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): Continue reading