UK science minister indicates that concerns over proposed rules governing science advice in government have been accommodated

The UK science minister has indicated that the scientific community’s concerns over guidelines regarding scientific advice in government have been accommodated in developing the proposals.

At a hearing of the parliamentary science and technology committee yesterday, science minister Lord Drayson and chief scientific adviser John Beddington were quizzed over the proposed principles governing the treatment of independent scientific advice in government.

The first draft of the principles, issued in December, prompted concern within the scientific community, as it seemed to remove researchers’ right to academic freedom, and included clauses calling for scientists and government to ’work together to reach a shared position’ - a request widely seen as inappropriate - and demanding ’trust and respect’ between advisers and government.

Speaking yesterday, Drayson said that references to academic freedom had not been included in the earlier version as some advisers were not academics. However, following the outcry from academia, he said that he expects academic freedom will now feature in the document.

As for the call to work together to ’reach a shared position’, both Drayson and Beddington seemed equally critical of its appearance in the principles. ’I don’t think that that is appropriately drafted,’ Beddington said. ’I don’t think a shared position is remotely appropriate in this context.’

’We do not expect to see that phrase remain in the principles when finally presented,’ Drayson added.

Beddington explained that the reference to trust had been included specifically as a result of the dismissal of David Nutt from the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs in November last year, cast by Home Secretary Alan Johnson as the result of a breakdown in trust.

Under the new principles, should there be a serious loss of trust, Beddington said a consultation would follow, with discussions between the minister involved and the chief scientific adviser or science minister to decide whether the incident would be grounds for dismissal. No such consultation appeared to take place in Nutt’s case last year.

Drayson and Beddington were keen to highlight that the principles would not be legally binding, but both would like to see them enshrined within the Ministerial Code, a set of ethical and procedural guidelines for ministers, to give them extra weight among ministers and their advisers.

The government will be publishing its response to the recent consultation on the proposed principles on science advice on 2 March.

Anna Lewcock