Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Office of Science and Technology's second round of consultation on the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of serving on such committees.
Overall, the current draft Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees is more logical, explicit and straightforward than its predecessor. The principles and practices laid out are clear and largely common sense and, as far as possible, predict and deal with the salient issues likely to emerge. However, the draft lacks a definition of what is meant by a Scientific Advisory Committee (for example, is the term specific to a narrow class of Government appointed committees or does it include a wider range?) and the length of the document should also be carefully considered. If a document becomes too long, it can lose its impact. In addition, in the spirit of openness there might also be merit in Government Departments providing a brief report back to advisory committees on the extent to which their advice had been used and on which parts had not been acted upon.
Comments on the different sections of the proposed Code of Practice are addressed below:
The context in which scientific advisory committees work (para.'s 6-8)
There could be a slight inconsistency between paragraphs 6 and 7 as Advisory Committees could commission "desk studies", or scientific research to address specific issues, and, therefore, could be seen, at least in part, as "a resource-awarding committee".
Members' rights and responsibilities (para.'s 18-27)
Many prospective chairmen and members could be unfamiliar with the "Nolan Principles" which should be either sent to them when they are invited to participate in a committee or included, in summary, as an annex to the Code.
Code paragraphs 20 and 22 could be seen to attribute different levels of obligation for professional experts compared with lay members. Members with expertise are expected to make the committee aware of the full range of opinions within their discipline. However, lay members or independent members representing the interests of stakeholder groups need only be clear about the capacity in which they have been appointed. What obligations fall upon the latter group to subject themselves to cover the same full range of opinions?
It is unclear from the Code how the proposed "induction process" will work in practice, and how much committee time it will take up before the committee actually gets down to the task for which it was established. However, clarifying what rights and responsibilities members have will be extremely important in terms of the legally binding level of accountability, public liability and requirement for factual integrity placed on committee members. Paragraph 94 would indicate that members of short-term Advisory Committees which are not constituted as Advisory Non Departmental Public Bodies would remain liable for making fraudulent or negligent statements which resulted in a loss to a third party.
Role of the secretariat (para.'s 28-33)
Code paragraphs 30 and 33, amongst others, refer repeatedly to information which may be excluded on the grounds of confidentiality, with reference to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would be useful to have the Government's interpretation of this Act in a user-friendly manner as an Annex to the Code.
Working practices (para.'s 35-44)
Code paragraph 36, line 2 should read "where it has not been possible".
In terms of Code paragraph 39, new information may be needed rapidly. However, care must be taken that despite the desire to obtain a rapid answer, established codes of commissioning research are followed and data gathering and analysis are properly undertaken. Hasty research is often poor research, generating information that is of little value.
Submitting and publishing a committee's advice (para.'s 56-61)
Code paragraph 58 would be more balanced and equitable if the text read "Options which are alternative interpretations of the scientific evidence, and options which involve other factors, including social, ethical or economic considerations"; otherwise the impression is given that only the latter could influence "policy options".
In terms of paragraph 57, while it is reasonable for advice to be in terms which can be understood by a lay person, this advice should be in addition to specific advice couched in scientific terms, as appropriate. It may be that there are circumstances in which the advice in lay terms cannot be given in the necessary precise, accurate and robust way unless expressed scientifically, particularly when the outcome is quantitative in some way or other.
Meeting agenda (para. 65)
It might be helpful to indicate to whom an agenda should be made available before a meeting.
Publication of minutes (para.'s 66-68)
Paragraph 68 seems to imply a difference between a non-scientific background person and a lay-person. There would, therefore, be merit in a definition of the attributes of a lay-person somewhere in the Code.
Publication of applications (para. 74)
It would be helpful to indicate how long in advance of decisions being taken, the details of cases should be put on the web-site.
Dealing with confidential material (para.'s 75-78)
With regard to paragraph 76, as well as the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act 1998 must be respected. Scientific advisory committees, especially when dealing with rare conditions, may well have to use data defined as personal and sensitive by the Information Commissioner.
Public consultation (para.'s 80-84)
Code paragraph 80 should specifically refer to Annex B.
In addition to Annexes A and B attached (and which should be referred to in paragraphs 2 and 80, respectively), it would be useful to have at least two further Annexes provided. The first listing the "Seven Principles of Public Life (The Nolan Principles)", and the other summarising those situations and examples of information which should be treated as confidential and hence not disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.