'Shared position' for advisers to be dropped

March 4, 2010

A controversial element is to be axed from proposed guidelines aimed at clarifying the relationship between independent scientific advisers and the Government.

A first draft of the document, which was drawn up in the wake of the sacking of drugs adviser David Nutt last October, included the suggestion that the two parties should "work together to reach a shared position, and neither should act to undermine mutual trust".

The statement provoked unease in the sector, and Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat Science Spokesman, said it broke the "golden rule" that there must be a clear distinction between expert assessment of evidence and the production of policy.

The concept of a "shared position" is now expected to be dropped from the final set of principles, which are due to be published by the Government later this month. Lord Drayson, Science Minister, told MPs last week that he "did not expect" the phrase to be retained.

John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser, said it was not "remotely appropriate" for the principles to demand a "shared position" between independent scientific advisers and ministers. It is less clear if a requirement for "mutual trust" will remain.

A letter signed by more than 40 eminent scientists last month urged the Government to amend the principles to remove the controversial phrase. It also said that calls for "trust and respect" should be dropped altogether as they were "subjective".

The letter also stated that the principles needed to "explicitly recognise academic freedom".

Giving evidence last week before the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Lord Drayson suggested that the principles, when they were finalised, should be incorporated into the ministerial code.

"There is no doubt that having a section in the ministerial code would add additional weight," he said.

Lord Drayson added that the ministerial code could be updated only after the election and said that, as yet, the Conservative Opposition had not "bought in" to the principles.

The Science and Technology Committee was due to release its report looking at the Government's principles this week.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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