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Sir Patrick Vallance: Embed science in everything to meet humanity’s challenges

Science must be embedded in every decision we make if we are to meet the challenges facing governments around the world, Sir Patrick Vallance told a live audience at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Sir Patrick delivered the 2023 Jephcott Lecture at the RSM during his final week after five years as the Government Chief Scientific Advisor (GCSA). He took the opportunity to make the case for science to become an essential factor in all decision-making, in the same way economics is.

He said: “Science is clearly important for everything, from how we think about our food supply, to how we think about digital design of cities, through to heating and insulation of houses, the energy supply of the UK, of course health, how we communicate with each other, how we move around the country and how that’s going to change with autonomous vehicles: it’s important in every single department.”

At the event on Monday 27 March, Sir Patrick’s talk – titled ‘Science Matters’ - focused on three core components required to enable science to play a pivotal role: a strong foundational (or academic) science base, a well-built and scalable industry, and science embedded in every government department.  

With these three ‘legs of the stool’ firmly in place, government science is enabled to step in and form cross-discipline collaborations and new ways of working “to make difficult questions potentially tractable if you’ve got the right people together.” Alongside this, Sir Patrick highlighted the “fundamental” importance of diversity amongst those ‘right people’, bringing “different minds to solving difficult problems.”

The 2023 Jephcott Lecture by Sir Patrick Vallance was introduced by Professor Roger Kirby, President of the Royal Society of Medicine. A vote of thanks was given by Professor Gillian Leng, Dean of Education, Royal Society of Medicine.

A detailed summary of the 2023 Jephcott lecture

Applying pandemic learnings to all matters of science

British physician Sir Patrick Vallance became a household name for his instrumental role in advising the UK government during the COVID-19 pandemic, often joining the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer as they delivered briefings to the media and the public. Prior to his work in government, he was President of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) from 2012 until 2017, before which he was a clinical academic, Professor of Medicine and led the Division of Medicine at UCL.

While he naturally touched on the pandemic during his speech, Sir Patrick did not dwell on the past, other than to discuss lessons learned and recommendations. Some of those recommendations were presented in the 100 Days Mission report to the G7 to help with preparedness for future pandemics. But lessons learned, he said, can also be applied to other areas where science plays a role.

Science at the heart of government

Sir Patrick challenged the audience to consider a single area of policy or operations where science, engineering or innovation wouldn’t make a difference. As well as helping to solve problems, he pointed to a clear economic benefit of valuing science, showing that companies that invest more in research and development (R&D) reap higher productivity levels.

Part of his legacy as GCSA will be increasing the value of science within government, following a review on the state of science in government published in 2019. Changes during his tenure include appointing a scientific advisor in every government department, as well as increasing the number of civil servants on the Fast Stream (graduate intake scheme for civil service) with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees  from roughly 10% to a target of 50%, after the vast majority were found to be hailing from arts and humanities backgrounds.

Maintaining a strong foundational science base and scalable industry

There’s more to be done within government, Sir Patrick said, but it is also important to maintain the strong foundational science base of research and academic institutions in the country. While the UK is currently secure in this area, it’s important not to “rest on our laurels” and to ensure good funding for foundational science is maintained and directed to the right areas - with more diversity in the funding system to make sure we have “different models in order to allow people to approach things in different ways”. Sir Patrick pointed to the newly formed Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), similar to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the US, which famously led to the development of the ARPANET (later to become the Internet).

In terms of industry, in Sir Patrick’s view, start-ups are still slightly under-capitalised in the UK, without the right mechanisms for growth. A number of measures are currently being put in place to address this.

The role of government science as an integrator

The UK’s ability to call on experts, so incredibly important throughout the pandemic, was possible because of the very strong foundational science base in the country, he said. Government science played an essential role in bringing those disciplines together with companies and individuals in industry to help forge solutions quickly and to the best of our ability.

To this end, the National Core Studies (NCS) programme was established in 2020. Initially developed in response to COVID-19, the programme’s scope has since been extended to focus on the most critical questions for policy making.

As it has during COVID-19, government science can play a vital role as an integrator to solve other issues facing government, “bringing together academic, industry and other parts in order to get some answers to the specific questions that it may have.” This will be particularly important as we face the challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss.

“It’s very clear we have a major global problem that’s going to tax all of us over many, many years.”

Moving on from the pandemic, Sir Patrick acknowledged climate change as the biggest issue for governments around the world and once again science will be fundamental to finding answers. The three core components of government, academia and industry will all be involved.

Academics discovered what was happening, and academic work is now “absolutely crucial” in focusing on what the effects will be and what can be done about it. While there is plenty more academic work to be done, there’s an even bigger job for industry in finding, developing and scaling up solutions to what the WHO has named the biggest health crisis facing humanity.

And as with the pandemic and other health crises, those set to suffer the most from climate change are “of course” the poorest. “The inequality that’s going to be driven by this is potentially huge,” he said.

In response to the scale of the issue, Sir Patrick said: “Science is something that every single government department needs to care about. And because it’s every single department, it’s a prime ministerial accountability.” Hence Sir Patrick and his team suggested setting up the National Council for Science and Technology, chaired by the Prime Minister, “to put this right at the heart of government.”

Additionally, the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology was formed to look at “cross-cutting and fundamental” science and technology items, to strategically place the UK at the forefront of the technologies of the future, with properly funded research, incentivised industry, and mechanisms ensuring the necessary skilled workforce is enabled to come to the UK.

Diversity is fundamental

Sir Patrick Vallance finished the lecture by highlighting the vital importance of diversity.

He said: “None of this is possible without the right people… You don’t achieve this if everyone comes from the same background, everyone has the same discipline, everyone has the same way of thinking, and everybody around the meeting agrees with each other because they’ve all got exactly the same set of experiences.

“So, diversity, which is often wrongly seen as a sort of thing that you have to do on top of everything else, is actually fundamental to making this work. One only has to look at the figures for the number of women in engineering, which remains pitifully low. We’ve got to sort this out in order to make sure that we’ve got the real expertise and workforce and skilled people of the future who can work in a way that challenges the status quo and brings different minds to solving difficult problems.”

The Royal Society of Medicine would like to thank the Jephcott family for supporting this event.

Watch the Jephcott lecture

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