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Mark Walport

A bridge between research and politics

Chief scientific advisor to the British government says his job is to translate scientific knowledge for decision-makers

Former director of Wellcome Trust, immunologist Sir Mark Walport has been responsible for advising British Prime Minister David Cameron on scientific matters since 2013

Leo RamosFormer director of Wellcome Trust, immunologist Sir Mark Walport has been responsible for advising British Prime Minister David Cameron on scientific matters since 2013Leo Ramos

The government of the United Kingdom became one of the first in the world to establish, a half-century ago, the position of chief advisor for scientific matters, whose primary function is to identify science-based solutions to meet the challenges faced by public administration. Today, the post is held by immunologist Sir Mark Walport, former director of Wellcome Trust, a foundation that finances biomedical research. Since 2013, Walport has been advising Prime Minister David Cameron on a variety of subjects, such as climate change, the aging population, biotechnology, and energy. In 2014, after statistics showed that the number of animals used in preclinical laboratory testing had increased in the United Kingdom, the government announced measures to reduce the use of laboratory animals or find ways to replace them with other methods. Walport served as a bridge between the government and the scientific community. He acknowledged the need for change, but pointed out that eliminating the use of animals in experiments is not yet feasible.

What differentiates the British model of scientific advisory services from others is that the government has chief scientific advisors in all its departments and ministries. Walport heads a network of advisors who meet weekly to discuss priorities in each field. This model inspired the government of São Paulo State to announce, in September 2015, the creation of the post of chief scientist in every state department. The initiative, sparked by FAPESP, is to be implemented soon.

In April 2016, when he visited Brazil, Walport participated in an event that marked the renewal of a cooperation agreement between FAPESP and Research Councils UK (RCUK), maintained since 2009. Among the 164 international cooperation agreements and conventions currently in effect at FAPESP, 30 are with British institutions, among them funding agencies, companies, universities, and educational and research institutions. In an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, Walport spoke about the partnerships with Brazilian science and discussed the challenges facing a scientific advisor.

The government of the state of São Paulo is going to establish the post of chief scientist in state government departments. What do you think is critical for putting into practice the model of scientific advisory services?
I can describe the case of the United Kingdom, where the position of chief scientist is very well established. We live in a society in which technological development is advancing rapidly. New challenges for science are emerging, such as infectious diseases caused by the Zika virus. There are also longer-term challenges such as climate change, sustainability, and the need to reduce demand for energy. All those questions are faced by officials and decision-makers who need to consider scientific evidence in order to develop the best policies. That is why scientific advisors have to understand that their job is to give advice, not develop policies, because that responsibility lies with the politicians who were elected by the public. It is also important to recognize that the work of a scientific advisor does not require omniscience. The advisor needs to know how to serve as a link between the world of science and the world of politics. My job is to identify what science can best offer to guide the government in any area. Sometimes the information we need to do this can be found at the universities, sometimes in industry. And then I translate the information clearly, so that managers and politicians can understand it.

What is your daily routine like and what problems do you usually encounter?
Strictly speaking, there are no difficulties, only challenges that are enormous and diverse. To deal with them, we have a chief scientist in every department of the government, each handling a different area. We have people in the medical field, which is my case. There are nuclear physicists like Robin Grimes, chief advisor to the Foreign Office, as well as engineers in the department that handles climate change. Our daily work consists of identifying issues that are important for the government and then finding the best scientific response.

The Brazilian government passed a law that authorizes the use of a substance, synthetic phosphoethanolamine, in the treatment of cancer even though it has not yet been subjected to clinical testing and is viewed skeptically by the scientific community. How should the government have acted, in your opinion?
It’s not my place to say what the Brazilian government should have done. But the key point is that managers and politicians should look at matters like this one, about phosphoethanolamine, through three different lenses. The first is that of the evidence, i.e., what is known about a given subject. The second is: “If I make this decision, will it be implemented?” A policy, however good it may be, works only if I can deliver it to society. The third lens is that of the political values, some of them old and deeply rooted, that people hold. The job of the politician and the official is to integrate all of this. Science is one part of the decision-making process, but not the only one. [More information on phosphoethanolamine].

During a 2014 visit to Harborne Academy in the United Kingdom, Walport talked to students about science

Government Office for Science/FlickrDuring a 2014 visit to Harborne Academy in the United Kingdom, Walport talked to students about scienceGovernment Office for Science/Flickr

What should we do when the view held by society differs from the scientific viewpoint?
Scientific evidence is very important. For example, my predecessor, John Beddington, needed to suggest actions to take when a volcano in Iceland began to erupt several years ago and affected United Kingdom airspace. Was it safe to authorize planes to fly in that situation? A politician would have to be very brave to ignore the scientific advisors in that case. But, under certain circumstances, personal values, or outdated values held by society, prevail over science.

How do you give advice when the scientists can’t agree among themselves on an issue?
There are many situations in which scientific knowledge is incomplete. The Zika virus is a good example: neither politicians nor scientists have enough answers to offer immediate solutions. That’s why it’s important to have a good public health system, able to take care of the cases and provide whatever treatment is possible at the time. Another situation is when the body of knowledge is immense. In that case, what matters is the synthesis of the evidence, because not all scientific works on the subject are going to say the same thing. Good examples of such synthesis are the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which the evidence of changes in climate is presented according to rigorous standards. There are always individual scientists or small groups who may espouse contrary opinions. But, at the end of the day, science advances through evidence and consensus. My job is to go after those syntheses of evidence.

FAPESP is a partner of several UK research institutions. How does the British government view that partnership?
FAPESP is a good partner. I came to Brazil, among other reasons, because of the Newton Fund. Through that fund, the British government maintains partnerships with 15 countries, including Brazil. The United Kingdom is committed to investing almost £10 million every year (approximately R$51.4 million) in projects with FAPESP and other research support foundations in Brazil. Another institution with which we have a long-standing partnership is the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa. We are now signing agreements for research in infectious diseases, such as leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. The agreements include study grants and opportunities for exchanges. Also the British Council works with international partners to establish cooperative relationships between UK scientists and those in other countries. I visited the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation in Amazonia, and we entered into projects with the local communities in a search for sustainable economic models.

One of your first concerns when you became chief scientific advisor to the British government was related to the problem of the aging population. How has the United Kingdom dealt with that challenge?
I wouldn’t call the aging population a problem. On the contrary, it is one of humanity’s successes. We are living much longer. Quality of life has improved, people are working for more years and do not want face long battles against disease at the end of their lives. Scientists and governments need to think about the conditions that people are living in as they age, how cities will change in the coming decades. How can we prepare people for these longer lives? Aging is a global phenomenon, and brings with it challenges in terms of health, such as an increase in coronary disease and diabetes.

You have said in the past that the solution to problems like the outbreaks of Ebola depend also on the efforts of researchers in the human sciences. Why?
I believe we need to learn from history. If we want to understand how a disease is transmitted, we have to look into historical facts and the customs of different peoples. We have to understand the social context in which a disease occurs.

Walport relies on the IPCC in advising the British government on climate change

IISDWalport relies on the IPCC in advising the British government on climate changeIISD

Do you still find time to do research?
I have learned to use science every minute of every day. Of course, I had to suspend my research work after I joined Wellcome Trust in 2003, and that situation continued when I assumed the post of chief scientific advisor. It is a job that keeps me extremely busy all the time. I enjoy the privilege of learning a lot, because I’m always asking questions of scientists, consulting research institutions, companies, and people in government. I try very hard to communicate scientific content to laymen, like politicians, to ensure insofar as possible that public administration takes advantage of the benefits of science.

Do you also follow the discussions about ethics in science and how to prevent cases of scientific misconduct?
Yes. We have been involved in that field for some time. The challenge is to instill very clear values among scientists. In the final analysis, science self-corrects and the mistakes are discovered. In the United Kingdom, agreements have been reached among funding agencies, national academies, and research institutions to establish a set of guidelines intended to reduce the number of episodes of scientific misconduct. It is a problem that needs to be treated where the research is done, i.e., in the laboratories. Therefore, research institutions need to have strong ethical values with regard to the conduct they expect of their researchers. But the truth is that scientists are human and, unfortunately, some of them are weak and deliberately allow themselves to lapse. Not all scientists are good scientists.