Influence wielded by chief scientific advisers ‘varies hugely’

The status and influence of chief scientific advisors varies wildly across government, with many advisors lacking sufficient independence, oversight, or ministerial access to properly fulfil their briefs.

This is the conclusion of research carried out by advocacy group the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which has ranked government departments according to their treatment of their chief scientific advisors.

The research was carried out ahead of the Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into the role of chief scientific advisers, the first public hearing for which was yesterday.

Based on departments’ responses to a series of parliamentary questions asked by Lord Willis of Knaresborough in June, CaSE has produced a scorecard rating each department according to six factors.

These include their chief scientific adviser’s academic experience, frequency of meetings with ministers and level of managerial and budgetary control, as well as whether they are supported by an advisory committee.

The best performing departments were the Department of Health and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Department for International Development, the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Home Office also scored highly.

But, of the 15 departments surveyed, only six performed well in at least half of the measured criteria. Only three have published the number of meetings between their chief scientific adviser and secretary of state in the last year, and only four have appointed an advisory committee.

CaSE is also concerned that financial pressures in Whitehall might encourage the four departments currently without a chief scientific adviser, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Ministry of Defence, to leave the positions vacant, or to downgrade them.

Imran Khan, CaSE director, said: “We’re concerned to see that so many departments lack some pretty basic structures to ensure that their chief scientific adviser 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, are we getting the most out of them?

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

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