UK chief science adviser vows to keep ‘speaking truth to power’

11 Jul 2019 | News

Policy makers don’t have to take my advice, but science and evidence ought to underpin the work of government, says Patrick Vallance

Patrick Vallance. Photo: GSK

The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, says he will continue to offer government the “unvarnished truth”, in a week that saw serious questions asked about the ability of top civil servants to give frank advice. 

Vallance was speaking after the resignation on Tuesday of the UK ambassador in Washington, Kim Darroch, following the leaking of emails he wrote that were critical of US president Donald Trump.

Leaks are not uncommon of course, but they are usually done to damage politicians, and the episode is seen as hitting at the ability of the UK civil servants to give impartial advice.

Asked whether the politicisation of a senior adviser’s work would affect the quality of advice he gives to the UK next prime minister, Vallance said, “I feel totally confident in fulfilling my duty – what’s the worst thing they can do, sack me?”

Conversations with government would continue to be “frank”, Vallance said, speaking at the launch of Imperial College London’s new policy engagement programme, called the Forum, which aims to increase collaboration between academia and policy makers.

“Senior politicians turn to me when they want to hear the unvarnished truth on issues. They don’t have to then take [my advice] but I’m not worried about speaking scientific truth to power,” said Vallance.

Vallance, former president of research and development at the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, advises the prime minister and cabinet. He also leads the Government Office for Science, which promotes the use of scientific evidence in policymaking across government, and heads up a network of departmental scientific advisers.

He said he is preparing for the appointment of the new prime minister later this month, making contact with the teams of the two candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, who are vying to succeed Theresa May, who resigned after failing three times to get the Brexit agreement she negotiated passed by parliament.

“For the new PM, my priority is to make sure they [are] thinking hard about science and technology from the start. I want to get something early to him, and open the door to science,” Vallance said.

It was too soon to say which issues the new prime minister should tackle first. “It’s important I speak to the PM in confidence about these things. I don’t know what he is likely to be interested in,” he said.

“Whomever is the next PM, they are going to be bombarded in the first few weeks. I’m spending time making sure we get (the introduction) bit right; I’m trying to get hold of advisers,” he said. “I’ll prepare a [brief] letter which will outline some of the things that can be helpful. The last thing he wants to read in the first week is a worthy five-pager from us,” said Vallance.

Vallance, a medical doctor and clinical pharmacologist who came into the science adviser role last year, said he wants to see science and evidence underpinning the work of government. “Science has been a bit peripheral to some government machinery; I want to make it central, the way economics is,” he said.

In June last year, he told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee his advice would not always be popular, and would be “fearless”.

He is currently writing a national security strategy document and is in the thick of the work that is ongoing to prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU, which could be in October.

Vallance addressed the fears that the UK will lose EU research funding because of Brexit and that UK government replacement of EU funding would not be like-for-like, favouring applied research. “I absolutely, passionately believe there is a critical role for blue-skies, undirected funding,” he said. “We’d like to fully associate with Horizon Europe (the next EU research programme). If we don’t fully associate, I’m clear we need to have some way that this side of science is funded.”

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