House of Lords Has Recommendations for U.K. Chief Scientific Advisers; Any Wisdom for U.S.?

Today the U.K. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology issued a report on the roles and functions of Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) (H/T Nature News).  There is really no widespread U.S. equivalent to the CSAs, which are in every major U.K. Cabinet ministry.  While there are chief scientist positions, and the occasional chief technologist position in the U.S. government, they tend to be in lower level agencies with an explicit science and/or technology mission, such as the Air Force, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration.  The only exception appears to be the State Department.

The Lords Committee prepared its report with an eye toward how the system of CSAs could be improved.  Concerned about extended CSA vacancies in some ministries, as well as what it saw as an expansion of CSA responsibilities, the Lords took written and oral testimony from several dozen parties, including most of the CSAs currently serving.  For those unfamiliar with the avenues for science and technology advice in the U.K. government, I recommend you review Chapter 2 of the report.  It helps describe how different the U.S. and U.K. systems are.  One such example is the description of the Chief Governmental Scientific Adviser, who advises the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

“He is a civil servant and acts as the Head of GO Science, a semi-autonomous office of BIS, and is Head of the Science and Engineering Profession across government.” (Page 10)

While U.S. science advocates may think so, in no way is the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology the leader of all civil service scientists and engineers in the U.S.

Back to the report.  Its recommendation, which can be placed in three broad categories (resources, expertise, and independence), get at the heart of an essential, and perpetual, tension found in scientific advice for government.  In the report summary, CSAs are described as follows (page 5):

“Working in the heart of government departments, they provide a source of  independent challenge which seeks to ensure that policy decisions are informed by the best science and engineering advice and evidence available.”

The key word there is informed (there are examples of such informing on page 14).  Science cannot dictate policy, much as scientist seem to want this to be true.  However, even the Lords struggle with that blurry line.

Recommendation 6 (page 61, paragraph 129):

“We share the view of those witnesses who argued that CSAs should be involved early and throughout the policy process. CSA involvement in the policy submission sign-off chain would be a useful method for ensuring that this happened. We recommend therefore that in all departments CSAs should be consulted by policy officials early and throughout the policy process, and that all CSAs form part of the departmental policy submission sign-off chain (paragraph 64).
(Recommendation 6)”

Increased consultation is great, but being part of the sign-off chain could be problematic.  While another recommendation encourages having a process for when CSAs disagree with policy decisions, being part of the submission sign-off chain might mean that the CSA would be signing off on the decision.  I don’t think the Lords mean to allow a CSA veto power over a decision, so I am hoping being in the chain simply means that the CSA is consulted at all appropriate parts of the decision-making process.

Can these recommendations be used here in the United States?  Possibly, though as I noted above, there are few clear analogues between CSAs (who the Lords think should be part-time) and chief scientists and technologists in the U.S.  But the recommendations about expertise of CSAs and the resources to conduct effective research to help inform policymaking seem generally useful for the kind of activity the scientific integrity efforts are trying to encourage.  But those policies have been focused on misconduct more than on access, process and resources.

There’s much more to wrestle with in this report, and I suspect others are currently working on it.  But in terms of the official report, the next action would appear to be with the Cameron Government, who may or may not respond to the recommendations of the report.  Given the tendency of U.K. Ministers (much like politicians in any other country) to selectively act on the available science, I’m not sanguine on CSAs getting more authority that would result in an effective check on executive action.  Scientific integrity policies will continue to be violated in the U.S., and CSAs will continue to be ignored in the U.K.  It may get harder to do so in the shadows, but it won’t go away.

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