Waking Up To Science

John Tucker says the Welsh Government’s appointment of a Chief Scientific Advisor is just one indication of a welcome new engagement

Aberafan born Professor John Harris, of Imperial College London, will take up his new post of Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Government at the beginning of May. This landmark appointment, announced earlier this month and widely welcomed by the Welsh academic community, is the culmination of five years of debate and pressure, much of it orchestrated by the IWA.

Professor Harries holds the Chair in Earth Observation at the Imperial’s Department of Physics and will continue to focus around 20 per cent of his time on his academic role in London. A renowned atmospheric physicist, he is particularly known for leading the team that produced the first direct observational evidence of an increase in the Earth’s greenhouse effect between 1970 and 1997. Published in 2001 in the journal Nature, this research provided fundamental evidence that significant rises in the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide were responsible for warming the Earth by trapping more of the sun’s heat in the atmosphere.

The debate over the need for a scientific advisor started at the beginning of 2006 when the Welsh Government’s consultation document on a Science Policy for Wales met with disappointment and controversy. The Economic Development and Transport Committee, chaired by Christine Gwyther, had already raised the interest of the scientific community in a science policy in July 2005, when she initiated a consultation including a programme of meetings with representatives of learned societies.

However, the Government’s consultation document was not well received by the scientific community. Some thought it was simply embarrassing. Sir John Cadogan criticised sharply the policy in the pages of the IWA’s journal Agenda. A longstanding dissatisfaction with the state of science in Wales resulted in the idea of a Chief Scientific Advisor becoming the symbol of a cause.

In September 2007, at an IWA science meeting held in the Swansea City Museum, First Minister Rhodri Morgan announced that a pathfinder post would be created to examine the case for a science advisor. This task fell to Professor Chris Pollock of the Aberystwyth Grassland Research Institute (IBERS). During the course of his investigation, which lasted the best part of a year, Professor Pollock addressed a further meeting of the scientific community also organised by the IWA, this time at Swansea University.

Much of the debate, developed at more IWA conferences and in the pages of its journal, focused on the following issues:

  • · A need for someone in government with a knowledge of contemporary science.
  • · Poor funding levels for University science.
  • · Lack of scientific research centres in Wales.
  • · Need to revitalise interest in science and technology in schools and for greater public engagement more widely.
  • · The invisibility of science in the history and culture of Wales and the need for more organisations to represent science.

The debate has led to action on many of these issues. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry have mobilised support for a cross-party Assembly Group. Computer scientists have created a British Computer Society in Wales. A new Learned Society for Wales is to be founded to represent and support excellence in the intellectual life of Wales. There are many initiatives to stimulate science in schools. The scientific heritage of Wales is being investigated by historians and scientists across the universities of Wales and at the National Museum. Wales is waking up to science.

Despite these developments our new Scientific Advisor will face some testing times in keeping a focus on science, as a more stringent funding regime kicks in. For instance, only a few days after the announcement of his appointment, IBERS announced that it needs to lose up to 70 full time equivalent posts to close a funding deficit expected to reach £2.4 million by the end of the 2011-12 financial year. IBERS is no ordinary institute. Set up by the University of Wales as the Institute of Grassland Research, taken over by a research council which wanted to move it, and later merged with Aberystwyth University, it is a rare example of a big serious research institute in Wales. Let us hope it has now found a formidable champion with the appointment of Professor John Harries.

John V Tucker is Head of the School of Physical Sciences at Swansea University, an IWA Trustee and Chair of the IWA’s Swansea Bay Branch.

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