By Winnie Agbonlahor

05 Nov 2014

The government’s chief scientific adviser and head of the science and engineering profession, Sir Mark Walport, tells CSW about his priorities in the role

Some 50 years ago, in 1964, the government appointed its first chief scientific adviser (CSA): Sir Solly Zuckerman. Today this post – which includes the role of head of the science and engineering profession – is held by Professor Sir Mark Walport, a very different figure. Zuckerman had been CSA at the Ministry of Defence, and served on a host of government committees. But Walport came into government from outside, a doctor and research scientist whose last job was director of the Wellcome Trust. He led the wealthy charity, which funds biomedical research and the medical humanities, for 10 years.

What made him join government? He saw an opportunity and went for it, he replies – and in making that leap, he followed “the best piece of mentoring advice I ever got: that careers can’t be planned”. He often passes on the same advice, he says, for “if you have too narrow a view of where your job is going to take you, you’re likely to be disappointed”.

Apart from passing on this pearl of wisdom, he doesn’t get involved in career development or training in the profession. Taking a central approach to training in a “disparate community of 15,000 or so scientists, engineers and technologists working all over the country”, he says, would be “a mistake”, because the “training opportunities need to be bespoke.”

The profession, he points out, “is not coherent or unified in the same way as lawyers or economists are, because even outside [government] there isn’t any single profession of being a scientist: if you come from my background, and you’re a medic, you have a medical royal college; if you’re an engineer then you know whether you’re a civil or a mechanical engineer and you’ll probably have a chartered engineering [body]; if you’re a biochemist, there’s the Biochemical Society. So there isn’t a single unique profession of being a scientist, there isn’t any unifying qualification, and the needs are somewhat different.”

“The politicians I work with expect to be told the science as it is known” Sir Mark Walport

His priority for the profession is to make sure its members “have the best possible career – whether they’re specialists wielding a pipette, a spanner or a computer.” This he does by “holding the people with ultimate line management responsibilities – the departmental heads of profession – to account,” meeting them three to four times a year.

Where he does have direct involvement is in the newly-created science and engineering Fast Stream and in senior appointments – including departmental CSAs, whose role it is not only to research and provide scientific advice, but also to “communicate scientific issues clearly to policymakers”. Walport admits that “the language of science can be impenetrable to non-scientists,” but adds that this never becomes a problem with CSAs, because being an effective communicator “is part of the job description.”

The channels through which members of the profession feed their advice into policy-making are “not perfect”, he comments, but on the whole they’re “pretty well-established”. In 2012, the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee voiced concerns that the CSAs were often being left out of the loop in policymaking; Walport, however, says that while the situation could be improved, it’s not a major problem. “Bringing analysis and policy together is very important, and the analytical professionals work closely with the policy” staff, he says.

Moreover, Walport is “impressed by the fact that the politicians I work with do take the science seriously, and they expect to be told the science as it is known.” The way it operates, he says, is that “science feeds into policy, and policy doesn’t alter science – that would be the wrong way round.” Is there ever a conflict between science and the policy direction ministers want to take? “No,” he says. “Not as long as you’re clear on the job, which is to provide advice to our elected politicians.”

Walport has, however, appealed for “science to become a much more important component of diplomacy and foreign relations between nations.” In August, he wrote in the Guardian that “the need for scientists and policymakers to work together around the world has never been greater.” International collaboration is second nature to scientists, he says, pointing out that “science has always been a global enterprise.”

Indeed, The Royal Society – a self-governing fellowship of scientists from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine – “had a foreign secretary before the British government,” Walport notes. The society, whose fellows include world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, appointed its first foreign secretary, Philip Henry Zollman, in 1723 – 59 years before the UK government. So British science had the institutions to forge a foreign policy long before the government; and these days, Whitehall relies on its scientists and engineers to help it forge its own policies. It seems that the CSA’s half-century-old role is only going to get more important over the next 50 years.

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