Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

UK science principles criticised

Lord Drayson (PA)
Lord Drayson stressed the importance of academic freedom

Scientists and campaigners have questioned how the UK government plans to engage with scientific advisers.

On Tuesday, the government published a set of principles to "clarify the relationship between advice and policy".

The independence of scientific advisers has been under question since the home secretary sacked former drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt.

But critics say that the principles are ambiguous and need clarification.

These guidelines, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis), sought to answer calls from MPs and scientists for ministers to uphold scientific independence.

Professor Colin Blakemore from Oxford University, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council said that, overall, he was pleased with what the government had done.

But he drew attention to one point in the guidelines, which said that the government and its scientific advisers "should work together to reach a shared position, and neither should act to undermine mutual trust".

"I do worry with the potential picture of advisers and civil servants, or ministers, sitting together... to cook up the evidence appropriately to support whatever line the government wants," he told BBC News.

"That isn't necessarily what the government wanted at all, but it might mean that some clarification is needed here. This is open to [an] interpretation that would contradict much of the rest of the document."

Tracey Brown, managing director of campaigning organisation Sense About Science, welcomed the publication of the new principles, but said she was "very concerned" about that same point.

Ministers rely on scientific advice to develop sound government policy
Lord Drayson

"It re-introduces the ambiguity that we thought we were all seeking to eliminate through the development of these principles," she said in a statement.

"How will advisers know whether, in answering a question at a lecture or from a journalist one morning, they might be undermining mutual trust with the government?"

But Science and Innovation Minister, Lord Drayson, said that the principles would strengthen the important relationship between ministers and advisers.

"Ministers rely on scientific advice to develop sound government policy," he said. "[The principles] emphasise the importance of academic freedom, and the responsibilities of both scientists and ministers."

He added that they would now go out for consultation.

Culture clash

The government has assuaged some of the concerns that scientists raised in the wake of Professor Nutt's dismissal.

Some researchers said that there had been several examples of "news management" by Whitehall departments, when the government did not agree with the conclusions of a report.

The Bis principles have now made it clear that scientific advisers "have the right to engage with the media and public independently of the government".

Prior to their publication, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee had recommended that if ministers did reject scientific advice, they should formally explain their decision.

The new principles do not go that far, but do suggest that, if government "is minded not to accept advice of a scientific advisory committee... the relevant minister will normally meet with the chair to discuss the issue before a final decision is made".

They also say that scientific advisers to the government must be "free to communicate in a professional capacity within their field of expertise, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions".

This point will aim to answer those scientists who criticised the Home Secretary Alan Johnson for dismissing Professor Nutt. Mr Johnson has said that Professor Nutt "crossed the line" in his role, by campaigning against government policy.

Timing is crucial

Scientists had also criticised the government's timing when it published its response to scientific advice.

Earlier this year, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published its own climate projections on the same day as a scientific report that criticised them.

The new principles state: "The timing of the government's response to scientific advice will demonstrably allow for proper consideration of that advice."

The government says the principles were designed to cover "trust, respect, independence, transparency and openness".

They were agreed after a series of meetings, with input from scientific advisory committees, learned societies, science media representatives and Sense about Science.

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