Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


Establishing the quality of advice

51. The Government has to establish that the advice it receives is of a high quality. It has to ensure that its sources of advice are good and operate effectively, and it has to have ways of checking that the advice it receives is valid. (We explore in paragraphs 61 to 76 below a number of ways in which the operation of advisory committees can be improved.)

52. The most effective way of ensuring the validity of advice is to open the advice to peer review. Peer review may be formal - by asking other experts to review the advice - or informal, for example by opening the advice to public scrutiny. It is important to ensure that formal peer review is independent and rigorous. There is a risk that reviewers may be too close to those they are reviewing to be critical or to offer a significantly different perspective. This may be regarded by a hostile public as incestuous. It is, therefore, important that formal peer review be supplemented by wider scrutiny. Many advisory committees are already in the practice of publishing their advice to Government, and the commitment to transparency for all advisory committees will facilitate scrutiny greatly. But for this wider scrutiny to be effective the Government must offer clear channels for scientists of other disciplines to offer their alternative perspective.

53. A key question in our inquiry has been whether the Government is sufficiently aware of those independent scientists whose views diverge from the profession's mainstream: dissident or even maverick voices. We questioned, for example, whether the Government was taking account of the views of a minority of scientists who doubt that climate change is, to a significant extent, man-made. We repeat the recommendation made in our report on Climate Change, that clear and transparent channels should be available through which scientists who hold dissenting views can readily communicate their ideas to policymakers and can have confidence that they have been heard. It should be the clear responsibility of advisory committees to draw dissenting views to the attention of Government.

54. One of the difficulties for Government is to establish whether an approach is coming from a sensible, if dissident, scientist, or simply from someone who is peddling an unsubstantiated view. We have seen examples where scientists have been manipulated by the media, who have given quite disproportionate and uncritical coverage to their research. Scientists who are unused to media attention may be seduced to voice views way beyond their scientific knowledge. Government must ensure that dissident scientists are heard, but not give credence to those who, with media encouragement, are voicing unsubstantiated theories.

Public confidence

55. There is no doubt that there has been a loss of public confidence in the scientific advisory system. This is only partly a reflection on the scientific advisory system itself: it is part of a wider public distrust of the political process and possibly a decline in respect for authority. As we stated in paragraph 9, the Government, in its use of the scientific advisory system, must recognise this social change and respond to it. Public opinion plays a major part in forming Government policy, whatever the scientific advice. New developments need to have public support. It was public opinion, not scientific advice, which led to policy changes on GM foods, for example. Restoring public confidence in scientific advice is essential, but it will be a hard, and slow, process.

Openness and transparency

56. The Phillips Report sets out three simple lessons:

These lessons are strongly endorsed in the Government's Interim Response. This states that the Government is committed to a policy of open and transparent working, and recognises that efforts to "build and sustain trust through openness cannot succeed unless it is fully prepared to acknowledge uncertainty in its assessments of risk".[91] The Guidelines 2000 emphasise that Department's procedures for obtaining advice should be open and transparent; and the draft Code of Practice expects advisory bodies to maintain high levels of transparency during routine business and to publish appropriate documents explaining their activities. We commend the very significant steps which Government is making to increase openness and transparency.

57. The Government's commitment to transparency is very welcome. We note that there are limitations to this commitment. The Government was not prepared to extend the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act to factual information made available to Ministers. The draft Code of Practice envisages that in some circumstances the advice of advisory bodies will not be published. Voluntary disclosure is not enough, if the public is to be convinced that the scientific advisory system is truly transparent. Furthermore, publication is increasingly taken to mean publication on the internet. Many - perhaps most - advisory committees now have their own websites, but some are very hard to locate. We find that it takes time to find even major policy documents such as the Guidelines 2000 and the draft Code of Practice: we suggest that consultation documents, in particular, should be clearly accessible. We note with approval the proposal in the Government's Interim Report that there should be a centrally run website providing access to information about publicly-funded R&D programmes.[92] In addition to, or perhaps part of, this, we recommend that there should be a website for the scientific advisory system, with direct links to every advisory committee. However, there is a need for caution. While we welcome the provision of government information on the internet, it should not be an alternative to publication on paper. Many people do not have access to a computer and for them information published on the internet will not be readily accessible.

The role of the media

58. Efforts to sustain public confidence in the scientific advisory system are not assisted by the inaccurate or sensational reporting of scientific matters in the media. In our case study on GM foods, we were very concerned by the quality of media coverage of GM issues. We recommended that there be a Code of Practice governing media coverage of scientific matters, and that breaches be referred to the Press Complaints Commission.[93] In its response, the Government maintained that the newspaper industry's existing Code of Practice covered alleged inaccuracy in reporting, regardless of the subject matter, and that the BBC's guidelines and the ITC's Programme Code required accuracy of reporting in the broadcasting media. The Government saw no merit in a separate code for scientific matters.[94] We note that the Royal Society has produced guidelines for editors, calling for factual accuracy and balance in media coverage of science. We endorse the recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee that the Press Complaints Commission should adopt and promulgate the Royal Society's guidelines for editors.[95]

59. The role of the media has been explored in depth by the House of Lords Committee in its Report on Science and Society. We commend this Report to the scientists and journalists. While we continue to believe that inaccurate and unbalanced reporting is unacceptable, we note the Lords Committee's conclusion that scientists must learn to work with the media as they are. Scientists must learn to communicate better and to present their case to the media.

90   HC 887-I, paragraph 1301. Back

91   Cm 5049, paragraph 5.3. Back

92   Cm 5049, paragraph 4.26. Back

93   HC 286-I, paragraph 29. Back

94   Cm 4527, paragraphs 9-11. Back

95   HL Paper 38, paragraph 7.31. Back

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