What is the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Some people think the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in government is ‘to kick the door down’. No it isn’t; it’s to keep the door open to science. If a CSA finds themself locked out then they’ve failed. Muscular public shows of independence from big-hitting ‘advisers’ are singularly ineffective.

I want to see science given the consideration it deserves in the formation and delivery of government policy. As a CSA for a major area of government policy and function, I have an important role to play in ensuring that this happens. The key to being successful in securing this outcome is to build trust.

The sort of trust I’m talking about is entirely conditional on the existence of mutual respect. Policy makers have some fiendishly difficult problems to grapple with, and in dealing with these they need the help and respect of scientists. This includes the appreciation that scientific evidence sits alongside other social, economic and political considerations. Politics is the process by which contested decisions are made about policies, and I have to be careful to play the role of the scientist as an honest broker, and the provider of information within the wider social game. My role and the role of other CSAs in government is to be a trustworthy and intelligible proponent of the ‘scientific lens’; to input into the policy making process, but also to avoid the automatic politicisation that comes with advocacy. Similarly, I will not be the mouthpiece for government policy unless it is to explain why a decision has been made, or to increase wider understanding of a particular problem.

Creating a lot of noise and publicity is not the best option in the vast majority of instances where one wants to have impact. This may be a difficult message for some who seek a story that promotes conflict (often disingenuously cloaked as debate) and who want to recruit CSAs to their cause. When one CSA famously said to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that ‘part of the job of a CSA is to make sure they kick the door down,’ he had clearly lost the confidence of his ministers and department – such an attitude was in no way conducive to maximising the consideration of science in government. The realisation that this approach does not work may mean that CSAs do not always have the visibility in the press that some may call for. But it’s essential to recognise that our ultimate aim should always be to make sure conflicts are resolved, not created.

The argument has been levelled against me, from time-to-time, that because I don’t regularly engage with the press I am somehow being gagged by the Department I mainly work within, or that somehow the government is seeking to spin what I have to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a CSA I am free to say what I want, when I want. I wouldn’t do this job if that were not the case; anybody who hears me talk in public will know that I do not speak from a script. I am passionate about what science can do to support and improve government; and I am happy to talk openly about what goes on in Defra, as in this blog. Furthermore I am accountable through the Defra Science Advisory Council, an independent non-departmental public body, to the wider scientific community, for translating scientific evidence into a policy environment. Through them and other routes, I speak to scientists, I read their papers, listen to them and help them get their messages heard too.

Any scientist who works in government has the same freedoms, with the exception of a very few who work on national security, and if there are any who think otherwise then they are mistaken. We live in a world of free speech and this applies just as much to government scientists as anybody else. However, most scientists in government understand the importance working with the system and, if necessary, changing and influencing from within rather than trying to manipulate it through the media.

If my approach to being a CSA doesn’t raise my personal profile, or suggests to some in the media or elsewhere that I am not a ‘heavy-hitting adviser’, then so be it. My job is to represent science in government as best I can, not to be a public personality.