Published on 31 May 2022
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Government Chief Scientific Adviser speaks at Annual Conference

Policymakers and academics explore public policy issues facing governments and populations in an era of turbulence and inequality.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, delivered the keynote speech at this year’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy Conference. His subject was how academics and policymakers worked together through the pandemic.

Introduced by the University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, Sir Patrick discussed why science must hold an absolutely central place in policymaking:

“Science and technology is absolutely ubiquitous. It involves virtually every decision that local or central government needs to think about. And indeed, our lives are affected by science and technology in nearly every way.”

He discussed the role of science in the work of government during the Covid-19 pandemic – from addressing uncertainties and deploying research to get answers, to using science advice to input into decision-making, ensuring transparent communication, and explaining why certain policy choices were made. The breadth of such tasks means that scientific advice to policymakers “has to be cross-disciplinary, and it has to include diversity,” he said.

The Conference focussed on the Institute’s four key research themes – place, progress, productivity and decision-making in government – providing an interdisciplinary forum for academics and policymakers to address challenging policy questions and discuss solutions.

Co-director of the Bennett Institute, Professor Dennis C. Grube, welcomed over 500 attendees – including academics, students, policymakers, and people working in government – both in-person at Churchill College, Cambridge and online, on Friday 22 April 2022.

The first panel discussion, chaired by the Bennett Institute’s Inaugural Director, Michael Kenny, Professor of Public Policy, explored the importance of place for peoples’ life opportunities and what that means for public policy – from how governments make decisions and what priorities get set, to where decisions are best made and what kinds of engagement governments need to have with different communities and areas.

Speaking to this topic and providing the audience with a range of insights were Francesca Gains, Professor of Public Policy and Co-Director of Policy@Manchester, University of Manchester, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Chair of the Governing Council of the Royal Agricultural University, and Joshua Bailey, Senior Policy Advisor, for the Levelling Up Task Force.

Joshua Bailey explained that the Levelling Up White Paper sets out the need to reorientate how central government operates – both its core architecture, and how it will work with places. He also acknowledged that Government still needs to work on devolution in relation to the distribution of power and the allocation of resources.

Fiona Reynolds agreed that government should focus on progress, not growth, and recognise that different measures should be used for different places. She argued that engagement with place also needs to be about resilience, long-term thinking and building around what already exists.

Francesca Gains said there’s also a need to understand the intersecting inequalities in places. Her research in Greater Manchester looks at gender based inequalities; about the low paid insecure sectors that women are hugely overrepresented in and their underrepresentation in sectors that the BEIS Industrial Strategy wants to see growing such as green technologies and digital advanced manufacturing. Her research looks at education, skills and employment policies that might facilitate improvement in these intersecting inequalities.

The second panel discussion, chaired by Bennett Institute Co-Director Dennis C. Grube, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, focused on how political decisions are made and communicated in a crisis. Sitting on the panel, Sarah Dillon, Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge, spoke about the need to use a range of evidence presented from within government and experts in the field (including people in the community) to provide trust and clarity.

Sir John Aston, Harding Professor of Statistics in Public Life, University of Cambridge, drew on his experience as former Chief Scientific Advisor at the Home Office, saying: “Decisions must be able to be made by politicians who can be held accountable but informed by experts. Decisions in crises are made under huge pressure and stress, but good crisis decision-making still follows a process.”

Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Behavioural Scientist and Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, University of Cambridge, agreed that there are three key characteristics for communicating with the public – clarity, competence and warmth – which allow for trust and action.

The panel agreed on the importance of saying what you do know, what you don’t know, and how long it might take to find it out – and to evaluate.

The third session, chaired by Dr Matthew Agarwala, Project Lead for the Wealth Economy, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, explored what ‘progress’ means in today’s context and how it can be measured. Anna Alexandrova, Professor in Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, opened the discussion by saying there is a need “to move away from the technocratic ideal that a decision will be justified only by a specific numerical indicator being reached. There are other ways to justify policies.”

Dr Claire Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data agreed: “We don’t spend nearly enough time just asking people what they want… What we do and don’t measure can reflect the things that people who have the power to control resources think are important.”

Dr Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, echoed this by saying “The key indicator [of progress] is reduction of inequalities. But not just any inequalities, particularly reduction of gender inequality and wealth… there’s substantial evidence – and I’ll take you to the global south now – from developing countries that closing the gender gap in private wealth would make the most important difference to the most people, women, their families, and a country’s growth.”

The final panel discussion, chaired by Professor Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy, co-director of the Bennett Institute and a director of The Productivity Institute, explored why ‘productivity’ matters and how it can be improved. The panelists, including Meredith Crowley, Professor of International Economics at the University of Cambridge, said that while it’s difficult to define and measure productivity in the public and private sectors, it is time to go beyond GDP, to include natural capital in the measurement framework, while taking into account the inputs, outputs, outcomes and efficiency.

Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, used the example of how climate change can affect productivity negatively for workers if a home or workplace overheats in the summer, but also how it provides an opportunity for working towards net zero and increasing resource productivity.  She said that rather than using GDP, which is about using more and more resources, productivity should be more about ‘efficiency’.

On how to improve productivity, Professor Bart van Ark, Managing Director of The Productivity Institute, referred to the 5Cs – consistency, coordination, collaboration at the local level, compromise, and communication.

Closing the conference, Peter Bennett, founder of the Peter Bennett Foundation, thanked the expert speakers and hoped that attendees would take away key themes of the day – on the importance of place in relation to peoples’ life opportunities, decision-making in government, how to measure progress, and the importance of productivity – to continue conversations and reflect on them in their work.

“The Annual Conference was an opportunity to showcase the work of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy – to debate current thinking and to share best practice. It was a privilege to welcome such highly esteemed experts and a diverse range of attendees to be a part of it. The Institute launched just four years ago and we’re delighted to already be having an impact on key policy conversations,” said Dennis C. Grube.


Watch the session recordings

View the Conference photos (Flickr)

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy Annual Conference 2023 will be held on Friday 14 April, at Churchill College, Cambridge.

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