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Features: Faculty Insights


John Aston, Professor of Statistics at the Department for Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, has been appointed as the Home Office's new Chief Scientific Adviser.

"I am honoured and privileged to be joining the Home Office as its Chief Scientific Adviser," Aston said. "I'm looking forward to working with the scientific community to understand the issues facing the Department over the coming years and identify how science, engineering and analysis can help to overcome those challenges."

I'm looking forward to working with the scientific community to understand the issues facing the Department over the coming years and identify how science, engineering and analysis can help to overcome those challenges. John Aston

Aston's current and previous roles are testament to the wide impact mathematics and statistics research can have on society. As well as fulfilling his professorial role at the Statistical Laboratory at DPMMS, Aston has been a trustee of the Alan Turing Institute, the UK's national centre for data science research (co-founded by the University of Cambridge,) and sits on the management board of the Cantab Capital Institute for the Mathematics of Information (CCIMI), part of the Faculty of Mathematics. Both organisation use mathematical and statistical techniques to turn the mass of data that arises in the modern world to our advantage. Their work impinges on areas as diverse as the biomedical sciences, finance, the internet, software and hardware development and security, and the economy. (To find out more about the CCIMI read the feature Researching the Mathematics of Information.)

At the Home Office Aston's role will be to ensure that decisions are informed by scientific evidence wherever possible, and to help ministers and officials assess the quality of evidence and the uncertainties involved. As Chief Scientific Adviser he will offer advice directly to those ministers and officials and work together with the Chief Scientific Advisers' network to advise on issues that cut across government. Aston is not the first member of the Mathematics Faculty to advise government: from 2003 to 2006 Professor Frank Kelly, also of the Statistical Laboratory, served as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Transport.

Spanning the scientific spectrum

The Home Office routinely faces challenges that call for scientific analysis involving all parts of the scientific spectrum. An example is the all-pervasive threat of terrorism. Counter terrorism initiatives rely on science and technology, for example to improve aviation security and to safeguard public places. Mathematical techniques are needed to understand the structure of terrorist networks and how to best disable them. Understanding how people become radicalised requires the social sciences and psychology. And since it's impossible to study large samples of terrorists in detail, statistical methods are again needed to quantify the uncertainties involved.

The job of science advisers is to make sure all scientific information is available to ministers (though in the past such advice has not always been welcomed: recall the controversy surrounding Chief Drug Advisor David Nutt's 2009 criticism of the government's stance on cannabis). But in the short time Aston has been in his new post his experience has been positive and he is looking forward to contributing an expert viewpoint to help ensure the evidence base for policy decisions is fully understood. As he told the Science and Technology Committee in October, "I have certainly found it easy, both with Ministers and with senior officials, to have proactive conversations about what kind of evidence gaps they feel there are and where science can contribute to those evidence gaps."

While terrorism will certainly be one of the many areas Aston will focus on, the remit of the Home Office covers a wide range of social issues, and he notes the importance of taking the broadest possible view of what 'science' involves. "People naturally think of science as being physics, chemistry and maths," he told the Committee. "I do not take that view. I think that science spans the entire remit, and I want to be able to be involved in everything, including the arts, humanities and social science implications, which are just as important if not more important than some other things in the Home Office. I want to be involved in the whole spectrum of things."


You can find out more about the work of the Statistical Laboratory in the feature Welcome to the Stats Lab.