Pubdate: Mon, 03 Aug 2009
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited
Page: 8
Author: Ian Sample


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 

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.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart