Independent scientific advice
Government relies on advice from independent experts, everyday. Whether it’s about the food we eat, the quality of our environment, the safety of our roads and transport, or the buildings we live and work in, independent experts offer their judgements on a wide range of issues in order for government to make policy decisions, respond to emergencies and much more.
Scientific Advisory Committees and Science Advisory Councils (SACs) provide this information and government uses it to make informed judgements based on the evidence and advice provided.
There are 72 SACs across government and each advises on a different topic related to science or engineering. Each committee is sponsored by a government department or a range of departments and has a secretariat to support its function. To find out more about SACs and the role of GO-Science in relation to SACs, see the fact file below and follow the links on the left hand side of this page. A full list of SACs (PDF, 37 Kb) is also available.
SAC fact file:
What is a SAC? A committee that advises government on a scientific or engineering related topic.
How many SACs are there? 72.
That’s a lot, why so many? Each SAC focuses on a specific scientific area and requires very advanced expertise, such as knowledge of hepatitis, pesticides or food microbiology (except Science Advisory Councils that advise government departments on general science issues related to their particular policy areas). SACs are created and disbanded according to need so whenever the SAC’s work is finished it would be closed. Unfortunately for example, hepatitis is still virulent and work is ongoing to mitigate the effects of climate change, and so because government is committed to ensuring policy is informed by the best evidence available, this number of SACs is still required.
What do SACs actually do? The terms of reference of each SAC differ and because each SAC is established according to the need of its sponsoring department(s), there is no one-size-fits-all breakdown of SAC activities. However in general SACs variously review, and sometimes commission scientific research. They offer their independent expert judgement – including where facts are missing or uncertainties exist. They hold regular meetings, sometimes communicating with members of the public or key stakeholders through a range of engagement.
So what is a Science Advisory Council, then? A Science Advisory Council is an overarching independent council of experts as opposed to an expert committee like a Scientific Advisory Committee. The roles of Science Advisory Councils vary, but typically they provide independent overview and challenge of the management and use of science by the department concerned. Seven government departments have Science Advisory Councils: Defra, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Food Standards Agency, Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development, and the Home Office.
What does GO-Science do in relation to SACs? The Government Chief Scientific Adviser and GO-Science champion the role of independent scientific advice in the policy-making process. The GCSA publishes Guidelines on the use of scientific and engineering advice in policy making and the revised Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees: CoPSAC 2011 (PDF, 355 Kb) . The GCSA was also involved in the development of the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government.
In addition, the GCSA meets SAC Chairs regularly and hosts an annual reception to thank them for their work. GO-Science runs workshops for the secretariats and members of SACs to share good experience and good practice on a range of topics. The workshops are summarised in reports to ensure the messages are shared as widely as possible. GO-Science also conducts an annual monitoring and evaluation exercise of SACs. First introduced in 2008, the exercise aims to capture a picture of the SAC landscape as it develops over time. Information provided informs engagement activities across the SAC community; for example the 2009 exercise raised a number of queries regarding lay membership which was followed up with a workshop on the issue.