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CSA needs to ‘face outwards’, insiders agree

The scientist who occupies the office of the government chief scientific adviser needs a far higher public profile than in the past, according to former Whitehall insiders who got together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the role.

At a conference on the history of the government chief scientific adviser’s role, held at the Royal Society in London on 12 November, Richard Wilson, cabinet secretary from 1998 to 2000, made the point that the "gap between what the scientists are doing and what the public understands is growing”.

Geoff Mulgan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and now chief executive of the innovation agency Nesta, said that it was increasingly important to involve the public in scientific arguments. “The work of a public scientist is always explanatory as well as advisory,” he said, adding that the job of providing advice was as much about facing outwards to the public in order to shape the environment the advice will be heard in as it is about giving the advice to government itself.

Mark Walport, government CSA, said Mulgan was “spot on”. He said: “I do think it’s the job of the government CSA to be out there explaining, and in fact I’ve had quite a few appearances on the Today programme, and I’ve done a public lecture tour around climate science…There’s a very important public profile in terms of that explanatory role.”

However, Walport said that this was different from the government CSA using his public profile to criticise government policy. “That’s not something that any sane government CSA does,” he said. “If people then get cross that they can’t persuade me to make critical comments I’m afraid that’s their bad luck.”

Institute for Government researcher and former civil servant Jill Rutter noted that data show declining trust in politicians and high levels of trust for scientists. “They have a credibility that politicians don’t,” she said. “So politicians who want to convince a sceptical public will call on scientists to do their work for them.”

Lisa Jardine, a historian of science at University College London, argued that the UK had failed to improve science education to the level expected by chemist and civil servant CP Snow in his 1960 lecture series on science and government. “I just raise my eyebrows in horror,” she said. “It requires a curriculum which is way more balanced away from humanities and towards science. Germany doesn’t have this problem. It’s our problem and we haven’t tackled it in 60 years.”