"No shortage" of scientific advice for Brexit ministry, says government chief scientist Mark Walport

Department for Exiting the European Union "consulting very extensively" on the impact of Brexit to the science sector, says top government adviser, after MPs urge the new department to take on a full-time expert

By Matt Foster

25 Jan 2017

The government's top scientist has sought to reassure MPs that the Department for Exiting the European Union is getting regular advice from experts as it cracks on with Brexit, after concerns were raised about the lack of a dedicated scientific adviser at the new ministry.

Late last year, MPs on the Science and Technology Committee said they were "not convinced" that the UK's science and research sectors were "at the heart of DExEU's thinking and planning for Brexit", and called on the department to recruit a chief scientific adviser "as a matter of priority".

Most government departments have their own chief scientific advisers, but ministers have indicated in recent months that DExEU is more likely to instead draw on the combined resources of the Government Office for Science (GOS).

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That prompted committee chair Stephen Metcalfe to again urge the department to take on a full-time adviser, saying it was "fundamentally important that ministers across government get the best possible advice; a role that externally-recruited expert CSAs are specifically designed to fill".

Sir Mark Walport, the government's most senior scientific adviser and head of the GOS, faced questions from the committee on Wednesday about the scientific advice available to the Brexit department.

He told MPs that while it was up to "individual" departments to decide whether or not to hire a CSA, ministers at DExEU had been keen to listen to the experts.

"There has been no shortage of seeking scientific advice from that department," said Walport. "I've met [DExEU minister] Robin Walker on several occasions [...] and he's come to the Council for Science and Technology and met them. So there has been quite active engagement, particularly with Robin Walker."

Asked by committee chair Stephen Metcalfe why DExEU appeared to be "resisting" hiring its own adviser, Walport replied:

"I think that's easy to say sitting in a committee room in this corridor.

"But I can only imagine the workload in DExEU at the moment and the number of issues they're trying to tackle. And you know, I can confirm very clearly that I've had several discussions, they are well aware of the issues and, ultimately it must be their decision whether to appoint a CSA or not."

Walport said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had already "collected a great deal of evidence" on areas likely to be affected by Brexit, and he said he believed that DExEU was "consulting very extensively" on the likely impact of withdrawal to the science sector.

Dr Rupert Lewis, who serves as director of the GOS, said DExEU had still not ruled out appointing a CSA. But he pointed out that the operating style of DExEU – a relatively small Whitehall department – has so far been "to draw on expertise across government, including ours", rather than build up its own teams of experts.

"The chief scientific advisers in other departments are experts in their subject fields," he added. "And those government departments need a great deal of scientific advice.

"The main kind of advice that DExEU needs you could describe as science policy – so the relationships with different kinds of EU bodies. BEIS has a very strong science policy capability. They have been leading on science policy for some time. So they are very capable of giving good advice to DExEU."

Walport meanwhile denied that the lack of a CSA at the Brexit ministry was a blow to the reputation of scientific expertise in government.

"The vast majority of departments do have chief scientists who play an extremely active role in providing scientific advice for the policies of those departments," he said. "So I don't believe that, as it were, it damages the position of CSAs in government as a whole."

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