A collection of essays about scientific advice in government has just been published on the website of Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).
‘Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall
’ is a compilation of think pieces written by a variety of academics and policy advisers, including the outgoing UK chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington. Based on a recent series of seminars aimed at stimulating fresh thinking and practical recommendations scientific advice in government, the compilation was launched at the recent CSaP annual conference (held on 18 April 2013).
The essays cover a variety of aspects of how science influences government policy. In his essay, ‘The science and art of effective advice’, Sir John Beddington summarised that the key challenge for a scientific adviser is ‘to ensure that the best science and engineering advice is brought to bear effectively on all government policy and decision-making.’ He acknowledges a number of challenges associated with this aim however, including balancing ‘strategic long-term advice on the one hand and the responsive marshalling of evidence for immediate questions on the other.’
Many of the contributors referred to the challenges associated with increasing amounts of public data. ‘Opening up big government data sets should allow much better applied academic work on the impact of government policy,’ said Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government in her essay, suggesting that more could be done around the next Research Excellence Framework to incentivise more applied research and expertise for policymakers. Rutter also identified the need for greater scientific understanding in government generally. ‘If Whitehall is to become more scientifically literate, there need to be more people with science backgrounds working on policy,’ she said.
Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta, asserted that big data, combined with new tools such as semantic analysis of social media could prompt a ‘revolution in how evidence feeds back into decision making’. He continued: ‘At the very least it’s likely to become more natural for professions like teaching or the police to be influenced by data – whether it’s real-time personalised feedback on how individual pupils are faring, or data on crime patterns in neighbourhoods.’
Elsewhere in the collection of essays, Harvard professor Sheila Jasanoff talked about the field of science and technology studies (STS) and the importance of keeping scientific advisers to account. Natalie Day from Oxford Martin School talked about the problems of giving advice on long-term decision making, while Dr Alice Bell from the University of Sussex looked at the role of social media and its impact on gathering opinions. Perspectives from the US and Australia were also covered.
Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, welcomed the publication. ‘It is a good step forward in showing how to develop the relationship between Whitehall and the scientific community, in order to strengthen evidence informed policy,’ he said.