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Treasury scientific adviser defends ‘insider’ position

James Richardson, the Treasury’s recently appointed chief scientific adviser, has rebutted concerns that being internally appointed and having several other Treasury roles would hinder him from doing his job properly.

Speaking at the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee as part of its inquiry into CSAs on 15 November, Richardson, who is also the director of public spending and chief micro economist at the Treasury, said there were advantages to internal appointments:

“You are more likely to understand the organisation you’re working for and would therefore find it easier to gain traction over that organisation in terms of influencing decisions or advice that goes to ministers,” he told the committee.

However, he added, there was a trade-off between the advantages of internal and external appointments.

For example, he said, it would be difficult for an internally appointed CSA to keep completely up-to-date with scientific developments and have close connections with “certain external networks”.

Richardson added that he saw his CSA role as a “complement” to the long-standing role that economics had played within the Treasury over many decades.

“I see the key role here as joining up the Treasury’s existing economics community with the broader scientific community and in particularly the natural scientists—that is the big opportunity here for us in the Treasury,” he said.

Richardson insisted that there was a great deal of overlap between his responsibilities and his goal would be to maximise effort in those areas.

Some committee members were not impressed.

Liberal Democrat peer Phil Willis asked, “Given the fact that you are director of public spending … and also the chief microeconomist, I just wonder how much time you can actually spend on this key function as CSA or is it merely a tick in the box by the Treasury—because I was disturbed to hear that your role is primarily about economics … you say you see your job as a complement to the role of [chief economist].”

Fellow committee member Robert May, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, gave evidence during the second half of the session.

May emphasised the importance of externally appointed CSAs: “You need an outsider” for to advise and challenge ministers on scientific matters and not someone who might have a “future career conflict” at stake.

He also argued that the Treasury was an important department that needed an influential, fully devoted CSA: it was not a role that could just be “tacked on”.

“I think it would be a very small and uninteresting department where [the role of the CSA] could be just tacked on, and not the Treasury,” he told the committee.

Asked who he would have picked for the role, May said he would have selected “a really distinguished, really senior person whose expertise was mainly in the financial problems we have at the moment”, and cited Columbia University economics professor Joseph Stiglitz as a suitable candidate.