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Does Whitehall need more scientists?

Apparently the government’s chief scientific advisers, Sir Patrick Vallance, thinks that the UK’s civil service is suffering due to a lack of scientific ability and, as a result, is placing the UK at an increasing disadvantage with nations like China.

According to Vallance, this lack of talent is creating major problems for the nation in terms of tackling some of the big issues of today, such as: climate change, an ageing population and tightened national security.

Vallance was appointed to his position two years ago and is saying that this is the one thing that he wants to get fixed while in post. He has found that there is a massive weighting of individuals who have backgrounds and degrees in arts, humanities, and economics inside government but there are very few trained in science or engineering.

He is calling for a major push inside the civil service to boost numbers of science and engineering graduates and has pointed to the civil service faststream scheme, that looks to attract the brightest young people to become senior civil servants, where only 1 in 10 come from a science and engineering background.

Vallance thinks we need to get that figure up to at least 50 percent if the UK is to be capable of dealing with the challenges of today and affect ways of thinking across Whitehall.

My initial response is, why is he so surprised? Is this really such a shock? This has been the case for many years and nothing appears to have been done to address this problem. If you look at our political class the majority are now professional politicians – where are the industrialists, scientists and trade unionists that use to populate the green benches in the past?

While I’m no fan of Dominic Cummings – Boris Johnson’s chief adviser – he did publish a blog recently which pressed the case for recruiting more mathematicians, physicists and data analysts.

He certainly has a point at a time when the UK is now confronted with a broad range of challenges in which technology and data are set to play a crucial role.

Hopefully, Cummings and Vallance are singing from the same hymn sheet and we might, at last, see a concerted effort to attract the talent we need to create a civil service fit for today’s challenges.

Neil Tyler

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