A former chief scientific adviser reflects on how pandemic preparedness was thrown away, and how the structures to bring expertise into government failed when they were needed mostby David King / July 5, 2020 / Leave a comment
The government chief scientific adviser is intended to create a bridge between the latest developments in research in our universities across to the government and civil service. The post is traditionally filled by parachuting in a leading academic researcher, for (almost always) a limited period of four years. Created by Churchill at the beginning of the Second World War, it has been deemed to be such a success that it has continued to the present day.
But has it remained a success? Or, the better part of a century on, has the pandemic exposed fundamental problems in the science-government relationship? Before coming to judgment on how that crucial bridge between has held up in the current emergency, it is worth revisiting what the post is designed to do and how it has developed since its inception.
Over time the position has evolved very significantly, with a team of civil servants to help deliver on all the demands of the post, based in the Government Office for Science—very appropriately shortened to “GO-Science.” Of course, the personality of the GCSA is a key determinant in how the office is run. I believe the key qualities sought are firstly, world-leading scientific ability at the cutting edge of a field of research, and secondly, the ability to communicate clearly, without excessive jargon but with rigour. I would add that the occupant should have an understanding of policy processes in government, and a broad view of the UK and the world.
Even for a GCSA with these attributes, it is seriously demanding, since the object is to survey all challenges across government, and then to lead an intervention where it is believed that action at the top level is appropriate. Opportunities and risks to the UK often have to be surveyed deep into the future, often going well beyond the normal time span operated on by departments. Opportunities might arise from new innovations developed by our publicly-funded research scientists where the UK is deemed to have a lead, such as in molecular biology or the cognitive sciences. Risks arise when research analysts pick out a future challenge, such as from infectious diseases, climate change or terror threats to…