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Science at the epicentre of government

Phil Willis is checking up

The government is to support the scrutiny of UK science by re-establishing a Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. This decision was greeted by almost universal approval by the science community. The fear that science scrutiny may have been lost when the Government Office for Science was located within the new Business Innovation and Skills super-department was genuine. 

However, six months away from a general election, will the new committee be little more than a sop to the increasingly vocal science community?

The challenge is hugely important. The drive to put science and engineering at the heart of government and to establish the principle of evidence-based policy making has been the hallmark of successive science-focused select committees. The new one will be no exception.

Policy scrutiny

With UK science and engineering research and development already under threat from the current recession, public sector investment must not only be maintained. It must match in ambition that of the US, where President Obama has set a target of three per cent of gross national product invested in research and development as the route to future economic success. 

If we are to persuade a sceptical UK public that increased investment in science and engineering is fundamental to our future, the government must be seen to take a lead. But for investment to be successful, scrutiny of policy and not mere assessment of outcomes is essential.

I welcome the move by Professor Beddington, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, to continue the internal scrutiny of departmental use of science and engineering, with a target that all areas of government are to be reviewed by 2011. I also welcome his pledge to reduce the ‘ludicrous’ time such reviews take. Hopefully he will re-appraise the decision to privatise government-owned laboratories, and ask where departments gain independent advice.

Evidence check

Recognising the importance of such work, the first task of the new Commons Science and Technology Select Committee during the summer recess was to seek from every government department an ‘evidence check’ for a small number of key policies. The checks were varied to test the thesis that research was commissioned, gathered or used prior to implementing policies.

We asked the Department of Health: What scientific evidence was considered during the formulation of the licensing regime for homeopathic products?  We asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: What evidence and expert advice has been used to determine government policy regarding genetically modified crops? Our question to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) was: What evidence and expert advice will the government seek to underpin future regulation of synthetic biology? To the Department for Children, Schools and Families: What evidence has the government used to determine which are the most cost-effective measures for improving literacy and numeracy? On the basis of the responses, the Committee will then decide how best to shine the scrutiny spotlight onto government use of science.

Increased transparency

It is worth noting that the scrutiny of science in government is infinitely stronger and vastly more transparent than it was a decade ago. Every major department other than the Treasury has a chief scientist. Increasingly, advice is sought from scientific advisory committees. Research is routinely published. All this demonstrates a growing confidence by Ministers that science, evidence and scrutiny have key roles to play in policy effectiveness.

Lord Drayson, the unashamed champion of science, goes so far as to claim that with science now located in BIS, it is now ‘at the epicentre of Whitehall and government’.  I wonder if the Treasury agrees?

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Phil Willis
Phil Willis MP is Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee
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