Whitehall lacks scientific know-how, claims union

By Miriam Frankel
Research Fortnight
28-03-2012

A Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office, from science workers’ union Prospect, has shown that fewer than 1 per cent of around 5,000 senior civil servants have a science background and just 2.8 per cent class themselves as engineers.

The figures were published in the union’s latest report on specialist skills in government, called Government That Can Needs People Who Know How.

Prospect, which represents about 120,000 members, found that two-thirds of senior civil servants—grade 5 and above—described themselves as having no particular background. Just over 10 per cent reported having a legal background and 6.1 per cent a background in finance.

“We’re not saying you’ve got to have operational scientists in huge numbers in the top levels of the civil service—although certainly there is a case for that in some areas,” Sue Ferns, Prospect’s head of research, told Research Fortnight. “There are just so few senior civil servants with that kind of technical background…we need an injection of scientific technical expertise to make better policy.”

However, John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, says that although he agrees that scientists and engineers should make up a “representative number” of the senior civil service, it is not entirely straightforward to record data on people’s professional specialism.

“I am not convinced that the data on this is currently robust enough,” he says. “For example some people won’t necessarily have recorded their degree subject in this data and may not now identify themselves as a scientist or engineer even if this was their early career in the civil service. This is something we are working on.”

Prospect’s report also quotes figures from the Office for National Statistics from 2011, showing that only 8,069 of a total of 498,433 civil servants are employed in science and engineering posts. But they exclude professionals working in fields such as medicine, statistics and information technology in the civil service.

Ferns claims there has been a huge drop in such jobs in the past decade as a result of privatisation. “The Ministry of Defence, in the last year or so, has lost literally thousands of such people.”

Beddington says he generally agrees with “much of the sentiment” in the report. However, he estimates that there are at least 13,000 science and engineering posts in the civil service.

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