With a month of taking office, the new Government Chief Science Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, has become a pantomime villain to at least one environmental commentator, branded as an industry stooge for an article he wrote in the Financial Times in advance of the European debate. Indeed the article went further – to claim that science advisers did less speaking truth to power and instead acted as front men (fall guys) for politicians.
So what does the bee story tell us about scientific advice and government?
First, it illustrates that scientific advice can inform – but not necessarily settle – issues. In this case there are laboratory studies which suggest significant potential for neonicotinoids to damage bee colonies – but some inconclusive field trials by Defra’s science agency. Some experts criticise the quality of those trials. Defra itself acknowledges the need for more research. Scientists disagree on what the balance of the current evidence base suggests in the right course of action.
Second, it illustrates how rapidly evidence is conflated with values. So environmental groups think the evidence points to the need for a ban; those who use neonicotinoids think it doesn’t. Evidence becomes more like evidence in a court of law – used to support a position, than an objective indicator of the right course of action.
Third, there are other issues that need to be taken into account alongside the “simple” science: the impact on food production and food prices; what other pest control strategies farmers adopt and their impact on wildlife – and other potential “unintended consequences”. Walport has been attacked for putting the bee decision into that wider economic context – but that is where government and the scientists who advise government need to be prepared to operate.
Fourth, it shows that even interpretations of the “precautionary principle” are contested. Monbiot accuses Walport of wilful misinterpretation of what to do when there is scientific uncertainty but potential risk; Walport claims that too often it is used to justify disproportionate panic reactions. Megaphone evidence wars do not provide a particularly enlightening way forward.
One useful development is to divide the scientific assessment from the wider decision. The government has done this on the equally contested area of fracking – commissioning the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to assess the scientific impacts, separate from an assessment of the economics and politics. Claire Craig, director of the Government Office for Science, pointed to this approach as the way forward at a recent CSAP conference and Parliament’s Environment Audit Committee, in its report on pollinators and pesticides, called for environmental risk assessment to be separated from the political-economic decision-making. In the case of bees, one thing the scientific community does seem to agree on is the need for more research and close monitoring of the impact of the moratorium.
In my article for the collection on the Future of Scientific Advice in Whitehall launched at that conference, I borrowed US academic Roger Pielke Jr’s distinction between “abortion politics”, driven by values and “tornado politics”, driven solely by evidence and information. But the bee story shows how many scientific debates in government lie somewhere in the messier middle of the spectrum. And to be effective the Government Chief Scientific Adviser needs to help politicians, his civil service colleagues and the public, navigate through that muddle.