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Science Advice: from the national to the local

Report of the Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement (CAPE) seminar and panel discussion on Chief Scientific Advisors, 14 December 2020

This event was part of CAPE’s programme of work exploring academic-policy engagement within local and regional government and the role that a science advisory function might play. The goal of the discussion was to explore the role of chief scientific advisers (CSAs) and share the perspectives of those who have been or are presently CSAs with national government or public bodies. This note highlights the key points from the panel discussion and consolidates the most salient messages raised during the Q&A and open discussion.

Key points from the discussion | Reflections from Speakers | General Discussion | Final Thoughts | About CAPE | Annex: Panel biographies

Key points on scientific advice from the discussion

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Reflections from speakers

Giulia Cuccato, Head of Science Capability, Advice and Leadership, Government Office for Science

Giulia Cuccato currently supports the Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA, Sir Patrick Vallance) in ensuring the government has access to the best scientific advice and information to inform policies and decisions. CSAs usually operate at a Director or Director General level within Government Departments and are responsible for delivering robust, relevant and high-quality science and engineering evidence and advice to their Department. They must have an understanding of the relevant research landscapes and provide the most reliable and applicable evidence into their Department. Building partnerships and networks for more effective innovation is also important. GO-Science supports the network of CSAs and their officials through weekly ‘Brown Bag Breakfast’ meetings which provide a forum for the CSAs to hear from external experts and to share updates on current work to maximise collective expertise to solve cross-departmental challenges.

Brian Collins, former CSA, Department of Transport and Department for Business and Skills

Brian was CSA to DfT and BIS (now BEIS) from 2006 – 2011. An important part of his role was being a ‘critical friend’ to the Departments. For example, in challenging the £3 billion Thameslink transport initiative, he had to find a balance between advocating for new ways of thinking about science, engineering and analysis, while maintaining positive political relationships within and between Departments.

Brian told us that there 408 different Government agencies and 13 public corporations through which central Government Departments operate. This means that policies are enacted through these arms-length bodies, as opposed to coming directly from Government Departments and politicians so it is important that CSAs are able to provide a continuity of advice. However, this can be difficult in the presence of a high turn-over of Secretary of States and Departmental rebranding.

Another challenge is how to provide science advice at a local or regional level when technical and scientific capacity has historically been outsourced over the last 50 or 60 years. Brian suggested that local universities should be better utilised to improve the capacity and capability of local government, while also providing the research and analytic base to improve local issues. Brian also stressed the need for local and national alignment across authority, budgets and initiatives. Though this might be complex, it is especially necessary for cross-cutting issues, such as air quality, which affects multiple Departmental areas (transport, health, industry, international).

Ian Boyd, former CSA, Department of Food and Rural Affairs

As the CSA for Defra, Ian’s position was cross-governmental and saw him integrating his work across Whitehall. Ian highlighted four key functions for a CSA:

Alan Penn, CSA at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Alan joined the MHCLG in September 2019 as their first CSA since 2012. He has been working to develop a science function within the Department (distinct from the analysis function). He noted that while the analysis function conducts the rapid evidence synthesis to inform policy and business cases, the science function has a longer-term view. Transitioning from working in academia to working in Government was a culture shift, and similar to the other CSAs on the panel, Alan also had to navigate significant changes and challenges to the landscape in which he was working, including two Prime Ministers, an election, Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though there are no silver bullets to solve ‘wicked problems,’ CSAs are well-placed to present balanced evidence to help ministers to make difficult decisions. In order for a CSA to best frame scientific advice, they must understand the political ideology underpinning a country’s policies, as it affects how the advice is received and enacted. When implementing a policy, it is also important to consider policy evaluation to look back and see what worked and what did not work. While Whitehall has siloed departments covering each area of government, local authorities must integrate all of these different departments and functions for its local area. Tensions can arise in so doing, but the MHCLG plays a role as a steward to local government.

Guy Poppy, former CSA, Food Standards Agency

Guy was the first CSA at the FSA, which is a non-ministerial government department created in 2000 to restore public trust amid concerns around food poisoning, intensive farming methods and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or “mad cow disease.” Guy strived to maintain a continuity of sound advice, despite operating within a constantly changing environment – three general elections, three Prime Ministers, Brexit and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the CSA, Guy had to tension his responsibilities as a scientist acting as the independent ‘critical friend’ with push-back from the rest of the Department. The CSA network was invaluable for sharing best practice and lessons learnt for navigating these internal relationships. Guy used the example of his work around antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to illustrate the internal and external advisory aspects of his role. While there was tension between the veterinary science and the clinical science, Guy took an evidence-based approach by systematically assessing the role of food in AMR in order to advise the UK’s Chief Medical Officer that the focus should be on the use of antibiotics in the food production system as a whole.

Communicating the facts as clearly as possible was crucial for risk communication – this includes what is known and not known, what information is sought, and what will be done with it. For example, during the norovirus outbreak in December 2019 and January 2020, FSA evidence showed that the risk of acquiring the virus from food was much higher than previously thought. This information had to be communicated very carefully given the sensitive context of ongoing Brexit negotiations and trade details, as well as the onset of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

The CSA network is well-placed to support with newly emergent products, where there is limited evidence and policy bases. For example, cannabidiol (CBD) products have been available in the UK since 2019. However, the FSA had evidence that some products contained tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is illegal in the UK. Working with other CSAs created a coordinated approach across government to define the legally permissible threshold value of THC in a product without requiring a prescription.

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General discussion: science and research advice at the local and regional level

Is scientific advice proactive or reactive?

While ideally a CSA would be able to be proactive in their approach, there are often so many pressing issues that much of their efforts are spent in addressing immediate concerns. Having time in the role to establish a culture of science will enable CSAs to get on the ‘front foot’ and subsequently be in a position to project and predict future needs.

How can scientific support be provided across multiple local authorities and blurred boundaries?

The scale at which the CSA is operating and where their department or agency is situated plays a role in how scientific support and advice is provided. For example, in local authorities, everything is integrated whereas on a national governmental scale, individual departments are needed to operate. It is important to understand the culture of the department or authority and how current contexts and problems can fit into a longer-term vision. A sense of common purpose – working toward improving the lives of the wider population – can mitigate a focus on siloed projects or tasks. Taking a collegiate approach that weaves together societal, scientific and technological considerations will have much greater potential for delivering effective science advice.

How can central science and advisory groups connect with local decision-makers so that local policymaking is being informed by the national context and vice versa?

Different metrics for measuring success at the national and local level are needed. Local skills building is a key element for placemaking. With regards to local decision making, the panel stressed that those who are locally based know what the local opportunities are and what the local challenges are. Southampton City Council’s CSA represents an opportunity to bring a local university together with a local authority, but one not without challenges.

Final thoughts

The panellists noted that there are key personal attributes that are important for the role of a CSA – empathy, vision and strategic thinking, curiosity and integrity. Being curious and willing to learn about different topic areas enables CSAs to better situate the work of their department, both historically and in the present. ‘Intellectual backbone’ and the ability to withstand being swayed by political pressures is crucial for maintaining integrity in the role. Fostering public trust through showing empathy for the people you are interacting with and working within government and effective communication with the public is critical to success.

Aligning and integrating across different policy areas through collaboration with other CSAs and departments is also highly important. While part of the role involves responding to immediate policy issues, CSAs should also have a long-term strategic view for the direction of their office and to shape the role that science plays in the policymaking process.

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About CAPE

The £10 million Research England-funded CAPE project (April 2020 – 2024), led by UCL in partnership with the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham, is exploring how to improve the use of evidence in public policy by understanding what works in different institutional, geographical and policy contexts. Working with our policy partners (the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Transforming Evidence Hub) and other stakeholders, CAPE also aims to improve the diversity of engagements and participants and build greater collaboration between universities.

Appendix: Panel biographies

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government on Food and the Environment at Defra

Professor Sir Ian Boyd was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government on Food and the Environment at Defra, a post he held for seven years, and is currently a professor at the University of St Andrews. He is currently the Chairman of the UK Research Integrity Office and has been a member of the SAGE committee during the COVID-19 pandemic. He previously served as the first Director of the Scottish Oceans Institute and as Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit. Sir Ian is leading the move to sustainability at the University of St Andrews, chairing the institution’s Environmental Sustainability Board. As a marine and polar scientist, Sir Ian spent 14 years leading a research programme in Antarctica and is a recipient of the Bruce Medal for Polar Science and the Polar Medal. He originally graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a degree in Zoology and gained his PhD at Cambridge University. He has also been awarded several honorary degrees. He was knighted in 2019 for services to Science and Economics in government.

Brian Collins, Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Transport & the Department for Business and Skills

Professor Brian Collins is Professor Emeritus of Engineering Policy at UCL. He is currently Ambassador at Large in a £278M capital investment programme in 16 Universities in the UK, UKCRIC, which is delivering a robust and innovative research and analysis base for informing the £600bn estimated spend in Infrastructure in the UK in the next few decades. He specialises in Governance and Policy issues for large complex, multi-sectoral, multidiscipline infrastructure programmes. Prior to joining UCL he was the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) from October 2006 and CSA for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and subsequently Department for Business Innovation and Skills from May 2008. He was previously Professor of Information Systems at Cranfield Universit

Guilia Cuccato, Head of Science Capability, Advice and Leadership, GO-Science

Guilia leads the Chief Scientific Advisor Network and academic engagement in GO-Science. Prior to working for GO-Science she worked as scientific officer within Defra. Previously, she was a research scientist for IFROM, Tigem and the University of Reading. She holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Reading

Alan Penn, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)

A Professor in Architectural and Urban Computing at University College London (UCL), Alan’s research focuses on understanding the way that the design of the built environment affects the patterns of social and economic behaviour of organisations and communities. Before joining MHCLG, Alan was Dean of The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at UCL. He was Chair of the Architecture, Built Environment and Planning sub-panel for REF2014 and for RAE2008. Alan is a board member of Space Syntax Ltd, a technology spin-out from UCL, and is trustee of the Shakespeare North Trust, a charity which is constructing a new Shakesperian theatre and educational centre in Prescot, outside Liverpool.

Guy Poppy, Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Food Standards Agency

Professor Guy Poppy is Professor of Ecology at the University of Southampton and Programme Director for the SPF Food systems programme – part of a £47.5 million interdisciplinary research programme led by the Global Food Security Programme (GFS) and supported by UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). He served as the FSA’s Chief Scientific Adviser from 2014 to 2020. He also continues with his research in global food security at the University of Southampton, where he is Professor of Ecology and previously directed Interdisciplinary Research across 11 research themes and 4 institutes. Previously he worked at Rothamsted Research, becoming Principal Scientific Officer.