DCLG urged to appoint ‘serious scientist’ to advise on Grenfell Tower disaster
MPs raise concerns about department’s attitude to science advice after learning its acting chief scientific advisor is an economist
DCLG's current chief scientific advisor 'cannot answer the types of technical questions raised by the disaster at Grenfell Tower'. Photo: Philip Toscano/PA
Communities secretary Sajid Javid and Department for Communities and Local Government officials have been urged to appoint a chief scientific advisor after it emerged there has been a five-year gap since a “serious scientist” filled the role.
Norman Lamb, chair of the Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee, wrote to Javid this week asking him to appoint someone “as a matter of urgency”, because he’d been told the department’s current acting advisor is an economist who cannot answer the types of technical questions raised by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.
Lamb also raised concerns that “negative attitudes towards science advice [had been] present at the very top of a government department”, after hearing claims that a previous communities secretary had said appointing a new advisor “was not something that would be terribly helpful”.
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Stephen Aldridge, DCLG’s director for analysis and innovation, was appointed as the department’s acting chief scientific advisor in 2012, according to gov.uk, which also states that he is a government economist by background.
This matter was brought to Lamb’s attention during a committee hearing last week, when he asked Prof Chris Whitty, government’s interim chief scientific advisor, if fire safety falls under the remit of DCLG’s top advisor.
Whitty, who oversees the network of departmental advisors, confirmed this, adding that the fire at Grenfell Tower had “raised a very substantial number of technical questions”.
But he said there had been “quite a long gap” since the department had filled this role, and that a previous communities secretary, who he did not name, had felt that scientific advice “was quite limited”.
“During that period, the sense was that a chief scientific adviser was not something that would be terribly helpful,” he said.
Javid’s predecessors include Eric Pickles, who served as secretary of state for communities and local government between 2010 and 2015, and, Greg Clark who had the job from 2015 to 2016.
Asked why Aldridge was listed for the role on gov.uk, Whitty said there was “a slight ambiguity”, and while someone with an economic background was suited as Treasury scientific advisor, for example, other government departments required advisors with a wider portfolio.
“Stephen Aldridge is an outstanding analyst and a very good economist,” he said. “He is very much part of the analytical community, but I would not – and he would not – want to see him as the kind of person who could address questions such as those with Grenfell.”
He added that “it would be advisable to have a serious scientist” employed as chief scientific advisor in departments “where significant amounts of science are used”, including DCLG.
Lamb, a Liberal Democrat MP, told Javid that he agreed with Whitty’s assessment, and urged him and his officials in DCLG to appoint someone as a matter of urgency.
He added: “It is disappointing to learn that such negative attitudes towards science were present at the top of a government department.
“Furthermore, it should not require a disaster like Grenfell to exemplify how important it is to ensure that scientific evidence and advice are key parts of the policy-making process.”
The Department for Exiting the European Union finally appointed its own chief scientific advisor this month – Chris Jones, director for justice security and migration – following months of pressure from the Science and Technology Select Committee.
Most major government departments have a chief scientific advisor.
A DCLG spokesman told Civil Service World: “Officials working across the department already have a wide range of specialist knowledge, including scientific expertise. They work closely with the Government Office for Science as well as drawing upon expertise from across government to inform policy making and advice to ministers.
“If there is a need for additional or specialist knowledge, we will bring in additional expertise as required. For example following the Grenfell Tower disaster, as part of the building safety programme, the secretary of state set up an independent expert advisory panel with a wealth of experience in fire and building safety.”
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