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Scientific Advisory Committees: Codes of Practice

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, published in December 2007, and the Code of Practice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, last reviewed on 22 September.

My Lords, I am currently working with the Government’s chief scientific adviser, colleagues across government and the wider scientific community to develop a set of principles to underpin the relationship between the Government and independent scientific advisers. We will consider in the light of this work whether there is a need to review the code of practice for scientific advisory committees.

It is for the ACMD to consider whether its own code of practice needs reviewing.

That sounds encouraging, and I am grateful to the noble Lord. He must recognise—who better than he?—the profound dismay that was caused in the scientific community around the events affecting Professor David Nutt. Is he aware that neither of the two codes referred to in the Question deal expressly with the particular problem that arose in that case? Is he also aware that I am delighted that he is looking at this in two ways: at the role of the scientists and the scientific advisory committees; and at the role of Ministers receiving advice, because that is what went wrong in that case?

The noble Lord is right that the particular circumstances in the case of Professor Nutt caused concern in certain parts of the scientific community. That is why it is so important for the Government to reiterate the importance of the independence of scientific advice, and to have clarity between the scientific community and the Government on the rules of engagement between the two. We regard the set of principles that have been proposed as an excellent starting point to look at this matter further and why we are consulting widely. We take this matter very seriously indeed.

My Lords, many years ago I was invited to give some scientific advice to the Government, not least as a member of the Southward working party on BSE. Does the Minister agree that one of the principles that should be embodied in the new guidance is that scientific evidence is the subject on which individual scientific committees and their members give advice to the Government? If it turns out that the evidence is contrary to the Government’s view on a particular topic, may we be assured that the Government will not take punitive action against a scientist who happens to disagree with their view?

My Lords, it is important for me to restate the Government’s position. It is absolutely the case that the Government recognise the central importance of the independence of scientific advice, and where that advice is taken. If the Government decide to go against that advice, and unless there are grounds, say, in the case of national security, they should explain why they have come to a different conclusion. That is one of principles proposed and it is an aspect on which we are consulting further.

I welcome the Minister’s reply but could the Government not accept the guidelines and principles that have been put forward by 20 very eminent scientists, including the noble Lord, Lord Rees, who is president of the Royal Society? It is essential to make it clear that somebody who is a member of an advisory committee may publicly declare his views, and that if they contradict government policy they will not be sacked.

My Lords, as I believe I have already made clear, we regard these principles as an excellent framework. The majority of the principles are already enshrined in the code of practice which scientific advisers adhere to when providing advice to the Government but, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has already highlighted, certain aspects are not covered by the principles. We believe that the principles provide an excellent framework. They again set out some important pillars that underpin the relationship between science and government, but we believe that they need to be taken further. That is why we are working on consultation and will be making a statement on those principles before Christmas.

My Lords, could my noble friend ensure that when members are appointed to these committees, it is made clear to them exactly what “advisory” means, and that it must remain ultimately a decision for the elected Government of the day?

My noble friend makes an important point. The scientific community and the Government have to work effectively together. That requires absolute clarity about scientists’ ability to give their independent advice and to talk about the advice that they give unless, as I say, there are security considerations. But in return there has to be understanding within the scientific community that Ministers make decisions based upon a number of elements of advice of which science is but one. Where that advice may differ from the decision, it is therefore incumbent on Ministers to explain why a different decision has been reached.

My Lords, where there is a difference of opinion between scientists as to what the evidence to submit to the Government is, will the principles ensure that that division is tolerated and not suppressed?

My Lords, we do not believe that it is in the interests of good government and good decision-making for such advice to be suppressed. That is not our policy. In the increasingly sophisticated world in which we live, which depends on so many matters of science, it is extremely important to ensure that the Government can access the best possible scientific advice. That means that we have to ensure that there is academic freedom and clarity on these matters. That is why our support for the principles is an excellent starting point for this debate.

My Lords, I completely agree with the basic principle enunciated by the Minister—namely, that there must be total independence with regard to the advice given and that it must be given straight from the shoulder. However, is there not the complicating factor that the person giving that advice should have some freedom perhaps to advocate a policy that is somewhat different from that of the Government, even to the point of proselytising that policy? Is it not in respect of that second matter that the real problem arises?

My Lords, here we get into a detailed discussion of the definition of the nature of advice and the ability of scientists to go about their normal practice as academics. In the majority of cases, scientists have been able to work effectively with the Government under the code of practice. However, there is an important principle in that the scientists have often spent the whole of their careers developing their scientific expertise in an area. Therefore they have to be able to publish, to give lectures and to talk about the science that they do, subject to the considerations that I have already mentioned relating to defence and other security measures.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the scientific advice given by Professor Nutt was correct but wrong for policy-making?

It is not for me to comment on the quality of the scientific advice that Professor Nutt has given; that is for scientists in the field, and I am not a scientist in that field. Notwithstanding that, I think that the point at the heart of the noble Lord’s question is whether it is possible for government to take decisions that contravene advice from scientists. Of course it must be possible for government to do that. However, government must do that in a way that provides clear separation between that scientific advice and the decision by Ministers. That is the principle to which we adhere.