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Science advisers not getting through to Cameron & co.

October 26, 2011

When it comes to shaping policy, you would hope that the government would seek all the advice available to ensure that its time and money are directed towards proposals that are ethical, achievable and above all necessary. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of science and, with some of the finest research and brightest minds in the world right here in the UK, there can be no excuse not to call upon the wealth of information available.

This is the reason that the positions of chief scientific advisers (CSAs) were created. Advisers exist at different levels, such as Sir John Beddington, the government’s CSA, as well as those within particular departments, such as Carole Willis at the Department for Education.

The role of a CSA might, on first appearances, seem like a straightforward one. But are the CSAs living up to their title? And what’s in a name, anyway? Purse String Theory attended the House of Lords Select Committee meeting on the role of CSAs, and here sheds some light on their unseen role.

A title that begins with the word ‘chief’ can only mean that the holder is in a position of power, trusted implicitly and called upon to aid in the decision-making processes in Government. The CSAs are modern sages, relied on to provide independent advice whilst highly seated in the hierarchy of Whitehall.

However, the reality is much more complex, riddled with inconsistencies between the different departments that employ a CSA. Firstly, they don’t have a well-defined position within the structure of government. Theirs is a fluid role, moving constantly between the different levels of Whitehall. This has benefits, in that the CSAs should be able to communicate more easily with people in all of these levels. At the same time, it leads to difficulties in terms of where the responsibility of a CSA really lies.

Departmental CSAs have dual responsibilities: they have to manage the budget for research and ensure that they manage their teams effectively, whilst relaying information to ministers and consulting them over areas that require investigation.

Budget management is becoming increasingly difficult since the Comprehensive Spending Review, with funds spread thinly across projects that have to be prioritised according to a number of factors. One major factor will be the projected cost of any research, meaning that vital work may have to be delayed or abandoned because it is not financially viable relative to the overall departmental budget. Further problems arise when you either spend too much time with ministers, becoming ostracised from your department and line management duties, or if you spend too much time within the department and find yourself out of the loop, with nobody available to advise.

Secondly, the consultation of departmental CSAs is seen more as an add-on than an integral stage in the machinery of parliament. The Lords select committee suggested it is becoming a ‘check box’ which simply needs to be ticked, which can only lead to discord on both sides.

There are also question marks over the system of performance appraisal for CSAs.  These have been coupled with poorly outlined departmental targets, meaning that fund allocation and the process of project prioritisation is not consistent across Whitehall.

It is worth noting, however, that the aforementioned budget does include a small amount that each CSA can allocate to their own pet projects. This allows a department to conduct independent research that hasn’t been commissioned by government. For the Department of Education, these funds are in the region of £1m, though for other depts they will vary relative to the total departmental research budget (which for the DfE is currently around £10m).

Surely there can’t be any argument with the term ‘scientific’? After all, we are talking about individuals whose role is to offer advice in subject area of science. However, one of the major concerns arising from the Lords select committee is the priority in hiring CSAs with ‘hard science’ over ‘social science’ backgrounds.

When it comes to shaping policy, advice from CSAs will generally lead to decisions that are going to have an impact on a lot of people. Why, then, is there discrimination against researchers who specialise in sociology, psychology and economics? Rarely is there a piece of scientific research conducted that is completely devoid of a social element.

In order to advise, one must first be heard.

The point of hiring someone to the role of CSA is to have an independent scientific voice available whenever a situation calls for it. If CSAs are not called upon, or are sought too late in the parliamentary process to have any meaningful input, then their role is defunct.

Speakers at the hearing described a number of situations where a CSA has either not been consulted at all or has been brought in at such a late stage that they are unable to inform and suitably influence the decisions of ministers.

This can lead to over-optimistic policy that is not based on evidence and has a much higher possibility for failure. For instance, when the previous government proposed biometric ID cards, it later  emerged that they were not affordable given the limitations of the technology. Public money could have been saved by holding a short consultation with readily available CSAs, but this was frustratingly overlooked.

Another area for concern is the variability over the level of access that advisers have to their relevant secretary of state or ministers. Without easy access, a CSA cannot raise issues or offer an informed opinion. There are stark differences across the departments with how much contact CSAs have with ministers. This means there are gaps in knowledge and the passage of information is convoluted and unnecessarily complex.

The inconsistency across the departments is definitely a cause for concern. Sir John Beddington has tried to remedy some of these problems by starting a breakfast club where CSAs can get together and begin to develop a network that is more efficiently linked to provide a unified voice.

Some departments are performing better than others, with strong ties to ministers and a high level of control and responsibility. Others are lagging woefully behind and, if there is to be sound science informing Whitehall’s policies, it may start with strengthening the role of the CSA.

For more information on the evidence given to the select committee, check out the CaSE  report on science advice in Government.

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