It's time to overhaul the role of chief scientific advisers – and the Home Office offers a model to follow

As a new report considers how government can make better use of scientific advisers, co-authors Charlotte Pickles and Prof Sir John Aston set out key recommendations based on the Home Office's experience
A series of crises, including the Salisbury poisonings, changed the Home Office CSA role. Photo: Peter Manning/Alamy Live News

Global insecurity, climate change, novel diseases, artificial intelligence. The coming decades will be characterised by profound challenge and rapid change. If Britain is to thrive during this era of uncertainty, it will require ingenuity, innovation and adaptability. In other words, it will need science.

Government has a crucial role to play. It must help create the conditions for research institutions and companies to make new breakthroughs, to attract the private investment that funds innovation, and to support the adoption of those discoveries. But it must also apply science to its everyday work. Scientific expertise is key to better policymaking and delivery.

The pandemic demonstrated the vital importance of scientists and scientific analysis: from understanding how the virus spread and who was at greatest risk, to modelling the efficacy of different interventions and how the public would respond. However, one critique of the pandemic response is that scientific insight was not always integrated with other disciplines, and science was too often presented as a singular subject. As former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance writes in the foreword to our new paper: “There is no one science.”

Only by making the most of the full breadth of scientific knowledge and disciplines – from physics to statistics, computation to ecology – and integrating this with economics and social science, will government be equipped to make the best decisions and tackle the most challenging issues facing the country.  

The title of our new paper, ‘From sidelined to systemic’, captures this need for science to be properly embedded in the day-to-day work of all government departments. To achieve this, we argue for an overhaul of the role of departmental chief scientific adviser (CSAs).

CSAs are incredible resources – usually recruited from outside government, they are distinguished scientists with deep expertise and wide networks. However, while in some departments they lead well developed science systems, feeding into policy development and decision-making across that department’s portfolio, in others they are ‘lone operators’ whose expertise is significantly undervalued. This is reflected in the fact that some CSAs, the most senior scientists in a department, are appointed as directors, lacking the status and clout in a hierarchical system to drive behaviour.

This latter model characterised the Home Office CSA when John Aston (co-author of the paper) was appointed in 2017. The CSA was a ‘nice to have’, not a systemic contributor to the decision-making process. This helps explain why scientific evidence itself, according to then permanent secretary Philip Rutnam, was variably applied across the department’s work: at one end of the spectrum the counterterrorism and the security functions used it well, while at the other end, migration policy lacked a robust evidence base.

A series of crises, including the Salisbury poisonings and drone attacks at Gatwick, coupled with the personal commitment of the permanent secretary to properly integrate science, changed this, leading to a complete transformation in the CSA role.

In 2017 the Home Office CSA had a staff of 1.5, and was not even responsible for the Department’s science capabilities. By the end of 2020, the CSA not only led those capabilities, but also the analysis and strategy functions.

In the 2019 government science capability review, led by Vallance, recommendation one states: “Every department should have a clearly defined science system”. The Home Office now has one, and this broader role has continued under his successor.

The Home Office experience from 2017 provides a case study for how to embed the CSA as a ‘system leader’. It is over 15 years since the Government Office for Science (GO-Science) undertook a rolling programme of departmental reviews. A global pandemic and the rapid advancement of cutting-edge technology later, it is clear an update is urgently needed. A new set of reviews should be used to identify weaknesses in departmental attitudes towards, and the use of, science, and recommend a CSA model for departments where they are not currently being used to best effect – and all CSAs should be at least director-general level.

John’s early experience also shows the need for a clearer induction. Working in government is a unique experience, with ministers, Parliament, legislation and all the quirks of Whitehall to contend with. The value of bringing in external experts as CSAs is clear – not least because a key part of their role is to provide “an independent challenge function to the department” – but that is undermined if the person can’t navigate the complex Whitehall environment.

The long lead time between appointment and taking up the CSA post provides an ideal opportunity for teach-ins and informal early discussions. There is no formal or standardised process for this, but John used this time to meet key people, attend events and get to know the scientific landscape of the department.

Given that CSA tenures tend to be a few years, being able to hit the ground running is vital, which is why we are recommending that GO-Science, alongside individual departments, also overhaul both the informal pre-arrival, and formal post-arrival, inductions.

The era-defining threats facing Britain will, as Covid-19 showed, require the application of deep scientific expertise. Realising the opportunities of cutting-edge technologies to drive innovation and prosperity will require deep scientific expertise. Understanding the potential impacts of different policy choices and identifying the best way forward will require deep scientific expertise.

An incoming government must act now to ensure Whitehall is properly equipped to deliver, starting with ensuring CSAs can provide the science leadership government needs.

Professor Sir John Aston is a former Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser and Charlotte Pickles is  director of Reform

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