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Explainer

Government chief scientific adviser

The government chief scientific adviser provides independent advice on scientific issues at the highest levels of government.

Dr Patrick Vallance

Who is the government chief scientific adviser?

The government chief scientific adviser (GCSA) provides independent advice on scientific issues at the highest levels of government and tries to ensure that that policy making is underpinned by science and engineering.

The current GCSA is Dr Patrick Vallance. He is a former president of research and development at the multinational pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Prior to joining GSK, he was a clinical academic and professor of medicine at University College London.

When was the post of government chief scientific adviser established?

The first cross-government chief scientific adviser was the zoologist Solly Zuckerman, who was appointed by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1966 as part of his efforts to modernise the civil service.

Prime ministers and some government departments appointed scientific advisers before this date. Frederick Lindemann (Viscount Cherwell) was a prominent scientific adviser to Winston Churchill during the Second World War (and a notably divisive figure across Whitehall). Zuckerman served as scientific adviser to the Minister of Defence before his appointment as GCSA.

How are government chief scientific advisers recruited?

The GCSA is a leading scientist, usually recruited externally. Professor Chris Whitty, who served as interim GSCA in 2017–18, and is now the government’s chief medical officer, was previously a departmental chief scientific adviser.

Many GSCAs, including Dr Vallance and his two immediate predecessors, have a background in medical sciences.

Who does the government chief scientific adviser report to?

The GCSA reports to the cabinet secretary and to the prime minister. Unlike the chief medical officer, the role of GCSA is not a statutory one and its scope is not defined in legislation.

What is the government chief scientific adviser’s role?

The GCSA provides advice on scientific issues to the prime minister and members of the cabinet, both on long-term strategic challenges, and the immediate response to public emergencies, such as disease pandemics and natural disasters.

The GCSA is an intermediary between the scientific research community and policy makers. Sir John Beddington, who held the position from 2008 to 2013, described the role as “a conduit for advice rather than a single opinion.” The GCSA also plays a role in shaping the government’s policy to support broader research and innovation. In November 2019, for example, the GCSA published a review of Government Science Capability, to incentivise more effective use of research and development spending.

The GCSA is also the head of the Government Science and Engineering Profession, responsible for supporting 11,000 scientists and engineers across government. The GCSA leads Science and Engineering Assurance reviews (SEA reviews), together with departmental permanent secretaries. These are external peer reviews of departmental systems and processes for incorporating science and engineering advice into decision and policy making.

The GCSA also co-chairs the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology, an independent advisory board on cross-cutting science and technology issues.

What is the government chief scientific adviser’s role in a public emergency?

The GCSA attends COBR meetings when scientific advice is required in emergencies and will often provide advice directly to the prime minister. In some cases, such as the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001, the GCSA will take a hands-on role in the crisis response. David King, GCSA in 2000–07, met with the prime minister at least once a day over the six weeks of the foot-and-mouth crisis. He also took the lead in explaining the government’s response to the media.

The GCSA also co-chairs, with the chief medical officer, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which is responsible for ensuring that a single source of co-ordinated scientific advice is provided to COBR and across government. The membership of SAGE changes depending on the nature of the emergency. When the emergency is a matter of national security – such as the attack using the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury in 2018 – the GCSA must rely on a smaller circle of experts with the necessary security clearance. The GCSA can also set up precautionary SAGE meetings to look at emerging risks before a COBR has been activated.

The GCSA and the CSA Network contribute to the National Risk Register and its classified government version, the National Risk Assessment. The National Risk Register is a list of ‘reasonable worst case scenarios’. These are major accidents, natural events, and malicious attacks that fulfil the definition of a civil emergency and have a chance of at least one in 20,000 of occurring in the UK in the next five years. 

How is scientific research organised across government?

The GCSA co-ordinates a network of departmental chief scientific advisers (CSA) across government and plays a role in their recruitment, managing performance and setting objectives.

There are CSAs in most UK government ministries, the three devolved governments and a number of other public bodies (such as the Met Office, Food Standards Agency, and the Office of National Statistics). The CSA network holds weekly meetings to assess challenges and share information.

There are over 70 scientific advisory committees and councils across government, which provide advice on a range of issues, from the misuse of drugs to emergencies.

What is the Government Office for Science?

GO-Science, which is headed by the GCSA, is a semi-autonomous office within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It has two functions: to provide scientific advice to ministers and conduct research on medium and long-term strategic issues and policy challenges.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s special adviser, has called for the government and civil service to place greater emphasis on science, engineering and long-term, horizon-scanning analysis. He is not the first to do so. Similar recommendations were made by the Fulton Committee, established by Wilson in 1966, the same year the post of GCSA was established. The current GSCA’s review of Government Science Capability also focused on these issues.  
 

Watch our in conversation event with Dr Patrick Vallance

Keywords
Health
Publisher
Institute for Government

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