Culture clash - bridging the divide between science and policy

29 November 2012


The ‘Future Directions for Science Advice in Whitehall’ seminar series got off to a great start at the Institute for Government on 20 November. Chaired by Jill Rutter (IfG Director of Programmes) panellists addressed a number of issues such as how to balance different types of evidence and value judgements, the seniority of CSAs within government departments, and the role of the media and House of Lords. To see the seminar in full, please click on the link at the bottom of this page.

Mark Henderson (Director of Communications at the Wellcome Trust) began by pointing out that, among 650 MPs, there is only one PHD level research scientist, alongside a few engineers and two medical doctors. Looking more broadly, Henderson estimates that there were no more than seventy or eighty MPs who have a history of strong engagement with science. On a practical level, this means that government often manages and uses scientific evidence poorly when it is called upon in the policy making process. On a more intellectual level, this lack of appreciation of the scientific method also deprives government of a useful way of thinking about problems. Henderson also emphasised that science is not the only legitimate input to the policy process and will always require value judgments. The key is to be clear about the distinction between positive and normative information. In situations in which the available evidence leaves considerable uncertainty, politicians should see themselves as collectors of evidence, evaluating policy in order to build up the evidence base.

Chi Onwurah (Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, MP for Newcastle Central) began by praising some developments in the use of science in government in the last ten years or so including the introduction of Chief Scientific Advisors (CSA) in each department, the Government Office for Science and the Principles of Scientific Advice. Onwurah was however more pessimistic about the way science is valued in the UK. She cited evidence that 1/10 children say they have played down their ability in science for social reasons, perhaps to avoid bullying. In government, nine departments don’t include their CSA on the management board and DCMS recently took two years to fill the post after it became vacant. Onwurah urged learned bodies to be more publicly visible and engaged with scientific debates in Westminster and be prepared to challenge unscientific thinking by ministers.

Katrina Williams (Director General for Strategy, Evidence and Customers, Defra) talked about how productive her working relationships with scientists had been throughout her career at DEFRA, not least while negotiating the lifting of the export ban on British beef after the BSE crisis. Williams went on to offer a series of lessons based on her experience. Both scientists and non-scientists need to give each other permission to ask the ‘dumb’ questions, which often helps flush out flawed assumptions. Generalist civil servants also need to recognise that scientists often engage in heated debate with each other and what can look like a “bitter ding-dong” is actually perfectly healthy discussion! Williams also urged policy makers to invest significant time and resource up-front to ensure they are asking the right questions. Government should be smart about using, and integrating other people’s research in order to get the most from research budgets.

Professor Rod Smith (Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for Transport) emphasised that the division between the arts and scientists has been with us for decades and argued that a higher level of scientific understanding amongst the population as a whole was required to give people confidence to debate and challenge government policy. This generally low level of understanding has knock on effects in the world of journalism as well as government. Smith asked whose fault it was that there were not more engineers in parliament and laid the blame squarely on engineers themselves who need to get more involved in the political process.

This series of four seminars will look at ways in which government can make more effective use of scientists and scientific advice in the context of Civil Service reform and a move towards open policy making.

A shared initiative of five partners – the Institute for Government (IfG); The Alliance for Useful Evidence; the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP); SPRU and the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex University; and Sciencewise-ERC – it will stimulate fresh thinking and practical recommendations on future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall. The series will build towards the publication of a collection of essays, and a final conference on 18 April 2013, at which keynote speakers will include Sir Mark Walport (incoming Government Chief Scientific Adviser) and Sir Bob Kerslake (Head of the Civil Service).

The next seminar in this series: Broadening the evidence base: science and social science in social policy will be held on 8 January and will be hosted by the Alliance of Useful Evidence at Nesta.