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No evidence that government is eroding Haldane, Walport tells science committee

Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has defended the government against accusations that it has eroded the Haldane principle, which prevents ministers from meddling in research-funding decisions.

Walport was speaking at a hearing in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on 24 April when Stephen Metcalfe, Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock, asked him what he thought about “a suggestion that [the Haldane principle] has been eroded”.

“I’m not sure there is evidence that it has been eroded,” responded Walport. He added there had always been “interplay between the research councils and the department” and that funding the best science always involves a “mixture” of top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Walport went on to argue that there must be a dialogue about which areas of science to support, offering influenza as an example. Given that influenza has been a “big issue”, he said, it would be “odd” if there were no pressure from government to fund research in that area. “But when it comes to ‘should x or y get a grant’ then the decision has to be absolutely on the basis of the quality of the investigator,” he said.

The government’s CSA was also pressed about his relationship with Prime Minister David Cameron. He told the committee that since taking up the job in February, he has met the PM once at a meeting of the Council for Science and Technology some six weeks ago. He added that he has a date in his diary to meet him during the next month as well.

Another issue under discussion was the role of social science in evidence-based policy. Walport highlighted the government’s What Works institutes as a natural evolution of the existing scientific advisory system, rather than an indication of its failure, as one committee member suggested.

However, when asked whether the government needed a chief social scientist, he said that “the issue is function, not form”, adding that we could end up with a “chief that and a chief this and a chief everything else.”

Instead, he said, we need a “diversity of scientific expertise across the CSA network”. A departmental CSA who is also a social scientist could serve as a resource for social science across government.

Walport also briefly described his involvement in the preparations for the 2015-16 spending review, which is to be published in June. He said his job would be to bring together work done by other departmental CSAs, supporting them to make sure they have the R&D budgets they need. He also said that he would have a role in championing, promoting and presenting the overall case for the “best possible settlement we can get”.

However, he has previously made the point that it is not his job to “lobby” the government.