Newsletter October 2010
Message from the Executive Director
So, the rumours of massive cuts to the science budget in the spending review proved to be exaggerated, and the outcome - a "flat cash" settlement for four years - feels almost like a relief. After all, it's "only" likely to mean a 10% cut in real terms over that period, far less than the savage cuts announced in other areas. Having said that, there may be more cutbacks in the pipeline, since we do not yet fully know the fate of the departmental research budgets or HEFCE's quality-related (QR) funding.
Quite naturally the broader coverage of the cuts will focus on jobs, fairness and the economy. Here at CSaP we have a particular interest in what will happen to scientists and policy makers, the interactions between them, and the processes surrounding evidence-based policy making.
Clearly, more researchers are going to spend more and more time chasing less and less funding. As well as demonstrating excellence in their research, they are going to need to differentiate their proposals by mapping out the "pathways to impact" - including the impact on evidence-based policy and influence on public policies that the CSaP exists to facilitate. At the same time, with average cuts of nearly 20% over four years in the civil service, fewer and fewer policy makers are going to be bearing the load of understanding the evidence and incorporating its impact into policy. Those who are left carrying this burden will need efficient mechanisms for accessing the best scientific advice without having to invest in finding that expertise case by case. Which, of course, is where we come in, by linking scientists and policy professionals in academia, industry, and government; developing the skills of researchers to understand and explain the policy implications of their work; and providing the best advice at the right time and place, free at the point of use by the relevant policy makers.
The last ten years have seen the UK government make significant advances in the way it uses scientific evidence to inform the policy process. It would be a shame if the pressures on funding and time were to put this process into reverse, not least because ill-informed policy decisions can, ironically, be extremely expensive. How quickly could the costs of poor decisions eat into the savings made in the research budget? It would be good not to have to find out.
All of which thoughts bring us to the main points of this month's Newsletter. As well as summarising the discussion at our latest Policy Workshop (for a cross-departmental group on ecosystems), we announce our upcoming Distinguished Lecture on "The Future of Science in Parliament", in which Dr Evan Harris and Dr Julian Huppert will consider how the cuts will affect evidence-based policy making; and we invite your submissions to our programme to determine the key research questions about science and policy on which scarce resources should be most focussed. We also look forward to the visits of our next round of Policy Fellows, including senior civil servants who have been closely involved in the spending review and who will now bear the burden of policy making in its aftermath.
In this issue:
Dr Chris Tyler
The Future of Science in Parliament
The Centre for Science and Policy's fourth Distinguished Lecture - to be held at 17:00 on 19 November, at Murray Edwards College - will explore the role of science in Parliament through the first-hand accounts of two of the strongest parliamentary advocates of science over the past decade, Dr Evan Harris, former MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and Dr Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge.
Arguing that science is vital to Britain's future economic success, the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced that the science budget would be ring-fenced and protected from the worst cuts in the government's spending review; however, he still announced a real-terms reduction in the science budget of 10% over four years, and questions remain about £2 billion of other research funding and capital budget. Leading the lecture on 19 November, Dr Harris will give his perspective, from more than ten years in Parliament, on the key challenges that lie ahead in respect of science policy, government spending priorities and evidence-based policy making. Dr Huppert will give his own perspective and discuss how he hopes the government will meet these challenges.
To reserve your place, please email email@example.com.
What Price Biodiversity?
The Centre's latest Policy Workshop - The Values and Valuation of Natural Capital, organised jointly with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) and held at the Institute for Government on 13 October - brought together policy makers from Defra, DECC, CLG, DfE, BIS and DfT, alongside zoologists, economists, engineers, geographers and conservation scientists. The workshop was designed to introduce non-specialists from a range of departments within Whitehall to the concept of "ecosystems services" and the value of natural capital, drawing out the implications for different policy areas using examples from biofuels, fisheries, farming and urban planning.
There is a fragile balance between the different elements in many ecosystems. There are all too many examples of how we take marginal decisions to exploit ecosystems which appear at first to bring benefits, but which end up in huge net costs - such as the export of frogs from Bangladesh which led to an increase in insects and hence the importing of expensive insecticides; the clearing of forests in Ecuador which destroyed the water supply and left communities reliant on water trucks; or the escalation in food prices after agricultural capacity was diverted to biofuels. Individuals may benefit in the short term, but societies pay the price in the longer term, particularly in poorly understood systems in which irreversible "tipping points" can be reached. TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity - a multidisciplinary study reporting to the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Japan this month) has estimated that natural capital is being lost at the rate of US$2-4.5 trillion per year.
The discussion covered many controversial questions. Should we remove the idea of "place" from conservation decisions - that is to say, provided that overall ecosystems are maintained, does it matter if a particular location is not conserved? Is the concept of "biodiversity offsets" credible? How can we trade off short term gain versus long term sustainability? Would it matter if there were no fish in the sea as long as there were lots in fish farms? With the right interdisciplinary and interdepartmental approach, is it possible to foresee the costs and identify real benefits of sustainably managing ecosystems?
Commenting after the workshop, Graham Pendlebury (Director, Environment and International, Department for Transport) emphasised the value of the dialogue between researchers and policy makers: "The workshop was an enjoyable and stimulating event, and it was fascinating to hear the differing perspectives of civil servants and expert academics on matters of common interest. The academics have the deep knowledge of the issues and problems; the civil servants have to convert this knowledge into workable policy proposals for ministers and the wider public, whilst meeting multiple wider objectives." The discussions will continue in the Natural Capital CIG's support for policy development in the "green economy" - particularly within Defra, for whom our next idea-generation workshop is planned for later in the year.
Science and Policy Studies
If you would like to help set a new research agenda by identifying key questions about the relationship between science and policy, you have until 10 December to submit your candidate questions. You'll then be invited to take part in a voting process to narrow down the list, ahead of a symposium in April 2011 which will decide on the final shortlist. We have already had an excellent response to our initial Call for Questions, but our objective is to gather suggestions from as wide a field as possible, to ensure that the broadest range of insights is captured.
The Key Research Questions Programme is based on a process which has previously been used with great success in the field of conservation biology. Our programme, which is being run by the Science and Policy Studies CIG, will seek to achieve a broad consensus on the key research questions about precisely how science influences policy (and vice versa), and how expertise is best engaged. We are seeking to include questions about the science-policy relationship as observed and conceptualised, as well as more normative questions about 'how it ought to be'. The only condition is that questions should be capable, at least in principle, of being addressed through research. The final list of questions will help establish a major research agenda in this increasingly important field. For more details, including criteria, example questions, and the submission process, please go to the Science and Policy Key Research Questions page on our website.