The Role of Science in Policy

28 April 2011


On 28 April, the Centre for Science and Policy and the Government Office for Science co-delivered a seminar in London on the role of science in policy. Introduced and chaired by Lord Willis of Knaresborough, we heard from two scientists who had moved into policy – Professor Brian Collins, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) & Department for Transport (DfT)and Dr Rob Sullivan, Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) – and two non-scientists who were working on science-related policy briefs – Marie-Anne Mackenzie, BIS and Graham Pendlebury, DfT.

Their differing perspectives of the policy process and the role of science in it challenged the audience's views on both. What was clear from the discussion was that the diversity of civil servants’ backgrounds is a strength of the system and that the science-trained and humanity-trained officials learn much from each other.

Professor Collins, Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at BIS and DfT, spoke about his experience of coming into policy as a CSA late in his career and taking responsibility for sourcing and channelling expert advice and providing a challenge function for the policy process. He explained the linkages between the network of CSAs, departmental work, cross-departmental work and how they relate to non-central government institutions such as the Research Councils and other institutions such as the academies, industry and the media. Professor Collins touched on the importance of 'status' in his role, highlighting that without it, access to the top of the policy chain in government or advisory system outside government would be limited.

Ms Mackenzie, Head of Manufacturing and Materials at BIS, is not a scientist by training but works in a policy area that relies heavily on evidence from scientists and engineers. In the Health and Safety Executive, for example, she worked in the chemical safety team, where she met head-on the challenges of translating scientific evidence into policy. Ms Mackenzie shared her experience of the steep learning curve required to understand the scientific issues, including risk and uncertainty, and how best to communicate them. She described policy as being about "making a commitment" and this inevitably led to some of the more caricatured interactions between policy makers and researchers, where the researchers frustrate the policy makers by attaching copious caveats to everything they say.

Graham Pendlebury, Director of Greener Transport and International at DfT, whose academic degree was in History, described himself as a "generalist" civil servant, responsible for policy portfolio characterised by enormous complexity, conflicting and evolving goals and huge quantities of data. His team includes engineers, economists, statisticians and scientists among others, who work together to convert uncertainty into definitive answers which are both politically and publicly acceptable. In addition to Ms Mackenzie's frustration with caveats, Mr Pendlebury also mentioned three additional advisory annoyances: matching evidence-based views to personal or political agendas, failing to consider costs and benefits (which he dubbed "impossible remedies"), and concluding that more research is required.

The final speaker, Dr Rob Sullivan, Head of Broadband Delivery UK at DCMS, worked in particle physics before moving across to the civil service. He spoke about the interdisciplinary nature of the civil service and how lots of different kinds of inputs were given equal weight, amongst them, scientific advice. Because of this culture, Dr Sullivan argued that scientists and engineers should show humility about their role in the policy process and work with the other professions – particularly the economists because "in policy, economics is God."

These forthright and insightful presentations provoked a lively discussion session that covered such topics as innovation, governance and research priorities and issues of communication, the role of CSAs as advocates and the importance of changing cultures and not creating new silos. Despite the obvious complexities of transferring scientific knowledge into the policy process and the often high-profile failures to do so, there is no doubt that a lot of "science-into-policy" takes place in the civil service, enacted with great skill by our policy makers.

Banner: Downing Street/Whitehall by nataliej

  • 28 April 2011

    Science on the Inside

    A joint event between CSaP and GO Science which will bring together scientists and policy professionals to explore the increasing impact of science on policy from the perspective of practitioners.