Chief Scientific Advisers and Covid-19

22 March 2022


Chief Scientific Advisers

Reported by Ryan Francis, Affiliate PhD Student at Downing College, Cambridge, and Jessica Foster, CSaP Communications Coordinator

The Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) has launched a new podcast season discussing how science advice has been used by decision-makers in government. The series - hosted by the Centre’s Executive Director Dr Rob Doubleday - is a space where academics and policy experts can reflect on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. The podcast is delivered in collaboration with the research project Expertise Under Pressure, part of the Centre for the Humanities and Social Change at the University of Cambridge.

In the first episode, CSaP welcomes the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard Kennedy School in the U.S. They discuss the role of Chief Scientific Advisers, how science advice operates across different countries, and how scientific evidence has been used by governments across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Listen to the episode here:

Vallance begins by sharing what attracted him to apply for the role of Government Chief Scientific Adviser – a position he’s served since 2018 - and some of the challenges faced in the first couple of years in post. He explains that he was first interested in the civil servant role due to the breadth of science, the importance of expertise in government decision-making, and the prominence of science in everyday life. When he started the job however, Vallance soon discovered that science was variable and fragmented across government. While there were some pockets of excellence, science activity and expenditure were not consistently strong nor as influential as it could be. He instead wanted to make science “embedded within the system” and part of every operational and policy consideration, where appropriate, across Whitehall.

In his mission to help further embed science across government, Vallance soon launched the ‘Science Capability Review’, a report which investigated what the state of science was like across different governmental departments. To his surprise, he found that some departments were spending as low as a fraction of 1% on research and development (R&D). This revelation demonstrated the need for greater use of science expertise across government departments and the importance of a stronger evidence base for decision-making.

“That report has turned out to be a crucial blueprint… a benchmark for how we try and move science and engineering into the heart of government.” - Sir Patrick Vallance says in the podcast.

Professor Jasanoff – who recently received the 2022 Holberg Prize, among the world’s most prestigious recognition for her academic work in the humanities and social sciences – explains the history of the ‘Science Advisor’ role in the US. She says in comparison to the UK, the post has been far more entrenched and diversified. It was developed during World War II, with the Manhattan Project and the production of the atomic bomb. Furthermore, according to Professor Jasanoff, the role in the U.S has always been closely aligned with ‘harder science’, such as developing weapon systems, and only recently has it shifted towards medicine with the appointment of Dr Eric Lander.

With her international expertise, Professor Jasanoff then presents a comparison of chief advisory roles across Europe. She says that France, like Germany, have a very technocratic spirit guiding its high-level advisory processes, and Germany, notably, has long established advisory mechanisms and institutes that work closely with Parliament. Interestingly, Professor Jasanoff further explains that in Germany and France, the key difference is they might use the word “expert” and not “science” to describe a Chief Scientific Adviser. Vallance adds to this point by highlighting that the UK’s science advisory structure is very similar to countries including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, compared to India, where the science advice mechanism is also the person who controls the distribution research funding. Professor Jasanoff offers an explanation as to why there are perhaps subtle differences in the chief advisory models across the world. She argues that it not that science and technology has evolved to produce a universal model for how to funnel science advice into government. Instead, politics and pre-existing political structures is what has shaped the channels of science advice across different countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic

The podcast discussion then turns to the nature and practicalities both scientific advice and international collaboration has played during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vallance explains that he is in regular contact with other Science Advisers across Europe, the US, as well Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. He says they have been "extremely powerful and important links” during the emergence of new variants, such as the ‘Omicron’ variant first detected in the UK during November 2021. He advocates for forming these international channels of knowledge sharing, and says they significantly benefit learning and understanding across science and government decision-making.

Vallance and Professor Jasanoff both agree that navigating the scientific and political space has been very difficult – especially during times of crisis. Professor Jasanoff argues that “the two are interwoven in all kinds of ways.” She explains that in the US federal system, each state has a very different idea as to where science should stand in relation to government, and these disparities also exist within several European countries and Australia. Vallance agrees that these differing perspectives are also prevalent across the UK. For example, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has provided scientific and technical advice to support UK government decision-makers during emergencies, like the COVID-19 outbreak. While SAGE has always provided the UK government with advice during the pandemic, Vallance explains the four devolved nations respond to this advice differently as they act semi-autonomously.

As the episode draws to a close, Vallance highlights that the primary role of Chief Scientific Adviser is to be able to articulate uncertainty, frame and calculate central estimates, but also to identify what variables could cause a deviation from those estimates. Ultimately, the science advisory role must always be detached from decision-making and politics.

“My job is an advisory role, it’s not an operations role. It’s to give advice to help others make policy decisions, in the best way they can.” - Sir Patrick Vallance

Ryan Francis

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge