02 March 2012

Chief Scientists are no Superheroes

At Research Fortnight I have a critique up of the UK House of Lords report on departmental chief science advisers. The House of Lords report can be found here in PDF. Here is an excerpt:
[M]any of the recommendations in the House of Lords report on the role of chief scientific advisors in government, if implemented, will lead to a greater politicization of the advisory process and less accountability of government to citizens.

The basic flaw in the report is the assumption that science can be cleanly separated from the political process by empowering a heroic individual with special influence on policy making.
Please have a look and feel free to comment there or come back here and let me know what you think.


  1. .

    I agree with the points you made. The problem you point out is but one example of the legislative branch ceding responsibility and democratic accountability to the administrative state.

    The two most recent newsworthy examples are Obamacare's panel of experts whose decisions will have the force of law, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau whose funding is beyond congressional control.

    Why should science be any different?


  2. The politicians recognize that they are still, to some extent, accountable to the public. They stuck their necks out on climate change science, and now they are running scared.
    They will cede power to unelected technocrats so they don't have to be held accoutable for tough decisions on technical issues.
    Seems climate change really is a threat to civilization as we know it.

  3. I thought the role of the science adviser was to give dire warnings to corrupt and or stupid politicians and then heroically find a way to save the world (or at least some of it) assisted only by his really hot blonde co-worker and maybe a whacky sidekick...

    Speaking of fictional roles, some academics seem to think that the rest of the world is just a somewhat larger group of undergraduates more or less obligated to accept what Herr Tenured Professor has to say and envision the role of Scientific Adviser accordingly.

    In contrast, politicians usually begin their career in the law where the use and management of expert witnesses to buttress predetermined narratives is an art form. Guess who's gonna win that encounter every time.

  4. First, there are no mortal gods who are omnipotent or omniscient. Second, ti is competing interests (e.g. individuals) that moderate excess and hold each other accountable. This is the principle that underlies both our political and market systems.

    In politics, we necessarily pursue a consensus moderated by the rule of law and governing conventions. In science, we present evidence and arguments that must withstand scrutiny. The two sectors must remain separate as much as objectively possible. The second provides a nominally objective input to the first. While the first receives multiple inputs, from multiple sources, must make comprehensive risk assessments, identify reasonable mitigating actions, and accept comprehensive responsibility for the outcome.

  5. Yes. The Lords proposal recalls Barry Commoner's pitch long ago for a 'science court -- also a bad idea.