MHCLG rapped for failure to find chief scientist

Written by Beckie Smith on 31 May 2019 in News
News

MP says ongoing vacancy exposed in wake of Grenfell tragedy is "astounding" a year after search began

Part of the CSA's role will be to provide scientific advice to the building safety programme MHCLG set up post-Grenfell. Photo: PA

A senior MP has accused the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government of being either incompetent or an unattractive place to work after it failed to fill a highly-paid science role after more than 12 months of trying.

Shadow science minister Chi Onwurah said it was “astounding” that the department had been unable to recruit a chief scientific adviser since efforts began in earnest in May 2018. The part-time position has now been advertised twice and offers a pro-rata salary of £120,000.

It has now been six and a half since the communities department has had a CSA, a role MHCLG has described as “one of the most senior and influential positions within the department”. The gap in its top-level expertise only emerged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017, which claimed 72 lives, prompting parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee to call for an appointment as “a matter of urgency”.  

Civil Service World has learned that only six qualified candidates applied in the first round of recruitment last year and that none made it through the interview stage.


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Labour MP Onwurah, who trained as an electrical engineer and was Ofcom's head of telecoms technology before entering parliament in 2010, said it beggared belief that recruitment for a chief scientific adviser, who will provide scientific evidence to support the department's policy and decision-making, was taking so long. 

"MHCLG has many scientific and engineering challenges, from the testing of flammable cladding to the planning permissions for mobile networks and the effective provision of local digital services. It is astounding that they have been unable to recruit anyone to fill the role of chief scientific adviser for a year now," said Newcastle Central MP Onwurah.

The second round of recruitment commenced in November last year and made specific reference to the 2017 tower-block fire in west London. It said that one of the successful candidate's key responsibilities would be to support the department’s post-Grenfell building safety programme.

Onwurah said the vacancy showed that "either [MHCLG] are incompetent recruiters or their organisation is proving unattractive to scientists and engineers."

"Either way, action is needed," she said.

A Freedom of Information request to MHCLG by CSW revealed that of the 11 people who applied in the first recruitment cycle, six were deemed to be qualified for the post and four were shortlisted for interview.

However, no appointment was made because “none of the candidates met the requirements for the role at interview”, the department said.

The department had been seeking an engineer with a wide network of expert contacts and an understanding of how the Whitehall machine works.

"This is a critical role in MHCLG... It is important that ministers and the executive team have full confidence in our scientific and technical advice, so the successful candidate needs to be able to provide a high-quality, high-impact professional service which anticipates and sets the agenda and responds flexibly and at pace as circumstances require," the application pack said.

"The CSA is pivotal to making this happen, through the skills, experience and personal impact which they bring to the role."

The post became a matter of public scrutiny when it emerged during an October 2017 Science and Technology Committee evidence hearing that it had been empty in the years leading up to the Grenfell disaster. 

Committee chair Norman Lamb wrote to then-communities secretary Sajid Javid after the meeting telling him to make an appointment "as a matter of urgency".

The MPs were alerted to the vacancy by then-interim government chief scientific adviser Chris Whitty, who said the department's chief statistician had wrongly been included in a list of CSAs on the government’s website, despite not being "a scientist of the kind of science" needed.

Whitty told the MPs no attempt had been made to replace the department's last CSA – Jeremy Watson, now a professor of engineering at University College London – when he stepped down in late 2012. “During that period, the sense was that a chief scientific adviser was not something that would be terribly helpful,” he said.

In his letter to Javid, Lamb said it was "disappointing to learn that such negative attitudes towards science advice were present at the very top of a government department".

He added that it "should not take a disaster like Grenfell to exemplify how important it is that scientific evidence and advice are key parts of the policymaking process".

An MHCLG spokesperson declined to say whether an appointment was imminent or comment on the recruitment process.

MHCLG is now the only Whitehall department with no permanent or interim CSA in post.

The Ministry of Defence is in the process of recruiting a chief scientific adviser, and CSW understands an appointment is due in the coming weeks. Simon Cholerton, the MoD's director of defence science and technology, has been its interim CSA since last August.

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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