Is it time to let government advisers out of their cage?

As the relationship between politicians and scientists remains uneasy, Chris Bowlby considers its effect upon public policy over the last century.

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The sacking of a government adviser on drugs policy, David Nutt, late last year, upset many assumptions about science and politics. Nutt claimed that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

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This led the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to insist that “Professor Nutt cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”. “My sacking” replied Nutt “has cast a huge shadow over the relationship of science to policy”.

Those who know the fraught history of politicians’ dealings with scientists were less surprised. Professor David Edgerton of Imperial College London has studied this relationship in many spheres. Scientists, he says, often “want to present a picture of politicians and government not listening”.

And yet during the first half of the 20th century, scientific advice steadily became part of the routine of policy-making in many areas, such as agriculture, health and defence. Formidable advisers entered the heart of government. Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, was an Oxford physicist and close confidant of Winston Churchill, central to wartime decision-making as a filter for all the advice directed towards Churchill. From 1942 he was in the cabinet.

What made him especially influential was his understanding that scientific advice was only part of the policy-making equation, needing to be set against other social and political factors. As an example, Edgerton points out that when some scientists advised an alteration in national diet to ensure particular vitamin and mineral content, Lindemann insisted that government should strive to keep conventional foods available to sustain morale.

The government scientist became a more established figure after the war. Military research and procurement was central – part of what Edgerton has termed the “warfare state” which existed alongside the welfare state. In the 1960s and 1970s, politicians hoped that scientific expertise directed by government would promote innovation and economic growth.

But aspiring to ‘pick winners’ in the economy had very limited success. Concorde, the technologically impressive but commercially futile Anglo-French aircraft, symbolised a political-scientific ambition that proved illusory – and, since 1979, governments have been happy to let the market decide which scientific innovations merit investment.

However, says David Edgerton, we can still hear echoes from that more interventionist era when politicians insist “we need more innovation” or “we need more scientific research”. Concern about climate change has prompted repeated calls for a ‘green revolution’ in production. Gordon Brown even spoke of “no less than a fourth technological revolution”, after the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the microprocessor.

But the ghost of past failures in state-sponsored industrial policy is potent. Modern governments remain reluctant to back what they see as desirable innovation and scientific research with substantial public money.

The relationship with scientists has also changed in those fields where politicians recognise they do need expert advice more than ever – for example, public health. Earlier, it might have reflected more of an instinctive deference towards ‘the men in white coats’. That deference has declined.

What’s more, politicians have become acutely aware that public opinion on drugs, food safety, vaccination or sexual health may push in a different direction to that received from their advisers. Scientific advice can also be a shifting, cautious, inconclusive matter for politicians seeking straightforward solutions, pithy sound bites and absolute protection from risk.

So while the relationship between politicians and scientists has become more extensive, the politics of scientific advice have become more complex and controversial. Different kinds of scientist have emerged to offer competing advice – academics, commercial researchers and Whitehall employees are just some of the many voices that vie for attention.

Part of the problem, concludes David Edgerton, is that we too often take ‘science’ to be wholly independent of the state and politics, and vice versa. Scientists who feel ignored, and politicians who reject inconvenient advice, regularly prove the point.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.

This feature was first published in the April 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.