The government science and engineering profession is an “underutilised resource”, the government’s top scientist has said, as he outlined plans to develop and raise the profile of scientific talent in Whitehall.
Patrick Vallance, who as government chief scientific adviser leads the GSE profession, told a committee of MPs this week that he wanted the more than 10,000 scientists and engineers across government to have “much more visibility” and more developed career paths.
Vallance told the Science and Technology Select Committee he wanted to see the number of scientists in the civil service increase, and for their skills to be leveraged more effectively in decision-making.
“Do I think the GSE profession needs much more visibility, needs much more ability to do the things it needs to do? Yes, I absolutely do, so there’s a lot of work to be done there,” he told MPs.
Vallance also stressed that he wanted to make the profession more diverse, noting that those at the top of the profession – the network of departmental chief scientific advisers – was “very male”.
In an interview with CSW published this week, Vallance said intended to look closely at recruitment processes and how jobs are advertised because he saw 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”.
At this week’s committee, he told MPs he had secured some additional funding from the Cabinet Office to look at the profession from an HR perspective, and would seek more funding in the new year.
Work would focus on four areas, he said: diversity and inclusion; raising the profile of science and engineering in and outside government; talent management and leadership; and reward and recognition.
“That is an area where we do need more resource, because we cannot run the whole government science and engineering profession out of the very small resource we get,” he said.
The annual budget for the Government Office for Science – which provides the infrastructure for scientific input to policy and crisis response – has shrunk every year for five years, falling from £6.8m to in 2012-13 to £4.5m last year. Its programme budget has stayed flat at £1.1m for three years in a row – less than half what it was in 2012.
Also appearing before the committee was Rupert Lewis, director of GO Science, said budget cuts have led to a reduction in administrative staff – which he said had not affected day to day work because processes have been automated – as well as a reduction in the number of reports the office can work on in parallel.
Responding to the committee’s concerns about the declining budget, Vallance said his department received “adequate” funding to fulfil its responsibilities, but added: “I do think there’s a question as the importance of science ramps up, as to whether that budget needs to be looked at again.”
He added that there was also a “broader question of science funding across departments”. He said GO Science was looking at whether departmental budgets funded science to a level needed to meet the needs of each department, and that he would make it a priority to “make sure the science budget isn’t the obvious place to go and raid [to fund other government activities] when times get tough”.
Vallance said that as part of an effort to make the cross-Whitehall CSA network “more cohesive”, he would convene a small group of CSAs to discuss a “more directed management agenda”, examining cross-government topics such as research and development funding within departments.
As of January, the group will meet every six weeks. One of first areas it will look at is the Spending Review, he said. Although he said it wasn't his role "to be telling departments where to spend their budgets,” he said, it was up to him to determine whether they had sufficient scientific capacity.
Vallance also said GO Science would shift more of its attention to looking at how departments were implementing reports it has produced on important policy areas such as obesity, waste and the sea. Vallance said he was in the process of revisiting a report on obesity, published in 2007, and would “keep a very close eye on” how government uses the Future of the Seas report published last year.
“We’re not in a position to be the implementing body and nor should we be, but I think we should at least look and ask the question [of how reports are being used],” he said.
Vallance added that staff were working on "three or four" reports for publication next year, including one on genomics beyond heath and another on global data trends and ownership.
During the session, Vallance also said he had appointed a computer scientist, Tom Rodden, to be the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s chief scientific adviser. Rodden, who is deputy executive chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will become the department’s first permanent CSA in January.
Vallance also acknowledged that recruitment for a CSA at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government “has taken longer than it should have taken”. MHCLG originally advertised for a CSA in May, but reopened recruitment this month. “It’s a difficult post to fill,” Vallance said.