Science advice and government: one voice or many?

17 March 2022


Science advice and government: one voice or many?

Reported by Victor Lovic, CSaP Policy Intern

Which scientific voices are heard in government? How does one voice or many shape information that is informing decision making? What structures and institutions have evolved over recent decades to try and make that process more open, more diverse, and more robust?

The fifth season of CSaP’s Science & Policy Podcast is focussing on how science advice, data and evidence are used by decision makers in government. The Centre's Executive Director and Podcast Host, Dr Rob Doubleday, was recently joined in an episode titled 'One Voice or Many', by Jon Agar, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at UCL, and Dr Claire Craig, Provost at The Queen's College, Oxford.

Listen to the podcast episode here:

Historical perspective: science policy under Thatcher

Prof. Agar provides a historical perspective on how science policy has changed since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s. In many ways, he notes, the science policy of Thatcher’s government was similar to ours today: she had a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and scientific committees. Her government likewise faced issues that required a scientific understanding of the world: the AIDS pandemic, the use of embryos in medical research, and emergencies like the Chernobyl disaster.

Prof. Agar notes that for much of the Thatcher administration, the CSA was very influential. He argues however, the last CSA under Thatcher, John Fairclough, was less so. It was explained that Fairclough had very little access to Thatcher during the later years of her premiership, and instead a member of the No. 10 policy unit, George Guise, had a larger influence on Thatcher’s science policy. Guise had an interest in science policy and was of the belief that the government should not try to influence the research agenda of scientists. He presented examples of when investment in basic research led to unpredictable breakthroughs and concluded that the government should fund basic research - but not try to direct it. Prof. Agar says that science policy changed as a result: money was pulled away from “near market research” and consequently the government lost its ability to steer the economy through investments in technology and applied research. The lesson that he draws is that with science policy, it is essential to have an open conversation where many voices are heard.

GO-Science Foresight programme

Dr. Craig led the establishment of the Government Office for Science Foresight programme, which develops reports on policy-relevant issues with significant science and futures components. Dr. Craig explains that when she joined the civil service, there was a strong distinction between “science for policy” and “policy for science”. For example, a scientist seen giving evidence for climate change at No. 10, while at the same time advocating for more money for their research, would be seen as suspicious. This distinction remains today, exemplified by two separate posts: the CSA, providing science advice to government, and another post to direct the research councils.

During the podcast, Dr. Craig says that the establishment of the GO-Science Foresight programme was due to, contrary to the science policy environment under Thatcher, a sense that no one person had all of the answer and there had to be other mechanisms for drawing upon different experts from a given field, as well as expertise from different fields. This, together with an influential CSA at the time, a willing No. 10 and support from certain members of parliament, allowed for the creation of the Foresight programme. Craig explains that the programme aims to cast a wide net in terms of which disciplines to draw expertise from, even from the social sciences and to some extent the humanities. Economics is mentioned in particular as an important perspective for government and especially the Treasury. The Foresight programme will have dialogues with the CSAs of different departments to understand the question and concerns that each department might have, so that they can prepare evidence relevant to those departments. The aim of a Foresight report is then to find consensus among the various perspectives being drawn upon, even if this consensus is about the uncertainty of a given issue.

Prof. Agar and Dr. Craig agree that for the most challenging policy issues, the whole spectrum of disciplinary perspectives, across the social sciences, into the humanities, as well as the sciences, have to be brought into the discussion. Agar concludes the discussion by summarising the lessons to be drawn from science policy in the 1980s: that good policy is done when there are many voices involved, looking at the issues from many different perspectives, and having them properly debated.

The podcast is delivered in collaboration with the research project Expertise Under Pressure, part of the Centre for the Humanities for Social Change at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Jon Agar

University College London (UCL)

Dr Claire Craig

Queen's College, Oxford

Victor Lovic

Imperial College London