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A prescient call

The UK’s strategy for coping with the coronavirus crisis had been described as being to “contain, delay, research and mitigate” the spread of the disease, and in doing so flatten ‘the curve’ of the epidemic and mitigate its impact on the NHS

While the initial policy of the government has been radically amended with the announcement of a nationwide lockdown this week, it has been based on scientific evidence as the disease has spread through the population.

At the end of January the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance gave the annual CaSE Lecture, in front of an audience at the Francis Crick Institute, and his comments on the importance of science and why it needs to be embedded across government were certainly prescient.

While science certainly has a presence in parts of government, it is not universally present, and it certainly needs to become more like economics, a social science, which now underpins all areas of government policy.

The challenge, for Sir Patrick, was how this could be achieved.

It’s certainly true that scientific issues have implications for practically every area of policy, whether that’s transport, renewable energy, an ageing population, to security and emergency issues.

Science has played a role in government since the Second World War but it’s really only been in recent years that significant steps have been taken in raising its profile with the formation of UKRI, the embedding of Chief Scientific Advisers in every government department and the size of the Science and Engineering Civil Service Fast Stream set to double.

The Budget, which now seems like an irrelevance, raised funding in government backed R&D significantly, more than many commentators expected.

Sir Patrick discussed the report, ‘Realising our ambition through science’, and discussed three key themes, critical to the UK making the most of science and through science, innovation.

The first is building science capacity across the civil service and having more people with science and engineering backgrounds in the civil service, the second theme focussed on ARIs or Areas of Research Interest, in which key themes and questions are explored and finally the importance of using all resources and accessing expertise wherever it is to provide the best scientific advice.

We need to create better links with industry in helping to achieve the best possible access to expertise and the government needs to make better use of PSREs or Public Sector Research Establishments.

Sir Patrick also made the point that UK science is dependent on our place internationally and said that future immigration and collaboration need to be maintained and be as easy as possible to support UK research.

As we, and the rest of the world, battle the terrifying and profoundly disturbing impact of the coronavirus his talk has raised profound and important questions about the role of science in a modern society.

Politicians need to understand and embrace science and should never again be allowed to dismiss the advice of ‘experts’ or the value of scientific knowledge and expertise.

Author
Neil Tyler

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