Scientific advice in times of crisis

Research breakthroughs aside, science becomes news most often in times of crisis, when governments and others turn to experts for advice on how best to deal with problems presented, whether they be actual or potential.

Following a number of recent emergencies, the system of advice giving and risk assessment has come in for considerable criticism. Examples would include the 2009–10 bird ’flu pandemic, the April 2010 volcanic ash disruption to air travel, cyber attacks and severe weather forecasting. In response to such criticism of crisis mismanagement, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee met to discuss the issues involved, and in a report published today has made a number of recommendations to government.

“The current approach smacks of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted,” says Andrew Miller MP. “Science is not just something to reach for when a crisis happens, it must be integral to the whole planning process, and unfortunately the Government still hasn’t got it quite right.”

Failings identified by the parliamentary committee include a tendency to operational secrecy on the part of Scientific Advisory Groups in Emergencies (SAGEs), and a lack of published guidance and codes of conduct. In its report, Miller’s committee argues that SAGEs should not be given carte blanche to operate however they please on the grounds that emergencies are occurring and they must therefore be left to get on with the job. The committee would also like to see the Government Office for Science integrated within the Cabinet Office.

In addition to the issues outlined above, there is a serious problem with the practice and communication of scientific risk assessment. The committee notes that the use of “reasonable worst case scenarios” invariably leads to sensationalised media reporting, and recommends that the government switch to “most probable scenarios” when carrying out risk assessments and disseminating their results to the general public.

The recommendations of the Science and Technology Committee are reasoned, reasonable and clear, and the government and other stakeholders would be wise to adopt them.

Further reading

“Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies”, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Third Report of Session 2010–11, 2 March 2011