Comment Blog 17 January, 2024

Scientifically sound: improving Whitehall's policy making

Charlotte Pickles

Britain faces significant challenges, from climate change to novel diseases, an ageing population to mass migration. Tackling these and securing the nation's future prosperity will require ingenuity and innovation – it will require science.

Government has a vital role to play in enabling the conditions for science to flourish, but it must also place scientific approaches and expertise at the heart of its own decision making.

Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) are appointed to provide that scientific leadership, but their status and impact is variable across Whitehall. While some departments have well developed science systems, overseen by their CSAs, others lack this, and their CSAs operate on a more ad hoc basis.

As former Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance says in his foreword to our new report, that means that “while there is much to celebrate, there is still a long way to go to ensure science carries the weight and influence in Whitehall that is needed for any modern effective government.”

Applying scientific disciplines to policymaking allows a better understanding of evidence and trade-offs, it can inform testing and model impacts, ensure assumptions and preconceptions are challenged, and inform decisions with cutting-edge thinking in that field. In short, integrating science will lead to better outcomes for us all.

'From sidelined to systemic' puts forward recommendations for embedding CSAs at the heart of policymaking and for ensuring departments are utilising science across their portfolios.

The evolution of the CSA role in the Home Office provides a case study for how to achieve that. Sir John Aston, co-author of the paper, was appointed as CSA in 2017. When he arrived at the Department the role was seen as a “nice to have”, but “fundamentally, the department just didn’t seem to institutionally know how to make best use of a CSA.” This was evidenced by the fact that John had a staff of 1.5 and was not even responsible for the Home Office’s science capabilities.

A series of crises later (including the Salisbury poisonings), combined with the personal commitment of then Permanent Secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, led to a fundamental shift in the CSA role. By the end of his tenure, John was a Director General with responsibility not just for science in the Department, but also analysis and strategy. The role had shifted from ‘lone operator’ to ‘system leader’.

Vallance, in an interview for the paper, told us that the ‘lone operator’ model of CSA “absolutely does not work”, precisely because they are “only capable of reacting or driving the odd thing” rather than meaningfully spearheading the science agenda within a department.

To provide the scientific leadership required of a modern Whitehall, CSAs should be appointed at at least director general (DG) level, ensuring they are a core part of a department’s executive team, and they should be engaged in all aspects of that department’s work.

To make this a reality, the Government Office for Science should swiftly undertake reviews of each department’s science system – similar to those of 15 years ago – and recommended changes where shortcomings are found.

To help keep departments accountable, and mitigate against the risk of CSAs continuing to be sidelined even at DG level, each department should be required to submit an annual report on the state of their science system to the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee. This should include details of activities undertaken and a forward look to the coming year, and be published.

Whitehall is frequently criticised for its inability to properly use specialist expertise, and science is no exception. Yet the complexity of many of the biggest challenges facing Britain demands deep and varied expertise. The mature science systems, under the leadership of well-respected CSAs, in some departments shows what is possible. Time to make that true in all areas of Whitehall.