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Tapping into science

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IT may be because it had been bloodied by the experiences of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease but, compared with other government departments, Defra has taken the way in which it develops science policy pretty seriously in recent years. Indeed, in 2006 the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, in a report that was otherwise fairly critical of the government's use of scientific advice, held up Defra as ‘an exemplar of good practice in terms of its advisory system’, while similarly commending the independent Food Standards Agency for ‘having set the standard’ for openness and transparency in decision making (VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 725).

The select committee's praise for Defra's approach was based largely on its then fairly novel decision to establish a Scientific Advisory Council to support the work of its chief scientific adviser, a decision the committee felt should be emulated by other government departments, not all of which even had a chief scientific adviser at the time. The Scientific Advisory Council still exists, although it was reconstituted last year following a review. Meanwhile, Defra has just announced the appointment of a new chief scientific adviser, to replace Professor Sir Bob Watson, who is leaving Defra after five years in the post.

The new incumbent is to be Professor Ivan Boyd, who, since 2001, has been director of the Scottish Oceans Institute and the Sea Mammal Research Institute at the University of St Andrews. Commenting on his appointment, which he will take up in September, Professor Boyd said: ‘There are substantial future challenges ahead in biosecurity, food security and in responding to the effects of climate change, but the UK is well placed to meet these challenges. It has excellent scientific research, and I look forward to helping stimulate this research community to even greater things in future.’

Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State at Defra, commented: ‘Scientific evidence is absolutely crucial at Defra and helps us to make the right decisions on how to protect and improve the environment’. She said she looked forward to working with Professor Boyd to ‘continue the department's reputation for scientific excellence.'

The need to ensure that science is fully embedded in departmental decision-making structures seems self-evident and one would have thought that, given all the debate on this subject over the years (see, for example, VR, March 5, 2011, vol 168, p 224), this would now be the case. However, judging from a recent report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on the role of chief scientific advisers*, there is still considerable variation between government departments and still scope for improvement.

It is interesting to read, for example, that the Treasury only got around to appointing its first chief scientific adviser in June last year, and that the committee's inquiry was partly prompted by concerns about the role and status of chief scientific advisers in some departments. These included a proposed downgrading of the post at the Ministry of Defence, as well as extended vacancies in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Transport and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The committee also reports having received evidence of ‘obstacles’ that chief scientific advisers can encounter when seeking to inform the policymaking process, and that some advisers had only limited access to ministers. It says it was not its intention to question the overall effectiveness of the system of chief scientific advisers, which, it points out, has much to commend it. However, its report does tend to reinforce the impression that, in some parts of Whitehall at least, Sir Winston Churchill's maxim that ‘Scientists should be on tap, but not on top’ still applies.

The committee identifies a number of characteristics – both institutional and personal – that are necessary to allow chief scientific advisers to operate effectively, and makes a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening their role across government.

As in the House of Commons select committee's report in 2006, Defra comes out rather better from the House of Lords report than many other government departments. This, to an extent, is reassuring. The report is primarily concerned with ensuring that chief scientific advisers have enough clout in their departments to be able to fulfil their roles effectively, although the point is rightly made that decisions rest with ministers. Given the nature and scale of the challenges falling within Defra's remit, and the crucial role of science in helping to solve them, its chief scientific adviser needs all the clout he can get.

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