Huge inconsistencies in science advice in Government

The scientific advice network across Whitehall suffers from wildly inconsistent support mechanisms, according to new research conducted by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). While some departmental Chief Scientific Advisors (CSAs) have excellent links with their host department, many post-holders may not have sufficient independence, oversight, or access to ministers to properly fulfil their brief, according to the independent advocacy group.

CaSE compiled a departmental CSA scorecard which rates each department according to six objective factors, so that the roles of the CSAs were being compared as opposed to the individuals themselves. The scorecard measured criteria such as relevant expertise, the number of meetings with ministers, and budgetary control. CaSE found that:

  • Of the fifteen government departments featured on the CaSE scorecard, only six performed well in at least half of the measured criteria.
  • Only three departments have published the number of meetings between the departmental CSA and the Secretary of State or relevant Minister in the last year, and only four departments have appointed a Scientific Advisory Committee to support the work of their Chief Scientific Advisor.
  • The best-performing departments were the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department of Health (DH), with the Department for International Development (DfID), Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and Home Office (HO) also scoring highly.
  • Most worryingly, the Departments for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Transport (DfT), and Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), as well as the Ministry of Defence (MoD), are currently without a Chief Scientific Advisor. CaSE is concerned that due to increased financial and staffing restrictions placed upon them, government departments may be less-inclined to fill CSA vacancies, or downgrade their importance.*

The CaSE Scorecard was compiled as part of a response to the upcoming House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee inquiry into the activities of Chief Scientific Advisers, which will shortly begin deliberations.

CaSE’s Director, Imran Khan, commented:

“Science and engineering have a role to play in virtually every aspect of public policy, so it’s vital that each government department is equipped with a well-supported and fully independent Chief Scientific Adviser.”

“We’re concerned to see that so many departments lack some pretty basic structures to ensure that their CSA can do their job properly. You could have the most qualified individual in the world, but if they’re not enjoying enough face-time with Ministers, for instance, are we getting the most out of them?”

“Our research found that DEFRA and DH have the most thorough provisions of all departments for supporting their CSAs, Prof Bob Watson and Prof Sally Davies. On the other end of the scale, the MoD, BIS, DfT and DCMS have all failed to replace their outgoing CSAs in a timely fashion, leaving them without any top-level scientific oversight.”

“Although HM Treasury also scored poorly, it’s worth noting that they’ve recently taken a great step in the right direction by appointing their first ever CSA – a move which we applaud.”

“We urge the rest of Whitehall to follow DEFRA and DH’s lead in thoroughly embedding scientific advice in departmental structures, and call upon the Government to make this happen.”

* On 17th December 2011, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills appointed Professor John Perkins CBE as departmental Chief Scientific Adviser

Notes to editors:

1.       The CaSE Departmental CSA Scorecard rates the current suitability of each departmental CSA up to September 2011. The scorecard is based on departmental responses to a series of Parliamentary Questions asked by Lord Willis of Knaresborough (June 2011), supplemented by CaSE’s own research and data provided by the Government Office for Science (GO Science). Note that the scores relate to the departmental structure for the CSA, rather than the individuals who fill those roles.

2.       You can view the CSA scorecard here or in PDF form here.

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