Government departments must spend more money on research and development to avoid becoming “non-innovative”, the government’s most senior scientist has said.
The move would be part of a drive to strengthen policymaking across government, which should also include increasing the number of Fast Stream recruits with science degrees, Sir Patrick Vallance said.
“We know that business that invest in R&D are more productive than those that don’t by about 13%. If you ask what’s the percentage spend in departments versus total spend, in some departments that works out as a very small fraction of 1%," the government chief scientific adviser told CSW.
“If you were a business and you said you have decided not to invest in R&D, you’ve defined yourself as low-growth, non-innovative, static. So that’s the bit we need to focus on,” he said.
A joint review of science capability across government by the Government Office for Science and the Treasury last year found that “science activity and expenditure is variable across government and weak and fragmented in some departments”.
This comes after cuts to science spending in several departments over recent years. The report called on departments to formally document their science expenditure as part of public spending figures, and to have a “clear plan for science” that the Treasury should use to inform how it allocates funds.
As part of this, departments' Spending Review bids to the Treasury ahead should include a statement setting out their R&D needs and the associated costs, the review said.
Vallance said it was “not surprising” that Whitehall science budgets had been reduced “because it’s an easy thing to cut without making an in-year impact”, but that a reversal was critical because of the importance of science to government’s agenda.
“At a time when science has an impact on everything government is doing – from climate change to thinking about the challenges of an ageing population and thinking about new forms of transport, it’s impossible to find areas where science doesn’t play a role,” he said.
He said government should look at the way economics is embedded in policymaking, and use that as a model for embedding other kinds of science in government work.
“Economics is totally embedded in the Whitehall system, so everything that happens has some economics input – and when you contrast that with other branches of science, there is nowhere near the same level of input,” Vallance said.
To do that, departments must not only address funding but also increase the proportion of scientifically-trained civil servants they employ, including in generalist roles, through routes such as the Fast Stream.
“[Addressing funding] is fine but if we don’t get more people in the general civil service with science backgrounds then this won’t work. More is needed to tackle the kinds of problems we’re facing,” he said, pointing to figures in the GO Science report that showed just 45 out of 400 generalist fast streamers either had a science degree or declared themselves a member of the science and engineering profession.
He said the Fast Stream should aim to ensure around half of its participants have a science or engineering background.
To make this happen, he said the scheme needed to be better promoted as a career path for people with science and engineering departments, and to “make sure the appointments process isn’t skewed in some way towards people with a particular background”.
'Closely aligned' with government's goals
Vallance said that while he was “not naïve enough” to think that all of the report’s recommendations, which also include further exploring the use of government venture capital in innovation, and introducing a clear sign-off process for science spending within departments, would come to fruition.
However, he said that by backing the review the Treasury had demonstrated that it understands the value of underpinning spending decisions with strong evidence.
And he said signals from government – including much of what prime minister’s chief political adviser Dominic Cummings has said – have been positive about promoting innovation.
“I think many of the things that are being said align very closely with this – there’s quite a focus on science and tech,” he said.
“Dominic Cummings has written about need to increase scientific backgrounds of people in the civil service, so that aligns with this. The notion of getting bring diversity of thought and getting data-savvy people into the civil service to ensure we get good decisions based on good data align exactly with some of our findings.”