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24/07/2014

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Shorts: March 2012

A brighter future for scientific advisers?

As People & Science went to press, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology was preparing to publish the report on the role and function of departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs).

New appointments

As People & Science went to press, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology was preparing to publish the report on the role and function of departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs).

New appointments

Lord Willis of Knaresborough has written (People & Science, Sept 2011) of his fears that the Government was paying only lip service to scientific advice.  He told us he was now feeling slightly more optimistic. `We’ve actually seen BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and indeed the Department for Transport, make substantial appointments at departmental CSA level,’ he said.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington told People & Science: `The CSAs form a diverse and highly active group bringing a range of backgrounds, appropriate to the needs of their department.  We have recently welcomed new CSAs [at BIS and Transport] who both bring invaluable engineering knowledge.  The CSA network has never been stronger.’

BIS has appointed Professor John Perkins (formerly Provost at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi) as its CSA.  Separately, the Department for Transport has appointed Professor Rod Smith as its CSA.  He is currently Professor of Railway Engineering at Imperial College London and chair of the Future Railway Research Centre.

Independence and ministerial access

However, Lord Willis is not completely reassured: `Our enquiry has demonstrated that it’s a very patchy picture indeed about the effectiveness of the departmental scientific advisers,’ he told People & Science.  He said that the new advisers would need ‘access to the ministers and to the Permanent Secretary, and also to retain [an] independent challenge function.’

Beddington responded: `I am happy to reassure Lord Willis… [that these] CSAs are… reporting to Permanent Secretaries and working with Ministers and the Secretary of State as appropriate.’

Social Science

‘There is… a huge deficiency in terms of social science within government,’ Willis continued. In a July 2011 report on an earlier inquiry into behaviour change the Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology recommended that `at the earliest opportunity, the Government appoint a Chief Social Scientist (CSS) who reports to the GCSA and is an independent expert in social science research to ensure the provision of robust and independent social scientific advice.’

In response, the Government said last September that it would `give careful consideration to the idea of appointing a Chief Social Scientist, which will involve weighing up the potential benefits against any potential costs.’

Fuelling lasting dialogue

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has launched a long-term public engagement exercise to discover what the public thinks of biofuel research.  

Long-term evolution

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has launched a long-term public engagement exercise to discover what the public thinks of biofuel research.  

Long-term evolution

Rather than conduct a large-scale dialogue exercise with a clear beginning and end, the BBSRC wants to try something new, Dr. Patrick Middleton, BBSRC Head of Engagement, told People & Science. `We wanted to try to develop a conversation that could take place over quite a long period of time and also evolve over time. So, as the science changes and the environment changes, the conversation can change and adapt to go with it,’ he said.

Oliver Escobar is a doctoral researcher at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh who has recently published a report on the principles and practices of public dialogue. He told People & Science, `Ten years ago [we needed] more opportunities for public engagement [and citizen participation]. Now there are plenty of opportunities for participation. The problem is that the quality of those processes is not as high as many would like. [One-off events] often become a forum for shallow exchanges, rehearsed argument and there is very little learning involved. Moving to a more long-term sustained process makes sense.’

Toolkit

Patrick Middleton explained: `We’re creating a toolkit of public engagement bits and bobs.’ Schools materials are already online, and the full kit will be available by mid-2012, he says. ‘Our scientists are really keen to go out and talk about bioenergy. So we’re expecting the research community to pick up this toolkit and run with it themselves. Over the coming few months we’ll be releasing things for adult audiences as well. We’re working with the new economics foundation to develop a Democs game, for instance.’

Perry Walker, new economics foundation fellow, explained to People & Science: `Democs is a conversation kit.  It helps people have a conversation about complicated subjects like biofuels. [Democs packs] can either be used with a facilitator in organized events or… posted out for people to use with their friends around the kitchen table or down the pub.’

Facile?

Escobar agrees that Democs is useful but warns that the quality of the facilitation is crucial: `The tool per se doesn’t do the job. They do need to put some thought into creating some sort of coaching for facilitators and that’s not something that you necessarily can get from a toolkit.’

Walker agrees that Democs is not a panacea. `It’s a kit and people can always abuse it, but for me that’s offset by the flexibility and the freedom that people can do it for themselves,’ he said.

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor of People & Science
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