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Scientific advice must be driven by understanding of uncertainty

Communicating the uncertainty of science is central to helping form policy, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walport told an audience of students and peers at Brunel.

In the fifth lecture in the university's 'Visions of the Future' series, Sir Mark explained the history of his role and the challenges faced when trying to provide fair and accurate advice to the Government.

He said that his scientific experience enabled him to understand some very tricky principles - no emerging technology is intrinsically good or bad, there are important differences between hazards and risks, and issues of science and values should be addressed separately.

"My role," explained Sir Mark, "is to act as transmission mechanism between the outside world of science and the inside world of government."

"My job is not to know everything," he continued. "The interests of advisers are often described as T-shaped: the vertical downstroke is a deep interest in one area of science, whereas the cross bar is a broad interest in a variety of subjects. This does capture my background."

Sir Mark trained as a doctor before being appointed Professor of Medicine at Imperial College in 1991, and subsequently Director of the Wellcome Trust. He explained that this scientific background helps him to deliver uncertainty because "often science is telling you what you don't know".

Sir Mark explained that the agenda of his office – the Government Office for Science – is driven by the key issues of infrastructure, emergencies, the economy, and science policy.

The difference between policymakers and advisers, he said, is that advisers communicate scientific evidence to policymakers, which forms one of three lenses, also including politics and delivery, through which they must look to produce the final outcome. For example, to form policy on climate change and energy, all of the following must be considered: political issues of security and supply, scientific evidence for sustainability, and the affordability of delivery.

"Innovation is sometimes viewed with suspicion," Sir Mark said, "as something that introduces risk, but frankly if we are to tackle the big challenges that we face, particularly energy, then innovation is something that we very badly need."