We marked the success of the Centre so far, the New Year, and the launch of our Annual Report with a Reception in the Old Schools in Cambridge on 11 January.
This brought together 170 members of our Network to hear from the Founding Director of the Centre, Dr David Cleevely, the University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington.
David Cleevely spoke first, giving a brief history of the Centre and explaining the evolutionary process by which we arrived at our programme of activities: the Centre Interest Groups and their Policy Workshops, the Policy Fellowship Programme, the Professional Development Programme, and the Centre’s broader network-building activities. He thanked our sponsors, both those who provide financial support – David Harding’s Winton Foundation, the Isaac Newton Trust and the University – and the many people listed in the Annual Report who have contributed their time and expertise to the Centre over the past 18 months.
Sir Leszek spoke next, reminding the audience that there is more and more research being produced whose results are relevant to policy. He recalled an MRC-funded clinical trial to explore whether laboratory tests are needed to deliver anti-retroviral drugs. The answer, after £14 million of public money and another £13 million from industry, was ‘no’, which suggested an obvious mechanism to increase treatment by 30 per cent. However, the results “hit the policy agenda without proper integration into the original nature of the trial”, and so failed to bring about a change in policy.
Sir Leszek congratulated the Centre on its “great start”, and emphasised that we are in a strong position moving forward. Research in the sciences and engineering, he said, has the potential to shape the future of public policy; he challenged us to go even further in supporting the meeting of minds between researchers and public policy decision-makers.
Sir John, the final speaker of the evening, gave the audience a thoughtful and witty tour of his time as the Government’s premier science adviser. He noted that the scale of his responsibilities – for all aspects of science and engineering advice, as head of profession for the several thousand scientists and engineers across government, and as head of the Government Office for Science – was “frankly absurd”. But he pointed out the significant successes he has had during his tenure – for example, persuading the Government to appoint Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) for almost all the major Departments. His CSAs are now advising on nearly every aspect of public policy. He gave the particular example of the Science Advisory Group and Emergencies (SAGE), which he chairs; recent situations in which it has provided key advice include the swine flu epidemic in April 2009, and the volcanic ash eruption in April 2010. (Noting these dates, he quipped: “I’m not looking forward to April 2011!”)
Sir John also recalled the 2008 Council for Science and Technology report on policy and academia, which suggested, among other things, that both sides need to be more professional in their interactions with the other. This, he said, is where the work of the Centre for Science and Policy is so valuable – bringing professionalism to the interactions between researchers and policy makers. He congratulated the Centre on an exciting and effective beginning, reiterated that he looked forward to working with us in the future – for example, the joint CSaP/GO-Science seminar scheduled for April – and expressed his hope that we would continue to promote collaboration between researchers and decision makers.
We were extremely grateful for the time given by Sir Leszek and Sir John, and flattered and energised by their kind comments. However, most important of all was that large numbers of researchers and policy makers turned out to show their support for what we are doing and to engage in discussions with one another. We were delighted to hear the feedback from all those who used the event to make new contacts as well as to reconnect to old colleagues and acquaintances – precisely what the Centre for Science and Policy is all about. As Sir Leszek pointed out, “the questions and issues surrounding science and policy are too big for any one person to tackle, but together we can make a global difference.”
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