In Times of Crisis, U.K. Government Should Listen to Its Scientists, Says Report

LONDON—The British Government is too hesitant to ask the advice of its own scientific advisers and other scientists while preparing to deal with national emergencies. And the British public may end up paying for that reluctance, says a report published today by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

As it stands, in an emergency, Britain’s government relies on the advice of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), a post currently held by population biologist John Beddington, and on the guidelines laid out in the National Risk Assessment (NRA)—a Cabinet-drafted strategy for the most significant emergencies that the United Kingdom could face over the next 5 years. In extreme disasters, an additional authority is set up: the Scientific Advisory Groups for Emergencies whose members change depending on the nature of the crisis.

In reviewing two recent emergencies—the 2010 volcanic ash cloud, and the 2009-10 H1N1 influenza —the committee found that advice and instruction from both the government’s own advisers and from the wider scientific community was taken too late.

What’s more, they found that the government’s attitude to scientific advice is that it is “something to reach for once an emergency happens,” the committee says. Scientific advice is not considered from the start of the planning process, the committee says.

“The current approach smacks of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted,” said committee chair Andrew Miller in a statement. He calls for more evidence-based preparation for worst-case scenarios.

The committee cites the example of last year’s grounding of aircraft by volcanic ash from Iceland. It draws attention to a statement from the Geological Society that says, “Some earth scientists report that they have been warning government and others of the potential for major disruption due to Icelandic eruptions for a number of years, but feel that little notice has been taken of these warnings.” Had the government acted on such counsel, the committee believes that hundreds of millions of pounds could have been saved the following year.

Another chief concern was the uncertain role that GCSA played in the assessment of risks to the United Kingdom. When questioned by the committee, Beddington admitted that he was not aware of who would make the final decisions on what recommendations should be made to the government ahead of an emergency. Beddington also confirmed that until the volcanic ash incident, he hadn’t been involved in setting up any national risk assessments.

The problem more generally, say the parliamentarians, is a lack of scientific input into risk assessment. They highlight three future scenarios in which the government has taken insufficient account of scientists’ views: pandemic flu (much like the 2009-10 H1N1 influenza), disruption to infrastructure by space weather, and cybersecurity.

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