Working on the inside

15 June 2010


What role can the Centre for Science and Policy play in cultivating and nurturing scientists with an ability and passion for communication and policy?

Scientists who go to work in government enter a world very different from academia explained a panel of CSaP Associates at our second Associate Seminar chaired by Professor Lynn Gladden pro-VC for Research on 14 June. But it is worth learning how the civil service works and policy is made because there is much to be achieved both in terms of promoting evidence-based policy and generating impact from research.

Professor Michael Kelly the former Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at the Department of Communities and Local Government described the challenges that scientists face when working in the civil service. He noted that “the first language of Whitehall is economics” and contrasted the way in which economics start with a “100% perfect market” hypothesis and work down while engineers start with a “0% efficiency” hypothesis and work up. He also emphasised that because civil servants move regularly from post to post there is relatively little specialist knowledge in large parts of government; and because government pre-programmes its schedule of policy announcements advice has to be on time or it is worthless.

Dr Rob Doubleday a geographer was posted with the Government Office for Science for a year. He spoke about the placement as an exceptional opportunity to learn about how government works in practice. For example the short deadlines to which civil servants work to provide analysis and advice. He found that building personal relationships with relevant policy makers helped him understand the policy and political constraints within which they work. Rob is now developing new research on the relationship between expertise and the policy process building on insights and contacts from his year in government.

Dr Eoin O’Sullivan was seconded to BIS’s Science and Research Group to work on the relationship between the UK’s public research base and the economy. The results of this project were presented to a range of stakeholders including colleagues from the Treasury. He highlighted the tension between the need to articulate a clear and simple policy message and a scientist’s instinct to point out all due caveats. He commented on the consequent need for care in framing research findings to ensure that they continue to be used in context once they have been handed over to others. He also emphasised that once he became known to the civil servants working around him he was often approached with questions unrelated to his actual secondment project. Many useful interactions with BIS colleagues – opportunities to help and inform their endeavours – actually arise from informal conversations around the coffee machine.

The last of the panellists Professor Frank Kelly former CSA at the Department for Transport explained that he had been surprised to discover that scientists were more like politicians than civil servants in several respects: for example CSAs are perfectly happy to speak publicly on scientific issues while career civil servants usually avoid attaching their names to public statements. This gives CSAs an extremely important role in government acting as the public voice of evidence in advance of policy choices and helping to ensure that policy decisions are well informed. He described how putting evidence into the public domain can prepare the ground for a policy change and help make it acceptable.

The panellists’ presentations sparked a lively discussion among the fifty-strong audience under the Chatham House Rule covering the relationship between CSAs and ministers CSAs and civil servants CSAs and their colleagues in academia – and between the CSAs themselves and the departments. The audience and the panellists discussed how CSAs fit into departmental structures and whether they have a role signing off policy; how the US model of greater professional flexibility between academia industry and government might be promoted in the UK; the role of lobbyists media and the public in policy formation; the interactions between evidence policy and politics; and the fate of the Council for Science and Technology.

One line of discussion tackled the issue of succession planning: where is the next generation of CSAs going to come from? What role can the Centre for Science and Policy play in cultivating and nurturing scientists with an ability and passion for communication and policy? Much of the work we do is focussed in this area not only by supporting the Centre Interest Groups through which scientists can engage with and learn from policy makers but also by providing opportunities for scientists to work in government and for policy makers to spend time in the University meeting scientists (through our Policy Fellowship programme).

We are planning to run a similar seminar in London later this year to pursue these discussions further.

Banner image: Springs by Peter Miller