Understanding science capability in government

20 June 2018

On 7 June, a group of Policy Fellows met at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to discuss the state of the Government’s current science capability.
The discussion was led by CSaP Policy Fellow Alex Churchill, Head of Science and Security at the Government Office for Science.

Government uses and produces a lot of science and research to support the design and development of policy outcomes. But it does not have a full understanding of its current research and development capability landscape. The primary goal of the team is to map the current landscape and understand how the different organisations in it interconnect, to identify where the government may have lost capabilities, and where more capabilities may be needed in the future to stop new gaps from emerging.

The key questions the discussion covered include:

  1. Is there a clear definition of research and development (R&D) within Government?
  2. Are we making best use of our Public Sector Research Establishments?
  3. How can we improve linkage to academia?
  4. Are we optimised for responding to shocks and emerging issues?

Understanding the huge variety of R&D carried out in various sectors is key in mapping UK’s science capability. There are a lot of organisations within the Government, the public sector and industry that are not purely research focused but still do important R&D. Therefore, the definition used to describe R&D needs to be such that it captures the variety of UK’s science capability contributors. Currently there is a view that much of the cutting-edge science and engineering done in the private sector is being missed by the government, mainly because it is not published which makes it harder to access. To make better use of the knowledge generated by private sector organisations, the government needs to create incentives for companies to share their R&D without creating a conflict with their business interests (e.g. by making some government data available for the companies to use). Start-ups with innovative ideas but few existing contacts are especially interested in connecting into government. Similarly, a lot of government’s own R&D is lost because it is not published the way research is published in academia, and there is a need for better sharing mechanisms across departments. It is also important to acknowledge the role of intermediaries that work between organisations, for example organisations that help universities to take new ideas from discovery to product.

A lot of knowledge generation happens in government science institutions and public sector research establishments, including work that may not always be classed as “academic” but still contributes to the government’s science capability. A number of public sector organisations do world leading research and form pockets of brilliance in the UK’s science capability. The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, for example, has the world’s largest collection of Chinese medical plants and is recognised for its international importance. Unfortunately, funding decisions are often made without full understanding of how these organisations work and the full value of curation of such databases and collections, which sometimes leads to loss of key research capabilities. The government could also be making more use of UK’s many professional institutions who are much more skilled in reaching out to and tapping into industry knowledge as well as in collaborating internationally. For example, The Royal Society is a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the Interacademy Partnership (IAP), which are both global networks of scientific academies and organisations and enable access to the vast knowledge of different national academies across the world.

There are many ways the Government can improve linkage to academia. It can commission research from academia, partner in joint research or offer exchange and training opportunities. Professional development programmes like the CSaP Fellowship help build and strengthen these links on individual and departmental level.

While overall government spend on R&D has increased in recent years, some departments have cut back science spending. This can limit the headroom to identify and build capability to respond to shocks and emerging issues beyond statutory obligations and monitoring. Responding to emerging issues and shocks is an area where wider collaboration with the public and private sector organisations would increase the overall capability. For example, Public Health England deals with issues of shock and stress frequently and has good horizon scanning systems in place. Google has expertise in the area of disaster response globally. In the tragic case of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Government reached out to several different institutions for the much-needed knowledge. A society where there is open collaboration between the Government, academia and the private sector makes for more resilience and better preparedness to respond to challenges.

Banner image from Tomas Carvalho and thumbnail from Dominican University under Creative Commons 4.0