Politicians in white coats? Scientific advisory committees and policy in Britain

Publication Date01 October 2018
Date01 October 2018
untitled Article
Public Policy and Administration
2018, Vol. 33(4) 428–446
Politicians in white coats?
! The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
Scientific advisory
DOI: 10.1177/0952076717711746
committees and policy
in Britain
The LSE GV314 Group*
London School of Economics, UK
Do scientists advising government in scientific advisory committees (SACs) in the UK fit
the traditional model of offering substantive scientific advice to improve the quality of
policy making, are they forums for policy making and negotiation where ‘the science’ is
tempered by broader political concerns, or are they simply bodies that legitimise
policies already decided upon? The traditional ‘on tap’ model and its alternatives
imply differences in how the agendas of SACs are put together, how committees delib-
erate and how they influence policy, and these implied differences are explored on the
basis of a 2015 survey covering the experiences and attitudes of 338 members from 46
scientific committees. The traditional model holds up rather well against models that
see SACs filling broader political roles such as policy deliberation and legitimation. The
findings suggest that the organization and procedures of SACs indeed allow scientists to
offer advice largely without having to engage with or anticipate wider policy consider-
ations and constraints, and that government ‘steering’ or otherwise leading SAC delib-
erations toward politically desired conclusions is rare.
Advisory committees, decision making, expertise, policymaking, science and public
policy, scientists
*The LSE GV314 Group consists of staff and students in the Department of Government at the London
School of Economics and Political Science following the undergraduate course ‘Empirical Research in
Government’ (course code GV314). Involved in this project were Esma Akkilic, Molly Brien, Becca Brooks,
Louise Busson, Sabiha Chagpar, Kirk D’Souza, Taran Dhesi, Azim Juzer, Polchate Kraprayoon, Olivia Na,
Edward C Page, Laura Price, Gareth Rosser, Alice Thompson and Costa Thrasyvoulou.
Corresponding author:
Edward C Page, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A2AE,
Email: e.c.page@lse.ac.uk

GV314 Group
There is a central conf‌lict in the role of the scientist in government. The of‌f‌icial
position is that the scientist contributes the scientif‌ic evidence but the policymaker
weighs the evidence with other considerations and makes the policy decision: an ‘on
tap but not on top’ view of the role of science (see Hoppe and Wesselink, 2014: 74).
The practicalities are, however, that the world of policymaking is ultimately
political and scientists might be expected to have to adapt to this world if they
are to make a valuable contribution to it. Among other things, they are asked to
use their judgment on issues where scientif‌ic evidence is sparse or inconclusive and
of‌fer views on the likelihood of one proposed remedy for dealing with a problem
being better than another. They are expected to argue the case for their view of the
scientif‌ic evidence in a committee setting with other scientists and possibly also civil
servants, lay people and interest group representatives. Trickiest of all they have to
convert an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’; a view or understanding of the science has to become
transmuted into a suggestion or recommendation for action. This apparent con-
f‌lict, the adaptation of scientif‌ic modes of reasoning and behaviour to political
policy environments, lies at the heart of some of the most inf‌luential discussions
about the role of the scientist in government, including Collingridge and Reeve’s
(1986) analysis of the conditions under which ‘science speaks to power’, Jasanof‌f’s
(1990) ‘Fifth Branch’ of government or Pielke’s (2007) ‘Honest Broker’. The con-
f‌lict accounts for the problematic nature of the ‘border work’ or ‘boundary roles’ of
scientists straddling the worlds of policy and scientif‌ic research (see Fischer and
Leifeld, 2015; Jasanof‌f, 1987).
As Spruijt et al. (2014: 23) suggest in their meta-analysis of the f‌ield, ‘research on
expert roles has remained mostly theoretical’ such that it is still possible, 70 years
after Robert Merton called for it, for an article taking as its central thrust the
argument that ‘more research’ in the f‌ield was needed could still be published in
a major policy science journal (Fischer and Leifeld, 2015). Much of the existing
evidence about how such boundary roles are negotiated derives from the analysis
of, or experience derived from, a particular committee or small set of committees
(but see Bijker and Henricks, 2009; Rimkute_ and Haverland, 2015). In this article,
we explore the balance of scientist–policy maker roles across a range of scientif‌ic
advisory committees (SACs) in the UK on the basis of a survey of over 300 mem-
bers. SACs are formalised bodies, and formalisation brings with it relatively f‌ixed
memberships and procedures and the likelihood of developing enduring norms of
behaviour. To what extent do the procedures and norms in SACs support the ‘on
tap not on top’ model?
On tap, bit-part policy makers or under the thumb?
In order to consider this question we must f‌irst establish what alternatives exist to
the ‘on tap’ model for SACs. One obvious alternative is the ‘on top’ model, with
SACs being a vehicle for groups of technocrats to shape public policy decisions.
While such a view ref‌lects one broad strand of thinking about science and policy, it
has not featured signif‌icantly in much recent writing about how science and policy

Public Policy and Administration 33(4)
routinely interact and we do not propose to focus our attention on it here, although
we will revisit our decision brief‌ly in the conclusion. More signif‌icantly, recent
literature has focussed on two alternative ‘political’ models of the role of SACs
which see them as on the one hand policy legitimating bodies or on the other,
policy bargaining bodies, each model implying a distinctive role for scientists.
The policy legitimating function of such bodies is suggested by Rimkute_ and
Haverland (2015) who distinguish between the instrumental ‘problem solving’
roles of committees and their political roles of ‘substantiating’ (giving weight to
policy choices already taken) and ‘legitimising’ (persuading others that policy deci-
sions have merit). Dunlop (2010) approaches a similar set of ideas from the per-
spective of principal-agent theory when she explores two main political functions of
advisory committees: ‘ef‌f‌iciency’, here def‌ined in a specif‌ically political context
where the ‘advice delivered by the agent contributes to the satisfaction of the
principal’s policy preferences’, and ‘policy credibility’, referring to establishing
‘citizen conf‌idence’ in policies.
A policy bargaining function of such bodies is suggested by the work of Krick
(2015) who, in addition to endorsing the importance of a legitimizing role, suggests
that some scientif‌ic committees also serve as forums for policy bargaining between
a variety of social interests in which the ‘scientif‌ic’ content of the conclusions or
recommendations is diluted, if present at all. If a large proportion of SACs have
non-scientists on them, her conclusion for what she terms ‘hybrid’ committees
might be expected to apply to SACs. The advice hybrid committees produce is
‘not scientif‌ic or academic advice, with its air of objectivity. . . . Rather, it is the
outcome of a process of negotiation and aggregation of dif‌ferent positions that
rests on competing experiences, backgrounds, values, convictions and perspectives
and refers to a variety of validity norms, such as policy usefulness, social fairness or
scientif‌ic rationality’ (Krick, 2015: 489; see also Timotijevic et al., 2013).
We can set out a series of expectations arising from each of these three
approaches to understanding how SACs work. Our f‌irst task must be to establish
how far the ‘policy bargaining’ role more normally associated with ‘hybrid’
committees might be expected to apply to SACs in the f‌irst place; this means
establishing whether the composition of many such committees allows the possi-
bility of policy bargaining and negotiation among diverse actors. Then we can go
on to examine the evidence supporting these three dif‌ferent roles as they apply to
the work of SACs. We propose to do this by focussing on three broad stages of the
process of handling issues in SACs; the agenda setting stage, the progress of com-
mittee deliberations and at the post-decision or ‘impact’ stage, where the recom-
mendations meet the wider policy world.
We can outline a range of features of SAC activity that one might expect to f‌ind
associated with each of these three roles. The roles are not symmetrical or entirely
mutually exclusive, so the features associated with them are not simply analysed by
focussing on one or two dependent variables; we are here concerned with setting
out how far the way SACs work is consistent with each of these three models
(Table 1).

GV314 Group
Table 1. Outline of empirical expectations of different roles at different stages in SAC issue
Stage of issue handling
On tap
Diversity in issues
Concentration on
Government follows
referred by
‘scientific’ criteria as
advice contingent
basis of advice
on agreement
among scientists
Government priority
Government ‘steering’
Government follows
to broad policy
of advice

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