To bee or not to bee: giving science advice in government is not for the fainthearted

30 April 2013

The heated debate about the rights and wrongs of the EU ban on neonicotinoids illustrates the messy reality of using science advice in policy.

With a month of taking office, the new Government Chief Science Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, has become a pantomime villain to at least one environmental commentator, branded as an industry stooge for an article he wrote in the Financial Times in advance of the European debate. Indeed the article went further – to claim that science advisers did less speaking truth to power and instead acted as front men (fall guys) for politicians.

So what does the bee story tell us about scientific advice and government?

First, it illustrates that scientific advice can inform – but not necessarily settle – issues. In this case there are laboratory studies which suggest significant potential for neonicotinoids to damage bee colonies – but some inconclusive field trials by Defra’s science agency. Some experts criticise the quality of those trials. Defra itself acknowledges the need for more research. Scientists disagree on what the balance of the current evidence base suggests in the right course of action.

Second, it illustrates how rapidly evidence is conflated with values. So environmental groups think the evidence points to the need for a ban; those who use neonicotinoids think it doesn’t. Evidence becomes more like evidence in a court of law – used to support a position, than an objective indicator of the right course of action.

Third, there are other issues that need to be taken into account alongside the “simple” science: the impact on food production and food prices; what other pest control strategies farmers adopt and their impact on wildlife – and other potential “unintended consequences”. Walport has been attacked for putting the bee decision into that wider economic context – but that is where government and the scientists who advise government need to be prepared to operate.

Fourth, it shows that even interpretations of the “precautionary principle” are contested. Monbiot accuses Walport of wilful misinterpretation of what to do when there is scientific uncertainty but potential risk; Walport claims that too often it is used to justify disproportionate panic reactions. Megaphone evidence wars do not provide a particularly enlightening way forward.

One useful development is to divide the scientific assessment from the wider decision. The government has done this on the equally contested area of fracking – commissioning the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to assess the scientific impacts, separate from an assessment of the economics and politics. Claire Craig, director of the Government Office for Science, pointed to this approach as the way forward at a recent CSAP conference and Parliament’s Environment Audit Committee, in its report on pollinators and pesticides, called for environmental risk assessment to be separated from the political-economic decision-making. In the case of bees, one thing the scientific community does seem to agree on is the need for more research and close monitoring of the impact of the moratorium.

In my article for the collection on the Future of Scientific Advice in Whitehall launched at that conference, I borrowed US academic Roger Pielke Jr’s distinction between “abortion politics”, driven by values and “tornado politics”, driven solely by evidence and information. But the bee story shows how many scientific debates in government lie somewhere in the messier middle of the spectrum. And to be effective the Government Chief Scientific Adviser needs to help politicians, his civil service colleagues and the public, navigate through that muddle.

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Comments (3)

  1. George Monbiot on 30 April 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Dear Jill,

    You either misunderstand or misrepresent my complaint against Sir Mark Walport’s article. I thought I had made it pretty clear: the problem is that he made claims which are not supported by the science. He engaged in wild exaggeration, emotional blackmail and scaremongering in order to support the political position the government had taken. I urge your readers to read both his article and my response and to judge for themselves.

    These issues should be of as much concern to you – and anyone else with an interest in science policy – as they are to me. We should look to the government’s chief scientist to represent the evidence dispassionately and accurately, and to defend science against political and economic pressures. That he appears to have failed on all counts, so early in his tenure, is deeply worrying.

    Best wishes,

    George Monbiot

  2. Jill Rutter on 1 May 2013 at 11:12 am

    George: I did read the article and lots of the other science commentary about it. It didn’t strike me that he was exaggerating that much. James Wilsdon and Roger Pielke made an interesting comment that he crossed too far beyond the science into advocacy. My blog was intended to be pointing out that the view that “science” offers a simple answer to a policy problem is pretty rare — and that people tend to read the evidence that supports their position.

    Obviously big issue for MW if he is already being seen not to be offering an objective reading of the evidence. I see former GCSA Sir David King is now saying that his conclusion would be that more research is needed (but not clear whether he would support the moratorium while that goes on)

    I absolutely agree with you that scientific advisers have a problem if they lose credibility. I was at a meeting with the CMO once where he was being pressured to make reassuring statements on BSE which went well beyond the science to avoid a beef panic. I argued he could and should not do that.

    But on the other side, I think the environmental community also need to be open to and interested in evidence. i didn’t see any of the environmental lobby saying moratorium needed to be accompanied by robust trials to establish whether or not neonicotinoids are a significant factor in colony collapse.
    not sure if you saw this really interesting blog by Alex de Waal which was circulating around twitter yesterday
    http://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2013/04/30/reclaiming-activism/?utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer:%2Bviewfromthecave%2Bon%2Btwitter&buffer_share=076f9

    One thing that is certainly true is that Defra was incredibly slow off the mark on bees.

    Be interesting to see how Sir Mark reacts to the reaction

  3. Neil Davey on 1 May 2013 at 6:55 pm

    After listening to BBC Radio 4′s coverage on this topic I found myself assured of the decision to ban the pesticides on the evidence of science, however as I thought this through and remembered my brother in law is a bee keeper and a farmer, I am wondering if he would agree from the ground level.
    In summary I believe that time will tell that the price we pay for food is not going to be in reference to what we pay at the checkout but what we pay in the continuation of our food source.
    The drive for cheap food will be the downfall to our supply – we have already seen this in the beef burger industry.
    I believe we should always start at a position of Non Pesticide use and work our way upwards to justify its use – not the other way around.
    We are what we eat.

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