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Stop snubbing top scientists' advice, Lords tell MPs

Dossier of gov's dodgy decisions reveals sidelined advisers

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The government must tap up its top boffins sooner and heed their advice before putting policies into action, a House of Lords committee report concludes.

The Science and Technology Committee, which has been looking into the role and function of Blighty's chief scientific advisers (CSAs), said that the government's experts were often involved in the later stages of policy forming when their expertise was too late.

The report [PDF] added that boffins had been sidelined or ignored on offshore wind strategies, ID cards and NHS and Department of Health funding of homeopathy.

Professor Sir John Beddington, a government CSA, told the committee that public funding of homeopathy was "crazy" since there was no scientific basis for the alternative treatment, and said he had expressed that opinion plenty of times.

And former Home Office CSA Professor Paul Wiles told the Lords that he had not been consulted at all on the ID card policy.

"The first I heard about ID cards was on the Today programme," he said, adding that he would have been able to give advice on error margins related to biometrics and the existing technology before the policy was announced, if he'd been asked.

The report said that CSAs should be consulted early on and throughout the policy-making process, and recommended the advisers be involved in "the departmental policy submission sign-off chain" to make sure that they were heard.

"We have found examples where CSAs were not able to have a proper say on a policy during its development," Lord Krebs, chairman of the committee, said in a canned statement on the report. "But with the changes we recommend, including a seat on the departmental board and enhanced resources, the role of CSAs will be strengthened and the process of policy making improved across government."

Forensic analysis of crime lab shutdown

MPs have criticised the government for sidelining advice from advisers before closing down the Forensic Science Service. The Home Office announced the decision back in 2010, which has been condemned as an attempt to cut costs quickly. Closing the FSS sparked outcry because it shifted the burden of probing evidence onto private forensics companies or in-house police labs.

More than three-quarters of 365 British forensic scientists surveyed by New Scientist magazine said they thought that closing the FSS would lead to more miscarriages of justice because the people interpreting the evidence wouldn't be as impartial.

The Commons Science and Technology committee released a report on the decision in July last year that contained evidence from Professor Bernard Silverman, CSA to the Home Office.

"I was told about the decision a couple of weeks in advance; I am not sure exactly how many ... But I was sworn to secrecy until the decision was announced," Prof Silverman told the MPs.

"I was informed and John Beddington [the Government Chief Scientific Adviser] was as well ... We were told it was going to happen. We were not consulted, as such, in advance of the decision being made, but we were informed."

The MPs said they were worried about how CSAs were not fully used when the Home Office was making the decision on the FSS.

"We have serious concerns about the role of the CSA at the Home Office and the limited information on which the decision to close the FSS was based," that report said. "We do not consider that the government’s decision fully took into account the best evidence available and we are concerned that the CSA was disengaged from the decision-making process."

Today's House of Lords report on scientific advisers also highlighted how many of the boffins were not independent. It recommended that Dame Helen Ghosh, the Home Office permanent secretary and the chair of the department's science advisory, should step down from the latter role and be replaced by an independent secretary.

"We consider the chairmanship of the Home Office Scientific Advisory Committee (HOSAC) by the departmental Permanent Secretary to be inappropriate. We recommend that, instead, the chairman should be an external, expert appointee," the report stated.

The document also recommended that, in general, CSAs should be recruited externally, instead of being civil servants, to help maintain their independence. The Lords said that the advisers should also work part-time, so they could maintain their links with academia or industry. ®

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