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Committee Appeals for More Science in U.K. Policymaking

Science should have more of a say in the United Kingdom’s government policies, according to a report out today by the country’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Select Committee. The report, entitled Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, called for more evidence-based science to support government policies and more transparency over political decisions.

In one of its final reports,* the committee noted that steps have already been taken toward a more science-friendly government. Following recent changes, every U.K. government department, except for the treasury, has a departmental chief scientific adviser (DCSA). Now, however, the committee recommends getting more engineering advisers into the system and a scientist in the treasury.

The hope is that such advisers will help keep the government “more honest” by pushing politicians to consider hard scientific evidence before passing new policies, says committee chair Phil Willis.

The report highlighted one case in point in which scientific evidence was overlooked: a decision by the U.K. government’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in May of this year to grant its first license for a homeopathic medicine called arnica. This product did not show a significant effect beyond placebo, according to medical research, says the committee.

The report concedes that politicians may in the end reject the opinions of scientific advisers and long-established scientific advisory councils (SACs): “Scientific evidence is only one factor—albeit a very important one—in policy decisions.” Sometimes a government has to make policies based on, for example, societal reasons, says the committee, but it must clearly state the reasons if it rejects scientific advice. As part of its call for greater transparency, the committee said that departmental SACs must also “aim to hold the majority of their meetings in public.”

The report also voiced worries over the government’s basis for “picking winners,” i.e.,  financially backing certain research sectors that it believes will flourish and help the country’s economy. The U.K. government has not always been successful in picking the right areas, according to a case study of the promising plastic electronics industry, performed by the committee. Many of the U.K. start-ups in this field had folded or moved overseas to later thrive in countries such as the United States, Germany, and Japan. The committee suggests that the government develop “clear and agreed methodologies for determining priorities and acceptability of risk” and also “come clean about which areas of research will see reduced investment.”

Underlying all the recommendations were fears that the U.K. may fall behind other countries in terms of progress in science, partly owing to recent increases in the U.S. science budget: “We will have a brain drain if we don’t stay ahead of the game in this country,” says committee member Brian Iddon MP. The committee also called for the protection of curiosity-driven research as “a key component of the British economy,” alongside the need for applied scientific research that leads to the development of industrial products.

Finally, the committee renewed its calls for the Government Office for Science to be more centrally located within government, suggesting a new home for it in the cabinet office. Along with this, the committee is urging the creation of two new roles, a Government Chief Engineer and a Government Chief Scientist. It also proposes the creation of new free-standing Science, Engineering and Technology Committee, although the panel noted that this shouldn’t happen until sometime after the next U.K. general election, which must be held no later than 3 June  2010.

No matter which party takes the reins of the U.K. for the next stint, the committee hopes that by then there will be “systems embedded in government” that will maintain the role of science in policy decision-making, says Willis.

*While the IUSS committee still has two current inquiries pending, it has now officially been replaced by the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, following the merging of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to create the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).