Science Policy Maxim: Having A Good Science Adviser Isn’t Enough

Colin Macilwain recently discussed science advisers in Nature, focused on the U.K. example.  Unfortunately, the column lacks the clear messaging of the title – “What matters for science is who runs the country.”  But Macilwain’s arguments are worth exploring.

He suggests that the incoming U.K. chief science adviser, Mark Walport, may actually be giving up some power when he leaves his post as the head of The Wellcome Trust in April.  It’s not a crazy notion.  The Trust is the second largest private funder of biomedical research in the world.  It has heft and influence over the direction of research fields that countries may not be able to match.

So, why become a government science adviser?  Macilwain thinks the job is one of bridging gaps between scientists and decisionmakers, but complains that advisers continue to be removed from the corridors of power.  As he puts it, “the scientific adviser’s role has evolved in ways that marginalize its impact on competitiveness.”  I think the notion that the role has evolved to be marginalized is faulty, as it’s not clear that science advisers have ever been as close to the corridors of power that Macilwain thinks they have.

Focus on the title – science advisor.  Right away you know that someone else is making the decision.  Certainly an advisor can shape the options presented to decisionmakers.  But without decision-making authority, I don’t think the adviser will ever have the meaningful influence that Macilwain sees as “the scientific community’s hope” for that position.

The advisers’ role is important – obtaining and providing useful information is essential to making informed decisions.  But absent an election placing that adviser in power, it’s hard to see the scientific community not being disappointed at what a science adviser can do.

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