Nature commentary on Chief Scientific Advisers
The UK model of Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) is currently the focus of considerable international attention. For example, New Zealand appointed Peter Gluckman as its first Chief Scientific Adviser in 2009. In Europe, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, announced in December 2011 that molecular biologist and former CSA to the Scottish government Anne Glover would be Europe’s first CSA.
In Japan, as part of a package of reforms proposed in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, the Cabinet Office set out plans in December 2011 for an overhaul of the scientific advisory system. Again, the UK model has been influential and Japan plans to install CSAs to the Prime Minister and other ministers.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced in April that he will appoint a CSA to the U.N. as one of a broad package of reforms designed to strengthen the international governance of sustainable development, recommended ahead of the Rio+20 summit in June 2012.
In a recent commentary published in Nature, Robert Doubleday (CSaP's Head of Research) and James Wilsdon (University of Sussex) argue that while the UK model has many strengths, care needs to be taken when transplanting it into different political contexts. They recommend stronger international networks for the emerging cadre of CSAs to exchange ideas and learn from comparative experience of scientific advice.
Doubleday and Wilsdon make four recommendations for building on the current interest in the CSA model of scientific advice. First, a focus on the credentials and character of individual CSAs; which, whilst important, needs to be more evenly balanced alongside the mix of skills, structures and staff that are essential for high quality scientific advice.
Second, there needs to be greater recognition of the contribution that different disciplines and perspectives make to an effective advisory system. Advisory systems need to recognise the importance of politics in science, in shaping what counts as evidence and authority, as much as the importance of science in politics. And the plural and conditional nature of knowledge must be acknowledged.
Third, the theory and analysis of scientific advice needs to better inform its practice. There is now a wealth of empirical research into how advisory processes operate; while a recent exercise led by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy sought to identify the most pressing questions. Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of science and technology studies at Harvard Kennedy School argues that ‘the quest for good science in public decision-making cannot be divorced from deeper reflection on the ways in which democracies should reason.’ CSAs would benefit from more systematic processes of learning and reflection.
Finally, stronger international networks are required for CSAs to exchange ideas. The main forum is currently the Carnegie Group of Science Advisers, which was established in 1991 to enable CSAs and science ministers from the G8 nations to meet annually, and which has recently expanded to include Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. A more open global network is now required. In a welcome step towards this goal, the CSA of Quebec recently invited all CSAs to a meeting in Montreal in October 2012.