SCIENTIFIC input to government policy is very important in many sensitive areas. However, ministers should not be obliged to accept such advice if other considerations override it.
The last government got into trouble when it rejected the advice of an advisory committee on the classification of cannabis and Ecstasy. The chairman of the committee resigned and some of its members followed him. The new Science Minister, David Willetts, said yesterday that while ministers should be free to reject advice for political reasons, decisions should be founded on evidence and research wherever possible. Mr Willetts is right to underline the importance of the academic independence of scientific input to government policies but he is also right to point out that political factors also have to be taken into account by ministers. His further suggestion that ministers should give their reasons if they feel it necessary to reject advice makes sense but will not always be easy to act on. In the case of the classification of drugs there was some grandstanding on both the scientific and political sides but generally speaking the provisions for advisory committees and other forms of scientific advice have worked well in the past. However any clarification such as that proposed by Mr Willetts will be welcomed especially his suggestion that when possible advice that might be controversial should be subjected to pilot schemes and evaluation before being generally implemented.