Waldegrave to abolish science advice board: Minister responsible for open government to silence independent policy-making panel after history of conflict with government

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Indy Politics
William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for open government, is about to extinguish one of Whitehall's last pieces of open policymaking - in his own department.

In the next few weeks, Mr Waldegrave will publish a White Paper abolishing an expert committee of scientists that has proved too independent and outspoken for its own good.

Mr Waldegrave is the latest in a series of Cabinet ministers who have been unable to stomach the advice offered by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. In 1990, a furious public row about government secrecy erupted when the board criticised the Government's policies towards science and Kenneth Clarke, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, suppressed publication of the board's criticisms. John MacGregor also found the board's views too hot to publish, when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science. Previously, the board's reports had always been made public.

Now Mr Waldegrave has succeeded where his colleagues failed and has found an easier way of suppressing dissent - permanently. The White Paper on Science and Technology which he is expected to publish within the next few weeks will simply abolish the board.

The move has been condemned as hypocrisy by Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties. A senior scientist said that by abolishing independent sources of advice, the Government could waste millions on fashionable topics taken up as policy without searching examination.

As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr Waldegrave has responsibility for about pounds 1.2bn of publicly- funded scientific research, in addition to the business of the Citizen's Charter and open government. Advice on the size of the science budget and about how the money should be spent has been channelled to ministers by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. The board was set up in 1972, by Margaret Thatcher, when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science.

It has always been chaired by a outstanding scientist, independent of the government machine, and has had several outside members from both industry and the academic world, to balance internal vested interests. But when the current chairman, the distinguished Oxford scientist Sir David Phillips, retires in September, the board will be wound up.

In its place, there will be a Civil Service committee 'internalised' within the Office of Science and Technology, part of Mr Waldegrave's department. Instead of independent experts inconveniently and publicly throwing grit into the smooth working of the government machine, Mr Waldegrave will receive confidential advice drawn up by civil servants.

One senior scientist warned that, without independent advice, Mr Waldegrave will be at the mercy of every passing fad and fashionable trend in science and 'will be exposed to the point of view of whoever gets the inside track'. Scientific research itself 'will become the plaything of political whim'.

The board 'consistently and uncomfortably reminded successive Secretaries of State of the long-term interest'. The consequences of the board's abolition 'could be dire, this element of independent thinking will be marginalised'.

Another informed insider said Mr Waldegrave and his officials had aroused expectations in science and industry that, given the constraints on public expenditure, they could not possibly fulfil.

Andrew Puddephatt, general secretary of Liberty, said: 'This is yet another example of the hypocrisy of the present administration.'

In place of a true commitment to openness, 'the Government has shown itself only too willing to resort to traditional techniques of lie and denial when confronted with something it finds politically inconvenient'.

(Photograph omitted)

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