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Chief scientists are not superheroes

As decision making increasingly involves highly complex and technical issues, a focus on the role of government advisory mechanisms is welcome. Unfortunately, many of the recommendations in the House of Lords report on the role of chief scientific advisors in government, if implemented, will lead to a greater politicization of the advisory process and less accountability of government to citizens.

The basic flaw in the report is the assumption that science can be cleanly separated from the political process by empowering a heroic individual with special influence on policy making. The report thus goes to great length to describe the characteristics of the heroic individual who is to serve as a Chief Scientific Adviser and the special characteristics that should be granted to the position.

Of course, that a science adviser should be a widely respected scientist, who has the ability to clearly communicate, especially with the public, makes good sense. As the health protection Agency explained to the committee which prepared the report: “Public trust in the independence and authority of the scientific basis of government policies is greatly enhanced if CSAs are seen themselves to be independent and are highly respected among their relevant professional communities.” The report goes too far down this path and winds up proposing that a science adviser fulfill something like a Platonic “philosopher king” role in government.

For instance, the Lords recommend that the role of departmental science adviser not be a part of the civil service in order to demonstrate its independence and authority. Gus O’Donnell, then head of the civil service took strong issue with the characterisation thus implied to the civil service: “The values of the civil service are honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality. It is our job to be completely independent and to give objective advice to ministers. The idea that someone has to come in from outside, you cannot rely on civil servants to give independent advice, I find very insulting.” Whether or not the Lords are casting aspersions on the civil service, they clearly are suggesting that “science” represents an institution distinct from government.

The notion that science can stand apart from the messy realities of government has its roots in what Heather Douglas, a US academic, has called the “value-free ideal” which holds that science deals with facts and politics deals with values. From this perspective, the proper organizational structure for relating science and policy would seek to draw a bright line between science and its facts and politics and its values, with a one-way membrane between the two that allows science into politics, but at the same time protects science from political influence.

Hence, the Lords report not only recommends that science advisers sit outside the civil service, but also have direct access to their department ministers at the prompting of the adviser; have a reserved seat on departmental boards, be allocated their own “ring-fenced” budget and have a say in how departmental funds for science are allocated. In granting the science adviser expansive authority and control, the Lords blinked when it came to how to deal with situations that might arise when a science adviser disagreed with a ministerial policy decision, recommending only that a procedure should be developed to handle such situations.

The proper answer to the question of what a science adviser “should do if they disagree with policy decisions” is of course the same thing that any government employee should do – quietly accept the decision, seek change from within, speak out and suffer the consequences or perhaps even resign. The Lords report cites input from several non-governmental scientific organizations suggesting that departmental ministers should have to justify their policy decisions to their science advisers. When science advisers see their role change from providing advice to playing a formal role in the making of decisions, the science adviser is no longer accurately described simply as being independent, but in the democratic process as an unaccountable decision maker.

Consider the case of David Nutt, who in 2009 was sacked by the UK government as its senior drugs policy adviser for disagreeing with government policy on drugs. Alan Johnson, the then Labour Home Secretary, justified the sacking by explaining that “it is not the job of the chair of the governments advisory council to comment or initiate a public debate on the policy framework for drugs.” He further explained that an adviser should not work to undermine government policies: “It is important that the governments messages on drugs are clear and as an adviser you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them.” Drugs policy involves considerations of science, but is certainly not dictated or determined by science or science advisers.

The focus on the characteristics of the science adviser and their independence in the Lords report released yesterday will do nothing to address conflicts such as that which arose between Nutt and his minister. In fact, creating the expectation that science advisers should challenge ministers on policy increases the chances of conflict, with a resulting confusion about lines of accountability and responsibility sure to follow. Indeed the report foreshadows such conflict when it reports John Beddington’s (the current Government Chief Scientific Adviser) opposition to government research funding for homeopathy, calling it “crazy.”

A better alternative to trying to cleanly separate science and politics is to create effective processes for their integration. A I describe in my book The Honest Broker (Cambridge 2007), we can think of government science advice in two ways. The first is the common situation of expert judgments about the evidence base which may be relevant to decision makers. Many governments around the world have developed effective mechanisms for eliciting scientific guidance on questions that can be addressed using the tools of science. Typically, such mechanisms rely on carefully empaneled committees of experts, often with diverse views, who are expected to summarize the state of knowledge on a particular subject.

Robert Watson, the current chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told the Lords that “my main role is to…point to these questions: what do we know? What do we not know? What is controversial?” At its best, the UK government’s Foresight process is an excellent example of how this role is fulfilled. Key to any such process is two-way communication between policy makers and scientists to clarify the questions that policy makers want answered, and in some cases, the questions that scientists think that they should be asking.

A different type of advice focuses on policy options. Sometimes decision makers would like to know what options for action are available to them. As Robert May, another former government chief scientist, explained more than 20 years ago: “The role of the scientist is not to determine which risks are worth taking, or deciding what choices we should take, but the scientist must be involved in indicating what the possible choices, constraints and possibilities are … The role of the scientist is not to decide between the possibilities but to determine what the possibilities are.”

Such honest brokering of policy options is sorely needed in today’s world where experts readily self-segregate themselves according to their political preferences, leaving few options for one-stop shopping for policy advice. An expert body that clarifies, or even expands, the scope of choice will necessarily be comprised of a wider range of expertise than a panel of scientists who arbitrate scientific questions. Economists and social scientists will almost certainly be necessary.

Efforts to install a cadre of science advisers into government who are independent from the civil service, with protected resources and a mandate which enables or encourages challenges to policy decisions made by departmental ministers is a recipe for politicisation of the science advisory process and a breakdown in democratic governance. A better way forward would be to focus less on individuals and independence and more on processes to elicit advice from balanced expert bodies focused on questions of science or policy options. Departmental science advisers with a mandate and ability to provide such advice would strengthen the role of science in policy making and perhaps even policy making itself.