U.K. Science Advisers Want R-E-S-P-E-C-T

5 November 2009 7:07 pm

The outrage among scientists over the firing of U.K. drug policy adviser David Nutt continues to bubble. Thursday, Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, offered his first thoughts on the matter, saying:

Scientific advisers are not there to rubber-stamp policies. Advice should reach ministers before decisions are taken; and when ministers want to reject it, they should discuss it first. Where government does reject scientific evidence, it must explain why openly.

And today, a quickly formed group of leading U.K. scientists, including Rees and former Royal Society President Robert May, call on their government (UKStatement.pdf) to endorse the following "Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice":

1. Academic Freedom
*Becoming a member of an independent advisory committee does not reduce the freedom of an adviser to communicate publicly, whether via scholarly publication and conferences, through the general media or to parliament, subject to the restrictions in existing Codes of Practice, notably:
* respecting confidentiality,
* not claiming to speak for the Government, and
* making clear whether they are communicating on behalf of their committees

2. Independence of Operation
* Independent scientific advisory bodies are protected from political and other interference in their work
* In the context of independent scientific advice, disagreement with Government policy and the public articulation and discussion of relevant evidence and issues by members of advisory committees can not be grounds for criticism or dismissal
* Advisory committees need the service of an independent press office

3. Proper Consideration of Advice
* Reports from committees will usually be published and will not normally be criticised or rejected prior to publication
* If the Government is minded to reject a recommendation, the relevant scientific advisory committee will normally be invited to comment privately before a final decision is made
* 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
* The advice of expert committees does not cease to be valid merely because it is rejected or not reflected in policy

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