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Interview with Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA)

There is a triangular relationship between science, government and the public, and quite a lot has been happening in that area in the past five years. Could you give us your view on how this relationship has changed in the last five years?

I probably wouldn’t focus on the last five years as I have only been in the job for three, but there are a few instances that are both positive and negative. Firstly, I think the issues following the dismissal of Professor Nutt highlighted, at a high level, the importance of getting scientific advice into Government. That led to the development of the principles of scientific advice in Government. This has done a lot to assuage the concerns of the general public, and academics and people in industry who provide advice to Government. The principles were developed by the previous Government in response to a problem. The new coalition Government have subsequently enshrined those principles in the ministerial code; I think that was a good response to what was a genuine problem.

My next point is more of a reflection on the general public concern about science and scientific advice which arose because of the things that were happening around this time last year. The first concerned the discovery of a mistake in the IPCC report; something fundamentally silly – that all glaciers in the Himalayas would disappear by 2035 – which is fatuous as a scientific statement and was clearly wrong. The second is a bit more subtle and was the hacking into the University of East Anglia’s email server and the subsequent concerns. What was observed was the decline in public confidence and rise in scepticism about the whole issue of climate change and a challenge to the science. I believe it is very important that we become as transparent as we possibly can in science; by not being transparent, public confidence can be eroded. However, three separate reviews have vindicated what was happening at East Anglia, nobody found anything that was culpable. However, the issue of transparency remains.

There is another area which I have concerns about. This is that there is sometimes a level of over-precaution in the way that media handles scientific issues. It is absolutely proper for challenges to exist about the safety of new scientific developments, their environmental impact and so on, but I think that it has actually gone too far in some instances. For example, the decision in Europe to regulate the use of agricultural chemicals on the basis of hazard (i.e. is this a carcinogen? is this is an endocrine disrupter?) as opposed to risk is also an indicator that over-precaution is being driven by the public and consumers. I think that is problematic as it fundamentally erodes the credibility of science when policies come forward which are clearly non-scientific. For example, coffee is a carcinogen and would currently be banned under European legislation; I don’t think that is what the public want. 

When you talk about the benefits of transparency, who would you see that applying to, who would you like to see being more transparent?

I think there is a real issue to do with major public policy scientific issues (climate change being an obvious one) where there is some dispute about the underlying science. That dispute is, I believe, helped by being completely transparent and making data available. The risk of course is that people will manipulate and cherry pick the data, but that risk is outweighed by the importance of being as transparent as you possibly can.

Do you think scientists have a role to encourage greater public engagement and involvement? Does this have the potential to lead to more trust?

I would hope so. The sorts of things I think have been fabulous are, for example, Brian Cox’s programme and his role as the Sun’s resident science writer, and the BBC series of programmes on science. These are not about trust, but about getting the ideas out. They are enormously important in saying that scientists are ordinary people. They happen to have a different bent, but are real people who just think in a different way. I think the personalising of it is helpful. Wherever possible, if there is scientific dispute or scientific uncertainty, it is important that people characterise that dispute and the uncertainty appropriately.

For example, I think that some media treatment of climate change is odd – it treats it almost like a boxing or football match by saying on one side there are the sceptics, on the other side the people who believe in climate change. That is enormously asymmetric, the number of reputable scientists that are sceptical is a tiny, tiny proportion compared to those who believe climate change is happening; so media treatment of equal sides is completely biased and generates a bias in favour of a tiny number of individuals. This is something that we have to address and work around.

However, I feel that in another domain there is a need to embrace scepticism; the progress of science is by rational scepticism. Transparency, the acceptance of debate, is the only way science is going to grow. That said, occasionally a sceptical or cherry picking view can undermine what is the appropriate scientific evidence.

A recent example of an attempt to understand the public view was Food, the use of GM – a public dialogue project. What did you make of this as an activity and the decision not to go ahead?

I think GM needs to be thought about. It is absolutely proper that the public raise questions about human health and environmental safety. When the debate started ten or more years ago it was proper that those things should come up as considerations, but I think the world has moved on rather. For example, I know of no litigation about the human health effects of the use of GM crops that has succeeded in the USA, despite these crops being ubiquitous in the USA. That is an evidence base that one needs to be examining.

I think that the dialogue that was planned fell foul of the changing Government and the changing role for the FSA. How public engagement on this issue can be done is something the Government will determine, but it is obviously likely that some form of public engagement will follow, and I think David Willetts has said as much.

What would you like to see different organisations doing to change the behaviour and culture of scientists, government and policy makers to adopt evidence based science into policy? What do you see as the major challenges to bringing about change to get that scientific understanding into the process?

I wouldn’t single out any areas where I think absolutely something needs to change radically apart from the areas I have already covered – more openness and so on. I think that in terms of individual sub-sets of organisation one thing we need to focus on is the Government policy to reduce the Non Departmental Public Bodies and bring those bodies into Government. They will continue, but they will not be non-departmental bodies. That needs to be thought carefully about. All the indications are that independence will be preserved; both access to ministers and the independence of appointments will be preserved. One of the things I have done with the community of chairs of the science advisory committees is to say, if you have a problem raise it with your Chief Scientist, but keep me informed so we can deal with any issues.

Do you think it is important that Government is clear on how advice is used?

Absolutely, we have to be clear about it. I think that where we have evidence based policy, for example from a scientific view or from a public dialogue activity, that if Government chooses to go against the views then the evidence or reasons for this are made completely clear. 

For example I’ve recently been asked about my views on homeopathy. My view has been constant since I first read about it, there is no scientific justification for it, there is a placebo effect but there is no scientific evidence to drive homeopathy. Question – why does the Government still fund homeopathic hospitals? Answer – not because they are not getting scientific advice that homeopathy isn’t efficacious but because they are taking into account other factors including consumer choice and allowing GPs and NHS the option to use it. Hence Government is not discounting the science, rather it is saying we have noted the science and taken it into account in our policy development.

Within that provision of evidence there is agreement that having an understanding of where the public is coming from is beneficial. Where would you like to see that evidence or view coming from? Do you see that as something the scientists should be doing or government itself?

I think it comes from everybody really, I think the media have a role to play and essentially tax payers fund a lot of science so they need to have some degree of faith that this is a worthwhile investment. It is therefore beholden on the academic and industrial communities, and (to a lesser degree arguably) ministers to say this is the reason for the science and these are the issues.

There are controversial areas out there. For example the culling of badgers; this is an area where there is a lot of scientific information, some disagreement, and big emotional issues for the public as a whole. What is my job? My job is to make certain that the scientific advice is absolutely clear cut and the appropriate science advice gets into Government so they can make the decisions about it.

Do you see any other emerging areas of science and technology where you think engagement with the public will be important in the future?
I think that consultations and dialogues are a sensible way to proceed and I think that the way in which we choose a particular subject and how far that involves the general public or stakeholder groups is on an issue by issue basis.

I think that one that may come forward is the issue of transparency. Whether it should be full public involvement or a stakeholder consultation I don’t know, but it does seem to me to be absolutely critical that we get wide input into issues of transparency of information. In what situations would one delay going public? Is that delay legitimate? I think it is always a question of timing rather than whether data go out or not.

We started looking at the previous three years, what would be your aspirations for public engagement and the involvement of the public for the next three years? How would you like to see that develop in the future?

I think more of the same. I think there is progress and there will almost certainly be problems that arise where an issue becomes controversial or where engagement may have been better. We have got to be on our guard to ensure that we respond in an open way to these things.

I don’t have a particular agenda in terms of saying I would like the following six things to have much wider public involvement. I think they will arise in the way the world develops and this is a largely unpredictable.

I think some issues are going to be quite interesting in terms of our energy policy. DECC has set up a big consultation on energy and how we meet our goals in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. DECC is using a software based approach so that people can interrogate the choices and ask, if you don’t have nuclear for example, what are the implications? Would you need more offshore wind, more onshore wind, more renewables, more carbon capture and storage and so on? So that consultation will be used to help define what Government strategy will be on meeting our greenhouse gas emission targets. That obviously takes in all manner of issues to do with the public – the not in my backyard syndrome, what are the implications of large development of offshore wind for sea birds or marine life, and so that consultation is a very wide one. It is a very good example of how to address what is going to be affecting both the British landscape and the costs of electricity over the next forty years.

Interview date - November 2010.

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