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Does everyone need a chief scientist?

  • 15 May 2020
  • By Andy Westwood

This blog was kindly contributed by Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester. Andy is writing in a personal capacity and can be found at @andywwestwood on Twitter.

By now we are all familiar with Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty, Dr Jenny Harries and Professor Jonathan Van Tam. The public will also have seen more of Sir Ian Diamond, Chief Statistician and former Principal at the University of Aberdeen. More of us now know a little more – after some determined pushing – about less formal groups, SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) and their memberships too. We perhaps know more about Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College than either we or he would like but it has been his data models on the spread of pandemics – and the subsequent shift away from a ‘herd immunity‘ strategy, that he should be best known for.

As people who work in or are familiar with higher education and research we are also likely to know that scientific advice is well established in the structures and decision making processes of government. We also know how some of the scientific advice feeds into government policy. We are also familiar with what ‘science’ and scientific advice can tell us and what it cannot – how ‘science’ works. Even though this is occasionally and/or deliberately opaque it is also reasonably clear that advisers (including scientific ones) advise, and ministers decide. There is a distinction and it is right that this exists.

It is worth repeating the evidence from Sir Patrick Vallance to the Health Select committee earlier this month. In it he said SAGE does not give policy decision-making advice. These are ‘informed by science, they are not led by science’ and these policy decisions are for ministers. Similarly, it is worth revisiting the words of the excellent Jill Rutter, former civil servant and writing for Kings:

But there are limits to what science advice can do. Scientists can advise governments of the potential course of a disease. But scientists disagree – and non-scientists need to probe and challenge the assumptions… But scientists cannot make the trade-offs between extreme prevention and the potential cost to the economy or society, nor on the political acceptability of measures. Those are all decisions that politicians have to make.

So on the basis that scientific and expert advice is understood to be a good thing – and there is a clear distinction between advice and decision making, one might ask who or what else might benefit from such a function? In the initial and ongoing recovery phases from Covid-19 this feels like an important question. Over the past decade many large organisations – public, private and voluntary – have introduced Chief Information Officers or Chief Digital officers/advisers – and given recent shifts to online working and the power/role of technology in the recovery – this seems to have been a very sensible move.

So what about science? Should large public, private and voluntary organisations care more about science and evidence in their day-to-day and long-term decision making? Of course this is not just about Covid-19 and how institutions manage now as well as how they plan and reconstruct in the future. It is also about scientific and research advice more generally and how particular issues and scenarios are understood in the way organisations function.

A chief scientist or an equivalent of GO Science (Government Office for Science) or POST (Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology) at the CBI and TUC (Trade Unions Congress) feels like a good idea as it might for other representative bodies and trade unions. Universities UK and UCU? The National Union of Students? At the Bank of England too (though a chief economist does at least follow the Departmental Chief Scientific Advisor model that exists in Whitehall). A chief scientist at the BBC? After all it matters enormously how we communicate science and the understanding of it too. In local authorities? Some mayoral authorities already have chief economic advisers and chief digital officers so why not go further?

And what about in higher education and in universities? It goes without saying that there are plenty of scientists and expert researchers knocking about – it is where most are employed and trained. This includes amongst Vice Chancellors and in many (most?) senior leadership teams where there will be Pro-Vice Chancellors (or similar) with responsibility for research too. But are these the same thing? Does it work in the same advisory-decision making way that it does (at least some of the time) in government?

At the Office for Students (and the Department for Education)? Surely they could find room amongst the competition lawyers for such a role or function? Again, in theory at least there are experts in universities and elsewhere that they can draw on but is that the same thing when faced with important policy decisions? Is it enough, taking two recent examples, to think about the relationship between universities’ financial health and its impact on the science base by just calling colleagues at BEIS/UKRI? And do they need more than education economists in their department when looking for expert assistance in deciding when and how schools and universities resume ‘normal’ business?

Returning to universities and the decision making and strategic institutional choices that they are – or soon will be making. As they consider how campuses are likely to reopen (or not) and the subsequent issues about financial stability, what are they basing their decisions on? There are important regulatory and funding aspects to this but there are also questions about working practices, business models and strategic priorities that they will need to decide. That is how it should be of course – institutional autonomy is very important – but are the decisions really based on the best scientific and expert advice that exists? Especially when so much of it is inside our own institutions?

Scientific advice on pandemics and the possibility of a second wave? Call the head of biology or the epidemiologists. Treating staff and advice on self-isolating or symptoms? There’s the medical school. Testing and tracing? Ask the maths and data modellers. Rethinking working practices? There are plenty of experts in the business school. Behavioural Science? Economists? Politics and Government? It’s a predictably (and reassuringly) long list. In many ways, it offers a similar interdisciplinary model to that in Whitehall with Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers and subject experts in every department.

This is not an issue that challenges, complicates or dilutes the model of decision making or accountability. In both Whitehall and in our universities, it is the ministers – and Vice Chancellors and their senior teams – that should still be making decisions. Nor should it be about developing or adding new bureaucracies or layers to already complicated processes.

But it is about making sure that we are using the best scientific and expert advice that is available to us. And that this is advice that is unaffected by the perspectives of decisions that must follow and be taken separately. We need this advice and we need our experts and their knowledge more than ever. We all want that to be a formal part of policy-making in government including in their coming decisions about education and science policy. We see the value of taking the politics out of that advice and also of its neutrality and independence. And we all agree that advisers advise and ministers decide? So if that is good for government, is it good for us too?

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Definitely something to consider but even scientists are human beings ? ( I love the question marks ? )

    Decisions concerning people are the hardest to make.

    To the man who really knows nails, the answer is usually a hammer but for the one who loves screws it is a screw driver and so it is with every specialist.

    A fact is a fact ? but scientific advice changes with the emergence of new facts.

    We all have a personal history that colours our opinions and influences what we like and don’t like.

    Science may be part of the answer but what is the question?

    We should separate advice from political decision making but realise that judgement on whether the decisions made are the most appropriate can only be measured after the event.

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