Embedding Science in the Heart of Government

5 mins read

The Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance argues that science needs to be embedded throughout government.

When the Chancellor announced his budget plans to increase public R&D expenditure to £22bn by 2024/25, he greatly surpassed previous targets set by the Government and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance would have been excused for a allowing himself a moment of satisfaction.

While the UK has a reputation for being good at research, considering its size and relative levels of investment, it could certainly be doing a lot better at using this research strength to foster innovation.

When Sir Patrick gave the CaSE Annual Lecture at the Francis Crick Institute at the end of January, he made the point that while it was difficult to know what the right amount of investment was for R&D he was clear 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 is required to reach this target, a fact that’s been proven by other countries who have successfully increased their respective research intensities over the last few years.”

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main described the increase in funding, seen in the budget, as ‘supercharging public investment’ in science in an announcement that went further and much faster than expected.

"Government has pushed hard to front-load public investment in the effort to boost the contribution of research and innovation to the UK economy and attract private R&D investment to follow.

"It’s an ambitious program and a huge investment in a short period of time. It must be spent well to ensure that an R&D decade delivers real benefit for everyone in the UK.”

Among the funding announcements were £800 million towards a new blue-skies funding agency to invest in high-risk, high-reward science, modelled on ‘ARPA’ in the United States; a £200 million investment programme with the British Business Bank towards health and life sciences innovation; £400 million for investment in research, infrastructure and equipment across the UK, particularly in basic research and physical sciences and a further £300 million for experimental mathematical research to attract global talent over the next five years.

Science in government

Despite this welcome news there are significant problems when it comes to how science is viewed and used in Government, according to Sir Patrick. The theme of his talk at the Frick Institute was on how to embed science within government departments and to ensure that it played a role when it came to decision-making.

He referenced the coronavirus during his speech, well before the issue became a global one and turned into a pandemic,and his argument about the role of science in government has now been given far greater urgency in the light of recent developments.

Sir Patrick began his talk by reflecting on some advice he had received from a senior civil servant before he took the role of GCSA, which was that although science has a presence in government, it is not universally present.

“There should be a much greater focus on embedding science across all government departments,” explained Sir Patrick. “Economics, a social science, underpins all areas of government policy and science and research should be embedded in a systematic way. How we achieve that is the challenge going forward.”

“Scientific issues have implications for practically every area of policy and there are all sorts of challenges from transport, renewable energy, and the ageing population, to security, emergency issues and housing,” Sir Patrick explained.

This isn’t a new view, however. At the end of World War Two the importance of science in policy led to the creation of the ‘scientific civil service’ in 1945, while in the 1960s the then 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 we’ve seen the formation of UKRI which has enabled multidisciplinary opportunities, the creation of Chief Scientific Advisers who are now embedded in every government department and the size of the Science and Engineering Civil Service Fast Stream being doubled.”

According to Sir Patrick, until the Government’s recent budget announcement, there had been a rapid decline in departmental R&D expenditure outside key departments with protected research budgets.

“In some of the larger departments, R&D investment is now a fraction of 1% of total departmental budgets. The current situation regarding the use of science advice means there are pockets of government where science is embedded and is excellent, but this is greatly variable,” according to Sir Patrick.

He went on to make the point that it is easy for departments to say ‘we are not a science department’ as a rebuttal to doing more but that’s no longer possible to argue, when there are so many challenges that need to be tackled by science.

Departments are now being compelled to publish Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) and the identification of these priorities has been seen as crucial in supporting research work across Whitehall.

Sir Patrick said that the Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), that can be found up and down the country, are underutilised and need to work more effectively with experts in business and industry in helping to solve cross-governmental issues.

“We need to be better at accessing expertise wherever it is in order to provide the best scientific advice,” said Sir Patrick. “PSREs should be better utilised for this, as they have great links to local communities and businesses.”

Realising out ambitions

Sir Patrick discussed the newly published Government Office for Science report, ‘Realising our ambition through science’ and highlighted three crucial themes from the report.

“The first is building science capacity across the civil service, of which Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) are crucial when it comes to embedding science in departments, but it is also about having more people with science and engineering backgrounds in the civil service.”

According to Sir Patrick just 10% of civil service fast stream entrants hold a STEM degree.

“We need much greater diversity of background to ensure more scientists work in Whitehall, “ and Sir Patrick said that scientific method was critical in the process of decision making. “ It can be of real benefit to policy decisions."

He also raised the importance of ARIs as government is not always good at admitting what it does not know.

The third theme touched on by Sir Patrick was using all resources and accessing expertise wherever it is, to provide the best scientific advice. He emphasised the need for better links with industry in helping to achieve the best possible access to expertise.

“The government also needs synthesis of the best available evidence and evidence synthesis, I believe, needs to be recognised as an important research discipline.”

According to Sir Patrick, by tackling these three themes of recruitment, ARIs and better use of all available resources, it would be possible to enhance science across all government departments.

“We need to improve systems in order to holistically and systematically solve problems across Whitehall.”

He also warned that the strength of UK science was dependent on its international standing, and said that future immigration and collaboration would need to be maintained and made as easy as possible in order to ensure UK science and research got the resources and talent it needed.

Sir Patrick, who was speaking before the Budget, made it clear that a mixture of public and private investment was required in order to raise R&D as a percentage of GDP and he closed his lecture by saying that realising our ambitions through science would need 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 and we need to engage with the public, that’s critical.

“We need to get the right skills in the civil service to help foster dialogue with the general public on scientific issues, and make communities feel included in scientific discussions.”

  • Sir Patrick was giving the Annual CaSE lecture at the end of January, before the full extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became evident.