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« Milking it | Main | Ecocide - Josh 101 »
Friday
Jun032011

Advice to a science minister

A few days ago we looked at Julia Slingo's climate change paper, which she circulated in the wake of Climategate. A reader recently pointed me to this article in the journal Science and Public Affairs - a publication of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (as the BSA was called at that time). It's by William Waldegrave, a science minister in the last Conservative government in the UK, and is entitled "When scientists advise politicians - how to avoid the pitfalls".

These are some practical proposals for scientists advising the government:

(1) Never present to a Minister on a scientific issue without a potted history of the development of the subject first (e.g. shifts back and forth in consensus on air pollution and forest damage)
(2) always include an analysis of dissident views and how much it would matter if they were right
(3) never try to confine advice to what you think the Minister wants to hear (this is the sin against the  Holy Ghost)
(4) never confine advice to that derived from the Departmental Research programme,the UK Government-funded research programme,or even UK research
(5) never use scare tactics to try to increase your funding: the Treasury is cynical enough as it is
(6) Treat popular journalists with deep suspicion – even if they offer to make you famous.

And some practical proposals for politicians:
(1) always ask for a seminar and insist that dissidents are present
(2) if you are told there are no dissidents, check with the Royal Society; ask around
(3) if a serious journalist says you are being badly advised, ask him or her to come and see you
(4) never say something is ‘totally safe’ or ‘absolutely certain’ even if you are goaded by the press
(5) if you ask your Chief Scientist or whoever to speak for you, make sure he or she doesn’t start fancying themselves as a politician and forget the rules you have set yourself
(6) Give yourself time to think.

These should help – but there will inevitably be cock-ups

So, how well do we think Professor Slingo did?

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Reader Comments (14)

Just like in climate science, I can see.

Jun 3, 2011 at 7:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterPatagon

oops - ask the Royal society ? for any dissedent voices..........

lord May, lord rees, Paul Nurse.....

Bob Ward worked for the Royal Society for EIGHT years as head of media...

Actually, the above IS good advice, generally, but the CAGW meme has taken such a hold, that if asked to speak to dissdents, the response would be 'climate deniaers' funded by koch/exxon who are anti-science flate-earthers. (Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband)

Jun 3, 2011 at 8:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

C'mon, Bish!

You are having a laugh! Or, at least, Waldegrave is having a laugh.

This (absolutely correct!) prescription for the conduct of Government scientific advisors is so far divorced from the reality that we see today (and have seen for many years. Certainly back to Thatcher's Government) that I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

The government sets on "climate activist" advisors and expects cautious, balanced advice, weighing up the implications if "dissident" opinions are actually correct?

They might as well set on a bunch of gangsta rappers and expect them to accompany their touching ballads of courtly love on the lute.

Jun 3, 2011 at 8:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

What? A minister who can put his ego in his pocket? Surely a contradiction in terms...

I am sure Chris "the Stig" Huhne wants to hear opinions different from his own... see, he even encourages his wife to disagree with him.

Jun 3, 2011 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

"never use scare tactics to try to increase your funding"

You can tell it was written in a bygone age! IIRC, Waldegrave was also a farmer, so probably had some experience of the vicissitudes of life...

Jun 3, 2011 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Article is dated June 2003, so I doubt anyone who isn't retired and/or independently wealthy would dare to utter these bon mots today:

"To appreciate the provisional nature of science, politicians must be a little educated in the history and methodology of science."

"Politicians also need education in the incompleteness of science."

"So Ministers need to understand the weakness as well as the strength of
peer group review."

Hee Hee.

Jun 3, 2011 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

Dissenting voices:

These are some practical proposals for scientists advising the government:

(1) Never present to a Minister on a scientific issue without a potted history of the development of the subject first (e.g. shifts back and forth in consensus on air pollution and forest damage)
(2) always include an analysis of dissident views and how much it would matter if they were right

and

And some practical proposals for politicians:

(1) always ask for a seminar and insist that dissidents are present
(2) if you are told there are no dissidents, check with the Royal Society; ask around

Did the politicians ever get to see the words and hear the voices of climate dissidents?

That is a testable question via FOIA.

Jun 3, 2011 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterMac

Who or what prompted him to write it?

Jun 3, 2011 at 12:24 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charley

The biggest problem with all Good Advice is swallowing it whole.

Jun 3, 2011 at 1:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterPascvaks

I remember a while ago when the UK funding for wind energy was about to see the mass importation of windturbines from Denmark and Germany. I strongly suggested that the Scottish executive found a way to hear the "voice of the industry". The result? They formed FREDS (forum for Renewable Energy Development in Scotland) on which sat all the wind developers who were totally opposed to any kind of incentive discussion on Scottish jobs as ... as they put it "it hardly sells windfarms".

From my experience dealing with Scottish politicians they are totally gullible and really believe they are getting impartial device when they talk to the big wind energy lobbyists.

Jun 3, 2011 at 3:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterScottish Sceptic

<cont>

The problem we have is that Scottish (and presumably all UK civil servants) don't want to pay for advice. Instead they expect the various "pressure groups" to raise the money needed to put together the kind of information package that civil servants expect to be handed to them on a plate.

And ... even if you do put in the effort to present the information to the civil servants, they only take any notice if you are a big organisation.

So us sceptics will never be listened to be the Scottish civil servants. We don't have the funding to run a full time lobby organisation (even a single leaflet is pushing it). We are organised enough to be a "big organisation".

We may be entirely right -- but Scottish civil servants just want an easy life -- they want some lobby organisation that can almost write the policy for them, hand to them on a plate the evidence, and then lend it the credence of a big name ... all at no cost, and all at the beck and call of the civil servant to be presented when they demand.

That is not the way to deal with an issue like "global warming" where on the one side is the public interest represented by a lot of impoverished individuals and on the other hand is money grabbing industry represented by billions of pounds of commerce able to put millions of pounds of funding together.

Jun 3, 2011 at 3:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterScottish Sceptic

From the Ecclesiatical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

Re Scottish Skeptic's bureaucrats who are reluctant to pay for advice.

Buying advice is a game really. If they know the result I want, they give it me. Usually that means more work.down the track. If they don't know, they can generally sus it out quick time and if not they produce a lot of flannel and I have to pay them for it.

Everybody out there has an agenda. Quite often it's merely to pay the rent and so on, but that's usually enough to skew what I hear so I'll ask for more. Then there are those with INTERESTS and I know what they will tell me. If I want it, I go to them, if not I don't. But impartial? Honest? I don't think so.

If I really want to know something, best I go find out myself.

Jun 3, 2011 at 4:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

I am struck by another aspect of this. I could believe that Waldegrave believed and understood what he was saying, even if it would be Greek to many other bureaucrats. It can be a mistake to assume that nobody in the government has a clue. Or everybody at the University. Don't lump them together more than they deserve.

Jun 4, 2011 at 4:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoberto

Government now is in the hands of the NGO's, who are embedded in the civil service.

Take a look at E3G, Founding Director & Chief Executive Nick Mabey was a senior policy adviser to Tony Blair, and former Head of Sustainable Development in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Environment Policy department. Before he joined government, Mabey was Head of Economics and Development at WWF-UK

Founding Director John Ashton was appointed as Special Representative for Climate Change of the UK Foreign Secretary under the Labour Government. He is on secondment to the government from E3G, where he had previously been Chief Executive since its inception. He previously worked for Chris Patten in Hong Kong.

Matt Findlay joined E3G in February 2008 on secondment from the FCO.

Tom Burke is a Founding Director of E3G, and Special Advisor to three Secretaries of State for the Environment from 1991-97 after serving as Director of the Green Alliance from 1982-91. Formerly Executive Director of Friends of the Earth and a member of the Executive Committee of the European Environmental Bureau 1988-91. He was only recently on BBC Newsnight as an "expert" on climate.

These are seamless interchanges that never see the light of day.

Jun 6, 2011 at 9:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterDennisA

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