Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) is to appoint a chief scientific advisor, one of whose primary tasks will be to spearhead its efforts to introduce more science and technology into all of its programmes.
The move is partly the result of pressure from the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, to bring the agency into line with other government departments. Each of these was required to introduce its own chief scientist under government reforms in the early 1990s.
But it also reflects a growing awareness within DFID itself that the agency should develop a more strategic approach to the way that science and technology are used to carry out its principal mission, namely the alleviation of poverty in the developing world.
The creation of the new post was announced yesterday (7 July) by Hilary Benn, the secretary of state for international development. He was addressing the science and technology committee of the lower house of the UK parliament, which is currently carrying out an inquiry into the use of science and technology in Britain's aid programmes.
The announcement was immediately welcomed by Ian Gibson, the chair of the parliamentary committee, as a "dramatic move" on the part of the department.
He described the move as representing a "sea change" in the government's approach to the issue — and said he was pleased that his committee's inquiry could take some of the credit for having highlighted the issue.
Benn told the committee that his officials intended to draft a job description for the new role and recruit a suitable candidate "as quickly as possible".
"Science has a really important contribution to make to improving the condition of humankind," said Benn. "For that reason, good strategic advice on how this can be done most effectively is fundamental to our work, enabling us to make better use of science, and to build on the scientific work that we have done in the past."
Responding to those, such as members of the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific body, who have recently criticised DFID for paying insufficient attention to science (see Britain's aid policy 'lacks scientific expertise'), Benn pointed out that the agency already supports a considerable amount of research in areas that contribute to development goals, such as the improvement of health and agricultural productivity.
But he admitted that these efforts could benefit from increased "joined-up thinking", and a more strategic approach. Developing both of these would be the task of the new chief scientist.
Although Benn said that such an individual would need to be "someone who not only has great credibility in the scientific community, but also knows about development," he was reluctant to promise the committee that this would be a natural, rather than a social scientist — as organisations such as the Royal Society have been pressing for.
But Gibson made clear that he expected this to be the outcome of the recruitment process. Indeed in its report, the committee is likely to express its concern about the relatively high proportion of social scientists currently employed in DFID, compared to the number of natural scientists and engineers.
Benn acknowledged that earlier witnesses at the committee's hearings (including King) had criticised DFID for neglecting science. While not endorsing their charge, he accepted that "we have not been as good as we should have been in explaining what we have been doing."
He added that discussions were currently taking place with Britain's research councils — the main channels for government support to research in UK universities — about how DFID could work more closely with them "and move development issues up their research agendas."
But he was reluctant to express support for an idea proposed to the committee by some earlier witnesses that a new research council should be set up specifically to take responsibility for funding research in British universities and other research institutions relevant to development needs.
DFID officials pointed out to the parliamentary committee that this is already done effectively by some of the existing research councils — in particular the Medical Research Council, which puts substantial efforts into the study of tropical diseases.
Indeed, given DFID's wide range of other commitments, there is little enthusiasm within the department for accepting — as some critics have suggested — that it should take on prime responsibility for maintaining the United Kingdom's research capacity in fields such as tropical medicine.