Head of profession profile: Government science and engineering boss Angela McLean

The government science and engineering profession is headed by chief scientific adviser Professor Dame Angela McLean. To mark GSE Recognition Week, CSW meets her to find out more about the profession and her own career so far

By Civil Service World

28 Sep 2023


The government science and engineering profession is made up of civil servants with a background or interest in science and engineering, who work in a range of roles across government. This week the profession is running GSE Recognition Week, showcasing its Professional Recognition Offer, as well as marking National Inclusion Week through the promotion of a new inclusion toolkit. CSW met government chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean to find out more.

Before this post, you were chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence. What was it like moving from academia to work with government, and what prompted that move? 
I have been interested in how government uses science evidence in policy and broader decision-making for a very long time, so I have done quite a lot of work externally as a science adviser, on science advisory councils, and through these councils I worked with quite a few different departments across government. I knew what chief scientific adviser jobs were, so when the CSA job at the MoD came up I decided to apply, even though it was not an obvious thing for a biologist to apply for.

Moving into the civil service from academia is a sizable culture shock and one of the things that was, in a way, a problem for me was that I thought, “I’ve sat on science advisory councils for so long, I understand the civil service”. My goodness, I did not. So it was a big culture shock, which took me a long time to get used to.

"I thought, 'I’ve sat on science advisory councils for so long, I understand the civil service'. My goodness, I did not"

And what prompted you to move again and apply for the government CSA role? 
I think it is one of the best jobs in the country. Always have done. When it came up, I thought I would put my hat in the ring.

In March, you became the first female CSA since the role was created almost 60 years ago – how did that feel? 
Great! I feel very proud to be the first female GCSA. I am really glad that there is one. Obviously, what is really important is that I should not be the last, as Kamala Harris says. I do not think there was any sense ever that this was a job that could not be done by a woman – it just had not been yet.

What are some of the lessons you learned sitting on SAGE and chairing SPI-M-O at the height of the Covid pandemic? Has that informed how you've approached the CSA and head of profession roles? 
One of the greatest strengths of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and SPI-M-O (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational) was their ability to bring people together and foster collaboration. We were reliant on the expertise of people from different backgrounds, with different skillsets and at different stages in life to provide expert science advice that was desperately needed.

"As head of the government science and engineering profession, I wholeheartedly support the drive to diversify membership beyond those that traditionally see themselves as scientists and engineers"

As GCSA, one of my main objectives so far has been fostering scientific collaboration with our international partners, and as head of the government science and engineering profession, I wholeheartedly support the drive to diversify membership beyond those that traditionally see themselves as scientists and engineers.

Tell us more about the GSE profession – how many scientists and engineers work in the civil service?   
The government science and engineering profession brings together scientists and engineers across the civil, crown and public services to make a real difference through giving them a voice and connecting them to central government and decision makers. The profession also provides a vast range of development opportunities for our members, from professional recognition support through to leadership mentoring. It’s an honour to be head of profession and lead our members. We currently have around 10,000 members and I’m excited to see the further development and growth of the profession in the future.    

Do you have to be in a science or engineering role to be part of the GSE profession? 
No, the GSE profession (despite its name) is for all civil servants who have a background, skillset or interest in science and engineering. You do not have to be in a technical role or have a technical background to join the profession.

This inclusive approach to membership is crucial to the success of the profession, as science and engineering is important to all areas of policy and operational delivery across government. For all of the big challenges facing society, such as the rise of AI with the associated impact on our lives and the economy, through to net zero and building resilient energy systems for the future, the application of science and engineering is vital.

The profession supports all members in their development and embedding science and engineering in their work, no matter what level of experience they have. I would really encourage you to join, if you have not already!

What are your priorities for the profession in the next few years?   
The GSE profession has two strategic drivers – embedding science and engineering in government and building the capability of our diverse membership. One of my priorities as head of the GSE profession is to further strengthen and connect science and engineering capability across government, to create a genuinely scientific civil service.

My ambition is for there be more secondments, more opportunities for the profession and civil service to develop expertise and skills, expand the number of STEM people in our fast streams and create more pathways for people with deep STEM knowledge into senior civil service roles. Creating this porosity will only improve the quality of scientific evidence available to government.

A particular exciting opportunity that I want to highlight is the STEM Futures scheme, which is working to connect scientists, engineers and policymakers across government and provide opportunities such as mentoring, shadowing and placements with partners in industry and academia.

"Throughout my research career, collaboration and diversity has been an inescapable key to success. This has meant seeking out diverse expertise and perspectives to build curiosity, connection and collaboration"

We are also very committed to diversity and inclusion within the profession and this is a top priority for me. This week is National Inclusion Week, and this is being highlighted to our members across government through the use of an inclusion toolkit which has been created for use at departmental level. We need diverse skills to develop solutions against societal challenges from climate change to sustainable housing to vehicle emissions. Throughout my entire research career, collaboration and diversity has been an inescapable key to success. This has meant seeking out diverse expertise and perspectives to build curiosity, connection and collaboration – this is the only way we can be truly successful in our work.

Back in 2018, your predecessor Sir Patrick Vallance said the government science and engineering profession was “under-utilised”. How much do you think that has changed since then? 
I think this has changed and much of this was due to Covid-19. The pandemic highlighted the essential role of scientists and engineers in improving the quality of government decisions; to ensure not only that scientific evidence strengthens policy, but also that it was effectively communicated. The Covid-19 pandemic saw us all having to change the way we navigated the world. From the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for vaccine approvals, to behavioural science on the vaccine rollout, science was at the forefront of this change and shows how integral government science and engineering really was to decision making

The GSE profession also supports the civil service modernisation and reform agenda, which commits to championing innovation and harnessing science, engineering and technology to improve policy and services. We do this by cascading tools and products to support all decision makers, of all abilities and this really helps to utilise the existing capability in government. All in all, the changes have been substantial and the numbers of members in the profession have really increased, as well as the numbers of chief scientific sdvisors in more departments.

There has also been an increased focus on bringing more STEM skills into government. How do you think leaders could ensure the civil service makes the most of those skills?
Seeking expert views external to government always has a place, but increasing the focus on bringing more STEM skills into government is really important and that’s why the GSE profession provides bespoke resources to its members, in order to ensure our community has the tools they need to thrive and develop. This is supported by our dedicated L&D programme, which is led by experts from all fields. The Science Capability Review is also part of this. It outlines 15 recommendations for the government to take to increase science expertise in decision making. The GSE profession supports recommendation 10 which ensures the civil service as a whole has the scientific skills it needs and the mechanisms to deploy them effectively. Overall, this leads me back to my commitment to diversity of thought in our approach to tackle some of the greatest challenges of our time.

This week happens to be very important for the profession as it's our Recognition Week, where we showcase our Professional Recognition Offer so GSE members can gain external recognition for their professional skills. This is important for individual development, but also for government as having staff with professional recognition leads to improved technical expertise within departments, a workforce with expert STEM competence and societal trust in our science and engineering expertise. 

Given your personal interest in the use of scientific evidence in policymaking, do you find it frustrating that empirical approaches to policymaking aren't more widespread in the civil service? 
I do not think I find it frustrating. After all, for many, many of the things where we have to make decisions in the civil service, the evidence base is not there. I think what I feel is yes, there is a lot of work to do and I feel quite encouraged by, for example, the fact there is a special group of people working on making sure we get the social and behavioural science research base that we need. I think we all agree that there is a lot of new questions that we are going to need answered. So no, I do not feel frustrated about it. I feel there is a lot work to do, but I do not think I have ever met someone who said, “Oh, no, I don’t want any of that nasty evidence”. That would be frustrating, but it has never happened to me. Ever.

"There is a lot work to do, but I do not think I have ever met someone who said, 'Oh, no, I don’t want any of that nasty evidence'"

Are there any common challenges which your colleagues in the GSE profession face across government?   
One of the common challenges is around communicating science and engineering advice. It's always really important to remember that just because you've said it, doesn't mean it's been understood. Science and engineering advice plays an important role in the cross-disciplinary nature of government and is essential to ensure policy and services are founded upon accurate evidence.

Science and engineering expertise exists across government, but without effective communication, this expertise stays with the experts. ‘How can science help?’ is what we want to be asked when approaching problems. Communication helps this expertise inform and influence policies that improve people’s lives. It is therefore essential that scientists and engineers are equipped with the understanding, skills and tools to turn their expertise into advice and effectively communicate this across government, and to a range of audiences. The profession has recently launched L&D training across government to precisely address this challenge.  

How can colleagues in other disciplines help address those challenges and work most effectively with scientists and engineers?    
Science and engineering cuts across all government activity and this goes back to wanting colleagues to ask "How can science help?" as a key part of their work as it feeds into almost all policy. It plays a vital, central role in terms of developing and delivering effective government and shouldn't really be seen as an ancillary function.

We also work with others beyond the civil service including those in academia, manufacturing, the military, the wider private sector, charities and education. We draw on these partners to ensure policy making is robust, and that government has access to the skills and research needed to do this. The Profession is always trying to expand its network of partners and enable scientists and engineers gain broad experience in and out of government. We are developing the STEM Futures programme to facilitate interchange and make it easier to take place.

It’s really important we actively listen to issues and barriers faced by our colleagues and partners, to create an environment where challenges and risks are tackled collaboratively and transformed into opportunities and solutions.

For example, what do climate change, food safety, transport emissions and sustainable housing all have in common? They are all underpinned by science and engineering. From building and applying scientific knowledge, to conducting critical analyses, generating and evaluating evidence or creating new standards – the breadth of experience within the Government Science & Engineering (GSE) profession is vast.

The GSE profession has tools such as Science & Engineering 101 to help provide members with a one-stop-shop of all the tools they may need. We are also developing courses to support learning for all on the spectrum from knowing nothing to those knowing a lot.

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