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Government updates guidance for science advisory committees

An updated code of practice for Scientific Advisory Committees includes guidance on how often chairmen and chairwomen of the committees should meet departmental chief scientific advisers and ministers.

The Government Office for Science published the guidance on 23 November.

The code was first published in 2001 and was most recently updated in 2007. The new version follows a consultation in 2010 and early 2011, prompted by the controversy surrounding the sacking of David Nutt, former head of the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Dr Evan Harris, who helped write the “principles of scientific advice to government” published in March 2010, said that the code of practice remained satisfactory but that he was still unhappy with the principles as finally published by government.

“The fundamental problem is the government has still not corrected the underlying principles of scientific advice which the last government altered from those promulgated by the scientific community,” he said.

Harris added that Nutt had not breached any specific element of the code.

“The problem with those principles is that they would still allow an adviser to be sacked without breaching the code of practice,” he said.

The updated code concludes that the 2007 version is still “widely considered to reflect authoritative guidance on the processes and practice of providing independent scientific advice to government departments”.

The revised version is a few pages longer than the 2007 version, including additional information and clarification to make the content “more accessible”.

The revised version also includes specific sections on SACs relationships with sponsor bodies, chief scientific advisers and ministers, which was absent in the 2007 version.

For example, it advises SAC chairmen and chairwomen with ministerial departmental sponsors to have regular but not necessarily frequent access to both the departmental CSAs and ministers.

It says a “standard expectation” might be for the chairman or chairwoman to meet the CSA at least twice a year, with the “opportunity for ad hoc access should particular issues require discussion or clarification”.

It further recommends that the chairman or chairwoman meets “relevant ministers” at least once a year to discuss “progress on the Committee’s agenda and planned future work”.

The new version includes a section on “Independence and Objectivity” which emphasises that SACs should expect to “operate free of influence from the sponsor department officials or ministers, and remain clear that their function is wider than simply providing evidence just to support departmental policy”.