Long-awaited principles for scientific advice in government meet with a frosty response and calls for researchers to boycott the guidelines

The publication of the long-awaited principles for scientific advice in government has met with a frosty response, with some critics calling for researchers to boycott the guidelines.

Published as a result of the controversial sacking of David Nutt from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last year, the principles were intended to clarify the relationship between scientific advice and policy making, and strengthen the public and scientists’ trust in the process of giving scientific advice to government. 

Scientists should be free from political interference and maintain independence, the guidelines say. The right of scientific advisers to publish and communicate research publicly should be maintained. Government should not pre-judge advice or reject it before publication, and should a decision be made which is not consistent with the scientific advice given, government should explain the reasoning behind the decision. 

"Trust by a minister in an adviser is a subjective and inherently un-measurable matter" - Liberal Democrat spokesperson for science and technology Evan Harris

Science minister Lord Drayson thinks the new guidelines are a positive step towards a better relationship between scientific advisers and ministers. ’They need to know their advice will be duly considered and their academic freedom will be respected when they volunteer to work with the government,’ he said. 

The guidelines have been amended from the initial government draft which prompted concern among academics by, for example, seeming to remove researchers’ rights to academic freedom. The latest version of the principles now includes a clause stating that ’government should respect and value academic freedom’.

Despite some changes, however, not all ministers think the guidelines are strong enough, and one minister is urging scientific advisers to reject the document altogether. 

A phrase in the first draft of the principles that prompted a particularly critical response was a reference to ’trust and respect’ between advisers and government. This sentiment has remained to an extent, with the guidelines stating that ’scientific advisers should not act to undermine mutual trust’. Liberal Democrat spokesperson for science and technology Evan Harris is particularly unhappy with this point. ’Trust by a minister in an adviser is a subjective and inherently un-measurable matter,’ he said in a blog post in response to the principles. 

’This means that independent scientific advisers are immediately under pressure to be in favour with the minister otherwise they face sanction under the "trust" provisions.’

Harris feels the guidelines are nebulous and unacceptable to those in the science community who recognise the need to protect scientific advisers from the whims of political prejudice. He urges the scientific community to ’resist these principles being imposed upon them and refuse to serve under them’.

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, agrees that the mutual trust principle should be excluded because of the imbalance of power between ministers and advisers. ’If a minister "loses trust" in an adviser they could be sacked under the new principles. We want principles that are not down to the subjective whims of ministers.’

For now, the principles remain as guidelines but Lord Drayson is committed to incorporating them into the Ministerial Code which all ministers must abide by.  

Leila Sattary