Whitehall told to open science

June 26, 1998

THE Royal Society is urging the government to make public all scientific advice it receives unless publishing it is against the national interest.

In its submission to the House of Commons science and technology committee's inquiry on scientific advice, the society says government departments can be too defensive when dealing with the often inconclusive results of cutting-edge science. They block public access to information and do not share problems.

Advice to ministers was too confidential and Whitehall put a premium on an answer for every situation, irrespective of scientific robustness, it said.

A society spokesman said: "In a grown-up world you have to be able to say 'I don't know'."

Sir Robert May, the government's chief scientific adviser, in his oral evidence to the select committee this week, backed the call for openness. Sir Robert, who published guidelines on openness last year, said there were cases when civil servants' advice should be confidential to allow discussion, but there were few cases when the science, from which the advice was taken, needed to be secret.

Science advice was generally handled well across Whitehall, he said, but the public did not see it that way. Problems arose not because civil servants misunderstood scientific advice, but because they might not realise what scientific advice was needed.

The Royal Society said that the chief scientific adviser should be more involved in scientific matters inside and across government departments. On where the adviser should be based, it said that if the Office of Science and Technology was not to become a full ministry for science, then the post should be attached to the Prime Minister's office again, either to the Cabinet Office or to the No 10 Policy Unit.

Sir Robert said the location of OST was a trade-off. The DTI was a good place for running the science base, but it was easier for the chief scientist to be based centrally.

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