Too little, too late says Commons report on scientific advice

Government must ensure that requirements for security clearance do not deter academics from providing scientific advice to government on cyber attacks, says...

Government must ensure that requirements for security clearance do not deter academics from providing scientific advice to government on cyber attacks, says the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The recommendation comes in a report published by the committee on the use of scientific advice and evidence in emergencies based a series of hearings in 2010.

The report's overall conclusion was that government leaves science advice to the last minute in emergencies.

On the topic of cyber defences, the report also says an understanding of human behaviour is essential in risk assessment, planning and response.

The temptation is to think that with cyber security what we want is better encryption and better intrusion detection systems, Professor Peter Sommer, visiting professor at the London School of Economics told a committee hearing in November.

While all of those things are important, he said, the social science aspect is an important research area for understanding the nature of the problem and how it can be managed.

The committee says it is disappointed at the lack of focus on social and behavioural science in government to date, and expects that the newly established Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight team will provide input to risk assessment for emergencies.

The committee believes that for some risks, an understanding of behaviour should contribute to risk assessment. It said it considered this to be particularly true of cyber attacks for two reasons:

  • because attacks are launched by people
  • the public has a role to play in maintaining cyber security.

The public is better protected when it helps to protect itself, and should be encouraged to do so, Malcolm Hutty, head of public affairs at the London Internet Exchange told the committee hearing.

The report calls for a new independent scientific advisory committee to be set up to advise the cabinet on risk assessment and to review the National Risk Assessment to improve public and parliamentary confidence in what is a necessarily unpublished document.

The committee also repeats calls for the Government Office for Science to be located within the Cabinet Office, to reflect its cross-departmental remit and help improve policy processes.

Andrew Miller MP, committee chair, said, "The current approach smacks of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Science is not just something to reach for when a crisis happens, it must be integral to the whole planning process and unfortunately the government still hasn't got it quite right."

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