Why do ministers ignore a flood of expertise?

Phil Ashworth on how to get scientific experts inside the political machine

February 20, 2014

We publish paper upon paper on flooding and catchment management but are we trusted to act for the nation in a crisis?

The phone hasn’t stopped ringing. With record-breaking rainfall in parts of the UK, scientists are being sought to deliver instant opinions on the latest flooding disaster.

Universities’ public relations departments are in overdrive – “we must get you on the TV”. Suddenly we are all deemed flooding experts, no matter where we sit within the panacea of geomorphology, hydrology, meteorology and engineering; the press demand reaction, prediction and solution.

Competition from rival “expertise” is thin. Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, trusts no one; Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, says he is not an expert but will talk about floods anyway; the magician Paul Daniels has apparently conjured up a solution to all our problems from his soggy armchair.

Meanwhile, the prime minister holds meeting after meeting of the government’s crisis management committee, Cobra, and pledges to do the practically meaningless “everything that can be done” to help those affected by flooding. Even money is no object, we are told.

What an astonishing opportunity for research excellence frameworkaholics. You could not dream of a more potent mix for an odds-on certainty of a 4* impact case study for REF 2020. And what timing. Universities are now flush with impact policy officers, impact metric collectors, impact bloodhounds. Where else could we bag all the impact criteria in one single swoop?

Flooding is top of the political agenda. Forget international aid: Labour leader Ed Miliband has declared that the rising water table is about “national security” because our homes, businesses and livelihoods are “under attack” from climate change.

If we can all pull together and solve this one, there are benefits to the economy, to health and to quality of life. It is a golden ticket to the REF case study ball.

But hang on, what about that last REF impact criterion – influencing and changing public policy and services?

Surely David Cameron has summoned all the flood experts universities and research centres can muster to work night and day as part of a newly formed Emergency Flood Intelligence Taskforce?

After all, if he had a legal problem he would surely hire a top QC, if he had a life-threatening disease he would want the best and most-informed surgeon.

Yet, inexplicably, no such taskforce has been mobilised.

Scientists – and particularly academics – are not at the heart of the political machine.

And frankly, they either do not or cannot influence local or national policy.

We have plenty of models, lots of field measurements, a UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and huge investment from the research councils.

We publish paper upon paper on flooding and catchment management, many in high-impact journals (read by few politicians or the public), but are we trusted to act for the nation in a time of crisis?

As a member of the public commented on Sky News: “These experts always pop up and know all the answers, they are mostly wise after the event and never come up with an accurate prediction of the event.”

So how do we get on the political map? We have to coordinate our efforts, not act as separate branches of science that advocate their own solutions.

We need gifted, media-savvy researchers from a range of backgrounds to give a trans-science, balanced verdict. We need our own environment emergency committee funded by national government. We should have seats at the environment secretary’s table. We will be ready for the next flood – does the government want to listen to us?

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