Government science adviser encourages more researchers to influence policy


Professor Dame Angela McLean & Professor Mary Ryan

Imperial Policy Forum welcomed Professor Dame Angela McLean, Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA) at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to Imperial College.

The event was the second in the series of In-Conversation events with CSAs around government. This follows on from the first event with Dr Mike Short, CSA at the Department for International Trade (DIT).  

Speaking at the Imperial Business School with Professor Mary Ryan (Vice Provost Research & Enterprise), Dame Angela outlined her career path through academia, the life of a CSA in government, and the challenges and opportunities of using scientific evidence within MOD.  


Professor Ryan asked Dame Angela about challenges in communicating uncertainty to Ministers and colleagues that did not have a science background, which is a common challenge for academics engaging with policy. She explained that her experience teaching was essential in overcoming this challenge, being able to understand what the other person needed to know and speaking to that. Politicians and senior civil servants are time pressed so being able to communicate the key points they need in order to make decisions is crucial. She also offered a piece of advice that it is up to the one explaining the topic to teach you and to never be afraid of the phrase “I’m sorry I don’t understand that can you explain it again please”.   


Dame Angela highlighted the conflict surrounding balancing short-term and long-term research as a big challenge within MOD. The war in Ukraine has brought this tension into sharper focus, and is emblematic of a broader point of communicating the benefits of research funding to broader society. 

Across government, there is a need to maintain a pipeline of qualified people coming through the education system in order to fill science and engineering role. Dame Angela expressed in her own opinion that the biggest indicator of a country’s potential was the number of engineering graduates coming through universities and apprenticeships. She highlighted the Nuclear Apprenticeships programme as a great scheme to increase the numbers of young people working in the nuclear industry.


Despite broader geopolitical tensions, both Professor Ryan and Dame Angela agreed the essential role that science needed to play in solving global issues, like the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics.

Dame Angela ended the event with some advice for academics who want to get more involved in policy, “do it, it’s a really good thing to do with your science”. She referred to current opportunities in the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, and secondments to parliamentary select committee staff. Government needs more scientific thinking in how it designs and delivers policy, so more exchange between the worlds of policy and academia is a positive goal to work for. 

You can find these opportunities and more within the Imperial Policy Forum Bulletin.   

The next event in the CSA ‘In-Conversation series’ will be with Charlotte Watts, CSA at the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office. 


Pete Ford

Pete Ford
Office of the President


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