As the calendar rotates through to the October, the tachometer shows that I have completed five years as the Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra. Some would say that is enough. Any academic who becomes immersed in government for too long runs the risk of becoming a part of the system, rather than a challenger to the system.
In February, I said that I would leave Defra at the end of August. However clearly this has not been the case and I would like to explain why.
There are many reasons. Some are personal, but most concern what is happening in and around the Defra group and how much that excites me. Much is changing across the scientific landscape at present. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be established and there are the new opportunities from the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. In the whole of my career, the opportunities have never been greater for research to deliver meaningful progress.
The Defra group is not in a position to benefit directly from these initiatives, but it can benefit indirectly. The reason for this is because of much that has been happening behind the scenes here over the past few years. From once being a significant sponsor of research, the Defra group has had to change to become a better user of research. It is becoming a customer, rather than a supplier or sponsor of research. As a customer, the Defra group needs to lead the intellectual agenda with respect what questions should be tackled by research. For the first time in my experience at Defra, the research community is really in a mood to listen to what challenges government departments such as this.
The Defra group is responsible for delivering the basics of life – food, water and air – in sufficient quantities and to a demanding quality standard. As a consequence, we have to deal with some of the most difficult questions facing people and the planet. These include how to mitigate the effects of climate change, sustain food and water supplies, cope with the spiralling demand for natural resources and minimise the poisoning of the environment, and ourselves, by pollution. It’s a massive and critically important agenda. In future, our way of life is going to depend on decisions made within the corridors of Defra group organisations. Balancing the delivery of goods from the environment in the long term with the demands for economic growth in the short term will always be difficult and we need the help of the best intellectual minds Britain can muster.
Like many others, I cannot easily walk away from these challenges and especially when opportunities are opening up which could ratchet us along the track to improvement. I occupy a position in the clockwork which makes this process work. The baton I carry needs to be passed on eventually, but it needs to happen at the right time. When I arrived in government, it took me some time to fully understand where I sat in the clockwork of the government system and how to influence it. With all the changes going on in the research sector and also with the UK exiting the EU, and the challenges and opportunities that throws up, this doesn’t feel like the best time for me to pass that baton on.
Consequently, I have agreed to stay on for at least another year and, with the support of the department, to pursue an ambitious agenda.