McLean eyes Fast Stream for ‘mid-career scientists’

Government chief scientific adviser says new programme would supply a pipeline of expertise for civil service
Prof Dame Angela McLean Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

14 Feb 2024

Government chief scientific adviser Prof Dame Angela McLean wants to see the creation of a new Fast Stream programme that would target experienced scientists to bring their skills to departments.

McLean told members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that the programme would offer the civil service a pipeline of expertise to offset a recognised shortage – and would potentially remove obstacles to entering government from industry and academia.

“What I think we really need, and I think this is in discussion, is what I would call a mid-career Fast Stream,” the chief scientific adviser told yesterday’s session. “We should have a way in to the civil service for people who’ve worked 10 to 15 years as scientists.”

McLean said candidates for the new Fast Stream, inspired by the hugely popular programmes for more recent graduates, could come from academia or business – or from government’s own labs, “because those people are really deep in their science and have a bit more knowledge of the civil service than most academics would”.

She said current six-month internships for academics actively prevented people who took placements and wanted to stay in government afterwards from doing so, while winning a civil service job competition was “not straightforward for an outsider” and required coaching.  

McLean added that pre-application support for potential mid-career Fast Stream candidates would need to be in place before any programme started.

“The last thing we want is a ton of people with science expertise applying for civil service jobs and not getting them,” she said. “It just sends a terrible message.”

McLean acknowledged that the government was “always going to struggle” to compete with private-sector pay levels. But she said that civil service pay below SCS grades could be competitive with reward packages offered to “more junior people” in academia.

“I’m thinking someone who’s done a PhD and several years of post-doc-ing,” she said. “So I think that’s where we should aim.”

McLean said that the civil service’s ability to attract highfliers from industry would have to continue relying on candidates prepared to forgo their former salary levels.

'You don’t need a PhD to be a wise, creative user of AI products'

Elsewhere in Tuesday’s session, McLean was asked for her thoughts on government’s adoption of artificial intelligence.

“I think it’s very important that we should learn both at speed and wisely,” she said. “That’s the challenge – we have to do it fast and we have to do it well, to use AI in our everyday work as civil servants, but also more widely right across the public sector. It’s not just a civil service issue.”

McLean said one approach for government was to just get on with experimenting with AI – in line with the latest guidance – and share experience of how to do it well.

The chief scientific adviser said that while parts of government would be able to buy in AI expertise, upskilling existing staff would be the reality for most departments.

“In terms of skills, sometimes we can make a case that we have to pay something close to market rate,” she said. “So the AI Safety Institute has much wider freedoms on pay because we know that’s an unbelievably tiny pool of people to draw from.

“A much more widespread way to do it is that we’re going to have to train our own people. You don’t need a PhD in statistics or computer science to be a wise creative user of AI products.”

She added: “We have quite a lot of apprenticeship opportunities and we do make good use of internships.”

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