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Tribute to Professor Sir Howard Dalton FRS

By Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary, DEFRA


I’m Helen Ghosh and I have been the Permanent Secretary at Defra since November 2005. So I had the privilege of working with Howard for almost 2 years.

Defra is a Department whose work is grounded profoundly in science, in its broadest sense – global climate to local conservation, farming and food, waste and pollution and, probably most famously animal diseases.

All of these involve the most fascinating range of science, and though politicians may sometimes find it challenging, science must underpin all the policy that we make.

Howard’s work with us gave us a sure and secure – and in many areas world renowned - basis for those decisions.

Although Defra is a scientific Department, I am not – I have to admit here – a scientist. But I am a scientist’s daughter and have always loved working with scientists and other analytical specialists because of the rigour and discipline of their thinking.  So when I arrived at Defra after a long tour through many government departments from my start in the former Department for Environment – it felt in many ways like coming home.

Meeting Howard for the first time reinforced that feeling of finding a congenial and stimulating group of colleagues of which to work on some of the most challenging scientifically based policy issues of our generation.

But no sooner had I arrived than Howard disappeared – to Antarctica. So the first image of Howard that is imprinted on my mind [Slide 1] is this one of him at the bottom of a crevass in Antarctica, reporting back to us and the public on his wonderful blog.

And this is another theme of what I want to say today, that Howard was an engaging and energising communicator within Defra and outside, of the excitement of science and what it could do for us.


Though not a scientist I am a historian. So Howard’s death gave me a sad but fascinating opportunity to learn more about his life and contribution before my arrival in the department, both from talking to colleagues across government and reading the wonderful and moving obituaries in the national newspapers of which his family must have been so proud.

When Howard arrived in Defra it was in the wake of a number of crises in which science was a key issue – BSE, FMD, dealing with fridge mountains – all of which had left Defra - more especially its predecessor departments - with a poor reputation for competence, especially science competence.

Howard was the first of Sir David King’s new wave of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisors, whom he hired to be to be independent, authorative and as their title suggests challenging.

They were asked to focus their attention on evidence based policy making, ensuring evidence is comprehensive, rigorous but above all, used.  And he also gave them the commission – when not fire fighting on the day to day - to make space for horizon scanning.

The programme that Howard set up on his arrival focused on all these things – making sure we were doing the right science through horizon scanning and developing a science strategy, making sure we were doing it right, and making sure we were using it .

Howard’s decision to set up the Science Advisory Council to support us on all this was inspired. Initially its membership was predominately focused on animal disease issues which had provided the impetus for his role – and indeed the creation of Defra – in the first place.

But over time its focus has expanded to the whole range of Defra science – including social science. And it has played a vital role in quality ensuring our science as a whole and also giving us immediate access – particularly in an emergency - to a range of the most distinguished scientists in their field.

It is the envy of other government departments, and a number followed or are about to follow, our example.

From this concept of what his job was about, Howard pulled together a first systematic account of the science that Defra should do – the Science and Innovation Strategy, otherwise known as “Delivering the Evidence”.   Miles Parker has reported to me a famous joke – that at the end of the long day of the launch of this strategy Howard referred to it serendipitously as “delivering the elephants”. Defra of course does have to deliver elephants, but not quite as Howard meant.

That strategy was followed a few years later by a second, ground breaking, Evidence and Innovation Strategy.  By then it was clear that public spending constraints meant that there was no question of just carrying on with established patterns of science spend in the Defra budget, however beloved those might be with particular lobby groups, customers or – dare I say it – elements of the scientific establishment.

Howard bravely argued that our spend needed to be refocused towards the issues of the day:  to climate change and protecting the natural environment against the worst that humans could throw at it. That legacy lives on.

So far, so dignified and strategic, but of course what Defra gets most coverage for – however distinguished our achievements across the range of our responsibilities – is dealing with emergencies. And Howard was always there when we needed him.

As the obituaries attest,Howard provided a major support to the Chief Veterinary Officer on a range of animal disease issues where his virology background and networks were used to great affect.

He and Debby Reynolds – particularly in the first few outbreaks of Avian Influenza – would spend long hours closeted with Dave King and sometimes in number 10, discussing the detailed science of the viruses with which we were dealing.  Bovine Tb was another subject for these scientific conclaves.

But he also had to turn his hand to the other kind of emergencies with which Defra – which we sometimes feel should be called the Department for Plague and Pestilence – has to deal.

So plant disease, radioactive waste, Buncefield, oil pollution, shellfish poisoning all got his attention and the benefit of his scientific experience and habits of mind. If he didn’t know the answer himself he generally knew a man who did.

When these emergencies break out, the support of the whole departmental team is vital. If my first memory of Howard will be this picture of him in Antarctica, probably my last mental picture of him will be as he stood next to me at one of our early morning “bird tables” in our national Diseases Control centre in page Street, in the early days of last summer’s FMD outbreak.

He and Lady Dalton had been in Africa when it broke out, but without a moment’s parent hesitation he came back – I think more or less only in the clothes he stood up in.   He rapidly became an expert in our no doubt complex rules for financing purchase of new clothes in these circumstances, so that he could have another shirt to wear while he got his own washed.

But he was still his normal optimistic enquiring and energising self, who made a real contribution to the emotional resilience of a team under a great deal of pressure.

Miles Parker, our Director of Science who probably knew him better than any of us has commented to me, perhaps euphemistically, “that Howard was not the most enthusiastic bureaucrat.” Despite more than 25 years as a civil servant, I think that’s a real accolade.

What Howard brought was not just a new confidence and seriousness to Defra science, but also an infectious and vivid way of communicating his passions.

The Antarctica blog was I think a first for any Whitehall scientist, and really caught the public imagination. Politicians eat your hearts out.

I was delighted that David Milliband was enthusiastic about my idea of using this one of Howard’s photographs [Slide 2] from Antarctica as our Defra e-Christmas card in December 2006.

When Howard decided to retire from his Defra role in 2007 and return to you here in Warwick on a more full time basis, it was a challenge for all of us.

 But by then and thanks to Howard,  we knew what good looked like, and we were lucky – no, not just lucky, because I benefited from Howard’s wise advice in the process – to be able to attract a worthy successor in Bob Watson.

Howard left him an great legacy, which was epitomised in the excellent review of Defra science carried out by Dave King and the Office of Science and Technology shortly before the end of Howard’s term with us.

But we are of course left with lots of regrets. I regret that I didn’t have the time to get to know Howard better. He and I had agreed that I should come to visit him here in Warwick so that he could improve my fragile scientific education,  on microbiology and methane oxidising bacteria in particular.

And I wish, now that I have learnt more about his sporting achievements.  I knew that he was a Real Tennis enthusiast, because I live close to the Oxford court on which he loved playing.  I wish that I had managed to persuade him to join our Management Board rounders team at our annual Defra sports day.

But that is always held on a Friday and I think it would have been hard to persuade him to give up his precious time here.

I recently established a new award at our sports day, in the tradition of my (all male) predecessors.   Rather than call it the Helen Ghosh cup, I decided that it should be the Howard Dalton Trophy, for the person who is the best overall performer on the day.

Howard will have lots of memorials – here and in Gambia – but I thought that this would be one that would entertain and please him. I can just imagine him smiling – perhaps slightly embarrassed – at the idea.

But the greatest memorial to Howard’s work in Government is the legacy he gave us of sound science and science at the heart of policy making.  The best tribute we can pay him is to defend and protect that legacy and continue to work on the principles to which he was committed.  

We are very grateful to Howard for all he did for us in Defra and in Government, and to this university and to his family for lending him to us.













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