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Government should consider chief social scientist, says CSA

The government should “carefully consider” appointing a chief social researcher to ensure it gets a sufficient level of social-sciences advice, John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has said.

Beddington was speaking at a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee evidence session into the roles of CSAs on 8 November.

In written evidence to the inquiry, several bodies have raised concerns that the representation of social science within government has been weakened since the departure of Paul Wiles, previous government chief social scientist and CSA to the Home Office.

But Beddington told the committee that he proposed appointing a chief social researcher in government when Wiles left his position, and that he regrets having failed to convince the government to do so.

“I do believe it would be better to enhance the social research in government and having a chief social researcher would be a way of doing that,” he said. “My own preference would be that [the chief social researcher] sits within my own office.”

However, he added, in his personal experience, the lack of a chief social scientist hadn’t created a “desperate problem”.

Beddington also rebutted the committee’s concerns that many departmental CSAs don’t get enough access to ministers and secretaries of state. If there were a serious problem with this issue, he said, one of several independent reviews on science in government departments would have picked it up.

He also added that he had never had a departmental CSA complain about a lack of access to ministers.

“I would hope that there would be access at the very, very least, to the permanent secretary,” he told the committee.

“And in the [departments] that have a very significant analytical component, I would wish they would had access to the secretary of state or ministers…that would be my preference,” he added.

But Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat committee member, said it worried him that Beddington’s answer “indicated” that access to the permanent secretary would be adequate.

Willis also raised the question of whether departmental CSAs should control research budgets, arguing that there is large variation in their ability to do so across different Whitehall departments.

Beddington replied that CSAs should be allowed some discretionary spending. But he also argued that the issue is complex, since it may be easier to challenge a department’s quality of research if one doesn’t have budgetary control.