The GCSA at 50: reflections on the past, present and future of scientific advice

“Its an enormous privilege to have had the job. An enormous privilege that the job even exists…” Sir John Beddington on being GCSA.

October 2014 marks the fifty year anniversary of Solly Zuckerman’s appointment by Harold Wilson as the first cross-government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA). To mark the occasion CSaP came together with the Royal Society, GO-Science and SPRU to host a special event on the past, present and future of scientific advice. The event took the form of two panel sessions, the first being retrospective, focusing on the formation and evolution of the role of GCSA, and the second prospective, looking at how the role is changing and where it might go from here.

Sir John Beddington (GCSA 2008-2013) welcomed the audience and introduced the event, sharing his thoughts on the “completely extraordinary reporting line” that the GCSA has: officially he reports to the PM, Cabinet and the Cabinet Secretary. But the implication of that is “complete freedom”, the most delightful aspect of the job. The GCSA has the opportunity (almost unique among senior civil servants) to follow his ideas, the chance to highlight issue he feels are important, to bang the drum for challenges each generation faces. He ended his remarks by paying tribute to the role itself: internationally there are not many equivalents to the GCSA, and even fewer that are not political appointments.

Panel 1

“Those he advises have absolutely no way of assessing what he is telling them…” Lisa Jardine on the fundamental problem of the CSA.

The first panel session was chaired by Professor Frank Kelly, and was kicked off by Lisa Jardine challenging the very premise of the event: she argued that the role of GCSA existed (in all but name) considerably before 1964. Starting in WWII she recounted, “through the eyes and ears of CP Snow” the confrontation between Cherwell and Tizard and their terminal falling out 1942 over the strategic bombing of Germany. She concluded by describing the 3 conditions that Snow says must be met to get good policy formations from CSAs: the population must be educated in science; there must be enough scientists within government and parliament to be able to converse with external scientists; and finally a CSA should not be a solo figure. Next up was Jon Agar, who talked about the period between Cherwell and Tizard and the appointment of fellow panellist Robin Nicholson. He covered the formation of the role with Solly Zuckerman and tracked how the role changed during the times of his successors Cottrell, Press and Ashworth. To read Jon’s thoughts on the day see his blog here.

Sir Robin Nicholson prefaced his remarks by saying what a privilege it was to serve the first Prime Minister who had scientific training, which he felt was a very important step in the UK. Lady Thatcher had a great regard for science and retained an interest in it throughout her premiership. He regaled the audience with anecdotes about his time as GCSA, and concluded by highlighting the question of whether the GCSA should be primarily an adviser or should get involved in policy making and advocacy of policy (saying in his case it was made clear he was an adviser). Sir William Stewart, successor to Sir Robin as GCSA, then described his experiences working for 2 Prime Ministers. One of his anecdotes in particular (concerning increasing the science budget and referencing Harold Wilson’s election win) demonstrated a point that was to come up several times during the day: a GCSA must have a good political nose. Lord Wilson, former Cabinet Secretary, was the final speaker on this panel, and he opened with the statement that the role of CSAs in government is important and difficult. He echoed Sir William’s point about needing a good political nose, and demonstrated it with several anecdotes (including a spot-on impression of Lady Thatcher). The example of Walter Marshall (former CSA to DECC) who was sacked because he sold 4 nuclear PWRs to Iran, was an especially stark demonstration of it. Lord Wilson then enumerated some of the key traits that make an effective GCSA: they must be able to communicate with clarity to non-scientists; they must know how to contribute to policy, and nowadays they must be able to explain to the public.

Panel 2

“Science frames the stage for political decision making. It must provide the evidence, not the answer” Lord May on the role of scientific advice within government

The second panel was every bit as illustrious as the first. Lord May went first, echoing what Lisa had said about Cherwell, Tizard and CP Snow, and describing the decline in the importance of scientific advice in government until the efforts of Jeremy Bray and William Waldegrave led to John Major establishing the Office of Science and Technology. He also highlighted the importance of the Cabinet Secretary in providing the GCSA with a platform to get his message across in Whitehall. Geoff Mulgan spoke about the future of scientific advice to government, and placed great emphasis on systems thinking, saying that the system of delivering scientific advice is as important as what the advice actually is. Jill Rutter focused on the pressures in government, the key trends in Whitehall (e.g. downsizing, civil service reform etc), and how scientific advice fits in. She also mentioned the gap in public trust between scientists (rated highly) and politicians (rated low), but warned that this difference could lead politicians to pressure scientists to support them. The current GCSA, Sir Mark Walport, was the final speaker on the panel, and used the opportunity to address the points raised by his fellow panellists. He spoke about the importance of recognising that science is just one of many lenses for policy makers, but it must make itself heard when it has lots to offer. He also offered his thoughts on the future of scientific advice in government, mentioning, among other things, the introduction of a bespoke Science & Engineering Fast Stream for the civil service.

Following each of the panel sessions there were a number of thoughtful questions from the audience covering a range of topics, including the different types of expertise, international co-operation between science advisers, and the importance of independence. One question that really stuck in the mind concerned basic training for scientists in policy, constitutional issues, and epistemology. The nature of the discourse throughout the event was far too rich to be adequately recorded here, so I strongly encourage you to listen to the recording here.

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About centreforscienceandpolicy

The Centre for Science and Policy is helping to bridge the gap between academia and government by promoting engagement between researchers and policy makers.
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