Food Standards Agency in row with scientists

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

GACS chair Professor Sir Colin Blakemore: expressed 'uninanimous' fears of committee members
GACS chair Professor Sir Colin Blakemore: expressed 'uninanimous' fears of committee members

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The Food Standards Agency (FSA) board last week decided to go ahead with plans to replace its General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS) with a new Science Council in the face of unanimous opposition from members of GACS, who feared the loss of independent specialist scientific advice in the FSA’s future decision making.

Despite a passionate defence by GACS chairman, Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, who reported on the “unanimous” ​concerns of GACS members about the FSA’s direction of travel in scientific advice, the board decided to press ahead with the changes to the way it received such advice in the future.

“The decision gives us a powerful way forward for the future,”​ said FSA board chair Heather Hancock, regarding the changes.

But Blakemore defended the existing arrangement: “The principle achievement of GACS is to create a community of high-level scientific advice – including the chairs of your advisory committees.”

Triennial Review

The decision to reform GACS, together with the FSA’s future relationship with its six scientific advisory committees (SACs), followed a Triennial Review of the FSA’s SACs, as required by the Cabinet Office’s programme of reviewing public bodies.

Despite FSA’s chief scientific advisor, Professor Guy Poppy, meeting with GACS members earlier this year to make the case for change, members have continued to voice concerns. Those worries focused on: fears about a potential loss of independence, openness and transparency of the SACs under the new arrangements and raising questions over their future ability to challenge as well as advise the FSA.

The GACS members felt the situation was made worse by plans to transform some SACs from Advisory Non-Departmental Public Bodies (ANDPBs) into Departmental Expert Committees (DECS), which were perceived to have less influence.

They were also concerned about plans to do away with lay/consumer representation on the SACs and proposals that SAC chairs would not automatically be part of the new slimmed-down Science Council of just four or five members.

Similarly, there was concern about the apparent “down-grading”​ of the role of social science in the new arrangements by transforming it from an ANDPB into a DEC.

Poppy had explained that the FSA’s Triennial Review of its SACs was intended to provide an advisory structure that met the future needs of the FSA for external expert advice. This, he said, would require changes to how the six existing SACs operated.

Scientific advice

While the FSA board agreed to press on with its reforms of scientific advice input, it did agree that the chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition would continue to advise the new Science Council; something called for by GACS members.

The FSA’s chief executive, Catherine Brown, while reassuring board members about the organisation’s continued commitment to openness and transparency in its use of science, also explained the need for change to enable the FSA to be more “fleet of foot”​. Poppy added that the FSA needed to take a “broader perspective”​, regarding the scientific advice it received.

In responding to Blakemore by letter last month, Hancock stated: ​… may I assure you that there is no intention at all to in any way reduce the transparency with which the FSA does its business, including taking scientific advice and ensuring that we are open to high quality independent challenge.

“It is our view that this will be best achieved by a smaller and fully independent Science Council, which will of course meet in the open ​…”

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