Scientific adviser takes aim at monolithic thinking

Scientific adviser takes aim at monolithic thinking

The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, talks about his efforts to embed science in the civil service, why he’s making the case for diversity and how British science will survive Brexit

You’ve been in the GCSA role for one year now. How do you reflect back on that time?

What I’ve enjoyed most is the extraordinary breadth and diversity of the role. In a scientific career, you often become progressively more specialist and I’ve actually become progressively more generalist.

Somebody asked me the other day what’s it like, I said: ‘It’s like being 13 again and being interested in science!’

I’ve learned an enormous amount and I’m incredibly impressed by the areas that need to be covered and how they can impact on government thinking and policy.

You wrote earlier this year that ‘science wasn’t embedded across the civil service.’ What progress are you making in that area?

It’s a key priority of mine to get that science embedding to happen because we need science everywhere across government, just as there are economists and policymakers everywhere across government.

I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the chief scientific advisers’ network, making sure that we get the right chief scientific advisers in place with the right diversity, the right backgrounds and the right ability to influence.

I’m working on Fast Stream and the other civil service development programmes so that they are properly populated with science and engineering people.

Do you have specific areas or priorities where you particularly want to make a difference?

Although it’s blindingly obvious and everyone knows about it, we’ve got to get the climate side of things right. That impacts every part of policy, including areas like biodiversity.

A second key area is health and there are huge revolutions taking place that we need to be aware of.

A third, which is key for the UK, is that we need to get the translation of our science base into economic and societal benefit better.

I don’t think it’s too controversial to say there’s been a fair amount of political inertia in the past year or so. Has that been frustrating and has it impacted on your work?

I think the Brexit discussions have impacted on everybody’s work and science is no exception. Of course scientists in academia and in industry have been concerned about what the future relationship with Europe holds.

The ability to be part of a European science system has been critical for our academic and industrial work – and the ability for people to move in and out of the country in science roles has been, and will remain, critical.

This notion of how we remain both fully linked to Europe and truly international in what we do has been a major part of the considerations.

What can you do to ensure that the UK continues to attract the best people for science?

I sit on various groups inside Whitehall and assist the science minister, Chris Skidmore MP, with some of the work that he’s doing on this. For example he asked me to report back to him on the effects of the £30,000 salary cap on the issue of visas.  What impact would that have on different aspects of science?

I’ve been bringing in people from business and academia to hear what they want from science funding mechanisms, science approaches to Europe and internationally as we go forward. Part of my role is to make sure all that is then articulated in a way that’s meaningful and actionable by ministers, and that that voice is clearly heard.

The other side of that coin concerns science funding. The government has guaranteed Horizon 2020 funding up until the end of next year, but what happens after that, especially if Brexit keeps getting delayed?

I think the aim is to be as connected with European science as we can be because that’s been such an important part of what we do. I think the government has been clear that, first of all, it wants a deal and, secondly, that deal should include our ability to be part of European science processes. I think there’s a very strong desire to be very much part of the European system.

I can’t speculate on what’s going to happen if we get further delays, but I think the government has been clear that it will underwrite the programmes and there is a desire to continue that.

Given your science background and your senior role in government, what are you most excited about?

I’m very excited about some of the technologies we have in this in this country and certain areas of science. I think we’ve got a lot of potential in quantum sciences and in synthetic biology. We’ve also got a huge opportunity around data, the NHS and genomics.

I’m interested in the fact that we’ve now got new companies starting up. I am excited about that because I think that’s where lots of the innovation is going to come from. It isn’t just big companies behind closed walls doing their work, it’s young people having new ideas and challenging the status quo.

It’s part of how we turn our knowledge into economic benefit and that’s an important part of what needs to happen.

… and what worries you the most?

A number of things actually.

One, that as a result of the discussions we’ve had over the past two years, we get a reputation as being inward looking, parochial and not international. That would be a very, very bad outcome of the discussions and we must make sure that we retain our international presence at all costs.

The second is that we fail to translate our science into the societal and economic benefits that it should do. If we don’t do that we can’t afford to fund the science for the future.

Third, is that with the advances in science across the world and the ease with which certain bits of science can be done, there is an increased risk of deliberate malicious threat to the country from scientific sources.

We tell businesses that diversity isn’t just a moral cause but that it helps the bottom line. What’s the argument for diversity in science?

It’s exactly the same argument. You don’t solve difficult scientific problems by monolithic thinking. You don’t solve them by everybody looking the same, being trained the same, coming from the same background, thinking in the same way. These are tough problems that require multiple minds from diverse backgrounds.

What are you doing to improve diversity in science, whether across government or for the uptake of science across the country?

A lot of it is concentrated on what we’re doing inside government at the moment. At the Government Science and Engineering Profession, one of our four priorities is diversity inclusion. It is a massive push on that.

We are trying to link with outside bodies as well, whether that’s groups like Equality and Diversity and Inclusion in Science, the WISE campaign, Athena Swan and so on.

We need to increase the diversity of our intake, which we’re looking at. We need to make sure that at the senior level, our chief scientific advisers in every department are more diverse, so that they can provide not only diverse thinking, but also be diverse first role models.

I know Prospect is involved in this as well. Are we headed in the right direction? Absolutely. Have people made good steps? Yes. Are we in the right place yet? Absolutely not. We’ve got much more to do.

How can Prospect and its members help you further your aims and what do you want to achieve across the GSE?

First of all I should thank Prospect for the work that you already do with us. I know that you’re on some of the working groups for the Government Science and Engineering Profession and that’s fantastic.

I would really like to hear about examples where things could be done better, where people have got ideas about how things could be done differently, where people can see how we can get science and engineering more embedded.

It goes back to the point that all the great ideas are never in just one place. They sit in lots of different places, so to hear from people about those sorts of things I think would be important and I’m sure Prospect could be an important way to do that.