Chief scientific advisers provide vital expertise to help departments make informed policy decisions – not least during national emergencies. But to be effective, they must also be experts in the workings of Whitehall. Beckie Smith spoke to CSAs past and present to discover how they combine these distinctive skills.
"What did I think when I went in? The first thing was that the brief was enormously wide: all science and engineering in the UK.” So remembers Sir John Beddington, a population biologist and academic who was government chief scientific adviser from 2008 to 2013.
Being the government’s top scientist means being responsible for ensuring government policies and decisions are supported by sound scientific evidence. Reporting directly to the prime minister, the GCSA can be called upon to provide evidence from any area of science, in any policy area or emergency.
“Renaissance man though I am, it was pretty clear to me fairly early on that to do the job properly, you had to have a network of people,” Beddington says with a chuckle.
Back then, the network he oversaw as head of the Government Office for Science – or GO Science – consisted of only a handful of departmental chief scientific advisers. Over the next five years, Beddington set up the government science and engineering profession, undertook a mammoth department-by-department review of science advice he likens to “painting the bloody Forth Bridge”, and installed a CSA in every department.
This beefed-up network remains in place today, although some gaps have emerged. No two roles are the same and depending on their departments’ needs, some CSAs are analysts or statisticians from within the civil service; others eminent natural scientists, engineers or chemists from academia or industry.
Each has their own contacts outside government, creating what Beddington calls the “Yellow Pages” of specialist advice. These contacts are essential, says Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care, because “no chief scientific adviser knows everything in their field; we’re all specialists in one field and can cover a moderately wide range outside that, but we have to call on outside advice”.
“We ran some ‘reasonable worst case scenarios’. There might be an explosion due to ignition of hydrogen, and there were four reactors, so what if all four went up?”
Another remnant of Beddington’s time in office is the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which he set up to provide scientific and technical advice to Cobra, the government’s emergency response committee.
In each crisis, his cue to assemble SAGE was a call from No 10. Three such calls stand out: swine flu; the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption; and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
This group’s membership changes according to the emergency. When the Fukushima Daiichi plant went into meltdown in 2011, SAGE included nuclear scientists, health experts and statisticians who together modelled radioactivity levels and their associated health risks to help officials and ministers decide whether to call UK citizens home from Japan.
“We ran some ‘reasonable worst case scenarios’,” Beddington recalls. “There might be an explosion due to ignition of hydrogen, and there were four reactors, so what if all four went up?” After assessing all the risks, he advised the government to tell citizens it was safe to stay.
The speed at which CSAs respond to an emergency is critical, says Whitty, an epidemiologist and physician, who was interim government chief scientific adviser when the first novichok poisoning happened in Salisbury in March.
Because that was a matter of national security, he couldn’t call on external experts in the same way he had in other crises he has faced in his decade as a chief scientific adviser, first at the Department for International Development and now at DHSC. Instead, he was reliant on a much smaller group of people with the necessary security clearance.
But no matter the challenge, Whitty says, science advisers must rely on the resources at hand. “There’s no point in providing excellent advice three weeks after all the decisions are taken. So you have to go with what you’ve got at the time.”
That said, CSAs often remain involved long after emergencies have happened. Ian Boyd, a marine and polar scientist, is CSA to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is leading the clean-up in Salisbury. “Emergencies have an acute phase and a chronic phase, and in that particular case we are right on the tail of it – so for me, the emergency’s still ongoing,” he says.
When it looks like an emergency could be on the horizon, CSAs can set up a precautionary SAGE group to assess emerging hazards. That’s what Charlotte Watts, chief scientific adviser at DfID, did during the 2016 Zika outbreak, after a director general asked her: “What’s the risk to Africa?”
The group she assembled determined there was little they could do to control the virus that was racing through Brazil and Latin America if it reached sub-Saharan Africa, so Watts knew the department needed some “no regrets” options.
“The option we chose was not one that you might expect,” she says. At her urging, DfID led a drive to increase access to contraception. “We knew that there was substantial unmet need, and we wanted to make sure that women in high-risk areas would have an option to delay pregnancy [to reduce the risk it would be affected by the birth defects caused by Zika],” she explains.
“That had value in its own right, but it would also help us support resilience if this strain of Zika did spread to sub-Saharan Africa.”
Her next step in addressing the crisis was for DfID to fund research to help curb future outbreaks. The department is one of three – along with DHSC and the Ministry of Defence – where the chief scientific adviser oversees a significant research budget. Guided by Watts, a professor of mathematical and social epidemiology, DfID funds research tackling pressing problems for development – such as violence against women, food security and epidemics.
This supported the testing of an Ebola vaccine during the 2014 epidemic in West Africa, which is now being deployed by the World Health Organisation and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they continue to battle the disease. “That makes me feel incredibly proud, when I can see something that we have supported really making an impact for the world’s poorest,” she says.
“There’s a need from time to time for me and my colleagues to go to someone and say, ‘You haven’t asked us for advice but I’m going to give it anyway because it matters’"
Despite being immensely complex, emergencies are one area where chief scientific advisers’ function is straightforward to grasp. “People will naturally turn to scientific advice when there are floods, earthquakes, a pandemic like influenza,” Whitty says.
Then there are what he calls “slow-burn issues” where science plays an obvious role, such as air pollution. “There’s clearly a political and economic element to that, but also a very strong scientific element: which pollutants matter, how do we make sure that they’re as far away from people as possible, how do we minimise risks to children and so on,” he says. “A good policy outcome is going to combine all of those things.”
And in Defra, Boyd says, science is so deeply embedded that from fishing quotas to flood management to farm subsidies, “there are very few areas where, if you took the science out, it would remain functional.”
But there are other areas where its importance is less obvious to officials. “There’s a need from time to time for me and my colleagues to go to someone and say, ‘You haven’t asked us for advice but I’m going to give it anyway because it matters’ – where I think someone hasn’t spotted the fact that there is quite a strong science component, or they have an unspoken assumption about the science that is out of date or needs thinking through,” Whitty says.
Science advisers must also look ahead at hurdles the government will have to overcome in future.
“Most people in Whitehall departments, most of the time, are dealing with the immediate problem. They’re only looking six months, a year or 18 months ahead,” Boyd says. “Most of my role is about looking from a scientist’s perspective at what the world is going to look like in 10, 20 or 40 years’ time, and how we need to structure policy or the department itself to meet those challenges. Much of it is about bringing a scientist’s intuition to problem solving.”
One of his proudest achievements is pushing waste up the policy agenda through a report he wrote with former government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport last year. A few years ago, waste was a “deeply politically uninteresting topic, there were just no ministers interested in it,” Boyd says. Now it is one of Defra’s main priorities.
He doesn’t claim credit for the recent “complete turnabout” in the UK’s approach to waste, “but we at least predicted that it would have to turn around and got the evidence in place to be able to land that appropriately”. His work will inform Defra’s forthcoming resources and waste strategy.
This forward-planning should work two ways, Whitty says. “The difficulty is that the policy process moves very fast, and if you’re having to collect science information from scratch you can nowhere near keep up with the speed of policy,” he says, adding that it takes the average PhD student a year to write their first chapter.
Six months or a year’s notice on potential future policy moves goes a long way, he says, because “there is a trade-off between the quality of what we can give officials and the amount of time we’re given.”
As well as working within departments, the chief scientific advisers meet weekly to share intelligence and assess challenges as a network. They are also working on a number of cross-government topics, including air pollution, modern slavery and Brexit.
The group meets regularly with officials from departments such as the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Home Office and the Treasury to talk about what negotiations with the European Union mean for science – for example, whether UK researchers will be able to access EU funding – and for science-related policies such as medicines and clinical trial regulations.
“We make sure that we agree on what we think are the most important priorities across government and make sure that no department is disadvantaged by the government’s negotiating strategy,” Whitty says.
Whitty also co-chairs, with Chris Wormald, head of the government’s policy profession and DHSC perm sec, the so-called “Red Team” that scrutinises the his department’s Brexit preparations to identify potential stumbling blocks early on. He says he was asked because CSAs “are seen to have a degree of independence and can provide a safe, internal challenge to the system”.
"There are many areas where it’s quite interesting and you could give some science advice but it’s unlikely actually to change the policy process"
Science advisers need to understand “how you can be influential without wielding line management accountability, because you don’t have that,” says Patrick Vallance, a biologist who became government chief scientific adviser in April.
They can’t compel politicians or officials to follow their advice and, he adds, nor should they. “I’m not the decision maker; my job is to try and present the evidence as clearly as I possibly can, but never to bend the evidence to meet somebody’s desired outcome. My job is to make sure they’ve got the evidence in front of them to make decisions with their eyes open.”
Chief scientists know their input must be weighed against legal, financial, political and other factors, Beddington says, adding that although his advice wasn’t always universally welcomed, it usually had some impact. Only once does he remember being completely ignored: on whether the NHS should fund homeopathic treatments, which he calls “complete scientific nonsense”. (The NHS finally announced it would stop routinely funding homeopathy last year.)
The extent to which advice is heeded depends on the issue and the individual, Boyd (left) says. “Sometimes there are individuals who totally get it really quickly and there are sometimes individuals you need to work with really hard, who eventually get it or never get it at all. You’ve got a full spectrum, and that includes ministers and officials at all levels.”
He admits that when he presents long-term ideas, “most of the time it doesn’t land very well”.
“What you hear is ‘I’m too busy, can’t deal with this,’ or ‘what’s he going on about?’ but enough of the time it gets through.”
He compares the process to the fairground game where players try to ring a bell at the top of a tower by hitting a lever at the bottom as hard as they can. “I feel like I’m continually hitting the sledgehammer on the thing and it goes up and doesn’t quite get there – but every so often it gets there. Suddenly you get a response from the department, and things shift. They don’t always shift hugely, but they shift enough.”
Knowing when not to give advice is as important as knowing when to give it, Whitty says.
“A lot of the art of being a good CSA is to work out when [your input] genuinely does matter. There are many areas where it’s quite interesting and you could give some science advice but it’s unlikely actually to change the policy process.”
These judgements help to establish a chief scientist’s credibility, he adds. “I’ve seen people who are very eminent scientists who are respected in academia come into government and fail. Not catastrophically, but they haven’t managed to do as well because the skillset you need to operate in government is quite different to the skillset you need to operate in a university, and that’s the experience most CSAs have.”
Watts agrees that being a successful CSA requires a combination of scientific expertise, political acumen and people skills: “It’s that combination of being able to understand and communicate quite technical issues, and to do it in a simple and accessible way that isn’t dumbing down the issue, but is really capturing the essence of the issue so that generalists can understand.”
"Not everybody in the civil service immediately sees why science and engineering could be helpful to them"
One of Vallance’s priorities now is to fill the gaps that have appeared in Whitehall’s science advice network. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government recently reopened recruitment for its first permanent science chief in six years, after initially attempting to fill the role earlier this year.
Last year MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee were dismayed to discover the post at what was then DCLG had been empty for so long, including the period leading up to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people. The department has said it receives support from GO Science and the chief scientific adviser network.
Vallance wants to ensure CSAs are not only present in every department, but also equipped with relevant expertise. At MHCLG, he will appoint an engineer.
Like Beddington a decade ago, Vallance has found “not everybody in the civil service immediately sees why science and engineering could be helpful to them,” he says. “Some will say, ‘we’re not a scientific department, we don’t have any labs, we haven’t got any people in white coats.’”
But, he says, this could change. “I’ve had people who are sceptical and said they’re not convinced, but that’s different from saying, ‘I’m not open to being convinced.’”