Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


Operation of the advisory committees

60. As the Science and Innovation White Paper states -

"Expert scientific advisory committees are absolutely essential to our society. Without the knowledge and wisdom of the people who give up their time to serve on them, we would not be able to identify or manage the risks from science, or gain the benefits of scientific advances. We all owe them a debt of gratitude."[96]

The advisory committees do an enormous amount of valuable work, for little or no reward. We firmly believe that the advice which they give to Government is for the most part of a very high quality. Significant improvements have been made in recent years in the way they operate. Implementation of the new Code of Practice will improve matters further. It is clear from our inquiry that there are a number of areas where changes are still required.


61. It is essential that all scientific advisory bodies should have clear terms of reference. As the Phillips Report states, "the areas of advice that are required from the advisory committee should be identified as precisely as possible before the committee is set up" and "consideration should be given at the outset to the manner in which the committee will contribute to deciding policy".[97] It must be clear whether committees are simply to advise on the science, or whether they are also to advise on the policy options. It must also be clear where the limits of their responsibility, in the latter context, lies.

62. We are concerned that the distinction between risk assessment (properly the role of advisory committees) and risk management (principally the responsibility of Departments) seems frequently to be blurred. We note that the new strategic advisory bodies have responsibility for both: they advise and they recommend policy, although ultimate decision-making remains with Ministers. Some of the advisory committees too are asked to advise on policy options. As Phillips notes, "if a committee is asked to advise which policy option to adopt, there may be little alternative but to follow that advice".[98] Whatever the role of the advisory body, it must be clear that responsibility for decision-making lies with the Department, and that accountability for these decisions lies with Ministers. Advisory bodies must not be used as a device by Ministers to shirk difficult policy decisions.

63. We welcome the commitment by the Government to improve both risk assessment and risk management procedures. The Government has established an Inter-departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA).[99] The Treasury has recently published a broad framework for managing risk ("the Orange Book"[100]), which sets out the principles of good risk management. The Government recognises that guidance alone will not be enough, and that officials will need to be thoroughly trained in its application. Advisory committees will also need clear guidance. The Phillips Report found that "where a committee is asked to advise on risk management, it will normally be helpful to follow a formal structure based on recognised principles of risk assessment".[101] The Government has agreed that this should be made clear in the Code of Practice.[102]


64. Since 1998, appointments to advisory committees have been subject to the Public Appointments Code. This is very welcome. Vacancies are advertised, but it will still be necessary for Departments to "headhunt", or encourage suitable people to apply. As Phillips has stated, advisory committees should include experts in the areas of the advice that is likely to be required. This may seem self-evident but it has not always been the case. It is not always clear, particularly to the non-specialist, exactly which disciplines will be relevant, and this may change over time. For example, we were surprised that there was no expert on road traffic statistics on the Honorary Medical Advisory Panels on Medical Conditions and Driving.[103] We are concerned to discover that, while the Government agreed to appoint one, this has not happened since the Panel has "reservations about the usefulness of such an expert".[104] This is a matter for Ministers to decide and not one on which the Panel should hold sway. In our climate change case study, we found that biologists and geologists were insufficiently included in the advice to Government on climate change. The Royal Society of Chemistry felt that "governments have an incomplete view as to whom it is appropriate to consult on a given issue, which may be based on an insufficient appreciation of the interdisciplinary nature of modern science".[105] The Guidelines must stress the importance of including all relevant disciplines on advisory committees, and the Learned Bodies could give invaluable advice here.

65. Not surprisingly in view of the negative publicity surrounding the scientific advisory system, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract suitable people to join advisory committees. Service on a committee is seen as a "high grief / no gain" position. It is proving particularly difficult to find suitable people to chair committees. For example, we understand that it took many months to find suitable people to chair the AEBC and ACRE, and SEAC is still without someone permanent in the chair. Service on a committee may be costly in time, though this varies from committee to committee: being in the chair of a busy committee can be a major commitment. The Phillips Report recommended that those who are invited to join a committee should be given a realistic estimate of the commitment required of them.[106]

66. Remuneration for service on advisory committees is low or non-existent. (It is normal for committee members to have their expenses met, but only in some cases is remuneration paid.) The Phillips Report found that "where the workload of a committee is considerable, it is reasonable that members who are not public servants should be remunerated".[107] The Government has accepted this finding in principle and is to consider how it can best be achieved.[108] We believe that there should at least be consistency across Government departments, taking account of the varying workloads of committees, and that rates of pay should be public information. It is unfair that the FSA, as an independent Department, is able to pay higher rates to its Board members than is the HGC or the AEBC. We recommend that the Government ensure that there is consistency and openness in the remuneration of members of scientific advisory bodies.

67. More important than remuneration is the need to ensure that people are given credit for their service on advisory committees, or, at the very least, that they are not penalised. Academic scientists are discouraged from joining advisory committees by the fact that their university is not compensated for their absence. Indeed, under the Research Assessment Exercise, their university will actually lose out. Some Vice-Chancellors may actively prevent their members from joining government committees because of the adverse effect on their funding. We recommend that the Research Assessment Exercise and the Teaching Quality Assessment should take account of service on government advisory committees. It is vital that the advisory system should be able to involve scientists during their active working life, and not be dependent on those who are retired.


68. There have been lay members on some advisory committees for many years. Our case studies have convinced us of their value. As the Phillips Report states, "a lay member can play a vital role on an expert committee, and in particular can ensure that advice given by the committee addresses the concerns of, and is in a form that is intelligible to, the public".[109] The Government has stated that it agrees with this finding.[110]

69. There is some uncertainty about the definition of the term "lay member". It does not necessarily mean a non-scientist; indeed, some scientific background may be very useful. In our GM report we took the view that the term should refer also to experts from other scientific disciplines.[111] On occasions it may be valid to include non-scientists on advisory committees, for example in our Diabetes report we recommended that an insulin-treated diabetic should be invited to take part in meetings of the Honorary Advisory Panel and have full access to papers, but not to be a formal member of the Panel.[112] However, we felt it inappropriate to include "consumer representatives" on those committees whose job was to consider the science, rather than consumer interests. It should be clear that the role of the lay member is to bring an alternative perspective to the committee and not to represent an interest group. The Guidelines 2000 state rather vaguely that, in obtaining advice, Departments might draw on "lay members of advisory groups, consumer groups and other stakeholder bodies". The Guidelines should clarify that "lay members" can include scientists of other disciplines.

70. In our Diabetes case study Report, we proposed that two lay members should be appointed to all the Honorary Medical Advisory Panels.[113] We similarly recommended that there be at least two lay members of the Expert Group on Mobile Phones.[114] In our GM report, we recommended that experts from other disciplines should make up a fifth of the membership on all scientific advisory committees.[115] There is a danger that a single lay member on a committee of experts may feel isolated, and inhibited from questioning the expert view. We recommend that the norm be for at least two lay members (depending on the size of the committee) to be appointed to scientific advisory committees. The Guidelines should make this explicit.


71. Our case studies have also convinced us of the importance of involving scientists working for industry in advising Government, even when they may have a financial interest in the matter in which their advice is sought. In our GM report, we rejected the suggestion that employees of biotechnology or food companies should be barred from serving on GM advisory committees, and stated that "It is vital that appointments to scientific advisory committees should continue to be made by selecting people with the most suitable and relevant expertise".[116] We rejected any suggestion that scientists' integrity was automatically compromised by association with industry. We pointed out that if all scientists with research connections to the biotechnology industry were barred, whether as company employees or as academics collaborating with companies, the Government would be deprived of some of the best scientific expertise available. Similarly, in our Mobile Phones Report, we recommended that industrial representatives, with useful, relevant expertise, should be included in the Expert Group on Mobile Phones, though we felt that they should not be in a majority.[117]

72. While an interest should not be a bar to membership, there should be clear guidelines for disclosure. The Phillips Report supports this view: "Potential conflicts of interest should not preclude selection of those members otherwise best qualified, but conflicts of interest should be declared and registered."[118] The Guidelines 2000 state merely that "the relevant declarations of interests should, as a minimum, be made available to anyone who is proposing to act in reliance upon the advice". This does not seem to us to go far enough. Many advisory committees, and all three of the new strategic advisory bodies, do publish registers of their members' interests on the internet. We recommend that the revised Guidelines require all advisory committees to publish registers of members' interests.

73. It is not only those employed by industry who may have commercial interests: academic and public sector scientists may well have links to commercial organisations, or even be dependent on them for funding. The revised Guidelines should make clear that the requirement to declare interests extends to those in all sectors.


74. It is important to ensure reasonable turnover of membership of advisory committees. In our Diabetes case study, we learned that appointments were open-ended: two of the seven members of the Honorary Advisory Panel on Driving and Diabetes Mellitus had been on the Panel for 15 years, and another for 11 years.[119] We welcome the Government's commitment to a policy of appointments being limited to five years, and being renewable only once. [120] However, in most cases, appointments are made for three years only, renewable once. In our GM report we expressed concern that ten of the 13 members of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment were nearing the end of their term of office and would be ineligible for reappointment.[121] This had come about because there had been no policy of replacement on this committee. The Government agreed that where possible Departments should stagger the dates or duration of appointments.[122] The revised Guidelines should make clear that Departments should ensure that advisory committees do not experience large changes of membership at one time.


75. It is important for the effectiveness of advisory committees that they be properly staffed. In most cases, advisory committees are staffed by a small secretariat of civil servants drawn from the sponsoring Department(s), and located within the Department. While this may give rise to questions as to their independence, it allows good communication between the Department and the committee. The Phillips Report found that "it will often be desirable to draw the secretariat from the commissioning Department(s) in order to provide a two-way channel of communication". It noted, however, that "the secretariat must be careful to respect the independence of the committee".[123] We welcome the Government's undertaking that these concerns will specifically be taken into account when the next draft of the Code of Practice is issued.[124] While we accept that close links with the Department concerned can be useful, we suggest that it would be beneficial for at least some of a committee's staff to be brought in from outside (for example, on secondment from the Research Councils or the Learned Bodies). It is essential that the staff of an advisory committee appreciate that they work for the committee and not for the Department.

76. In our GM inquiry, we were concerned by the evidence of the Chairman of ACRE that insufficient resources and staff were allocated to the support of his committee, and that this was causing "serious problems". We recommended that the Government looked closely at the staffing arrangements for scientific advisory committees and committed itself to providing large enough secretariats to ensure their efficient working.[125] In its response, the Government acknowledged that there had been heavy demands on ACRE's staff time, and that the DETR had responded by taking on extra staff.[126] The Government does not appear to have reviewed the staffing arrangements more generally, as we recommended. In our current inquiry into Genetics and Insurance, we have been told by a member of the former Human Genetics Advisory Commission that its staff resources were "barely adequate" and that on occasion this caused difficulty for members.[127] We believe this to be a widespread and continuing problem. We recommend that the Government ask each advisory committee to report on the adequacy of its resources, and to make a case for an increase, if they think this necessary. Advisory committees must have the resources they require to operate effectively.

Rationalisation of committees

77. It is clear from the OST's list of advisory committees, that a lot of committees have grown up over the years, and that they are not in any rational pattern. We believe that the usefulness of a committee should be reviewed, by an external body, at least every five years. If there is no longer a clear need for a committee, it should be disbanded. In addition, we believe there is a need for a review of the whole network of advisory committees to establish whether there is any overlap or duplication which suggests the need for rationalisation. We recommend that the Government carry out a review of the advisory committee network and thereafter establish a system of five-yearly reviews for individual committees.

Impact of change in Public Sector Research Establishments

78. As we discussed in paragraph 25 above, the PSREs have been subject to increased competition for funding. The relationship between establishment and Government Department is therefore changing to one of contractor and customer. Potentially this may have considerable implications for the way in which the Government gets scientific advice: Departments will require sufficient scientific expertise in-house in order to be able to act as "intelligent customer". In 1997, our predecessor Committee received evidence suggesting that basic research was suffering as a result of pressure on PSREs, and the Research Councils, to move closer to the market; and voiced concern, in particular, about the Met Office's continuing ability to run a high quality research programme.[128] It has to be said that, in this inquiry, we have encountered little evidence of significant problems so far. It is too soon to say how the research base, or the scientific advisory system, has been affected by the moves to encourage commercialisation in the Public Sector Research Establishments.

79. In our case study Report on Scientific Advice on Climate Change, we note the Government's reliance for advice on the Hadley Centre of the Meteorological Office.[129] We note the advantages which stem from the very close relationship between Hadley Centre scientists and DETR officials, and suggest that this closeness in part accounted for the early acceptance by the UK Government of the need to tackle climate change. But we voice concern that the Government is perhaps over-reliant on the Hadley Centre, to the exclusion of other sources of advice and other disciplines. It is in our view unsatisfactory for the Government to be dependent for advice on just one source of advice, particularly if that source of advice is not perceived to be independent of Government. The Government must avoid dependence on single sources of advice.

Lessons from abroad

80. During our visit to Washington DC in June 1998, we studied how the scientific advisory system operates in the USA and how it compares to our own. We learned a number of lessons. For example -

Cm 4814, chapter 4, paragraph 26. Back

97   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

98   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

99   Evidence, p 7, paragraph 55. Back

100  Management of Risk - A strategic overview, January 2001. Back

101   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

102   Cm 5049, page 73. Back

103   HC 206-I, paragraph 28. Back

104   First Special Report, Appendix I, paragraph 51. See too Evidence, p 9, paragraphs 13-14. Back

105   Evidence HC 465, p 100. Back

106   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

107   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

108   Cm 5049, p 72, finding 111. Back

109   HC 887-XI, paragraph 4.773. Also HC 887-I, paragraph 1290.  Back

110   Cm 5049, p 75, finding 138. Back

111   HC 286-I, paragraph 54. Back

112   HC 206-I, paragraph 30.  Back

113   HC 206-I, paragraph 29. Back

114   HC 489-I, paragraph 33. Back

115   HC 286-I, paragraph 53. Back

116   HC 286-I, paragraph 48. Back

117   HC 489-I, paragraph 32. Back

118   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

119   HC 206-I, paragraph 31. Back

120   Evidence, p 10, paragraph 20. Back

121   HC 286-I, paragraph 46. Back

122   Cm 4527, paragraph 26. Back

123   HC 887-I, paragraph 1290. Back

124   Cm 5049, p 72, findings 112-113. Back

125   HC 286-I, paragraph 77. Back

126   Cm 4527, paragraph 54. Back

127   Professor Martin Bobrow, Minutes of Evidence, 24 January 2001, HC 174-i, Evidence, p 12. Back

128   Third Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 1996-97, The Natural Environment Research Council and Research into Climate Change, HC 81-I. Back

129   HC 14, paragraphs 10-15. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 March 2001