More science, less politics

December 4, 1998

Government decisions must be guided by the best, most open research, says Peter Cotgreave

When the minister for agriculture banned the British from eating beef on the bone, there were two elements in his decision - politics and science. This did not make it an unusual event; in the modern world, governments make few policy decisions that do not have a scientific or technological dimension.

The underlying issues are complex, including competitiveness in a global market, weapons technology and food safety. The government must be able to rely on the highest quality, authoritative scientific evidence. But that evidence must be collected and interpreted without political or commercial bias.

We pay our politicians to take decisions. But they should be separate from the interpretation of scientific data. We now know that the crucial distinction between politics and science is not always respected. Sir Kenneth Calman, a former chief medical officer, told the BSE inquiry that government spokespeople, serving their political masters, were keen to make statements that misrepresented the real state of scientific knowledge. So how can the public be sure that decisions really are taken on the basis of sound, unbiased, high-quality science?

The main sources of independent scientific advice to the government are universities and public-sector research establishments. There are 42 of the latter, half managed by Whitehall departments, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the ministry of defence, known as government research establishments, or GREs.

In a string of reviews between 1988 and 1996, a number of the GREs were wholly or partly privatised, which means that it would now be foolish to accept them as impartial sources of advice.

Last year, the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Robert May, issued a document called Science and Policy: Key Principles, a set of guidelines intended to ensure that government departments are able to access the best science. The guidelines emphasise the need for openness at every stage, and the importance of high-quality internal and external sources of information.

Political pressures are such an everyday part of Whitehall life that it is almost impossible for them not to impinge on just about everything. But we must be worried by the comments of Sir Kenneth at the BSE inquiry. And although we may not be surprised, we ought to be perturbed by the wish of the permanent secretary of MAFF that the Southwood committee should not put forward advice that might make it difficult for the department to stay within its spending limits.

One of the key factors in avoiding too much political pressure is absolute openness. MAFF's chief scientist did make sure that appropriate research groups eventually saw the data, but the system should never have allowed the problem to occur in the first place.

In addition, short-termism in government research is just as deadly as it is elsewhere in the scientific world. When the BSE crisis broke, "new money" was made available for research. But a few years earlier, MAFF had taken money away from research into scrapie, a disease in sheep that is similar to BSE in cattle. The "new money" was found by diverting funds away from other programmes, notably research into the overuse of antibiotics on intensive livestock farms. Predictably, this is now a serious concern.

The solutions to the various problems are twofold. First, departmental funding of research must be strengthened. The comprehensive spending review was relatively generous to the Office of Science and Technology but does not appear to have done any favours to the research budgets of other departments.

According to the government's own figures, investment in research by MAFF has fallen by almost 30 per cent since 1986. In defence, the cut in research over this period is about the same, and across all civil departments excluding MAFF, there has been a real -terms cut of about 33 per cent.

The second, equally crucial change that is needed is for the government research establishments to be brought within the science base, under the wing of the Office of Science and Technology.

The OST is unique among government departments in that it supplies research, but is not a "customer" for that research. It is thus uniquely impartial and therefore the proper candidate to oversee the GREs. But the other departments would keep their own research budgets, and continue to define their own questions for scientific analysis.

But with oversight by the OST, the GREs would have a coherent research programme with data open to scrutiny by the scientific community for peer review. Most important, the public could be confident that the best scientific advice was always available and that the science was always separated from the politics.

Peter Cotgreave is director of the Save British Science Society.

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