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CaSE Annual Lecture 2019 – Embedding Science in the Heart of Government

23 Jan 2020

CaSE was delighted to have the Government Chief Scientific Adviser give the CaSE Annual Lecture, in front of a packed lecture theatre at the Francis Crick Institute on 23rd January 2020.

Sir Patrick began his talk by reflecting on some advice he had received before he took the role of GCSA; that although science has a presence in parts of government, it is not universally present, and therefore a focus of the role should be on embedding science across all government departments. He reflected that economics, a social science, was seen to underpin all areas of government policy and that science and research should be embedded in a similar way. The challenge is how this can be achieved.

The GCSA underlined the fact that scientific issues have implications for practically every area of policy, from transport, renewable energy, and the ageing population, to security, emergency issues and housing. This is not a new notion however. The end of World War Two outlined the importance of science in policy and led to the creation of the ‘scientific civil service’ in 1945, while the 1960s and Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ saw the appointment of the first GCSA and the publishing of the Fulton report. In recent years there have been further steps forward; the formation of UKRI has enabled multidisciplinary opportunities (such as the Shared Prosperity Fund), Chief Scientific Advisers are embedded in every government department and the size of the Science and Engineering Civil Service Fast Stream has been doubled.

On funding he highlighted the rapid fall decline of departmental R&D expenditure outside key departments with protected research budgets. Of some of the larger departments, R&D investment is a fraction of 1% of total departmental budgets. It was said that the reason for this is that unprotected R&D budgets are the easiest thing to cut in the wake of cost-saving measures elsewhere across the departments. The current situation regarding the use of science advice across departments means there are pockets of government where science is embedded and is excellent, but this is greatly variable.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance

Sir Patrick recognised that it is easy for departments to say ‘we are not a science department’ as a rebuttal to doing more to embed science. There are lots of challenges that need to be tackled by science and this requires a united approach across government, such as climate change. Even issues such as genomics, inherently scientific, have issues of education, employment, health and forensics which cross departmental boundaries. Departments are now compelled to publish Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) and the identification of these priorities is crucial in supporting research work across Whitehall. In Sir Patrick’s view, Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) are being underutilised and need to work more effectively with experts in business and industry in helping to solve these cross-governmental issues.

Sir Patrick Vallance and CaSE Chair Professor Graeme Reid

Sir Patrick then moved on to discuss the newly published Government Office for Science report,  Realising our ambition through science, outlining three key themes from the report. The first is building science capacity across the civil service, of which Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) are crucial in embedding science in departments. This has largely been a success, to the point where the police are now looking to employ a CSA. It is also about having more people with science and engineering backgrounds in the civil service, as currently only 10% of Civil service fast stream entrants hold a STEM degree. Diversity of background needs to improve to ensure more scientists work in Whitehall. He said that the scientific method is critical in the process of decision making and can be of real benefit to policy decisions.

The second theme of the report focusses on ARIs. Often their importance is elevated as government is not always good at admitting what it does not know. The roughly 700 questions posed in ARIs can be pulled out in to some key themes for exploration, with particular interest in behavioural science and data. The third is to use all resources, accessing expertise wherever it is to provide the best scientific advice. Sir Patrick outlined the need to create better links with industry in helping to achieve the best possible access to expertise. PSREs should be better utilised for this, as they have great links to local communities and businesses. The government also needs synthesis of the best available evidence and Sir Patrick would like to see evidence synthesis be recognised as an important research discipline. Tackling these three issues are a way to enhance science across departments domestically. He went on to say that UK science is dependent on our place internationally, meaning that future immigration and collaboration need to be maintained and be as easy as possible to support UK research. A packed room at The Francis Crick Institute lecture theatre

A packed room at The Francis Crick Institute lecture theatre

Sir Patrick admitted that while the UK is good at research considering its size and relative levels of investment, it could be better at using this research strength to foster innovation. It is difficult to know what the right amount of investment is for R&D but it is apparent that the UK currently underinvests, and needs to get to 2.4% of GDP and beyond in terms of research investment. It is clear that a mixture of public and private investment would be required to reach this target, proven by other countries who have successfully increased their respective research intensities over the last few years.

Sir Patrick closed his lecture by saying that realising ambition through science needs research and science to be embedded across government. Behavioural science will be incredibly important in understanding how new technologies will be approached by the general public when changing personal habits. Systems thinking is also crucial in how to holistically and systematically solve problems across Whitehall. Getting skills right in the civil service is key to helping foster dialogue with the general public on scientific issues, and making communities feel included in scientific discussions.

(L-R) Dr Daniel Rathbone (CaSE Assistant Director), Professor Graeme Reid (CaSE Chair), Sir Patrick Vallance (Government Chief Scientific Adviser), and Dr Hannah Kerr (CaSE Deputy Chair)

The lecture concluded with a question and answer session, in which Sir Patrick responded to a wide array of points from the audience. He described how GO Science works to support government when issues move quickly, and that the importance of GO Science is often in the wake of a scientific emergency and its reactiveness to such emergencies highlights the importance of the scientific service to those who may be less inclined to seek scientific advice otherwise. He also went on to say that scientific education should be based on the scientific method and the underlying principles of science rather than learning scientific facts, also reaffirming that diversity in the workplace is very important to him and GO Science. We are incredibly grateful to Elsevier for sponsoring this year’s lecture, and to the Francis Crick Institute for graciously hosting the event. You can view all the photos from the event or look back over previous Annual Lectures.