If the UK prime minister starts reciting the Iliad in a meeting of permanent secretaries, few, if any, will be able to join in. Gone are the days when a classics degree was the route to the top in Whitehall. Now he is more likely to find himself with a bunch of economists, historians and other arts graduates. There are a few notable exceptions. For example, Clare Moriarty at the soon to be defunct Department for Exiting the EU has a maths degree. At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Tamara Finkelstein is an engineering science graduate.
The fact that there are so many economists around the table is a testament to the success of the 1968 Fulton report which sought to move the civil service away from its arts and humanities’ predominance. But that there are so few people at the top levels with a science background is a testament to failure after 50 years of trying. It is that failure that the chief prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings has in his sights.
Of course, focusing on the top tier fails to present the complete picture. Almost every government department has a specialist senior chief scientific adviser, most with what Mr Cummings would recognise as a genuine scientific background. They often keep one foot in academia and have more licence to speak out than their mainstream counterparts, as David King did on climate change or Sally Davies on anti-microbial resistance. Below them are ranks of scientific specialists, but they are concentrated in four departmental “families”: defence, health, Defra and BEIS (business, energy and industrial strategy).
Much of the scientific expertise is hidden away from ministers in arm’s-length bodies. Brexit means many of those, with their specialists, may have to migrate into Whitehall as the country takes over functions from the EU. But that, on its own, will not address the science literacy gap that Mr Cummings thinks hampers UK advances.
One approach, albeit long-term, is to change recruitment. There is a specialist “science and engineering” route into the civil service fast stream — though it is more of a brook compared with the estuary of generalists. Even with that specialist stream, people with science degrees accounted for just under 20 per cent of the overall fast-track intake in 2018. But some 4,000 science graduates applied (against a total of 1,383 job offers), suggesting there is a pool of potential to exploit.
The second strategy is to educate the existing workforce. There are plans to force civil servants to prove their numeracy and learn data science; the complement should be to do more to raise the status of the existing cadre of statisticians and analysts and make it easier for government scientists to transfer into policy roles. To do that they will have to appreciate economic and political constraints, and cope with lack of certainty. The most effective scientific policy makers embrace the messiness of such work. Others balk at it and can’t make the necessary compromises.
The immediate plan seems to be to lead from the centre. Mr Cummings himself has given an indication of the new set of skills he wants in his closest aides: mathematicians, data scientists, physicists, programmers, policy experts, project managers and “general weirdos”. Whitehall has always (surprisingly) been a refuge for people who might not fit in at more conventional organisations, but the rest of his categories are in shorter supply.
The question will be whether his crack team is canny enough to find a way to translate ideas into action when, even under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, most of the levers will still be in departments. Mr Cummings’ success may depend on finding enough recipients among ministers and civil servants who are both able to understand his messages and willing to act on them.
The writer is senior fellow at the Institute for Government
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