GCSA at 50 – some thoughts

By Jon Agar, on 12 November 2014

I enjoyed speaking at the Royal Society/CSaP event last night on fifty years of the post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I don’t think I’ve ever been on such a daunting and illustrious panel – mine had Lisa Jardine, Sir Robin Nicholson (GCSA under Thatcher), Sir William Stewart (GCSA under John Major) and Lord Wilson (Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary under New Labour). The other panel was equally luminous: Jill Rutter (Institute of Government), Geoff Mulgan (NESTA, and another key New Labour figure), Robert May (ex-GCSA) and Mark Walport (the current GCSA, arriving just in time from a meeting on ebola).

I talked about the history of the GCSA from Solly Zuckerman (appointed 1964) to John Ashworth (who stepped down as Chief Scientist, CPRS in 1981). If you are interested in what I said, I’ve copied my notes below.

It would have been great to have longer time to hear more of the personal experiences of offering scientific advice to power. Nevertheless there were some great anecdotes, sound criticism and useful advice. Stewart, for example, told a story about Major’s encouragement to pitch for more money for science. Wilson made eyebrows rise when he recounted the demise of the chief scientific advisor for energy, Walter Marshall, when he, more or less independently, sold four PWR nuclear reactors to Iran. (I didn’t know this extraordinary episode, but a quick search shows that it appears in a modified form in Benn’s diaries.) Wilson also told us how he had to coach Hermann Bondi to not start drawing equations when he gave politicians advice.

I was also struck by the fact that reminisences can conflict with what we, as historians, know from documentary records. I have a collection of advice offered by Nicholson to Thatcher in the 1980s, recently released at the National Archives, that are quite incendiary and paint a very different picture from the slightly rosy memories that surfaced. It did make me wonder for a moment about the uses of memories as testimony. If you formed your view of the GCSA merely from recollections the picture would be very different from one reconstructed from historical documents. It is a sharp reminder that historical memory is political.

I was also struck by the character of Whitehall’s institutional memory. Sometimes this can be very deep – Walport, for example, said twice that we are still in confict between the vision of Northcote-Trevelyan (the two authors of the report on the civil service that established the generalist-specialist split, see my book The Government Machine for some consequences) and the failed reforms of Fulton (which tried to raise the status of specialists in the civil service). But elsewhere, it was clear that Whitehall can forget what it once knew. Lord Wilson recalled Margaret Thatcher’s astonishing 1988 speech on climate change as if this was the first entry of this issue. But in fact, as I have researched, three 1970s chief scientific advisers had given the issue attention, and by the end of the decade ministers knew.

Finally, as always happens, I had plenty of things to say which were not, because the discussion went in other directions. One of these was Zuckerman’s list (compiled by me from from various sources) of characters of the ideal GCSA. Here they are:

1) Offer up sensible, reasoned, dispassionate advice
2) Be independent of vested interests
3) Keep in touch (in civil service and in science)
4) Answer requests for information. CSAs play this role in departments
5) Anticipate information that will be needed, and therefore commission research if necessary
6) Sometimes (!) manage staff
7) Should not be excluded from key discussions (cf Tizard*)
8) Be personally trusted by Prime Minister
9) Be personally trusted by Cabinet Secretary
(1-7 from Royal Institution address, 1984; 8-9 from Dialogue I)

Also there was much more to say about the specific issues each GCSA encountered, and what their influence in each had been. It would be fun to compare the record of GCSAs against Roger Pielke, Jr.’s four different roles he suggests science advisers can take: pure scientist, issue advocate, science arbiter and honest broker. (James Wilsdon at SPRU might be already doing this as part of his interviews with past GCSAs.)

A good event, but perhaps the historical memories, as we should always do, are best read critically.

As promised, here’s my notes (I had seven minutes):


Between the Cherwell-Tizard period Lisa has talked about and the appointment of Robin Nicholson (on my left) in 1981, there were four men who can be considered Chief Scientific Advisors.
Solly Zuckerman was a South African-born zoologist who had conducted the gory but necessary work of investigating the effects of explosives on bodies as well as operational assessments of bombing during the Second World War. He had already performed specific, sometimes informal, advisory roles to parts of Government, before he was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence in 1960. From then on, “No one ever more completely stormed every bastion of the British establishment” said Roy Jenkins. Interestingly he insisted on a change of name from ‘Chief Scientist’ (‘inappropriate, he thought, for someone who knew little about “hardware”‘**) to Chief Scientific Advisor. Zuckerman repeatedly stressed the requirement of an adviser to challenge received opinions and intrenched interests. His views could be ‘heterodox’, rejecting battlefield nuclear weapons for example against the view of chiefs of staff. In 1964 Harold Wilson wanted to make Zuckerman a minister of state, leading on disarmament issues. Zuckerman declined. But his role as CSA for MoD was also soon untenable, perhaps because Denis Healey and Zuckerman never quite saw eye to eye. The role of GCSA was therefore created for him. He also, and he never tired of telling people, was made Head of the Scientific Civil Service, a managerial responsibility (albeit an empty title) for 10,000 people – larger than the body of 3,000 administrative civil servants.

Zuckerman retired in 1971, but he continued to chip in his views about science and government right up through the 1980s (indeed he retained rooms in the Cabinet Office). His style was to be the trusted consultant, the challenger of received views, and relied on good, wide, informal networking. He was, as Henry Tizard had predicted on hearing of Zuckerman’s appointment, been the ‘courtier’ GCSA.
The technocratic Heath government brought in the era of the Central Policy Review Staff, the “think tank”, assigned the general task of wide and deep critical review. It was also led by a scientist, Victor Rothschild. Therefore it was a moot point whether there should be another GCSA after Zuckerman. The Treasury were against. So was Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, who smoothly said Zuckerman was “sui generis”. Zuckerman insisted. Alan Cottrell, like Zuckerman a defence science adviser, was appointed, albeit as Zuckerman noted at a rank ‘one pip lower than mine’. It was the CPRS – a team of talents – rather than the GCSA that mobilised specialist expertise for the guidance of government.
The down-grading continued with Robert Press, who succeeded Cottrell. Also from the world of defence, appointed unofficial caretaker CSA between 1974 and 1976. In 1981 Zuckerman would write to Robert Armstrong saying Press was ‘really a note-taker … kept on to deal with nuclear weapon matters’, ‘he merely became a mouthpiece of the Aldermaston interests’

By now Rothschild’s customer-contractor principle had supposedly framed science’s role in departments, and in consequence more departmental CSAs were in place so that departments could better understand the contracts they would place. The dramatic expansion of the departmental chief scientific advisers had been Cottrell’s suggestion to Rothschild, and he remembers it as a proud moment in his oral history recorded by the British Library (at 50.55)

So in 1975 there was considerable debate about what to do when Press too retired. Was there no need for a GCSA? The Prime Minister – Harold Wilson again – was asked whether he wanted the GCSA replaced, the staff dispersed, replaced with someone even lower in rank. Wilson’s view – and this speaks to the relative insignificance of the GCSA – was that the post could be usefully sacrificed to counter impressions of empire building around the Prime Minister. Indeed the CPRS was enough. Word leaked out. There was a concerted campaign from MPs on the science select committee, Royal Society and Tam Dalyell. Stung, Wilson offered an avowedly cosmetic change. The new man, John Ashworth, could be called Chief Scientist, CPRS.

The authorised biography of Thatcher by Charles Moore records the following first meeting:

Thatcher: Who are you?

Ashworth: I am your chief scientist.

Thatcher: Oh. Do I need one of those?


Ashworth continued until 1981, when he was replaced by Robin Nicholson. But the whole issue of Chief Scientist was caught up in the bloody demise of the CPRS in 1983 at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. Again there was a transition point when everything was up for grabs. The Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology wanted a minister responsible for science and the CS CPRS turned into a GCSA. Thatcher needed persuasion. She herself had rashly declared early on that she, as a scientist, could take care of science policy matters. Now her first preference was to consult a group of adviser, not a single person. Divide and conquer? Or belief that she had the scientific background to make sense of diverse advice? But Nicholson was politically in tune with Thatcher’s values.

Nicholson, as Chief Scientist CPRS now became Chief Scientist, Cabinet Office, a free-standing role that gives us, once an office is built around him, the current GCSA.


* Henry Tizard, a key character in the story of radar and the main science adviser in Attlee’s administration, was excluded from the decision to proceed with Britian’s independent atomic bomb, and, even though he was chair of the Defence Research Policy Committee, excluded from much nuclear discussions thereafter. Attlee’s decision was taken by a secret committtee, and was an extraordinary breach of normal Cabinet decision-making. Tizard’s exclusion had consequences for shaping post-war defence research, as this paper which I co-wrote with Brian Balmer explored.

** Solly Zuckerman, Monkeys, Men and Missiles: an Autobiography, 1946-88, London: Collins, 1988, p. 194.