Ministry of Defence appoints first female chief scientific adviser

Written by Beckie Smith on 24 June 2019 in News
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McLean was awarded damehood for services to mathematical biology and advice to government

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The Ministry of Defence has appointed its first ever female chief scientist, the mathematical biologist Dame Angela McLean.

McLean, a professor of mathematical biology in the University of Oxford’s zoology department, is the 18th chief scientific adviser to have been appointed at the department since the role was established in 1956.

She will provide scientific advice to ministers and other senior officials on policy, decisions about military operations and equipment, and novel technologies, and oversee its programme of research.


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She replaces robotics expert Hugh Durrant-Whyte, who stepped down at the end of August to become chief scientist and engineer to the New South Wales government in Australia. In 2017 it was reported that he had been unable to obtain security clearance to oversee Britain’s nuclear weapons programme because of his dual UK-Australian nationality.

McLean, who is also a senior fellow in theoretical life sciences at the university’s All Souls College, specialises in research that uses mathematical modelling to understand infectious diseases.

She has already worked closely with Whitehall institutions, having chaired an expert group project advising on policy to reduce the risk of future disasters such as disease pandemics. She has also sat on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ science advisory council and the Department of Health’s national expert panel on new and emerging infections.

She also co-developed the Oxford Martin School Restatements, a series of briefings that review scientific evidence on controversial policy areas to aid evidence-based policymaking.

She was awarded a damehood in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours for services to mathematical biology and advice to government.

As chief scientific adviser, McLean will advise the MoD on chemical, biological, radiological and missile modes of defence, drawing on her own expertise and that of her network of expert contacts. She will also promote “technology-led modernisation” in autonomous systems, cyber security, artificial intelligence, space technology and other areas.

Unlike previous CSAs at the MoD, she will not be responsible for overseeing the department’s nuclear science and technology programme. Former Foreign Office CSA Robin Grimes leads on this area, having been appointed CSA (nuclear) last August.

Simon Cholerton, director of defence science and technology at the MoD, has been interim chief scientific adviser since last September.

Announcing McLean’s appointment, defence secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “The chief scientific adviser plays a key role in ensuring that our armed forces stay at the cutting edge of technology and innovation.

 “As a highly respected scientist, Professor McLean is a role model to all those wanting to pursue a career in this area, and will bring extensive knowledge and expertise to the role.”

McLean said it was an “exciting time” to join the MoD, given its funding for research “to keep our armed forces at the forefront of innovation and technology”.

“Britain’s military has a distinguished record in developing and using science and I plan to make sure that we continue to build on that tradition,” she said.

McLean's appointment means there is almost a full contingent of chief scientific advisers across government. The Ministry of Justice has an interim CSA in place, leaving the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government as the only Whitehall department with a chief scientist vacancy. The Northern Ireland Executive is also missing a CSA.

CSW understands MHCLG has made a job offer for its CSA position but has yet to make announcement.

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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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