Professor Ian Boyd, appointed Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in September 2012, answers questions from Jill Rutter about his experiences so far.
Q1. Why did you apply to be Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)?
I have always had an interest in the application of science to real-world problems. Much of my career has been spent working in areas of science that have been relevant to policy as it relates to both Government and industry. I have always had broad interests so the job of being a Chief Scientific Adviser, which requires me to deal with anything from the chemistry of plastics to the population dynamics of badgers in a single day, is an interesting challenge.
Q2. CSAs are unique in Government, coming in from outside and often retaining an academic job – what do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of that approach?
Academia and Government are almost opposite ends of a cultural and structural spectrum so there are some tough early lessons when entering the Civil Service and it is very easy to make some serious errors. However, fortunately for me the Civil Service has a lot of tolerance built in – everybody seems so polite and considerate. But it is this contrast that makes the externally appointed CSA such a strength because they act as a bridge between two very different cultures. Keeping one foot in the academic community also allows CSAs to maintain their credibility as an independent voice within Government. That benefits Government but it places CSAs in a very delicate position. Balancing the independent role with being a credible voice within Government is not easy. Doubtless, some people outside Government probably think I have “gone native”, but that is simply not the case. The skill a CSA needs is to be able to challenge in a way that is listened to and that involves having to make compromises.
Q3. You have had some very controversial issues to deal with as CSA. Badgers are top of the list. Can you say how you saw science informing the policy the Government is now taking forward?
Having got bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle under control in the past, it is now getting worse. The scientific evidence tells us that, in the UK, badgers are an important part of the disease cycle in areas where bTB is widespread, and that reducing transmission between badgers and cattle is an essential part of managing the disease. Science is often very good at enabling us to define and understand problems but it is often a lot slower when coming up with workable solutions. Science can only do so much with a complex problem like bTB, although in this case some of this complexity comes from overlying human factors, including behaviour, economics and politics. For example, governments in Wales and England have both looked at the same evidence and come to different decisions on whether to include a cull of badgers as part of their strategy to deal with the disease in wildlife. Some of the limits around what science can do to help are often misunderstood by the public. For example, it is really difficult to develop a reliable test to distinguish between TB-infected and healthy badgers. Some people say we should only cull diseased badgers, but we have limited ways of identifying them with any degree of accuracy. Other people want to vaccinate badgers and cattle, but the vaccine is not 100% protective and it will take a substantial amount of further research and funding to get a vaccine licensed for use in cattle. Scientific problems are not solved just by spending money.
Q4. Lord Krebs, who oversaw the initial trials, said in June that “rolling out culling as a national policy to control TB in cattle is not really credible.” How do you square that with your reading of the evidence? And how do you help non-expert policy makers when ‘experts’ disagree?
Lord Krebs did not oversee the initial trials; a report he compiled in 1997 suggested they should be carried out and this resulted in Defra running the Randomised Badger Control Trials (RBCT). However, I agree with almost all of what Lord Krebs says about the evidence and I actually don’t think many scientists disagree about the evidence, which concludes that there can be benefits to the control of bTB as a result of reducing the density of badgers. What some scientists disagree on is how the evidence has been translated into policy. I leave it to people who make policy to be in the driving seat on those issues, and to the public to agree or disagree, but I need to be very clear that it is my role to advise about the potential consequence of different policies based upon the evidence, not to say whether one policy or other is right or wrong. Many people seriously misunderstand that culling badgers is not the national policy to control TB in cattle. The national policy is contained within the TB control strategy and that requires a broad range of measures to be taken, mostly focussed on cattle, and only one of which is culling badgers in appropriate circumstances. Culling badgers is not the single solution to controlling bovine TB but it needs to be a part of the solution in the same way as culling cattle is part of the solution. I’m afraid that people need to face the fact that if we don’t get TB under control in badgers, together with cattle, we don’t get TB under control at all. I know this is a very tough message for many people.
Q5. Something else you dealt with early on was ash dieback. This seemed to take Government by surprise despite being quite prevalent in Denmark. What lessons do you think there are for Government in terms of preparing for future risks?
Following ash dieback, we set up a Plant Health Taskforce that looked at ways to prevent pests and diseases from entering the country in the future, and the risk mitigation recommended by it is now being implemented.
Airborne pathogens like Chalara fraxinea have shown that we will never be able to totally stop the entry of new tree diseases in future, but by being better prepared we can reduce their frequency and severity. One of the best precautions we can take against tree diseases is to build resilience into the way our countryside works so that we can cope with these kinds of challenges when they arrive. We have learnt a lot from dealing with Chalara fraxinea and I believe that the country is now better prepared to deal with pests and diseases in the future. For example we have worked with key stakeholders to create a prioritised risk register of pests and pathogens to help us recognise threats that are bearing down on us and then to respond, as much as we can, in advance. We are on track to significantly increase plant biosecurity but we are not there yet. Much of the change will need to come from cultural change as much as it will from better regulation. Everybody needs to play their part in this. We have been used to doing things in certain ways for a long time and some of these things might need to change. Many of us think nothing of importing wooden objects when coming back from holiday or we never think of cleaning our shoes before coming into the country. While these specific causes are likely to be minor routes for importing new plant pests, if we start to get them right then, as a society, we are beginning to show the kind of level of awareness required to make a real difference.
Q6. On a final difficult issue, the UK seemed to be pretty isolated in the European Union opposing the precautionary ban on neonicotinoids because of their impact on bees (which went ahead despite UK opposition). Any thoughts on why the UK and other EU member states took such different views, based on the same science?
I cannot speak for other member states although many were, like the UK, unable to support the proposed restrictions in two indecisive votes. However, I think the UK took the position that was most strongly supported by the evidence. The issue of neonicotinoid pesticides has been entwined with a campaign to arrest what some pressure groups would have us believe is a decline in pollinators, and bees are being used as the flagship for pollinators more generally. I suspect that the massive landscape changes in the British countryside in the past 50 years have changed the composition of pollinator populations, but there is a lot of uncertainty around evidence to support the idea of a broad-scale and generalised decline in pollinators. Of course it is essential not to be complacent about such an important issue and a lack of evidence does not mean it has not been happening but I am afraid we have to work on the evidence we have. Consequently, while we are trying to generate new and better evidence we have a lot of people pointing the finger at neonicotinoids as a supposed cause of a problem that we cannot be sure really exists. As I pointed out in a recent article in the journal Nature, the way that the scientific community has tackled this kind of problem has probably resulted in a lot of confusion. We do not need more studies of neonicotinoids telling us that insecticides kill insects. What we need are studies that examine whether they have measurable effects on pollinator populations in the field where they are used. I am keen to see Defra promoting this kind of research but it is difficult to do and is likely to be very costly.
Assuming a problem does exist with pollinators, my experience with these kinds of problems also tells me that there is almost certainly no simple cause. Simply banning neonicotinoids might make many people feel a lot better but it almost certainly would not make the problem go away. Because enough people believe there is a problem with neonicotinoids, the EU is taking the position that there must be a problem. I don’t subscribe to that kind of logic and just because a lot of people say there is a problem with neonicotinoids doesn’t make them right. However, it is not for me to make the decision. My role is to advise on the evidence and to point out the possible consequences of different courses of action.
Q7. You have been very active on social media. Why do you think that is important? And do you have advice to your fellow CSAs – or Civil Service colleagues – on engaging directly with the public?
Perhaps some of my previous answers give a clue as to why I think it is important to engage with the public. Science, and the role of scientists, is widely misunderstood by the public. Scientists often don’t agree about things and will argue about the slightest detail. When this gets into the public domain and the press get hold of it the differences can be magnified out of proportion to the real level of disagreement. I think this has happened in the climate change debates, and also about bTB. But scientists themselves can be guilty of driving the social amplification of these differences. The public needs to hear the voice of scientists more directly and without the filter of the press and pressure groups. While I don’t think I am a natural communicator, I wish I had more time to engage directly with the public.
Q8. The role of the CSA has been described as being an ‘honest broker’ rather than an advocate. How do you see your role?
I think that’s a fair description. I dislike advocacy in scientists. It undermines credibility. But as I indicated, being a CSA is a very difficult role to play. On the one hand it is essential to be embedded in the Government system and to be sufficiently trusted to allow your voice to be heard in the right places and at the right times, but on the other hand when the message is not what people in Government want to hear or when people outside Government perceive that you have ‘gone native’, one’s credibility can be undermined. I would not like to say that I get it right all of the time by any means.
Q9. What has surprised you most, seeing Government from the inside?
I was surprised by the genuine way in which politicians and officials want to use evidence. I thought it would be a fight to get them to listen but it isn’t, even if the news is not what they would like to hear. There is a strong sense that officials and ministers care about getting to the right solution and not just the solution that is politically most comfortable.
Q10. And, now you have seen it from the inside, what advice would you give to your academic colleagues on how best to engage with Government?
Be patient. Government is trying to do the best it can, often in difficult circumstances. In academia we can pick and choose the problems we want to tackle, and in business the problems that don’t provide a reward in terms of profits are set aside, but in Government there are no such choices. Government cannot walk away from problems, so it is left with the unenviable task of having to deal with the difficult, the tricky and sometimes the down-right intractable. I admire the skills of the policy officials when finding their way through the trickiest of problems. They will benefit from clear advice about what the evidence does and does not say, and about uncertainty around the evidence. They will be less enthused about advice that strays into their territory and does not see science as just one strand that needs to be considered in addition to practicality, ethics, legality, cultural and social issues, value-for-money and politics. That is not to say that scientists should not be critical – of course they should be. But that criticism has to be pitched skilfully if it is to have impact. Scientists need to understand that the way they deliver messages is very important to how the messages will be received and acted on. Science advisory committees are a mechanism that I would encourage scientists to engage with to make their voices heard within Government.
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