Government Chief Scientific Advisor Outlines Key Challenges Ahead

The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington FRS, outlined the key challenges facing society at this afternoon’s Parliamentary and Scientific Committee lunch, commemorating the Committee’s 70th anniversary. Prof. Beddington followed Lord Jenkin of Roding, who outlined the history of the Committee, its importance to the Second World War effort, and its relevance today to policy-making.

Addressing an audience of MPs, peers, representatives of NGOs, learned societies (including the BES), business and government agencies, Prof. Beddington stated that commitment to science at the very top of Government was fundamental to policy-making. He felt that the necessary structures were in place in the UK to put science advice at the heart of Government, with every Government Department, bar HM Treasury, now having appointed a Chief Scientific Advisor. The Advisors meet with one another every six weeks, and with the heads of the Research Councils every twelve weeks. However, scientific advice in Europe is still lacking, with Prof. Beddington asking, ‘Who do I phone?’ in Europe, when an issue emerges. He outlined his hope that this situation would shortly change, given the announcement, made by Jose Manuel Barosso, of the intention to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor to Europe.

In outlining priorities and challenges for society in the future, Prof. Beddington highlighted a) the proliferation of nuclear energy, b) the development of UK National Infrastructure and c) disease, as key. The Prime Minister and Prof. Beddington were in conversation regarding establishing a ‘centre of nuclear excellence’, to examine pathways for the development of nuclear energy which did not allow for nuclear proliferation and the terrorism threat this would entail.

Prof. Beddington urged the assembled members of the Committee to commmunicate and reiterate the challenge posed by demographic change to the stability of society; not only is the world’s population increasing at a rate of 6 million people each month but in westernised societies the size of the working-age population is declining. This poses a tremendous challenge for the way in which healthcare will be funded and treated in the future. Futures studies, such as those commissioned on land use, the future of food and farming and international migration by the Foresight Programme, could help policy-makers to anticipate and prepare for the consequences of the ‘perfect storm’ of population change, increasing demand for food and water, which would characterise the landscape of 2030 and beyond.

Finally, Prof. Beddington urged Committee members to address ‘anti-science’ in UK society, as characterised by changes to pesticide legislation in the EU and the proliferation of alternative medicines. “People are entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts”, he stated, quoting Steven Chu, President Obama’s energy advisor.

The UK is the most scientifically productive nation in the world, Professor Beddington said, and it fell to each member of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee to make sure that science was, and continued to be, adequately and appropriately funded and supported.