Government ministers should be able to sack academic advisers even if the reason is simply that they “just don’t like them”, Adam Afriyie, Conservative Shadow Science Minister, has argued.
The comments, sensitive given the recent saga over the sacking of independent scientific adviser David Nutt by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, were made at a science election debate dubbed “geek the vote” and hosted by the Campaign for Science and Engineering on 13 January. The London event saw science minister Lord Drayson square up against Mr Afriyie and Evan Harris, Shadow Science Minister for the Liberal Democrats.
“It is right, I think, that any minister and any secretary of state, if they have an adviser, should be able to dismiss them on any terms at all – even if they just don’t like them,” Mr Afriyie told the audience. “They should be at liberty to dismiss them or not use them if they don’t want to. That is absolutely correct.”
Evan Harris, who has been highly critical of the sacking of David Nutt, said the comments were equivalent to saying it was OK for George Bush to “sack every climate change adviser until he got one that agreed with him”.
Lord Drayson, who is currently finalising a new set of high-level principles to govern the relationship between scientific advisers and the Government in the wake of the Nutt affair, said the remarks represented a “dividing line” between the Conservatives and Labour.
“The advisers to government have to have confidence that they can give advice and the advice can be really not liked but they cannot be sacked because of it,” he said.
Speaking afterwards to Times Higher Education, Mr Afriyie said that maybe what he had said had “come out wrong... because everybody got a bit upset”.
“I was just saying ultimately whoever the boss is – democratically elected – has the power to assign or sack people that he chooses... just in the same way a boss of a company [does],” he said.
Scientist Colin Blakemore, who attended the debate, said he hoped it was a misunderstanding on Mr Afriyie’s part.
“If ministers can fire advisers on the grounds that they don’t like them, the inevitable outcome will be that ministers can pick and choose advisers who give them the answers they want,” he said.
He said that while the view might “sound reasonable” in the world of business, it would “utterly distort” the nature of the relationship between an objective adviser and a policymaker. “It’s entirely inappropriate when it comes to scientific advice,” he said.
Other areas covered in the wide-ranging debate included the £600 million in cuts to the higher education budget between 2011 and 2013 and the future of the “ring-fence” protecting science spending.
Lord Drayson stressed that science had “blossomed” under Labour’s record of spending over the past 12 years, but said the whole country now had to tighten its belt and that included science. He was “happy to use the word cut”, he said, but the concept of a ring-fenced science budget when the current one expires at the end of 2010-11 would be protected under Labour.
He said that he had to “argue the case” with his Treasury colleagues to secure a commitment to keeping this ring- fence, and pushed the Conservatives to give the same commitment.
“We don’t have a policy on this... the ring-fence exists and we have not said it is going,” responded Mr Afriyie, criticising the Government for not committing to the size of the ring-fence or saying where the cuts would be.
On the Government’s agenda to promote the economic and social impact of university research, Dr Harris said the Liberal Democrats would scrap the research council requirement that researchers submit impact statements when applying for funding. “We would take away the requirement to make people jump through hoops on impact,” he said, adding that it was “wrong” to distort grant allocations at a micro-level and that asking for the statements wasted time, distorted research and forced people to “make things up”.