GCSA at 50: reflections of the past, present and future of scientific advice. By Andrew Howard

Solly Zuckerman, left, overlooks PM Wilson’s briefing on the effects of pesticides on peregrines.

On Tuesday, Remembrance Day, the Royal Society hosted an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA). Discussions were held across two panels with a total of 5 men that have held the role – including the incumbent Mark Walport – concerning the history and fate of scientific advice. This took place markedly just 24 hours before the role of scientific advice in policy-making suffered a serious knock-back, as it emerged Anne Glover’s current position as the European Commission’s CSA was being scrapped. Nonetheless, at the end of 50 years of scientific advice in the UK, the future role of the GCSA looked to be promising from the anniversary’s proceedings. The basis of the anniversary was quickly challenged however, when the first speaker, Lisa Jardine, pointed out that the position had existed under various titles since the World Wars, most notably with Frederick Lindemann under Churchill. Perhaps the most critical voice throughout the proceedings, the UCL Professor of Renaissance Studies started by reminding us that before Solly Zuckerman created the somewhat elaborate job title under Harold Wilson in 1964, Lindemann had been influential in designing Britain’s bombing strategy in Germany. This was done with the controversial advice that it would be better to bomb working class areas of Germany, since these were more densely populated, and artillery would be wasted on gardens if the RAF chose more middle-class districts.

Using, in her words, ‘the eyes and ears’, of C. P. Snow (author of Science and Government, 1961), Jardine criticised the concept of a science advisor when the advised, notably the leader of a nation, has no way of assessing the received wisdom. This lays the government open to the political agenda of the GCSA. Her suggestion? More science education as a way of better scrutinising policy and facilitating open and critical debates. This was C. P. Snow’s conclusion and Jardine expressed that it is both astounding and depressing that we are having the identical debate 60 years on.

These criticisms of science advice became rather stark compared to the nostalgic, anecdotal remarks of GCSAs Sir Robin Nicholson and Sir William Stewart, both of whom had served under Thatcher (the latter under Major also). At times the audience could be forgiven for thinking they had attended to pay homage to the Iron Lady. Those who had worked with her, the aforementioned GCSAs and Lord Wilson, who held economic and environmental positions in Thatcher’s Cabinet, all lauded her scientific training, no-nonsense attitude, and her record of spotting climate change before it was ‘fashionable’. Nicholson made no attempt to deny John Agar’s (UCL Professor of Science and Technology Studies) claims that his term as an advisor to Thatcher enjoyed an alignment of politics, and instead agreed that he ‘sympathised’ with her views. Quite how someone who sympathises with radical politics can pertain to being neutral is lost on me. Retorts that sympathies to Thatcher come from a scientific perspective expose how little science is able to remain neutral and apolitical once it enters a political setting.

However, a theme of the evening remained venerating effective GCSA’s as neutral. Accordingly, and despite his sympathies, Nicholson also remarked on the importance of not getting involved with policy, and just to keep to the science. Duly, after the second half of the evening Mark Walport would have the audience believing that he is fulfilling this description to the highest order.

Both he and previous scientific advisor Lord May, who served under Major and Blair, had missed the first half of the event, as became evident once May started repeating Jardine’s history of the scientific advisor in Britain and citing C. P. Snow. Walport excused himself for his absence, striking the room with a sincere appreciation of the job’s gravitas when mentioning it was due to commitments concerning the UK’s role in the unfolding Ebola crisis. Much in concurrence with the comprehensive and succinct Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan, he then proceeded to emphasise the importance of a systems approach in advice giving. The scientist needs to appreciate social values as well as scientific rationality, and it is for this reason that engineering question marks over fracking are missing the point – the concern is equally, if not more, a social one. By combining different frameworks, Walport suggested that the disjunction between science and society can be mitigated. This sentiment is reassuring for those cautious of one-sided scientific advice.

Also on the panel, Jill Rutter, Programme Director for Institute for Government, came to develop with Lord May a proposal for more open policy-making. Reflecting on the BSE crisis, May pointed to the need to emphasise scientific uncertainties and open up the policy process. This paralleled criticism of the government’s interpretation of the Southwood Report to mean that the disease did not require market interference. If the policy process is not an open, democratic one, then the government cannot expect trust in resultant policies.

Rutter furthered the importance in this of scientists retaining the public’s trust. Citing the Ipsos MORI Trust in Professions poll she issued the significance of science as a highly trusted profession holding onto its credibility amidst political (a profession with low public trust) appropriation to bolster policy support. Throughout the event, the respective GCSAs issued an appreciation of their boundaries, and condemned former Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMB) chairman David Nutt’s overstepping of the line as a scientific advisor. Both Walport and May underlined the role the of the GCSA as not telling the government what to do nor to criticise them, but to clarify the playing field. This sentiment aligned with Lord Wilson’s earlier comments that the key to good scientific advice is in its clarity and communication.

Walport emphasised his explanatory role, and responded to a question over the increasing media involvement of the GCSA by saying that he would not be seduced into making critical comments on the government. It would be remiss not to mention how these two more recent GCSAs (May and Walport) resembled a more sophisticated version of the role, apparently much more in tune with their political role.

If we are to take a narrative of the GCSA from the evening, it would mark a progress towards scientific advice as increasingly appreciative of its significance in policy-making. Simply giving ‘the scientific viewpoint’ is somewhat naïve. Everything is steeped in politics, and by comparing different approaches, as Walport suggested, we can hopefully move towards neutrality.

Juncker’s axing of the European scientific advisor was surely influenced by the appeal from environmental groups, including Greenpeace, that the CSA ‘concentrates too much influence in one person’. Scientific advice therefore needs to make sure it pools together and represents a range of approaches to best avoid unilateral decision-making, Mark Walport would have us believe he is up to the task. Taking Jardine’s message of increased scrutiny, we need to be aware this enhanced neutrality is not a foil for political agenda.

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