Defra's top scientist to stay in post until after Brexit

Boyd said he has helped to develop a "increasing appreciation of the embeddedness and the importance of science in Defra".

Photo: Defra

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s top scientist, Ian Boyd, has confirmed he will defer his planned departure until after Brexit.

In an exclusive interview with CSW, Boyd, a polar and marine scientist, has confirmed he will stay in post until at least April next year, in part to avoid disruption as Defra completes its Brexit preparations.

“I’ll be here beyond the end of March next year, beyond Brexit,” he said. “Changing chief scientific advisers in the middle of what’s going on at the moment is probably not a good thing to do.”


Boyd is responsible for providing scientific input on policy matters and strategic oversight of science-related policy. He also oversees the science profession across the Defra group – which includes the Whitehall department and its agencies, arm’s length bodies and science labs.

Boyd announced in March last year that he would step down from as Defra’s top scientist after five years in the role. However, in October he said he had decided to stay on for “at least a year”, citing Brexit and opportunities for the department to “lead the intellectual agenda” on funding the government was pumping into research.

Speaking to CSW, Boyd said he was asked to stay on by incoming environment secretary Michael Gove, who took over the brief after the June 2017 general election. He added that recruitment for his successor had been slowed down by the snap election, which was announced a month after he said he would step down.

Boyd, who is also a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews, said he has “two roles in the Brexit context: one is not to forget that there is a time beyond Brexit where we’re still going to have to function and the world will look quite different, so planning for that; and the second is to keep an eye on things generally going on in the department and to be totally honest with people if one sees that things are becoming difficult or aren’t going quite in the right direction”.

Reflecting on his time in the department, Boyd said: “We have an increasing appreciation of the embeddedness and the importance of science in Defra.” He oversees more than 40 staff “covering all the strategic elements across Defra for science evidence and analysis”, contrasting with just a private secretary and diary secretary when he arrived at the department.

“But it’s outcomes that count, and I think I can point to quite a few of those – although I often question whether we actually have enough impact,” he added. One such outcome was helping to increase the policy profile of waste through a report he wrote with former government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport last year.

Work on the report, which will inform Defra’s forthcoming resources and waste strategy, began when waste was a “deeply politically uninteresting topic” to ministers, he said.

Once a successor has been appointed, Boyd said he would return to his university position full-time.

He said in his remaining months in the department, he wanted to ensure “the whole functionality of science in Defra continues on an upward trajectory with momentum behind it, so that when my successor walks in, they walk into a situation which is full of opportunity rather than just challenge.”

“Our slogan in my office is ‘Defra powered by science’, which is certainly true,” he said. “Many people understand this but if I can get this better recognised at all levels then I will have done well.”

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