Former adviser speaks on being a critical friend to government

22 October 2013

Departmental chief scientific advisers (DCSAs) often have to be the “corporate memory” of government departments and the champions of evidence-based policymaking, Prof. Brian Collins told a lecture audience at the IOP’s London centre on 17 October.

Delivering the Elizabeth Johnson Memorial Lecture, he described his experiences as a DCSA in two government departments and the delicate balancing act needed in being a “critical friend to government”.

Prof. Collins, an IOP fellow and former astrophysicist, had been a DCSA in both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department for Transport (DfT), and was also part of a network of DCSAs that provided both a sounding board and an interdepartmental context for the bigger policy issues, he said.

The relatively short time that most government ministers were in office meant that DCSAs and civil servants had to be the people to provide a longer-term perspective on policy issues. Even so, there was also a rapid turnover in DCSAs, which had consequences for corporate memory, he said. Sometimes this meant that a body of scientific evidence was simply overlooked or forgotten, or ignored because the research had been commissioned by an opposing political party, he argued.

At the DfT he had advised on a project to modernise the Thameslink rail line, for which there was an ambition to increase passenger throughput. This depended on knowing how many people could get on and off of a train in a set time, but the model used for this was 30 years out of date and based on old-style slamming door trains, he said. “It was fallacious; it took a long time before they listened to the fact that the evidence was just not there. Luckily the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council had done the experiments on this.” As a result, the project had been transformed and research expenditure of £750,000 had “de-risked” a development costing £3.5 billion, he said. The model had since been used for the Olympics and Crossrail, as well as being exported overseas. “That to me was the right way to use science – to really understand the model that you are using,” he said.

Asked about any failures he had had during his time as a DCSA, Prof. Collins said that he regretted not being able to do more to convince people of the crucial importance of cyber security. “I have been saying that digital information is an asset that needs to be valued and protected. Control technologies are moving forward but not fast enough. We’re becoming critically dependent on digital for everything we do.”

  • The Elizabeth Johnson Memorial Lecture is given biennially in memory of Elizabeth (“Betty”) Johnson (1936-2003), a physicist who worked tirelessly to encourage women into science.

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