Strengthening the role of Chief Scientific Advisers

29 February 2012

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has today published its report on the role and functions of departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs). The report sets out a range of recommendations to ensure that Government policy decisions are supported by the best science and engineering advice available.

The Committee concludes that the current system of CSAs has much to commend it and CSAs play a crucial role in offering science and engineering advice and evidence to inform Government policy but suggests that certain aspects of the system are a cause for concern.

The Committee received evidence of obstacles CSAs can encounter when seeking to offer advice to inform the policy making process. For example, a former Home Office CSA described how the first he heard about the proposals to introduce ID Cards in the UK was on the Today Programme. He was therefore unable to offer advice on the error margins relating to biometrics and existing technology before the policy was announced. A former CSA to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport described how, when off-shore wind policy was being developed, he lacked access to decision makers and so was not able to offer engineering advice to the relevant discussions.

The Committee identify a number of "essential characteristics"– both institutional and personal – necessary to enable CSAs to operate effectively.

In order to ensure that CSAs are able to challenge ministers and support departmental use of science, the Committee recommends that:

  • CSAs should be recruited from outside the civil service to ensure that they have appropriate standing and authority in the scientific community. This will be vital to afford them the authority to provide advice to Government and challenge ministers.
  • Appointments should be part-time (but at least 3 days a week) and for fixed period of 3 years (with the possibility of renewal) to ensure CSAs maintain critical links with academia and industry.
  • CSAs should be graded at Director General or Permanent Secretary level, and have direct access to ministers, to ensure that they can exercise influence at the highest level.
  • All CSAs should be given a seat on departmental Boards and given a formal role in policy submission sign-offs, to ensure they have oversight of their department’s work.
  • All CSAs should have a budget to commission advice and evidence to support policy making.
  • The Government Chief Scientific Adviser should conduct an annual assessment of CSAs’ performance to ensure that they are engaging effectively with their department, the scientific community, industry and with their equivalents across Whitehall.

The Committee states that these recommendations will strengthen the voice of science in government, ensure that all CSAs play a full role in departmental policy making and that they are given sufficient resources to carry out their role effectively. 

The Committee is also concerned that there had been extended CSA post vacancies in some departments (still outstanding in the Department for Culture, Media and Sports) and that the Ministry of Defence CSA post had been downgraded.

Commenting at the publication of the report Lord Krebs, Chairman of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, said:

"CSAs play a crucial role in informing Government policy with science and engineering evidence, and we are pleased that all Ministerial departments now have a CSA post.

However, if all CSAs are to do their job effectively they need expertise, independence and resources. That is why we are recommending that all CSAs should be external appointments and are graded at Director General or Permanent Secretary level. This is important to ensure that CSAs can challenge developing policy and ensure that it is informed by sound science and engineering advice.

We have found examples where CSAs were not able to have a proper say on a policy during its development, but with the changes we recommend, including a seat on the departmental Board and enhanced resources, the role of CSAs will be strengthened and the process of policy making improved across Government."

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

More news on: Parliament, government and politics, Parliament, Lords news, Committee news, Science and technology, Central government

Share this page