Go back

From the archive: The ‘spin and secrecy’ of science advice

Image: Arctic Circle [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Former chief scientific adviser David King on pushing ministers to take evidence seriously

David King, chief scientific adviser to the UK government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, recently launched an ‘independent Sage’ to rival the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which had been criticised for being too secretive.

The concern over how scientific evidence underpins government policies in infectious disease emergencies goes back at least to the time when King (pictured) was chief scientist in the early 2000s, during the foot and mouth disease epidemic.

Here we republish a full 2005 interview with King about the “spin and secrecy” of science advice.

Pushing ministers to take evidence seriously

Scientific evidence underpins a wide swathe of government policies. But the way the government gets scientific advice has over the past decade been shaped predominantly by two events in the political backwater of agriculture: BSE and foot and mouth disease. As Britain faces up to a further threat from animals—bird flu—William Cullerne Bown asks David King whether the system of counselling that the Chief Scientific Adviser oversees has yet culled the spin and secrecy that has surrounded such advice-giving.

BSE was the trauma that triggered the demise of the old world of advice. The government had its in-house advisers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But that expertise wasn’t enough to save the UK beef industry. And by the time the government announced, after years of denial, that BSE had been transmitted to humans, public credibility in the government, its advisers and experts generally was in tatters.

For MAFF, that meant first the loss of its food safety role to the quasi-independent Food Standards Agency and ultimately its own demise. But the publication of the Phillips report on BSE in 2000 sent ripples of change undulating across the whole of the Whitehall pond.

Nicholas Phillips, now Lord Chief Justice, concluded that to establish credibility it is necessary to generate trust—and trust can be generated only by openness. This fed through into his view of the role of scientists and advisory committees. Scientific investigation of risk should be open and transparent, said Phillips. The advice and the reasoning of advisory committees should be made public.

Phillips also gave a sympathetic hearing to government critics such as the microbiologists Richard Lacey and Stephen Dealler who had done much to raise public concern. MAFF had kept them at arm’s length and worked hard to undermine their credibility, but Phillips concluded that they had a useful contribution to make and regretted the government’s failure to work with them.

In other words, Phillips encouraged government to two kinds of openness—openness with the public and openness to challenges to the advice that emerges from officials.

“If you read the Phillips report, it is all about clandestine activity within departments and ministers saying, ‘ooh, that doesn’t look too good so let’s not put that evidence out’, and going out and saying something a little different perhaps from what the evidence said,” says King. “We lost the trust of the public through the BSE crisis and my job, coming into government, I saw as trying to recover that confidence in science advice.”

King was appointed in the same month Phillips delivered his report and the combination has led to a reinvigoration of science advice. Openness of both kinds has been entrenched in revised civil service guidelines. Departments that had been busy making chief scientists redundant have been required to reinstate the post. Every year, they now have to submit a science and innovation strategy to King’s Office of Science and Technology. Via a system of rolling departmental reviews, King gets to check whether each department’s system really works.

King says this all adds up to a “very clear transition” to a fully-fledged evidence-based system of policymaking. But does it?

There is certainly a stronger voice for scientists in the decision-making process and, for politicians and civil servants, that has solid consequences.

Civil servants get hemmed in when giving advice. “If you’re giving advice to a minister that isn’t based on the evidence you have to say so,” says King. His predecessor, Bob May, says this has provoked resistance. “Parts of the civil service are implicitly or explicitly against this,” says May. King himself, though claiming good “buy-in” from departments, also acknowledges there have been struggles.

Equally, politicians get hemmed in when announcing decisions. There’s a section in the new guidelines that requires ministers to state explicitly in a press release when any decision is not based on the available evidence. But no-one has ever released a press statement like that.

“Isn’t that because this statement pushes departments into releasing the evidence-based decision?” counters King.

But to what extent is that actually happening?

King is on a high now: “You’ve just said you’ve never seen a counter example.”

As importantly, the strengthening of the system of science advice has coincided with other changes by Labour to the machinery of government. Some of these have strengthened the role of evidence. For example, a dedicated unit has been set up in the Cabinet Office and the importance of all the analytical professions—from science to statistics to economics—has been recognised with CRAG, the Coordination of Research and Analysis Group, which ranges across government.

But other changes tend to weaken the rigour with which any evidence has to be treated. For example, the row over the Iraq weapons of mass destruction dossier concerned essentially the willingness of ministers to be constrained by expert advice, and the failure of a scientist to get his voice heard.

May says the near disappearance of the Cabinet committee system under Labour has eliminated one of the scientists’ most valuable forums. “The Conservatives had Cabinet government,” he says. “The subcommittees were an opportunity for the chief scientists to bring science to the table where it was relevant.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of special advisers today, and the sofa style of decision-making implied by that, allows official channels—including evidence-based ones—to be bypassed.

Weighed against this must be the “traction” that King says he has acquired since his intervention in the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. Indeed, it’s not possible to understand King’s role now without knowing this story.

By the time King had a team of modellers and virologists up and running, the epidemic was threatening to spiral out of control. At a meeting on 21 March 2001, with a general election looming, King presented the Cabinet committee handling the problem with a three line graph.

Curve A showed what King predicted would happen if the measures being used to control the outbreaks remained unchanged: the entire UK herd rapidly became infected. Curve B showed the effect of some stronger control measures: about half the UK herd became infected. And curve C showed the effect of a switch to determined culling of infected herds: the epidemic would swiftly start to peter out.

“Then ‘it’s obvious, you want to be on curve C’ as the PM said,” remembers King. “I go to the PM and he says ‘fine, we’re going to do what Dave King says’. We put it into practice and curve C happened. This is the first time science has ever in real time advised government in that way and that gave me an enormous amount of traction. The Cabinet was fully aware of this thing rolling out and—My God! We’re on curve C!”

The ensuing traction means King has been able to get the government to invest in forward thinking—considering everything from bird flu to a heroin vaccine.

“And now instead of having to meet the problem in real time we’ve got all these programmes up and running,” he says. “We’ve got teams who are already used to talking to each other. So if it happens it certainly won’t happen the way we are planning it but we’ve got all the mechanisms in place and we’ll be able to move much more quickly.”

For bird flu at least, it seems the government’s approach is now modelled on the King-centred system that emerged from foot and mouth.

“How does Britain best prepare itself for an avian flu epidemic?” asks King. “We work on the scientific side across government. I call the whole panoply together—so all government departments, chair meetings—and we work out the best mode of operation for each of these through a challenge system that the scientists are used to operating in. Everyone is challenging everyone else. The net result is a very robust system, which I would say is probably the best in the world.”

The system also covers bird migration patterns, says King. “We are developing the world’s first epidemiological model of a world avian flu epidemic. It’s tough because you’ve got different birds and different populations and they travel different routes from one year to another. All of that is the kind of input that we’re presiding over.”

The outstanding question is the extent to which such an evidence-based approach has been adopted across government, and this inevitably varies from department to department.

The Ministry of Defence—knowing that the credibility of the nuclear deterrent, responses to chemical and biological weapons and all its command and control systems depend on authoritative advice—has long taken science seriously.

The doubts about science are deepest where the challenge is greatest, in the sprawling departments handling politically-explosive social policy. There, old hands such as May see the social sciences as “politics ridden” and it seems the civil service shares some of his concern.

Compare, for example, Defra and the Home Office. At Defra, Howard Dalton, professor of microbiology from the University of Warwick, has been appointed at a senior grade and carries with him the clout that comes from being a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is an outsider with clout. He, in turn, has created an independent advisory board to scrutinise the department’s strategy. This even meets in public. The cosy days of MAFF are gone.

The Home Office has appointed Paul Wiles, a professor of criminology from the University of Sheffield. No FRS, he lacks Dalton’s eminence. There are mutterings about his seniority and clout within the department. And he has come under fire from the Statistics Commission, a quango set up to restore public faith in official statistics, for appearing to allow ministers early, politically advantageous access to statistics on asylum seekers—the kind of charge that echoes the BSE failings.

A chart of approaches to government around the world would show two extremes. Curve A would be politics as usual as in the USA, where awkward evidence can usually be trumped. Curve C would show something like Scandinavia’s Social Democratic model in which academics provide not only answers but many of the questions. For now, it seems the UK is following something in the middle, a kind of curve B.