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Elite academies demand government response to reports

Learned societies with royal charters should have the right to a government response to reports that they publish, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has heard.

Speaking at an evidence session for the committee’s inquiry into government horizon scanning on 23 October, Jonathan Cowie, former head of science policy at the Institute of Biology, said that when chartered societies had contributed to a horizon scanning exercise, there should be some response. He suggested that the relevant government department should be obliged to say what it thought of the exercise’s findings.

Martyn Thomas, vice-president of external affairs at the Royal Academy of Engineering, told the committee that for reports to have an impact on government and policymakers, learned societies’ views have to be followed through. He said that it was important to engage with policymakers to know which areas were being addressed, so that societies could provide the relevant evidence base when needed, saying that reports only have an impact if they land on “the right desk” during the window in which decisions are being taken.

However, Cowie described how smaller learned bodies do not have the time to make sure that reports get to the right person in the right place at the right time. Their job, he said, was to demonstrate that their science was relevant and important. He argued that his suggestion of giving a greater weight to societies with a royal charter could help here, as, for example, the Society of Biology could give its weight to issues which smaller biological societies had raised as being particularly important.

Thomas told the committee that the government chief scientific adviser, the network of chief scientific advisers and the Government Office for Science were “vitally important” to horizon scanning. Cowie agreed, but commented that he would hate to see CSAs constrained by increased micromanagement roles in such processes. He did, however, express a desire to see a greater role for GO Science in horizon scanning.

On the subject of government advice, Ann Buchanan, professor of social work at the University of Oxford, who spoke on behalf of the Academy of Social Sciences, said that it was important to have a chief social scientist too, saying that “the people factor” was present in most issues and that the UK might miss out on technologies such as driverless cars if it ignored social factors.

The Oxford Martin School’s head of policy Natalie Day described her frustration at “increasing short term-ism” in government and policy-making. She suggested that to look beyond the five-year electoral cycle governments could invest in independent institutions to provide longer-term analyses and to input these into government decision-making processes. She held up the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Office for Budget Responsibility as two existing examples.

Day also cautioned that horizon scanning exercises need not only to think about potential future risks and opportunities, but also to embed flexibility within systems, so that they can be adapted when predictions about the future turn out to be wrong.

She also suggested that there may be more systematic ways for the civil service to draw upon expertise in academia, adding that the Research Excellence Framework was one exercise that was trying to get academics to understand how their research can feed into policy decisions.

However, Buchanan warned the committee that the importance of impact in the REF had in a sense turned academics into lobbyists for their own individual research. She suggested that societies had an important role to play in pulling together all of these voices.