THE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY SYSTEM INQUIRY MEMORANDUM BY THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH

THE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY SYSTEM INQUIRY MEMORANDUM BY THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH

THE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY SYSTEM INQUIRY MEMORANDUM BY THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF EDINBURGH

INTRODUCTION

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Select Committee’s request for comments in connection with its Inquiry into the Scientific Advisory System. 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. The Royal Society of Edinburgh is, itself, a source of independent advice and can call upon a wide range of expertise from amongst this multi-disciplinary Fellowship. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows, many of whom have experience of working in a scientific advisory role.

This response also draws upon a study which the Society conducted in 1995 when the Society’s Council, aware of the major institutional changes that had taken place in Government and other public bodies, set up a Working Group to look at sources of advice to Government. The remit of this Group was to advise Council on the role the Society might have in promoting greater recognition of the importance of sound scientific and professional advice for public policy-making in environmental matters, and in developing further contacts between those providing such advice. Although the focus of this study was on environmental matters, the findings relate equally to other aspects of science policy.

SUMMARY

The Select Committees of the Lords and Commons have, in many cases, been outstandingly successful in bringing scientific understanding to bear on problems of public policy. In general, narrow political concerns have been replaced by broader appreciation of the issues but the Committees have often been less successful at influencing legislation than in understanding the problems. The final word is usually with the politicians and, although they may not wish to admit it, scientific advice will be rejected if it interferes with political dogmas. This is inevitable in a democratic system but the tensions should be recognised. When things go awry it is important not toblame the scientists or the way in which the advice comes forward but to recognise that how that advice is handled does depend on prevailing political views and priorities.

PART I – SCIENTIFIC ADVICE TO GOVERNMENT

"to inquire into the means by which Government uses scientific advice to inform its decision-making and policy development"

Ministers rely heavily on in-house scientific advisers primarily because of confidentiality and speed ofresponse. Science is, however, only one element of policy advice and it has to be recognised that decisions are often made on the grounds of political expediency. The central problem is how to introduce genuine and sound scientific judgement and long-term vision into the process of debate and decision making. This is difficult enough when dealing with short-term decisions; it becomes most difficult when long-term insights and informed judgement are called for. Senior administrators are concerned with immediate problems and need advice "on tap" but advice in the form of commissioned research is not available on a short enough timescale.

The present system consists of a combination of committees, expert groups and Chief Scientists or Chief Medical Officers. This has the advantage that advice is usually independent and impartial and provided quickly as the system allows for rapid access to individuals or groups with the necessary expertise. At its best, this system allows for the impartial evaluation of scientific information, the sifting out of the irrelevant and the presentation of a rounded and relevant opinion.

Other sources of advice include policy-led, commissioned research that is tightly specified and designed to provide answers to specific questions. Technology Foresight panels now provide longer-term thinking in some areas.

PART II – QUALITY OF AND CONFIDENCE IN SCIENTIFIC ADVICE

"to inquire into the ways in which the Government establishes the quality of the scientific advice it uses to inform its decision-making and policy development and whether there are sufficient mechanisms in place to ensure that scientific advice so used carries the confidence of the public"

The existing scientific establishment, and in particular the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London, have a large potential to assist in the process of providing high quality advice. To improve this situation further, a Scientific Advisory Service might be created within OST. This service should have the expertise to know where appropriate advice can be obtained both within the scientific civil service but most importantly to tap knowledge from across the whole scientific community (universities, research councils, learned and professional societies, etc). Departmental operational scientists inevitably tend to become associated through departmental programmes with policies and to become divorced from independent scientific research. Such a Scientific Advisory Service must be seen to be independent of departmental interests and, with the implementation of Open Government procedures, should instil greater public confidence.

The wisdom that such bodies provide should not be the sole preserve of Ministers and their advisers. Any recommendations made by an independent body established to give scientific advice to government should be made public. The value of this is that it would then be seen to represent a broad spectrum of opinion. A greater public awareness of the policy issues in science can only be a good thing and would be impeded by any lack of transparency in the way in which such bodies operate.

However, there is no such thing as scientific certainty and this causes concern, insecurity and impatience amongst those who do not understand the scientific process. Many non-scientists do not appreciate the time that it may take to obtain reliable information, nor do they understand that the base of scientific knowledge is constantly changing. There is widespread misunderstanding about probability and risk, without which many scientific, medical and engineering research results cannot be properly understood.

PART III – THE SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY SYSTEM

"to inquire into whether or not the Government uses the optimum structure for a scientific advisory system"

A major problem in dealing with issues that may need scientific input is the relative paucity of government ministers who have had any scientific training. In turn this leads to a reluctance to face issues which may need scientific input and a greater dependence on the advice of the scientific civil service who may themselves be ill-equipped to respond to specific requests in narrow fields and may also be influenced by the need to protect departmental interests. The "knowledge gap" which exists between strategic research and its use by administrators arises partly because of time pressures on administrators (as noted above) but primarily because of a lack of scientific training.

Any scientific information presented to the politicians must be offered in a clear, coherent and simple manner. Faced with scientific advice from different sources (which might not coincide) administrators have to adopt a pragmatic approach and often opt for the path of least resistance. This highlights the importance of interpreters between scientists and administrators who need results and advice in a readily digested format. It also highlights the need to increase the scientific literacy of MPs, civil servants, financiers and business people on the one hand and the general population on the other. Furthermore, it is not only invited advice that is at issue but the proactive tendering of responsible advice to help administrators and politicians ask the right questions.

There are many examples of how the learned and professional societies can play an educational role. The RSE’s own programme of Technology Ventures and Foresight seminars have helped to inform the business and academic communities of issues of common interest and have been well attended by civil servants. Similarly, the RSE’s public lecture programme and events during the recent Edinburgh International Science Festival can help to educate the lay public about scientific issues. Other bodies such as COPUS and the Foundation for Science and Technology have done valuable work, such as the series of lunchtime seminars for public servants of the former and the evening dinner discussion meetings of the latter.

The Society remains concerned that, despite the recommendations of the Garrick Report, the Scottish Office will not be appointing a Chief Scientific Adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland. Prior to the arrival of the Scottish Parliament further thought will need to be given to the Scientific Advisory System in Scotland and this is one issue which must be discussed during the current Scottish Office consultation on how the Scottish Parliament will work.

Professor P N Wilson CBE FRSE, General Secretary, Royal Society of Edinburgh
2 June 1998

Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands

 

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