Oliver O'Hanlon
17 September 2012

Science in the Foreign Office

“FCO…should call on learned societies and other sources of external expertise to provide advice"

A report on the use of scientific evidence and advice in the Foreign Office (FCO) has been published by the Government Office for Science. It provides recommendations to support and improve the department’s capacity to manage, quality assure and use science in policy making. Undertaken between December 2011 and April 2012, the Science & Engineering Assurance Review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is part of a series of reviews being carried out to across government departments. Below are a number of recommendations made by the review:

Strategic Approach
“The department currently lacks a clear science strategy which might enable business plans to be systematically underpinned by the best available evidence or advice”

The review commends the department for its progress on integrating the use of scientific evidence into departmental decision making, policy development and strategy, but expressed concern about the lack of an overall science strategy. It recommends the department develops a science strategy which reflects its cross-cutting work with other departments and international partners, and enables it to conduct more thorough and independent evidence-based horizon-scanning.

Commissioning, Quality and Evaluation
“The FCO does not have a single science budget”

“FCO…should call on learned societies and other sources of external expertise to provide advice”

The review found that, for the most part the department is reliant on other government departments and partner organisations for access to scientific expertise and advice. This exposes the department to possible investment reductions by others. The review recommends that the department create a small science budget to safeguard its own access to scientific advice, and develop relationships with learned societies, including social sciences to provide external sources of expertise and advice.

Use of science and advice
“The FCO CSA’s role is an important one and should be engaged across more of the department than is presently the case”

The review found that, since 2009 when the post was created, the Chief Scientific Adviser (currently David Clary) has focused only on priority areas such as the Science and Innovation Network, Overseas Territories and Counter-Proliferation. It recommends that the CSA be given greater scope to engage more widely across more of the department to support the increasing use of science essential to the department’s work. Consideration should be given to appointing a senior-level Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser and establishing a number of ‘Science Advisory
Groups’ to provide support for the CSA.

Knowledge Management and Transfer
“The extent to which internal knowledge transfer is constrained between different parts of FCO is surprising. There is a need for better communication across FCO”

While the review found evidence of good practice, much of the department’s information and communication structures are disjointed. It recommends that the expertise of the CSA’s team and the Science and Innovation Network be utilised further to provide accessible science information to all staff across the department. The review also found that external relationships between departmental staff and academics are easily severed once departmental staff vacate their post. Continuity planning mechanisms should be put in place to retain these relationships.

Internal and External Scientific Capability
It is “particularly important for the FCO to strengthen the resources that it already has, including access to good advice both internally and externally”

Examples of good practice exist in this area, such as the deployment of research analysts in overseas offices and collaboration on cross-department issues. The review suggests this capacity requires strengthening through the appointment of a full-time CSA, a Deputy CSA, or additional support staff. The review also recommends that the department puts in place mechanisms to ensure continuity of in-house expertise and maintaining relationships with key external sources of advice.