Most UK Government departments have Chief Scientific Advisers. Their role is to provide advice to ministers, facilitate STEM policy, identify and share good practice, including the use of scientific advice in policymaking, and facilitate communication on particular high-profile issues.
Moreover, with science having a more prominent role in Government with the ambition that by 2024, 2.4% of GDP was to be invested in R&D and Innovation (RD&I) to make the UK a ‘Science Superpower’ there was a clear opportunity to put science and engineering right at the heart of policymaking and the industrial strategy.
Responding to emergencies
Not long into the role, the vehicle emissions scandal broke. This was a real opportunity for us to highlight the need for a robust science team.
In response, I pulled together a cross-Government team, whose remit was to provide all the science that went to Ministers to deal with the scandal, amend the vehicle emissions testing regime and lead to policies such as Clean Air Zones.
This event really helped embed science and the Chief Scientific Adviser network across Government.
Since January 2020, there were lots of meetings around what we came to know as Covid-19. In the early days, we were trying to understand whether there was an international threat from this and how we should respond.
Later, the science was used to inform on the lockdown and the role of transport data in demonstrating the effectiveness of the lockdown and social distancing.
From May 2020, much of this was about trying to get the transport sector to restart safely after the first lockdown and ensuring the science could inform what was safe practice for restarting transport while minimising risk and ensuring social distancing was adhered to.
What was surprising (and still is to some extent) is the lack of ability to really understand transmission in different environments and quantification of the risks of whatever mitigation we put in place to enable transport to run with at least some passenger-carrying capacity.
It was exhausting but all-important and the role put me at the heart of decision-making in Government.
When coronavirus caused the world to lockdown early in 2020, I attended many of the 90+ Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) meetings.
We had a pre-SAGE meeting in January 2020 before anyone had heard of coronavirus, although we were aware of an issue in China. We certainly didn’t imagine that the world would still be affected to the extent that it is now.
I believe that SAGE had the right people in charge. Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty have brought huge expertise and I am impressed in the way that they use simple, clear language to provide clarity when engaging with the public (and politicians), putting things in very simple terms so that people don’t feel excluded if they don’t have a medical or science background.
Our job was to present the science and it was the job of Ministers to make the policy decisions based on the science. I believe that engineering and technology have played a huge role in mitigating the risk of transmission of the virus.
It’s also hugely helped us to understand ventilation systems on our transport networks. Engineering solutions have made many sectors more resilient.
Assistance from the IET
During the first few weeks of lockdown, there were many requests going into the IET for help. We set up a triage system at the DfT to look at these.
IET members assisted in many areas, including intelligent transport systems, challenging the industry to help with data, and repurposing CCTV cameras to measure distances between people to check if people were socially distancing.
This helped us collect robust data to understand if people were following the new rules, as the models assumed a certain minimum level of compliance and we needed to ensure in the real world we were above the minimum.
The other was car use and public transport data, which was published as the first slide in the daily 5 O'Clock briefings. It showed patronage on buses and trains.
What was astonishing though was how little data the DfT had. We had to beg, borrow, and steal from the rail and bus companies, most of them in the private sector, to get them to share their (commercially sensitive) data.
We then had to aggregate it so that any commercially sensitive information was not obvious. There were some great innovations in doing so.
Transport for London didn’t then know how many people were travelling on the Tube. Then, one of their engineers came up with the idea that, as their train carriages each had strain gauges on the axles for maintenance and performance data, this could be used to take a measurement of the carriage then make a judgement of the number of passengers on board.
This greatly helped us to innovate on data.
Innovation in data
Public transport patronage data was generally not shared by operators as most of the services are run by private companies and this data was commercially sensitive.
However, with very low patronage during the lockdown, the DfT effectively renationalised bus and rail which then meant it was easier to collect data. Everybody recognised it was a national emergency and everyone tried to help in any way they could.
But it took a while to get going. It showed that people really wanted to help in the smallest possible way and we still see that with volunteers at vaccination centres now.
Thinking of other key achievements, I was very fortunate to launch the Transport Research Innovation Board, which brought together Government research funders enabling us to clearly identify Government research and innovation priorities.
This was embedded in Government following a launch event at Lancaster House attended by the then Transport Minister, Jesse Norman MP.
Other challenging situations that we had to respond to included Zika virus, which is mainly spread by mosquitoes but there was a lot of research for us to do to understand whether we should be routinely spraying planes and ships arriving back in the UK.
The Novichok poisoning in Salisbury meant that we quickly had to understand if the poison could be spread to our transport networks. There were also weather emergencies and resilience issues across our different transport networks.
Engaging with engineers
I had a small team that looked after all science, making sure it was included in all spending review bids, joining up across both the Department, as well as cross-government engagement and engaging with the Professional Engineering Institutions, such as the IET, and other stakeholders.
There was an awful lot to do. During this time, I encouraged secondments, and we were delighted to welcome Sahar Danesh, previously of the IET Policy & Insight team.
These secondments were so valuable for both sides; giving the IET direct access to Government, and for us, the engineering expertise we gained was crucial.
Obviously key to transport and the spending review, was to ensure the evidence, plan, and pathways towards the decarbonisation of each and every transport mode was embedded in the DNA of the DfT, all underpinned to the best science and engineering expertise.
Helping to upskill and professionalise engineers at the DfT was a priority. While in post, I ensured that DfT became a corporate partner of the IET, which continues to help staff keep up to date with their engineering professionalism.
Now that my time at the DfT has come to an end, I continue as Vice President of the IET and I’m still at Newcastle University. I have the ambition to create a regional mobility institute in the northeast, hosted at the university.
Its aim would be to help the region solve some of the transport problems such as decarbonisation, levelling up, and how they can better use understanding of data to improve the situation.
The IET helped me significantly during my time at the DfT. I convened meetings on data, cyber security, hydrogen, and a whole different raft of elements where the collective knowledge of the IET membership helped us greatly.
The IET also helped to challenge government through responses to consultations, which I think is absolutely the right thing to do.
The role was full-on 24/7 for those six years and it gives you a real insight into the challenges and scale of the tasks and policy that Government deals with every day.
It was a real privilege to do the job for six years, working with some of the best people in the country and I think I left science and engineering in the DfT in a much better and forward-looking place than when I joined in June 2015.
Exciting times ahead for the science team and my successor!