Newsletter March 2010
Welcome to the seventh newsletter from the Centre for Science and Policy - the University of Cambridge's initiative to strengthen relationships between policy makers and experts in science and engineering. In this issue:
- Around the science policy world in 50 minutes
- Building the Whitehall bridgehead (III)
- CSaP's Executive Director appointed
- CSaP news in brief:
- Upcoming lectures and seminars
- Whitehall placements
- Centre Interest Group news
Around the science policy world in 50 minutes Attendees at the CSaP's second Distinguished Lecture were taken briskly through 50 years of science policy research in 50 minutes as Professor Ben Martin, Associate Fellow of the Centre and former Director of SPRU, led them on a whistle-stop tour of the twenty key "steps forward" that have been made in the field. Drawing on 35 years of his own experience, he highlighted advances in the understanding of innovation, the economic rationale for intervention, the analogies with biological evolution, the role of networks in national systems of innovation, and the "triple helix" (the interaction of universities, industry and government). Several times he returned to the debate between two linear models - the "science push" model (much favoured by scientists), and the "demand pull" model whereby changes in market demand call forth innovation. He showed how studies of the roots of innovation have supported the "science push" model when very long time-scales (a century or more) are considered, but have favoured "market pull" over shorter periods (20 years or less). He also highlighted the more recent recognition that the process is a non-linear "chain", at once complex, dynamic and interactive. More...
Building the Whitehall bridgehead (III)The Centre completed its series of Whitehall Consultations at the Royal Society in London on 4 March, continuing the process of building the bridgehead in the policy community begun in January and February. Challenged by a Permanent Secretary's question - "to what problem is CSaP the solution?" - the meeting considered how the Centre can make a difference by bringing together people across departments and disciplines to create engagement and discussion that could not otherwise happen in Whitehall. Scientific advice is available in many different ways, but some "cross-cutting" issues need expertise which is not available within particular departments. Similarly, some issues require a multi-disciplinary approach from the scientific community. The Centre has the opportunity to break free from the great botanical legacy of classification, separation and compartmentalisation, and create an innovative environment for talking, listening and sharing stories "in a bubble", away from the political constraints and sensitivities of the daily Whitehall routine. There is a role for a third party hub able to convene the different constituencies - both the most and the least scientifically-driven departments, together with the Treasury, policy-influencers and scientists from industry, and the top researchers from Cambridge and academia worldwide. The most difficult issues, after all, do not sit within the remits of single departments, and it needs to be possible to engage with "unknown unknowns" and determine where uncertainty is of relevance to policy making. More...
CSaP's Executive Director appointed The Centre for Science and Policy is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr Chris Tyler as its Executive Director. Chris will be joining us from the House of Commons, where he has been science adviser to the Science and Technology Select Committee for the past three years. During this time he guided Committee inquiries into scientific advice in government and science funding, and was the architect of the IUSS Committee's major report on engineering. A keen advocate of evidence-based policy, Chris also pioneered the Science and Technology Committee's "Evidence Check" programme.More...
Around the science policy world in 50 minutes (cont.)
Professor Martin also considered what has been learned over the years about how research influences policy - particularly from SPRU's ground-breaking work on research assessment and science indicators. Key lessons concerned the moral dilemmas confronting all science policy researchers, who must strike a balance between rigorous objectivity and the need to engage with the practical political context. He recalled highlights such as Margaret Thatcher declaring "we'd better give them an extra £100 million", and a new Minister's readiness both to listen to - and then claim credit for - new ideas. He also recalled setbacks, such as the choice of subtitle for the first Foresight report, Picking the Winners, which pressed all the wrong buttons at the highest political levels. Product champions, he argued, are essential at the highest level, but for them the work must often be condensed to two pages; just as important is working with the "Level 5" civil servants who do the hard work, and preparing the ground for serendipity - "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity".
In his conclusions, Professor Martin emphasised the complexity of the processes whereby science influences policy, and stressed the need for perseverance: it's wrong to expect many "direct hits", but legitimate to look for evidence of "knowledge creep". The impact of science, technology and innovation, he argued, is inherently difficult to measure. Attempting to capture the complexities in a multidimensional approach may be prohibitively costly and time consuming, but equally, simple practical measures create too many opportunities for academics to "game" the outcomes. The lively discussion that ensued ranged across the role of the media in the GM debate; the recent climate science controversies; the differences between the UK model for research funding and other models; the risks of short-termism in decision-making; and whether it helps for policy-makers to have scientific backgrounds. Professor Martin observed how few do, and how the best of them move around rapidly within the policy community; but he also argued strongly that people should move between sectors (industry, government and academia) much more than is typically the case in the UK, though it is more common elsewhere.
See the the CSaP website for a link to Professor Martin's slides and the video of his lecture and the Q&A.
Building the Whitehall bridgehead (III) (cont.)
Participants in the meeting emphasised the value of fresh perspectives and independent views, particularly in the early stages of policy formation, and the need to engage with blue sky research into fundamental phenomena. Brian Collins (CSA in BIS and the Department for Transport) cited the example of basic research in quantum optics carried out within the Ministry of Defence; in response, David Cleevely (Founding Director of CSaP) argued that failing to spot the relevance of phenomena such as quantum entanglement and its relevance to encryption could lead not only to missed opportunities for economic exploitation, but also to profound security and other risks. Whitehall, as the senior civil servants emphasised, is increasingly open to engaging in such discussions - concerns over revealing vulnerabilities would once have kept such debates closed, but the benefits of sharing problems and insights are now recognised. The meeting also welcomed the CSaP's proposals to generate a shortlist of the "25 key questions" about how scientific evidence can and should influence policy, and to play the long game by developing relationships with the young civil servants who will be the leaders in policy making in twenty or thirty years.
The conclusions from the Whitehall consultations will now feed into the design of the Centre's workshop and fellowship programmes in the coming months. Both the Policy Fellows Programme (bringing civil servants to Cambridge for brief intensive visits with long-term follow-on) and the Whitehall placements programme (seconding academics into the civil service for focussed projects) will be designed around the clear demand requirements emerging from these discussions. At the same time, the Centre and its Interest Groups will seek early opportunities to run cross-cutting workshops of the kind which policy makers are clearly keen to engage with.
CSaP's Executive Director appointed (cont.)
Chris has a broad range of expertise on the relationships between science and policy, and his advice has been sought internationally, including in Uganda, Canada and New Zealand, where he will spend April working with the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. Before the House of Commons, Chris worked for Sense About Science where he managed and developed the charity's extensive network of scientists and promoted science in public debates on issues as diverse as climate change, chemicals, alternative medicines and nuclear power. Chris has a degree in anthropology from the University of Durham and a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Cambridge.
Chris will take up his post on 5 May. Welcoming the appointment, David Cleevely, CSaP's Founding Director, commented: "Chris's arrival is a key step in building the network between the scientists and engineers in Cambridge, and the policy makers in Whitehall and Westminster. His experience and his enthusiasm will both be critical in bringing the parties together, and in identifying the issues around which they will engage." Chris added: "I am delighted to be joining the Centre for Science and Policy. It is no exaggeration to say that our future depends on the relationship between government and science; between policy makers and academics. The Centre will play a vital role in forging these relationships."
CSaP News in Brief
Distinguished Lecture Series. The third event in the CSaP's distinguished lecture series will be given on 7 June 2010 by the journalist and broadcaster Sarah Mukherjee, until recently the BBC's Environment Correspondent, under the title Our Easter Island Moment: is it already too late to save the environment? The lecture will focus on the need for leadership and strategic thinking in policy-making for the environment, and on the role of academic learning, the media and government in advancing - or failing to advance - the agenda. Attendance at the CSaP's lectures and seminars is by invitation only, but interested members of the University are invited to contact us.
Associate Seminar Series. The second event in the CSaP's Associate Seminar Series (date to be confirmed) will discuss Working on the Inside - opportunities for scientists to work inside policy making. There are many such opportunities, from short term placements and projects, through sabbatical secondments, all the way to becoming a Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser. The seminar will convene a panel of academics with direct experience of such engagements, who will discuss what they have learned about "how it really works", how the relevance of their research to policy making has been clarified, and how their presence inside Whitehall has contributed to the understanding of what universities are for.
Lecture on evidence-based policy. Dr Miles Parker, Deputy CSA at DEFRA, will address a meeting on Science and Policy on 14 May, under the title Evidence-based policy making: how can government be an intelligent user of science? The lecture will be held at 8 Mill Lane (Seminar Room 1), from 5.00-6.00, followed by questions and debate, and there will be networking opportunities at the post-lecture drinks reception in Darwin College. The event is supported by the Darwin College Student Association (DCSA) at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change and Mitigation Research (4CMR) as well as CSaP. For registration and further information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Placement programme. The CSaP is seeking academics interested in working in Whitehall during July, August and September as part of its placement programme. Projects will be agreed in advance with senior officials in the civil service, and would typically cover questions such as "what is the evidence base for a particular policy proposal?" If you would like to know more please contact us with details of your research interests and availability.
Potential Centre Interest Group on Innovation. The CSaP and the UK Innovation Research Centre are working together to design a seminar and workshop on "the myths of innovation policy", which will consider how the process of innovation is understood by policy makers, and examine the evidence supporting or challenging different models of the process. The CSaP's consultations among policy makers have highlighted this as a key topic; researchers with relevant areas of interest are invited to contact us.
That is the question... The Centre Interest Group on Science and Policy Studies will hold a convener's meeting in April to explore an approach that has been successfully adopted in environmental science (led by Professor Bill Sutherland) - identifying the questions that the community of researchers and policy makers consider important but unanswered. The CIG will be considering how this approach can be applied to the study of the science-policy process itself.
A debt of gratitude. CSaP would like to thank the David Harding Foundation and the Isaac Newton Trust for their donations which made the Centre's creation possible.