Bees, pesticides and … what are chief scientists for?

If advice isn’t acted upon, is it good advice? kevincollins123

Without good advice, governments are in extreme danger of creating erroneous or damaging public policy. So it’s a serious matter when a government science adviser is accused of ignoring scientific evidence in favour of engaging in political machinations.

Such was the case on Monday, when the author George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian, claimed statements made by the new UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), Mark Walport, (regarding a European pesticide moratorium designed to protect bee populations) were “misleading and unscientific”.

This is in fact mild language compared to what else was written in the article, but I reproduce it here because “misleading and unscientific” is the exact opposite of what Walport should be.

Sir Mark Walport. Wikimedia Commons

The charge is that Walport has become a political player at the expense of his brief, which is:

to ensure that the best science and engineering advice is brought to bear effectively on Government policy and decision-making.

This raises questions about what has generally been seen as an important and prestigious role within the general community and in scientific circles, in Australia as well as the UK, but one that has often flown under the radar of public awareness.

Can an adviser be trusted, by the public and by politicians, to provide objective and non-partisan advice?

Roleplay

Unlike the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the UK and Australian advisory appointments are not political.

Professor Penny Sackett. AAP

These latter two have roles that are not overly specified and can be largely what the holders make of them. They are free to a significant extent to set areas of priority and focus.

A notable distinction between the UK and Australian systems is that each government department in the UK has a Chief Scientific Adviser, and these sit on a committee chaired by The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA); in Australia each state and territory has a Chief Scientist, though these too sit on a committee chaired by the Australian Chief Scientist (ACS).

Another distinction between the two countries is that Australian Chief Scientists seem to have been spared public accusations of politicism.

The only indication of discord within the office of an Australian Chief Scientist was when the previous office holder, astrophysicist Penny Sackett, resigned half way through her five-year term in 2011.

She had never been asked to brief Prime Minister Julia Gillard and had not been asked to advise Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whom she met only once, prior to the Copenhagen climate conference.

According to government’s website, the ACS:

reports directly to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research […] and also works closely with the Prime Minister both in his role as Executive Officer of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council and in order to provide detailed scientific advice.

Much obliged

Australian Nobel laureate Peter Doherty does not believe the position of Chief Scientist is one that politicians hold in much regard. Following Sackett’s resignation in 2011, he was quoted as saying:

I think the new appointee [to the position of Chief Scientist] would have to be pretty naïve going into this parliament if they thought they were going to make much of a difference.

So again, an array of interesting questions presents itself. What responsibility, do science advisers have to speak out on significant issues when the science is clear? The ACS, we are told, should be a “champion of science, research and the role of evidence in the community and in government” and “a communicator of science to the general public”.

Should they consequently be vocal on the issue of anthropogenic climate change, then? And what of other issues?

Right now homeopathy groups are appearing before the government’s Natural Therapies Review Advisory Committee to present a case for continuing a rebate for their services. Should the ACS be making a public statement about this?

Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb speaking at the National Press Club in 2011. AAP

And to what extent is a government obliged, or should it be obliged, to follow scientific advice? The current ACS, Ian Chubb, in his 2011 address to the National Press Club said:

Quite rightly, politicians will take into account a wide range of considerations and from a multiplicity of sources – and make their decisions accordingly. My goal is to ensure they have no excuses for not having the relevant scientific advice in front of them. Ultimately, what they do with that advice is their business.

One can only assume such opportunities present themselves for Chubb, as they did not seem to for Sackett, who experienced a subsequent lack of influence on policy formation. Last year, Chubb produced a valuable report on the Health of Australian Science, but the logical connection between the report and government action is not clear.

Walking the line

That lack of clarity leads to another thorny issue, and one now in the spotlight in the UK: what line must be walked between promoting science and technology in general and promoting specific enterprises, companies and products, especially those seen as vehicles of high scientific returns?

As technical sectors grow and dominate the landscape, how are these to be promoted separately from the rewards they deliver? To what extent are advisers susceptible to pressure from commercial operations, be it direct or through public opinion and political channels?

These will be interesting questions to address as the roles grow over time.

While there is a lack of precision in the ACS role description (not entirely a bad thing) there is certainly a lack of corresponding specificity in how their advice is to be taken, or even how it is to be delivered. The experience of Sackett, who also called upon the government to clarify the role, does not suggest such advice is highly valued.

A tremendous amount of scientific work is channelled through our Chief Scientists and into the ears of politicians. They are vested with this collective credibility and should, in the best of all possible worlds, be drivers of policy and familiar public faces.

While there is no question that the calibre of our Australian Chief Scientists is and has been outstanding, it would be nice to know they had the respect and attention not only of the Australian population, but of the politicians they work so hard to inform.