Reported by Paul Michael Brett, CSaP Policy Intern
In late March 2021, Professor Dame Angela McLean, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Ministry of Defence, delivered the inaugural David Cleevely Annual Lecture, during which she spoke on the theme of ‘How to be a Chief Scientific Advisor in Government’.
Dame Angela opened the lecture by describing how her background in academia gave her the necessary foundation to succeed as a Chief Scientific Advisor. In doing so, she described the Oxford Martin School ‘Restatements’ project which she co-developed. The aim of this project was to review the natural science evidence base underlying areas of current policy concern and controversy. Or more simply - to stop people from cherry picking evidence.
Framing her lecture as a discussion between what the ‘job description said’ and ‘what really happened’, Dame Angela went on to detail several aspects of her job as a Chief Scientific Advisor, including strategy, science and technology, and connecting.
Dame Angela described the role of scientific advisor as requiring a strategic focus. However, while she had expected the strategic component of her work to focus on making decisions about budgetary spending on long-term research projects, she has found that there are teams of capable people within her department who are responsible for that work. Dame Angela held up a copy of the MOD S&T Strategy as an example of such an output. Instead, the role of strategy in her work has been to fulfil a mandate to protect the department’s funding, defending the base of the long-term science and technology budget. This budget on research which is necessary, but which may take several iterations to get right, is something Dame Angela described as the ‘generation after next capability.’
Science and Technology:
“Science and Technology is not just another word for equipment”, emphasised Dame Angela, stressing her work does not focus on which planes or ships should be purchased. Instead, part of her work recently has included a focus on how Defence should better embrace and incorporate algorithms and Ais to analyse data and information. She pointed out that a challenge for Defence will be its organising and curation of the enormous amounts of data and information it has (and generates), and ensuring it is effectively shared not just within Defence but across relevant government departments. This might involve, for example, a discussion about how planes and ships can securely share the right data and information.
Reflecting on her experiences as a Chief Scientific Advisor thus far, Dame Angela noted that her experiences have been impacted by the pandemic. While she has not yet had the opportunity to undertake the ‘international’ component of her role as a result, domestically she has found herself becoming part of a series of groups and networks within the UK which have given her an endless tutorial on how government operates. She noted that one of the great strengths and challenges of the Civil Service is how often people move around departments – something that benefits the business of government at the cost of institutional memory.
The Role of a Chief Scientific Advisor:
A Chief Scientific Advisor’s role, Dame Angela suggested, is to win the hearts and minds of an organisation’s people, influencing the civil service to have a greater scientific perspective and to question more critically. She noted that there is always a need for critical questioning about whether evidence put forward is robust enough and for wariness of optimism bias. She also noted that a problem in cross-government decision-making sometimes was not that people making decisions on issues do not have the necessary evidence, but rather that they face difficulties in implementation.
In her closing remarks, Dame Angela summarised her role by stressing that as the UK gears up to become a science superpower, her role includes taking the Civil Services and MoD’s enormous pool of smart and dedicated people and help them to become fit for the future through investing appropriately and wisely in science and technology.