Good advice for science advisors – from the book Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Whitehall

I was surprised to find a well-informed essay on science policy – in, of all places, the Guardian. At the end of the article I found out why it is such a good essay:

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. He is on Twitter @geoffmulgan. This article is from the book Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Whitehall (edited by Robert Doubleday and James Wilsdon) which is free to download here from 18 April 2013.


(…) Formal scientific knowledge sits alongside these other types of knowledge, but does not automatically trump the others. Indeed, a politician, or civil servant, who acted as if there was a hierarchy of knowledge with science sitting unambiguously at the top, would not last long. The consequence is that a scientist who can mobilise other types of knowledge on his or her side is likely to be more effective than one that cannot; for example, by highlighting the economic cost of future floods and their potential effect on political legitimacy, as well as their probability.

These points help to explain why the role of a chief scientific adviser can be frustrating. Simply putting an eminent scientist into a department may have little effect, if they don’t also know how to work the system, or how to mobilise a large network of contacts. Not surprisingly, many who aren’t well prepared for their roles as brokers, feel that they rattle around without much impact.

For similar reasons, some of the other solutions that have been used to raise the visibility and status of scientific advice have tended to disappoint. Occasional seminars for ministers or permanent secretaries to acclimatise them to new thinking in nanotechnology or genomics are useful but hardly sufficient, when most of the real work of government is done at a far more junior level. This is why some advocate other, more systematic, approaches to complement what could be characterised as the “clever chap” theory of scientific advice.

First, these focus on depth and breadth: acclimatising officials and politicians at multiple levels, and from early on, to understanding science, data and evidence through training courses, secondments and simulations; influencing the media environment as much as insider decision making (since in practice this will often be decisive in determining whether advice is heeded); embedding scientists at more junior levels in policy teams; linking scientific champions in mutually supportive networks; and opening up more broadly the world of evidence and data so that it becomes as much part of the lifeblood of decision making as manifestos.

Here the crucial point is that the target should not just be the very top of institutions: the middle and lower layers will often be more important. A common optical mistake of eminent people in London is to overestimate the importance of the formal relative to the informal, the codified versus the craft.

Second, it’s vital to recognise that the key role of a scientific adviser is to act as an intermediary and broker rather than an adviser, and that consequently their skills need to be ones of translation, aggregation and synthesis as much as deep expertise. So if asked to assess the potential commercial implications of a new discovery such as graphene; the potential impact of a pandemic; or the potential harms associated with a new illegal drug, they need to mobilise diverse forms of expertise.

Their greatest influence may come if – dare I say it – they are good at empathising with ministers who never have enough time to understand or analyse before making decisions. Advisers who think that they are very clever while all around them are a bit thick, and that all the problems of the world would be solved if the thick listened to the clever, are liable to be disappointed.

(…) In optimistic moments, I hope that we are moving towards a period of more overtly experimentalist governance, where governments are willing to test their ideas out – to run RCTs and embed continuous learning and feedback into everything they do. Experimental government would certainly be better than government by instinct, government by intuition and government solely guided by ideology.

In such a context, the old model of a clever man given a desk in Whitehall, sitting in a corner writing memos may be even more anachronistic. We certainly need highly intelligent eminent experts to guide decisions. We need to pay more comprehensive and sophisticated attention not only to the supply of useful knowledge, but also to how that knowledge is used. By doing this, governments and advisers can make more informed decisions, fewer mistakes and respond better to the complex problems they face. But let’s be as serious in making use of the evidence about evidence, as we are about the evidence itself.