Phil Willis MP Joins Policy Lunchbox Discussion

The Policy Lunchbox network was today joined by Phil Willis MP, Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, for a wide-ranging discussion on ‘Putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy’. In welcoming Mr Willis to the event, Chris Kirk, Chief Executive of the Biochemical Society, hailed him as a friend to science and for his role as chair of the Committee, and its earlier iterations which have all played a fundamentally important role in scrutinising the use of science across government.

Mr Willis led those attending through the former Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee (of which Mr Willis was also Chair) report, ‘Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy-Making‘. That government should have good evidence to support its policies had been the central theme of the reports of the previous House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the IUSS Committee which followed it and would continue to be the guiding principle of the reconstituted Science and Technology Committee.

The IUSS Select Committee had stressed the importance of independent scientific advice to government, with which government had agreed. Yet, within months, the Home Secretary dismissed Professor David Nutt as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because he had criticised government policy as not being evidence -based. Mr Willis said that the Committee had decided not to dwell on past events but had instead decided to focus on the lessons which could be learned for the future. The Science and Technology Committee has asked for comments on the Principles on the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice, developed by Lord Rees, Sense about Science and others in the scientific community, by today, and will make recommendations to Lord Drayson, Science Minister, based on these.

Over the past ten years, Mr Willis said, the government has made tremendous steps to use evidence as the basis of policy, driven largely by the excellent work of Professor Lord Robert May, Professor Sir David King and now, Professor John Beddington, as Government Chief Scientific Advisor. Yet, more can still be done. How do we ensure that the incoming government of spring 2010 continues to use scientific methodology and engineering in both policy-making and evaluation? Many of those currently championing science in parliament are to step down at the next election, including Mr Willis. Stressing the importance of engaging with new parliamentarians, Mr Willis highlighted the role that learned societies, industry and academia could play in this process; organising visits to scientific facilities, organising one-to-one meetings with MPs and offering briefings. You don’t have to be a scientist to support science and promote research, Mr Willis said; if you demonstrate an interest in politicians they will show an interest in your area.

Much more could also be done within the civil-service to promote science and to use the qualifications of those scientists working in government. It is encouraging that Professor John Beddington is taking the lead here, bringing scientifically qualified civil-servants together at a conference in January to consider how their training could be better utilised.

Mr Willis stressed the difficulty for policy-makers posed by the lack of a single unifed voice for the biological sciences. Although the formation of the Society of Biology goes some way towards rectifying this, Mr Willis urged learned societies and organisations represented at Policy Lunchbox to work together more closely to ensure that policy based on sound scientific evidence remains a priority following the next election.

Policy Lunchbox is a network for policy officers and others engaged in science policy. It is maintained and run by the Biochemical Society and the British Ecological Society, with meetings on the first Wednesday of each month. For details of forthcoming events see the Biochemical Society’s website.