Government Office for Science: roles, responsibilities and programmes

It was all change at the top of evidence based policy in Government this month, with Sir Mark Walport replacing Sir John Beddington as Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA). This role is supported by the Government Office for Science. Chris Fleming, Head of Research Community Issues at the Government Office for Science, came to talk to the Policy Lunchbox network last week about the role of the office, and how scientists can best engage with GO-Science.

GO-Science works to support the GCSA to ensure that the best science and engineering advice is brought to bear effectively on Government policy and decision-making. A Government might require scientific advice in a variety of circumstances; Chris highlighted this could often be when the natural world asserts itself in a frightening way. Although these tend to be infrequent, Ministers need the best advice as quickly as possible. During Sir John Beddington’s period of office, this type of advice was needed for a number of events: the ash cloud that emerged from the Icelandic volcanic eruption, Fukushima, ash dieback, and pandemic flu. In these circumstances, a Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies is convened to provide specialist evidence-based advice.

As well as tackling short term, one off events, GO-Science also works to assess topics that span a longer time period. Through their Foresight programme, issues such as obesity, flooding and mental wellbeing are tackled. These complex projects, crossing departments and disciplines, seek to provide information to policy makers through scientific evidence and futures analyses. By explaining the difficulties in modelling futures, Chris highlighted why Foresight was so important. In addition to being unable to predict the future direction of single factors with any reliability, it is also difficult to know where you sit in the bigger picture. Sometimes, sudden changes can arise without warning, no matter how much evidence you have gathered beforehand. In these cases it is better to lead research that explores a range of possibilities or outcomes to allow resilience to all possible outcomes.

Ensuring Government has the capability to respond to issues, utilising evidence and scientific information, is another challenge that GO-Science faces. Chris outlined the network of scientists within and connected to Government that can lead to the use of scientific evidence in policy making. Each year, approximately, 2000 academics engage with GO-Science, from a wider academic community of around 180 000. Within Government, there are Chief Scientific Advisers in every department, and these engage with GO-Science on cross-cutting issues. Advice on specific topics is also available to departments through Scientific Advisory Committees and Science Advisory Councils. Civil servants who have a background in science are able to come together in the Government Science & Engineering (GSE) community, which was established in 2008. From a total workforce of around 400 000, 3500 are members of GSE.

Chris highlighted the difficulties in utilising scientific evidence for policy making. A body of research including that by the Institute for Government highlights the issues that policy makers face throughout the process. Policy can easily be influenced one way or another by a myriad of drivers. Evidence is just one factor that influences policy, with policy makers also considering ethics, legality, internal politics and media coverage amongst others. Communicating evidence to Ministers and departments in a timely and accessible way also poses problems. Policy and academic timing cycles are very different, and evidence will rarely be immediately available.

Effective engagement by academics or researchers can be achieved in a number of ways. Secondments or placement schemes– the Royal Society, UCL, BBSRC, NERC, CSaP and the BES all offer these -, consultations, commissioned research, and advisory committees and councils all provide realistic ways of communicating evidence to policy makers. Chris gave a number of tips for those that do engage: do your research and review the current landscape, engage proactively, be persistent, have a strategy, and above all, expect momentum.

Chris finished the discussion by drawing attention to Professor Sir Mark Walport’s five highlevel priorities for his term in office, which focus on science for growth, and best use of evidence:

1) Promoting the contribution of science, engineering, technology and the social sciences to economic growth by linking industry, academia and government;

2) Developing the capabilities that are vital to the infrastructure that underpins our security, well-being and resilience;

3) Providing the best scientific advice in the case of emergencies;

4) Ensuring the best use of quantitative and qualitative analysis across government;

5) Providing advocacy and strong leadership for science inside and outside government.