Tom Ireland speaks to the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, about influencing policy
The Biologist Vol 61(5) p16-19
Professor Sir Mark Walport is the Government's chief scientific adviser and head of the Government Office for Science. Previously head of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Mark's responsibility is to advise the Prime Minister and his cabinet, and ensure the Government receives – and uses – the best scientific advice.
How do you go about presenting important scientific advice to the Prime Minister?
Do you send reports, or ring him up and explain things to him?
It's a combination. If you want to communicate to very busy people, then you have to be able to communicate briefly. There's no point expecting someone who every night of the year has to read a box of papers two inches thick to read a 100 page report. It's about communicating succinctly, clearly, not using jargon and getting the key messages across. It needs to be action orientated: "Here's what you can do." The same applies to me when I am seeking advice. I need very clear communication.
How do you keep on top of all the areas of science for which you are responsible?
I am lucky in that I am given tutorials 17 times a day on every subject on the planet. The enormous privilege is getting a unique oversight of the UK sciences and getting to speak to the smartest people working across the science and engineering network. It's what the Germans call Wissenschaft, which means the whole of science, engineering, technology and social science. I have a fantastic continuing professional development, I suppose. It's very good fun.
David Willetts, who is seen by many as a great advocate for science, left the cabinet recently during a reshuffle. Is it frustrating that, when trying to ensure Government continues to make policy based on sound science and evidence, ministers are suddenly replaced by those with no knowledge of the department?
No, not in the slightest. We've just had the privilege of a superb minister for science in David Willetts for a number of years. I know that he has an excellent successor in Greg Clarke. It's the nature of politics and the nature of democracy that governments change. It's like the famous Churchill quote: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that
have been tried."
We have the best system of embedded science advice of any country in the world. It's a unique system with a chief scientific adviser in each department, and between us we have a broad range of skills and meet around this table each week. In Europe, for example, there are some countries that don't have a chief scientific adviser let alone one in each department.
Each of us has very broad networks that we can call on, so my job is to bring in the best advice, and particularly deal with issues that run across Government departments. I look to academies, universities and industry, and wherever they are in the world.
David Nutt [the former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD)], was sacked because his evidence-based views on drugs did not fit with the Government's policies. How independent is your work? And how precarious is your position were you to fundamentally disagree with Government policy?
I am a permanent secretary of Whitehall and bound by the civil service code. It is not my job to criticise policy publicly. My job is to give advice transparently. I do give scientific advice, but I do not comment on Government policy – that isn't my job.
If scientific advice is not followed, is there a mechanism to tell you why, or do you just shrug and say, "oh well, I tried"?
Science is one of the lenses through which policymakers look. But only one of the lenses. Drug policy is a very good example of this: there are the harms of the individual compounds, but then there are questions of the people who distribute them and associated criminal activities. There are all sorts of issues that are about social policy and social justice, and politicians make decisions based on all of that. With respect to the ACMD, there is a protocol that ministers follow to explain when they make a decision not to follow the scientific advice.
And ministers actually do that every time they don't follow the scientific advice?
Yes, in the case of khat [the chewable plant stimulant recently banned], the protocol was followed to the letter.
How do scientific advisers provide advice when decisions need to be made before robust scientific evidence can be gathered?
Well, if there is an absolute absence of evidence, you have to say that, but it's usually more the case that there's evidence that's incomplete. It's about finding the best people to give the best advice in whatever the emergency is. How do you control an outbreak of a particular disease before you know what the organism is or its epidemiology?
Part of the job is communicating the uncertainty as well as the risk, and being open and sometimes saying "we don't know yet" or "this is our best guess, but there's a lot we don't know".
Politicians often can't get the traditional academic view – "give me a programme grant and five years and I'll get you the answer" – as the event will be long gone and irrelevant.
Do you think the Government should influence the direction or focus of research? If so, how much?
This is the perpetual top down, bottom up Haldane-type debate. What Haldane actually wrote in his 1918 report The Machinery of Government was yes, of course, the government can specify the areas in which a government is interested, but the final decision about whether to support A or B needs to be made by experts.
A practical example is, say, a new pandemic such as SARS. It can't be the situation that the scientific community says "well, I'm terribly sorry, we don't work on that". You and I as taxpayers expect that we can say we'd like some research done on this. Which SARS scientist gets funded is the decision for an expert to make. When I was director of the Wellcome Trust, we would set broad areas of interest, but then use peer review to select the best investigators to fund. I don't think it's a conflict.
Have cuts to departments compromised their ability to conduct wide ranging and quality research to inform scientific advice?
It's always a question of making choices and we are living in a time of austerity. The science budget has been maintained extraordinarily well given the cuts there have been across public expenditure budgets as a whole. Each department is under different pressures and my job is to work with the chief scientific adviser in each department to ensure they are able to commission the research that they need.
Your predecessor, John Beddington, often spoke about how to tackle the 'perfect storm' of increasing population, climate change and food security. What are your key priorities for your time in office?
My priority is to provide advice that the Government needs in order to make the best policy. My agenda is to serve Government – and what are the things Government cares about? It cares about two things broadly: the health, security and resilience of the population; and the economy.
The thing that underpins both of those things is our infrastructure, so a lot of my time is devoted to thinking about that. The infrastructure we take for granted is the engineered elements such as energy and transport, the built environment, waste and cyber-security; but we also take for granted natural infrastructure – animal and plant health, biodiversity, the environment, weather and climate. On the economy, it's about making sure the very strong science base in the UK can help develop the economy because that's important for our health and resilience too. It's not my job to have a personal agenda, it's to provide the input that the Government needs.
If you were science minister, would you ban neonicotinoids?
Well, I'm not. My job is to provide the evidence on neonicotinoids. One of the powerful tools of science is the meta-analysis, and Charles Godfrey has led a very good review on the science of neonicotinoids. My job is to communicate that and to make the ultimate decisions. Anyone who is interested in the science should have a look at that and it tells you where the evidence gaps are.
So there remain gaps in the evidence that they are causing widespread harm?
Of course there are gaps in the evidence, yes.
What about the badger cull?
It's the same issue. We need to do the best scientific analysis. There are new publications coming out all the time. In fact, there was a very good modelling paper from Matt Keeling's group in Nature recently, but, of course, modelling doesn't give you the complete answers. It just tells you what you don't know. It's an area where what you have to do if you're going to control any infection is break the transmission pathway.
Do you have a greater respect for politicians having been close to the policymaking process?
I have the greatest respect for our politicians because they're the people we have elected to govern our country. And they are doing a very difficult job. What I say to scientists who ask why there aren't more scientists in Westminster is "you can't blame the people that are there – they've stood for election". I'd like more scientists to stand as politicians.
If you had a billion pounds, what areas of science would you invest in?
Oh, that's a very good question. I think it's important we need a mixture of curiosity driven research – people saying these are the boundaries of science and here's where we want to invest – and then there are areas of application.
We have seen the eight great technologies, and it's technologies that change the way science can be done. Just look at what genome sequencing has done in terms of allowing people to answer questions they've couldn't have dreamed of before.
So there's not a particular area that you think will be the saviour of humanity...
I don't think there's any single area. There are lots of areas of extraordinarily exciting science – materials sciences, the 'internet of things', the ability to bring together maths and computer sciences with applications for humans' benefit... They are going to transform the world in which we live.
What do you see yourself doing after this post?
I'm far too busy to think about that! I'm enjoying what I'm doing.
Professor Sir Mark Walport is the Government's chief scientific adviser. He was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours list for services to medical research, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2011. Previous roles include professor of medicine and head of the division of medicine at Imperial College London, and director of the Wellcome Trust.