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Civil Service

Why STEM graduates should consider the Civil Service

Sir Jeremy at the Civil Service Board meeting, January 2015
Sir Jeremy Heywood

Last month, I tweeted an article that showed the Civil Service to be the most attractive non-media employer for humanities, liberal arts and education students. This is something I am extremely proud of - these young people have much to offer the Civil Service. However, commentators were quick to highlight a related survey, showing the Civil Service to be only the 44th most attractive employer for undergraduates in engineering and IT disciplines.

Although the ranking had risen by four places since the previous survey, in the senior leadership team we are striving to increase the attractiveness of a career in government for students in these and the wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. There are two main reasons:

  1. Science and engineering are vital to the work of government. The evidence, analysis and advice that professionals in these areas provide play a significant part in offering the best policy options to Ministers and Senior Officials. Policy makers with a science and engineering background also offer the crucial ability to look at policy problems through a variety of different lenses.
  2. Government is one of the most exciting places for STEM graduates to work. Science and technology are at the heart of the user-focused transformation of public services and how we are responding to some of the huge challenges and opportunities facing society, including climate change, alternative energy sources, and the digital and data revolutions. We can offer a career just as challenging and technical as Google or Rolls-Royce - but with the unique attraction of delivering vital public services or national infrastructure projects that will be relied upon by future generations.

Our offer to STEM graduates

STEM imageIn the past year we have refreshed the Civil Service offer for science and technology graduates, demonstrating our commitment to attract the most talented and motivated. We are looking for  people who are as comfortable in the world of policy as they are in the worlds of science and engineering; people who are excellent communicators; who are able to deploy their specialist skills and experience in a range of situations, for example, translating technical information for a non-specialist audience or acting as an expert customer of science.

The revised Science and Engineering Fast Stream focuses on entrants with a doctorate or master's degree in a science or engineering subject. They will receive the same training as generalist Fast Streamers in a range of relevant departments and roles, with access to a variety of bespoke learning and development opportunities. They will also have the opportunity of six-month secondment to industry, another public sector organisation or overseas.

There are also opportunities outside the Fast Stream. People with a science and engineering background are essential to the UK’s response during emergencies such as the recent Ebola outbreak and the Nepalese earthquake.

And we need practising scientists within government. On a day-to-day basis, a scientist or engineer might find themselves in a policy team at DECC, looking at how energy policy can be implemented. They could work in a Defra team, assessing the impacts of a policy option on the environment, or in a variety of other settings: forecasting weather in the Met Office, assessing patent applications in the Intellectual Property Office, or in organisations such as the Dstl, Ministry of Defence and Home Office, ensuring that the country is safe and secure.

A changing future also demands new skills. New and emerging technologies are central to all aspects of modern life, and will lead to new ways of doing things, both inside and outside government. This means that we need people who can assess the impact of these changes on our work. The centre of government understands this and recognises that horizon-scanning and futures analysis are essential for testing and implementing policies that are resilient.

More information

Further information about the Science and Engineering Fast Stream can be found on the Fast Stream website.

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  1. Comment by Heather posted on

    I am a PhD graduate who was thinking the civil service might be the right place for me to build a career. Reading the comments above I am now reconsidering.

  2. Comment by Andy posted on

    As a STEM postgraduate I've been considering applying to the Fast Stream and, as is mentioned in this article, the S&E stream does indeed require post graduate qualifications. Whilst I haven't checked all the schemes, it seems to be the only one. In fact some schemes require only a 2.2 for entry.
    Despite this, the pay and benefits seem to be the same across all schemes.
    Surely this sends a message at the outset that the Civil Service value STEM qualifications less highly than liberal arts et al.
    I don't expect a response to this as it appears the comments on this blog are roundly ignored. This may be a metaphor!

  3. Comment by Hank posted on

    In my experience, the Civil Service offers very few opportunities for STEM employees to advance. In the defence engineering executive agency where I work, non-graduate HR, finance and admin generalists have far greater scope for advancement (C2, C1 and up) than a STEM graduate specialist like me who is stuck in Band D (EO) with no where to go. Now and again I have to remind myself that I work in an engineering organisation because STEM expertise is simply not valued highly enough (by the invariably non-technical) managers at all.

  4. Comment by bob posted on

    The title of this entry is the wrong way round.

  5. Comment by Anon posted on

    The government does not practice what it preaches. I am a government scientist with 20+ years experience and have recently been re-recruited into the same role but ina different location and am now on £5000 less than I was earning 2 years ago, for the same department, doing the same job. In addition, my government agency employer will not contribute a single penny towards my membership of a professional society. In contrast, members of the communication department get their professional fees paid for them. This government preaches about recruiting more scientists but it then treats its scientists like dirt, clearly showing they do not care about them at all.

  6. Comment by Steve posted on

    Sorry, but this article ignores a lot of problems.

    First, science budgets in government are perpetually under threat. They are one of the first things to be cut because in many cases they are not committed into future years. This has left many departments with negligible budgets for research.

    Second, the professional status of scientists in government is low. Scientists are not managed as a profession in the same way as economists, statisticians, operational researchers, communications specialists and lawyers. The Government Science and Engineering profession is little more than a talking shop. The competency framework militates against recruitment of people with scientific expertise, and I have seen lots of formerly 'science' jobs filled by non-scientists or down-graded. The Science and Engineering Fast Stream is managed as the generalists are, and there are few posts across government. Training provision to maintain and develop technical skills is almost non-existent outside of the government labs. The fact that the head of the science profession in nearly all departments is always an external appointee says a lot about how much regard we have for our civil servant scientists.

    Third, the view that the government should do less and procure more means that hands-on science in the Civil Service is also under threat. This leads to a de-skilling of many scientists over time, and ultimately to a loss of their ability to act as an 'intelligent customer' on behalf of the taxpayer. This procurement-centric approach also means that the claim that working in government can be just as technically challenging as at Google is increasingly untenable.

    I accept that there are pockets of government where the above statements don't apply, but these areas seem to me to be ever-shrinking.

    To address these problems, we could consider:
    - Creating one or more science and engineering profession(s), with dedicated training budgets, posts (including policy posts) ear-marked for people with appropriate technical backgrounds, and support for achieving chartered status.
    - Setting up formal career planning for scientists, including regular secondments to government labs, academia or industry to maintain technical expertise, or attachments. Helping government scientists to remain research-active, including supporting publications where appropriate.
    - Recognising the value of scientific expertise in financial terms, the same way we do for economists, lawyers and other specialists.
    - Making it easier to recruit externally for people with relevant qualifications, including through inward secondments and exchange programmes.
    - Auditing across departments to understand exactly what the need for scientists of different disciplines across government really is, and providing some challenge on this to test departments who don't think that they need any.
    - And while I'm on it, I'll bring back that old canard - move GO Science into the Cabinet Office as a central government function.