Ministers and officials need good advice from experts to make good policy. Chief scientific advisers, which 15 departments now have, should oversee how departments bring in expertise – but they are not always as effective as they should be. Dr Patrick Vallance, the newly appointed Government Chief scientific adviser, who advises the Prime Minister and leads the network of Chief scientific advisers across government, wants to change this. Departments should support him.
At an event at the Institute for Government, Dr Vallance said that too often appointing Chief scientific advisers has become a tick-box exercise for departments. Last week, giving evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee, he said “there is absolutely no point in having a Chief scientific adviser who sits off on one side and thinks thoughts and nobody can hear them or wants to listen to them.”
This echoes Institute for Government research, published last month, which found that the influence of Chief scientific advisers varies significantly between departments. In some departments they are very powerful. In Defra, for instance, the Chief scientific adviser is integrated into the senior executive team, chairs important committees and is supported by a staff of 30. But in other departments they work two days a week with a support staff of one. Some were described as ‘marginal’ figures, excluded from important decisions and not visible to officials.
Dr Vallance’s focus on this problem is welcome. If departments exclude Chief scientific advisers – who are supposed to be a crucial voice of challenge, ensuring that departments base policy on a rigorous evidence base – it augurs badly for how well they spend public money and the soundness of the policy decisions ministers and officials make.
But what steps can Dr Vallance take to improve things?
This is a tricky question. It is in the gift of each department to choose how they use the role to meet their own needs. This flexibility is important – departments have their own cultures and face very different challenges – but some departments have used it to ensure officials are not challenged by strong independent advice. Dr Vallance will need to work closely with permanent secretaries and other senior policy and analytical officials to change this. Shining a light on good and bad practice will help.
Dr Vallance has also already made some practical suggestions. He has proposed changes to how Chief scientific advisers are appointed, with more consistent job descriptions, job grades, accountabilities and assessments – and more input from the Government Chief scientific adviser in selection. This is sensible. (The civil service previously opposed efforts by the Lords Science and Technology Committee to formalise the role).
Dr Vallance also wants to enable departments to call on more inter-disciplinary advice. Such an approach is vital to tackling complex problems government faces, from obesity to climate change. But if it is to work, the Chief scientific adviser network needs to become genuinely inter-disciplinary. We found it remains dominated by hard science, with social science considered an ‘orphan science’.
To these he should add three further areas. First, better induction processes. One chief scientific adviser we spoke to told us that it took up to two years to become fully effective and induction processes are often poor. Second, a stronger line on ‘double-hatting’ – acting as Chief scientific adviser while continuing another senior official role in the department. Five of them currently do this. This model may work for some departments, but they need to make clear how much time they are expected to commit to the role, and how they are able to be effective challengers of departmental processes. And third, they should be more clearly accountable for the quality of evidence used by their departments, working with permanent secretaries and heads of policy. This was the key recommendation from our recent report.
Dr Vallance has set out a clear agenda for strengthening the role of scientific advice across Whitehall. Departments should support it and commit to looking with open minds at how they can get most value from their Chief scientific advisers to improve how they use evidence.