A fresh approach to scientific advice

On Friday Sense about Science Director Tracey Brown wrote to Boris Johnson urging him to use the May 7th review of lock down policy as an opportunity to take a fresh approach to communicating with the public. Clarity and transparency is the way forward to avoid undermining the public’s trust in scientific advice. Read the full letter below.

Dear Prime Minister

The Principles of Scientific Advice to Government, introduced by David Cameron into the Ministerial code in 2010, are drawn from lessons in the heat of crises such as mad cow disease and vCJD. The principles were widely backed across the scientific community, parliament, scientific advisers and the public. They set out plainly the need for scientific advice to be open and transparent, and distinct from the policy decisions that are informed by it. They are hosted on the government’s website: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/scientific-advice-to-government-principles/principles-of-scientific-advice-to-government

You will be aware of growing agitation in public discussion about two things: the transparency of the science base on which government is drawing, and the confused line between scientific advice and policy decisions.

These two are compounding each other. People are being urged to take things on the authority of science they cannot see, which is a recipe for mistrust. Ministers cannot easily communicate the government’s reasoning and why it might differ or change: yet this would prevent a circus of revelation and leaks and normally be the cue for people with insight, capacity and expertise to offer it.

The review of the lockdown on 7th May is an opportunity to take a fresh approach:

  • you could ensure that SAGE’s minutes, membership, and plans for its expansion are open  for people to see, as so many are urging. (Sense about Science works with many different communities and I can assure you this is not an esoteric concern of the research world).
  • the Chief Scientific Adviser could publish his advice.
  • the government could separately explain its policy.

This clarity and transparency would be an important and welcome step to avoid further undermining scientific advice, the science base on which it is drawn, and people’s confidence in the government’s deliberations. Openness and scrutiny would help deliver the most effective approach to the crisis itself, as well as confidence in the democratic process more broadly.

Yours sincerely
Tracey Brown OBE

By email
Cc Chair of House of Commons SciTech Committee; Chief Scientific Adviser