Ambassadors for evidence: UK’s science diplomacy agenda

Photo courtesy of James Wilsdon
Photo courtesy of James Wilsdon

By Sir Mark Walport, UK’s chief science advisor

Ebola infections, wars in the Middle East, an erupting volcano in Iceland – a glance at newspaper headlines in London last week shows how important issues requiring policy decisions are not constrained by national boundaries. However, the science advisory systems that help policymakers are predominantly national, matching the basic structure of democratic mandates.

As our economies, our societies, our health and wellbeing become increasingly globalised, science advice needs to become much more international in its outlook. The UK has a rich history of supporting government with excellent scientific evidence and advice. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the UK government chief scientific adviser (GCSA). The first incumbent, Lord Zuckerman, created the post by evolution of the job of chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, a role that goes back to the first half of the 20th century. The GCSA provides scientific advice that is relevant to the whole breadth of government policy.

Government cares about the health, well-being resilience and security of its citizens, and about the economy. Science matters to every one of these areas, and scientific advice forms a crucial part of the evidence base needed to make wise policy decisions.

The UK science advisory system is undergoing a quiet revolution. There is an increased recognition by government of the importance of reliable evidence to enable the development of effective policy. Reforms of the UK civil service are encouraging those who work on policy development to be more open in their work and to prize the role of rigorous evidence.

This is creating a greater pull for scientific input. In response, and encouraged by the emphasis on maximising the impact of publicly funded research,scientists are becoming more interested in the policy relevance of their work and more willing to engage directly with policymakers. This is creating a push from the scientific community for greater involvement in government policy.

Read the full article in the Guardian. Below is a summary of Sir Mark’s closing keynote speech on Day 1 of the Science Advice to Governments conference.