Professor Sir John Beddington HonFREng reflected on his time as Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) at the Academy’s February PolicyNet meeting. He gave examples of recent crises, what to expect in the next 20 years and to the continued promotion of scientific and engineering evidence in policymaking.

The session, which took place on 13 February, was chaired by Academy Senior Vice President, Professor Sir William Wakeham FREng and attended by members of engineering institutions, scientific societies and policy research centres.

Sir John described the fundamental role of the GCSA as giving advice while government departments take forward the subsequent action. Nonetheless, he emphasised that “advice must be given in a way that makes taking no action very difficult.”

Not only did Sir John encourage the recruitment of Chief Scientific Advisers to all government departments, he also formed the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) network. This community promotes the skills of engineers and scientists in government, creating a professional network and raising visibility across all departments. Now the GSE has over 3,500 members covering over 700 different areas of expertise.

As part of his enormously diverse and wide-ranging remit, Sir John has the responsibility for the quality of all engineering and science advice in government. Reporting directly to the Prime Minister, he has tackled both long-term and unpredictable emergency issues.

One emergency Sir John did not expect to face was the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. He described how the lack of appropriate international regulations led to the cancelation of aircraft flights in Northern Europe and highlighted the need to develop regulations based on accurate modelling.

In 2011, it was Sir John’s responsibility to present the scientific evidence following the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. He advised the Prime Minister that there was no threat of radiation and that the British Embassy in Tokyo need not be evacuated, despite inflammatory reports in the media.

Sir John warned that low probability, high impact events are becoming increasingly frequent, and highlighted other concerns such as space weather events and unexpected effects from computer trading in financial markets.

In the future, Sir John would like to see government department policy teams work directly with scientific teams and hopes that scientists and engineers will become increasingly mobile within the civil service.

“The key to communication is to stick to basic logic and to keep the jargon to a very low level. Do this and you should be able to communicate to any politician,” he said.

Notes for editors

  1. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

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