Chief scientific adviser tells Prospect about five-year plan

Chief scientific adviser tells Prospect about five-year plan

Sir Mark Walport has put career development and regional and national growth at the heart of his relaunch of the Government Science and Engineering profession. Boc Ly and Richard Hoogstad interviewed him

Sir Mark Walport: photo by Stefano Cagnoni

The Government Science and Engineering profession is being relaunched this autumn. Set up in 2008 to recognise the contributions of scientists and engineers to government policy, a strategy document from the Government Office for Science has outlined the GSE’s goals for the next five years and how it can provide satisfying career paths, development opportunities and rewards for good work.

More than 10,000 civil servants identify as members of the GSE profession, according to Civil Service Learning registration figures. Their backgrounds range from deep scientific and engineering expertise through to broad policy experience.

The government relies on these scientists and engineers for the evidence and analysis that underpins UK policy.

Sir Mark Walport was appointed as the government’s chief scientific adviser in 2013 and is head of the GSE.

Q Can you tell us about the relaunch of the GSE and what its aim is?

A One of the challenges is that the Government Science and Engineering Profession includes a range of different scientists and engineers working across many disciplines.

So, how does one provide a coherent career offering for them, how they can make the most of their careers in the civil service, how they can be mobile?

Not only are there lots of different professions, but they work in many different settings and places – so you’ve got people working as deep experts in Public Health England or the Health and Safety Executive or the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

You’ve got people working in policy departments in Whitehall, engineers in the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – there’s a diversity. How can each person can make the most of their career and be appropriately mobile from one bit of Whitehall or the civil service to another – recognising that one size doesn’t fit all?

Q: It’s the relaunch of the strategy, so does that mean this area has been neglected in the past?

A: No – in fact it was my predecessor’s job to set up the government science and engineering network. Strategies do need refreshing from time to time, and we’ve been thinking a lot about, for example, what the opportunities are for scientists to become chartered. It’s about how people make the most of their careers while, realistically, the civil service is focusing on all of the careers that people work in.

Q: Prospect has many members in those areas you mentioned, like DSTL. What would you say to them about the next two years – what will the strategy have achieved and how do you think it will make a difference to their careers?

A: Career development isn’t done to people, it’s done with people. People have to take responsibility for their own career development, but they will increasingly see a focus on the development of those working in government science and engineering.

No one would doubt how much of modern society is underpinned by science, engineering, technology and, indeed, the application of social sciences. But because there isn’t a single profession like government economists or statisticians, the scientists sometimes tend to have a lower profile.

I want to increase the profile of science and engineering across government. It has a huge impact that is well recognised, but I want that to be even higher.

Q: Before we even get to career development we need to get people into these professions and make STEM attractive to them. What’s your role in encouraging apprenticeships in these areas?

A: I’ve been in the civil service for just under four years now and I have discovered that people aren’t aware of how many scientific and engineering opportunities there are in government.

Jobs in the civil service tend to be a bit invisible so part of the challenge and opportunity is to point out what a terrific range of interesting jobs there are.

For several years now I have given talks in universities. We’ve created a government science and engineering fast-track stream to bring in people with degrees – higher degrees often – in scientific and engineering subjects. The government also places a strong emphasis on apprenticeships, and at places like DSTL there are apprenticeship schemes. We’ve got to bring in people at every level.

Q: Is there is a bit of a public relations problem? When people think of civil servants they think of people in suits doing boring paper-shuffling jobs, whereas, as you say, across science and engineering there’s a lot of interesting jobs and people are doing valuable work?

A: No, not a problem – there’s a PR opportunity. It is about marketing the really interesting jobs that are there. Partly it’s about the individual organisations doing that. GCHQ is one example of an organisation that is much more open about its recruiting than it used to be. There are plenty of really exciting jobs across the whole of government.

Q: A priority for Prospect is getting more women into STEM – how much of a priority is that for you as well?

A: We’re not going to get the best people until we get them from the most diverse backgrounds – so women, ethnic minorities, you know, it’s about getting the best scientists in from everywhere. Why would you exclude job opportunities for any subgroup?

Q: What about the perception of public servants? Doctors, nurses and teachers are seen as frontline, aren’t they? They are sort of revered by the public for that. Why do you think scientists and engineers are not held in a similar regard?

A: Actually, scientists are held in high regard. While traditionally engineering hasn’t had such a high profile, organisations like the Royal Academy of Engineering are doing a really good job with things like the Queen Elizabeth Prize at getting engineering a higher profile in the media.

It’s about role models and publicising the really interesting opportunities out there, right across science and engineering.

Q: How can you convince people that science is important to this government?

A: Fundamentally science underpins our modern society. In the context of national emergencies, be it an Ebola epidemic or an earthquake or flooding, science is absolutely at the top table in government in terms of the response.

Q: Do you think the public still has faith in science?

A: Most of the public realise that our understanding of the modern world is only possible because of scientific exploration. Does science and evidence come under attack from time to time? Yes. But fundamentally people are interested in science. Look at the interest in space exploration, the response to Tim Peake, the programmes that people like Brian Cox and David Attenborough put out – that’s all science and people admire it and are excited by it.

Q: I have a couple of questions relating to the report, Government Office for Science – the next five years. What impact do you think science and new technologies will have on public life in the UK over the next 10 years – thinking of things like robots, drone deliveries, driverless cars?

A: All our lives are already dramatically impacted by the revolution in technology – broadly speaking, information technology. This interview is being digitally recorded in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. The photographer is using a digital camera.

How do I get around London? Well I tend now to turn on Citymapper, which tells me how to get from A to B. I will know what time the bus is coming, I will know if there is a blockage on a particular Tube line, and how long it will take me to walk from A to B.

All that information is gradually turning transport into a service, as opposed a fragmented set of steps, each requiring separate tickets. My Oyster card will get me seamlessly from the Tubes to the buses to the railway.

We’re already seeing elements of vehicles that are autonomous, be it emergency breaking systems, cruise control. Electric cars are coming – clearly de-carbonisation is critical.

We’re increasingly seeing technology enabling services that just weren’t conceivable before. While a lot is happening in the foreground, some is happening in the background, too – the services that are offered and the systems. Amazon knows about my shopping habits.

It’s hard to find an area of modern life where science, engineering and technology aren’t pervasive.
While people talk about STEM, it’s STEAM that we put out, and by that I mean science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. All this stuff only adds value to our lives if it is well-designed and easy to use.

The ability of humans to live in large cities is only possible because of science, engineering and technology; we take a lot of it for granted without really thinking about it.

Q: For some people it’s wonderful progress, but for others it’s quite scary because they’re worried they might lose their jobs. How does this apply in relation to the civil service, because I know you have talked about using technology to create efficiencies as well?

A: Jobs are changing, but as doing a job one way disappears, doing a job in another way appears, and so as some jobs have disappeared, others are appearing. There is a productivity challenge in the UK and we have to use technology to help us. The job you do now will be very different from the same job if you were doing it 20 or 25 years ago.

Q: The last point in relation to this report relates to northern or regional powerhouses – what’s your role in helping to spread scientific expertise and innovations out to the regions?

A: Government itself is very widely distributed – not only national government, but local government as well. Cities are extremely important across the UK. We’ve got to make sure that firstly, STEM education, secondly research, and thirdly the applications and benefits that come from science and engineering are widely distributed across the country. Looking at it through a national lens is very important. You talked about equity in relation to women in STEM subjects – that applies geographically as well. We’ve got to make sure that people have opportunities across the UK.

Q: Some spots in the UK do very well, for example Cambridge’s Silicon Fen. How do we replicate that success around the UK?

A: There are different strengths in different regions but there are scientific strengths across the UK.
Take, for example, quantum sciences. We are currently doing a review of the potential of quantum technologies. There’s big photonics activity around Glasgow, around Strathclyde, across southern Scotland, which came out of academic strengths there. I think it’s about building on excellence and helping excellence to thrive.

Q: What is helping to promote public understanding or appreciation of science?

A: In my previous life I was the director at the Wellcome Trust and one important thing, which comes back to that STEAM agenda, is that science is often extremely beautiful, as are some of the images of science. People talk increasingly about citizen science – everything from identifying ladybirds and working out when they’re invasive species to ash dieback, which is not so beautiful – where citizens have a lot to contribute in terms of looking at the spread of disease. There are so many ways in which we can all participate and just wonder at science.

Q: You mentioned citizen science – there’s a real trend now for crowdfunding of science projects. Do you have a take on that?

A: More interest is a good thing. Many people are happy to participate in science, whether as observers identifying the spread of butterflies and plants or volunteering for public health projects such as the UK biobank. There’s clearly more crowdfunding.

Science projects often tend to be expensive, and so public funding tends to come not from the individual pocket but from agencies such as the Research Councils.

Q: Can you remember what sparked your interest in science?

A: As a small boy I was fascinated by natural history, and so I’d collect caterpillars and beetles and butterflies and things like that. I was interested in space, too. My father was a GP and also interested in science; he built himself a 10-inch reflecting telescope. I remember looking at the rings of Saturn from the back garden as a boy. At school I liked doing science subjects. We did a whole term of experiments on the genetics of fruit flies and I learnt the basics of genetics.

Q: Did you always know it was going to be your career?

A: I think I probably did, in truth. I did medicine, that’s how I got into science, as a medical scientist. But even when I interviewed to go to medical school, it was very much with the intention of being a researcher.

Q: And who were your science heroes?

A: I suppose I was inculcated by the people who created modern genetics, so Thomas Hunt Morgan; Mendel; Avery and MacLeod, who discovered that DNA carried genetic information, and Watson and Crick. These are the people who excited me as a youngster.

Q: Were there any obstacles in your way to achieving what you wanted to achieve? I ask that in relation to you now being in a position to make sure others don’t have to jump through those sorts of hoops.

A: No, I was lucky throughout my career in having really good mentors. When I started, I don’t think I knew they were mentors, it wasn’t a particularly fashionable word.

It’s really important in a career to find people whose judgement you trust, who you believe will give you dispassionate advice and look out for you rather than their interests. You do need help, and I still have people who mentor me.

I was given one very good piece of advice, which is that careers can’t be planned. If you have too precise a vision of where your career is going to take you, you’ll probably be disappointed. If you’re interested and enthusiastic and prepared to work hard then there’s a lot of interesting things. When I went to medical school, ending up in this office would have been unthinkable.

Q: Do you still have that capacity to be amazed and awed by science?

A: Oh, every day. And actually it comes back to the GSE profession. One of the great privileges of the job is getting out and about and visiting science and engineering inside and outside government.

As director of the Wellcome Trust, I hadn’t seen a lot of engineering outside biomedicine, and the more engineering I see the more enthusiastic I get. I sort of slightly joke that everyone should do engineering if they don’t do medicine.

We do need to convey that engineering is a thousand different jobs. I never cease to be fascinated by the sorts of things I see.

At the moment, we’re doing a report on waste. And I went on a visit with Defra minister Therese Coffey and Defra’s chief scientist Ian Boyd to a waste recycling plant in south-east London. We all put our recycling in plastic bags but don’t actually quite see what happens to it. It was fascinating seeing what happened in a recycling plant.

Part of the privilege of the job is seeing this extraordinary range of science and engineering and all the different jobs at every level from being an apprentice. I remember visiting the advanced manufacturing catapult (High Value Manufacturing Catapult) at Sheffield – they’ve got a really good apprenticeship programme built around that in the university. And so you see that range of jobs, be it in a nuclear power station, a recycling plant or manufacturing research centre.

Q: Is it a burden to be expected to be the fount of all scientific knowledge for the whole of the national government?

A: It’s not being the fount of all knowledge – it’s actually knowing where to find the knowledge. My job is actually to act as a transmission mechanism between the deep experts in whatever the topic is and government.

To some extent it’s finding the right expertise, a lot of which is there among government scientists and engineers. But it’s also being sure that they can express themselves in a way that’s comprehensible to policymakers. It’s no use having a deep expert who talks in such jargon that I can’t understand them, let alone a politician or a policymaker, and so part of my job is almost to act as interpreter.

Q: How do you switch off from work? What do you like doing?

A: Well, it’s a combination of family, the arts – I collect books. Also the interface between work and play is quite subtle, actually. I’m lucky I have a job where the things that I work on are a pleasure at all times of day and night.

Q: Is there a particular genre of books that you enjoy collecting?

A: I collect rather obscure Victorian engravings that aren’t very popular …

Q: You’ve cornered the market then.

A: [laughs] I have cornered the market, yes. It’s not a very active market.