Government needs to put science and engineering at “forefront of thinking”

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 13, 2020
A new report from the Government Office for Science and HM Treasury also notes that if benefits are going to be gained, then a big cultural shift is needed.

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In what will be music to the ears of the Prime Minister’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings, a new report has recommended that the government needs to put science and engineering at the forefront of its thinking and policy making. 

The report, which has been jointly released by the Government Office for Science and HM Treasury, sets out a number of recommendations to help Whitehall take advantage of future opportunities offered by science, R&D and engineering. 

However, there is also a clear acknowledgement that the changes to science in government will require a “big cultural shift”. 

Some of the recommendations include that every department should have a clearly defined science system, set out in a single document, and that departmental Spending Review submissions to the Treasury should include a statement of research and development need. 

Sir Patrick Vallance, government Chief Scientific Adviser said: 

There is an opportunity to recharge and redefine science capability in government to improve the evidence base for decisions and create opportunities for innovation and growth.

We need to drive the changes that are required for us to realise our ambitions as a government by creating an expert, efficient and leading S&T system.

What does the report say? 

The report highlights how it is increasingly recognised that in this globally competitive knowledge economy, R&D is “critical”. It notes that this is recognised within the private sector where R&D investment is linked to growth and better performance, as well as at a national level where the UK has committed to increase its R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP (although this is still behind other countries with similar thinking). 

However, it adds that “government departments also have a role to play” and that whilst there are pockets of excellence, science activity and expenditure is variable across government and “weak and fragmented in some departments”. 

Science budgets have been reduced in may departments and spend on R&D in some cases is a fraction of 1% of total spend. 

The report adds:

Better leadership and delivery of science, and a greater use of science in departments and across government would create a stronger evidence base for decision making, enhance government performance and contribute to government social goals and economic growth.

Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs) need to provide leadership for science in government, the report suggests. And they should act as a team/pool across government, with the appropriate resource and provide an authority for science in their departments. 

It goes on to say: 

To improve impact of our science, it is necessary to work across government and with the wider scientific community in academia and industry, in the UK and internationally. Departmental Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) and longer-term science objectives should be at the centre of this, and there is a need for much closer dialogue and capability building between CSAs and Whitehall’s key policy leaders.

The Government Office for Science and Treasury have also said that new models for working with private sector companies will be required to “meet the science needs of government”. 

Furthermore, the report argues that skills and capability building are needed across government. This must include, it adds, the government science and engineering profession, analysts, and policy professionals who will be part of defining problems to be addressed by science. 

Other recommendations

Other key recommendations laid out in the report, include: 

  • every department should have a clearly defined science system, set out in a single document which incorporates the entire range of that department’s science activity

  • all departments should publish annual Areas of Research Interest documents to encourage collaboration and commissioning of R&D

  • the government should make greater use of Public Laboratories as leaders in directed R&D programmes

  • departmental submissions to HM Treasury as part of Spending Reviews should include a statement of research and development need together with costed plans for meeting those needs

  • for important cross-government areas of science, shared governance models should be established to improve co-ordination and to maximise funding opportunities

  • plans should be developed to ensure the Civil Service has the scientific skills it needs and the mechanisms to deploy them effectively including remedies for any skills shortages

My take

As noted in the intro to this story, Dominic Cummings has expressed clearly his belief that the government should put science at the centre of its agenda. My main concern with the report is that the outcomes aren’t clear - beyond ‘science is good’. Whilst we all know science and R&D leads to good things, it would be better to give people a clear idea of what’s looking to be achieved. To understand this, I think we need to look again at a quote from one of Cummings’ blogs, where he said: 

After 1945, Dean Acheson famously quipped that Britain had lost its empire and failed to find a new role. I suggest that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science: Pericles described Athens as ‘the school of Greece’, we could be the school of the world. This would provide an organising principle for a new policy agenda and focus resources. It would give us a central role in building the new international institutions we need. It would require and enable fundamental changes to how the constitution, Parliament, and Whitehall work (for example, embedding evidence in the policy process). 

Because it is a noble goal that reflects the best in human nature, it is something that can help transcend differences and mobilise very large efforts (though it is no panacea and education increases some problems). We already have a head start. We lack focus, perhaps the hardest thing to hold in politics.