Archive for March, 2010

New duty on scientists to be trusted by politicians is unacceptable

March 24, 2010

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.”

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  • The Government’s Principles can be found here: http://nds.coi.gov.uk/content/Detail.aspx?ReleaseID=412586&NewsAreaID=2
  • The Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice were originally submitted to the Government by the President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, in response to the breakdown in trust between the science community and the Government, following the sacking of the Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt. They can be found here: http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/scienceadvice/
  • Dr Harris’ detailed criticisms of the Government’s proposals can be found below:
  • 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