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Open peer review: Improving science advice to Governments

We are keen to receive review comments and additional contributions for our new report which is now available for open review here.

* Prof Michael Kelly and Clive Hambler (Improving science advice to Governments) with a contribution by Prof Roger Koppl (Science Advice to Government: The cases of Covid-19 and Climate Change)

Because some researchers are reluctant to publicly engage with us for fear that they will face hostility from campaigners and some of their peers if they do, reviewers can request anonymity, but we will need to know the identity of those who submit comments.

Submitted comments and contributions will be subject to a moderation process and will be published, provided they are substantive and not abusive.

Review comments should be emailed to:

The deadline for review comments and contributions is 8 October 2023.

Review comments

David Ward and Ron Calvert

1) We strongly suggest that you split the concerns of climate from those of Covid into two separate reports.  Covid was unknown, and hind-sight points out who was right, and who was not. Covering multiple issues in one report simply dilutes the message: von Clausewitz says “Concentrate your forces and strike for the heart.” 

2) The points in the paper are valid and well presented, but the power is lost in all the words.  An executive summary to accompany the document is recommended. The executive summary need not mention Covid or climate change – just emphasize the issues that actually extend beyond science into other areas of life using the headings you already have.

3) In comparison to its purpose, the text, although beautifully written, is very diffuse. In another context, we might enjoy reading it, but for this report there is a definite purpose that calls for a more “in your face” kind of point-by-point style. The “Let’s sit down together chaps” approach will be ineffective here. The climate catastrophists have proven over and over again that they will lie, cheat and dishonour science in the interests of their agenda.

4) There is more going on here than just advice to governments. Universities and academic institutions, as mentioned, have failed to maintain scientific objectivity. Theirs too is an act to clean up, just as government has an obligation to not passively accept the given scientific information. If government is responsible for the creation of red teams, then that should be stressed in the executive summary.

5) The scientific community may benefit from a code of ethics for scientific integrity, with a body to field and publish complaints. However, holding scientists responsible for their mistakes is a non-starter. Consider, engineers work with existing manuals, describing proven procedures, and their progress and innovation results from manipulating the status quo: in contrast, science is a high risk adventure with few guarantees at the start of a new program.

6) What we find missing is some taste of what is the actual agenda of the climate catastrophists. Why is so much effort being spent on the propaganda? Why has it aroused such a level of fanaticism? It seems to us that the goal is to set up what will probably be called “A New World Order”, based on the premise that if the people are allowed liberty, they will destroy the planet. In the New Order, Western society, with its inalienable right to freedoms, will be destroyed. The desire for this level of control may explain why governments are pursuing energy policies that can only result in ruin; it’s not that they haven’t figured out the consequences of their actions.

7)  The conclusions are very weak. They should reiterate the responsibilities of government to do its part to correct rampant misinformation. They should mention mis-communication, obfuscation, lack of critical thinking and all the errors that exist in today’s decision making.

8) Perhaps the report should high-light the political nature of the IPCC, and the bias in their goals (investigate and mitigate human impacts), which inherently makes their activities non-scientific, and arouses the same scepticism as the reports of big-tobacco, sugar and oil.

Peter Wilson

BSc(Hons) Engineering, C. Eng., MBA, M.I.C.E., F.R.I.W.E.M. (Retd)

Why not also demand the government immediately carry out and publish an honest appraisal of the total unit power cost of the various available power generation systems. This can be done by simply cancelling all subsidies, and getting all the Electricity Suppliers to put in bids for power generation contracts, but only for base load systems.

Both offshore and onshore WT’s bids would then have to include for the necessary GT standby power systems’, and extended and enhanced Power Transmission works. To satisfy the Greens, add Sterns’ NPV cost of the future repairs and replacements needed, as caused by CO2 emissions: £X per tonne of CO2 emission per Gwhr power generated.

All this will identify the correct, much lower, CO2 emissions’ savings from WT/FGT systems, which WT Suppliers fraudulently keep providing only for WT’s alone. The real comparative unit costs of WT’s to the consumer will also be presented, and not the fraudulent claimed lower costs which, conveniently, do not include for all the above mentioned essential additional works’ costs when using WT’s. Unit cost of GT’s working alone with none of these additional works’ will be shown  to provide  a much lower unit cost and would not need any subsidies of any type.

Then we can re-introduce fracking in the UK to get the necessary protected and secure supply of gas at rates agreed with the government and not global prices. The massive monies saved could then be used to fund other desperately needed policies, as well as R&D for state-of-the-art cheaper power supply systems as needed before UK gas supplies are exhausted!

John Littler

The summary  to the document is excellent, but I can contribute some additional examples which amplify the points you make.

“Red Teams”

These are very important to ensure that the proposals are carefully considered. Most important scientific developments are ipso facto proposals which upturn traditional concepts, and so may be ridiculed. Think Galileo, Newton, and many discoveries such as smallpox vaccination. So if a responsible small group of scientists goes against the flood of opinion, it is no use relying on a politician to choose. Science progresses by testing hypotheses, not by jumping to conclusions, or deliberately frightening the public. When I was on the University Council, I was astounded to note that I was the only scientist present. At the same time a school friend was appointed Head of Health and Safety in the Civil Service: he had studied classics at Cambridge. I asked him how he could make potentially life-changing decisions while knowing no science. He replied airily: “I can always ask an expert”. The further question was “how do you recognise an expert if you don’t understand the subject?”  

Inaccurate information

The actual temperature of the Earth has varied widely over geological time, and the plot of surface temperature  looks quite different from the plot of CO2 in the atmosphere. In the  Jurassic there is no sign of dangerous temperatures when the CO2 level was five times the present level. The present levels are about the lowest they have ever been. The most reliable measurements are probably made by observing the heat radiation which reaches satellites, but the temperature of the air in a weather station, 2 metres above ground level is very subject to local effects, such as exhaust gasses from an airport runway, other human activities, or natural effects such as geothermal heat. The amounts of heat emitted are quite different for the sea, a sandy desert, or a forest, or a snowfield, or at different times of the year. Weather stations are not regularly standardised.  The world’s standard measure  is based on measurements on Mona Loa, a supposedly isolated mountain in Hawaii. But it turns out that it was a dormant volcano, which might well have emitted its own CO2,  and has now erupted and apparently destroyed the measuring station!

Inaccurate reporting

The press is always ready to publicise bad news, such as loss of arctic ice (due to changes in the flow of the Gulf Stream, or North Atlantic Oscillation, which is known to be cyclic) or of parts of Antarctica where there is extensive geothermal volcanic activity. Also there is always somewhere  where the weather is worse than in “living memory”

Bad modelling

There are many difficulties about accurately modelling weather (short term) or climate (long term). Even the much simpler modelling of disease propagation has proved very dependant on arbitrary simplifications. The problem with weather is that the atmosphere is turbulent on a small scale, but it has influences on a very large scale. To get accuracy very many calculations of small volume behaviour are necessary, which requires a very powerful computer. The “Butterfly Effect” is a good name!

Net Zero

NET ZERO is defined as a situation in which the amount of CO2 which is added to the atmosphere in a given time is equal to the amount being removed  “permanently” so that a steady level of CO2 is maintained. Detailed calculations indicate that if the amount of CO2 were allowed to double the average temperature might rise by about 0.75 degrees centigrade. There are four problems: first that many people seem to think that the target is to stop emitting all CO2. The second is that there a large number of ways in which CO2 can be removed naturally at different rates ( photosynthesis providing the food chain, erosion of silicate (mainly volcanic) rocks, leading mainly to sand and limestone, but providing also material for shellfish and crustaceans. The third is that lowering atmospheric CO2 will reduce the supply of organic (essentially C containing) chemicals on which plant and animal life on this planet depends. The fourth is that there is no better way of extracting CO2 from the air than nature’s efficient use of sunlight. So the choice for us is briefly between lowering the CO2 level in the air, cooling us, and starving us, or allowing some temperature rise but enjoy the fruits of living in a natural greenhouse

John Beswick

BSc MSc (Dist) DIC CEng MICE FGS MIoD Member SPE

I have read the paper carefully and have a few comments. Regarding the net zero debate, the government is not being realistic or honest about the reasons for climate change and the estimated cost of their policies is ridiculously low. Moreover, they do not take any account of climate history. This is a very serious issue. There is also confusion in the public minds between pollution and claimed anthropogenic effects on the climate.

Modelling without data is well reported in the paper and has become a principal cause of incorrect conclusions and hence policies. It is the same in the geothermal industry with people making all sorts of over optimistic claims without any ‘ground truth’.

The current environment of bias research and opposition to dissenting voices is worrying and even the learned institutions have been contaminated with this bias.

One key and important point highlighted is about the lack of cross-examination or scrutiny of opinions or results by scientists and modellers and the follow-on issue of their legal responsibility.  We, as companies, have to take out expensive Professional Indemnity insurance policies, yet there is a group that can say anything and are immune from the consequences.

I like the comment about the ’Precautionary Principle’ and I have attached an issue I had with Sky News about shale gas on that issue.

I agree also that there is a tendency that research grants are selective when they should be open to all not just those that agree with some sort of perceived opinion or policy of institutions.

Challenging science and technology is critical for advancement. I say wisdom should never stop and that science is about continuing to question, re-asses and challenge. The East Anglia University example is an appalling example. Also, scientists and researchers should not suffer reputational damage for their work.

Another concern that I have is that politicians and the civil service generally seem to lack any technical or scientific knowledge or incentive to back British industry, despite the rhetoric. In the case of high-level nuclear waste disposal, for example, the agency Nuclear Waste Services (now employing 500 people) is not interested in the concept that we have been developing for the last 35 years or so for safe disposal of high-level radioactive waste, but reluctantly say that they may think about it if other countries can develop the technology and then bring it to the UK.

Kind regards

Anthony Thompson

I agree whole-heartedly with the sentiments and arguments, but I think that the recommendations are too diffuse. It is like having more than one head on an arrow. 

I would suggest that any re-drafting should make the ‘red team’ proposal the sole recommendation. This will mean that anyone reading or discussing the report will have a completely clear and unambiguous perspective on what it’s about. All the other points covered can be subsumed under this heading.

Graham Rabbitts
This GWPF draft paper is a timely and important contribution to the national debate.

There is one issue of the draft report where I think I can add useful information and insight. The issue is exemplified by the statement in the report that “… public bodies such as Natural England have produced reports and policies which show little evidence of expert challenge.”

During the debate in the 1990s regarding the Habitats Regulations many in industryand bodies representing users of the environment (RYA Fishermen, etc) were deeply concerned about the possible abuse of the “Precautionary Principle”.

In the early 1990s, the amount and scope of environmental legislation increased dramatically. In particular, the Habitats Directive, emanating from Brussels, had to be implemented in the UK by the Habitats Regulations.

Industry in general, and maritime industry in particular, were concerned about the potential abuse of the Precautionary Approach which must be applied in those cases where scientific data is incomplete. A clear statement was hammered out and included in the original Habitats Regulations published in 1994.

In paragraph 2.7 of the Guide to the Preparation and Application of Management Schemes under the habitats regulations it said:

‘This [the precautionary principle] can be applied to all forms of environmental risk. It suggests that where there are real threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used be as a reason for postponing measures to prevent such damage that are likely to be cost effective. It does not however imply that the suggested cause of such damage must be eradicated unless proved to be harmless and it cannot be used as a licence to invent hypothetical consequences. Moreover, it is important, when considering the information available, to take account of the associated balance of likely costs and benefits. When the risks of serious or irreversible environmental damage are high, and the cost penalties are low, the precautionary principle justifies a decisive response. In other circumstances, where a lesser risk is associated with a precautionary response that is likely to be very expensive, it could well be better to promote further scientific research than to embark upon premature action.’

Industry could live with this statement provided it was used sensibly. But it is a sad fact that when the regulations were updated, this statement was quietly ditched. Was it a little inconvenient for the environment bureaucracy?

There could be no clearer demonstration of the need to review advice to government and government policy, especially in the environmental field, than the GWPF report is calling for.

Gordon McKeown

I suggest removing “In geological history the pre-Cambrian period, when there was flourishing flora and fauna, had temperatures approximately 5 oC warmer than today and >1000ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” Earth systems, life forms and atmospheric composition were very different in the Pre-Cambrian (a very long and variable period and the term pre-Cambrian is too imprecise) so the analogy is a poor one and weakens the case. Comparison with periods in the Mesozoic would make the same point but be better. However it is an argument that has to be used carefully as the counter argument that the rate of change being dangerous could still stand, depending upon the expected effect  of CO2 forcing.

I feel that overall the report is too broad in its narrative. I would concentrate on the mechanisms for improving advice in complex areas, particularly those with ideological contention. It should  not include too many specific points about climate, energy, disease management and academic bias. Readers will be diverted into those arguments when the point is to get support for an improved decision making process that restores public confidence. Just include a couple of good examples but avoid the feel of a broadside. It is important that individuals who tend towards the current orthodoxy on climate change support the proposed reforms to restore public confidence and reduce the risk of poor decision making. The Red Team approach is in my opinion the key change.

Paul G Hewitson

A formalised role for an agent provocateur function within the decision making process is required. This role would be performed by independent experts or emeritus professors or researchers who have no ties to the organisation giving the compelling advice to government.

This independent advice must be collated by those agent provocateurs and made available independently to the decision makers together with the advice made formally through the SAGE channels.

With respect to climate change, I think there’s a fundamental flaw in the presentation of information given to decision makers. In raw economic terms it’s essential that each pound spent gives the maximum impact to reduction in CO2 globally, it’s not just an immediate impact but long term consistent impact.

For instance spending scarce resources to exchange a perfectly serviceable diesel car for an EV in the UK is simply virtue signalling with an insignificant if any reduction in CO2.

However spending funds in say South Sudan would immediately alleviate mass poverty and suffering, but in the medium to long term, offset significant CO2 emissions as that population strives to 1st world standards. For example, with support 11 million people in South Sudan would have their lives improved and with renewable energy infrastructure become a carbon neutral cohort bigger than anything achieved in the UK.

Basically the minor changes to global emissions that the UK can make at vast expense deprives the third world of other significant benefits. The cost and global benefit needs to be put through an evaluation filter. At present we seem to have a tunnel vision perspective based on UK only which deprives those who are desperate for support in exchange for an insignificant change by those who can afford it and those who are poor who cannot collectively oppose the imposition of economically unsound actions within the UK.

Philip Aiston

The UK cannot claim to be a world leader in managing risk when implementing large public sector projects as evidenced by overspends on military, NHS and civil procurements. Projects that are well managed are constrained to time, cost and quality where each of these constraints is subject to some form of risk.

Risk Management is about managing uncertainty and weather and long term weather patterns (climate) come into that category. Climate modelling is inherently risky because it is complex and subject to error. Risks can be understood to reside in two basic groups: physical and non-physical.

The physical can include errors in programming code and the non-physical can include human factors such as communication between Government scientists and policy makers.

The human factor risk alone can result in the wrong policy being implemented by Government because this was either under-estimated or ignored. Scientists have to be honest that they are not project managers and would tend to focus on their desired outcome rather than trying to manage the risk (cost plus would be their preference).

The project manager would quantify the risk in terms of probability and impact and build reasonable contingency. However, what we are seeing now with attempts to move to “net zero”, is a pattern of ignoring the costs involved, taking the hit on any risks triggered and passing the impact onto the public and the tax payer.

Ken Hazell

I have looked through this and do remember the very inaccurate projections of deaths from Covid. I also must mention the hopelessly inaccurate projections that we get for the Bank of England and the OBR.  I think one of the problems is to project some years ahead producing seemingly definite figures.

I was a practising Actuary for many years and we learnt to use the Expanding Funnel of Doubt. This would show the increasing uncertainty as projection move further into the future.

Scientist  should,  in my view, use a similar approach.

Ken Hazell