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‘I’m not independent’, admits Home Office adviser

Helen Ghosh, the Home Office’s permanent secretary and chairwoman of its Science Advisory Committee, has said she is not independent and would be happy to “reconsider” her dual role.

Ghosh found herself in the firing line when giving evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on 13 December as part of its inquiry into the role of chief scientific advisers.

Committee members Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat peer, and Jack Cunningham, a Labour peer, raised concerns about her role by quoting evidence from the Government Office for Science. This stated that science advisory councils are set up to “provide departments with strategic, independent expert and cross-cutting advice and also to challenge department’s management and use of science”.

“I question, Dame Helen, whether in fact you, as the permanent secretary, chairing not only the so-called ‘independent challenge’ and also having the CSA reporting to you, is in fact a healthy way of creating independent challenge within the Home Office,” said Willis.

“You’re chair [of HOSAC] and you’re also responsible for the management of the HO. How can you challenge your own management…isn’t that just a clear conflict of interest?” added Cunningham.

Ghosh responded that she isn’t independent and the comments are a “fair cop”.

“My honest response to you is that I was surprised that this was the system I inherited,” she said. “I’m very happy if the outcome of this committee is to consider whether I should be the chair or whether one of my distinguished members of the committee should be chair.”

However, despite acknowledging the problem, Gosh argued that her two functions could actually be good for science in the Home Office. She said it could in fact make the voice of the CSA more powerful in policymaking discussions than it would be if a scientific member—reporting the CSA—chaired the committee.

She also argued that individual subject-specific committees feeding advice to HOSAC are completely independent.

Also giving evidence at the session was John Shepherd, chairman of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Scientific Advisory Group and Ian Poll, chairman of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council, which advises the Ministry of Defence.

Shepherd said he is “satisfied” that his group meets Go Science’s description of the role “in terms of the advice and the challenge”. However, he added, as the group is fairly new it has not yet gone into challenging the department’s science spending, although it is “something on our list”.

Meanwhile, Poll said that the MoD’s CSA uses the council as “part of the process in planning R&D spend for the budget”. In addition, he said, it also has its own independent activity and highlighted that the committee had brought the issue of climate change into the wider thinking of the MoD.

“Our role is to give the decision makers the best view of what’s out there—they then decide what to do with it,” he said.