Progress towards evidence-based policymaking could be undermined by cuts to scientific infrastructure, a committee of MPs has said.
In its final report of the parliament, the Science and Technology committee says that while there has been “some progress” in ensuring that scientific advice and the proper use of evidence feeds into policy decisions, cuts to spending have the potential to hit the UK’s wider research base.
“We have been concerned by the reductions in public funding for important scientific infrastructure, to the extent that the country's long-term scientific capability may be undermined,” the MPs say.
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“Funding for The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, astronomy and particle physics facilities, public sector research establishments, the National Schools Observatory and the ownership and governance structure of The National Oceanography Centre, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the British Geological Survey are just some examples of risks to scientific infrastructure that we have encountered during this Parliament.”
Although the committee warns about the impact of cuts, it praises the government’s focus on promoting scientific innovation, saying it has “laid the foundations” of a more robust innovation support network through the establishment of Innovate UK, Catapult Centres, the British Business Bank and the Small Business Research Initiative.
But the report says the use of scientific evidence is “not always reflected in government practice”.
While the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills are held up as examples of ministries that understand and use scientific evidence well, others come in for criticism.
According to the committee, the Department for Education, the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Home Office “appear either not to appreciate the value of scientific advice and evidence in policymaking or simply do not have the capability, experience or processes in place to utilise it”.
Cabinet Office call
The MPs also renew their call for the Government Office for Science - currently based within BIS - to be moved to the centre of government, arguing that it would be “more effective if it were located in the Cabinet Office”. And they say that the Cabinet Office’s Horizon Scanning Programme team - set up to help government analyse trends and risks - is too slow to publish its findings.
“Furthermore, its work and operations are not transparent and, although the Government tells us that it is consulting widely as part of its horizon scanning activities, we are disappointed that there is no external representation on the Horizon Scanning Oversight Group," the MPs say.
The committee recommends that the programme team be merged with the BIS Foresight Unit to avoid a duplication of work and create “one central source of government horizon scanning”.