Role of lay members
Wednesday 6 February 2008
The Agency places a high value on the role of lay members on its advisory committees. These members help to ensure committees are made aware of aspects of issues being discussed that are most of interest to the public. They also help ensure committees formulate their advice in clear and understandable ways.
Lay memberships play an important mechanism for questioning and refining the scope and context of expert advice, testing the arguments and assumptions which form the basis of that advice, and helping to ensure that the advice is communicated in a way that is understandable to non-specialists.
Asking the right questions
These questions have been variously described as 'naïve', 'stupid', 'basic' and 'sensible', but the idea is the same: to make sure the committee does not overlook the obvious. Experts may not understand either but they are reluctant to admit that they are not experts in all areas. This is an opportunity for a sense check.
In addition, the experts may not think of questions that non-experts ask.
Addressing the seven consumer principles
These principles are access, choice, information, redress, safety, representation, and equity and fairness, and the lay members need to ensure that a committee addresses these in its discussions. For example, is the committee clear who will be affected by its advice and has it covered the issues from that point of view? This may involve pointing out that some possible options will not be acceptable to consumers. And have the concerns of vulnerable members of society been addressed?
Making sure the committee considers all of the scientific evidence
Scientific evidence which has been published and peer reviewed is the daily business of scientific advisory committees. So the lay member needs to encourage them to see scientific evidence as being broader:
- to seek views from the non-scientists who handle the materials that scientists use
- to make sure the committee considers evidence from pressure groups and can explain why it does not think it is valid if that is the case
Dealing with uncertainty
Lay members make sure that the committee is clear about whether there is enough evidence to say whether or not there is a risk. They have to be propared to challenge the committee to be clear about uncertainties, either in the amount of evidence or in how it is interpreted, and what this means in practice.
Answering the questions asked
Committees may get sidetracked into more interesting scientific debates. The lay member can bring them back to the original questions.
Expressing the advice and arguments clearly
If the lay member cannot understand the advice or the underlying arguments, nor will its audience. Points to look for are:
- that there is commonsense underlying the advice – the science underpins the advice; it is not an end in itself
- that use of jargon and abbreviations are not preventing non-experts understanding the advice
- make sure proper explanations are included
- that aids to understanding (such as a summary of key points at the end of each section of a report) are used where necessary
- sometimes steps in the logic are omitted because they are obvious to the experts or have been discussed elsewhere – the lay member should make sure the complete argument is given