Government ignores or sidelines its scientific advisers, says Lords report 2

Ian Sample writes in the Guardian:

The government must overhaul its use of chief scientific advisers to prevent departments from ignoring and sidelining evidence that affects their policies, a Lords committee says.

The committee examining the role and function of chief scientific advisers (CSAs) found that expert advice was sometimes blocked, dismissed or not sought early enough to influence the decisions they made.

The failure undermined policies across government departments, including proposals for biometric ID cards, plans for offshore windpower, the closure of the Forensic Science Service, and the ongoing funding of homeopathy by the NHS and Department of Health.

A report by the committee, chaired by Lord Krebs, says CSAs must sit on the boards of their departments, be consulted “early and throughout” policymaking, have a right of access to ministers, and crucially be required to sign-off on fresh policies.

“We’re not saying the system is broken, but it’s uneven. In some departments, CSAs have more traction than in others,” Lord Krebs told the Guardian. “Policy in many areas, and probably most, is better policy if it’s fully informed by scientific advice.”

In evidence given to the Lords science and technology committee, Paul Wiles, a former CSA at the Home Office, said he was unable to advise on the shortcomings of biometric ID cards before the technology was announced because “the first I heard about ID cards was on the Today programme”.

The report itself is available here.

Here’s Prof Wiles’ evidence concerning ID Cards (see p39):

As for the less successful [use of Science Advisers], the most obvious example of a situation where I was not in the loop – not only was I not in the loop early enough, but I was not in the loop at all – was ID cards. The first I heard about ID cards was on the Today programme. The result of that was I requested and obtained, to be fair, a meeting with the then Secretary of State. We had what I think diplomats would refer to as a “robust” conversation. My particular concern was not the fact of ID cards – whether there should be ID cards is a political decision – but what the Secretary of State had said they would deliver, given the error margins around biometrics and the technology then available to deliver those biometrics.

That Today programme interview may have been on 11th November 2003, when David Blunkett said biometric identifiers on ID cards “will make identity theft and multiple identity impossible – not nearly impossible, impossible”, a remark that The Register flagged as infeasable at the time.