are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. The cost of the failure of the Home Secretary to understand the lessons of the BSE Inquiry will be poor policy – unless the Prime Minister acts decisively to bring the Home Office and rest of Government into line with established good practice.
By clumsily and unfairly sacking David Nutt, Alan Johnson has been rewarded with five resignations in protest. That takes a certain kind of ineptitude.