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John Beddington

John Beddington: The “Sir” of science

Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government explains how scientists help to formulate public policies

John-Beddington_Eduardo-Cesar2Eduardo CesarJohn Beddington, Chief Scientific Advisor to the government of the United Kingdom, brings together the skills of a scientist, a diplomat, a spokesman and a man of broad vision. He represents university researchers and shows the British government, starting with Prime Minister David Cameron, to whom he reports, how to use scientific knowledge as a basis for decision-making. After being appointed to the position, in 2008, he persuaded 17 cabinet ministers to open the way for scientific advisors, who are now active in various areas, such as education, the environment and transport. Beddington gets together with the other advisors every Wednesday for a breakfast meeting when they create strategies to work together. As soon as emergencies arise, such as the swine flu, the air chaos in 2010 due to the ash from a volcano in Finland, or the nuclear accident in Japan, he calls in groups of experts who quickly propose ways to deal with such crises for the government.

Beddington is Professor (equivalent in Brazil to a senior professor) of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College, London, and is entitled to use the prefix “Sir” for honors conferred upon him by the Queen of England for services to science. In his previous government position, as head of science and technology, he found that there were no records of how many engineers and scientists were on the government payroll. He therefore began to promote meetings with engineers in the government’s employ, even when they came from different areas. “We formed a community of government scientists with about four thousand members that meet several times a year. We also have a site, so that all scientists or engineers working for the government are now able to talk to each other,” he recounted.

In 2008, soon after he became the Chief Scientific Advisor of the United Kingdom’s Office of Science and Technology, Beddington visited Brazil for the first time. He returned in May of this year: on the 10th, he visited Embrapa Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (the crop and livestock farming research company), and the Ministry of Science and Technology. The following day, as part of a meeting with the coordinators of the projects approved under the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (PFPMCG), he delivered a presentation in São Paulo on what he calls the “perfect storm” – the combination of global and urban population growth, the rising demand for food and energy, and climate change. After this, accompanied by a delegation of representatives of British research promotion agencies and universities, he attended the signing of scientific and technological cooperation agreements between FAPESP and the universities of Nottingham and Southampton, besides meeting with two reporters from this magazine, talking about how he and his group of scientific advisors solve and forecast problems.

Does each ministry in the government of the United Kingdom have a scientific advisor?
Yes. My job is extremely complicated, because science and technology are so widespread. Since I have been in the post, it was agreed that there should be a chief scientific advisor in each of the main Ministries. There is a scientific advisor in Energy and Climate Change, in the Environment, Transport, Food and Rural Affairs, Defence and so on. There is a chief scientist in the Ministry of Education. The only government department that does not have a chief scientist is the Treasury, and we are currently in discussions with them, that they would appoint one. We use a wide definition of what a chief scientist is, which would include social researchers, engineers and economists.

Why doesn’t the Treasury have a scientific advisor?
Good question. I have raised this point with the Finance Ministry, because we already have scientific advisors in the Foreign Ministry, in the Ministry of Justice, and in the ministry that deals with Home Affairs. Only the Finance Ministry doesn’t have one. So we are seriously discussing this issue. One of the jobs I have is to direct the foresight program. For example: what are the problems that will come on a timescale of 10, 20, 50 years? We have just completed a broad, 400-page study with 400 scientists from 35 countries on the future of food and farming, which includes an analysis of Brazil, by Embrapa. To show you that science goes into finance too, another study addresses the future of financial trading. There are two main trends in this field at the moment. One is that an increasing proportion of trades are now conducted using computer algorithms. The second is that the speed with which these trades are executed on the stock exchanges is getting faster and faster – it’s now down to milliseconds. This means that 20 thousand trades can be executed in the blink of an eyelid, but this is a very destabilising system. So here we have a new problem, which involves both engineering issues and ecological issues, which are broader. In May 6th of 2010 there was a crash on the New York Stock Exchange system and many hundreds of millions of dollars of stock simply vanished in less than two minutes. Nobody can really explain why that happened, but part of the explanation is that the computer programs were trading with each other. I have a study sponsored by our Finance Ministry – the Treasury-, we presented engineering questions about financial markets. So we have engineers, physicists and financier people doing that. Science and engineering are much wider than conventional science and engineering.

How do the scientific advisors work?
There are 17 scientific advisors. I meet with them every Wednesday for breakfast. This means we have a network of people in each of the main ministries and we think about problems that are joined up, and that we should work on together. We may, for instance, hold a discussion between our department of transport and our department of energy and climate change. We try to keep up this network. We also meet every two to three months to discuss particular areas; in two weeks’ time, we will have a meeting to on the issue of food, agriculture, and how that links to climate change. Every three months we meet with the coordinators of the United Kingdom’s Research Councils for debates during the daytime and a social event in the evening. This way everyone involved with science and technology in the United Kingdom is part of this network and meets regularly.

John-Beddington_Eduardo-Cesar1Eduardo CesarDoes the government implement the ideas you propose?
I think so. Every day, in each ministry, the scientific advisors evaluate whether an idea is really good or whether it is unfeasible while the public policies are being formulated. They are also responsible for deciding how much to spend in each area of the Research Councils. Let me give you an example: biofuels. Three years ago, there were some proposals to increase the percentage of biofuel in transport fuel. There was some concern about the effect on the prices of food and agricultural products. So I convened a group with chief scientists not just from the environment department, but also from transport and climate change areas. We called in experts to help to formulate recommendations for the government and they changed the policy. The scientific advisors also handle emergencies. The government has a very senior committee from the most senior ministries that forms the COBR committee, which is the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. It’s an excellent name. Whenever an emergency arises, I convene a group, called SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. When the swine flu epidemic was there, I convened scientific advisors at the department of health and at the department of social services – because there was the issue of employment – as well as academics from universities, to advise the government on that emergency. In 2010, when air space in the northeastern Atlantic was closed because of the spread of ash from a volcano eruption, I convened a group with the chief scientists from all the departments and independent experts from universities and from the geological and meteorological service to recommend what could remain open or not and what might be changed in the regulations. We have just convened another one on the nuclear disaster in Japan, to decide whether it would be necessary to evacuate our citizens or close the embassy. With nuclear engineers, meteorologists and experts in radiation and health, and once again, from universities, we advised the COBR commission. Luckily, we concluded that it was unnecessary to evacuate; even in the worst case, the radiation levels was not going to be a problem.

You have to reconcile transparency with secrecy, right? Could you give us examples of things that work or that don’t work?
One area that we’re working on is national security. One of my achievements was to persuade the security agency to appoint a chief scientist – forgive me, but I can’t say the name. When I show the entire team of advisors in presentations, the picture shows only the silhouette of the person from the department of security, but we work with them. The chief scientists are at the heart of these issues: we have to think about terrorist threats. There are some relatively simple issues to solve, such as explosions, but terrorism also implies biological or radiation problems. We also have to detect terrorist networks, for instance, by monitoring mobile phone usage. There are ways of using science not only to fight terrorism, but organized crime as well.

How do you persuade people from other groups?
This is always a problem, but the government is committed to producing policy on the basis of evidence, which can be scientific, economic or legal. This takes place at the very top of government; I report to the prime minister directly. I also chair the Council of Science and Technology, which has very senior scientists but also very senior business people. The council also reports directly to the prime minister. For example: last year, the council provided a report on the need to develop infrastructure in the United Kingdom, meaning roads and railroads obviously, but also, more broadly, for computer networks and energy. The Prime Minister also meets with this committee regularly; the last time was six or seven weeks ago, to see how science and technology might connect with the heart of government. What is interesting is that only two countries in the European Union have scientific advisors that report directly to the head of State: one is the United Kingdom and the other, the Republic of Ireland.

Should all countries have scientific advisors?
It’s difficult to generalize. In the case of Brazil, it is comparable, in geographic terms, with the United States. President Obama has a scientific advisor, John Holdren, who works in the White House. The United States also has the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which includes not only Nobel Prize laureates but also representatives from corporations. They have scientists in practically all departments, but are unable to meet often. This is easier in a small country such as the United Kingdom than in a large country such as Brazil. All of us are based in London, so arranging a breakfast meeting is far easier. There is no single model that is suitable for everyone. France and Germany don’t have anybody like this. Japan does, as do the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. There is a group of chief scientific advisors and ministers of Science, the Carnegie Group, comprising the G8+5 countries, which includes Mexico, Brazil and China, and we meet every year. It’s an interesting meeting, and no notes are taken.

Is it a secret meeting?
No. This just means that we won’t have to read about these conversations later. We hold detailed discussions on certain themes. Last year, for example, we talked a lot about counterfeit pharmaceuticals, which is a major problem in the world. There are criminal gangs that make products with less or no active principle in them in packaging that is identical to that of regular pharmaceuticals; it’s a huge industry. We had a discussion about how to deal with that.

And what did you decide?
I can’t tell you!

What are your priorities as the United Kingdom’s chief scientific advisor?
Like the prime minister, I am very concerned about getting science and engineering to make economic growth more effective.

And how can one use science to further economic growth?
This is what I am discussing with FAPESP. For example, we might think about developing techniques for biorefineries, finding more sophisticated ways to use agricultural products or using computers to make manufacturing processes more efficient in any area. At the Council for Science and Technology, consisting of senior industrialists, also very senior engineers and scientists, we are reorganizing the ways of funding science. Now, one person, the director-general of knowledge and innovation, Sir Adrian Smith, looks after all science at the research councils, all the universities and all innovation in the United Kingdom. He is a mathematician who previously headed the Mathematics Department at Imperial College; later he was the vice-chancellor of one of the universities of London, the Queen Mary College, before joining the government. He now has a budget of 16 billion pounds a year to make university research reach the companies.

Other priorities?
Another priority I hope to work on: the potential disasters that are likely to occur? One of the areas that I highlighted recently is that the Sun is moving to a more active phase, and changes in the climate in outer space might damage satellite and communication networks and electric grids. With John Holdren, who is my equivalent at the United States, I wrote an article that was published in the New York Times warning that we must take space climate more seriously. We don’t have enough research to deal with such potential problems. Our world is much more vulnerable than before.

How are the negotiations on climate change doing in the United Kingdom?
I would rather avoid that, as I’m a scientific advisor, not a political commentator. I’d say there is growing evidence that the climate change is real, is happening, is dangerous and is man-made.

Are you managing to bring together people and institutions to work together and deal with this problem?
Yes. In the United Kingdom, we have the Hadley Center, the department of energy and climate change, and the department of the environment and food all working together. There is a ministry in charge of mitigation to climate change and another in charge of adaptation to the effects of climate change. There are research councils working in this area with research programs and we’re developing collaborative efforts, for instance, with FAPESP. We also have collaboration agreements with research groups in the United States, Europe, China, India, Canada, and Australia, among others. Our embassies in the main countries have people who are part of the science and innovation network and who are attuned to the possibility of new collaborations and innovations. This is the case here in São Paulo, in Delhi, in Beijing and in Washington. As I said in my lecture, collaboration is the way for the future.