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What good is a Chief Scientific Adviser? RSE and CaSE Joint Lecture

06 Dec 2016

Read about CaSE’s joint event with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, interviewing and hearing from the new Scottish CSA Professor Sheila Rowan

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) joined the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in April 2016 and, shortly afterwards, on 13 June 2016, Professor Sheila Rowan was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) for Scotland. The first joint event for the two organisations, kindly hosted by the RSE on the 20th of October, presented a good opportunity for the sector to engage with and hear from the new, and long awaited, CSA.

The president of RSE, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, welcomes everyone and starts the evening

RSE President, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, opened the event by welcoming the audience to the RSE, and introduced CaSE Director, Dr Sarah Main. Sarah described the role of CaSE in working with politicians to ensure the UK has the skills, funding and policies to help science and engineering thrive. Given the distinctive politics and science policy of Scotland, she argued it was right for CaSE to engage actively in Scotland. She looked forward to working with the RSE and other CaSE members in Scotland to build a more vibrant presence in Scotland. Sarah paid tribute to Dame Jocelyn’s distinguished career and her role in championing science. Sarah spoke of the importance of the role of the CSA as someone who “embodies the connection between science, politics and society”, before welcoming Professor Sheila Rowan to the stage.

Case Director Dr Sarah Main introduces Professor Rowan

Professor Rowan began by sharing her own scientific background, including work on gravitational waves – announced this year, 100 years after they were predicted by Einstein – saying it was “incredibly exciting how the discovery captured the public’s imagination”. Professor Rowan also spoke of the numerous spin-offs that have come out of research in her field – segueing nicely into science policy and her new role as CSA.

Professor Rowan set out her four main responsibilities as Scottish CSA: making sure ministers and government officials have independent scientific advice; championing the role of science in the economy; representing and acting as an advocate for Scottish science in Scotland, Whitehall and Europe; and inspiring the next generation of scientists and encouraging diversity in STEM.

In her talk, Professor Rowan discussed how government sources scientific advice and, therefore, how to “make sure that ministers and policy officials in government have access to independent scientific advice for policy”. She described how the CSA acts as a conduit between government and science, pointing out that it can be a complex act at times. One particular challenge she raised was that of living in a ‘post-expert climate’, where she stressed that while it is the duty of the CSA to keep the Government informed, we cannot take the valuing of evidence for granted.

Professor Rowan said that she will use her role to emphasise the strength of Scottish science, and of Scottish education, stating: “In Scotland people are the most important resource we have”.

The new CSA concluded her talk by setting out her aims for the next three years: making sure government has access to the very best science advice to inform policy (both external and internal scientists); making sure the science sector has a strong voice to represent its concerns to government and that this voice is understood; and, keeping the public informed on the importance of science and aware of the positive aspects of science, as well as how it contributes to the country. Professor Rowan ended on an international note, with a reminder that “science in Scotland sits in an international context. Science doesn’t respect borders and to make the advances in science we need to make, we will need to work internationally.”

Q & A and Discussion

After the talk, BBC Special Correspondent, Ken Macdonald, interviewed Professor Rowan, followed by questions from the floor chaired by Professor Bell-Burnell.

Ken Macdonald interviews Professor Rowan on her new role

Many of Ken Macdonald’s questions focused on evidence and policy and the tension between the two. Professor Rowan explained that although there are sometimes clashes between policy and science, the important things are to ensure that MSPs and MPs are always presented with the relevant evidence, and that the public understands the reasoning for decisions taken. She pointed out the other members of the Scottish advisory team who would provide evidence to ministers: the Chief Scientist for Health and the Chief Scientific Adviser for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment.

The conversation highlighted the change in attitudes of scientists in recent years, with Professor Rowan commenting that science communication has previously been seen as an ‘optional extra’ for academics, but is now valued and emphasised as part of that role.

Particularly interesting was Professor Rowan’s approach to novel research. When asked about blue sky science, she talked about how frequently even blue sky research ends up spinning out completely unexpected products. She described how, without Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we would have no GPS, and highlighted the many spin-offs of the Large Hadron Collider.

Questions from the audience prompted discussion on a range of issues: novel ways of communicating science to the public – for instance, science at food festivals and reaching out to communities who don’t normally engage with science centres or festivals; the challenges Brexit poses for Scottish science; and how best to deal with perceived hostility to experts.

As the meeting was concluded by CaSE Chair, Professor Graeme Reid, the atmosphere was full of interest and excitement. CaSE and the RSE look forward to supporting the new Scottish CSA in her vital role. Many thanks to the RSE for jointly organising and hosting the evening; and to Professor Rowan, whom CaSE is glad to welcome to the role.

Professor Graeme Reid, CaSE chair, brings events to a close

Note: Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is Scottish Charity No. SC000470