Scientific Advisors in front of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee

8 Sep

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Chief Scientific Advisor to the Treasury says: “You are in the dark without scientific method and data analysis”.

Yesterday, Professor Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Dr James Richardson, the newly appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Treasury, gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. This evidence session follows the publication of the Government Office for Science Annual Review earlier this summer, in which it was claimed that “2010 lived up to its titles of ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ and ‘Year of Science’.”

Professor Beddington highlighted how positive he felt about the progress that was being made, particularly praising the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for its Foresight program and particularly the Future of Food and Farming project, which has been internationally recognised. Foresight is now looking at international migration in relation to environmental factors, and will report on this in the autumn, as well as the future of computer trading in financial markets.

On what had changed since he took on the position in 2008, Professor Beddington noted that the installation of Chief Scientific Advisors in every government department (although there are currently vacancies at BIS, the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport) now included the Treasury, with Dr Richardson’s appointment this summer. Professor Beddington said that when he came into the post enquiries often had to go unanswered because of a lack of capacity, and there was a sense that science and engineering had lost its way in government.

On the subject of the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), an area of particular concern for the Biochemical Society, Professor Beddington referred to the fact that we are still waiting for the Government’s latest response. However, he said he would look into doing some substantial subsequent analysis on the loss of scientists from the industry, and might be able to report on this in May or June. He expressed concern over making decisions – such as closing the FSS – on financial grounds with limited consultation, but was reluctant to comment on the implications of the closure before the Home Office responds on whether capability would be maintained. He also indicated that he would look into the figures of how many scientists had left the UK in total since the comprehensive spending review settlement.

There was praise for the Home Office from Professor Beddington on the way Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, reports directly to the permanent secretary and controls large portions of the budget. Furthermore, he reported on the incorporation of the Principles of scientific advice to government in the ministerial code by the coalition, and said that he and the other science advisors felt reassured by this. These were developed following the furore that accompanied Professor David Nutt’s sacking as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009.

Dr Richardson, making his first appearance before the Committee, made positive comments about the progress that had been made. He asserted that it made sense for the Chief Scientific Advisor to be a Treasury economist, as the aim of the position is to link economics with the broader scientific community, and that economics is the predominate science in the Treasury. What was particularly encouraging was his comment that the need for science and engineering expertise is ubiquitous in government. “You are in the dark without scientific method and data analysis”, he said, as this is the primary way of providing evidence. He further remarked that knowledge of aspects of science leads to better decision making directly, citing an example as the relationship between climate change and the world economy.

Acknowledging the huge impact the Treasury has on science, both Professor Beddington and Dr Richardson were very positive about the new position, with the Treasury now vitally linked in with the rest of the science advisory network, with the wider advisory community feeding into Dr Richardson’s economic expertise. Dr Richardson said that the Treasury continues to generate policy-informing research through relationships with non-governmental bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council, but that he had already made cases for where primary research by the Treasury could solve problems.

How will the landscape change with a Treasury Chief Scientific Advisor? Dr Richardson said that his role would focus less on individual projects, but more on promoting better standards of method, evidence and analysis in the Treasury. As he confidently put it, there are probably no situations where this wouldn’t be beneficial: “There may be things to which science is irrelevant but I struggle to see what they are.”

You can watch the full meeting (1h 40m) here.

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