Don't alienate your advisers, chief scientist tells ministers

Professor John Beddington warns against dragging academics into public rows over politically sensitive decisions

Ministers risk alienating their science advisers by dragging them into public rows over politically sensitive policy decisions, the government's chief scientist has warned. Leading academics will be discouraged from working with government if they fear being reprimanded for expressing their views, says Prof John Beddington, who took over the post from Sir David King last year.

Government relies heavily on independent advice from academics, but is in danger of eroding the relationship and squandering their expertise, Beddington told ministers.

The situation is particularly fraught when eminent scientists are asked to advise on politically sensitive issues, such as the government's drug policy. A debate over the risks of recreational drugs erupted into a public row in February when the former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, vetoed recommendations from her own drug advisers to downgrade ecstasy from its class A status.

A parliamentary report published last week directed further criticism at ministers for demonstrating a cavalier attitude to scientific evidence, which was often viewed as "at best a peripheral concern, and at worst as a political bargaining chip."

The report by the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee called on chief scientists within government departments to name and shame ministers who flout scientific advice when formulating policies.

Phil Willis, the chairman of the committee, said the report did not demand that every government policy be based on scientific evidence, but urged ministers not to make false claims for the evidence underlying their policies.

Beddington's concerns are made clear in a letter to the former home secretary released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act. The letter was copied to the Cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, the communities secretary, John Denham, and the Home Office's most senior civil servant, Sir David Normington.

The letter, sent three months before Smith stood down in June, stressed the "importance of creating and sustaining an environment in which the best brains of academe are willing and able to work effectively with government."

Beddington referred to the recent row over drug policy, in which Ms Smith told ministers she had telephoned Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), to say she was "surprised and profoundly disappointed" in him for comparing the risks of ecstasy with horseriding in an academic journal shortly before the council announced its recommendations on the drug.

The admonition of Nutt and the subsequent media coverage "will discourage scientists from working with government," and emphasised a need to "find a better way forward to ensure scientific evidence continues to contribute to debates even when such debates are politically sensitive," Beddington said.

"We, across government, need to develop some clear expectations. For example, that scientists who give of their time and expertise to assist policy-making, often without charge, are appropriately and publicly supported and valued by government, by universities and by the research assessment process," the letter continued.

In her reply to Professor Beddington's letter, Smith said: "The advice that the ACMD gives (both scientific and wider) is work that I value, demonstrated by the fact that I, and previous home secretaries, have accepted the vast majority of the council's recommendations."

The government draws on leading scientists to advise on policies that cross the breadth of Whitehall departments, including food safety and nutrition, environmental pollution, infectious disease preparedness and national security.

Sir David King, the former chief scientist, said it was crucial for scientists to give "honest, rigorous and independent advice" to government, but stressed that scientists must appreciate their advice might not always be taken.

"We have to accept that ministers and prime ministers make decisions that don't always go directly with the scientific advice. This is an advisorial system and we have to be tough-skinned about it," Sir David said.

"It is important that scientists are prepared to be hardnosed. There's little point of getting into the fray if you're not prepared to put up with the obvious outcome where a minister or a secretary of state have the responsibility to make the political decisions," he added.

"During the Bush period in the White House, scientific advice was not only ignored but sometimes absolutely overturned for no good reason at all. Documents were altered by the White House, including Environmental Protection Agency documents on climate change, with absolutely no scientific input to explain why. There's a situation where the scientific community have every right to say there's little point in working with this govenment," Sir David said.

The parliamentary report, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, said press offices within Whitehall departments could skew the advice scientific advisory panels and recommended a new press office be established to handle all advisory committee reports. It also called for the chief scientist to report directly to the prime minister.


Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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