Nutt saga rattles on

By Grant Jacobs 07/11/2009

It always was going to, as a good British drama should.

One of the latest twists is a letter outlining Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice (available as a PDF file) has been sent to 10 Dowling St, signed by a number of (very) senior former scientific advisors and leading academics including the chief executive of the Science Council.

Do read the letter, the Principles take only three bullet points on less than one page. It’s nicely summarised by John Oates. He highlights the same point in these Principles that I wish to draw attention to:

It is recognised that some policy decisions are contingent on factors other than the scientific evidence, but when expert scientific advice is rejected, the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly.

This letter has since been endorsed by Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister:

He said he supported the idea of giving independent press officers to scientific advisory committees, so they did not have to release their findings through government departments that might have an interest in how they are portrayed.

I’m sure other scientists will back this, too. These are essentially the same points I raised in my earlier article on the Nutt affair

What I do think is important is that scientific advisors be able to speak freely even if their examination of the issues runs contrary to policy or the wishes of parliament or party and that this be strongly upheld. They are supposed to be independent, and if that independence is lost, the credibility of their advice goes with it.

and earlier in the preceding post where I describe my idea of Science Party  where I wrote:

Importantly the evidence-based aspects should be delivered to the public as much as to the MPs or ministries […]

This is not to say that politicians or the government departments are bound to accept the advice given. They’re free to make decisions contrary to it and we all know they often do! But I would argue that the advice should be seen, in particular so that the public is aware that the policy is being made against advice.

Scientific advice will often fall with larger contexts, it really is “just” a matter of politicians showing that the other factors matter more, openly.

Likewise, it seems unsound to ask that advisors not elaborate on their recommendations, especially by construing this as campaigning. It’s a fine line, advice wants to be independent of political pressures and ideologies. Advisors shouldn’t speak for others, but only advise the range of opinions and interpretations available. But it’s also easy to mistake or misconstrue elaboration or explanation as “campaigning” by those with opposing views or who wish to discount the advice by discrediting the person.

Complicating this is that most of these people will have an academic roles, where they will want to present their views. The advisory roles are in addition to these roles, frequently unpaid or paid at a nominal value.

I’m not sure I could make a sensible recommendation off the top of my head, who could?, but perhaps the easiest solution is to simply allow people to speak their minds, but make clear what represents evidence-based material and what’s “recommendations”? Some would say we’re all political animals and I think most people can see political aspects when they’re present.

Transparency, rather than regulation?

Irrespective of the fuss and pop-analysis, the Principles are worth noting.

On a lighter note, there are some wonderful entertaining comments to these articles. This writer is clearly an Aardman fan:

Sheila B Wright wrote: Listen, if Gordon Brown says the Moon is made of green cheese, then no matter what overwhelming evidence there may be to the contrary, we must accept the fact that the Moon is made of green cheese. Crackers anyone?

November 6, 2009 1:11 PM GMT


Great stuff! Aardman fans will get the references to the Wallace and Gromit movies.

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