Mark Walport: Scientists need to realise politicians use multiple lenses to look at problems

“Science and technology are absolutely crucial to make the best policy decisions in contemporary societies” says Sir Mark Walport. He knows what he is talking about. A medical doctor by training, he has since last year taken the position of Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK government. This is a privileged position at the interface between politics and academia.

EuroScientist met Sir Walport at the annual meeting dedicated to the future breakthroughs in science and society, Falling Walls, in Berlin, Germany, in November 2013. There, he gave a keynote lecture on the difficulties of communication between politicians and scientists.

“Remarkably few” countries around the world have an equivalent position to the Chief Scientific Advisor, according to Walport. His is not an easy task. “I am only able do my job in the UK because we have a network of chief scientists in each individual government department,” he explains. One of the most important roles of the chief scientist is “to advise in the case of emergency,” Walport adds. “For that, I am able to call, at very short notice, tremendous experts in almost all areas of science and technology,” he explains.

He faces two main challenges. The first one is to make sure communication flows. At the same time, he needs to ensure that scientists “realise that there are multiple lenses politicians use to look at the problems.”

The second is even more important: “When you are advising politicians, you are obviously providing advice when there is uncertainty,” he notes, adding: “you have to do the best you can. One of the challenges for the interactions between academia and politics, is that the timescales do not always match.”

The full podcast interview is available below.

Featured image credit: Kay Herschelmann/Falling Walls

Luca Tancredi Barone

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