15 April 2013

Letter From America on Science Advice

At The Guardian's Political Science blog you can find an excerpt from my forthcoming chapter on science advice, to appear later this week in The Future of Scientific Advice in Whitehall (edited by Wilsdon and Doubleday), which will available to download here. My piece is written as a "letter from America" to Sir Mark Walport, the newly installed UK chief scientist, offering some advice from the history of science advice in the US.

Here is the opening from the excerpt of the chapter:
Congratulations Dr Walport on your appointment as the UK government's chief scientific adviser. You join a select group. Since the position of chief science adviser was established in the US in 1957 and in the UK in 1964, fewer than 30 men (yes, all men) have occupied the position. Today across Europe, only Ireland, the Czech Republic and the European Commission have formal equivalents, which also exist in Australia, New Zealand, and soon perhaps in Japan and at the United Nations.

In the United States, the science adviser is an assistant to the president with the formal title of Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. All US science advisers (except notably the first, James Killian, who had a background in public administration) have been trained in some area of physics, reflecting the cold war origins of the position.

Since 2005, the Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado has brought to our campus presidential science advisers, spanning the administrations of John F Kennedy to Barack Obama. Let me distil what I consider to be a few of the most relevant insights from their experiences.
Do head here for the full post and stay tuned later this week for more details on the entire collection.


  1. Good article. The probity of science and scientists is an article of faith over at Guardian Towers. I wonder if they realised how frank and insightful it is.

    I especially liked

    "The science adviser is part of government, and in the US is a presidential appointee, and as such is a political adviser. "


    Unfortunately, such discussions often fall prey to the so-called "deficit model"

    Everyone wants to play venomous, emotional culture wars rather than employ reason.

    I was trying to do the reverse. Supply information to politically deficit scientists and cheer leaders.

    I felt like a man waving to the natives who (allegedly) could not see the Spanish galleons because they had no previous experience of similar objects. Even though it was supported by Friend of the Earth and Greenpeace.

    That is the frightening cognitive dissonance of divide and rule politics. It didn't fit the manufactured narrative, so it was irrelevant..

  2. Personally, I find Holdren, Obama's science adviser, to be one scary individual--the American equivalent of Schellnhuber. His history, starting with his work with the incomparable hystericalist Paul Ehrlich, should be of concern to everyone. I'm even more apprehensive now than I was during Obama's first term for the simple reason that the president doesn't have to face re-election again and has the power of the executive order at his disposal.

  3. Paul Harris from CSIRO here in Australia has an essay on the Guardian blog that covers some similar themes:


  4. I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.Richard Feynman discussing scientific integrity, Cargo Cult Science, 1974

  5. Albert Einstein - "That is simple my friend: because politics is more difficult than physics."

    Yes, and bureaucrats are a lot smarter than scientists. One of the few things I remember from studying HCI / AI was that being a scientist or mathematician was literally no advantage in being logical in everyday conversation. If I remember, the study was done amongst Harvard students and lecturers. Negatives are particularly difficult to process.

    Bureaucrats are incredibly good at that. Putting forward arguments and providing analyses is basically what they do.

    Teenagers (another scientific study) make judgements based on emotion. Read the majority of climate discussions. That's how propaganda works. See George Monbiot's 'denier' and 'astroturfer' articles.