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March 02, 2012

Lords are right on independent science advice—but for the wrong reasons

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on Chief Scientific Advisers is excellent. It ticks many of the boxes that a select committee report should: it is rigorous, insightful and makes recommendations that are eminently implementable, for example that

  • chief scientific advisers (CSAs) should sit on the boards of their departments
  • CSAs should play a role in policy sign-off
  • the office of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should be located in the Cabinet Office.
All suggestions that I have advocated in the past and am delighted to see on the table again.

One recommendation that caught my eye was that CSAs should be appointed from outside the civil service (Recommendation 2). As the Committee notes, this is not the first time such a suggestion has been made, not least because it is clear that external appointees make excellent candidates. But I would have taken a different approach to the reasoning behind this proposition.

Here is the Recommendation 2:

"We considered whether recruitment of a candidate who is able to demonstrate the characteristics described in Recommendation 1 necessarily excludes internal candidates and entails appointment of either an external candidate or a candidate with a substantial and recent background based outside the civil service. We have concluded that it does."

So the justification for the recommendation is a list of required attributes provided in Recommendation 1. Let’s consider the first of these:

"The primary essential characteristic of all CSAs is that they must have standing and authority within the scientific community, nationally and internationally. This will, amongst other things, help ensure that the CSA is able to access a wide range of expertise."

The case for “standing and authority within the scientific community” is an interesting one (although not something I’m going to explore in this post), but it is not clear to me what that has to do with his or her ability “to access a wide range of expertise”.

First of all, standing and authority in science is not sufficient to ensure that a person will be well networked across a wide range of disciplines, nor guarantee his or her ability to act as a convener; there are lots of people with standing and authority who are lousy on both counts.

Secondly, standing and authority in science is not even necessary. One does not need to be well known within academia to be able to access a wide range of expertise. A CSA carries significant weight because of his or her role in government; that ought to be enough to practice a convening role. The most important characteristics to ensure access to a wide range of expertise are: an understanding of the breadth of expertise relating to an policy issue; an ability to build and maintain professional networks; skill at convening.

The Committee’s remaining characteristics are:

  • an ability to engage in effective dialogue with internal and external stakeholders, including academia, industry and the wider public;
  • an ability to work in and manage a multi-disciplinary team;
  • an understanding of the policy environment;
  • an ability to evaluate evidence and to weigh up conflicting evidence from a wide range of disciplines; and
  • an understanding of project delivery.

All very important, but not screaming “external appointment necessary”.

There is, however, one very good reason why external appointments might be a good thing. One of the key roles of a CSA is to provide a “challenge function” in the policy process. This aspect of the role is mentioned in the very first paragraph of the summary of the report:

Departmental chief scientific advisers (CSAs) are a critically important voice for science and engineering in the formulation and evaluation of government policy. Working in the heart of government departments, they provide a source of independent challenge which seeks to ensure that policy decisions are informed by the best science and engineering advice and evidence available.

“Independent challenge.” This means two things. First, being independent of the policy and political processes; having an allegiance to the scientific evidence and not to either the civil service or a political persuasion. It is human nature to bestow loyalty upon the team of which one is member; civil servants, for example, are generally allies of the civil service. But a CSA needs to be able to act independently of the civil service so that he or she can effectively discharge the second part of the role: the challenge function.

The term “challenge” refers to a CSA’s commitment to stand up and be counted in the policy process, not only to prevent evidence being sidelined in policy development but to ensure that it plays a critical role. There is an argument that executing a challenge function might be difficult for a card carrying member of the civil service who has been promoted from within and perhaps will be seeking promotion in the future, whose allegiance lies with the civil service rather than scientific evidence. External appointees employed on a fixed term basis, by contrast, should have an allegiance to their home institutions and communities, to which they know they will return in a matter of months.

This is not to say that it is impossible for an internal appointment to discharge these duties excellently. For starters, I’ve met civil servants who do provide an excellent challenge function. Further, career civil servants know the pressure and pinch points in the policy process and therefore often find it easier to influence it. On balance, however, the Committee is holding a reasonable position that external appointees, with sufficient support from career civil servants, provide excellent candidates.

But I would have gone with ”independent challenge” as the reason.

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