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a briefing for members of the Scottish Parliament
1 As Scotland’s National Academy the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomes the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the “Role of Scientific Evidence and Advice in Public Policy”. The RSE has a multi-disciplinary Fellowship currently of over 1500 and is a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, having been formed in 1783. Within that Fellowship, past and present, are some of the leading Scottish and international scientists of the modern age. The RSE sees as one of its core aims the “Advancement of Useful Knowledge” and part of this aim includes the scientific advice to Government and Parliament in order to ensure that decision makers have access to current and relevant information before concluding on policy issues. As part of this mission the RSE regularly engages with decision makers on specific issues of scientific policy, whether through the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government, Westminster or the European Union. A full range of the advice papers contributed by the Society is available through our website at The subjects covered in the scientific field ranges from: climate change to digital technology; from science education to tropical diseases; and, from the storage of radioactive waste to the commercialisation of research. With support from the Scottish Government, the RSE publishes Science Scotland, which highlights the best of science and technology from Scotland: Amongst specific comments that may be of use to the debate in the Parliament on 11 December:

Tapping all of our Talents
8 The RSE produced a report earlier in 2012 1 highlighting the loss of talent of qualified female scientists to both the public and private sector in Scotland – representing a loss of individual opportunity and a cost to the Scottish economy – the RSE looks to the Scottish Parliament to address this issue, along with action at a Westminster and EU level.



Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy Making
9 Modern scientific understanding is applicable to most of the issues that are important for good government. The challenge to Government is to access this understanding, to maintain the strength of the science base on which government and the economy need to draw, and because of its impact on daily life, to ensure that the public is engaged in determining whether and how new scientific opportunities are grasped.



10 The capacity to create and implement strategy depends on effective intermediary bodies with operational experience, such as Research and Funding Councils and Regional Development Agencies, who should both provide evidence for Government strategy and be the means of implementing it. 11 Much more scientific knowledge exists outside than within Government, and it is important that approaches are developed that maximise use of this resource, for example as represented by the universities, the learned societies and national academies.



1 Tapping all our Talents – Women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (April 2012)


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12 The science base in Scotland has benefited greatly from a joint initiative of the Scottish Funding Council and the Universities, to create “pooling” in a number of key STEM areas. It has simplified the academic landscape so that the strategic priorities of Scottish universities are clearer to research funders, made it easier for business to identify research that may be relevant to its needs, and, critically, proved to be a powerful attractor for international academic talent into Scotland. It is a model worthy of notice. 13 The role of the wider science community is not to determine policy; that is for Government; their role is to develop and present the evidence for different policy options. Science is concerned to understand the working of nature, it is for society to determine how that understanding should be used. 14 Exploitation of this resource through typical public consultations is relatively ineffectual, as it tends to occur too late in the policy-formulation process. Greater thought needs to be given to up-stream approaches.

Engagement with the public on scientific issues
18 A priority should be to help all citizens understand, as much as possible, the meaning of scientific enterprise, so that they can appreciate and engage with it. This is very important in terms of instilling public trust in scientific enterprise. Key to this is the provision of science education in school. 19 More must be done to ensure that the public become familiar with the concept of uncertainty and the fact that much scientific understanding is provisional and/or necessarily qualified, yet without corroding public confidence in the underlying scientific process. The development of a discourse that is able to admit uncertainty in science-related issues should be an important priority for Government. 20 For many citizens, the media are the primary source for knowledge and understanding of scientific issues. Sensationalist reporting is unhelpful, and inhibits informed dialogue between the scientific community and the public. We would encourage more scientists to contribute to the media but in order to build public trust and confidence in science and scientists, it is important that they communicate with clarity when conveying their findings.

The role of Chief Scientific Advisers
15 The RSE welcomes the actions of firstly the UK Government and then the Scottish Government (then Scottish Executive) in introducing Chief Scientific Advisers to the relevant Government and more recently the action of the EU Commission in appointing Professor Anne Glover as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU. 16 As well as there being a Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government, there are also positions of Chief Scientists in several departments, although not comprehensively across all departments. This could inhibit the capacity for cross-Government integration. 17 The Scottish Science Advisory Council supports the Chief Scientific Adviser. However as this operates outwith the government machinery, the level of access to ministers and opportunity to influence policy is not as strong as exists with the more comprehensive system of Chief Scientific Advisers in Whitehall.

Additional Information and References
Tapping all our Talents – Women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (April 2012) Science as a Public Enterprise (August 2011) The Role and Function of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (September 2011) Setting Science and Technology Research Funding Priorities (September 2009) Supplementary Evidence to Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy Making (April 2009) Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy Making (January 2009) Response_scienceandengineering.pdf Responses are published on the RSE website (

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is Scotland’s National Academy. It is an independent body with a multidisciplinary fellowship of men and women of international standing which makes it uniquely placed to offer informed, independent comment on matters of national interest.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is Scottish Charity No. SC000470