Departmental science budgets not always controlled by CSAs
In his role as chief scientific advisers (CSA) to Defra, Bob Watson has £1 million with which to commission research on any issue containing science that he wishes to challenge. When GO Science worked on its foresight study of food and farming, Watson tested the robustness of its projected food prices. “I use my £1 million to challenge where I think there are significant uncertainties,” he said last October as he gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee during its inquiry into the role of CSAs.
The Lords eventually recommended that all CSAs are allocated “a dedicated, ring-fenced fund by their departments to enable them, where they judge necessary, to commission research or to convene groups of experts”.
The government has today agreed in principle that CSAs should have some research cash, which is not groundbreaking because most already do. But the government has ditched the Lords’ idea that all CSAs should be in charge of it. Here’s the government’s thoughts on the matter, from a statement issued today:
In some cases there is a central research budget for which the CSA is responsible, in other cases the research budget may be allocated direct to policy programmes with the CSA having an oversight role… flexibility is required and the case for a dedicated budget allocated to the CSA should be considered as part of these broader considerations of how overall research budgets are managed.
The government is at pains to say that CSAs should be able to convene experts and commission research. But would this be difficult for a CSA not in direct control of his or her budget?
Since CSAs are supposed to offer advice that is independent of the civil service and government, isn’t their ability to challenge policy by commissioning research undermined if the budget they have for that is already “allocated direct to policy programmes”?
The government agrees with the Lords that “CSAs should have a formal role in the decision making about departmental research spend”, but says the details will depend on the individual departments.
Reading the government’s response in full, it seems that while the Lords made some constructive recommendations on how to improve the functioning of the CSA network, they were too wide-reaching. Several times in its response, the government seems to say, ‘we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach’, which actually gets it hook from implementing some of the Lords’ proposals.
Image from UEA.