Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Further supplementary memorandum submitted by the Office of Science and Technology

  1.  The memorandum responds to the request of 17 January 2001 from the Committee Clerk for an update on progress with a number of issues, namely:

    —  progress with the production of the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees;

    —  the role, status and purpose of the new Food Standards Agency; the Human Genetics Commission and the Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission;

    —  the work to date of the reformed Council for Science and Technology (CST);

    —  the practices which these four bodies have developed to ensure openness and transparency; and

    —  any developments in the mechanisms for sharing scientific advice and information between government departments.

  2.  This memorandum takes as its starting point the position as set out in the Government's two previous memoranda of May 1998 and May 1999[1], and describes what has happened since.


  3.  On 26 July 2000, an initial public consultation on the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees was launched alongside the Science and Innovation White Paper "Excellence and Opportunity". That consultation document invited members of the public to consider what provisions might usefully be included in the new Code. It suggested some possible provisions and invited comments on them, as well as offering consultees the chance to make their own suggestions on what other matters should be covered. The issues covered in the initial consultation document included:

    —  transparency:  what information a committee should publish, handling of confidential information, reporting of uncertainty in advice to departments; communication to stakeholders, including the approach to public consultation and dialogue;

    —  responsibilities of the Chair, including training needs;

    —  responsibilities and duties of the members, including understanding of the committee's and of their own personal role, the balance of representation, changes of membership and conflicts of interest;

    —  duties of the secretariat and other government officials involved with the committee;

    —  committee working practices, the use of research, early identification of issues, risk assessment, procedures for arriving at conclusions, exchange of information with other committees.

  4.  The initial consultation closed on 1 December 2000. Over 50 responses were received. The responses were in general substantial and of a high quality, and raised many useful points, which the Government is currently studying. The Government will also want to take into account the "lessons learned" which have emerged from the Report of Lord Phillips' inquiry into BSE, many of which are relevant to the operation of scientific advisory committees and their relationships with government and the public. The lessons from the Inquiry will be an important element in the further development of the Code. The Government is drawing up a fresh draft, which would take into account all these elements, and intends to circulate it in March for a second round of consultation, with a view to drawing up and promulgating the final version later this year.


(a) The Food Standards Agency

  5.  The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was created by an Act of Parliament and came into being on 1 April 2000. Its primary purpose is to "protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food, and otherwise protect the interests of consumers in relation to food" (Food Standards Act 1999, s.1(2)).

  6.  The Agency was set up by the Government following a long series of events over many years which eroded the public's confidence in the arrangements for ensuring the safety of food. Highly publicised issues such as salmonella in eggs, listeria in paté and soft cheeses, e. coli and, above all, BSE led many people to believe that a new body was needed to oversee food safety and standards.

  7.  Although called an Agency, the FSA is a department of government. Unlike most, it is non-ministerial and operates at arm's length from ministers, but its role, powers and responsibilities are similar to that of other departments. However, it has a Chairman, Deputy Chair and Board of independent members who were appointed to act in the public interest, not to represent particular sectors. The members bring a wide range of relevant skills and experience.

  8.  The Agency is a UK body, accountable to Parliament in Westminster through the Secretary of State for Health and the devolved administrations through their Health Ministers or equivalents. Its headquarters are in London and it has offices in Aberdeen, Belfast and Cardiff. The Meat Hygiene Service—which also has the protection of public health as a primary aim—is also part of the Agency.

  9.  On its creation, the Agency took over a large number of functions and regulatory responsibilities from the Health and Agriculture Departments across the UK. It also acquired some important new functions. Under the Food Standards Act 1999, its main functions are:

    —  Developing policies (or assisting in the development by any public authority of policies) relating to matters connected with food safety or other interests of consumers in relation to food; providing advice, information or assistance in respect of such matters to any public authority;

    —  Providing advice and information to the general public (or any section of the public) in respect of matters connected with food safety or other interests of consumers in relation to food; and providing advice, information or assistance in respect of such matters to any person who is not a public authority;

    —  Obtaining, compiling and keeping under review information about matters connected with food safety and other interests of consumers in relation to food.

  10.  This latter function includes (among other things):

    —  monitoring developments in science, technology and other fields of knowledge relating to the matters mentioned above; and

    —  carrying out, commissioning or co-ordinating research on those matters.

  11.  New powers and functions vested in the Agency include:

    —  Animal feeding stuffs:

    —  Observations with a view to acquiring information;

    —  Monitoring of enforcement actions.

  12.  As the department with primary responsibility for food safety, the Agency takes advice from a number of advisory committees. The role of most (though not all) of these committees is to provide independent scientific assessments of risk. The Agency is responsible for formulating policy and advising ministers on the basis of this advice and other evidence. It is required to take into account both the costs and benefits of its decisions.

  13.  The Agency has three core values. It will:

    —  put the consumer first;

    —  be open and accessible; and

    —  be an independent voice.

  14.  At its launch, the Agency committed itself to:

    —  base its decisions and advice on the best evidence available;

    —  consult widely before making recommendations unless urgent action is essential;

    —  obtain independent expert advice from advisory committees;

    —  commission research to support its functions; and

    —  be prompt in making public its advice to government.

  15.  The Agency is honouring these commitments. It has published details of how it puts its core values into practice and lives up to these commitments in a range of documents, such as its Statement of General Objectives and Practices, its code of Practice on Openness, its Statement on the Agency's Approach to Risk and its internal Guidance on Consultation. All these documents and a wide range of other information can be found on its web-site at

(b) The Human Genetics Commission.


  16.  The Human Genetics Commission (HGC), chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, is the UK Government's advisory body on how new developments in human genetics will impact on people and on healthcare. Its remit is to give ministers strategic advice on the "big picture" of human genetics, with a particular focus on social and ethical issues. Its terms of reference are:

    —  To analyse current and potential developments in human genetics and advise ministers on their likely impact on human health and healthcare, and their social, ethical, legal and economic implications.

    —  To advise on strategic priorities in the delivery of genetic services by the NHS.

    —  To advise on strategic priorities for research.

    —  To develop and implement a strategy to involve and consult the public and other stakeholders and encourage debate on the development and use of human genetic technologies and advise on ways of increasing public knowledge and understanding.

    —  To co-ordinate and exchange information with relevant bodies in order to:

      —  identify and advise on the effectiveness of existing guidance and of the regulatory and advisory framework as a whole, taking account of European and global dimensions; and

      —  look at the lessons learnt from individual cases requiring regulatory decision to build up a wider picture.

    —  To consider specific issues related to human genetics and related technologies as requested by ministers.

    —  To operate in accordance with best practice for public bodies with regard to openness, transparency, accessibility, timeliness and exchange of information. In considering national issues, HGC will adopt a UK perspective which will include taking account of legal and other differences between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and of the status of devolved and non-devolved matters.


  17.  HGC was established following a comprehensive review in May 1999 by the UK Government of the regulatory and advisory framework for biotechnology. As a result, three advisory human genetics committees were wound up and their responsibilities passed to HGC, which has taken forward various aspects of their work. These were: the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (see Annex 2B of first Supplementary Memorandum), the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing (see Annex 2A of first Supplementary Memorandum) and the Advisory Group on Scientific Advances in Genetics.

Openness and transparency

  18.  HGC has a strong remit to involve and consult the public and others, to encourage debate, to advise on ways of increasing public knowledge and understanding and to follow best practice in terms of openness and transparency.

  19.  The HGC website is used to publish agendas in advance of meetings and the minutes of meetings shortly afterwards. A range of background material and papers are either published on the website or are available on request. HGC is considering how audio and video content might be added to the website in future. All future plenary HGC meetings will be open for the public to attend as observers. Sub-group meetings are not open for the public to attend, but attributable minutes are published.

  20.  As part of their Code of Practice members are asked to act in accordance with government policy on openness, comply fully with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, and adopt the best practice principles on transparency, timeliness and exchange of information.

  21.  HGC publishes and maintains a Register of Members' Interests. At the beginning of each meeting members are reminded of the need to keep this up to date, of the need to declare any personal or business interests relevant to specific agenda items and that they should not then take part in discussing such items.

Recent Developments

  22.  The members of HGC were appointed in December 1999 and the Commission first met on 10 February 2000. At its second meeting on 18 May 2000 membership and terms of reference were agreed for three sub-groups on Horizon-Scanning, Genetic Testing, and Public Involvement in Genetics; and for a Working Group on the Storage, Protection and Use of Genetic Information. HGC is also committed to establishing a "Patient Panel" to help bring the knowledge and experience of those broadly affected by genetic disorders to the work of the Commission. Over the past year two consultative meetings have been held: on HGC's workplan on 10 April in London and on the main theme of HGC's current workplan, human genetic information, on 27 November in Newcastle. A public information-gathering and discussion day on genetic testing and insurance will take place on 9 February 2001 in London. HGC has commissioned a MORI "People's Panel" survey on the public's attitude to genetics and the use of genetic information. Interim results were published last November and a report with the full results will be published very shortly.

  23.  At present HGC is conducting a consultation on the storage, protection and use of personal genetic information. HGC will consider the outcome of these various activities, along with the reports of the House of Lords Select Committee Inquiry into Human Genetic Databases and the House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry into Genetics and Insurance, and will report to ministers with its advice by late 2001.

  24.  In November 1999 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in collaboration with the Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, launched a consultation on Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). A Joint Working Party with members from both the HGC Genetic Testing Sub-group and the HFEA are currently considering the results of the consultation and later this year will make recommendations concerning the HFEA's licensing of PGD and the nature of the guidance as to when PGD should be offered and the associated ethical issues.

  25.  Further details of HGC are to be found at the Commission's website at

(c) The Agriculture and Environmental Biotechnology Commission.


  26.  The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC) like the HGC, was established following a comprehensive review of the regulatory and advisory framework for biotechnology. It provides the UK Government and the devolved administrations with independent, strategic advice on developments in biotechnology and their implications for agriculture and the environment. Like HGC it will look at the "big picture" taking ethical and social issues into account as well as the science.

Openness and Transparency

  27.  The AEBC is committed to maximum openness and transparency. Agendas, minutes of AEBC meetings (including sub-groups), and background papers are publicly available and posted on the Commission's web-site, Those who do not have access to the internet may obtain information via the secretariat.

  28.  The Commission consulted widely on its draft Work Plan. In addition to a written consultation exercise, in December last year it held a public meeting in London to hear views before finalising the Plan, which was presented to Ministers on 10 January. Future formal meetings will be held at different venues around the United Kingdom and will include public sessions.

Recent Developments

  29.  The AEBC's Work Plan identifies three priority issues on which it has already started work:

    —  examining the Government's decision making process on biotechnology using case studies of the farm-scale evaluations and issues surrounding gene flow;

    —  animals and biotechnology; and

    —  horizon scanning for new developments.

  30.  The first of these formed the focus for the Commission's next public meeting in Norwich on 5 and 6 February where there was an evidence-taking session for the case study on the farm-scale evaluations.

  31.  The AEBC is also carrying out preliminary work on future enquiries into consumer choice and public attitudes, bioremediation and liability for environmental damage. Further information on these studies and on the Commission's proposed methods of working can be found in its Work Plan on



  32.  As set out paragraph 5.3 of the Government's May 1998 memorandum, the Council serves as the Prime Minister's top level advisory body, providing its independent views and recommendations about strategic issues concerning Science and Technology (S&T) in the UK. It is supported by a secretariat in the Office of Science & Technology.

  33.  The Council is specifically charged with taking a medium to longer term, proactive approach to its core task of keeping under review, and making recommendations on, ways of improving:

    —  the performance of the UK (public and private) in S&T, in relation to current and future national needs and opportunities;

    —  the overall impact of the funding arrangements for publicly supported S&T including those for research in higher education institutions;

    —  the effective use and exploitation of S&T by business, government and the public services to create wealth and improve our quality of life; and

    —  the synergy between the UK's domestic and international S&T activities and the scope for the UK to get more benefit from S&T collaboration.

  34.  The Council also provides its independent advice on more specific strategic issues of national importance whenever this is sought.


  35.  Members are appointed by the Prime Minister, normally for a period of three years, on the advice of the Cabinet Minister with transdepartmental responsibilities for S&T, the Rt Hon Mr Stephen Byers MP, the Secretary of State for Trade & Industry. Appointments are made in accordance with the requirements of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

  36.  Members serve on the Council without remuneration. Any incidental costs they incur on Council business, such as travel, can be reimbursed by the Government.


  37.  Each year, the Council meets quarterly and undertakes a programme of work on a limited number of topics that are determined by its independent members on the basis of the following general criteria:

    —  Strategic importance: is the issue sufficiently important to justify the Council's attention?

    —  Timeliness: is this the most appropriate time to consider this issue? How and when does it fit within the schedule of Government business?

    —  Relevance: is the issue of relevance to Government policy making?

    —  Value Added: what value can the Council add? Is it the most appropriate body to address this issue?

    —  Coverage: is the issue relevant to the whole of the UK?

  38.  At the Council's quarterly meetings, members have also provided their views and advice on particular S&T issues, as and when sought by the Government.

  39.  During 1998-99, the Council prepared and subsequently published three substantive reports with advice to the Prime Minister:

    —  "A Review of S&T activity across Government"(September 1999);

    —  "Technology Matters"—a report of the exploitation of S&T by UK Business (March 2000); and

    —  "Science Teachers"—a report on supporting and developing the profession of science teaching in primary and secondary schools (March 2000).

  40.  During 2000-01, four sub-groups of Council members are working, respectively, on the following topics:

    —  The Arts & Humanities in relation to Science and Technology;

    —  A Quinquennial Review of the six Grant Funding Research Councils;

    —  Follow up to CST's report on Science Teachers;

    —  Preparation of the CST's advice on Departments' new Science and Innovation strategies.

Openness and Transparency

  41.  Under the Council's terms of reference, any sub-groups may involve additional non-Council members with appropriate expertise who are co-opted to help deal with the particular topic concerned. Additionally, the work of these sub-groups can involve written or other forms of consultations with third parties for the purposes of obtaining the views and evidence on which to establish the Council's advice. The Council is specifically required to publish an annual report, information about its work programme, and normally its advice.

  42.  As an "advisory, non departmental public body", the Council operates in accordance with the framework for "Opening Up Quangos" which the Government established in 1998. It has adopted a code of practice based on the seven principles of public life, the "Nolan" standards of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.

  43.  The Council presently comprises 15 independent members: Mr Javaid Aziz; Mr Euan Baird; Professor S Kumar Bhattacharyya CBE Feng; Professor Sir Alec Broers FRS Feng; Professor Vicki Bruce; Professor Sir Christopher Evans OBE; Professor Julia Higgins CBE FRS; Dr Rob Margetts CBE Feng; Sir Paul Nurse; Dr David Potter CBE; Miss Emma Rothschild; Professor Peter Schuddeboom; Sir Richard Sykes DSc FRS; Professor David VandeLinde; and Mr John Weston.

  44.  The Council has established a website (at, containing information about its:

    —  Terms of Reference;

    —  Membership and Organisation, including members' CVs and Register of Interests;

    —  Work, including an overview and summaries of individual work items;

    —  Reports, including background papers and government responses to-date;

    —  Meetings, both its forward schedule and summaries of all its meetings so far;

    —  Press Notices; and

    —  A "What's New?" page to help enquirers keep track of its work and progress.


  45.  The Government's two previous memoranda described the ways and means by which government departments use and share advice and information for decision making and policy development. They explained the role and work of the Ministerial Science Group (MSG) and the Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification (MISC6), the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), the Director General of the Research Councils (DGRC), the Cabinet Official Committee on Science & Technology (EASO) and the Interdepartmental Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA).

  46.  The Minister for Science and the CSA, supported by OST, continue to be the focal points for the co-ordination of S&T issues across government and with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  47.  The Ministerial Science Group (MSG) is chaired by the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, and comprises ministers from each of the departments with significant SET activity, including the devolved administrations. It aims to promote a co-ordinated and coherent approach to SET policy-making.

  48.  Where issues cross departmental boundaries, responsibility for high-level co-ordination of the policy on particular issues may rest with the appropriate ministerial committee. This may be one of the standing cabinet committees such as HS or EA or a specially convened committee such as MISC6 whose role is to consider issues relating to biotechnology, in particular those arising from genetic modification.

  49.  The previous memoranda also covered the "Forward Look" publication, the CSA's Guidelines on the use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making ("the Guidelines"), the CSA's first annual report on the implementation of the Guidelines, and post devolution arrangements.

  50.  More recent developments are as set out below.

Guidelines on Scientific Advice in Policy Making

  51.  In November 1999 the CSA published a second report on the implementation by departments of the Guidelines.

  The Government's White Paper "Excellence and Opportunity" published in July 2000 sets out the Government's commitment to an independent and transparent advisory framework for science. Its launch was accompanied by:

    —  Publication of Guidelines 2000 on Scientific Advice and Policy Making—an update of the 1997 Guidelines.

    —  Publication of an Implementation Plan in response to the CST's 1999 report "Review of S&T Activity across Government". One of the main recommendations in this Plan concerned the need for a more strategic forward-looking approach to science and technology. As set out in the Plan, departments are currently engaged in preparing science and innovation strategies in line with this recommendation. They will also be reviewed by the CST and by the Ministerial Science Group. The completed strategies will be published to facilitate sharing of information and to encourage cross-departmental working in appropriate areas.

    —  Launch of the consultation on a new Code of Practice for scientific advisory committees. This has been described in the earlier part of this memorandum.

The Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee

  52.  In 1999, the Chief Scientific Adviser's Committee (CSAC) replaced the Economic Affairs Science and Technology Committee of Officials (EASO) as the regular forum for departmental chief scientists and senior officials with responsibility for R&D from departments with significant S&T activity (including the FSA).

  53.  Under the CSA's chairmanship, CSAC's remit is to consider issues of relevance to the Government and the devolved administrations concerning science, engineering and technology (SET). In particular:

    —  To provide advice to ministers, primarily through the Ministerial Science Group.

    —  To discuss and facilitate implementation of policy on SET.

    —  To identify and promulgate good practice in SET-related areas, including the use of scientific advice in policy making.

    —  To facilitate communication on particular high profile SET-related issues and those posing new challenges for government.

  54.  When necessary, the CSA may bring together departments and research councils for the purpose of research co-ordination either through ad hoc or standing arrangements. A recent example of the role is the High Level Group on Health Genomics which brings together the research councils, Department of Health and the Office of Science and Technology.

The Inter-departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA)

  55.  The Inter-departmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (ILGRA) and its subgroup on risk communication now ensure better sharing of information between government officials and a more consistent approach to risk across departments. ILGRA has promoted new collaborative approaches, fostered research on topics of cross government relevance and provided a network for improving communication between those engaged in risk policy in different departments. In acting as an interdepartmental conduit, ILGRA helps to avoid duplication of effort and promotes "joined-up" thinking.


  56.  Devolution has introduced fundamental structural changes in the government of the UK. Communication with the devolved administrations is an important aspect of joined-up Government. The Government and devolved administrations have all agreed a Memorandum of Understanding that commits each administration to information sharing and co-operation on policy development.

  57.  Government departments, including departments within the devolved administrations, have been forging closer links to improve co-operation and consultation on matters of shared interest. This includes information and papers relating to the scientific advisory committees in which they have a shared interest and the results of collaborative surveillance and research.

  58.  For example, the Government has published a number of administrative agreements (concordats) between different parts of government and devolved administrations. These document how they co-operate in relation to policy, science, openness and other matters. For example MAFF has concordats with the FSA, with the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and with three research councils. The advantage of such concordats is that they formalise co-operation and information exchange rather than relying on ad hoc bilaterals and other informal mechanisms. Some departments have high-level agreements with the devolved administrations that cover research co-ordination.

  59.  In a recent initiative, departments are now expected to apply Health Impact Assessments (HIA) to all new key policies. Departments are currently piloting a screening checklist to assess if full HIA are warranted.

Future Developments

  60.  The Report of Lord Phillips' Inquiry into BSE made a number of important recommendations about improving mechanisms for co-operation and the sharing of scientific advice and information between government departments. The Government is considering how to take account of these wider points and will address them in its response to Phillips.

February 2001

1   See HC 796-i, Session 1998-99 and HC 465, Session 1999-2000. Back

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