Science Museum

Government Chief Scientist visits the Science Museum

By Roger Highfield

The most influential scientist in the country came to the Science Museum last night to give a unique overview of how he has advised the Prime Minister over the years.

Science Museum

As he approaches the end of his time as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and with his successor Sir Mark Walport now waiting in the wings Professor Sir John Beddington was in a reflective mood during his lecture, given in association with the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and our monthly Lates event.

Like his two predecessors, Sir John has had to spend an inordinate amount discussing badgers, and their role in bovine tuberculosis. The issues he has handled have stretched from shale gas and space weather to black swans. ‘It’s a mad job,” he joked.

Since he stepped into the hot seat at the start of 2008, Sir John has given key advice to Government during a number of huge stories, such as the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the 2010 volcanic ash incident, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Sir John described how, as chair of Sage (Science Advisory Group in Emergencies) that feeds in to Cobra (a reference to Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, used to handle a crisis), he had to reassure Prime Minister David Cameron that, despite the more hysterical press reports, the wider radiological fallout of Fukushima was much less than Britons would encounter if they evacuated Tokyo on a flight to London.

The ability of Government to make appropriate use of science has been a central issue. He has been responsible for forming a network of those with science and engineering backgrounds within government (now around 4000 strong at the last count) and encouraging all major departments of state to recruit a Chief Scientific Adviser: he illustrated this with a PowerPoint slide of mugshots of the 18 Government Chief Scientists, including a shadowy androgynous cut-out figure in MI5.

One might quibble about the details of how well this is working but, as a Lords Select Committee recently concluded, these advisors are critical, not least because they deal with issues that cut across departments and that can outlive the lifetimes of politicians, such as securing food and energy.

Throughout 2008 and 2009 Sir John raised the concept of the “Perfect Storm” of food, energy and water security in the context of climate change, a global population that will soar by a billion in the next 13 years, and the ever-increasing proportion in vulnerable urban environments, raising this as a priority for the international community.

Sir John has led the way in producing report after report working through the consequences, notably the link between food insecurity and social unrest. And, in response to a question from the audience, he welcomed the move by the United Nations to appoint its own Chief Scientist to help deal with these huge issues.

When it came to last week’s Rio+20 summit, Sir John diplomatically avoided any explicit expression of his disappointment about the outcome, stating that he felt it was better that decisions were made than not at all. However, it was perhaps significant that the most he could find to say about his trip was how bad the weather was in Rio.

At a “Resilient Cities” event the summit Sir John made an urgent appeal for scientists to use plain language if they are to play a larger role in policymaking on climate change, notably to convey an accurate measure of the risks. One example is the use of GM crops to do away with pesticides, where the existing risks of intensive farming are often neglected in the public debate.

He adopted a high profile during the recent furore about genetically altered crops, as demonstrators gathered to protest against the planting of GM wheat in open fields at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. Sir John argued that GM had to be part of a bigger plan to feed the world and predicted enormous increases in the demand for GM food, without which we could expect increased food prices that would harm the poorest of the poor, in particular.

When asked by Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment about the legacy of the ‘Climategate’ e-mails that were hacked from the University of East Anglia, Sir John pointed out that he thought some climate scientists had been harassed through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, but rightly stressed the need for openness and transparency, and to make data available so that research results can be tested through replication.

Sir John was surprisingly outspoken in his criticism of how poorly he feels the European Union is dealing with some issues of risk, highlighting, for instance, the problem of banning some substances purely because of their potential hazard, but failing to take into account whether the low levels of exposure actually constitute any significant risk to public health. On one point in particular, he could not hide his exasperation: “there is complete idiocy.”

I asked Sir John if the Chief Scientist should have more power to decide policy, rather than just advise? This would not be unprecedented: in monetary policy, a huge amount of power is devolved to Mervyn King and the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, presumably because politicians recognise that monetary policy is complex and should be left to the experts.

Surely the same be more true when it comes to aspects of science and engineering policy? No, came back the reply, because power corrupts. It is better to provide advice and insights and, as one example, he explained how a committee is now investigating the use of computer trading in financial markets, where avalanches of pre-programmed trading – up to a quarter of a million per second – can cause huge shifts in share price and market instability.

He also revealed his guiding principle when it comes to dealing with Government and NGOs alike, quoting Steven Chu, the Nobel prize winning physicist who is currently Energy Secretary in the United States: “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts”

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