Government keeping scientists at 'arms length'

An influential committee of MPs accused the government of sidelining scientists
An influential committee of MPs accused the government of sidelining scientists

By Liz Stephens

The government is treating science as "a peripheral policy concern," an influential committee of MPs has said today.

The innovation, universities, science and skills committee said knowledge from experts is not being properly used to make informed policy decisions.

They also accuse the government of putting scientific advisers under intense pressure to agree with their stance on an issue.

The committee cited professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, who was "hung out to dry" by ministers after claiming that recreational drug use was no more dangerous than horse-riding.

The committee also accuses the government of sidelining scientists, giving the example of the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) which has been under the jurisdiction of three different government departments in two years.

The committee said that "shuffling the body responsible for providing cross-departmental science and engineering advice from one department to another" contradicted the government's stated aim of "putting science and engineering at the heart of policy".

"It reduces science and engineering advice to, at best, a peripheral policy concern, and, at worst, a political bargaining chip."

In an interview with the BBC, former chief scientist Sir David King said it was an "oddity" that the post of chief scientific adviser lay within a department, rather than the Cabinet.

"When I was in government, although I had a good relationship with both prime ministers I worked with, it was always a battle to get through the office into Number 10 and get that advice through when it was needed," he said.

Committee chairman Phil Willis agreed: "Scientists are kept arm's length in some departments and they don't have access to the prime minister as clearly they need to do."

The committee raised particular concerns over access for scientists during the forthcoming agenda on climate change.

The environmental audit committee is currently hearing evidence from scientists and environmentalists in the lead up to the Copenhagen summit.


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