Science Advice


A conversation with Sir Patrick Vallance

Sir Patrick Vallance

Sir Patrick Vallance KCB Kt FRS FMedSci FRCP HonFREng is the outgoing Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), National Technology Adviser (NTA) and Head of the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) profession. Prior to this, he was a clinical academic at UCL and joined GlaxoSmithKline in 2006, where he was President, R&D, from 2012 until 2017. During his period as head of R&D, over 14 new medicines were approved for use worldwide, for diseases ranging from cancer to asthma and HIV. His own research was in the area of diseases of blood vessels and endothelial biology.

After five momentous years as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance’s term of office has come to an end. Shortly after, on 26 April 2023, he joined a special meeting at the Foundation for Science and Technology for a conversation with the Chair of the Foundation, Lord Willetts.

Lord Willetts began by asking Sir Patrick about some of the high points – and low ones – during his time as GCSA. One of the key events that stood out, he replied, was the 100 Days Mission which G7 countries and global science leaders launched at their meeting in Cornwall in 2021. Leaders spoke of the unpredictability of future health emergencies and emphasised the need to harness scientific innovation and public-private collaboration to develop an ‘armamentarium’ of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines (DTVs) available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being detected.

At the same time, he recalled that the pandemic was, unsurprisingly, one of the most difficult times. Daily reporting of the number of deaths was chastening while also adding to the pressure across Government to take action to deal with the pandemic and its impacts.

Science and climate

Another issue where he felt that the UK science community made a really positive contribution was on climate issues, particularly at COP26 in Edinburgh, where the UK had delivered the first Science Day at these events. A second Science Day was held a year later at COP27 in Egypt and he hoped it would be accepted as a regular feature of these meetings. The need to communicate and explain the science behind the efforts to mitigate climate change was vital to progress on this major global challenge.

Other developments that he highlighted included the way in which the network of Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers across Government has strengthened and become a real forum for discussing cross-Government issues.

During his time as GCSA, he had been able to establish that, in future, 50% of fast-stream entrants to the civil service would have STEM degrees. It has been one of his contentions throughout his time as GCSA that there is a Science and Technology aspect to most, if not all, issues facing Government. S&T is not a helpful ‘add-on’ but rather a central factor in policy-making. As such, it is vital that there are sufficient people that can understand the contribution that science can make in all these areas – and that can deliver this information in a timely manner and in a format that ministers can access.

The establishment of the National Science and Technology Council is another important development, once again bringing these disciplines closer to the centre of Government. He believes that it should be as important – and indispensable – to an incoming Prime Minister as the National Security Council already is. At the highest level of Government, the Council would focus on the elements of the 10-Point Plan OF 2020, which set out a number of cross-cutting topics covering the whole of Government. Interestingly, while setting up the NSTC, a survey was conducted to see just how many S&T strategies had been created across the different Government Departments. The total was 63!

Security aspects

Lord Willetts pointed to way that national security considerations were coming to the fore in questions about science and technology. For many in the scientific community this was something new and not altogether welcome.

Sir Patrick noted that it was now recognised that scientific and technological innovation might often have national security implications and that this would have to be considered in the future. He referenced the issues around the roll-out of 5G in this country. The 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy addressed those issues.

The review was concerned about the place of the UK in the world over the coming years. He emphasised that science and technology ran through every chapter.

One of the key ideas in the review was that we had several options in different technology areas, categorised as ‘own, collaborate or access’. While some technologies were important for the UK to have end-to-end ownership, in others we might wish to collaborate with others where we would focus on some aspects and not all. In some areas, we might decide that this was not a priority for the UK and we would access them from other countries. He suggested we do not want to be only half-good at lots of things: we need to focus on those areas where we can lead. Lord Willetts suggested these decisions might be made on security grounds but Sir Patrick believed that the review’s options were more about economic choices based on technological excellence – although clearly in some areas security would be more of a consideration than in others.


The conversation moved on to the topic of how the UK encourages research and innovation. Sir Patrick believes that the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has been a positive step, bringing the different research – and in the case of Innovate UK, the development funding agency – together to coordinate budgets and priorities. There is an increasing focus on issues that are inter-disciplinary, where systems thinking is required to tackle the big challenges – climate is an obvious example of this.

Inter-disciplinary issues such as climate change require systems thinking. Agencies such as the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) have much greater freedom to tackle issues that do not fit into existing structures.


Yet there are other possibilities too, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) being a case in point. This will have much greater freedom to tackle topics that do not fit into the existing structures and is based on the US ARPA model. It has attracted a great deal of interest. A key consideration is that it should not be constrained by a great deal of bureaucracy.

In terms of accountability, Lord Willetts asked about the funding model for research, and particularly the Haldane Principle where Government does not determine which projects are funded. Sir Patrick remarked that continued funding for curiosity-driven research is essential. He made the point that in business the easiest part of the budget to cut back on is the research budget. While it may provide immediate savings it is fatal for business success in the longer term. A business that does not invest in R&D defines itself as a low-profit, commodity-driven operation.

He said that he had made clear to civil service Departments that the same methodology applied in Government too. He was pleased to see that investment in R&D by Departments has been increasing in recent years. He also noted that the Government’s Science Capability Review, published in 2019, which resulted in 15 recommendations designed to enhance the application of scientific solutions in policy-making across Whitehall, was produced jointly by the Government Office for Science and the Treasury.

Regarding academic research, he was asked for his view on whether the UK should be part of Horizon Europe or if we should look elsewhere to build links. He stated quite simply that association with Horizon was a ‘no-brainer’. He said that failure to take part would disadvantage both the UK and Europe. He highlighted two specific benefits beyond the simple opportunity to collaborate with researchers across many other countries.

First, Horizon has a different set of review processes and reviewers who come up with different answer than we get domestically: that is a benefit. Second is the fact that the programme is at a scale that the UK cannot replicate on it own. With other countries like China expanding their research provision, we need to be part of a wider grouping ourselves. Horizon is important for us. There will be a negotiation around the new terms, but he hoped that this could be dealt with as soon as possible and that we could start taking our part in this programme.

Science in Government

Sir Patrick was asked about the lack of scientific expertise in Government and Parliament – and particularly the House of Commons. He noted that the House of Lords, as a revising chamber, relied on peers with specialist knowledge and that here science was well represented. But science and politics take different approaches. A scientist looks for evidence that may throw new light on a subject and which may lead to a significant change of direction. Uncertainty is a core element of scientific research – and progress. When a Government changes course, on the other hand, it is often accused of a U-turn in the press.

Popular perceptions of science can be unhelpful too. Many non-scientists believe that scientific truth is black or white, with no room for uncertainty. So when, as in the pandemic, scientific knowledge was changing rapidly with a range of views on what was happening and what should be done, this was confusing for the public. However, the Covid crisis did lead to a big upsurge of interest in science in general, an interest that has been maintained since.

He was asked by a senior civil servant in the audience how Government could attract more talented scientists into the civil service. Sir Patrick noted that the public sector cannot compete on salary, although it needs to address the level of disparity if it wants to attract the best from industry and academia. Ultimately, though, it must offer something else.

For him personally, when he was considering the role, it was the sense of purpose, of making a difference, that was pivotal. That sense of being able to do something important is where Government wins out. We need to major on purpose, he said. Many young people are very concerned about the future of society and the world and this offers an opportunity to make a real difference.

He also referred to the way in other countries, such as the US, it is easier to move between industry, academia and Government. That needs to happen here too. And transitions should not be one-way and permanent. Again, in the US, it is not uncommon for people to move from, say, industry to Government and then, a few years later, to return to industry.

Scaling up

Among the challenges facing society, two that were raised were: the ability to achieve net zero by 2050; and the impact of AI on the future of work. Sir Patrick argued that the key issue on the first of these is the challenge of developing technologies at scale in time to meet the target. The UK in particular – although it is not just a UK problem – has not been good at providing the support necessary to take discovery-based science through to industrial scale deployment. We have not traditionally been able to attract investment for large institutions like pension funds. He referred to the example of Canada, where all the teaching pension providers had been brought together into a single organisation which now makes significant investments in science and technology.

In regard to climate, there are a range of issues that need to be addressed and solved. Changing behaviours is going to be a major challenge in the coming years. But in terms of technology, scaling up is vital. And he added that we have not much time left to do this. We have to use the technologies we already have if we are to reach our target in a little over two decades.

With so many interlinked factors to consider, there must be a major systems-based programme set in train. And specifically, this will need to focus on engineering and particularly systems engineering. A whole new generation of engineers will be needed to deliver the necessary changes in time.

The future of work

Among the new technologies coming forward are those associated with Artificial Intelligence. These will have a major disruptive impact on the workplace. He likened it to the scale of change that happened in the industrial revolution. That will mean profound changes for society and the Department for Education will need to become far more adept at helping people to re-skill for new roles as these become available.

In closing remarks, Sir Patrick noted four considerations that scientific advisers should always consider. First, is the evidence base adequate? If not, what should be done about it? The second is: has the evidence been understood in the context of associated uncertainties? He argued that one of the key roles of the science adviser is to make sure the uncertainty has been properly articulated. The third is to consider if the scientific advice has been framed in a way that is relevant to policy. While that may sound trivial, it can be the case that the scientist wants to convey some information that they think is important because it was discovered yesterday. It may not be relevant to the policy under consideration, though, or framed in a way that policy makers can use. Then the fourth, and in his view really crucial, factor is how can science be used to monitor and assess the effects of adopted policies: have they actually worked or not?