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Treasury CSA aims to promote a culture of scientific thought

James Richardson, newly appointed chief scientific advisor at the Treasury, sees his main role as promoting better application of the scientific method in government, he said on 7 September.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into his appointment, Richardson explained his reasons for taking on the job and what he hopes to achieve.

Until his appointment in June, the Treasury was the only government without a main source of advice on scientific issues, but that did not mean there was no scientific input into decision-making, he said. He pointed out that the main scientific disciplines relevant to the department’s work were the social sciences, particularly economics.

The department has had a chief economics advisor since the 1960s but there has been growing acceptance of an overlap between financial policy and broader scientific issues, in areas such as the effects of climate change on the UK economy, he said.

Richardson will divide his time between these new duties and his role as the Treasury’s head advisor on microeconomic matters. He insisted that there is also a great deal of overlap between these responsibilities and his goal will be to maximise effort in those areas.

He denied the committee’s suggestion that his department had kept unusually quiet about his taking on this role: it was an internal appointment and so it was unnecessary to issue an announcement.

Richardson said that the department would spend only about £0.5 million on commissioned research during the current spending review period. So it would not expect to carry out many studies itself and instead would seek to influence the way other government departments carried out research in areas that may influence Treasury policy.

Richardson acknowledged that his expertise in other branches of science was limited but said he would work to ensure that the Treasury develops stronger links with the broader scientific community.

He said his goal is to promote the scientific method: “There may well be areas where that approach is irrelevant to the decisions made by government but I would struggle to think what they are.”

Challenged by the committee to explain the 2nd law of thermodynamics [once highlighted as a key measure of a properly rounded education], Richardson said that he could:

“It can be described as A—you can’t win, B—you won’t break even, and C—you cannot get out of the game. And so in that respect, it is not that different from trying to control public expenditure.”