The relationship between politics and expertise is not always easy. As Michael Gove famously said during the run-up to the EU referendum: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts”, though he did qualify this “…….from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
Science, engineering and technology play a huge role in war and defence. The origins of the role of the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser go back to the 1930s and the Second World War and the role of physicists such as Henry Tizard and Frederick Lindemann. But their role was to advise and not to decide. Churchill famously said that scientists should be “on tap and not on top”.
The politicians who make government policy look through three lenses when deciding on policy. What do I know about x or y? This is the lens of science and expertise. Secondly, if I make a policy, is it deliverable? This is the lens of logistic capability and societal acceptability. Thirdly, how does this policy fit with my values – personal, political, religious – and the values of the people that elected me? Science input to policy making is very rarely the whole story, though in some circumstances, which include the Covid-19 pandemic, the science is of overwhelming importance but is qualified by extensive uncertainty because it is an infection that is completely new to humans.
Humans and the other species with which we share our planet are facing extraordinary changes which are directly or indirectly the consequences of human demography and a global population of over 7.5 billion. Science has much to offer, politics is becoming ever more fractured and fractious. What will be the future relationships between science and politics – and what value will be ascribed to the hard-hitting messages from science?
Sir Mark Walport (OP 1966-70) is the Chairman of the Kennedy Memorial Trust and the recently retired founding Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which is responsible for the public funding of research and innovation.
He was Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and Head of the Government Office for Science from April 2013 to September 2017.
His previous career highlights include:
- Director of the Wellcome Trust
- Professor of Medicine and Head of the Division of Medicine at Imperial College London
- Founder Fellow and first Registrar of the Academy of Medical Sciences
- Member of the advisory board of Infrastructure UK
- Member of the India-UK CEO Forum and UK-India Round Table
- Non-executive member of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research
Mark received a knighthood in the 2009 New Year Honours List for services to medical research and was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society in 2011 and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2017.
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