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SAMI Provide Evidence on Horizon Scanning to Science and Technology Select Committee

November 1, 2013

The Science and Technology Select Committee are conducting an inquiry into Government Horizon Scanning.  Back in January, the Cabinet Office had asked the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Jon Day, to conduct a review of Government Horizon Scanning, as part of Civil Service Reform Plan, and his report was the starting point for the Committee’s enquiry.  SAMI submitted as written evidence the work I had done for the EU (European Forum for Forward-Looking Activities), which we reported on our blog back in June.  The Committee then held the first of its Evidence hearings last week, and I was invited along as a witness.

The other witnesses in the panel session were Doug Mackay from Shell International and Natalie Day from the Oxford Martin School, who have just published a report “Now for the Long Term”.  As it was the Committee’s first session, they were looking for definitions and basic organisational principles. We had quite a discussion about how close to the decision-maker (or policy-maker) the Horizon Scanning activity should be. Doug Mackay was insistent that the HS/Scenario Planning team had to be close to decision-makers as it is in Shell, while I made the point that you needed to ensure a wide range of diverse inputs. This reflects the “Node and Network” approach I had described in my paper (originally a concept from Oxford Analytica).

There was a question about how the Chief Medical Officer should deal with the fact that antibiotics are increasingly becoming less effective. We all said that this should have been on HS lists for some time -the issue was when to decide to do something.  The Committee wanted to explore how to deal with things beyond the Parliamentary cycle – Natalie Day  said to keep organisations like hers involved; Doug Mackay mentioned Climate Change and I stressed the need to enhance the training of civil servants.

One Member said he was sceptical – did we ever go back and check how good our forecasts had been – we all said it wasn’t about a forecast, but taking a robust decision aware of the facts. Doug also made the point that any decision is based on some set of assumptions about the future, so what futures thinking does is to make them explicit. The sceptic continued saying that the Icelandic volcano explosion hadn‘t been on the Cabinet Office risk list – I said that geologists must surely have identified that as a possible wild card, so again it was about the institutional structure.

We were asked about future issues we could see. I raised the “West to East” strand (as in our “Cobwebs” trend cards), and used an example of the global law firm getting into sharia law. Pandemics, population displacement and the linkage of climate change with food and water issues were raised by the others.

We were also asked what we thought about the Day report. I said the institutional focus was good and necessary, but that links with external HS were also necessary. A supplementary question was about outsourcing HS – Doug was dead against it, as he argued that you needed to direct HS towards decisions; I again argued for diversity; generally we agreed it was a balancing act.  We were also asked about transparency – should the scans be public?  I said that while there may be some limitations on what you want to make public, there should be a general leaning towards openness as that will stimulate more inputs.

I stayed on to hear the second session: Dr Martyn Thomas, Royal Academy of Engineering; Professor Ann Buchanan, Academy of Social Sciences; Jonathan Cowie, Institute of Biology.  The discussion covered:

  • The need to consider people issues even in technology-led systems issues eg the adoption of driverless cars; apparently the RAC Foundation is doing a study in “The Future of Automotive Industry
  • Research is most valuable when presented to an individual about to make a related decision, so there is a need for good ongoing contacts to ensure research is presented to the right people at the right time
  • The role of Chief Scientific Advisors is seen to be vital; Prof Buchanan argued for Chief Social Science Advisors too.
  • Mr Cowie suggested a review of the Foresight programme, not internally, but to see how it had really affected industry (if at all).
  • There were also questions about continuing with the census or using “Big Data” and online surveys – all three witnesses were much in favour of keeping the census because of its value in longitudinal studies.

The session is available to view online here.

Written by Huw Williams

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