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Advisers need influence over R&D spend, says RCUK

Chief scientific advisers may be “out on a limb” without control over their department’s research and development budget, Research Councils UK has said.

The comment was made in written evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into CSAs, published on 2 November.

RCUK notes that each departmental CSA has a different level of budgetary control and it asks the committee to provide a “view on the visibility and comparability of CSA R&D budgets across departments”.

It says that, according to the Natural Environment Research Council, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does well in this respect, with its CSA, Bob Watson, having budgetary control.

Meanwhile, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) argues that the government should take action to ensure that all departmental CSAs have R&D budget oversight and a seat at their departmental board.

The Institute of Physics adds that, in addition to influence over departmental R&D budgets, CSAs should be involved in departmental procurement practices:

“Departmental procurement budgets are typically orders of magnitude greater than dedicated R&D budgets. Through innovative and pre-commercial procurement strategies, departmental budgets can be used both to meet the needs of the government, and also support innovative science-based businesses,” reads its submission.

However, the Royal Society argues that access to ministers to “ensure that research spend is well stewarded” is more important for a CSA than managing the R&D budget. Control over budgets, it adds, should not be a requirement.

Many submissions to the inquiry have raised concerns about vacant CSA positions in government departments. Case points out that the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been without a CSA since May 2011.

The concern is backed by the Royal Society of Chemistry, which says the positions should be filled as a “matter of urgency”.

RCUK says it is “concerned” with a “lengthy delay” in the appointment of a replacement CSA in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Another area of concern is the representation of social science advice in government—an issue raised by the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The ESRC argues that the representation of social science at the most senior levels within government has been weakened since the departure of Paul Wiles, previous government chief social scientist and CSA to the Home Office.

It says that instead of a separate role of “chief social scientist”, it would like to see a more “wide-ranging definition of the role of the CSA allowing social scientists and indeed those in the arts and humanities to be considered for these positions”.

The Academy of Social Sciences says, “We argue that the government chief scientific adviser and departmental chief scientific advisers are not adequately equipped to advise on the social scientific aspects of the scientific advice given to ministers.”

The inquiry has also sparked several calls for increased public access to the work of CSAs.

The Royal Society of Chemistry urges the Government Office for Science to set up an open-access website with “full and transparent information on ALL scientific advisers within government; how they can be contacted, information on the advice they have given and the policy decisions and research spend they have helped to influence”.

Case says that records of meetings between CSAs and ministers should be published.

Similarly, the Wellcome Trust argues that the public should be able to find out about cases where ministers have chosen not to act on CSA advice.

The Wellcome Trust airs concerns over the Home Office’s failure to consult its CSA, Bernard Silverman, before deciding to close the Forensic Science Service.

The government’s submission to the inquiry says it “values departmental CSAs and their activity”.

It also says that CSAs have “increasing influence” and that the variation of their roles across Whitehall “is a good thing, and results in a CSA network with a range of complementary skills and experience”.