Principles on Scientific Advice to Government Published

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has today published high level principles on scientific advice to Government, aiming to ensure effective engagement between Government and Science Advisory Councils. The principles follow the furore over the dismissal, by Home Secretary Alan Johnson MP, of Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Following this incident, members of the scientific community, led by Sense about Science, submitted a draft set of principles to Government. Lord Drayson, Minister for Science, responded with a series of informal meetings with scientists, consultation with Learned Societies and others, resulting in the principles published today. These are now open for consideration as part of the wider consultation on Guidelines on scientific analysis in policy-making, led by the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), which closes on 9 February.

The principles are as follows:

Trust and Respect

– The Government should respect and value the professional status and expertise of its independent scientific advisers.
– Scientific advisers should respect the democratic mandate of the Government to take decisions based on a wide range of factors and recognise that science is only part of the evidence that Government must consider in developing policy.
– The Government and its scientifc advisers should work together to reach a shared position and neither should act to undermine mutual trust.


– Scientific advisers to the Government are free to communicate in a professional capacity within their field of expertise, subject to normal confidentiality restrictions.
– Scientific advisers to the Government are free to communicate relevant evidence and analysis, including when it is at odds with Government policy.
– Scientific advisers to the Government must be free from political interference with their work.
– Scientific Advisory Committees and Councils have the right to engage with the media and public independently of the Government and are free to seek independent media advice.
– Scientific advisers to the Government should make clear in what capacity they are communicating, for example at conferences or in published papers.

Transparency and openness

– Scientific advice to the Government will be published unless there are over-riding reasons (such as national security) for not doing so.
– The timing of the publication of independent scientific advice is normally a matter for the advisory body but should be discussed with Government beforehand.
– The timing of the Government’s response to scientific advice will demonstrably allow for proper consideration of that advice.
– The Government and its scientific advisers should make it clear whether they are communicating scientific evidence and analysis or conclusions and advice.
– Scientific advisers should indicate their level of confidence in the evidence base underpinning their advice by making explicit levels of uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance.
– The Government will explain the reasons for policy decisions, particularly when the decision appears to be at odds with scientific advice.
– If Government is minded not to accept the advice of a scientific advisory committee of council particularly on matters of significant public interest, the relevant minister will normally meet with the chair to discuss the issue before a final decision is made.

Publication of the principles follows the release yesterday of a brief report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: ‘The Government’s review of the principles applying to the treatment of independent scientific advice‘. The principles as published largely accord with the Committee’s recommendations. Now the Committee will be looking to see that the Government takes on board its recommendations as to how these are applied. The Committee recommend that the Government reject an expert committee’s assessment of the scientific evidence only in ‘exceptional circumstances’, with the reasons for this clearly laid out in writing to the SAC chairman. This may be at odds with what the Government intends in the principles, which state only that a minister will ‘normally’ meet with a chair if advice is to be rejected.