Congratulations to Professor Sheila Rowan MBE on her appointment as Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). The Scottish Government is lucky to get such a distinguished physicist on board.
Her main expertise is in the development of gravitational wave detectors, so it is not surprising that journalists speedily suggested that she will have to get familiarised with fracking and GM crops as well. However, mitigation was signalled in the press release announcing her appointment. It said that the CSA Scotland will focus “on strategic and cross-cutting issues, particularly in policy areas not already covered by the Chief Scientist (Health) and the CSA for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment.” But far more important than her specialism as a qualification for the job is her proven success as a team leader.
We have waited a long time for this appointment. Professor Rowan’s predecessor, Professor Muffy Calder, demitted office at the end of December 2014. Nothing much seemed to happen until the then Education Secretary, Angela Constance, announced in September 2015 that, after an unsuccessful attempt to appoint, the CSA post would be” re-advertised by the end of the year”. Headhunters were brought in, and they advertised the post with a 29 February 2016 deadline.
The headhunters were Saxton Bampfylde. They had opened an Edinburgh office in 2014, headed by Peta Hay, described by the firm as bringing “senior global HR experience from Tesco and ASDA”.
It is a curious fact that other headhunters also have striking names. It is easy to understand why @scotgov civil servants might have been reluctant to use some of them: “Heidrick and Struggles” and “Hunter and Chase” might have added a savoury dressing to the meaty criticisms of tardiness; “Penrhyn International’ sounds too Welsh- and the Welsh Government has a CSA in post (Professor Julie Williams CBE, an expert on the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease, appointed in 2013); Lintberg (€100K+) sounds too expensive; and Hoggett Bowers wouldn’t do because hogget meat is neither lamb nor mutton but comes from an in-between animal which is precisely as old as the delay in filling the CSA post.
As the new Cab Sec for Education and Skills, John Swinney has a hard job ahead. He has to show that the hoary old story of the “lad o’ pairts” is no myth. But attempts to widen access to universities for students from disadvantaged background have not been a resounding success. The supply of places has not kept pace with demand, and increased competition for them, particularly in the higher rated Scottish universities, has had a disproportionally negative effect on applicants from the most deprived backgrounds. And he is still burdened like Sisyphus with the weight of the Heriot Watt “never melting” Eck stone, despite the absolute absence of evidence for any access benefits from the “no fees” policy.
Swinney’s appearance at Glasgow University on 8 June to announce the CSA appointment signalled something. But it is far too soon to conclude that it is anything more than escape from the viscosity of the Constance regime, certainly not evidence that the SNP government is going to pay any more heed to scientific evidence than it has in the past. Unencumbered CSA access to the First Minister would be a start.