Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 2, “Q and A”, (#smp2014 #AdelEd @foreignoffice)

The last formal event was a question and answer session with Professor Robin Grimes, the Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (@foreignoffice). I’ll recover from Question Time and talk about it later. The talk appears to have a secondary title of “The Role of the CSA Network, CSAs in SAGE, the CSA in the FCO & SIN”. Professor Grimes started by talking about the longstanding research collaboration between the UK and AUS. Apparently, it’s a unique relationship (in the positive sense), according to William Hague. Once again, we come back to explaining things to non-scientists or other scientists.

There are apparently a number of Chief Scientists who belong to the CSA Network, SAGE – Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – and the Science and Innovation Network (SIN). (It’s all a bit Quartermass really.) And here’s a picture that the speaker refers to as a rogue’s gallery. We then saw a patchwork quilt that shows how the UK Government Science Advisory Structure, which basically says that they work through permanent secretaries and ministers and other offices – imagine a patchwork quilt representation of the wars in the Netherlands as interpreted by Mondrian in pastoral shades and you have this diagram. There is also another complex diagram that shows that laboratories are many and advisors scale.

Did you know that there is a UK National Risk Register? Well, there is, and there’s a diagram with blue blobs and type I can’t see from the back of the room to talk about it. (Someone did ask why they couldn’t read it and the speaker joked that it was restricted. More seriously, things are rated on their relative likelihood and relative impact.

The UK CSAs and FCO CS are all about communication, mostly by acronym apparently. (I kid.) Also, Stanley Baldwin’s wife could rock a hat. More seriously, fracking is an example of poor communication. Scientific concerns (methane release, seismic events and loss of aquifer integrity) are not meeting the community concerns of general opposition to oil and gas and the NIMBY approach. The speaker also mentioned the L’Aquila incident, where scientists were convicted of a crime for making an incorrect estimation of the likelihood of a seismic event. What does this mean for scientific advice generally? (Hint: don’t give scientific advice in Italy.) Scientists should feel free to express their view and understanding conceding risks, their mitigation and management, freely to the government. If actions discourage scientists from coming forward, then it;s highly undesirable. (UK is common law so the first legal case will be really, really interesting in this regard.)

What is the role of the CSA in emergencies? This is where SAGE comes in. They are “responsible for coordinating and peer reviewing, as far as possible, scientific and technical advice to inform decision-making”. This is chaired by the GCSA, who report to COBRA (seriously! It’s the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) and includes CSAs, sector experts and independent scientists. So swine flu, volcanic ash cloud, Fukushima and the Ash die-back – put up the SAGE signal!

What’s happened with SAGE intervention? Better relationships with science diplomacy. Also, when the media goes well, there is a lot of good news to be had.

The Foreign Office gets science-based advice which relate to security, prosperity and consular – the three priorities of the Foreign Office. It seems that everyone has more science than us. There are networks for Science Networks, Science Evidence and Scientific Leadership, but the Foreign Office is a science-using rather than a science-producing department. There is no dedicated local R&D, scientists and engineer cadre or a departmental science advisory committee.

The Science and Innovation Network (SIN) has two parent departments, Foreign Office (FCO) and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS, hoho). And we saw a slide with a lot of acronyms. This is the equivalent of the parents being Department of Industry and DFAT for our system. 90 people over 28 countries and territories, across 46 cities. There’s even one here (where here is Melbourne and Canberra). (So we support UK scientists coming out to do cool science here. Which is good. If only we had a Minister for Science, eh?) Apparently they produce newsletters and all sorts of tasty things.

They even talk to the EU (relatively often) and travels to the EU quite frequently in an attempt to make the relationships work through the EU and bi-laterally. There aren’t as many Science and Innovation officers in the EU as they can deal directly with the EU. There are also apparently a lot of student opportunities (sound of ears pricking up) but it’s for UK students coming to us. There are also opportunities for UK-origin scientists to either work back in the UK or for them to bring out UK academics that they know. (Paging Martin White!)

There is a Newton Fund (being developed at the moment), a science-based aid program for countries that are eligible for official development assistance (ODA) and this could be a bi-lateral UK-AUS collaboration.

Well, that’s it for the formal program. There’s going to be some wrap-up and then drinks with Adam Bandt, Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, Hope you’ve enjoyed this!