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22/09/2014

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The end of Departmental Chief Scientists?

Phil Willis stares into the abyss

In March 2010, the Science and Trust Expert group produced a report to ‘enhance society’s capabilities to make better-informed judgements about sciences and their uses in order to ensure that the “licence to operate” is socially robust.’

The group, jointly chaired by Dr Aileen Allsop from AstraZeneca and Dr Tony Whitehead, the joint head of science in government at the Government Office for Science, captured the spirit of the previous decade. Science had weathered storms over stem cells, admixed embryos, climate science, and use of animals by adopting a more transparent engagement with the public and politicians.

Robust culture

Interestingly, this marked shift in public attitudes to science was mirrored by a transformation in the way government and scientists engaged. The work of successive high-profile Government Chief Scientific Advisers (GCSA) such as Bob May, Sir David King and latterly Sir John Beddington, helped cement a culture of scientific advice right at the heart of government.

The evidence was clear. Over 70 independent scientific advisory committees were operational, and five major departments established Science Advisory Councils, to add weight to the work of a cadre of high-profile Departmental Chief Science Advisers (DCSA).

Treasury reticence

The one area in which a chief scientist was conspicuously absent was the Treasury. This was a surprising omission, as government policy saw science and technology leading the country out of recession. Ultimately, also, all significant spending had to gain Treasury approval.

However, when in June news leaked out that the Treasury had appointed James Richardson as their DCSA, there was an almost embarrassed silence. No press release, no casual mention on Twitter or Facebook – only a word of caution by an unknown official on Nature News blog, which said: ‘I want to stress that the post of the Chief Scientific Adviser will be taken alongside James’ current responsibilities as Director of Public Spending and the chief Micro economist at the Treasury.A clear indication that the role of Treasury Chief Scientist will hardly have priority in Mr Richardson’s already busy diary!

Absence and weakness

In fact this appointment has all the hallmarks of expediency rather than commitment. More worryingly, it appears to be part of a trend to row back from the achievement of having a DCSA in every government department. Currently the Departments of Transport, Business and Innovation, and Culture Media and Sport have no Chief Scientific Adviser – the latter without an appointment for a year. Other departments such as Education and Justice have tagged the role on to a civil servant’s main front line duty. And in the case of the Government Social Scientist, the post is now split between two civil servants in separate departments.

Another cause for concern is the recent report from the Commons Science and Technology Committee, on the government’s intention to wind down the Forensic Science Service.  Apart from criticising this aim, the Committee concluded: ‘We consider that the Home Office's Chief Scientific Adviser's satisfaction with his exclusion from the decision-making process and his failure to challenge the decision to be unacceptable.’ The Committee labelled the role of Sir Bernard Silverman, the Home Office CSA, as ‘a further demonstration of the ongoing weak scientific culture in the Home Office.’

At a time when scientific advice has never been more important than at the beginning of this, the ‘scientific century’, we need to strengthen and increase the level of scientific scrutiny, not rein back our efforts. Public confidence in both science and public policy is best served by continuing to provide strong evidence, proper assessment of risk and transparency of decision making. We pay lip service to scientific advice at our peril.

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Lord Willis of Knaresborough
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is Chair of AMRC and Member of House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
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