Official review aims to boost science capability in UK government

By on 15/01/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Government chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance: “Whilst there are pockets of excellence, science activity and expenditure is variable across government and weak and fragmented in some departments.”

Plans should be developed to ensure the UK civil service has the scientific skills it needs and the mechanisms to deploy them effectively, according to an official review of science capabilities in government.

The new joint report, Realising our ambition through science, sets out 15 recommendations. Produced by the Government Office for Science and HM Treasury, it aims to put science and engineering at the heart of government policy.

Other key recommendations include a requirement for every department to devise a clearly-defined science system, setting out in a single document the entire range of that department’s science activity; the publication by departments of annual ‘Areas of Research Interest’ documents to encourage collaboration and commissioning of R&D; and government making greater use of public laboratories as leaders in directed R&D programmes.

“In our public laboratories we have an extraordinarily valuable asset, and we need to do more to nurture them and exploit their potential, including the intellectual property generated,” Sir Patrick Vallance, government chief scientific adviser, writes in the report.

The report also recommends that departmental submissions to HM Treasury as part of spending reviews should include a statement of R&D needs, together with costed plans for meeting those needs; and that for important cross-government areas of science, shared governance models should be established to improve co-ordination and to maximise funding opportunities

It states that each department should give consideration to setting a target for the proportion of its spending that should be allocated to R&D; advocates the creation of mechanisms to ensure that departmental spending is used well, and that the outcomes are assessed; says that chief scientific advisers (CSAs) should act as a team across government, as well as being authorities for science in their departments; and argues that to improve science in government it “will be necessary” to work across government and with the wider scientific community in academia and industry, both in the UK and internationally.

Working together across government

“Departmental Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) and longer-term science objectives should be at the centre of this, and there is a need for much closer dialogue and capability building between CSAs and Whitehall’s key policy leaders,” the report says. “ARIs have already demonstrated areas where departments have common interests and greater coherence can be achieved in, for example, data science, behavioural sciences, environment and security.”

As well as practical changes to science in government, as set out in the recommendations, the report also says that a big cultural shift is needed to put science at the forefront of thinking.

“Science is crucial for the success of the country and plays a vital role in government, providing the evidence and support we need to achieve impact in policy-making and operations,” said Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill. “It ensures government is resilient against shocks and emergencies, and equips us to capitalise on the emerging opportunities that technology provides.”

He said the report points to a common purpose to incentivise more effective use of the UK’s R&D spending, and to realise the government’s ambition to increase UK spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP.

“It shows how we can utilise the resources we have from chief scientific advisers, through to our public laboratories, the teams who operate and deliver across institutional boundaries, and the world class science and scientists in the private and public sectors,” Sedwill said.

Weak and fragmented

The report makes clear that current practice around science in government must be improved. “Whilst there are pockets of excellence, science activity and expenditure is variable across government and weak and fragmented in some departments. Science budgets have reduced in many departments and spend on R&D in some cases is a fraction of 1% of total spend,” Vallance argues.

“Better leadership and delivery of science, and a greater use of science in departments and across government, would create a stronger evidence base for decision making, enhance government performance and contribute to government social goals and economic growth.”

On the recommendation to ensure the civil service has adequate scientific skills and the mechanisms needed to deploy them effectively, the report says the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) Profession Board should work with the Analysis Function Board to address this “through the wider functional agenda being led by the Cabinet Office”. It also says that plans should be developed to remedy any shortages with the help of UKRI and the Department for Education where appropriate, with reporting “early in 2020”.

The findings and recommendations of the report appear to fit with Dominic Cummings’s ambition to capitalise on the UK’s standing as a global leader in scientific research and education. The chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson sees science as a potential driving force for a post-Brexit economy, and wants to boost science capabilities in the civil service as part of plans to reform Whitehall.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Hemant Desai says:

    The intentions are good. However, we already do most of this at the ground roots level, the GSE was created to enable cross department interaction, but then Chief Scientific Advisor roles were cut back. Internationally renowned labs were closed or merged thereby reducing scientific diversity and internal review plus secure validation. Facilities are still planned to be closed, including at least one State-of-Art synthesis laboratory put up at taxpayer’s expense in 1990. The review could do well to keep such labs open, properly man them and to do that pay scientists international market rates.
    Even before Brexit we feared a ‘Brain-Drain’ as experienced staff were not encouraged to stay, in order to save money due to austerity, now things are getting worse as European collaborations are uncertain.
    In terms of detail, the way of funding research outside, in 6 month chunks, is discouraging academia while preventing challenging, longer term projects to be undertaken.
    Hopefully, the promised extra funds will address these issues rather than policy makers making non-evidence based decisions to further their short term career aspirations.

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