British politics is not overburdened with scientists, which can present a challenge when attempting to reach across what C.P. Snow termed “the two cultures” of arts and sciences. It’s an issue that runs both ways, says Professor John Ashton, a medical academic and former regional director for Public Health England, with many politicians who are “scientifically illiterate and scientists who are not good communicators.”
Overcoming it is a key part of being a good adviser, something Sir Donald excelled at says Lord Fowler. “Donald did have a knack, he had a very quiet way of explaining his case, he had an authority in explaining [it] …” he says, adding that it “was totally invaluable to have someone there by my right-hand side in that way.”
Sir David King, the Chief Scientific Adviser under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had plenty of experience of briefing senior politicians on complex scientific matters. Adapting to their thought processes was the key to giving successful advice.
For Mr Blair, a trained barrister, Sir David “would talk for half an hour, and then he would give me back is 15 minute version of what he’d heard, he wouldn’t take notes, and he would then say ‘have I got it right?’” It was, says Sir David, “a perfect way of him showing whether or not he had absorbed the key messages.”
Mr Brown preferred a more confrontational approach, “he would come back at me” says Sir David, “and say ‘I just don’t believe that’ … ‘that was a load of crap!’” But that, too, was a “way of showing what he hadn’t understood.”
Both men were “exceptional”, though, explains Sir David, “it’s not everyone who has that ability to be patient and listen through”.
Yet Sir David was helped considerably by the fact that his relationship with both men was forged early on in crisis. The foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 “ got me the attention not only of the Prime Minister but the whole Cabinet … I was seeing the Prime Minister every day and there’s a kind of understanding that develops between the two of you in a situation like that”.
It’s not clear when the Prime Minister first met Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, but, with Mr Johnson relatively new in office, they may not have had a chance to build that kind of working connection before the pandemic. Chris Whitty, the CMO, only took on the role in October last year.