The Herald (Glasgow)

April 14, 2006

Greens: science briefings could be biased by business



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SCIENCE briefings for MSPs and their staff being run under the imprint of the Scottish Parliament could be biased and may even be written by industry lobbyists, the Greens claimed yesterday.

Mark Ballard, the Green MSP, has written to Holyrood's chief executive asking for a review of the Scottish Parliament science information service.

The service - billed as reliable, rapid, and impartial - is run jointly by the parliament, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in association with other learned or scientific bodies.

Some briefings for MSPs were provided through the scheme on an anonymous basis and initially the list of "topic co-ordinators" was to be kept confidential to avoid "inhibiting" their ability to provide "free and frank" advice.

When Greens gained access to this list under freedom of information, they found that among those co-ordinators were Sir Tom McKillop, the then chief executive of AstraZeneca, now at the Royal Bank of Scotland, and other academics with ties to industry which the Greens say makes them partisan.

Mr Ballard said: "The scheme must be open, transparent and objective. I am deeply concerned that people providing information feel the need to hide behind a cloak of anonymity."

Professor David Miller of Strathclyde University, who runs the internet group spinwatch. org, claimed the parliament has been naive in its dealings with the private sector and its lobbyists.

He pointed out that Willie Rennie, now a LibDem MP, effectively ran the science information scheme while working for a PR agency hired by the Royal Society of Chemistry - the kind of linkage between learned societies and private lobbyists who could represent other clients, which made it impossible to be confident of the impartiality of advice.

A Scottish Parliament spokesman insisted any such advice was factually correct, unbiased and impartial, adding: "It is a core skill of Spice (Scottish Parliament Information Centre) researchers, based on their knowledge of the subject area, to analyse and moderate any advice or information that they have access to, to put it in the appropriate context, and to present the balance of the relevant arguments and opinions on the subject in question."

Stuart Brown, of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said: "It is a pilot scheme and a very sincere attempt to support the decision-making process. As such, we are open to constructive comments from all political parties."