Interview: Sir John Beddington

The former chief scientific adviser is relishing his new advisory role at the Oxford Martin School, tackling global challenges

August 1, 2013

Former government chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington may no longer have a private office of six, a staff of 50 and the ear of the prime minister. But rather than taking a well-earned retirement, the expert in applied population biology is putting some of his experience into practice at the Oxford Martin School, an institution that aims to address “the most pressing global challenges of the 21st century”.

Beddington’s five years in the government role, from 2008 to 2013, were far from sedate. He had ministers seek his advice on emergencies such as the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, pandemic flu and the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor. Closer to home, he was involved in the fallout after the controversial sacking from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs of David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London.

But what Beddington might be best remembered for is his use of the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe the predicted combined problems of food, water and energy shortages in the future leading to rising food prices, migration and conflict.

“Between now and 2025 there will be another billion people in the world, the vast majority concentrated in urban environments,” he says, before reeling off a list of compounding issues including a huge increase in demand for basic goods, an ageing population and greater weather variability spurred by climate change.

“We’re going to have to think hard about disasters, about better infrastructure, better ways of having some degree of resilience – and not just to floods and storms hitting cities on flood plains, but the expectation of famines and droughts. And they’re coming at a time when the world population is going to be much larger.”

This diagnosis is what he calls the “gloomy Beddington background” to the important and complex problems that make his latest role at the University of Oxford so appealing. “The Oxford Martin School has a set of people dealing with these very big global issues,” he says.

The school is designed to be an interdisciplinary research community addressing “the most pressing global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century”, while also striving to apply the results of the research in policy – indeed academics must demonstrate that their research will have an impact beyond academia in order to get funded.

Involving more than 30 institutes and projects across the university – and over 300 postdoctorate scholars and professors – research within the school ranges from addressing the looming “perfect storm” to new economic thinking and nanotechnology in medicine.

According to Beddington, another appealing feature is the philanthropic funding at the school’s heart, which he says allows it to undertake research in areas out of the mainstream.

The school was founded in 2005 with a $100 million (£65 million) donation – the biggest in Oxford’s 900-year history – from James Martin, technology author and entrepreneur. He had become more and more concerned that academics and policymakers were working in isolation on the increasingly complex problems facing the world.

Beddington met the school’s founder only once – Martin died unexpectedly in June aged 79 – but he says it was “a meeting of minds”. “I spent a couple of hours with him, and we talked through some of the issues I think are important and shared views.”

He recalls Martin as “an extraordinary man” who had a keen interest in the school’s work and how it was addressing his original vision. Martin also continued to fund the school; in 2009 he contributed another $50 million to create a match fund, which enabled it to support a further 19 programmes.

But rather than leaving the school’s future uncertain, Ian Goldin, its director, says Martin’s death has served to reinvigorate its commitment to “carry forward his vision for a better future” and create a legacy that will reflect his “vision, his creativity, his curiosity, the breadth of his intellectual interests and his optimism”.

Man taking picture of crashing wave

Making use of contacts

Beddington’s role as professor of natural resources management and senior adviser at the school (which he hopes will involve having “a licence to poke your nose in”) is a half-time appointment that he fulfils alongside other positions as a non-executive director of the Met Office and chairman of a high-profile global panel to fight hunger.

Given the school’s policy focus, Beddington’s government links will no doubt prove useful. Despite the strong restrictions that prevent civil servants lobbying once they leave government service, he admits that the school is not going to “make me an adviser and pretend that I hadn’t had experience in government”.

“I’m not going to be lobbying the government on behalf of the Martin School or indeed the University of Oxford, but obviously the sort of thing I can do is engage,” he says, citing a recent invitation to give a presentation to the G8 science ministers on opportunities and challenges of the 21st century, despite no longer being a government adviser.

The chief scientist role is now filled by Sir Mark Walport, the former director of the Wellcome Trust. Does Beddington have any advice for his successor?

“I would not be so pretentious as to give advice to someone like Mark, but the obvious things are transparency and characterising uncertainty when [necessary],” he says.

Another tip is to make use of the cadre of scientific advisers now in place across Whitehall – a system far more advanced than similar set-ups in the European Parliament.

Now, after a few months out of the chief scientist job, how does Beddington feel the government treats the advice it is given? Were there frustrating moments when recommendations went unheeded?

“Your job [as an adviser] is to make certain that [the] advice provided is the best you can get, including the uncertainties…but of course on any particular policy decision it isn’t just science that comes into it, there will be finance, other political considerations, arguably ethical considerations as well.”

Only on homeopathy – which he calls “nonsense”, and when used to replace conventional medicine such as vaccines, pernicious – does he feel the science advice remains ignored. “Oddly enough that is the only issue where scientific advice says ‘this doesn’t work’, but the decision has been taken [to fund it on the NHS],” he says. “In a sense that is the democratic principle.”

Nor does he recall any instances when he clashed with David Willetts, the universities and science minister, with whom he had meetings two or three times a month.

“There is a difference between a civil servant and the minister, but I found it very easy to work with David. I don’t recall anything where we actually differed on policy or advice, although we obviously had different orientations,” he says.

Despite his increased experience and breadth of interests, Beddington expects the transition back into academia to be a smooth one, given that it is where he spent the majority of his working life, compared with just five years in the Civil Service.

Nor will his colleagues notice much of a change in him, he says, adding: “I don’t think I ever did Civil Service-speak that well.”

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