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Science advisers should sign off on policy, suggest Lords

The UK government’s departmental chief scientific advisers (CSAs) should be given a formal role in signing off on new policies from their departments to ensure that decisions are supported by scientific and engineering advice, according to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

The recommendation is one of several in the committee’s report, published today, on ways to increase the impact of science advice in government.  The report also recommends that CSAs should work part-time so that they can maintain links with universities, have a budget to commission advice and evidence, and be recruited from outside the civil service (the Treasury’s CSA, James Richardson, is a career civil servant).

“CSAs play a crucial role in informing Government policy with science and engineering evidence, and we are pleased that all Ministerial departments now have a CSA post,” said John Krebs, the committee’s chairman, in a statement.  “However, if all CSAs are to do their job effectively they need expertise, independence and resources.”

Imran Khan, director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering, says there are often policies that, at first glance, have nothing to do with science at all, but end up relying on it hugely. “It sounds like what this is getting at is making sure that CSAs get a look in on everything so they can make sure things don’t slip through just because they haven’t had a scientific eye trained on them,” he says.

The report highlights several examples of times when CSAs have been unable to influence or offer advice about relevant policies. One former Home Office CSA said that he first heard about the proposal to introduce identification cards when it was announced on the radio, so was unable to offer advice on biometrics and existing technology in advance. The committee hopes that their recommendations, if taken up, will help to prevent such problems in the future.

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