UK civil service lacks science skills, admits cabinet secretary

By on 29/11/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2022
A profile picture of Simon Case
Image: Gov.UK

The UK civil service lacks science skills and must build technical and specialist knowledge across government, UK cabinet secretary Simon Case has said, echoing criticisms made by the country’s former vaccine taskforce chief last week.

Case took the unusual step of addressing civil service skills gaps in a letter published by The Times newspaper on 26 November. It follows a series of articles and interviews by venture capitalist and former head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce Dame Kate Bingham, who said the taskforce – which oversaw the development of vaccines against COVID-19 and secured domestic supply – was successful only because it “largely operated outside Whitehall”.

“The problem that we faced [inside government] was this lack of scientific expertise and a culture that focuses on process, not outcome, which just slows things down,” Bingham said. She said the civil service had a “suspicion of industry” and was in danger of “reverting back” to bureaucratic norms after the period of innovation fuelled by the pandemic. What was needed, she wrote, was for “science and scientific thinking” to be included in policymaking on a systematic level.

In his letter, Case said Bingham was “correct in her assessment of the lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing across government”.

He said her criticism is one that the “civil service has recognised itself” and that improving technical and specialist knowledge “is at the heart of implementing our post-pandemic reform plans”.

Progress on civil service reform

Case pointed to the Declaration on Government Reform he and prime minister Boris Johnson signed in June. A key facet of the reform agenda is to build expertise in digital, data, and science. Case said that progress was being made: training schemes were being overhauled to boost specialist skills; leadership programmes were being improved to support greater innovation and creativity; and people were being encouraged to take secondments to gain private sector experience. He added that more outside expertise was being brought in from business, industry and academia.

The UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – who also voiced concerns about the lack of science and engineering expertise in government last month – was working to fill the gaps at all levels, Case said.

He added that the civil service had “significantly improved” its data handling during the pandemic and that it continued “to bring better evidence into policy and delivery discussions at the heart of government”.

He said he recognised the “many achievements and dedication” of his colleagues and that civil service leaders and ministers alike “are determined to address the frustrations that hold us back from accomplishing more, so we can better serve people in all parts of the UK”.

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.

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