What is the significance of science to Government?

28 June 2018


A lecture by Dr Patrick Vallance, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser

Reported by Rebecca Van Hove, Policy Fellowships Administrator

Patrick Vallance kicked off the Centre for Science and Policy’s Annual Conference with a keynote speech, just eleven weeks after starting his new role as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

You can listen to his talk here:

Dr Vallance made use of the occasion to set out his vision for a scientific civil service. Citing a white paper from 1945 with the title ‘a scientific civil service’, he showed how already in the post-war period there was a belief that scientists should have a bigger role to play in government. Nowadays this need is even larger, as the reach of science in our everyday lives and in the work of the government continues to grow.

A civil service which is scientific should be so in a broad sense, Dr Vallance argued, by setting out four key areas which demonstrate the crucial significance of science to government:

  • Policy-making: ensuring that we have evidence-based policies and can evaluate the impact of policies requires science
  • National resilience: in the security space, as well as in the face of natural challenges, we need the advice of science fed into government
  • The economy: to grow the economy we need science and innovation at the heart of decision-making
  • Citizens: most importantly and fundamentally, science should improve and enrich people’s lives and keep people safe. To take a lens where policy decisions based on science feeds into what citizens need is crucially important. As Dr Vallance demonstrated, as citizens we are all users of science: whether in information searching, healthcare needs, or communication, for example, there is an ubiquitous need for science in daily life. Secondly, however, we also ought to be demanders of science. Framing science as a problem-solving tool is critical, as science can be seen as a way of solving problems. Thirdly, we also are participants of science as citizens.

Dr Vallance addressed a number of problems which can stand in the way of creating links between science and policy-making. The first is that science can portray the idea that it is impenetrable, difficult and only for an elite few. This is a perception we need to fight against.

Second, the way in which questions are framed often prevents us from recognising that a scientific solution might be possible. The ability to frame questions in a more productive manner often requires an understanding of scientific method in those responsible for policy-making.

Thirdly, we must be aware of the dangers of the idea that scientists are automatically right: what we need is reliance on evidence-based and rigorous scientific processes.

Dr Vallance demonstrated a way of helping to prevent such problems by raising the example of good evidence synthesis. Evidence synthesis involves bringing together current research in a way that is timely and useful and understandable, so that it can be used effectively by policy makers. Evidence synthesis needs diverse inputs to be effective – having policy makers around the table, the people who will be the recipients of the work, helps get the framing of the questions right. Furthermore, good evidence synthesis needs to be rigorous, robust, free of bias and transparent: science advances through self-correction, Dr Vallance argued, so it is important to recognise that science often is about what we do not know as much as about what we do know.

In order to encourage science and its impact on policy-making, Dr Vallance also talked about the importance of investing in a strong research base. The government has said it will increase funding in Research and Development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Dr Vallance emphasised the importance of private sector investment in R&D too. Furthermore, he argued, R&D are often spoken of as one word – yet they are not the same thing. We need to be clearer how much we want to spend on research and how much we mean to spend on development, Dr Vallance argued: it is important to set a strategic framework which fundamentally develops research.

Concluding his lecture, Dr Vallance highlighted again how crucial it is to frame questions in the right way, in order to open the door for science to provide solutions to societal problems. He showed the role of the government’s Industrial Strategy within this. The Industrial Strategy sets out challenges which we need to address, such as for example clean growth, or an aging society. It encourages the development of science as a way of tackling these challenges: one illustration is, for example, encouraging investment in the development of artificial intelligence techniques for early diagnosis and preventative medical care.

Making science relevant as a societal good is key and, as Dr Vallance accentuated, can only be achieved by encouraging diversity within the fields of science and creating a system which is flexible enough to allow for networks and connections between the private, public and academic sectors.

Sir Patrick Vallance

Natural History Museum