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Cash for CSAs: “Zero is not an option”

February 29, 2012
More money for scientific advice: coming soon to Whitehall?

More money for scientific advice: coming soon to Whitehall?

Today’s House of Lords report on the role of chief scientific advisers (CSAs) recommends that CSAs are allocated cash to spend on research. This money would not come from the government’s overall science spend, but would be sliced from each departmental budget.

Although many CSAs already have a budget, some do not – and the amounts vary hugely across Whitehall.

I spoke to Professor Brian Collins, former CSA at both the Department for Transport (DFT) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), about the recommendation. He told me that in DFT he had a “small budget” of about £2m and no money at all during his time at BIS.

“All departments ought to make a conscious decision as to what that budget should be,” Collins said, “and I don’t think any budget for any department should be zero.”

I also spoke to Lord Krebs, chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is publishing today’s report after an inquiry launched last July.

Krebs told me why he thinks it’s important for CSAs to be given cash: “Each CSA should have some discretionary money which they might want to spend on convening a group of experts or commissioning a small piece of research, to meet their immediate needs of providing input into policy.”

The extent of this contribution to the policy process is the question that the lords try to answer in their recommendations, which deal with more than just money. But the allocation and use of research spend is crucial to the role of science in policy, as demonstrated at one of the inquiry’s evidence hearings.

Department for Education CSA Carole Willis noted that when the coalition government formed a new education policy direction, she “had to change rapidly in terms of providing the underpinning evidence base”. To Krebs, this sounded like “policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy”.

At a later hearing, education minister Nick Gibb outlined how Willis’s team had collated international evidence and established an expert panel to analyse it. One might wonder whether the education policy would have developed differently if Willis had commissioned her own research designed to test the policy proposals – the kind of research the lords would apparently like to see.

Krebs and the committee fall short of recommending specific amounts or proportions of overall departmental budget that should be allocated to the CSAs.

But one thing is sure, Collins says: “Zero is not an option.”

Image courtesy of arn77aud.

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