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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Independent scientific advice

Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice

Sense About Science and the scientific community persuaded the Government to include principles for the treatment of independent advice into the Minsterial Code in 2010.

The UK Government's independent advisory bodies, composed of scientists and other experts who provide their service without payment, play a crucial role in informing and evaluating policy. In 2009 the sacking of Professor David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) raised significant concerns in the scientific community about independence of Government advisors. We helped lead a campaign to set out explicitly the principles underlying independent advice and seek Government's confirmation of them, to reaffirm all that is good about the independent advisory system, to ensure that new ministers understood what its benefits were and to reduce the likelihood of public cynicism about scientific advice to Government.

On 6th November 2009 the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice were issued setting out to Government three principles: academic freedom, independence of operation and proper consideration of advice. The principles were drafted following several days of intense discussion across the scientific community. They attracted the support of a number of Chairs and other members of independent Scientific Advisory Committees and were transmitted to Government for a response.

Government Response

On 24th March 2010 the UK Government published their finalised version of the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government, following the consultation to which we responded jointly with the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Although many aspects of this document were welcomed by scientists, we still had some concerns.

Sense About Science and the Campaign for Science and Engineering wrote a joint response outlining these. In particular, scientists were concerned that the inclusion of a clause stating that “Government and its scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust”. As trust is subjective, there remains a lack of clarity for scientific advisors about when can they speak out and what can they say.

The Government's Principles of Scientific Advice were accepted into the Minsterial Code in June 2010.

Professor Colin Blakemore FRS, a current Scientific Advisory Committee Chair and former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council: "The priority now must be to rebuild the confidence of the scientific community in the way the Government, and indeed the Opposition parties, treat scientific advice and those who provide it. If the Government can sign up to this statement, which essentially summarises commitments that have been made in the past, I hope that we can press the 'reset' button on the relationship."

Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science: "These principles promote much-needed clarity about what "independent scientific advice" means. In order for this huge unpaid effort from the scientific community to continue, everyone needs to be clear that independent scientific advice can be neither a substitute for policy nor subject to policy."

Media Coverage

The Guardian Call for scientific advisers to be free from political interference

The Times Scientists demand government pledge on sacking advisers after Nutt affair

BBC News Scientists urge respect on advice

BBC 'Today' programme 'Surprise and shock' over sacking- interview with Lord Krebs

The Guardian Minister promises guidelines on independence of scientific advisors

The Observer More drug advisors set to follow David Nutt and resign

BBC News Johnson 'misled MPs over advisor'

Times Higher Education Reefer madness