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Health and environment top science-advice poll

Scorecard shows other departments continue to fail

The UK government uses science inconsistently across Whitehall departments, according to a scorecard compiled by the Campaign for Science and Engineering and published on 19 October.

Close to full marks go to the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Current advisers Sally Davies and Bob Watson sit on their departments’ apex management boards, are in control of large R&D budgets, are sought-after by ministers, and have access to their own committee of independent scientific advisers, according to the Case survey.

Davies’ appointment is at permanent secretary level, the highest grade in the civil service. Watson says he met with ministers between 65 and 70 times in the past year though Defra did not give this information to Case.

In joint second place are the Department for International Development, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Home Office. At DfID, Chris Whitty is without a seat on his department’s board, but meets regularly with ministers. DECC has not published a record of CSA David Mackay’s meetings with ministers but he is on its management board. The Home Office’s Bernard Silverman meets regularly with ministers, but has no R&D budget control. In contrast, a number of big R&D players, including the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, are without a CSA (see box via link below).

Watson says the most crucial factor for influencing departmental decisions is to have a seat on the board. “Some [CSAs] have control of the budget and some have no control,” he says. “In my view the most important aspect is to be…where all major decisions are discussed with ministers, so the most crucial thing is to be in the management team.” Watson says his interaction with UK ministers is “outstanding” compared with his time as science adviser at the White House under the Clinton administration.

David Clary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s CSA, says the results should be read in context. “The thing to remember is departments vary enormously,” he told Research Fortnight. “There are four or five departments that are directly involved in scientific research. They are very different from the other departments, like the Foreign Office, where the role is one of influence and not spending.”

Case compiled the scorecard as part of the evidence it has submitted to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee for an inquiry into the role of CSAs, which began on 18 October. The results are based on parliamentary questions from Liberal Democrat peer Phil Willis, supplemented with research by the campaign group.

The group’s director Imran Khan says he is monitoring a trend for promoting in-house civil servants to CSA positions, such as the appointment of Treasury economist James Richardson as his department’s CSA.

“We’re concerned to see that so many departments lack some pretty basic structures to ensure that their CSA can do their job properly,” says Khan. “You could have the most qualified individual in the world, but if they’re not enjoying enough face-time with ministers, for instance, are we getting the most out of them?”

Khan also says the Scottish government has not yet advertised for a replacement for CSA Anne Glover, who is due to leave at the end of the year after five years in the role. Khan has written to First Minister Alex Salmond raising the problem.