Interview: Sir John Beddington

Written by Civil Service World on 14 February 2013 in Interview
Interview

When John Beddington became the government’s chief scientific adviser, many departments didn’t employ an influential science champion. But now, he tells Colin Marrs, the quality of science is on the rise across Whitehall

Sir John Beddington is a very busy man. In April, after four years as the government’s chief scientific adviser, he will pass the reins to his successor, Sir Mark Walport. But there is little sign that Beddington is winding down – on the morning we meet, time is limited. “This morning I am starting the process of formal assessment of the departmental chief scientific advisers,” he says.

When Civil Service World last caught up Professor Beddington, in 2009, he had nearly succeeded in his mission of persuading every department to appoint a chief scientific adviser (CSA) – something that could, he said, much improve departments’ policymaking and operations. Three and a half years on, he expresses satisfaction with the “excellent cadre” which has been assembled across Whitehall. Once a month, he says, all the CSAs meet for lunch to highlight areas where cross-departmental cooperation is needed.

Nonetheless, not everyone believes that CSAs are realising their full potential. Last year, the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee voiced concerns that the CSAs were often being left out of the loop in policymaking. A series of recommendations were largely brushed aside in the government’s response, which argued that “in some circumstances CSA sign-off of all policy submissions may represent an overly bureaucratic bottleneck”.

Beddington, however, reveals that the government line has now softened. Indeed, he says, agreement has now been reached, following informal discussions between himself, committee chairman Lord Krebs and civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake. Government has now agreed to implement most of the committee’s recommendations, he explains, and given him a key role in assessing the performance of the advisers.

The committee won’t get its way on every point. It recommended, for example, that all those appointed to CSA roles come from outside the civil service. Yet although Beddington recognises the legitimacy of its concerns about internal appointments, he argues that it wouldn’t be sensible to rule them out completely. As a halfway house, agreement has been reached that “in future, all CSA roles will be advertised externally and will be at director level as a minimum”.

Beddington speaks proudly about the growing role of scientific advice within government, pointing to a number of recent emergency situations: swine flu, the 2010 Icelandic volcanic ash crisis, and the Japanese nuclear power station disaster in 2011. On the latter, he says the government’s scientists were “very influential in saying that the risk to the UK and its inhabitants in Japan was minimal. The French evacuated the following day, but we said we didn’t need to move”.

The professor is also keen to point out that three of the departmental CSAs – at the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury – have backgrounds as economists. This reflects the government’s focus on boosting growth; and he’s satisfied that the coalition government is prioritising science investment as a key strand of its economic strategy. He points to a number of high-profile speeches and funding announcements bolstering the role of science and, in particular, engineering, arguing that “science is going to be fundamental for economic growth – not just in the short term, but into the future”.

Beddington calls the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, which ring-fenced the £4.6bn budget for scientific research, “an excellent result” for science. And he casts doubt on a report, published last year in the Financial Times, which claimed that individual departments were slashing their R&D spending to protect other areas. “We are going into the detail, but it appears that these figures are comparing apples and pears,” he says. “I can see no sign of disproportional cuts to research spending by departments.”

Such research funding will be sorely needed – for on Beddington’s watch a number of new technologies have brought science further into the media spotlight, creating growing demands for better policy and public safety advice. Debates over genetically modified food, nanotechnologies and shale gas have provoked emotive responses from campaign groups and sections of the media. In such cases, says Beddington, “one has got to make the science as robust as possible. I asked the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to produce a report on shale gas, and their recommendations were that with proper regulation it would be possible to have environmentally-friendly shale gas.”

He also praises the way scientists helped to defuse a potentially explosive situation (this time figuratively) over trials of a genetically modified plant which has been engineered to be resistant to aphids – pointing out how well the Science Media Centre, an independent charity, engaged with the media after environmental activists called for a major demonstration at the trial site. “This helped create a rational public debate,” he says. “In the end only 200 turned up for the demonstration, rather than thousands.”

On climate change, he admits that government investment in renewable and alternative technologies is likely to be constrained by economic circumstances. But he is adamant there is no suggestion that climate scepticism – which some detect in some of the Treasury’s activities – is infecting the policymaking process. He says: “The data is showing not just that climate change is happening, but that we are getting an increase in extreme weather. 2012 had average rainfall, but almost none in the first quarter and enormous amounts in the second half of the year.”

The debate is not over whether climate change is happening, he says, but what form of energy generation will best deal with the problem. “The UK has climate targets for 2020 and 2050 that we have to meet,” he notes. “That is a fundamental commitment.” He adds that the government’s decision through its Energy Bill to proceed with a new generation of nuclear power stations gives the UK a good chance of meeting these targets.

So the British government is making good progress, Beddington believes, in basing its policies on strong science. However, the government’s scientific chief does voice his worries about the way that scientific advice has fed into decision-making at the European level, pointing to widespread criticisms from scientists over policy on biofuels and hazardous agricultural chemicals. “I have been concerned,” he says. “The problem is that the scientific evidence is clear, but often decisions have been taken on political grounds.” Hopefully, he says, the European Commission’s appointment of a chief scientific officer is beginning to turn this situation around.

As the interview ends, a CSA waits outside the door, prepared for his assessment interview; Beddington has a long day ahead of him. Things will slow down after he leaves the government in April, he says: he’ll be formally retired, and he comments that “my intention is to do a lot less” – though he may be unable to resist taking on some academic work. Yet as Beddington exits the building, his successor will find his inbox already fast piling up with documents. For this chief scientific adviser has helped to build scientific capacity across government, to knit together Whitehall’s scientific operations, and to strengthen scientists’ roles in shaping the civil service’s operations. He has, in short, extended the role and influence of science in government; and as Sir Mark Walport comes in to pick up the reins, he will find that these days they control a more powerful – and thus more demanding – steed.

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