An academic working in government: reflections from a Chief Scientific Adviser
Professor Paul S Monks (Leicester University) shares his thoughts and reflections three months into assuming his role as Chief Scientific Adviser during an unprecedented time of global action to tackle Climate Change and the global reaction to the outbreak of Covid-19.
Three months into my tenure as Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, or BEIS for short, I thought I would share my thoughts on the some of the climate and sustainability goals set by the UK and how Government and academia can work together to achieve them. Driving forward climate ambition remains critical and in this blog I will be touching upon some of the key concepts from the presentation I delivered at the sustainability mini conference, hosted by the University of Nottingham in November. These recent pushes set the scene for an even bigger 2021, the year of Climate Action in which the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.
BEIS is a key department in Government, leading future climate, energy, research and innovation policies and strategies both domestically and internationally, coupled with steering the UK on a path to economic growth and prosperity. Its remit, put simply, is huge. It also, contributes to the delivery of seven of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, such as Affordable Clean Energy and Climate Action.
The UK has embraced these challenges and in June 2019, following advice from the Climate Change Committee, the UK Government set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from across the UK economy by 2050. In doing so, the UK became the first major economy to legislate for a net zero target. To increase ambitions domestically, on 18th November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a Ten-Point Plan for a green industrial revolution. The recent announcement of the UK’s new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which commits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030 on 1990 levels, shows that the UK is leading the way.
"I was pleased to take part in a virtual mini-conference hosted by the University of Nottingham in November that addressed the importance of sustainability-based research for UK Government and policy makers. "
Early this year, the whole world was facing an unprecedented global health challenge as the Covid-19 pandemic spread its way through the population. Governments had to react fast as the global oil demand fell and energy usage changed, leading to a shift towards a greener economic recovery plan. As we continue in our efforts against Covid-19, the UK government intends to deliver a UK economy which is greener, more sustainable and more resilient. However, the pandemic also changed the way we work, live, and interact with our friends, family, and colleagues. One such shift was towards homeworking, participating in virtual meetings and events, which has been a huge success.
I was pleased to take part in a virtual mini-conference hosted by the University of Nottingham in November that addressed the importance of sustainability-based research for UK Government and policy makers. In my presentation, I spoke about some of the challenges faced by the Industrial sector. For example, the UK needs to reduce industrial emissions by around 90% from 1990 levels, and with the chemicals sector equivalent in size to the aerospace or automotive sectors, the sector attracts the need for key measures and action. The Chemicals Industry Association recently published a report called: 'Accelerating Britain's Net Zero Economy’ that builds on previous work outlining the key opportunities available and actions necessary to make the sector more sustainable.
In the run up to COP26, the UK Government will bring forward its own plans to reduce emissions across key sectors of the economy. These will be set out in publications that include the Energy White Paper, Transport Decarbonisation Plan, Heat and Building Strategy and Net Zero Strategy. Together, these will put the UK on track to meet carbon budgets 4 and 5. However, the challenge here should not be underestimated. A collective effort is essential, embracing changes to our lifestyles, travel, and work.
I firmly believe that support, guidance, and expert advice from our research establishments is key to tackling future challenges and assisting in delivering Net Zero and sustainability. One crucial way researchers can support Government is through the Areas of Research Interest (ARIs). These publications detail the main research questions departments are looking to answer and how to align scientific and research evidence from academia with policy development and decision-making.
Across government, researchers and experts are in many independent scientific advisory boards, supporting government to make the best choices based on science. There are also governance structures in place to ensure good reporting and to enable value-adding, scientifically informed decision making. Doing science to support policy development and delivery is hugely rewarding both in the UK and internationally.
The role of the Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) and the CSA network is to be the link between governments and academia; and I encourage academics to engage through the CSA network. There is much to do.
In my mind there can be little doubt to achieve net zero by 2050 and many of our climate and sustainability goals, an economy and society wide transformation is required.
Paul Monks is Chief Scientific Adviser of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Prior to joining the department, he was Pro-Vice Chancellor and Head of College of Science and Engineering at the University of Leicester, where he remains a Professor in Atmospheric Chemistry and Earth Observation Science. His research experience covers the broad areas of air quality, atmospheric composition and climate change that has provided a platform for translation into diverse areas including forensic science, CBRN, microbiology and food safety, natural resource management and breathomics (breath analysis as a medical diagnostic). Paul was the Chair for 10 years of the Defra Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG) and Deputy-Chair of the Defra Science Advisory Council, alongside roles in the UKRI-NERC advice structures. He has worked internationally as, for example, the European representative on the Environmental Pollution and Atmospheric Chemistry Scientific Steering Committee (EPAC SSC) of the World Meteorological Organisation and ICACGP (International Commission on Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Pollution). As founding director of G-STEP (a university innovation initiative), he developed a business facing organisation with the aim of innovating using space based (EO) data to enhance the competitiveness of industry, particularly focused on SMEs.