‘Science is a method of solving problems’: government chief scientist Patrick Vallance interview
The government chief scientific adviser reflects on his career to date and strengthening how science and policy work together in the civil service
Photos: Photoshot for CSW
Had things gone differently, the most powerful scientist in the country might never have been a scientist at all. Patrick Vallance, who became the government’s chief scientific adviser in April, says there was a time when he “would have loved to have been a chef more than anything”.
Vallance talks about his culinary career like a long-discarded dream – he still cooks but says, “I’ve become casual in my cooking, by which I mean I don’t really follow recipes.” When pressed, he won’t even commit to a signature dish.
Nor was his path to Whitehall inevitable. He was a consultant physician and taught at St George’s Hospital Medical School before taking up a professorship at University College London in 1995, researching vascular biology.
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It was there he hit a rough patch. “I very nearly gave up my career because of an interaction with a senior person who was making my life very, very difficult,” he recollects. “I was close to saying, ‘This isn’t for me.’”
Had he done so, he would likely have returned to being a doctor. “At that time I’d already had a degree of success [as an academic] so it was really a very difficult decision,” he says. He grappled with the dilemma for “a long time, a year or more” before a mentor stepped in and convinced him to stay. He went on to become UCL’s head of medicine, and later president of research and development at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
He stayed at GSK for six years before moving into government, where he advises the prime minister and her cabinet on scientific and technical elements of policy, leads the civil service science and engineering profession, and heads up a network of departmental scientific advisers.
Listening to Vallance talk about his career at the Government Office for Science headquarters in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it’s hard to believe it could have looked radically different. There is nothing, he says, that beats a scientific discovery: “I don’t think there’s anything more exciting than getting a result in an experiment that means for that moment – and it may only be a very short moment – you are the only person in the world who knows that.”
His most exhilarating discovery came early on, when he demonstrated that people’s blood vessels are actively dilated. “It completely turned over how people were thinking about blood vessels,” he says. “It was the first experiment where it was obvious that that was the case, so it was super exciting and important.”
Bringing cancer and HIV medicines to market at GSK was also an “an unbelievably privileged, exciting thing to have been part of,” he says.
Vallance’s time at GSK makes him unusual among government chief scientific advisers, who have typically come from a purely public sector background.
“I’ve never thought about careers in a planned way, but one thing I’ve learned about myself is I quite like going into areas where I’m not certain, and where I’ve got to learn quickly,” he says. This was certainly the case in Whitehall, where he soon learned “it’s incredibly difficult to work across government”.
“In industry, once people are instructed to work across groups, they get on with it. I don’t think that happens here; people are a bit respectful of the hierarchy in a way that sometimes stifles imaginative cross-working.”
Vallance stresses that his private sector experience is not “uniquely special”, but says it meant he had some practice in setting up structures and processes from scratch, which he didn’t at UCL. That gave him a different perspective on those institutional barriers that, had he been relying solely on his academic background he might not have had.
“At most universities, you don’t need to do that when you’re looking after your own research or a group of academics – who are frankly going to do what they were going to do anyway, so you’ve got no way in which you can corral that,” he says.
Sidestepping a question about whether academics or civil servants are harder to corral – “I’ve yet to find out” – he adds: “What I haven’t come across at all is an unwillingness to [work across silos]. There are just structural barriers that make that a bit difficult.”
Fortunately, Vallance is unintimidated by hierarchies: in June he told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee his advice would not always be popular, and must therefore be “fearless”.
Four months later, Vallance is midway through writing a national security strategy document. “I know that what I’m writing is not going to be liked by everybody,” he says with a shrug. “Whenever you do something like that you’ll tread on somebody’s toes.”
“Someone will feel fiercely protective of one part of it. Sometimes the science will say something that’s not what somebody intuitively feels they want to do. And that’s OK.”
Whether politicians take his advice is not his concern; as long as he has communicated the evidence in a useful way, he has done his job. That is, he admits, “easier to describe than to do”.
Something else he won’t compromise on is ensuring all departments have an appropriately qualified chief scientific adviser. He has also said he wants increase diversity, and when the first appointment was announced since his arrival, in October – astrophysicist Carole Mundell at the Foreign Office – to the male-dominated network, it was taken as a sign he was serious.
Indeed, Vallance believes scientists and engineers across government – as in industry – are too homogenous a group. He says there needs to be a clear plan to further develop the profession, which he’s working on. Diversity will be part of that.
“Whatever anyone thinks about diversity from a straightforward societal or moral point of view – and I absolutely agree [it is a moral issue] – there’s also a massive scientific and business imperative for diversity, which is difficult problems are not solved by everyone thinking the same way or coming from the same background,” he says.
One way he will work towards that is by considering how jobs are advertised. “It’s not good enough to say, ‘it was an open competition, we advertised and we didn’t get anybody.’ You’ve got to think about why that is, and what specific pull measures you need.” Flexible working conditions, the language job adverts use and the people candidates meet during the recruitment process all matter, he says.
Diversity was also a big focus for him at GSK, where – despite being a self-confessed “straight, white, middle-aged guy” – he led the LGBT group. His status on the executive team meant it took “one phone call” to get the company to hang a rainbow flag during Pride week, which staff had been trying to do for two years.
“Things like that mean quite a lot symbolically. That had a big impact on the number of people who declared they were part of that community, because they knew it was OK,” he says.
Vallance is also working with Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the health department and head of the government’s policy profession, to determine how civil servants in science and policy can work together better. It's early days but he says they are considering plans for seminars and programmes to help the two sides learn from each other.
“My job is not science for science’s sake; it’s to inform and help policy,” he says. “It’s worth remembering – and I think this is where people often go wrong – science is a method of solving problems.”
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