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My relationship with ministers is getting stronger, says Walport

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

The government’s chief scientific adviser has said his relationships with Cabinet Office secretary Jeremy Heywood and science minister Greg Clark are strengthening over time.

Walport appeared before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which previously recommended that the Government Office for Science be moved to the Cabinet Office, on 10 November. 

At the hearing, Walport said he already had strong ties to the department. “Overall the relationship between GO Science and the Cabinet Office has been getting stronger and stronger and stronger," he told the committee. “I started with a very close working relationship with the cabinet secretary…and actually our relations are closer and closer because the horizon scanning is now done as a joint piece of work." He said that it was useful to have Go Science close to the research and innovation base in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on a day-to-day basis, and "it isn’t exactly far to walk around the corner to the Cabinet Office".

Walport also said that his relationship with Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, was “strengthening all the time”, in part because of their joint work on the future of cities.

The committee also asked Walport about what happens when a CSA disagrees with a minister on a policy decision. He said that although CSAs may sometimes not personally agree with a policy, their place as civil servants means that they would not be "publicly critical of the government".

“Science is one of the lenses through which policymakers make policy; there are other lenses as well,” he said.

Walport was also asked about the recent appointment of Tim Leunig, an associate professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who has just been appointed as CSA to the Department for Education. Leunig also shares the job of chief analyst in the same department, where he also used to work as a ministerial adviser. The committee wanted to know whether this was appropriate. Walport responded that in his view the two roles are “entirely compatible”, but it made sense that Leunig had given up his role as a ministerial adviser.

“[CSAs] clearly need to have the independence to do the CSA role; that doesn’t mean that they cannot have another role in the department,” Walport said. Commenting on the specifics of Leunig’s appointment, he said, “I think it’s entirely compatible that a CSA should have an analytical role.” 

Leunig himself faced the committee after Walport, and said he had “never found there to be any conflict” between the CSA and chief analyst roles. He also defended his appointment to the CSA position from within the DfE. “I’m not an education civil servant who’s been made the CSA and imposed on the Government Office for Science; I’m someone who’s worked for GO Science in the past who then went in to DfE,” he said. 

Commenting on his appointment more broadly, Leunig said he hoped he could realistically be seen to be independent, despite having previously been chief economist for the CentreForum think tank. 

Leunig was also questioned about his qualifications for the CSA role, and said that his economics background was appropriate to the post. “I am a scientist. My PhD is in economics. Science is about taking a hypothesis and testing it rigorously against the evidence, and that’s what I do as an economic historian,” he said.