Recently Chris Elliott, Professor of Food Safety at Queens University Belfast, finally got to publish the findings of his independent report into the UK’s food systems in the wake of the horse meat scandal. The report had been carried out for government, but independently from it. Well that is until it came to the publication. Prof. Elliott had worked for over a year with a team of other independent experts, and arrived at a set of clear and tough recommendations for change. Like many scientists chairing such groups, he found his work challenging but enjoyable; he was proud of the report he had produced, and keen for his recommendations to be taken seriously. However the last part of the process, of putting his findings into the public domain, proved extremely frustrating for the scientist who had tried so hard to make his review as open and as transparent as possible.
Before the report even saw the light of day, media reports claimed that it had been delayed by three months amidst allegations of Number 10 trying to persuade Elliott to water down his recommendations. I have no idea if any of this is true, but political shenanigans around the publication of reports from independent scientific advisory committees (SACs) have become all too familiar.
I should first declare an interest here. The Science Media Centre had lobbied both Chris and Defra to allow us to host the press briefing for the Elliott Review. While Chris was receptive to this idea, Defra were clearly not. Why were we keen? Because eighteen months ago, the staff of the SMC lost three weeks of our lives to the media frenzy over horse meat and, as with all such stories, the memory is seared into our psyche. Part of that memory is of the Herculean efforts of a group of excellent scientific experts prepared to put aside their busy day jobs to do back-to-back media interviews to ensure accurate and measured coverage. Already a friend of the SMC, Chris Elliott became someone we spoke to almost daily, and whom we thanked repeatedly for injecting evidence and expertise into a sometimes hysterical narrative. We love Chris Elliott like we grow to love so many other scientists who see engaging with the media as part and parcel of what it means to be a good scientist.
I have long argued that independent SACs should communicate their findings independently from government. There is a huge public interest in scientific advice being announced and reported in a timely and unadulterated manner, and the way in which SACs currently report allows too much room for findings to be obscured or politicised. I have been urged by some to accept the status quo and to pick my battles – always sage advice when you work in the kind of firefighting atmosphere of the SMC. But here’s the thing. This is a battle I have picked, so bear with me while I fight it again.
First, let me tell you what I am not talking about so we don’t end up arguing about the wrong thing. I am not talking about the scientific advice provided by the excellent network of scientific advisers inside government. Chief scientists like Sir Mark Walport, Dame Sally Davies and Prof. Ian Boyd are embedded in government and are rightly part of the machine. These civil servants would lose the trust of the ministers they advise pretty quickly if they delivered their advice to the media first, and we do not want or expect that. Nor am I talking about the reports produced inside government with the help of external scientists, like the Foresight reports led by BIS.
There are also some grey areas, where government departments might for example commission an independent scientific institution to do some work for government on a commercial contract, thus more clearly becoming the property of government. This blog is not about any of the above.
Instead, I’m talking about the SACs that are made up entirely of independent academics who sit in universities rather than Whitehall, and lend their expertise on top of the day job. I think these independent SACs should be encouraged to publish and communicate that advice independently from the government machine. Lest anyone thinks that is what already happens, let me assure you it is not. The way it generally works is that the scientists are commissioned by a government department – either for a one off piece of work or as a standing committee to consider on-going science issues. The scientists do their work independently, gathering and assessing the evidence, distilling this into reports with conclusions and recommendations under the guidance of their chair. This is often done with much needed administrative and secretarial support from their commissioning government department, but mostly with very little, if any, political interference. But when their work is done, these independent academics hand it to the commissioning department who from that moment on make all the big decisions about how, when and to whom this scientist’s work should be published. So far as I can see, these decisions are made by ministers, officials and press officers in the commissioning department. But here’s the thing – the department will then need to involve special advisers and press officers in other departments, and most problematically, in Number 10. Suddenly a report which has the words ‘independent’ writ large all over the front cover enters the murky world of the government communications machine, with its dreaded ‘Grid’.
To the uninitiated, the Grid is the system by which government announcements are coordinated and centralised so as to avoid clashes, and allow a more strategic approach to the vast array of departmental announcements. Reportedly the brainchild of Alistair Campbell who set it up alongside the rapid rebuttal unit, it seems on the face of it an entirely sensible system for coordinating government announcements, and ensuring that every department gets its day in the media. A less charitable person might also point to the Grid as a way for Number 10 to control pesky ministers, and ensure that the prime minister is not faced with any nasty little surprises or embarrassments. But so far so predictable; “Prime Minister’s office tries to control government” is hardly a scandal. My complaint is not with the Grid. My concern is that reports from independent SACs end up being conflated with ministerial announcements and get caught up in a political machine that is inappropriate.
Because the SMC’s lobbying does occasionally work, we have had the pleasure of running some of the press briefings for these arm’s length committees. Many have worked well, and enduring friendships have been made with scientists and government press officers as a result. In recent months we have hosted briefings for a report on fracking and earthquakes which was commissioned by DECC, the Baulcombe review of the science of GM commissioned from within BIS, and the Department of Health’s Committee On Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) seem to come back to us with each new report. But these briefings still only take place at the say so and timing of the relevant government department, and for every positive experience there have been others where political imperatives have intruded.
We were delighted when the chair of the review of the evidence on plain packaging of cigarettes, Sir Cyril Chantler, was keen to launch the findings of his review at the SMC, and that the Department of Health was also happy with that arrangement. But then the now familiar shenanigans began. A date that had finally been agreed by Number 10 was then postponed and reinstated at the 11th hour, with a switch from an independent science venue to Whitehall.
We have had an SMC briefing delayed amidst rumours that Number 10 was concerned about a section in a report that suggested the recession might exacerbate mental health problems, and a report on organ transplant was delayed because officials disliked its findings on presumed consent.
And politics interferes in other ways. Sometimes a publication date is chopped and changed repeatedly to allow for the relevant minister to respond immediately to a scientific report that has taken a year to produce – another part of this process which I believe politicises the communication of the findings. A ministerial response on the same day as publication inevitably changes a story that should have been about the best science and evidence into one about politics and policy.
I witnessed the distorting effects of this process at close quarters when we hosted the launch of the reports of the Advisory Committee on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) under the chairmanship of Sir Mike Rawlins. What should have been a chance for the public to see media coverage from science reporters about where the evidence lies on the harms of ecstasy and cannabis, would turn into another story from home affairs hacks about a row between the home secretary and his or her drug advisers.
I want to emphasise that I’m not saying there is anything sinister here, just that it could be done better. Luckily for me, there is a positive example of how the system can work well, in the highly regarded Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Unluckily for me, it was disbanded in the Bonfire of the Quangos. But I think the proof of principle still holds. This highly respected standing scientific advisory body under the leadership of Sir John Lawton for many years did exactly what I am arguing for. They conducted their inquiries and published them completely separately from government. The sky did not fall in, the committee enjoyed widespread respect amongst journalists, and most importantly for me, the public benefitted from unfettered access to the many reports they published on some of the most important environmental questions of our time.
And of course independent communication doesn’t mean not having contact with the commissioning department. SACs could be expected to give reasonable notice of a publication date, could submit the report in advance so there would be no surprises, and could respond to any reasonable requests for flexibility of timing.
During the row prompted by the sacking of David Nutt by the home secretary, the SMC and others lobbied for changes to the system, and to our delight the revised code of conduct for SACs stated: “scientific advisers have the right to engage with the media and public independently of the government and should seek independent media advice on substantive pieces of work.”
But this generally isn’t happening, with scientists understandably caring more about their advice being taken seriously by policy makers than the way it is communicated to the public. My point is that the two are equally important. Encouraging independent SACs to communicate their findings outside of the machinery of government might feel like a painful loss of control at first. But I am convinced that government departments and yes, even number 10, would benefit from the better informed media and public debate that would result.
If we could make this experience a better one for great scientists like Prof. Chris Elliott and Sir Cyril Chantler, if we could protect independent scientific advice from the risk of politicisation, if we could ensure that the media and public are getting to hear independent scientific advice in an unadulterated way – why wouldn’t we try? Is this really a battle too far?
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.