ukcivilservant

Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Why do politicians sometimes ignore scientific advice?

This blog was first published in March 2015 by Manchester University’s Whitehall Watch

Respected scientist Sir Paul Nurse recently expressed his distress that politicians sometimes “ignore” scientific evidence. Here is a slightly different take on the issue from the perspective of a recent senior civil servant.

At one level, of course, I agree with Sir Paul. I can’t prove it but I suspect that many if not most Ministers would (if they could) legalise cannabis and ecstasy, and sharply increase the cost of all alcoholic drinks. Many would also be tempted to ban dangerous sports – especially for children – including horse-riding, rugby and boxing. The fact that they do not do so upsets Sir Paul who feels “distressed” when scientists find clear evidence that contributes to a particular issue – such as drugs policy – only for politicians to ignore it “because they don’t think it will play well with the public”. “It indicates a total lack of leadership on the politicians’ part,” he told BBC Newsnight’s Evan Davis. “They have the evidence in front of them but they sometimes are cowardly about using their intelligence and using our evidence to come to a leadership decision.”

There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that leaders cannot lead unless their followers remain willing to follow them, and it is far from clear that the great British public would willingly accept many of the decisions that seem so obviously correct to Sir Paul. Sir William Harcourt’s comment that “The Minister exists to tell the Civil Servant what the Public will not stand” remains as true as it ever was.

The second problem is that the public’s risk appetite depends very much on the non-scientific context within which the risk is taken. We all dread dying in an airplane accident much more than we fear dying in a car accident, which is why apparently disproportionate resource is devoted to aviation safety. We more readily accept risks that we can control (horse-riding. rock-climbing) than risks imposed on us by others (polluters). And we certainly don’t like risks that might damage our children and future generations, which is one reason why nuclear power is so much more closely regulated than coal mining. (See http://www.regulation.org.uk/library/risk.pdf for a longer discussion of this subject.)

Sir Paul’s comments bring to mind those of Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who said that taking ecstasy was no worse than the risks associated with “Equine Addiction Syndrome”, a term he invented to describe people’s addiction to horse-riding which causes 10 deaths and more than 100 road traffic accidents a year. This caused a fuss that was tolerated by Ministers. But then, in October 2009, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published a lecture by Professor Nutt and quoted the Centre’s Director as saying that “Professor Nutt’s briefing gives us an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence, rather than political posturing and moralistic positioning”. This was a step too far for the Home Secretary who promptly sacked the professor, believing that Professor Nutt had gone beyond giving advice and had begun to campaign on an essentially political issue. In a letter to The Guardian he noted that “There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction”.

Sir Paul should not therefore have accused Ministers of ‘ignoring’ science or of cowardice or lacking leadership. This is bound to make them defensive. A much more positive approach would have been to recognise that Ministers and scientists are on the same side in wanting the public (and in particular the media) to understand the science underlying these difficult policy areas, so that attitude-changing discussion can take place. It is interesting, for instance, to note that three government departments have come together with industry to prepare an Agri-Tech strategy which implicitly (though not very explicitly) involves support for GM food, another supposed hazard which has diminished under scientific scrutiny. The main obstacle to the development of GM technology now lies outside the UK, and elsewhere in the EU. But that is another story …

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Speaking Truth unto … Prime Minister Trump?

It is well accepted, in the UK at least, that powerful men and women should be advised by those who are willing to ‘speak truth unto power’. It is also well recognised that senior officials – and senior members of the armed forces – and senior executives – need to offer their advice in way, and adopting a tone, that is best designed to ensure that the advice is accepted.

But what does this mean in practice? There is some advice available for those lucky enough to work with politicians who will listen to advice, even if they don’t always agree with it or accept it. Recent examples include Christopher Jary’s Working with Ministers, and How to be a Minister written jointly by ex-Minister John Hutton and ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis. But what advice might be given to those working with a politician with a more difficult personality?

This question came strongly to mind when I read Professor Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence in which he argues that many military blunders may be attributed to the authoritarian psychology of certain military leaders – and to the failure of their subordinates to challenge them effectively (or at all). He defines authoritarians as those who …

are less likely to …

be able to put themselves in others’ shoes, give full credit to an opponent’s ability (likely calling them stupid, feeble and/or evil), accept criticism from below, accept blame, experiment, reconnoitre, learn from their own mistakes, accept information or advice which challenges their beliefs and assumptions, and be warm and sympathetic.

and are more likely to …

have strong egos, be vain (but lack true self-confidence), blame a subordinate, be anti-intellectual, emphasise the importance of obedience and loyalty, take silence as consent, and dislike those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ – including those from a different social, educational and ethnic background
There are probably very few senior politicians who display absolutely all of these traits, and none who are totally free of all of them. Accepting blame (as distinct from changing one’s mind) does after all appear equivalent to committing political suicide. But it is not hard to think of a good number of strong characters who would score pretty highly in any test of authoritarianism. Donald Trump for a start, but maybe also Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage? Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would also score well, I imagine.

It is perhaps relevant that a recent Vox.com article noted that authoritarianism amongst American voters correlates strongly with support for Mr Trump. This is because, it is claimed, people who score high in authoritarianism value conformity and, when feeling threatened, turn to strong leaders who promise to do whatever is necessary “to protect them from outsiders and the changes they fear … Trump in turn embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive”.

My question is, therefore, what advice would you give to senior officials who might be asked to work closely with an authoritarian Prime Minister or Cabinet Minister? Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries famously got off to a bad start with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and failed to establish an effective working relationship with Gordon Brown in either the Treasury or No.10. All three seem to have preferred to work with those who did not ‘push back’ too hard – ‘courtiers’ even. And it is hard to read The Blunders of our Governments or Conundrum – Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong without wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. If not, then what were we employing them for?

So – go on then – imagine that you are lucky enough to be appointed Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff or Cabinet Secretary. You are in pole position to stop him making some very serious errors. How would you set about persuading him to listen to you and maybe change his mind?

Martin Stanley
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1. http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism .
2. According to Vox, “Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump – and will persist as a force in American politics … we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.”
3. Anthony King & Ivor Crewe
4. Richard Bacon & Christopher Hope

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This blog was first published by Civil Service World

Martin is the author of How to be a Civil Servant whose third edition was published in2016.

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