Policy advice

April 5, 1996

Governments cannot avoid having an energy policy. But British governments have consistently formed policies by their inability to find or take good advice. An example is energy pricing. Rising prices hurt consumers, but they justify pricey investments in everything from wind machines to nuclear power stations.

In 1977, Tony Benn appointed Peter Odell, then a professor at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, as special adviser. He was known for one thing - rubbishing the escalator-like model of rising prices on which all future energy thinking was based. The appointment was regarded as evidence of Benn's dangerous insanity, and it lasted only a year: almost two decades on the record shows that Odell was right and everyone else was wrong.

Odell's appointment was only one chapter in a series of blunders over energy advice to British governments. Between 1974 and 1977 the late Walter Marshall was chief scientist of the Department of Energy, despite being deputy chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority at the time. This merely added to an existing conflict of interest whereby the UKAEA was charged with promoting nuclear power and advising governments on it.

In the post-privatisation era, the focus has moved from energy advice to energy regulation, where academics like Stephen Littlechild, formerly a professor at Birmingham and now director of electricity supply, have taken a central role.

The problem that persists, however, is that the UK has a tiny base of energy policy academics by comparison with the groups studying almost any other area of the economy. A particular centre, within the University of Sussex's Science Policy Research Unit, accounts for most of them. This group has produced many specialist advisers to select committees - and taken in many substantial research contracts from industry and the research councils - but has never been regarded as a comfortable source of advice to central government, partly because of its record of scepticism about the economics of nuclear power. Enhancing the quality of British academic thinking on energy would have cost under Pounds 1 million a year in the past 20 years: the costs saved in poor decisions would probably have been at least 1,000 times as large. But even the existence of top-quality analysis cannot guarantee politicians will pay attention to it.

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