Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Background

The inquiry

1. As the new Science and Technology Committee, formed in July 2010, we were keen to build upon the work of our predecessor committees which scrutinised science and engineering in policy-making. In this inquiry we examined how scientific advice and evidence is used in national emergencies, when the Government and scientific advisory system are put under great pressure to deal with atypical situations.

2. We decided to focus our inquiry towards four very different case studies in order to build up a richer picture of how science is used in emergencies. The case studies were: (i) the 2009-10 H1N1 influenza pandemic (swine flu); (ii) the April 2010 volcanic ash disruption; (iii) space weather; and (iv) cyber attacks. In July 2010 we issued a call for evidence, seeking views on the following questions in relation to the case studies:

  • What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government for the emergency?
  • How does/did the Government use scientific advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?
  • What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies? Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles? For case studies (i) and (ii) was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?
  • How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?
  • How important is international coordination and how could it be strengthened?

3. We received over 40 written submissions. On 13 October, the Committee was briefed in private by senior officials from the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) and Government Office for Science (GO Science), on "how things work", that is, the civil contingencies framework and the central Government response to emergencies. We found this meeting to be useful in providing background information and context and we would like to thank the Cabinet Office CCS and GO Science for taking the time to organise and host this briefing.

4. We held five oral evidence sessions between October and December 2010; one for each case study (split across two panels) and a final session with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Ministers (current and former). We took oral evidence from 32 witnesses in total.

i.  The first evidence focused on swine flu and we took evidence from, on the first panel: Professor Sheila Bird, former Vice President, the Royal Statistical Society; Professor Neil Ferguson OBE, Director, MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling; Justin McCracken, Chief Executive of the Health Protection Agency; and Dr Peter Holden representing the British Medical Association. In the second panel, we took evidence from: Professor David Harper CBE, Chief Scientist, Department of Health; Professor Sir Gordon Duff, Chair, Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee; and Sir Liam Donaldson, former Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health.

ii.  The second evidence session covered the volcanic ash emergency and again we took oral evidence from two panels. The first panel included: Dr Ray Elgy, Head of Licensing and Training Standards, Safety Regulation Group, Civil Aviation Authority; Dr Guy Gratton, Royal Aeronautical Society; Dr Sue Loughlin, Head of Volcanology, British Geological Survey; and Captain Tim Steeds, Director of Safety and Security, British Airways. In the second panel we heard from: Professor Brian Collins, Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for Transport; Dr Miles Parker, Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Professor Julia Slingo, Chief Scientific Adviser, Met Office.

iii.  Covering space weather, our third evidence session saw us taking oral evidence from: Professor Mike Hapgood, Royal Astronomical Society; Professor Paul Cannon, Royal Academy of Engineering; and Chris Train, Network Operations Director, National Grid. The second panel of witnesses consisted of: Professor Brian Collins, Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; Phil Evans, Director Of Government Business, Met Office; Paul Hollinshead, Director of Science and Innovation Group, Department of Energy and Climate Change; and Phil Lawton, Downstream Gas and electricity Resilience Manager, Department of Energy and Climate Change.

iv.  During our fourth evidence session, on cyber attacks, we took evidence from: Professor Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, University of Cambridge; Robert Hayes, Senior Fellow, Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments; Malcolm Hutty, Head of Public Affairs, London Internet Exchange; and Professor Peter Sommer, Visiting Professor, London School of Economics. The second panel of witnesses consisted of: Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser, Home Office; Professor Mark Welland, Chief Scientific Adviser, Ministry of Defence; and Dr Steve Marsh, Deputy Director, Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance.

v.  We concluded the oral evidence with a final session of three panels. First, we heard from Professor Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Second, we took evidence from Rt Hon Lord Adonis, former Secretary of State for Transport and Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP, former Secretary of State for Health. The third panel was Rt Hon Baroness Neville-Jones, Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism, and Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science.

5. We would like to put on record our thanks to everyone who provided written or oral evidence to this inquiry.

6. Finally, we appointed three specialist advisers to this inquiry: Mike Granatt CB, Director at Luther Pendragon, for the whole inquiry; Dr Sandra Mounier-Jack, Lecturer in Health Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, for the swine flu case study; and Dr Richard Clayton, Security Group, University of Cambridge, for the cyber attacks case study. Their expert advice was invaluable and we are grateful for their contributions.[1]

The work of predecessor committees

7. Three reports produced by our predecessor committees have provided a starting point for our inquiry. The 2006 report on Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy-making examined risk and public communication in Government.[2] The 2009 report on Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy included suggestions for Government scientific advisory structures and improvements to science in the civil service.[3] Finally, we note the 2003 report on The Scientific Response to Terrorism, which looked at how science and technology can be harnessed to develop countermeasures to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) devices employed by terrorists.[4]

8. There has been no recent parliamentary scrutiny of the way science is used in planning for, and responding to, emergencies, although the individual case studies have attracted attention. The last two years have brought two significant emergencies to the UK: the swine flu pandemic and volcanic ash disruption to aviation, both of which required scientific advice and evidence to inform policy. In addition there are growing concerns over the risks of cyber attacks and space weather. To provide focus for our investigations, we chose to focus on these four case studies, and use them to draw out cross-cutting issues and broad lessons about scientific advice and evidence in emergencies. We begin our report by providing some background information on the case studies and relevant Government structures before scrutinising emergency preparation and response.

1   Relevant interests of the specialist advisers were made available to the Committee before the decision to appoint them on 13 October 2010. The Committee formally noted that Mr Granatt declared an interest relevant to the Committee's work as a consultant to the Chief Executive of Community Resilience, an Advisory Board Member of the Science Media Centre, an Adviser to Media Consulta, the provider of on-site support and advice to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and that he had led Luther Pendragon's support for the Independent Climate Change E-mails Review. Dr Clayton declared an interest relevant to the Committee's work that he was jointly employed by the University of Cambridge and the National Physical Laboratory as a 'post-doc' researching Internet Security Mechanisms and as Treasurer of the Foundation of Information Policy Research. The Committee formally noted that Dr Mounier-Jack declared no interests relevant to the Committee's work. Back

2   Science and Technology Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy-making, HC 900-I Back

3   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, HC 168-I Back

4   Science and Technology Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2002-03, The Scientific Response to Terrorism, HC 415-I Back

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